Notes on Immaterialism

A good theory must ultimately draw distinctions between different kinds of beings. However, it must earn these distinctions rather than smuggling them in beforehand, as occurs frequently in the a priori modern split between human beings on one side and everything else on the other (see Latour 1993 [We Have Never Been Modern]). This answers the question of why an object-oriented approach is desirable: a good philosophical theory should begin by excluding nothing. And as for those social theories that claim to avoid philosophy altogether, they invariably offer mediocre philosophies shrouded in the alibi of neutral empirical fieldwork. (Harman, Immaterialism, p. 4)

In Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Polity Press, 2016), Graham Harman applies his object-oriented philosophy to social objects. The book functions as “a compact list of the first principles of object-oriented social theory, which I have also called ‘immaterialism’” (126). This presentation of an object-oriented social theory includes a detailed analysis of one particular social object, the Dutch East India Company. Someone might think that this is just another book of object-oriented philosophy, tracing out the same principles that Harman articulates elsewhere. In some sense that’s true, but there’s much more going on than that. In what follows, I briefly sketch some key contributions that this book makes to the ongoing development of object-oriented philosophy. Continue reading


The 21st Century Whitehead Will Be Deleuzian

I often find myself thinking with Alfred North Whitehead. I recall that today is his birthday, Feburary 15 (1861-1947). I don’t remember many birthdays of philosophers, but that is one of them. It’s Galileo’s birthday too, so maybe that has something to do with this date sticking in my memory.

I recently finalized revisions for “A Place for Ecological Democracy in Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religious Entanglements,” which is a chapter for an anthology, Greening Philosophy of Religion: Rethinking Climate Change at the Intersection of Philosophy and Religion (edited by Jea Sophia Oh and John Quiring). In a couple of months I’ll be presenting on Whitehead’s ontological principle for the American Philosophical Association. I keep thinking with Whitehead, but I wouldn’t consider myself Whiteheadian. I continue drawing on his philosophy for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I am often inspired by other contemporary writers who engage with Whitehead in new ways that are relevant to contemporary problems. It is the community of those who think with Whitehead who really make Whitehead interesting to me. In other words, the secondary sources are often more interesting than Whitehead’s primary texts. So maybe I’m a secondary Whiteheadian, if that’s a thing. Not just any secondary Whiteheadian. A Deleuzian Whiteheadian.  Continue reading


As 2016 comes to a close, I’d like to rant about people who say “Happy Gregorian New Year,” but I’ve written about that elsewhere. For now, I’m getting ready for a busy 2017 for publications and conferences. Continue reading

Kant Can’t…

Kant, like many philosophers, is notoriously difficult to read. Some people blame his proclivity for pedantic exuberance. That’s not totally inaccurate, but for me, the specific cause of the difficulty in my reading of Kant is that he is so wrong, more specifically, so incapable and comprised. It reminds me that, in British English, Kant and “Can’t” are homophones. Continue reading

Diversity and Difference

One of many important contributions of poststructuralist and postcolonial philosophies is the recognition that there are severe limitations to theoretical-political uses of the category of “diversity.” While some might naively ask how philosophies can undergo revision to be more tolerant and inclusive of diversity, the real question is how the category of diversity can be opened up to make room for something less philosophically ignorant. Discourses on diversity are espoused by philodoxers, lovers of opinions who fail to question their own presuppositions and fail to understand the grounds of what is given as diversity.

Poststructuralist and postcolonial concepts of difference provide means for thinking deeper than the category of diversity allows. Deleuze’s philosophy is a good example: “Diversity is given, but difference is that by which the given is given, that by which the given is given as diverse. Difference is not phenomenon but the noumenon closest to the phenomenon. […] Every diversity and every change refers to a difference which is its sufficient reason” (Difference and Repetition).

Homi Bhabha’s shift from cultural diversity to cultural difference is another good example. Kwok Pui-Lan gives a cogent summary.

The debate on multiculturalism in the United States has pointed to its inadequacy in dealing with diversity, because it fails to confront the dominant white culture’s power to define, appropriate, and assimilate minority cultures, in other words, its power to set the rules of the game. Following Homi Bhabha, I have come to see the limitations of cultural diversity when articulated within a liberal paradigm, which treats different cultures as mutually interacting and competing on the same footing in the public square. Such an approach often assumes the stance of cultural relativity, which calls for cultural exchange, the tolerance of diversity, and the management of conflicts through democratic means. Instead, Bhabha uses the term “cultural difference” to underscore that the interaction of cultures in the postcolonial world is always imbued with power and authority. Difference arises not because there are many preconstituted cultures existing side by side, but is manufactured through particular discourses at critical moments when the status quo is questioned. […] Furthermore, the tension and anxieties elicited by cultural difference are always overlaid and heightened by the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. (Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology)

Whereas the category of diversity makes issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality look like matters of identity politics, the category of difference trades identity politics for a politics of difference, for which race, class, gender, and sexuality are not given identities but are differential relations constituted through the tensions, ruptures, and resistance of asymmetrical powers. This is a rather old point, finding its explicit expression beginning in the late 1960s. However, the persistence of liberal discourses on diversity and identity politics indicates that this point has yet to be understood outside of the rare achievements of poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, and difference feminism. Along those lines, it’s apparent that liberalism has failed. Like McKenzie Wark said recently, “not only the old socialism but also the old liberalism is dead.” This death needs to sink in before proceeding to articulate a politics of difference. Mourning is important, otherwise melancholy will pull us back into the same old discourses on diversity and identity. “So mourn good and long. And then we’ll organize, but differently.”

“Tomorrow we shall have to invent, once more, the reality of this world.” (Octavio Paz)

Animal intelligence and the emergency of being

In keeping with the evolutionary varieties of animal and early human intelligence, present danger is assessed in emergency-ontological terms: one interprets the situation as an interruption of prolonged calm by a now acute threat. The deep biological rootedness of the major stress reaction proves that the utmost is evolutionarily commonplace. Though the state of emergency is inscribed in the human body like an innate expectation, it is triggered by the emergency assessment of the decision center. In this sense, even animals are ontologists. It is the leader that decides on the emergence: if it flees, it flips the “cognitive energy switch” in the other animals, as previously in itself, before gesturally declaring the case of application for the categorical imperative of the adrenal gland: from now on, throw everything to the front! Faced with these circumstances, the most real is given in real presence. You stand facing your danger, the potential bringer of your death, your god and stressor. Anyone who is unfamiliar with this has no idea what it means to act at the limit.

Peter Sloterdijk, Foams: Plural Spherology: Spheres, Volume III (p. 390-91)

Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations

Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you. Continue reading