Circus Philosophicus

So, finished Graham Harman’s Circus Philosophicus yesterday. A few thoughts . . .

Firstly, the style. I’m so glad this strange book is in print! The fact that anyone has the sheer chutzpah to take this sort of risk is wonderful. I mean, why does no-one write like this anymore? With parables, tall tales, dialogues? How did American philosophy learn to be mostly commentary on French masters? We lost the propositional voice, and lost the creative side of writing philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I think that writing philosophy in a creative mode has pitfalls. But I hope that Graham’s work is the first in a long line of creative experiments with the form in which new ideas are presented.

What’s more, this is the most accessible presentation of OOO to date. It’s simple, straightforward, I mean, any undergrad can read this and get it. And that’s powerful. In fact, I think its a political statement. It’s time for philosophy to get out of the academy. We need to get past Derridean/Post-structuralist obcsurantism, the ‘harder it is to understand the deeper it must be’ approach. The socio-cultural formations which made the post-structuralists try to develop non-soundbiteable theory simply don’t exist today. We’re no longer in danger of philosophers becoming multi-media stars like Lacan was at the time . . .

All of Graham’s concepts are here, presented effortlessly: vicarious causation, buffering/allure, the fourfold tension (space, time, essence, eidos, and in their clearest presentation yet), dormant objects, etc. There’s also some new stuff, or at least, stuff I haven’t seen before, in particular, the difference between confrontation and causation. I particularly like the way fractality is represented in this text. And it’s all  clear, and the myths stay in your head. I think the myths do quite a good job of explicating, and that’s what they’re there for.

I do have some reservations, of course, as would be expected from a relationalist like myself. Firstly, I don’t quite recognize Graham’s version of relationalism, and I never have. And while I’ve dropped my objections to OOO as such, the version of it that I think would work for me, as a relationalist, would work very different than the type I see Graham and Levi developing. I still feel that there’s an importation of human categories into the object world, as I’ve explained before (though I don’t object at all to the updated version of panpsychism, which Graham comes out strongly in support of in this text).

But this is still an exciting moment. Even when I disagree about the execution, I still like OOO as a concept, and I like this book in particular. There are a few moments in which I think the conceit of the stories doesn’t work as well as elsewhere – dismissing the Presocratics to a fiery death one-by-one isn’t something I’d ever presume to do (I’d be thrilled to serve Pythagorous beanless food, even if I disagree, I’d never send him over the bridge, not to mention my beloved Anaximander, and even poor Parmenides has his charms . . . ). And I really don’t get the afterward at all! The surrealist, Zen master, and telepath? I’m scratching my head to try to get the allegory, or its relation to the title, though perhaps it’s an inside joke?

But I like it, like it, like it. If we could all give ourselves license to do something like this, our philosophy might truly be what the damn analytics think it is, and what so horrifies them (if only the Democrats could learn to do the same with the Repubs!). And when you think about it, which philosophy books from the past do we not only still read, but still love? It’s the slightly odd, quirky ones, and the shorter and more compact, the better. I mean, Critique of Pure Reason is on few people’s short list of desert island books . . .

But then there’s the Phenomenology of Spirit which, for all its enormous length, I love for the sheer strangeness of it. And yet its not a strangeness that’s there just for the hell of it, it’s not JUST poetry or a bildungsroman, its philosophy. And if you had to strand me on a desert island with that or the collected works of Habermas, well, its a no brainer. And the same applies to the work of single thinker: give me Bataille’s strange early essays any day over his careful yet plodding systematic late works.

I love imperfectly strange failures that ALMOST get there, whether in film, philosophy, art, etc. Now, I don’t think Circus fails – it succeeds completely at what it sets out to do, and even on points at which I disagree, it’s a great format. But what I’m trying to get at here is that its the quirkiness of this book that makes it stick with you. There are a few points where I think it gets a little too talky, but those are few.There are a few moments in which it seems Graham is trying to figure out how much or how little to go down a particular path, but I guess when you’re trying to (re)invent a genre, that’s bound to happen.

Really, its a great format, and the sheer chutzpah to take the risk of failing would’ve been worth it, even if it didn’t succeed. The fact that it does succeed at what it aims at, and does so in a way that’s fun and short, well, that’s a nice feat.

With any luck, there will be imitators – those willing to write new hybrid forms, new inventive forms, those willing to write accessible philosophy, those willing to write weird philosophy, those willing to corrupt philosophy . . .

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~ by chris on December 31, 2010.

One Response to “Circus Philosophicus”

  1. How did American philosophy learn to be mostly commentary on French masters? We lost the propositional voice, and lost the creative side of writing philosophy.

    This is really alarming. I am working on French Theory, an invention that stormed the American academia, and was cited in a single phrase that it is the American reading of French writing. I think the phrase is attributable to François Cusset.
    happy new year. I am citing your work in my thesis, and am waiting for the release of your volume.

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