|[the Arecibo Observatory near Arecibo, Puerto Rico carries out work within three distinctive areas of research- radio astronomy, planetary radar, and terrestrial aeronomy; it has also been a frequent character in motion pictures such as Golden Eye, Contact, and the X-Files]|
Brian Davis (BD): A native of Iowa, you moved to Cairo, Egypt in 2000 to work at the American University of Cairo. Your on-the-ground perspective and documentation of certain events from the Arab Spring have been valuable and are well-known. However, I'm interested in the fact that while finishing your PhD at DePaul University you worked as a sportswriter in Chicago. How did you end up a sportswriter, and was there a specific encounter or experience you had during that time which influenced your writing and philosophy?
Graham Harman (GH): I have two younger brothers. Both have worked primarily in computer-related fields, and neither is much of a sports fan. Nonetheless, the sportswriting opportunity came through one of these brothers. He had moved from Iowa to Silicon Valley to do computer work for a fledgling sports news company. Never a shy person, he began talking up my sports knowledge and writing abilities to his bosses. Whether out of sincere interest or simple courtesy to an employee, they told him to have me send some sample articles.
At first I procrastinated, being startled that such an exciting opportunity was within reach. After a week or more of delay and several reminders from my brother, I stayed awake for the whole of one night and wrote three long sports articles, hoping that one of them would hit the mark.
One of the articles was a humorous piece arguing for Fidel Castro as the next Baseball Commissioner. Reportedly, the editors laughed so hard while reading that one that “Pepsi was coming out their noses.” They also liked the other two articles. They bought all three of them, in fact, and decided on the spot to give me a regular column.
From late 1996 through early 1998, right in the middle of my doctoral thesis work (I defended my proposal in June 1995 and my final dissertation in March 1999), I wrote 143 articles for the company, most of them fairly long. At one point I was invited to move to San Jose and commit to the sportswriting profession full-time. That offer came at a vulnerable moment, too. I was not enjoying graduate school, was stalled on my thesis, and was as impoverished as Ph.D. students usually are, scraping by on loans and a bit of teaching. I had little remaining interest in an academic career at that point, and it was tempting to move to the glamor of sunny California and the chance to hang out with professional athletes and earn an adult salary for once. At the same time, an inner voice told me to resist the opportunity. I knew from age 16 that I wanted to be a philosopher, and the inner voice was now telling me that I was still on track, and that the hard times of graduate school were simply an anomaly— a stage of life for which I was not temperamentally well-suited and which would soon be finished. And that turned out to be exactly the case. Within a few years, the company was bankrupt and embroiled in legal actions anyway, so I was doubly lucky.
But in retrospect, that brief sportswriting career was exactly what I needed. With that sort of work you need to write large quantities of text, on deadline, and in an engaging style that keeps your readers interested. I had been a fairly typical procrastinating, self-flagellating dissertation writer up to that point. But shortly after my sportswriting career ended, I somehow found a way to transfer the speed and dynamism required by that career into my philosophy writing habits. Just as sportswriters write with passion and urgency after a golden performance by LeBron James or Floyd Mayweather Jr., I try to follow that same sort of rhythm in my philosophy writing after catching sight of my own or someone else’s fresh ideas— as if urgently trying to share with readers a drama that I’ve just witnessed. I published nothing in philosophy until Tool-Being (I was 34 years old when it appeared, a full decade ago), but now have published quite a bit. Another factor was the nearly impossible tenure quota at the American University in Cairo at the time I arrived. If I wanted to stay (and I did), at that time it was necessary to blow the door down with quantity no less than quality. In this way I acquired the habit of writing all the time, whenever an idea comes into my head, and have not yet lost the habit.
Since moving to Egypt I have become an increasingly faster philosophy writer. But I am no longer qualified to be a sportswriter, even if someone wanted to hire me again for such a position. After 12 years in Egypt, my knowledge of sports has atrophied beyond recognition. Nor will it ever recover; I’m no longer sufficiently interested. But for nearly a quarter century, from 1976-2000, I watched all the major American sports with an eagle eye. No one could have foreseen that that early interest would later prove to be my indirect entry into philosophy writing, just as space probes use the gravity of intermediate planets to reach their true goal. Graduate school in the 1990’s was a tremendous decade of philosophical discoveries for me, but I found it hard to work out ideas in finished pieces of writing until reaching my mid-30’s.
BD: In your 1997 essay “Phenomenology and the Theory of Equipment” you assert that for Heidegger every known entity is a piece of equipment -everything is both a tool and a broken tool- and that this division has to do with the gap between the reality and the perception of an object. If every object is a tool and a broken tool, is it true that for every object there is always some measure of intention (be it the intentions of engineers, stalagmites, bumble bees, or running water), and that this intentionality is always at odds with the reality of the object? That is, the object, or tool is always surpassing this intention, never aligning perfectly with it?
GH: Though I am often described (and have even described myself) as an anti-Kantian philosopher, there is another sense in which I have simply tried to expand Kant’s basic insight by detouring through Heidegger and Whitehead. What does Kant teach us? Two basic points, I would say. The first is the finitude of human knowledge. We do not make direct contact with the things-in-themselves, but only with phenomena that are translations of those things by way of space, time, and the categories.
The second point, less explicit though equally present, is the privileged status of the human-world relation over all others. For Kant we can speak about the way in which space, time, and the categories come up short with respect to the things-in-themselves. But we cannot talk about the interaction between two inanimate things apart from the fact that they are phenomena for us. If we talk about how human experience fails to make the stone-in-itself present, that’s fine for Kant, because we are dealing with one noumenon and one phenomenon. But to speak about two stones colliding in outer space is treated as an impossible effort to discuss two noumena. Therefore, we cannot step out of the circle and talk about any situation that does not involve the phenomenal experience of some “rational being” (i.e., some human).
As is well known, the second point is what drove the innovations of later philosophers, while the first was quickly belittled. The method of German Idealism was to radicalize this tendency. Since the thing-in-itself is something that we talk about it and that has meaning for us, it too is phenomenal rather than noumenal. In this way, even the supposed thing-in-itself is brought back into the tent of direct human access. Today, the reflexive tendency of most philosophical innovators and would-be innovators is to scoff at the “naïve” notion that there is something in-itself outside its relations with us, or at least its relations with other things. Kant’s Ding an sich is accused of merely being a residue of past metaphysics, unworthy of the inner truth and greatness of Kant’s Critical philosophy.
As we conduct this interview in June 2012, German Idealism is enjoying a great resurgence in continental philosophy (though it never lost its sway entirely). Badiou and Žižek remain the dominant figures of the established generation of thinkers, and both are deeply influenced by German Idealism. One of the leading philosophers of the younger generation, Quentin Meillassoux, has recently stressed his differences from Badiou and Žižek, but on the point we are discussing he joins them in explicit celebration of the German Idealist maneuver: “you can’t think the thing-in-itself without converting it into something that is for-us rather than in-itself.” And here we Meillassoux’s paradoxical respect for correlationism, a position he is famous for attacking. He agrees with correlationism that you can’t think an unthought X, because you thereby turn it immediately into a thought. The part of Kant that Meillassoux dislikes is not this tendency, but rather the Kantian finitude of human knowledge. In this way he repeats the post-Kantian gesture of German Idealism, and though he does it in fresh and fascinating ways with very striking results, he does not deviate from their manner of attacking finitude.
The German Idealists are certainly among the greatest philosophers, but they are not among my personal heroes. What should have been tried instead, after Kant, was to keep Kantian finitude while removing the privileged status of human being. That is to say, the translation of noumena into phenomena is treated by Kant as if it were the special property of one specific type of entity: humans. What he should have seen is that any relation whatsoever, even if purely inanimate, cannot fully translate the relata into directly accessible form for one another. When fire burns cotton (I adore this example from medieval Islamic thought), it does not make contact with all the properties of the cotton. The color and smell of the cotton, its softness, its price— none of these are of any relevance to the fire, which only encounters the flammability of the cotton ball. It doesn’t matter if the cotton is “not conscious” while humans are. Who said that the noumenal/phenomenal rift had to be produced by “consciousness”? On the contrary. This distinction is not the product of exalted or damned special human features, but results from the simple fact that no object can exhaust the reality of any other.
I agree with Alfred North Whitehead in putting all relations on the same ontological footing. Where Whitehead goes wrong, I believe (and Bruno Latour with him), is in his excessively relational conception of beings. Entities are defined by their prehensions of other entities (i.e., their relations with them), and I have been unimpressed by the efforts of Whiteheadians to show that there is no problem here. There’s a huge problem here. If entities are defined by their relations, this deprives them of any depth beyond their current deployment in the world, and there is no reason that anything would ever change.
I’ve waited until the end of my response to address your question about the word “intentional,” because people quickly become either too excited or too upset if I claim that rocks have intentionality. The point on which we absolutely must insist is that all entities encounter translations or caricatures of other entities rather than making direct contact with them. Just as humans do not encounter cotton-in-itself, fire also does not encounter cotton-in-itself. That’s not because fire doesn’t encounter the cotton at all. Of course it does; otherwise it would never burn it. The fire is perhaps not “conscious” of the cotton in any manner that humans could recognize, but the deeper point is that inanimate objects make no more intimate contact with each other than we do with them. The phenomenal/noumenal distinction is present here as well, even if most objects have a fairly impoverished version of phenomenal experience.
And this is the point where I encounter little but table-pounding and question-begging from my opponents. They say that I am a panpsychist “projecting” human traits into the non-human sphere. Hardly. I’m simply saying that we need one all-embracing category that recognizes that both human and inanimate relations with the world are translations or caricatures rather than direct contact. There is no justification for saying that the interesting features that differentiate humans from everything else define an ontological gulf between humans and everything else. This assumption has no evidence on its side, and is really just a lingering Cartesian prejudice, too deficient in imaginative power to guide us in the coming century. Why should ontology be a taxonomy of two different kinds of beings, with thinking humans on the one side and unthinking machines (usually including animals) on the other?
BD: The title of your upcoming book is Infrastructure, though presumably it will not be about calculations for sheet piling depths or the statics and dynamics of suspension bridges. What is it about the idea of infrastructure that is appropriate for your current philosophical work?
GH: The term “infrastructure” is most familiar in philosophy from Marxism, where it refers to the true economic base of modes of production. For orthodox Marxists, everything else is superstructure or ideology built on top of that economic base. I reject such reductionism completely, whether it comes from Marxists or from anyone else.
The way I use the term “infrastructure” is just the opposite. There are two different extremes I want to avoid. On the one hand there is the insightful claim of Nietzsche and his friend Paul Rée that “the will to system is a will to falsity,” and that philosophy should be content with a disconnected series of piquant insights. But we need more than that. The parts of our knowledge must ultimately hang together in some fashion, because the world itself hangs together in some fashion.
That said, I oppose the idea of system for pretty much the same reason that Nietzsche and Rée did. People often try to be prematurely systematic. The world is not a pre-determined grid of topics that the philosopher is obliged to fill in on demand. For example, if someone were to ask me: “What is your philosophy of law?” I could only respond by saying: “I have no idea.” The philosophy of law is a worthy and important area of inquiry, but I don’t see how or why I should be expected to have interesting ideas about every pre-existing area of philosophy. Yet the notion of a “system” would seem to require precisely that, in the same manner that a political campaign requires candidates to have some tangible policy about every pre-existing issue, and that’s why most campaign platforms consist of a handful of fresh ideas surrounded by canned banalities, because it’s hard to have fresh ideas about everything on demand.
But that’s not the way that philosophy works. We all have utterly banal and more or less acceptable opinions about almost any given topic. I suppose I must have some opinions about the philosophy of law, and if you pressured me enough I could probably come up with something to say. But this would be no more than what the Greeks called doxa. The fact that you or I have an opinion about something does not make this opinion philosophical, or even interesting.
So, how do we get beyond doxa and move towards philosophy? The tempting answer would be to say that some people have knowledge about a topic, and hence that philosophy moves us from opinion to knowledge. The problem is that philosophy is not a knowledge. This is quite clear from Plato’s Meno, one of the most important philosophical writings we have. The word philosophia itself means love of wisdom, not wisdom, and any philosophy that claims to achieve absolute knowledge is a betrayal of Socratic ignorance— which is not just a snarky pose on the part of Socrates, but the very essence of philosophy.
Given that philosophy is not a knowledge, how do we distinguish philosophy from doxa? I think the most inspiring way is to look for paradoxes and surprises and try to understand them. In Being and Time, Heidegger quotes Count Yorck as saying that “paradox is the mark of truth.” Niels Bohr once denounced a proposed theory by saying “it’s not crazy enough.” I agree with these sentiments.
At some point in your life, if you are lucky, one central thought or one fascinating problem will come to stand at the center of your thinking. You will remain devoted to that thought, quite apart from all of your shifting opinions about the various issues of the day. In my own case, it was the rather surprising realization that objects withdraw from all contact yet somehow make contact anyway, so that the world is dominated by indirect forms of contact. This is the paradox I wake up thinking about every day, and all of my philosophical work is an attempt to grapple with this problem. It hardly matters that many others don’t even see it as a problem, since that is often the case with what is deepest in one’s own work. It is my mission, not theirs, to wrestle with this problem and generate whatever spinoff ideas are needed to address it successfully. Maybe at some point they will see the problem, or maybe they will at least find some of the spinoff ideas useful.
But back to your question. If we try to turn philosophy into a system, it will inevitably turn into a set dominated by mere opinions. People will need to make explicit propositional claims about the philosophy of law, aesthetics, ethics, and so forth, simply filling in the blanks even on topics where they have never wrestled with any sort of paradox. This is why I continue to resist all pressure to proclaim prematurely an object-oriented political philosophy. What they want from me, I’m afraid, is some sort of recognizable leftist doxa, just to prove that I am on their team and not the other team. And I’m not willing to do that. As a philosopher I am not a “militant,” I am a hunter of paradoxes, and one day maybe those paradoxes will be strung together into something of much vaster size. But you don’t need to base the urgent political work of the day on an ontology, nor does ontology gain its cash value from immediate applicability to whatever happen to be the pressing political issues of 2012. Philosophy is not the science of the urgent, just as oak trees are not the most urgent of agricultural products. They take a long time to grow, but they may still be on the planet long after this season’s bananas, melons, grapes, and cheeses have been consumed.
We were speaking of infrastructure. If you are building a metro system for a city, you don’t do it by laying a geometrical gridwork over the map and building metro lines along intersecting parallel co-ordinates. Instead, you start with the most decisive locations that need service. Maybe you start with one line and five stations in the most important area of the city. This is how philosophy begins as well. If you are honest with yourself, you realize that at first you only have fresh or interesting ideas about a small number of topics. You can’t claim to have a feasible systematic program for the world as a whole, and anyone who makes such a claim is just striking a pose and making moves on the social chessboard. They are usually just the enforcers of work done under great strain and uncertainty by someone who is long since dead.
Over time, you do have an obligation to extend metro lines to new neighborhoods. But you do so by incorporating the work that has already been done on the other lines, and by responding to local conditions of rock, groundwater, and available equipment. In this way you will expand the transit infrastructure, eventually covering large portions of the city. Maybe you will fail in a few places, but at least you will have worked honestly, and done as much as you are capable of doing.
Since everyone knows that this sort of work can take decades in the context of urban planning, why would they expect it to go faster in metaphysics, one of the most difficult fields of study? Why praise slow food in the culinary arts and then demand fast food in political philosophy? I would hate to eat such food.
|[Shasta Hydroelectric Dam on the Sacramento River under construction in 1942 was constructed to regulate the floods and droughts in California's Central Valley; the dam is a curved gravity concrete dam over 600 feet high and 3,460 feet long]|
BD: Michel Serres has said “philosophy is an anticipation of future thoughts and practices… Not only must philosophy invent, but it also invents the common ground for future inventions.” Much of your work can be seen as an effort to develop a philosophy that gets beyond critique and analytical thought and instead seeks to develop a sort of creative or generative philosophy. In this project you place a special emphasis on style. What is the role of style and aesthetic experience in a creative project?
GH: We recognize a new philosophy when we hear the sound of a new voice, not when we hear a series of propositional statements that we happen to regard as accurate. Everyone knows this experience. You pick up a book by a philosopher you’ve never read before, and within a few pages you’re thinking “this is the real deal,” even before you’ve fully understood the content of what they’re saying, and even if you explicitly reject much of what you are reading.
Why does it work this way? Because there are immense pressures working on us at all times to shape us as if with cookie cutters. There are three or four readily available opinions on most issues, and at best we are usually only imaginative enough to choose the least common of those three or four options. But the sign of a genuine thinker is the ability to develop a new option, never heard of before. When this happens, the thinker has broken away from the robotic array of available opinions and made some sort of contact with the real. And how do you know when someone may have done this? You recognize it by a certain freshness in the style, a directness and honesty of testimony, a streak of the unexpected or original in the thinker’s voice.
This cannot be faked simply by making contrarian propositions, since contrarians are always parasites on the status quo. The contrarian aims at causing shock and dismay among other people. He or she (but the contrarian is usually a “he”; it’s a predominantly male vice, just like fistfights) simply wants to draw the attention of other people by reversing the conventional wisdom on this or that point. The original thinker has no interest in doing this, because here the primary motivation is not to shock other people; at best, this is an intermittent practical tactic. Instead, the primary motivation is to break out of the closed circle of stale options and sink one’s teeth into the real and draw nourishment from it.
Some see it differently. Some think that philosophy should result in a set of correct propositions about the world. And as a general rule, they think it is they themselves who possess more of these correct statements than anyone else. As a result, they tend to become dogmatic enforcers of their own favored orthodoxy. They denounce everyone else as ideologues even though they are usually the world’s greatest ideologues themselves. They have no hard-won taste for the originality that may be at odds with their own dogmas, but from which almost everything of value is obtained.
This is the key role of style in philosophy, no less important here than it is in the arts. The style of an artist or writer is something deeper than the sum total of works that they happen to have produced. Other Shakespeare plays could have been written (and may in fact have been written but not yet discovered), but they would have to be animated by that Shakespeare style. Heidegger is not a sum total of propositions, but a voice. His propositions often contradict one another, as is true of all thinkers. But the voice is always lying there underneath, animating all the contradictions.
Everything in the world has a style. You can see an apple from different angles at different times, but there’s a certain style of the apple underneath its various profiles. But we’re speaking of philosophers. Arguments are secondary in philosophy; failure to realize this is the central flaw of the hegemonic school known as analytic philosophy. (The continental tradition has signature weaknesses of its own, of course.) You can refute Plato’s “weak arguments” twenty times per day, but Plato
remains fascinating nonetheless. Why? Because his voice is unique and it speaks from the depths of the real, not just from the tabletop of refuted propositional claims.
BD: You wrote an essay in 2008 that puts the essence of an object on equal footing with space and time, and towards the end of your book Guerrilla Metaphysics you note “the usual assumption is that spatial movement is reversible but temporal change is not” and begin to make the provocative case that in fact it is time that is always reversible, whereas space never is. In that passage you offer a powerful anecdote of Schopenhauer relating site to memory and nostalgia. Can you take us a bit further into that relationship between landscape and memory?
GH: That passage from Schopenhauer had a big impact when I first read it. As he puts it, we are usually disappointed when we go back to see a place, because what we are really nostalgic for is times rather than places, and times cannot be retrieved. While this may not be altogether true, it was a good corrective for me personally, since I tend to run towards the nostalgic and the sentimental.
There is often an assumption that we gravitate towards philosophies that express our own temperaments, but the opposite might often be the case. For example, object-oriented philosophies are sometimes treated as a parallel to the accumulation of things in contemporary consumer society. (Tristan Garcia makes that connection early in his 2011 book Forme et objet.) But I generally despise material objects and detest shopping for them, though I do admire the occasional empowering gadget. If we turn to the great philosophers of Western history, Schopenhauer was the philosopher of pity, but in his own life was a temperamental crank who threw his maid down the steps. Nietzsche was the life-affirming philosopher of power but was anxious, shy, and sickly in biographical terms. In some ways, a philosophy is perhaps less an expression of its author than a counter-environment against the philosopher’s personal excesses.
In any case, I love visiting geographical scenes from my past, and Schopenhauer’s remark (“it’s all wasted effort, you’ll never find anything there”) was a useful practical tonic against excesses in that tendency. What Schopenhauer claims is that geographical spaces from our past are always recoverable, but it doesn’t matter because we don’t really care— time is what we want to retrieve, and that we can never do.
This seems to be the opposite of what I claim about space and time, both in the passage you mention and elsewhere. It has to do with the fourfold structure. For me, what we mean by time is the sensation of continuous flux in consciousness, with time rolling along smoothly and no sense that it is broken up into cinematic frames.
This is Bergson’s model of time, though in fact it is already Aristotle’s model of time— since Aristotle sees time as an example of a continuum, just like numbers and movement. Time is not made up of a finite quantity of moments, just as the numbers 2 and 3 are not separated by a finite quantity of numbers. You can always add more numbers in between 2 and 3 and you’ll never run out. The distance between 2 and 3, just like the distance between yourself and the door, is only potentially made of discrete parts, not actually so. The observer can arbitrarily cut any continuum into parts without the continuum actually being composed of that many parts. You can divide the phases in the growth of a flower into three phases, one hundred phases, or one million phases, and none of these decisions are literally right or wrong.
And in fact, this is how many contemporary philosophies treat individual objects as well. They too think that the world is a continuous flux and that only the arbitrary decisions of the observer break that flux into discrete pieces. We find traces of this view in Bergson, James, Deleuze, Simondon. Yet it is never true of Aristotle, since his substances are actually distinct. It may be purely arbitrary to say that my classroom has four parts or three thousand parts, but is never arbitrary to say that there are thirty students or seventy-nine students in the room. The students are indivisible units, and cannot be divided at will. Aristotle has to deal with the fact that the world is part substance and part continuum. And oddly enough, even Bergson faces this paradox from the dawn of his career— the starting point of his great early work Time and Free Will is that we cannot turn all differences into differences of degree. We cannot say of two pin pricks that one is merely “harder” than the other, as if they were otherwise the same. Instead, there are real qualitative differences between them. Different nervous and muscular sensations come into play when a soft pin prick is replaced by a hard one. Bergson like Aristotle seeks a way to combine the discrete and the continuous in his philosophy. Something analogous is true of contemporary physics, with the ongoing wave/particle duality of physical entities. So, even today we are still acting out the drama of discrete and continuous begun by Aristotle himself.
For me at least, the solution is found in accepting that the discrete and the continuous are co-equal in ontology, rather than one being reducible to the other. The realm of real objects is discrete, discontinuous, and marked by the inability of one thing to affect another at all. Mutual interaction between things takes place in the sensual realm, with its constant and continuous change.
Time in my model is nothing but the tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities. What gives us the sensation of time passing is the fact that the same sensual objects endure for a certain period even though there is a constant shimmering of qualities along their surface.
By contrast, space is the tension between real objects and their sensual qualities. What space means is that not everything lies directly before me. Certain things (indeed, the vast majority of things) are distant from what we now perceive. Space exists because things exist at a certain remove from us even when we are staring at them. Yet they are not at a total remove. Distant things can be accessed along various corridors by passing through a series of interconnections. What I encounter is always the sensual qualities of the things, but these things themselves are real things, because I can never make them fully present; if I could, we would not be talking about space. Even when I stand in front of the things, they remain somewhat mysterious to me.
From this model it should become clear why time is always reversible but space never is, or never perfectly so. Time concerns nothing but the superficial drama of surface qualities swirling atop a sensual object that is somewhat durable but ultimately unreal. If the buildings that charmed you have been bulldozed and the people you once loved are now dead or corrupted, you can at least relive their presence in memory with the aid of photographs, films, testimonials, or even sheer fantasy if you have a sufficiently powerful imagination.
The same is not true of space, which involves real objects. And once real objects are destroyed or distorted, there is no bringing them back. It is the spatial reality of things, as objects among other objects, that is always passing away.
But in the end this probably leads to nothing more than a semantic difference with Schopenhauer’s remark. All he really means when he says that we are nostalgic for times rather than spaces is that the geographical backdrop alone is not enough. He thinks I will be disappointed when I return to my undergraduate college in Annapolis, because the buildings and streets and docks and bridges, and even the handful of remaining people, will not be enough to reawaken those olden days. I will have lost the freshness and vigor of my late teens, the intensity of emotion and loyalty, the sense of limitless possibility and limitless weakness. The philosophy of Heidegger, which was a blossoming flower for me in those days, is now a known commodity and I have moved on to other topics. Numerous teachers and a handful of classmates have died. Reagan has been replaced in the meantime by Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama and all that they have done. The Soviet Bloc has collapsed.
All of these points pertain to objects and their combinations, and obviously these cannot be restored. And if they could be magically restored, I would call this a spatial rather than temporal change. In Schopenhauerian terms, we are nostalgic for a damaged or destroyed arrangement of objects. We are nostalgic for a lost world, not just for a set of buildings in Annapolis.
Nonetheless, a sufficient number of objects still exist that the Annapolis world of the late 1980’s has not entirely vanished. In 2011 I visited that place for the first time in over twenty years, and though there are always a few twinges of disappointment on such trips, the experience as a whole was wonderful. Landscapes are minimal real anchors that link various shifting worlds.
|[an old "jibaro" man in Puerto Rico, 1938; in the distance are the tobacco fields that represented the dominant mode of production of jibaro life, alongside architectures built to weather hurricane storms; image source]|
BD: Are landscapes different from other objects in that way? For instance with the photo of a deceased loved one you mentioned earlier; doesn’t that photo also link shifting worlds- that of the day when the photo was taken, and the moment in which are you looking at it again? Is there an ontological difference?
GH: We tend to associate landscapes with physical places, and insofar as they are physical they serve as a meeting place for humans, animals, plants, microbes, wind, and sunlight, in a way that is not true of landscapes such as baseball history, in which plants and insects are rendered irrelevant and human actors come to the fore.
But any medium that moves with especial slowness tends to become a sort of landscape. Central Park will be gone someday, whether through rising sea levels, shifts in tectonic plates, or an earthquake, asteroid, or nuclear strike. But it is relatively durable compared with the telephone, or mixed martial arts fighting leagues. Other longstanding traditions tend to take on the slow-moving characteristics of landscapes even when they are not physical sites. Consider the succession of Roman Catholic Popes, or British monarchs, or important philosophers. These slow-moving lineages create relatively durable historical landscapes able to withstand wars, barbarian invasions, plagues, changes in language, and perhaps even climate change (we’ll see soon enough).
But no landscape is forever. Someday there will be no Central Park, no Iowa City, no more popes or queens, and no more philosophy. Who will be reading Plato 700 million years from now? Let’s not mistake long duration for immortality. Philosophy works very slowly over a very long span, but it is no more immortal than the solar system is. Though it might anger some people, I would say the same about mathematics.
You can’t build something that will last forever. What you can do is help build a landscape of sufficient size and scope that it remains a model or force to be reckoned with for whatever landscapes come next. Ancient Egypt crumbled like all political entities crumble. But if you helped build Ancient Egypt, then you helped build something that resonated through many different civilizations that came later, all the way up to today.
|[sheep feed along the banks of an irrigation canal in the East Valley in the Phoenix area; these canals are built on top of the old Hohokam infrastructure; image credit, waterhistory.org]|
BD: In the case of Central Park, or the National Radio Quiet Zone, there seems to be something essential that makes these landscapes what they are. And yet the collapse of the 1988 Green Bank Telescope, like the implementation of a new maintenance regime for Central Park due to slashes in municipal budgets, or the myriad other changes these landscapes endure show that this essence is not always apparent, but rather remains elusive somehow. How might we understand this ability of any given landscape to maintain a certain characteristic essence or integrity while undergoing processes of constant change?
GH: The essence will always be elusive, because no attempt to make the essence present can possibly succeed. Postmodern philosophy attacked the concept of essence as if it were politically sinister. But for me essence is both inevitable and harmless, and all the political problems come from false claims to know this essence directly.
As for the ability of landscapes to “maintain a certain characteristic essence or integrity while undergoing processes of constant change” (I quote your phrase because it is so well-tuned), this is what all objects do. In that sense, I suppose landscapes are the shining example of objects, since they provide an enduring background for constant changes in detail.
There is an interesting dynamic between places (like all objects) and whatever inhabits them. The city of Washington shapes Lyndon B. Johnson, who must adapt to its usages and navigate its corridors of power. Yet he shapes it in turn, having retroactive effects on this background. It is not true (as some would say) that Washington is merely the nickname for a sum total of individual actions, since some of these actions have more effect on the city than others, and some perhaps have no effect at all. If a transient visitor to Washington has a haircut on New Year’s Day in 2013, this need not lead to any effect on the city Washington. This is why I reject holism, which asserts that everything affects everything else, when what is truly interesting about networks is that they enable some connections to occur and not others.
The Lyndon Johnson scenario is one sort of scenario, in which the landscape shapes and is shaped by the individual objects present in it. Another scenario is that of the Green Bank Telescope, which you described at the beginning of this interview. The telescope looks at first like the anchor of the entire landscape, and then it vanishes while leaving behind the entire shell of activities and regulations that it itself had generated. The landscape keeps on walking like a zombie even though its soul, the telescope, has been reduced to a ghost. This is almost too easy a case, though: as you told us, the rebuilding of the telescope was always anticipated, and the various Quiet Zone regulations remained in place because the absence of the telescope was envisioned as merely temporary.
In other cases, the object responsible for generating a landscape can be abandoned without too much cost to the landscape as a whole. Ft. Dearborn generated the city of Chicago, but who in Chicago besides tour guides really misses Ft. Dearborn, however tragic its stepwise decomposition by engineers and by fire?
Then there are more extreme cases, where the destruction of the original organizing object deals a serious blow to what remains behind. The most extreme recent case, of course, would be the World Trade Center. I was in the area for the first time in July 2001, and did not return until September 2011, at the tenth anniversary of the disaster. It was a rather stark before/after experience. Many New Yorkers tell me that something is still missing from the city, something that was lost in 2001. But of course this is less due to the absence of the twin towers than to the shock of the manner in which they disappeared, and the sheer number of human dead associated with the site.
The lesson we learn from all of these cases is that a landscape is not built out of pieces except in the causal or generative sense. To a certain extent the original objects can be removed without changing the landscape; if not, then the landscape isn’t real. Even the case of the World Trade Center does not disprove this, because if the building had reached the end of its normal lifespan and had been peacefully disassembled, it would hardly have been a scarring experience. Lower Manhattan might have looked a bit different, but it would not have experienced a dramatic moment of change.
I would summarize as follows. The landscape is something deeper and more enduring than the events that unfold within it. But it is also something more shallow than its subcomponents, since the initial founding components of the landscape can disappear while the physical place remains the same.
BD: This topological aspect of the landscape to be both superficial and enduring or profound is troubling, and I wonder if it is related to the ability of the landscape to function as “background for changes in detail.” It seems that a landscape itself can be simultaneously background and the primary organizing object— it swirls new details into being, until suddenly it no longer does. Could you explain that a bit more? What I am wondering is at what point are changes no longer detail alterations, but the creation of an entirely new object?
GH: I’ve often pondered this question in connection with human biography. Usually we are presented with two extreme alternatives. Either the self is a soul created at the moment of conception that endures as the same soul throughout life and even into an afterlife. Otherwise, the self must be a ceaseless flux forever reinventing itself and never fixed as to identity, profession, or gender. I find that I dislike both of these models to an equal degree.
What we really find in life are a relatively small number of key transition points, and I don’t think this is always in the eye of the beholder. We might not always know what the key transition points were. Famous people often have biographies written about them posthumously, and it is quite possible that a biographer’s understanding of someone’s life is deeper than the self-understanding of the person they write about. For example, a good biographer might accurately identify the point when the pendulum truly began to swing against Napoleon, even though Napoleon himself might have denied it.
There are some basic types of transition points that are common to many lives, and they are usually marked with visible public ritual. Of course these rituals can become empty when the events they commemorate start to become empty. For example, it’s no longer very difficult to graduate from an American high school, and that’s why I rebelliously burned my high school diploma to ashes, though I deeply treasure all of my higher-education diplomas as tokens of significant labor. And isn’t there something a bit tedious and empty about weddings these days, since many of the marriages will not last, and by now they’re all preceded by long periods of life-changing intimacy anyway? Rites of passage and initiation rites become empty when they no longer mark the true gateways of change. And in America at least, high school graduations and weddings seem to have entered their decadence for the reasons just mentioned. But it’s been interesting for me to notice that neither graduations nor weddings have reached their decadence in Egypt. Here in Egypt, both of these ceremonies remain very much alive.
But if life-changing moments are not chosen arbitrarily by the beholder, where do we find them? A very influential book for me was Symbiotic Planet, by the recently deceased Lynn Margulis. What is strong in Margulis, of course, is her model of symbiosis. The structure of the cells in our bodies today was formed through the symbiotic fusion of more primitive, sub-cellular entities at certain times in the distant past. Fruit flies have been made to evolve in at least one laboratory experiment through symbiosis with a virus. These ideas were ridiculed initially, but Margulis was a tough personality who fought effectively for her ideas, and my understanding is that her account of cellular history is now standard textbook science.
Can we apply the idea of symbiosis to human biography? Of course we can. The key life-changing moments are almost always marked by some powerful symbiotic attachment that makes our life in some sense a different life. But this requires that a thing has some sort of truly deep impact on us, just as nuclear fusion requires extremely high temperatures.
There is symbiosis with people who obviously affect us deeply, such as spouses or children. Those relationships can hardly avoid being life-changing. We also have teachers and co-workers, and while many of these associations remain at the level of mediocre functionality, once in awhile you’ll meet a co-worker who changes everything for you. The same holds for authors: my pre-Heidegger self was definitely a different person from my post-Heidegger self. Or places: I had a very dramatic personality and lifestyle shift after moving from Chicago to Cairo, but even moving into a different neighborhoods might help.
Young people —enthusiastic, mutable, and energetic as they are— are especially open to symbiosis: new enthusiasms, new crushes every few months. The best way to stay young is to enter into new symbiotic attachments as much as you can. That is why I try to move into a new apartment every four or so years, visit several new countries per year, discover new authors periodically, and so forth. When life becomes a continuum, time starts to drain away imperceptibly. But time feels much longer and fuller when you fill it with punctuated jumps at reasonable intervals.
But not only human life becomes different in kind when merging into symbiotic attachment with other entities. The same holds of objects in general, including landscapes. There could be borderline cases. If a nice grove of trees in Lower Manhattan is removed to make room for a Starbucks, has the neighborhood thereby been ruined? A few nasty incidents (which inevitably happen from time to time) are never enough to change the neighborhood into something different. But bring the neighborhood into symbiotic attachment with warring militias in the 2053 Civil War, and it obviously will become something else. Or to take an example that really occurred: if a terrorist incident leaves a crater that becomes a permanent historic memorial, then of course the neighborhood has been changed, and you can’t pretend that it’s the same place as before.
And this is what historic events do to landscapes, bringing them into permanent symbiosis with something that happened in the human world. Near my hometown is West Branch, Iowa, which happens to have been the birthplace of President Herbert Hoover. Of course they’ve preserved some of the buildings form Hoover’s time, including a blacksmith shop, and also built a Hoover Presidential Library there. West Branch, Iowa can never be de-linked form Hoover, and his election to the Presidency left a permanent stamp on the town, which can never be the same before.
People have their graduations, weddings, and major awards; landscapes have their floods and explosions. When looking for the moments when a landscape became a substantially different thing, I would look for the moments when it entered into long-term symbiosis with some other thing— whether it be a human historic event, the intrusion of an invasive species, a cataclysmic physical change, or some other incident that marked the intertwining of the landscape with something else.
|[the film Moebius features a topologist called in to investigate the case of a missing train in the Buenos Aires subway system; as "Fright Site" explains, the topologist develops a theory that "the subway system, with its countless add-ons over the years, has become so incredibly labyrinthine a gigantic moebius strip was unwittingly created which the missing train is now trapped on; image via meanwhile...]|
BD: Central Park is one of the most well-recognized landscapes in the United States, on par with the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate, or the cornfields of the Midwest. It is a loved and well-known place undergoing constant change. And its geological and social history is extensive and troubled, whether it be the glacial till that formed the rock outcroppings 10,000 years ago, the contentious political and construction process in the 1850's, or current threat posed by anthracnose disease to the historic sycamore trees lining the promenades. Within your philosophy how might we understand a place like Central Park as an object?
GH: Now we move beyond the limited connection of landscape with human history. I’ll add another example to yours, one with which I am more personally connected. I was born in Iowa City and raised amidst nearby cornfields. Iowa is not flat as many people falsely assume, but rolling. It is rolling because of the glaciers that extended to that point on the continent during the most recent Ice Age, and that is also why Iowa has such superb farmland. This is deeply inland country, far from any sea. In childhood that made me feel a bit trapped, and for that reason there is nothing I love as an adult more than being near the sea, which symbolizes both depth and an unlimited possibility of movement.
I mention this not just for reverie’s sake, but to draw a contrast between Iowa today and Iowa in the distant past. There is a suburb of Iowa City called Coralville. While there is no coral reef anywhere near this suburb today, you will easily guess that there was coral here in the distant past: during the Devonian Era. During the 1993 Iowa floods (a precursor to the far more disastrous floods of 2008), water washed over the Coralville Dam and ripped all the soil from the nearby campsite, exposing a neo-Devonian fossil bed filled with creatures of almost Lovecraftian monstrosity.
What is the connection between Iowa in 1993 and the swarming neo-Devonian monsters of 360 million years ago? You can’t really say that “Iowa” forms the connection, and not just for the reason that Iowa as a political unit did not exist at that time. You can’t even say that the two things happened on the same physical landscape, since Iowa was apparently covered by sea at the time. Indeed, when I look at the position of the continents in late Devonian times I cannot easily determine where Iowa would have been on the map.
In a sense, then, the fossils themselves are the landscape. It is the fossils that link the Coralville of 1993 with the living creatures of the Devonian Era. I would say that a landscape is any object that links a wide variety of other objects that all use it as a mediator. A landscape is like a “wormhole” linking different times and different places or different classes of living organisms and inanimate objects. Through landscapes we are linked to the Native Americans who left a spearhead buried in what is now my parents’ front yard, as well as to the deer, moths, beetles, and viruses that inhabit the woods surrounding their yard, and with which I have only incidental contact.
|[the Puente del Inca; this geolgoical bridge over the Las Cuevas River, was a primary connection over the Andean Cordillera until the twentieth century; the orange color on the rocks comes from the thermal springs in the bridge that contain a high iron content; in the early 20th century this location changed from strategic military point to tourist center due to the five hot springs located here; the building in this shot is the last remaining structure created to house the tourist industry; the rest were destroyed by avalanches; photograph from Clastic Detritus]|
BD: One idea that keeps coming to me in this interview, and which I think you have just put your finger on, is that the landscape is a medium (in the McLuhan sense of the term). Perhaps this is one of the things that sets it apart— other objects such as fencing or paper may or may not be, but a landscape always is. How does your metaphysics understand media, and does it have a particular role in the carpentry of things?
GH: McLuhan is one of the great intellectual figures of the twentieth century, and I think this will be seen more clearly as time passes. I’ve written about him a number of times, but somehow feel like I haven’t quite hit the nail on the head yet, and that I’ll eventually have something more definitive to say about McLuhan.
Let’s consider some of the reasons that people don’t yet see the greatness of McLuhan. Sometimes he’s a bit flippant, and in those moments he is dismissed as silly. But his flippancy with puns and sudden random outbursts isn’t all that different from the tone of James Joyce, who was one of McLuhan’s chief inspirations.
There are also people who view McLuhan as bound up with a dated era of the emergence of mass television in the 1960’s. Yet that clearly isn’t the case, given that interest in McLuhan surges every time there is a global shift in media, such as with the 1990’s internet wave. McLuhan speaks not to one particular technology, but to moments of rapid technological shift in general, and those are likely to keep occurring at a fairly rapid pace.
But the one complaint I hear most often, especially in Britain, is that McLuhan was a “technological determinist.” This claim is too sloppy. The grain of truth it tries to express is that for McLuhan, the background effects of any given medium are more important than its explicit content. However brilliant your critical remarks about this or that television show, what is more important is that you are watching television rather than listening to radio, since television shapes your perceptions and your sense of the possible in ways that differ from those of radio.
Yet this is by no means a “determinism,” since it is completely indeterminate as to which medium will come next. There is no automatic series in which one medium follows another. Eight-track tapes might easily have triumphed rather than cassettes, and cars may be abandoned soon, or may still have a few more centuries in them given the right modifications. For McLuhan there is no way to predict this, because there is no telling in what direction the next technological retrieval or reversal might occur. McLuhan is quite explicit in giving artists a great deal of power in this area. Technological determinism would mean that the great post-internet medium is already inscribed in the internet itself, with human decision playing no role. And that’s not McLuhan.
The classic McLuhan dictum is: “the medium is the message.” What this means is that the background conditions of any medium are more important than the explicit content of that medium. Whether or not pornographic images are being sent via email, or blocked and censored, is a less important issue than the more basic ways in which our perceptions as a whole are being restructured by the internet.
From there, McLuhan goes on in later career (see the posthumously published Laws of Media) to discuss the fourfold structure of media, or “tetrads” as he and his son and co-author Eric call them. Every medium enhances something and obsolesces something else: to take a simple example, cars enhance speed and mobility while obsolescing the horse and carriage. These two terms describe the “morphology” of media.
The other two terms pertain to the “metamorphosis” of media, or how media lead us to new media. These two terms are “reversal” and “retrieval.” Reversal occurs when the content of a medium becomes quantitatively “overheated,” leading the medium to flip into its opposite. A simple example would be when a vast increase in the number of cars leads to traffic jams, so that the car is no longer a medium of speed and flexibility.
Retrieval concerns the fact that for McLuhan, every medium has an older medium as its content. In a sense, the car retrieves the knight in shining armor, as can be seen in the armored duels and jousts between cars today, and the heraldry of their hood ornaments and paraphernalia hanging from mirrors.
This fourfold structure of media leads McLuhan to reflect on a subtle interplay between figure and background, with artists turning clichés into effective new background media, and reversals doing the opposite: turning formerly effective media into burdensome obstacles and clichés. There comes a point when every new medium is no longer empowering, no longer fun. Personally I hate cars because they seem to be more of a hassle than a liberation, and have finally come to hate email in the last few years after adoring the medium initially. That’s not because I’m fickle, McLuhan would say, but because these media have turned into empty clichés but have not yet been restored into “archetypes,” as they someday might be if the right artist is here to make It work.
Let me digress here a bit and mention how this applies to the apparently endless parade of fashionable philosophers, even though I’ve discussed this point in another recent interview. It is a rich topic for reflection and analysis. Whenever people speak of “fashions” in philosophy, it is almost always with a tone of haughty dismissal, as if the speaker were too serious to be taken in by the latest passing fads from Paris. My position, by contrast, is that it’s very important to pay close attention to the fads, because they give a good sense of where the battle lines now lie between clichés and new ideas.
My favorite example, simply because I’ve seen the whole life cycle of it, is the fashion for Gilles Deleuze. When I started graduate school in 1990, almost no one was working on Deleuze, who tended to be viewed as a flashy mid-level figure. There were exceptions here and there: Brian Massumi, Dan Smith, a few others, but you probably weren’t paying attention to those people then because in 1990 you probably didn’t care who the Deleuze specialists were. It was a minor special interest. At that point even Difference and Repetition was not yet available in English. If you wanted to be in the “A” crowd in continental philosophy in 1990, you had to be working on Derrida or Foucault. The major clichés of continental philosophy at that point were of Derridean or Focuauldian origin— such as the affectation of using the word “text,” in the singular, to refer to the sum total of an author’s works. Derrida and Foucault was where all the resources were invested and where all the masses were gathered.
I first sensed a change of atmosphere in the spring of 1994 (it may have started a bit earlier in Britain, which is generally a few years ahead of North America in continental philosophy trends), when I attended a conference in Edmonton. The best attended and most energetic panel was a Deleuze panel; all the promising cosmopolitan young people were there. It approached a rock concert atmosphere, to such an extent that at least one panelist was the subject of aggressive romantic advances from audience members immediately afterward (as the panelist later explained in some detail).
Clearly, the pendulum was about to swing to Deleuze. Why? Well, Deleuze obviously has some genuine merits, but those same merits were just as present in 1984 as in 1994. Why did it take until 1994 for his star to rise in North America? I would say that Deleuze was offering things that were missing from the era of Derrida hegemony, and thus provided some badly needed new impulses.
But once Deleuze reached his own summit of popularity, a new period of decadence resulted, in which terms such as “rhizome” and “intensity” were spouted on all occasions, and in which everyone expressed enthusiasm only for those historical figures favored by Deleuze himself: every reference to a medieval philosopher was to Duns Scotus and no one else; everyone praised Spinoza endlessly; if Leibniz was mentioned it was only in the distorted manner of Deleuze’s The Fold— a Leibniz whom I find unrecognizable even by Deleuze’s famous “moustache on the Mona Lisa” or “commentary as sodomy” standards.
And now the Deleuze scene is somewhat overheated, and in another 5-10 years the Badiou scene will be almost equally overheated. What happens then? Once a philosopher is out of fashion, do we throw them overboard forever? Of course not. We simply throw them overboard for a decade or two, exactly as they deserve! Most of the adulation given to philosophers at the peak of their popularity is bound to be shallow and convoluted, and we can’t really assess a philosopher’s true merits and defects until they’ve fallen out of favor for a little while and the hangers-on have abandoned them for some new hero of the moment.
This is why I could never understand the widespread indignation over Derrida’s New York Times obituary, which I did find intellectually shallow (and what exactly would one expect from a newspaper obituary of a philosopher?) but not “mean-spirited” as all the petition signers seemed to think. Derrida had already profited from several decades of out-of-control adulation in academia, so what was the harm of a prominent negative obituary signaling the onset of his necessary period in the wilderness? In a few decades we’ll have a much more balanced assessment of Derrida’s merits and defects, and shortly thereafter the same will be true of Deleuze, Badiou, and others. You can’t really judge them accurately while they’re still “hot,” just as you can’t assess the true weight of a wagon as it rolls uncontrollably downhill.
The connection of this point with McLuhan should be clear. A philosopher’s work does not just consist of true and false content that can be permanently judged according to its truth or falsity from the first moment we read it. Instead, a philosopher also exists at some definite moment in time, some specific status as a medium.
Is the philosopher a dead classic whose ideas have stood the test of time as a worthy milestone for those who come later? Or is the philosopher a rising force to reckon with, someone already at the peak of their influence, a suddenly passé incarnation of yesterday’s trends, or someone who has just been rediscovered in the attic and brought back into a fresh and useful vogue? All of these phases are necessary in the reputation of a philosopher, and each phase has something to teach us. To be dismissive of “fashion” in philosophy, as if it were merely a distraction from the sober business of judging the true or false propositional content of someone’s books, is to misunderstood the way that truth emerges historically and becomes covered with dust before being polished up again when the occasion warrants. I even think it might be a good idea to start a philosophy fashion magazine. Many books could be written on this topic: the intimate interwining of truth with fashion.
It is McLuhan who has perhaps given us the best preliminary study of such a model of truth. There is a big difference between a medium when it is actively in force and dominating human experience (landline telephones for most of the twentieth century), when it has become a piece of outdated clutter (landlines today), and when it has resurfaced as an aesthetic jewel that taps into long-forgotten streams of past vitality (the landline in its possible resurgence as a 2040’s retro-fashion). The telephone is not just content, but also a medium that is either current, dead, or retrieved. And so it goes with philosophers and with all other objects. All objects are media.
There are a number of points on which I cannot agree with McLuhan. He thinks that only human artifacts count as media. He thinks that media have the same structure as language (I don’t see the point of this). And he interprets his own distinction between figure and background in too similar a fashion to how traditional readers of Heidegger read the tool-analysis: as a distinction between “conscious” and “unconscious” dealings with things. The true structure of television as a medium would not just be its invisible background effects on us, but its depth beyond all the effects it is currently having or might have on us. I’ve never made this latter complaint about McLuhan in print, because it occurred to me for the first time only a few months ago, and I’m not yet sure where I’ll take it.
In any case, McLuhan remains one of the great figures in the humanities in the twentieth century, and I’m always happy when anyone mentions him. Thank you for doing so.
|[oyster cage structure along a wetland near Baton Rouge, LA are used as an erosion control measure and for habitat creation]|
Dr. Harman’s upcoming book is titled Infrastructure and promises to be a further exposition of his philosophy begun in his books Tool-Being and the fantastic Guerilla Metaphysics. Readers interested in reading more are encouraged to check out his blog, or to pick up a copy of Towards Speculative Realism.
It may go without saying, but still seems worth pointing out, that a great deal of the work I have undertaken in recent years has been heavily influenced by his philosophy. I was initially drawn to his work because it offered an alternative to the hegemony that the philosophies of semiotics, hermeneutics, systems theory, and phenomenology have enjoyed in landscape theory for the last thirty years. I am looking forward to the release of Infrastructure.