Tell me I'm beautiful

by CarlD

OK, so this guy Graham Harman shows up, he’s from Cairo or something, wrote a book or two about Heidegger apparently, and all of a sudden after like two blogposts (he posts one every minute or two, at a staggering gem rate to boot) he’s the best thing to hit the blogosphere since html. Seriously, it’s like Shamu jumping into your goldfish bowl. And instead of eating up all the little fishies in sight, he’s like this totally nice guy, with all sorts of encouragement and uplifting thoughts and actual helpful advice for everybody, and it’s catching. I mean, he’s changed the game. Guy’s a Dude.

Neat stuff. He’s totally got the Prof Whisperer thing down.

Bloggery, like any creative product, can have an emotional ambiguity about it: a sense that not just ideas but persons are in play. In a typically wide-ranging post Rob at Marginal Utility has recently talked about this in relation to artistic amateurism and professionalism. When faced with someone’s homemade labor of love he suspects that “the desired and appropriate response is ‘That’s great that you are doing that. Yay, you!'” In contrast, “professionalism is the cue to audiences that they are allowed to engage seriously with a work….” The professional difference, he argues, is not so much whether there’s filthy lucre involved but

a matter of creating something that isn’t merely an extension of one’s ego, a matter of wanting to give a social life to some idea or thing that can then circulate independently from us. Amateur culture often fails to achieve that separation, doesn’t rise to a level where it can be seriously criticized because it seems that its primary purpose is to secure recognition for the maker.

This last point reminds me of Patchen Markell’s argument in Bound by Recognition that there is an important difference between an ideal of recognition and an ideal of acknowledgment. The former, he says, requires of us an impossibly comprehensive understanding of the Other. And it’s based on a mistaken, doomed and counterproductive attempt to control the irreducible contingencies of human existence and interaction, in part by locking down static ‘recognizable’ identities that foreclose complexity, freedom and change and thus torture their occupants like procrustean beds. In contrast acknowledgment means taking us each seriously as whole, dynamic beings without any pretense of understanding each other fully or addressing each other completely in any given interaction; without attempting to pin us down or foreshorten us to any given batch of traits or performances.

What does acknowledgment actually look like? Maybe the relations of professionals. And what Graham does.

UPDATE: The blog has had a couple of its biggest days ever, most of it legit as far as I can tell, but lots brought by my weird sense of humor. See, if you do a Google image search for “Shamu,” this blog comes up first. What are the chances that someone looking for a picture of Shamu is also looking for my little pearls of wisdom? If that’s you, welcome and do please come again!

Btw, my other most popular post is the one that comes up on an image search for “garbage barge.”


39 Responses to “Tell me I'm beautiful”

  1. You’ve got to be kidding, right, Carl? I don’t want to be a complete jerk, here – but Harman’s blog seems to me full of self-satisfied philistinism and obnoxiousness. I’m really puzzled why everyone loves the guy so much…

    (It’s ‘Praxis’, by the way…)

  2. Hi Duncan! Thanks for stopping by.

    I see what you’re talking about. I still feel like a blog newbie but for what it’s worth my read is that they love him because he’s got pedigree, he’s got all the big dog tricks, and he doles out kisses like candy. These strategies are consistent with really being a nice guy and I’d like to give it all the benefit of the doubt, especially since there really has been a nice tone-shift in certain quarters since he wafted in. I also note and agree with his sweet preemption move in posting on the importance of avoiding the negative energy of haters. Plus I haven’t read his formal stuff so wtf do I know about whether he’s got the goods beneath the pearly surface.

    The strategies are also consistent with cult leadership and/or crass salesmanship. The analytic I’ve sketched above accommodates either possibility. My inclination at the moment is to note the phenomenon, take it at a cautious face value because I like the world better that way, participate in good faith, learn what I can, keep an eye on the development of interactive history. You know, the usual.

    Maybe we’ve been spoiled by NP?

  3. Thanks Carl. Yes – definitely spoiled by NP 🙂 (I’m very lucky :-)). And maybe you’re right about the blog space, and I should work on my principle of charity. Doggone principle of charity…

  4. “but Harman’s blog seems to me full of self-satisfied philistinism and obnoxiousness.”

    Yes, of course, aren’t most blogs??? In one way the “Harman blog phenomena” or Harman as the “Prof-Whisperer” (which is hilariously creepy to me) mirrors the annoyance I had in grad school when other students would sort of hang on every word spoken by one prof or another (these same profs would be the type that doesn’t have the time to sign your stupid change of committee form or something like that) and which one can always observe at idiotic conferences. You know the type, hordes of people just waiting to see what the person will say (and then blog about it later as if was some sort of wet dream-did it really happen?).

    There was one conference in particular a long time ago (I may have even been an undergrad!) in which Derrida was sitting in the middle of a table surrounded by acolytes waiting to chant his words as if they held some sort of doxological authority..very reminiscent of “The Last Supper.” There’s a good scene in the Zizek doc. where Zizek is sort of cornered after a lecture: people are handing him their papers, talking to him and he really starts to kind of freak out and is pushed over the edge when someone hugs him.

    On the other hand, like Carl, I’m willing to give Harman the benefit of the doubt because he seems rather earnest about it all, no? And he doesn’t seem like the type to say “Oh, I’m too busy to sign your form, nameless person.”

    Though, the back-slapping and self-congratulatory atmosphere around some blogging parts lately is indeed rather annoying.

  5. Hey Shahar – that’s funny. Yeah, there’s definitely a sort of institutional power-dynamic going on, I think – it’s strange watching these things reproduce themselves in the blogosphere, even as the space is being praised for its levelling qualities. And sure, I guess a lot of this just comes with the territory. If the object-oriented stuff hadn’t suddenly become so ubiquitous it’d be easier to tune out…

    Harman’s definitely in earnest about it – I don’t doubt he cares. And he is (obviously) spending a lot of time in the space. I’d say, however (throwing the principle of charity overboard again…) that he doesn’t generally seem to respond substantively to criticism, but instead talks enough about criticism to create a sense of dialogue / debate. (Labelling Mikhail an ‘irritated Kantian’, without naming him, linking to him, or adequately describing his critique, is really quite obnoxious, imo, for instance). Now, of course, that kind of thing is not uncommon – and I’m sure it’s a nightmare responding to comments with a popular blog. Plus it’s Harman’s blog to do what he wants with, obviously. The dynamics just infuriate me a bit.

    All this is more or less entirely separate from substantive criticisms and / or discussion, it goes without saying. Although I’d say it isn’t entirely irrelevant to the way substantive discussion plays out within the broader space. Which in turn is relevant to what philosophical conclusions get reached and accepted.

    Take care…

  6. Shahar, I agree Duncan’s original description could describe many blogs, including this one. And yeah, I do note some similarities to the old egghead groupie dance here. We must hope he uses his powers for good, I suppose.

    Along those lines, Duncan, I think you nailed the distinction between ego-jerking and substantive discussion. When I say I’m keeping an eye on the development of interactive history, this is what I mean.

  7. ah no – I’d never describe you guys’ blogs that way… 🙂


  8. Duncan,

    I think that as a generally very irritated person, I almost would feel bad if he called me a “happy Kantian”. I certainly am irritated at the whole mood of “let’s get over Kant but without really reading him, and anyone who asks for a closer analysis will be a downer who wants to ruin our great new philosophy party”…

  9. Carl I already had soooo many fantasies about Dr. Harman’s endowment, I can’t begin to tell you. The way he writes also suggests that he can endure long stretches in bed, which might mean he could finally satisfy me.

  10. Hi Dejan! It’s nice to see you. I miss the Parody Center.

    I’ve always preferred the brainy ones too, but logocentrism has to be calibrated just right if it’s not to override the more physical expressions!

  11. Oh yeah why did you take the Center off the blawgroll then you two-timing bear bitch ! Anyway hold it for a second because I’m moving again from blogger back to wordpress, so the address will change anyhow.

  12. but logocentrism has to be calibrated just right if it’s not to override the more physical expressions!

    He can begin by sucking my ass object, that’ll keep him quiet, and he has to do it in such a way that his claim to object-orientatism becomes justified and empirically demonstrable.

    There are several ways to develop the Mikhail-Sinthome conversation, and I’d be selfish if i denied my readers the interactive experience: 1) Sinthome grows increasingly agitated until his civilized demeanor crumbles and he becomes really foul-mouthed; but in this scenario, Mikhail would have to win the argument, which let’s face it is unfair; 2) I could introduce a Third Act in which the narcissistic cat doesn’t react until Mikhail is pushed to question his own positions, which is the unspeakable horror in all this, but which then, IN TURN, gets dr. Sinthome to question his own, so that we end up with two paranoid idiots sort of causing each other’s madness; 3) I could introduce DR HARMAN into the play who puts the children to bed with wise words of warning (this one already makes me giggle) – choose which one you like best.

  13. Hey if you think I’m a bear in this picture you should see me in my winter fur. And in the summer it all comes off.

    My bad about the blogroll. I saw the old wordpress site shut down but missed the memo about the move to blogger. I’ll keep my eyes peeled better to the new site and eventual retransfer.

    Re: the conversation, I wouldn’t pretend to second-guess the master. All of your scenarios achieve delightful parodic blending of realism and fabulation. I suppose I like the turnabouts in #2 best, and #3 works regardless of what comes before.

  14. I don’t actually think Dr. Harman’s is long enough to tattoo all those RANTINGS on. I wonder how he fucks his students, the line is probably that it wasn’t HIM who got horny, but his cock-object or something.

    I always knew dr. Sinthome would end up speaking to his socks, but I didn’t know it would hit him so soon and with such force.

  15. Seems to me that the amateur/professional dichotomy is often misled. Specialization is a fascinating topic, from a social perspective, and “pros” are situated along axes of “generalism” and “specialism.” But there are embedded values in many of these notions, that seem to hide the complexity involved in this field.
    My take often has more to do with the “serious-playful” axis, which is connected to a continuum of formality as well as to performance theory (given evaluation by the audience, performance is serious; rehearsal is playful and free). Huizinga and Bauman meet Hymes and Goffman, to stay within the realm of Anglo-legibility.

  16. Enkerli that’s a great point about embedded values and I’m also with you on performativity, although my axis is not so much serious-playful as frontstage-backstage in Goffman’s sense. This allows me to be playful in, and with, the whole continuum. There are both benefits and costs to this, of course.

  17. Well, Cleopatra provided a good enough response to parody, though she forgot to mention that us psycho trolls especially like to feed on the academic’s humorless attempt to analyze every edutainment in gravely psychoanalytic terms (I mean for fuck’s sakes – Julia Kristeva!). The narcissistic climax (”Dejan actually wants to fuck ME, not my subsidiary office in Texas”) was really great and worthy of the Egyptian temptress’s reputation. As the object-oriented multinational grows across the globe, I’m sure there will be a market opening more for much more parody, Carlo.

  18. @Carl
    Frontstage-backstage also works. And I don’t mean to exclude play from anything. But I do have this Huizinga-inspired notion that “if serious is an absence of play, play isn’t an absence of serious.” One of those simple ideas that help me elaborate along performance, dramaturgical, and ethnographic lines.

  19. @Enkerli, I love that quote but doesn’t its asymmetry both you? I want there to be play in serious too. I guess that’s the Roberto Benigni move.

    @Dejan – speaking of getting the play into serious – I agree, the response was facile and went a long way toward confirming Duncan’s diagnosis above. To be fair, though, your game is largely to change the game on people and watch them flounder. That’s more fun for you than them. And being able to play lots of different games is a separate skill from being able to play one really, really well.

  20. @Carl Nope, doesn’t bother me at all. In a way, as a Neo-Structuralist, that might be what attracts me to this notion.

  21. Carlo, I’m afraid it will NEVER get serious. If I wanted/needed life to be serious, I’d have killed myself a long time ago.

    Apologies for not commenting on your last comment – I didn’t see it. I love your wife’s imagery, though I am not yet able to explain in what sense exactly. Somehow it is not kitsch-rustic and she imbues every building with its own distinctiveness.

    I was telling you that dr. Sinthome was going full-on neoliberal, here’s the evidence (from his latest article):

    there is no difference that does not make a difference, it follows that difference requires work both for the entity making the difference and the entity upon which the difference is made.

    So both the subject and the object, and all objects, they have to WORK.

  22. Dejan, couldn’t agree with you more about the endpoint of really getting serious. Maybe I’m just a snob existentialist but it’s hard for me to take anyone seriously who doesn’t get this about seriousness.

    Re: neoliberalism, I see. That’s a great point, I hadn’t thought of this thread of his analytic like that. But I’m thinking it probably slipped by me because of my twin marxist and ascetic Protestant trainings, both of which also exalt work. The latter, of course, is entirely consistent with neoliberalism, while the former shades easily into the resentment of subaltern fractions of the liberal bourgeoisie.

    Thanks for checking out Rachel’s stuff. She’s pleased with your impression of her buildings, which captures her objective nicely, and she wonders if they achieve that distinctiveness for you in themselves, or more in juxtaposition with the birds and swimmers.

  23. Somehow I think movies lend themselves better to analysis than paintings. I guess I could adumbrate something about the way the light falls, or the way the compositions make the scene intimate rather than distanced, ”objective”, but this wouldn’t do justice to the experience as not one single of these elements can explain the effect. It comes from the painting’s, as the Cleopatra of Object-Oriented Theory would say, inner essence, although Cleopatra would also think that this has nothing to do with the artist, you see, because she’s just a residue of the mighty objects. Anyhow affectively speaking I feel that these buildings have a lot to say to me, and the longer I look, the more story I discover. I feel like I was in that town in some previous life of mine. Of course the shitty thing is that I’m only looking at an internet ”print”, I’d have to see them in a gallery to attune fully to their stories.

    I get a hunch that Rachel is interested in the workings of the gaze, the perspective. I like the way the observer holds the bird, about to tear off her wing. You get this uneasy feeling about the process of observation, as if he was so awe-struck or annoyed by the bird’s mysteries that he just had to destroy it, destroy the Object. And then the implication that this is also related to the cutting of history. But the clear-eyed bird won’t let him, her gaze stops it somehow.

  24. Carlo i don’t think dr. Bryant-Renfield is enough for the temptress, she’s in a bit of a panic because the young students she stashed in the cellar keep screaming for help – but it’s too late now, once Cleopatra has infected their neural assemblages with alluring objects, the process of mortification sets in at the speed of light and before you know it, the victim is entirely objectified! It’s going to get really suspenseful as Cleopatra tries to maintain her body temperature by reaching out, with her beautiful tentacles, through mobile phones and PDAs, across global campuses,… but hey, I don’t want to be neeeeeeeeeegative about this, let’s get Halliwud on the line – material aplenty for MUMMY 4: REVENGE OF THE OBJECTS, INDIANA JONES AND THE CURSE OF THE OBJECTS, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE ZAMALEK, and Hell why not THE DAY THE OBJECTS STOOD STILL.

  25. Dejan, you make me laugh and laugh.

    I think there needs to be a graphic of the screaming students in the cellar, neural assemblages fully infested and reaching futilely for the unrelational object while it waves its tentacles with glee…

  26. Ooooh Carlo, how fabulous she is. And she travels! She’s been to 10, 435 countries in this lifetime alone, what to say of all the parallel universes she traverses, and all her incarnations, not least of which as Mary Shelley. Be wary, Carlo, she may look a little past her prime, but this girl knows the secret of afterlife. It was HER who convinced Lord Byron that he should commit suicide.

    And she threads each new pavement, each new two-way-plasma-vector, with a special pair of shoes. When she was in the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix lavished upon her shoes in the color of the tulip fields. Thousands and thousands and thousands of them!

  27. The style of writing is very familiar . Have you written guest posts for other blogs?

  28. Jane, I don’t so far. Perhaps my style is just generic….

  29. I think that last comment was a SPAM – so tricky, even fooled Carl himself – you’re getting old, man.

  30. @Mikhail Looks like it. If you Google the whole phrase, you notice it’s on other posts (I do the same thing to check on plagiarism). What might explain the fact that Carl didn’t tag it is that he does have comments all over the blogosphere. But his style is in fact quite idiosyncratic, I’d say.

  31. Looked like spam to me too, but just ambiguous enough to be worth a short response to see if there was a followup. I like to be welcoming.

    And as a special added bonus, two of my best web-friends tell me I’m old, promiscuous and weird. Sweet!!!! ;-p

  32. I have to read through spam comments before I click “delete all” as I don’t want someone’s thoughtful comment to get stuck in there for whatever reason, so I’ve seen this one before – it’s pretty smart though, my favorite ones are the kind that I can easily miss due to my narcissism (“You blog is great!” or “Interesting post, I hope to read your blog more often” stuff)…

  33. @Carl No offense intended. We’re all a bit naïve, when it comes to these things.
    @Mikhail And that’s exactly why these comments are effective. There’s so much false praise that I tend to interpret all praising comments as fake. Unless they’re very specific. When they tell me I’m beautiful, that’s where I laugh.


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