17 Apr 2014

Can We Critique with Our Feet? Terence Blake on Object Oriented Ontology

by Corry Shores
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[* Please see the comments section for discussion on the ways I may be misrepresenting the authors I mention.]

Can We Critique with Our Feet?
Terence Blake on Object Oriented Ontology*

Previously I linked to a Clifford Duffy poem, ‘As you’. I found it notable not just for its poetic beauty and originality of style, but also because it seems to address a current state of affairs in academic philosophy. Something is unsettling about the philosophers currently gaining the most attention. You might sense something negative, destructive, and cynical in a lot of it. Duffy refers to Zizek primarily and also to Badiou. Can we include the current philosophical trend, Speculative Realism / Object Oriented Ontology (OOO)? I think this is possible. I also get the sense Terence Blake might think so too. For excellent critiques of OOO, and Graham Harman’s philosophy in particular, certainly see Blake’s extensive treatments on his blog Agent Swarm:
He also by the way has engaged Levi Bryant (see comments):
And he has made available his papers and publications on the topic:
He even has some youtube presentations:

I want to look particularly at his post “Deleuze on OOO”. I will quote it in its entirety [the second paragraph is set as a block quote on his blog]

From ABC PRIMER. Deleuze is talking about Wittgensteinians. I have replaced with OOO to bring out the contemporary relevance:

For me, it’s a philosophical catastrophe. lt’s the very example of a ”school,” it’s a regression of all philosophy, a massive regression. The OOO matter is quite sad. They imposed a system of terror in which, under the pretext of doing something new, it’s poverty instituted in all grandeur… There isn’t a word to describe this danger, but this danger is one that recurs, it’s not the first time that it has happened. lt’s serious, especially since OOOxians are mean and destructive. So if they win, there could be an assassination of philosophy. They are assassins of philosophy. [Blake, Deleuze on OOO, 2014/04/17, boldface mine]

What I take note of is the part: “OOOxians are mean and destructive.”  If this were true, how do we respond to them and their ideas?

Blake writes in another post, “I have been taken to task for my critique of Harman’s OOO. If you feel that way about a philosopher, I am told, you should move on to something you like.” “However,” Blake continues,

I do not concern myself with feelings, but with arguments and concepts. This is why I consider my criticism both fair and useful. It is fair because it concentrates on concept and argument rather than giving in to surface impression and in-group pressure. It is useful because it breaks the monologue and introduces conceptual analysis into the de-concepted consensus. Many critiques of OOO, while valid, remain argumentatively timid and conceptually docile, tacitly respecting the demand for academic validation of what is in fact a manipulation of empty jargon. [Blake, The Jargon of Objectality, 2014/04/13, boldface mine]

He further writes:

Harman’s OOP is a lure: it looks like a philosophy of the purest sort, yet it is so riddled with misunderstandings, clichés, contradictions, and pseudo-concepts that even its detractors have to break through a psychological barrier in order to recognise that it really is as bad as it seems. The ambiguity about objects, the division between an exoteric philosophy of sensual excess and an esoteric philosophy of nihilistic withdrawal, the craziness of the thesis of the irreality of time, the fatuousness of the reiterated example of the cotton’s encounter with the flame, the sheer contradiction of giving “examples” of unknowable real objects, the ludicrous theory of vicarious “causation” which is forced on Harman by his rigid repetitive dualisms and which is no causation at all, the total absence of any philosophical method except that of dogmatic posit and autistic intellectual intuition, the impossibility of describing or even refering to real objects. All these are deep and disquieting flaws for such an ambitious metaphysics. [Blake, The Jargon of Objectality, boldface and underline mine]

Blake previously had pumped out an impressive series of criticisms of Harman’s philosophy. Harman took notice [particularly of this post], and wrote on his own blog:

Blake’s blog has now pretty much become a full-time anti-OOO blog. […] Thanks to Blake for giving thumbnail objections. It should make for a fun response chapter in Skirmishes. (I have yet to read his presumably negative review of Bells and Whistles, but will respond to that in the forthcoming book as well, along with his negative review of “The Third Table” –which I have read– if it proves to make any points worth a response.) [Harman, Terence Blake Outdoes Himself, 2013/12/03, boldface mine]

As you can see, all the hard work, time, and effort Blake invested in criticizing OOO now affords Harman the opportunity to publish more. What position does this put Blake in? Hopefully this has helped him too. But the criticisms will also allow Harman to continue spreading his own ideas. Recall that in the Deleuze quote that Blake modifies, he replaces Wittgensteinians with OOOxians. How did Deleuze respond to Wittgensteinians? As far as I know, he devoted very little attention to them.

I evoke Clifford Duffy’s ‘As you’ and Blake’s ‘The Jargon of Objectality’ because I find myself faced with a decision, and maybe there are some readers who feel similarly. Recall how Blake writes: “I do not concern myself with feelings, but with arguments and concepts.” I also concern myself with arguments and concepts, but in addition, I concern myself with feelings and affects. Often times I am unable to quickly grasp difficult philosophical ideas. For me this often requires tedious research work that is a major investment of my time. In order to determine which ideas are worth investing in and which I will leave for later, I use my emotional and affective sensitivities. I often can feel an idea before I am able to conceptualize it. The qualities of this feeling tell me whether it is worth going through the trouble in the first place of explicating the concept. Maybe in fact we all operate in a similar way: we feel concepts before we conceptualize them, but we just do not notice the affective side of philosophical thinking as much (maybe because we cannot win philosophical arguments with feelings). But what I am suggesting is that maybe you can at least choose which debates to engage in based on feelings.

If you read Duffy’s ‘As if,’ you might, like Blake and I, find inspiration in it. But what it inspires me to do is to “D nce n ked with your body on the high hill of happiness”, or as I read it to mean, to embrace philosophical ideas that I can rejoice in. But I wonder if this is enough. Can rejoice be a form of critique? Can it indirectly indicate the inadequacies of philosophies which are cynical, mean, destructive, and so on? So what happens when you go down the OOO road? I do not see it leading to rejoice, life affirmation, good actions and creations, and so on. Perhaps philosophical ideas should not be judged on this basis. But, do we not choose the attitudes we take when exploring philosophies? If we begin from an attitude of “D nce n ked with your body on the high hill of happiness”, would we not see immediately that OOO leads to a dead end? And since OOO seems like a bit of a stretch (consider especially Harman’s notion of causation), is it worth getting bummed out all for the sake of an unconvincing philosophy? It would be a great inconvenience, I think, to get mired in it.

Nonetheless, I find Blake’s attitude equally inspiring. Is it irresponsible for us to not criticize a form of philosophy that we find to be poisoning the current discourse? Here is the dilemma I think some of us face: if we engage in these debates, we get mired in their philosophy when trying to grasp it well enough to effectively criticize it; but if we don’t do this work, and we instead “dance naked on the high hills of happiness” so to speak, all the while their ideas will prevail and influence a new generation of thinkers who maybe have not seen enough philosophy yet to realize they are headed down a blind alley. If I had Duffy’s artistic talents, I would create beautiful things whose life-affirming and joyous powers are a demonstration of the limitations of these other philosophies. Or if I had Blake’s intellect and patience, I would formulate effective critiques. Are either of these options alone sufficient?: Will ignoring OOO make it go away? Or will criticizing it only feed it undeserved attention and perpetuate it? Are there other options? I do not have a solution for this situation. Are there others who find themselves facing questions like these?

Blake, Terence. ‘Deleuze on OOO’. http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/04/17/deleuze-on-ooo/

Blake, Terence. ‘THE JARGON OF OBJECTALITY: the historically appropriate untruth of the neo-liberal epoch’


Harman, Graham. ‘Terence Blake Outdoes Himself.’


  1. Hello Cory, I feel your dilemma too. Faced with the dangerous doses of negativity that I deal with I have even decided to create a new blog where I “D nce n ked with my body on the high hill of happiness”, devoted mainly to philosophy and SF, with a very Deleuzian bent: http://xenoswarm.wordpress.com/. However, my original blog is full of far more positive posts than critical ones. I take seriously Deleuze's idea that one of the tasks of philosophy is to "strike a blow against stupidity", and that Deleuze and Guattari's polemic in print against psychoanalysis lasted 9 years (from ANTI-OEDIPUS 1972 to A THOUSAND PLATEAUS 1981). And sometimes when I am critiquing OOO I am dancing, some of it is good. Further, I have been ignored by the OOO crowd for a long time. Once again I am reminded of Lacan's telling his followers to avoid any reference to ANTI-OEDIPUS, and so ensure that it would sink without a trace. No doubt this strategy had already been employed with success on other dissidents and critics, but this time it did not quite work. OOO has used the same technique. For example on the now defunct blog: http://kvond.wordpress.com/. The more recent strategy has been for lower-ranking OOO followers to tell me earnestly that I should go and devote myself to something I like. So I am being told by the people I critique to stop, in the name of positivity. Yet they are busy propagating a false image of Deleuze, a deformed stupid caricature of his thought.

    Anyhow, I was feeling down, and I had just been talking with my wife about how unfulfilling my engagement with OOO has been, when I saw your post linking to Clifford's poem. It described my state exactly, and invoked the same medicine that I always use, and had begun to apply again: more Deleuze.

    I may add that I live in Nice, not far from where Nietzsche used to lodge and only five minutes from its Castle Hill. I often go to the top where there is a small group I can practice tai chi with; So I do dance with my body on the high hill of happiness, and even if I'm not physically naked, meditation in movement is nakedness.

    Thanks for giving echo to my enterprise, and for the just assessment that I am expressing a problem rather than a solution.

    1. Many thanks to you Terence for your comments and all the great work you do and make freely available. After reading yours and other comments I now see better how I am oversimplifying your situation to fit my dichotomy. Your other blog Xeno Swarm looks great and very interesting. I will surely be reading it. I notice also your mention there of Harman, so I am seeing better that critique can be conducted without getting mired. The tai chi meditation on the hill top sounds incredible! And I realize also now that I misrepresent what you were saying about feeling. So I added to the blog a notice at the beginning asking readers to check the comments so to be aware of these problems. I also now realize I do something similar with Clifford Duffy. When I have scholarly questions about Deleuze and Guattari, I often turn to him and learn a great deal from him. I do not mention that along with being an amazing poet he as well is a very accomplished scholar and philosopher. I read his PhD dissertation a while ago, and I was very impressed. As well, I am probably being unfair to Harman too. I do not substantiate anything that I say regarding his ideas, so that is another problem. At any rate, whether my post conveys this or not, I am very sympathetic to your situation, and given the quality of your work, I believe it will all pay off in the end. Let's see what comes of this chapter Harman says he plans to devote to your commentaries!

  2. Great post, Cory! I know its been awhile since we've made contact, but I am also inspired by Blake's posts on OOO. The only thing OOO has done for English departments (my own field) is as a kind of philosophical precedent for a turn toward thinking of the "object." That is, to return to dealing with "things" not just as texts, but as material beings in space. The details of Harman's philosophy, minus his, in my opinion, boring reading of Heidegger (turning him into a philosopher of the present-at-hand rather than a philosopher of existence), are rarely mentioned in scholarship in my field. This kind of poaching from philosophy makes English scholars particularly susceptible to weak philosophical work (including me -- I spent a lot of time evaluating and testing it too, but not with the philosophical acumen of Blake).

    1. Hello again Jake! That sounds interesting actually. Can you say more how it might be useful to treat literary texts as material beings in space? Also, I read your excellent post on Harman's Literary Criticism http://jtriley.blogspot.com.tr/2013/09/harmans-literary-criticism.html. Was that in reference to his article "The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer?" We read it for a film theory seminar recently. I find the proposed literary method of experimental subtraction disappointing. I do not see yet what use it could be for interpreting a text, which is a problem I think because he is critical of methods that are very effective for textual interpretation. And also, I do not understand how his method is possible in the first place. It would seem that certain subtractions would be admissible to some readers and not to others. It would be a matter of which critical perspective you are taking in determining the text's meaning in the first place. But I am not sure I am talking about the same thing as you are, when you mention depth in your post. I am just curious if you think there can be a useful or even viable application of OOO in literary criticism, because I cannot see one yet.

  3. I too give a lot of importance to feelings, but I was objecting in the passage you cite to the attempted psychologistic reduction of my arguments to the expression of merely personal feelings.

  4. I think Corry is right but he has also to see that Terry has decided to permanently fight against an ontologization of some academic idiotic proceedings: a vicious scholastic point of view: a very narrow minded practical sense which has reified itself as a well-seen tendency, thanks to a pragmatic validation between pairs who share the same pale interest regarded to meritocracy and public-self-ish-ing. I have fought OOO with Terry many times, and it is a good exercise to sharp our shades and skills for critique: OOO is an easy too evident target. But we know that there are other much more cancerous impostors out there, better positioned and much more prolific, who deserve to be ripped out from the field of philosophical production. And for that we need many people like Terence Blake. All the power to Terry's critique.