The Paucity (and Conservatism) of the “Poverty of Philosophy”
With the recent appearance of Alexander Galloway’s “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism”, the object that is the internet began a fluttering with what cannot really be called a debate, but there did seem to be some heat, so… I came across the article with a cryptic remark by Graham Harman and then by Harman’s link to Donkey Hottie’s own critical response to the article. The following days, saw increasingly hysterical remarks coming from the area of the internets called Larval Subjects (see here, here, here) (on a side note, I am using the term “hysterical” not in the Monty Python way, but in the Lacanian psycho-analytic way: He seems to be calling out to the Master to recognize his own political radicality. On a side note to the side note: I am not really that serious here, but it seems that Larval Subjects has difficulty critique something without asserting that the thing is pathological. So this is a serious joke, as Zizek might say). Anyway…the “discussion” seemed to provoke Galloway to attempt to explain himself more clearly, with, I think, little success. All of this is a way to explain, why I hunted the article down and gave it read. What follows is my own thoughts on the article, in that the reactions I have seen so far have not really emphasized the philosophical.
“Realism is dangerous” – Alexander Galloway, “The Poverty of Philosophy”
Undoubtably, the title of Galloway’s paper is meant to invoke two interrelated criticism of the realist movement. On the one hand, he seems to claim that the recent path through realism taken by a few figures is bad philosophy in that it fails to meet the negative aspect of philosophy, namely rejecting the doxa of its time. On the other hand, the poverty invoked in the title is meant to place philosophy (at least in its realist manifestation) within the causal order of capitalism and thus serves as the handmaiden of a vast poverty producing machine. Here is how Galloway himself expresses this two prong attack within the essay:
“(1) If recent realist philosophy mimics the infrastructure of contemporary capitalism, should we not show it the door based on this fact alone, the assumption being that any mere repackaging of contemporary ideology is, by definition, antiscientific and therefore suspect on epistemological grounds? And (2) even if one overlooks the epistemological shortcomings, should we not critique it on purely political grounds, the argument being that any philosophical project that seeks to ventriloquize the current industrial arrangement is, for this very reason, politically retrograde?” (Galloway, “Poverty of Philosophy” p. 348)
But is this really convincing? I think not, in that he offers little in terms of evidence or argumentation to get us to accept these first two points, and its the status of these two points that really undermine Galloway’s entire essay. What I mean is that he simply assumes that you are already on his side in this. This explains, for example, why the entire work reads like a brief introduction to aging philosophers of the world who spend so much time reading Heidegger and Derrida only to find the world leaving them behind. The essay, then, proceeds along a stylistic line along the following: “Don’t panic. Heidegger and Derrida are still really important. They will not be replaced by this new-fangled realism. And besides its not new anyway. Just remember your old arguments against essentialism and you will be fine in this new future, which, as I said is not new anyway.” This may sound like a joke but how else to approach lines such as:
“Recall what must be discarded when overturning correlationism. One must discard phenomenology certainly, but one must also throw out social constructivism and the various fields that rely on social-constructivist methodology including much of second- and third-wave feminism, certain kinds of critical race theory, the project of identity politics in general, theories of postmodernity, and much of cultural studies.”
How are we to react to this line? Let us assume that what he says is true. That all of these things have to go. And…? What if they do? How is this different from the pope (pictured above) coming to Galileo and saying, “Galileo, you do not understand all of the hard work that Aristotelean physicist, not to mention theologians, put into explaining the movement of the planets and if you introduce something new now then it will all be for not and thats not fair.” This is the conservatism that I refer to in the title. I am not saying that Galloway is secretly a capitalist spy sent to infiltrate a highly provocative philosophical movement (a claim that Levi basically makes by calling Galloway a bourgeois). Instead, Galloway makes a ridiculous “argument” where he wonders out loud what will happen to all of the good work that has been done in the past. Who could this possibly convince except those involved in above mentioned disciplines? Of course, I am not really convinced that all of these things would disappear. Instead of offering an argument, he offers us feelings. Wouldn’t you be sad if these things went away. Even more troubling, is that even if these academic disciplines disappeared, that does not mean that the political processes related to them would also disappear. Its just bad philosophy.
Furthermore, Galloway’s presentation of the paper, stylistically, helps explain its to biggest drawbacks. First, he collapses the entirety of the recent realism movement into the same large mass. The result of this is that he moves, without difficult, from Meillassoux to Bryant’s flat-ontology as though they are the same. Worse yet, this collapse ignores the idea that mathematics is only of central importance to Meillassoux and plays little or no role in any of the other realist that comments on. This collapse only makes sense if you can count on your audience never to have read, and likely will never read, the mentioned texts. Secondly, and relatedly, you get Galloway’s chosen “argumentative” form, the “looks like argument (as in “If it looks like a duck then it might capitalist). Galloway calls this a correlationalist argument, or an argument from “the second correlation”. His attempt is, obviously, to play off the argument against correlationism in Meillassoux, but again, it only works if you collapse essential differences into each other. The first appearance of this argument is in Galloway’s discussion of Badiou’s reliance on set-theory and its similarity to object-oriented programing.
The argument involving Badiou is essentially that his use of set-theory within his ontology mirrors the use of set-theory within Java and other object-oriented programming. Galloway writes (and you have to read this is a conspiratorial tone): “In Badiou’s work, I have discovered a parallel between set-theory and the design of certain computer languages. His work shares much more with software and algorithmic systems than he might realize.” (349) Again, this could very well be true, but it does not really prove anything. How does the shared use of mathematics undermine a philosophical position? As every reader of Marx understands, capitalism operates through the destruction of superstitions and irrational believes (“all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned). Mathematics has been one of the chief, if not the most important, vehicles for this destruction. But Marx is not critiquing capitalism here. Instead, he is asserting that this destruction is a phase that we must pass through in order to get to communism. So when Galloway says that phenomenology is “the return to a more poetic state of being guided by care and solicitude,” I have an overarching desire to “reach for my revolver.” We should not want a more poetic state, we should want a more rational state.
Where things get weird is that after Galloway indicts Badiou, he takes it all back in a footnote. Honestly, I looked over this footnote the first time through the essay, but was drawn back to it by Galloway’s own response to the original kerfluffle. Galloway redeems Badiou, in a footnote, by stating that his flirtation with the soul of post-fordism is ok because he inoculated himself from its terror by mingling his ontology with a radical politics. But how does this work? Why does set-theory suddenly become acceptable if it is used for communism? Why does Badiou’s politics prevent itself from rotting from the inside out, if “in short the logics of belonging and inclusion that structure Badiou’s ontology are identical to the logics of membership and inheritance that structure today’s object-oriented computer language.” (p. 351) But besides all of this, why the hell talk about Badiou if, on the one hand, he does not commit the crime that the paper is discussing. But, on the other hand, if he is the great paradigm for dealing with mathematics and philosophy in the contemporary age, why not make that explicit? Abandon the hemming and hawing, (“…I am suggesting neither …nor) and say what you want to say. Make it explicit. We have had enough of the deconstructive perhaps, the future belongs to the bold.
At the end, Galloway’s essay comes across as being nothing if not an attack on science, and a naive attack at that. For example, in defending phenomenology’s historical outlook he quotes Husserl: “We must note something of the highest importance that occurred even as early as Galileo: the surreptitious substitution of the mathematically [constructed ideal world] for the only real world, [that is,] the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable–our everyday life-world.” However, to get the full impact of this statement you have to supplement it with another quote from Husserl: “The Original Ark, earth, does not move.” Both of these quotes say the same thing. We, humans, should only deal with the world as we experience it. Of course, we do not experience the world move so, ipso facto, it does not move. This is patently ridiculous but it is the position that Galloway is defending. I am at a loss of how this will help overcome capitalism. If this is what it means to be radically politically left then we are all fucked (a technical term).
Again, how does Galloway defend this strange position? He resorts to good feelings and intuitions. Phenomenology arises to defeat positivism so it must be good, because everyone knows positivism is bad. But this is a childish approach to the problem, because both approaches could be bad. How about the phenomenological subject? Should we keep it? Yes. Why? Because “the positivistic sciences morally threaten the phenomenological subject.” Ok. Lets question it then. Weirdly, Galloway does not introduce Brassier here or anywhere else in the essay. I wonder why that is.
Ultimately, we are left for a lose. How do we chose between either perspective? Well, as truth is an agent of capitalism, we must go with the subject that we like. Nowhere does Galloway defend any of the positions that he takes other than to say that the other position is in league with capitalism. This approach might be ok if he could actually prove that association between realism and capitalism. Instead we could that they look alike, if you squint.