Thursday, June 7, 2012

Agent Swarm Against Harman: When Objects Transcend

Terence Blake of Agent Swarm has, presumably in response to Alex Galloways' blog post and the rebuttals by Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost (see the comments in Galloway's post), and Graham Harman, posted a number of arguments against Harman. I gladly see that they are not ad hominem arguments.

Blake makes a lot of pointed arguments, and I would like to see a fully referenced version of it. His points reflect my suspicions, but I am not sufficiently versed to say that they are more than suspicions. What I can say is that the responses to such points that I have seen on blogs remain unconvincing. Particularly, Blake does the same thing for Harman what I did for Bryant: gave prima facie evidence that the philosophical claims outstrip what the proposed method can produce. In the case of Harman, it's set-theoretic argumentation--set theory being dear to my heart.


Matt of Footnotes to Plato has a commentary with even more links to responses.


  1. Hello Jason,
    My analysis of Harman's OOO is ongoing, and I try to reference my arguments as much as possible. I have been giving a close reading of his little book THE THIRD TABLE, which I is emblematic of what I find unsatisfying in Harman's philosophy in general. I will be proceeding to THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT soon, and I will maintain my focus on argumentation rather than opinionating.
    The post on An Inconsistent Kantianism is a summary of Mehdi Belhaj Kacem's open letter to Tristan Garcia, which was published in French earlier this year. It does talk explicitly about Harman - grouped together these remarks must come to 3 or 4 pages, so they are not mere asides or afterthoughts. The bulk of MBK's discussion concerns Garcia, but only a small part of that is exclusively limited to his case. The rest uses Garcia as an exemplar of a conceptual configuration that, for MBK, characterises "post-badousian" philosophy in general, a problematic shared by people who may not even have read Badiou. So here the argument is structural rather than personal, and Harman is quite clearly included as belonging to that conceptual space, along with Meillassoux, Garcia, Martin Fortier, and the speculative realists. I find his arguments quite compelling, but because of their generality they are not as fully referenced as one might like. Still, they converge with my analyses of THE THIRD TABLE, which was published after MBK's Letter.
    Just a note on terminology. MBK argues that the philosophers in this "contemporary configuration" (which he regards as transitional, destined to be replaced by something more coherent) oscillate inconsistently between a Kantian understanding of the in-itself as completely unknowable, and a "set-theoreticist" understanding that permits them to say something very abstract and general about the in-itself nonetheless. I use the ugly expression "set-theoreticist" to translate MBK's expression "ensembliste". His point is, I suppose, that Badiou's philosophy is not "set-theoretic" stricto sensu, but rather a philosophical extrapolation of set-theoretic terms and concepts to other domains than mathematics. My clumsy translation of a clumsy word has the saving grace that it alludes to Althusser (one of Badiou's mentors) and to his self-criticism, where he condemns the "theoreticist" deviation of his earlier writing.

  2. Thanks much Tererence.

    "Set-theoreticist" seems like a strange translation of "ensembliste," although you would know better than I. I am not familiar with Badiou beyond reputation.

  3. Set theory in French is "théorie des ensembles". So strictly I should have translated "ensembliste" as "setist", but even I was not ready to be that literal! I have read a lot of Badiou, but I reallt liked "Manifesto for Philosophy", it's short but it gives you a good idea of his basic framework.

  4. Terence,

    Perhaps this is a limit of my French. How do they distinguish "set theory" from "group theory?" If you said "group theory," then it would make much more sense.

    Also, in English, I suspect it would be better to write "set-theoretic." I have a degree in math btw, and specialized in algebra and computation.


  5. Group theory is "théorie des groupes". "Set-theoretic" describes a real technical approach , as in "the set-theoretic foundations of mathematics". "Ensembliste" is a real word in French but is rarer than "set-theoretic", in a neutral context I would choose that translation. But sometimes the suffixe "-iste" can have a vaguely derogatory connotation, which I thought to be the case here with MBK, but perhaps I am wrong. So there is maybe a touch of irony in MBK's use of the term, that I tried to capture with the suffix "-icist" which feels to me ambiguous in the same way, but I admit it is an ad hoc solution that I would not repeat in another context. I was also trying to capture the nuance that these philosphers are not using set-theory itself but a series of analogical and metaphorical transpositions of set-theoretic notions into other fields, and this sometimes without even knowing it. So set-theoretic seemed to precise here.
    (I did do 2 years of math at uni, and continued on by specialising in philosophy of math and philosophy of science).

  6. Thanks for the clarification.

    I presume that one of the analogies is that in set theory, we never talk about the actual identity of any particular element. Identity is always formal, which is to say, presupposed. Thus, we can say a whole lot about a collection of things whose identity, like withdrawn objects, we know not in their singular specificity. As a nominalist ontology, I think that's fine. But as I've said before, if that is so, then one can say very little, and OOO appears to be over-promising what it can deliver. I do hope that someone, maybe you, can substantiate the claim in detail or definitively rebutt it.

    As for my background, I can only say that I must have decided that I hate money and the good life when I walked away from mathematics.

  7. Well, after 8 years of study in my philosophy department in Sydney, and during that time 4 years of part-time teaching, I discovered Deleuze and Guattari and Lyotard and Serres and committed hara-kiri on my past and migrated to France, saying goodbye to money and career, but of course vastly intensifying my "individuation" (such is my consolation).

  8. Struggle tends to individuate far more than success does. I might be biased....

  9. Jason,
    Would you be interested in translating the MBK letter and posting it on your blog (or portions of it)? I would be interested to read it (my French is terrible, my German better).


  10. Uh, do you mean to be asking Terence and not me? He has it, has the knowledge, and has far more experience.

  11. As a former career academic now pursuing philosophy purely out of love, I find these exchanges strangely consoling. Also enjoying the ongoing Blakean critique of OOO (all of this seems to have happened while I wasn't watching during a 10 year break from theoretical reading).