How ideology works, pt. 2

by CarlD

As is his wont and merit, Graham Harman recently posted a detailed and encouraging account of how to write and place scholarly articles. It’s well worth looking at, not least because it works brilliantly for him; maybe it can work for you. But mileage may vary. Let’s see.

Graham begins by setting up two interesting contrasts, one explicit between two approaches to the writing process and one implicit between two approaches to content:

The big anxiety about writing anything, at least in early career, is how you will ever be able to fill up many pages of blank space. Many dissertations read that way, in fact, as though the writer were just stringing certain issues along to get up to the intimidating total of 250 pages.

By contrast, experienced writers speak of having to shift modes and start looking for excuses to cut things rather than excuses to keep them. That’s the point that one should try to reach. Not that I never procrastinate anymore, but never ever do I worry about not being able to fill up 30 pages or even 50 or 200 pages whenever necessary, and quickly at that.

The explicit contrast works at various levels, as we can confirm from our own experiences and our observations of students struggling with writing progressively longer papers. The implicit contrast does not follow. There is no reason to believe that becoming comfortable with quickly filling up masses of pages whenever necessary also means no longer just stringing certain issues along to get to a page count. In fact, that remains the best way to do a lot of writing quickly no matter what.

Assuming we can all achieve quantity, quality and rapidity in large and equal measure, Graham continues with two good practical suggestions:

1. Break it into sections. This makes the total length utterly unintimidating, and is also more enjoyable for your readers.

2. Look for external prods, whether in the occasion or the subject matter, that will force you to get moving in a certain direction. Writing can also be intimidating when we as authors are forced to make too many of the decisions about how to structure it. Hence, outside factors can be your best friend.

His recommendation to release the paralyzing death grip of total control is especially welcome. Finding a flow and going with it is the key to so many things. Graham then offers an illuminating example from his own work:

Let’s take an example of an article I haven’t actually written yet, but whose structure is already set in my mind.

*The second speculative realism workshop is coming up in Bristol in April.

*In looking for a topic, the following consideration came to mind. I have three colleagues in the Speculative Realist movement. I’ve already written one article and a soon-to-appear book chapter on Meillassoux. I’ve been asked to write a long review of Brassier’s book. But I still haven’t written anything on Iain Grant, so this would be the perfect opportunity, especially since Bristol is his home turf. That’s the first external consideration: this article/lecture must specify the relation of my work to Grant’s.

In my experience too there’s nothing like workshops and conferences to focus the mind and sharpen the sense of obligation to contribute something. What I’m not so clear on here is how the existence in Bristol of one Iain Grant is the opportunity for a contribution. I get it that he’s the third of three colleagues in the SR movement, so of course Graham has a relation with him that could be specified. But other than checking off a box on a list this is not in itself reason to think there’s a contribution to be made here or what to; unless we assume that the particular views of this particular group are of some broader interest. And this does seem to be the case here. But it doesn’t stack up well as advice for others not so blessed. So I have a proviso to add: if you’re just some guy, you may not get much mileage out of writing articles about you and other guys you just happen to know. (Btw, Graham has also written about how to bootstrap yourself up to more than just some guy.)

Graham then wonders, “*Is it possible to kill two birds with one stone? Yes. After giving the lecture, I can publish this piece in the Bryant/Srnicek anthology (well, it’s actually Bryant/Srnicek/Harman now, since they added me as a co-editor).” And yes, having pages available between the covers of a volume one is co-editing is certainly a great way to get something published, although this fact says little about the actual value of the publication or the edited volume so enhanced. Fortunately this latter is a non-issue once quantity, quality and rapidity have been sorted out. But still, I have another proviso to add: unless you have reason to believe that what you’re writing is directly relevant and enhancing, think twice about using accidents of access to clutter up other people’s good work.

Graham then plots his research and writing strategy. It’s a model of focus and efficiency:

*Specify the points of tension between my thinking and Grant’s. He’s a materialist in the sense of believing in a primal womb of matter from which concrete entities arise by way of retardations and obstructions. This conflicts with my own intuition of a world carved into discrete districts from the start. So, make this an article outlining my disagreements with the idea of a single primal matter.

Here my head starts to spin a little, because it doesn’t occur to me to think that my intuitions are the material of publications that could possibly interest anyone but me and my dear mama. In my field, history, it’s generally considered important to have something other than oneself to talk about, although we can be pretty crafty about turning history into the story of us. But the point is, there’s got to be evidence of some kind that could in principle be examined by others; our thinking is about something other than our thinking. So call me a naive empiricist, show the engineers out of the room, and add this to my provisos.

But this is philosophy, for which evidence is never lacking in the publications of others thinking about their own thinking:

*Always good to bring an older classic thinker into the mix. My choice in this case is Giordano Bruno, who has so much in common with Grant. A critical analysis of Bruno’s Cause, Principle, and Unity would work perfectly here. Put it on the smaller bookshelf where I keep books currently in use for projects, where I will see it each day as a reminder to reread it when I have the time.

*Any relevant contemporary thinkers I would like to know better who link up with these themes? Yes, Gilbert Simondon. Put Simondon’s fat French book next to Bruno’s and Grant’s, and also put Alberto Toscano’s book next to those to see exactly what he’s doing with Simondon, as a prod and foil to my own reactions.

I’m glad that Bruno has something in common with Grant; otherwise, he’d only appear because it’s always good to have a classic in the mix. As an intellectual historian, my skin is now crawling. When we set out to understand ideas in context we don’t just cherry-pick any old geezer based on idiosyncratic associations, or rather, we don’t say we do as if this is somehow a valid method of defining a field of investigation. Picking Simondon as the contemporary foil based on nothing more than the kind of relevance that comes from wanting to know him better? Gah. But at least now there’s something other than authorial intuitions to work with, heavily filtered by those intuitions though it may be. Still, a proviso: before you try this at home, make sure you’re writing in a field that has no enforceable standards of investigative rigor.

If I seem a little snarky here, it’s because I’m jealous. I’d love to work this way, and when I can get away with it, I do. Like on this blog. In fact, this all seems like a terrific how-to for lots of smashing bloggery.

Graham next outlines five sections for the projected paper in a line apiece, and declares all anxiety about it banished. All that remains is to research and write it, along with “about 10 others due between now and October.” If that still seems like quite a hill to climb, it is, but there’s a trick to it:

I’ll need to do about 700 more pages of reading before I can write this article, true enough. But my reading will now be more focused and also faster, because I know exactly what I’m looking for. And besides, I only need about 5 pages on Simondon, so I can go really fast through the parts that aren’t directly relevant to the current assignment, but focus intensively whenever necessary. Judging from experience, there may be 10-15 pages of Simondon that are of immediate relevance to Grant and Bruno, and I’ll keep an eagle eye out for those.

Well, what to say here. Most people who read fast by focusing on exactly what they’re looking for do end up finding it one way or another. A different approach to reading would be to learn new things from it, maybe even change one’s mind. And between the 10-15 pages of Simondon that are of immediate relevance to Grant and Bruno and the many others that are of no relevance at all, there are probably a few that could be unpacked for additional insight, not to mention more systematic and comprehensive subtext, context, intertext and countertext readings. So my proviso here is, for most folks it takes a lot more hard work than this to bust out of the echo-chambers of our own skulls and write something of real value to others.

But backfilling careful analysis is a different project, and maybe not the most important one where there’s a vision and new trails to be blazed. I’ll gladly give Graham that cred while noting that not everyone is cut out to be a visionary and a trailblazer. Graham concludes with the happy news that he’s killing yet more birds with this same stone, since “Simondon will be a big part of my talk in Croatia in June,” and offers the final good advice to “put professional pressure on yourself to read certain things.” And I’ll conclude with sincere gratitude to the kindly Wizard for offering this generous peek behind the curtain.


28 Responses to “How ideology works, pt. 2”

  1. carlo great post, i need your help, i appointed you to the comission for this; you need to determine who gets the grant

    sometime by the end of the week would be fine


  2. Funny, it looks as though Harman linked to your post and then deleted the post that it was linked to, now there’s an awkward link breaking silence…

  3. Saw that. I do hope he comes to chat, there’s plenty of meat left on this bone.

  4. Great, well worded post Carl. Very thoughtful, invoking the possible differences between investigatory Philosophy and investigatory history. And it makes one think how philosophy is perhaps better served keeping track of then nature of its “translations” (in the Latourian sense). I can’t help but feel that Graham, in his genernous adivsements, actually offers something of a survivors guide to the publishing imperative in text-upont-text philosophical reproduction that seems to Baroquely mark out our age. These shorthands are as valuable as they are critical the system which generated themselves, and there is almost something of the Sokal Affair about them (to a very modest degree). In particular your honing in on the Bruno reference. In the strangest way both Graham and you are right on Bruno. It gives the thought the required patina. But the question is, is it a real antique, or something that that has been artificially aged (and is there really a substantive difference)?

    In a way Graham gives us an x-ray into effective philosophical text production. Not one that shows all philosophical writing to be a fraud, but rather something else, oddly…packaged. Has this not become a necessity in present day communications. It is not that the Emperor has no clothes, but that they have been cheaply made by children in Indonesia, with very poor cloth and stitching. What is interesting is that contemporary philosophy (perhaps even Latour in his theory that all thinkers are merely politicians) might applaud such a text-effect process of thinking something through. One wants maximum surface impact. Harder and harder it is to separate out the “substance” of a claim, from its effects. I suppose that what one looks for, antithetical to the environment for philosophy today, is lasting effects, those of long enough frequency that they can travel the miles beneath the sea.

    As to the missing link, it reminds me of the hat an airbrushed-out official still remaining on the head of another official in an old party photograph in one of Milan Kundera’s novels (Unbearable Lightness of Being?). The Cheshire Cat’s smile, the Derridian Trace, the Glint in Athena’s eye. It goes by so many contradictory names.

  5. Hmm. Perhaps the other shoe has dropped. Is this post a wild rant?

  6. Kvond, Bruno as patina is a great image, I love the line about cheap Indonesian clothing and I see your point about text-effects. I do all my thinking as conversation, either with others or with myself (which is why Mead makes so much sense to me), so I’m in a sense the oddest fellow to be trying to hold the line on a more rigorous and substantive kind of ‘für ewigisch’ process.

    But I agree with you that Graham offers that x-ray, and in general I find him good to think with, which is what this post is – thinking with and through ‘the Other’. As partly evidenced by his ‘withdrawal from relation’ with this post and your own reports about his theory of thinking as a solitary activity, it’s pretty clear that Graham and I do not have an immediate simpatico. I don’t like how he bad-piles people with swift, dismissive judgment, I think he’s sealed off accordingly from a more vibrant and objectively enriching relationality. What he calls ‘energy-sucking’ I often call learning. But I must admit that my attentiveness to others is not conducive to the kinds of confident, settled thoughts that lead to a big publication agenda. It’s not productive in that sense to be always aware of all the perspectives from which one is wrong.

  7. I have to say, really painfully admit, that Velvet Howler’s citation of Bob Ross is merciless, but perhaps significant: (Nov 15 2009)

    Equal Carl to your recent Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front allusion, and perhaps connected to your thoughts on how to blog a “movement” in some kind of Gramscian sense.

  8. Yeah, that’s nice intertextual work by Bryan, a devastating take on the same image of philosophical paint-by-numbers I riffed on in the stupid-butt post.

    We are currently blogging a movement, I think, or at least an anti-movement built on negation. Is there a positive content?

  9. Yes, he admits following your lead on that, but Bob Ross’s voice and demeanor are powerful signifiers.

    As to a movement, I was thinking more about how Harman has constructed his blogged, and then e-publishing persona, positioning it between a non-existent SR and then getting a “splinter group” (OOO) to break off and further create a sense of orthodoxy. Add to that young grad students, an “on-line” journal, interviews, a general sense of protest against, first Kant and Scholastic Contentalism, and then Vampiric suckers of energy from “real work”. Its a pretty cool model of something a bit Gramscian (perhaps).

    As to “us” being a movement, I don’t really see the structure, much less the effect.

  10. I consider the Howler to be part of a nascent vanguard, a united front if you will, against object-oriented philosophy.

  11. Carl: the funny part about my coming to post that Bob Ross video was that when I read that quote by Harman you posted, almost preternaturally, I read Harman’s voice talking in my head as Bob Ross explaining how to paint evergreens. About 5 minutes later, I stumbled across your old post about “philosophical landscapes,” and realized how perfectly it really did fit. It exactly describes Harman’s technique for writing philosophy.

  12. Yeah Bryan, it looked to me like you’d arrived at that image independently, which may mean it’s the right one and/or that we’re both twisted in the same way. Anyway I don’t care about priority, what I like is how you connected up the thought with powerful signifiers, as Kevin says.

    Re: the Howler vanguard, it may be that every movement needs its primordial enemy. That way lurks the PFJ as a cautionary tale, though…. And Kevin is right that SR/OOO are showing the way with a pretty cool model of assemblies and alliances that allow them to command access to attention and resource.

  13. The question is, as Harman seems to be the internet lynchpin, does showing that the Emmperor has no clothes (at least since Tool-Being), a derivative theory of “objects” (Scholastically derived from two major Continental thinkers, moving in a regressive fashion), an absurd non-believable theory of causation and at the height, a highly anthropomorphic theory that does the opposite of orient itself towards objects, does exposing any of this, do anything to the structure of the “movement”? Or is it just meme-spreading and black box making?

  14. Kvond, I have my doubts. It’s the same problem with Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism: okay, so the world of commodities reifies the world of human-human relations, but, as Zizek shows, knowing that doesn’t really change anything. It’s the logic of fetishistic disavowal: “We know, but nevertheless, we continue to….”

    What one needs to do is to begin locating structural weak-points in the movement (you’ve already done this with Harman’s non-theory of causation), to deterritorialize the networks and assemblages they have colonized and used to disseminate authority and influence. The movement ought to be brought down from within.

  15. I’ve got the historian’s competence to understand ideas in context, not the philosopher’s mojo for conceptual subtleties. But one thing that seems obvious to me without getting into the specific merit of Harman’s work is that any really new idea is going to seem ‘incoherent’ to people whose conceptual schemata are locked in an older pattern, through which they will read the new thang.

    What this means is that some people are going to see this ‘incoherence’ and seal off, while others are going to be excited enough by the prospect of the new to ‘scratch their heads’ but suspend disbelief for a while. So pantsing the Emperor misses the point and is an ‘Enlightenment error’, supposing that linear reasoning is the only way to get intellectual work done. So yeah, Bryan, assuming we’re smart enough to know for sure that Harman’s not on to something, turning the networks and assemblages from within is the way to go.

  16. carl,

    Unfortunately your theory of illusionary “incoherence” also describes well the TRULY incoherent (covered over with all kinds of sizzle and association), only parading as a briliant idea. Now Shaviro apologized for calling Harman’s theory “incoherent” and Levi is trying to back down from saying he didn’t understand it. Harman admits that Latour doesn’t understand it either. NO ONE understands it. Now the fact that NO ONE understands it, yeah, this could be a sign that “Hey, this is a whole new paradigm!” or it could be a sign that its a bunch of bullshit, surrounded by the “sizzle” of a movement.

    Now I know you dont’ find ANY philosophical explanation very important or even coherent, but there are degrees. Everyone AVOIDS saying what is obvious, its nonsense. I gave it a very good chance. I read it several times. I diagrammed out all its principle parts. I checked with Graham to make sure I was “getting it”. Its incoherent.

    Just do me a favor and read his essay on Causation (or look at this diagram: ). Its ludicrous (as an explanation, especially an explanation of what ping pong balls and beer cans do when they interact). Not only is it ludicrous though, it also builds upon some rather problematic assumptions about what is human and what is normative, the KINDS of relations and power we should aim for.

  17. some coordinated thoughts over at Violent Signs:

    Carl, I do think that one’s ideas do have an determining effect not only upons one’s own actions, but also the actions (and perceptions of others), and that ideas deserve critique. How, or into what service we press the “exotic” other, is a significant question.

  18. Kevin, no time to follow links tonight but I’ll get on it soonest I can. Meanwhile I agree I’ve said nothing about distinguishing real incoherence from a paradigm shift. In Kuhn’s sense of scientific paradigms we could expect the shift to have been prepared by increasing correspondence breakdowns between theory and data, and by bits and pieces of a new model assembling within the old. Both of these would create a foundation of sympathy and understanding for what comes next, which really helps in making coherence judgments. But philosophy seems to work more arbitrarily than that, leaving it open to all the market metaphors we’ve been toying with.

    I do agree that ideas can be effectual, in feedback with all the sub-conceptual stuff Bourdieu called the schemes of the habitus, plus interactive and material conditions and so on. I don’t think the coherence of ideas is usually their chief effectual appeal, but rather how they sit with conditions and dispositions and what people can do with them. Therefore I think being able to critique ideas may be very important for some audiences in some situations, but not at all for others. Gramsci has this nice line somewhere about trying to talk people out of things they believe. Even when you succeed in demolishing their reasons, he says, they’ll still just imagine that someone better equipped to argue than they were would have been able to carry the debate.

    So yes, by all means the critique should happen, but as part of a more comprehensive strategy that takes the non-rational sources of affinity and alliance into account as well. For better or worse, the tools of charisma, community and marketing are often decisive.

  19. Carl: “Gramsci has this nice line somewhere about trying to talk people out of things they believe. Even when you succeed in demolishing their reasons, he says, they’ll still just imagine that someone better equipped to argue than they were would have been able to carry the debate.”

    Kvond: Honestly, and most sincerely, I don’t think Graham actually BELIEVES that objects interact in the way that he postulates, or that causation works in the way that he has said. It is only the result of making a few observations about Heidegger, getting a glimpse of a connection to Husserl, and somehow playing with these ideas to the point of an absurdity, one that he is forced to assert, out of kind of chess game of concepts. This isn’t about beliefs at all, but rather certain concepts pushed to their incoherence, a point of nonsense. It is for this reason that I find the silence of others on their own imcompresion particular in the service of a kind of philosophical gamesmanship that pretty much drives philosophy into the insubstantial, and the lack of any connection to the real world. In particular, Harman’s call for paying attention to “objects” (as opposed to human reality determinations) actually is the VERY last thing he is doing.

    Of course philosophers all try things on, pretend “what if things really were like this”, but if it is not just to be a fantasy project there have to be checks and balances, or at least, one would hope there would be.

    Now that Harman’s project of “objects” is accompanied with the putting down of all sorts of other people, and championing an odd sort of philosophical “work ethic”, well, this too is a problem. Frankly, he is incredibly dismissive, sometimes offensive (never either to me, personally) especially for someone whose thinking no one understands or actually believes.

  20. Kvond: “Honestly, and most sincerely, I don’t think Graham actually BELIEVES that objects interact in the way that he postulates, or that causation works in the way that he has said.”

    This is the sense that I get, too. There is something deeply cynical about it all.

  21. You could well be right about what he believes, but as deontologistics notes in a recent commment on the PE thread, this and the selling don’t necessarily add up to cynicism. It’s speculation, after all – there’s no warrant whatsoever for anyone to take it as an accurate description of what actually happens. It’s a thought experiment by nature, so the most that can be said is that this elementary fact about it is buried in the rhetoric. I mean, I too am obviously struck by the homologies between this intellectual product and its material conditions, but for that very reason I’m not sure we can leap to an imputation of willful manipulation. When you can read the times right off of something, how personally intentional is it?

    Just to clarify, however, my point was not about what Harman believes or doesn’t believe; that’s a black box, so to speak. Gramsci was talking about followers, not originators in the passage I mentioned, and I don’t think there’s much to be gained from trying to convince originators that they’re wrong. The mission for those who see them as a pernicious force is to break the spell for the followers. Checks and balances, just as you say.

  22. The cynicism comes from thinking that black box making is ALL that is it about. That you could simply mix in a few old thinkers, come up with “shocking” ideas or whatnot, associate yourself with a group or a movement and wella, a legitimate THEORY. This is the Capitalist homology in its core, pure surface effect, not caring if there is anything behind the claim. Levi performs something like this all the time when he pretends that he and Harman “agree” on something (like “we are both ontological realists and epistemological antirealists”), in the absence of any critical posture towards where they DISAGREE. It becomes just the illusion of a movement.

    The thing is, Harman doesn’t have any “followers” there are just those that seem willing to keep his “black box” closed so that they can attach their own theories (black boxes for some, less so for others) to his “black box”. It is in this that you get the Speculative Bubble.

    The larger, and perhaps really important question is Is philosophy anything more than black box making? Is there any GOOD reason to have to do more than simply mix in an old Classic thinker once and a while, just to give your paper some heft?

  23. That really is a good question. In history there’s an easy answer, although the practice is anything but smooth – we’re trying to get it right. But when the ‘it’ is inherently speculative, I don’t know what getting ‘it’ right would mean. Anyway, if this is Harman’s challenge there’s some value for the discipline in overcoming it.

  24. I think this goes to the question of what “trials of strength” are, as Latour calls them, and if rational explanation has any substantive role in understanding how the world works.


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