Graham Harman’s Ontology of Style

I liked Harman’s reflections on style in philosophy so much I thought I’d paste them here. They are originally from this interview by Brian Davis conducted last year.

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.

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