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Mbk Review

Mbk Review

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Published by Terence Blake

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Published by: Terence Blake on Feb 27, 2013
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by Terence BlakeReview of Mehdi Belhaj Kacem's "Lettre à Tristan Garcia"(LA REVUE LITTERAIRE, number 52, February-March, 2012)
Mehdi Belhaj Kacem has published a long open letter to Tristan Garcia where he describes a “newconjecture” that is emerging as the rising generation of philosophers begin to free themselves fromthe conceptual space defined by the “hegemony” over the last decade of Badiou’s philosophy. For MBK a new conceptual configuration is forming, and his letter to Garcia is not so much anexhaustive analysis of his work as “an attempt to situate it in the contemporary configuration”(p112). This contemporary configuration includes, aside from Garcia, Quentin Meillassoux, MartinFortier, Graham Harman, the other authors of the Speculative Realist movement, and of coursehimself, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem.I will not try to give a full summary of this text, but shall limit my remarks to summarising andinterpreting MBK’s discussion of Graham Harman, insofar as he finds his work and ideas typical of the contemporary conceptual configuration in philosophy. MBK cites Garcia’s distinction between“substantial” ontologies (which “carve reality up into 2 regimes of being, secondary qualities andreality in itself) and “vectorial” ontologies (ontologies of becoming). Whereas Garcia is at pains todistinguish himself from both of these ontologies, MBK argues that Harman’s ontology is“substantial”, positing a noumenal realm of objects. (MBK: Harman…remains in this sense a“substantialist”, p119).(NB: This diagnostic concords totally with my own analysis of Harman’s OOO in my paper 
and in myreviewof Harman's book 
).MBK argues that Harman, like the other “post-badousians” (Meillassoux, Garcia, et al.), while positing an in-itself remains stuck in a crucial ambiguity, an “amphibolic vacillation” over the statusof this in-itself, oscillating between the idea of an absolutely unknowable, uncapturable (cf.
, “Whatever we capture…is not the real table”, p12) noumenon and the idea that itcan be captured in some very abstract and indirect way. MBK resumes this as an oscillation between a strict Kantian understanding of the in-itself and a “set-theoreticist” understanding, wheresomething can be known about the in-itself.This point is very interesting because Harman seems to think that MBK is claiming that he,Harman, was influenced by Badiou’s ideas and is reacting against them, and protests that this is justnot true (cf Harman’s post). In Garcia’s case, and in his own, he claims this explicitly. But I think that MBK is making less a point about Harman’s intellectual biography, than about the conceptualconfiguration to which Harman’s theorising belongs whether he knows it or not, and of whichBadiou gives the best, because most abstract and general, formulation. For MBK insofar as our thought was deep, intense, and contemporary, we were all “Badiousians” for a brief period (a“decade”, give or take a little) whether we were aware of it or not, and now we are leaving that period behind, with some difficulty, and becoming something else: post-Badiousian, Meillassousianor Garcian, or Harmanian. At the same time MBK finds that these ways out from Badiousian set-theoreticism are compromise formations, they do not go far enough.Harman objects to several passages in the
where MBK subsumes him with the post-Badiousians under the idea that you can know the noumena by set-theoreticist means. I think thatthis is another case where MBK would say that this is implicit in the conceptual form of Harman’sOOO, whether there was a biographical influence or not. When it comes to a more specificdiagnosis of Harman’s relation to science MBK states:
“If Harman were consistent, he would say simply that science is nothing but one mode of objectalrelation amongst others, and thus that finally it in no way distinguishes itself from any other type of “prehension”…This is probably what he thinks, anyhow” (p132).(Note on this translation: I read “
singularise”, distinguishes
, instead of just “singularise”, asotherwise the text makes no sense).Far from accusing Harman of giving priority to the set-theoretic matheme in his explicit philosophy,MBK diagnoses a contradiction where Harman, in virtue of the (Kantian) unknowability of hisobjects is obliged to to place all types of prehension, including the scientific one on the same plane – this would mean Harman is obliged to have a flat epistemology, and at the same time presume thatwe can know
about these objects (that they exist, and that objects contain and arecontained in other objects, which MBK brings back to the set-theoretic relation of belonging), thusimplicitly having a set-theoreticist understanding of objects. This is an example of the sharedconceptual configuration of hesitation between a Kantian understanding of the in-itself and a set-theoreticist understanding that MBK finds in what he calls the “post-Badiousians”. Do I need torepeat that this is a structural claim and not a biographical one?
MBK, as we have seen, accuses Harman of inconsistent Kantianism, wanting to have hisunknowable in-itself and yet to know it. He argues further that to be consistent with his own(inconsistent) ideas he should treat science as indiscriminable from other truth procedures, or typesof prehension, leaving to philosophy the role of knowing ontologically the real, on the basis of anunconscious set-theoreticism, which is best set forth explicitly by Badiou. We have seen in myanalysis of 
that this prediction of MBK’s is verified in that Harman reducesthe scientific object to the same status as the humanist object and the everyday object – that of “utter shams”. Science, the humanities, common sense are all equally types of prehension that donot attain the real object. Only Harmanian philosophy, and some “artistic” practices, do that.MBK sees these two features (inconsistent Kantianism and flat epistemology) as convergent,indicating a problem in Harman’s OOO concerning the nature and status of science, and especiallyits historicity. Implicitly, we have seen, Harman’s ontology relies on the matheme (Badiou’s namefor the type of truth-procedure to which the sciences belong) and so on the evental nature of science. Explicitly, science is demoted to the status of non-knowledge, as the real cannot be known.Consequently, Harman has no theory of the event nor of historicity, neither in science nor in any of the other truth-procedures or prehensions (except for some artistic practices, which embody “theattempt to establish objects deeper than the features through which they are announced, or allude toobjects that cannot quite be made present”,
, p14), more generally he has notheory of change.The tension between the two theses (T1: the in-itself is unknowable; T2: something can be knownabout the in-itself, indirectly by artistic allusion or by philosophical intellection) leads to aninability to account for science, which has been demoted to a sham prehension. Strictly speakingHarman would need to re-elevate science to the status of a practice that can produce knowledge inhistorical time, “discover” things about the world. MBK argues that it is all very well putting humanaccess on the same level as the cotton “encountering” the fire, “But what about the discovery of thegenome, or of the quark?” Such discoveries involve a change in the horizon of scientificunderstanding, and Harman must deny such changes, as for him: “there is no such thing as a“horizon”",
, p155). Such discoveries, argues MBK, “really suppose the existenceof some in-itself which
will have been
hidden from us and that we “unearth” by means of science(and so: that there is still some in-itself that is inaccessible to us and that perhaps will not beinaccessible tomorrow: History)” (p134). In other words, if the in-itself is unknowable (TI) thenscience is flat and has no historicity, though it may have a simple history of a cumulative list of 
discoveries added and mistakes subtracted. If on the other hand, the in-itself can come to be knownover time (T2), then science is evental, it is a veritable truth-procedure and not a sham prehension.The same can be said for the other truth-procedures, to the point that MBK thinks that for Harman(as for Garcia, but in a different way) not only “science does not exist”, science as a historical truth- procedure containing events that progressively “unearth” the in-itself and producing knowabilityout of unknowability, but his philosophy leads to the absence of any idea of truth., and to thedemotion of all truth-procedures to sham prehensions. All that would remain would be artisticcreations that “allude to objects that cannot quite be made present” and philosophical intellectionsthat “establish objects deeper than the features through which they are announced” (
, p14). But allusion and establishment as cognitive procedures, as ways of getting aroundthe unknowability of the in-itself, are not obviously the exclusive possessions of art (excludingscience, and also politics: “the word “politics” is the immense absence from your book. Isn’t thisthe price to pay for the “object-oriented philosophies”, as Harman calls them?”, p164). Harmanneeds to provide some sort of principle of demarcation here, and argue out its merits. But thatwould involve entering into a different conceptual configuration.
In my review of Harman's
I have given a close analysis of the passages inthe book where Harman talks about science in his own name, where he feels confident enough tocontradict the Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir Arthur Eddington. He is right to do so, as I believefirmly in the necessity and utility of contributions by the ordinary citizen to debates betweenexperts, on recondite subjects of all sorts, including that of the nature of reality, which can have aninfluence on the conduct of our lives. Unfortunately, as I have shown Harman fails to understandEddington's views and proposes in their place a totally inadequate philosophy of science.It is tempting for the defenders of Harman's OOO to try to supplement this inadequate discussion of science with material taken from his book on Bruno Latour 
(re.press,2009), importing the analyses of an expert in science studies to supplement a notable lack inHarman’s philosophy. However, this salvific supplementation comes at the price of ignoringHarman’s own explicit pronouncements on science (such as the reiterated claim that the scientificobject is “not real”, is an “utter sham”).My reconstruction here of MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM’s general analysis of post-badousian philosophy attempts to make explicit its ontological and epistemological argument as applied toHarman. An argument that I translate and summarize, but that I also endorse, as my own reading of 
confirms Kacem’s more general analysis. I think it is important to see thatKacem does not claim that Harman’s notion of the in-itself (not his concept of “withdrawal”, as thedebate centers on
of withdrawal) necessitates relativism. He argues that Harmanis caught in a two-pronged pragmatic contradiction, having to maintain both1) the in-itself is unknowable, but OOO can nonetheless know something about it. Kacem arguesthat this thesis presupposes at an unconscious structural level a set theoretic type ontology, and thusthe implicit primacy and historicity of science. (The primacy of set theory implies the historicity of science:”Copernicus then Galileo… reveal what
will have been
an in-itself previously inaccessibleto human consciousness. This revelation itself of the in-itself will permit, three centuries later, theliteralisation of the transfinite by Cantor”, Kacem, p134). Here Harman’s epistemology of science isvertical, enshrining, though unconsciously, the matheme as ultimate legitimation of the little thatcan be said philosophically.2) the in-itself is knowable, but only by philosophical intellection and artistic allusion, all other truth-procedures, including science and politics, are relegated to the relativist status of equallyillusory prehensions (this prong has as a consequence that there are no events in science that “revealwhat
will have been
an in-itself previously inaccessible to human consciousness”, Kacem, p134, hisitalics. NB: this use by Kacem of the future perfect to denote a retroactive transformation of the

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