Tom Beckett: I’m interested in intersections, crossroads, points of connection and departure. Is there a place, for you, where poetry and philosophy meet?
Graham Harman: At times I wonder if they are different at all. This statement causes outrage for scientistic philosophy, with its insipid model opposing real facts outside the mind to arbitrary, decorative, poetic fictions inside the mind. I reject this scientistic model not for the “postmodernist” reason that everything is a poetic fiction inside the mind, but rather because everything is a poetic reality outside the mind. In other words, I don’t see the real world as the brutal collision of physical chunks monitored by tough-minded researchers in white coats, cheered on by their philosophical sycophants. Instead, I see the physical world as riddled with cracks and fissures of the same sort that is generated by poets, and the great scientists know this as well. There is obviously something quite poetic about the ideas of Einstein and Bohr, for example.
We read lots of material during our education, but now and then there are books and essays that have the sound of doors opening onto strange new corridors. This is the special privilege of the young, and they don’t appreciate it enough, not knowing how soon it will be lost. One of those moments for me came as a college freshman, eighteen years old, when I read an essay-length introduction to a book of poems by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset from his collection Phenomenology and Art. The seeds of my philosophy are in that essay, which I read before ever finishing a single book of Heidegger. Its topic is metaphor.
Ortega distinguishes between the reality of things as perceived, and their “executant” reality as just being what they are. The direct (“executant”) experience of a toothache cannot be translated into any descriptions of it, no matter how detailed. Reading a 1,000-page Proustian novel about a toothache is not the same thing as experiencing that toothache first-hand. This point is now fairly standard among philosophers of mind who defend first-person “feels” against the hardcore eliminativists who want to reduce everything to objective third-person descriptions. But the important point with Ortega is that he did not limit this to human or animal consciousness. Instead, he says in the essay that everything in the cosmos can be viewed as an “I”– there is an “I box,” an “I candle,” and an “I star.” Ortega was no panpsychist and didn’t think that these things had feelings. He was simply making the point that nothing, not just conscious experience, can be fully translated into outward descriptions. The executant reality of things forever withdraws from access. The greatness of art, in Ortega’s view, is that it gives us a special kind of simulated access to executant reality.
The essay is quite atypical of Ortega, and he never developed its themes any further. Most of the time he was a bit too obsessed with the mutual dependence of human and world. But in this one essay he touched upon a radical metaphysics that wasn’t just interesting to my 18-year-old self, but deeply engrossing. For perhaps the first time, I felt myself in contact with a genuinely unexplored philosophical idea, and it seemed obligatory always to keep it in mind. The best essay I wrote as a freshman used Ortega’s essay to interpret Paul Verlaine’s poem “Pierrot.” Only when writing Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), which contains a whole section on that Ortega essay, did I finally force myself to start putting my thoughts about it into words. That was nearly 20 years of incubation, and I reread the essay countless times along the way.
For me, art in general is a special way of breaking the bond between an object and its own qualities, and I believe it is now the central mission of philosophy to theorize the deformations and breakdowns in this bond. As I see it, they come in either four or ten forms, depending on how you count them. In this sense, aesthetics is first philosophy; aesthetics is not lipstick and jewelry worn by sober truths that can otherwise be stated as discursive propositions. Many literary critics already knew this, of course, but they tended to think that this was a special property of literature as opposed to science or philosophy (see Cleanth Brooks, for example). But in fact, not even science or philosophy are doing their jobs properly if they dish out nothing but straight literal propositions. The world is not made of propositions, but of animals, chemicals, sports teams, and bombs.
None of these things can be translated into words or perceptions without significant energy loss.
TB: The world is not made of propositions. Yet any person’s experience can be conceived as being made of language. What is your sense of the limits of language in terms of your practice as a philosopher?
GH: The only limits of language in philosophy are the same limits found everywhere else– language cannot make the things directly present. The things cannot be transmuted directly into language. The attempt to set up rules for how to use language logically to refer to the real world rather than referring to mere illusions is hopeless. We need to be as inventive in our language as Picasso in his depiction of solid objects.
Different personality types dominate philosophy in different eras, as new needs come to the fore. The dominant personality type of recent decades has been the precise and assertive arguer who speaks clearly and likes to call people out on “nonsense.” It’s a personality that holds itself not to believe in very much, but to undercut the gullibility of other people’s beliefs.
My view is that the era of this personality has now run its course, and has become a pestilence of sorts. What we need now is something more like the artist type, given to new ways of staging problems. We need to find the equivalent of “philosophy installations,” whatever that might be.
There are too many calls in philosophy for clear writing, but rarely any calls for vivid writing. I agree that writing should be clear, but if this is your first priority, it means that you think the real problem with most philosophy is obfuscation, muddiness, evasiveness, and so forth. But the real problem with much philosophy is that it simply takes a position in some pre-existing trench war without innovating as to the terms of the problem. The result is an increasing supply of rational but boring assertions, not a fresh rethinking of the problem.
Philosophical language should be primarily vivid, and only secondarily clear. We should be clear when things are clear, but when we reach the edge of what is known, why pretend to know more than we do? I like a philosopher with a sense of when to use chiaroscuro. There are shadows in the world, and good writing should contain corners of shadow as well.
TB: I tend to read a difficult long poem—Pound’s Cantos, say, Zukofsky’s “A” , or Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation—in the same way that I read a challenging philosophy text. I suspend any pretence of total understanding and forge ahead. I’m “studiously unprepared” to borrow a phrase from William Carlos Williams. I’m most engaged when I’m at least somewhat textually uncertain. I like having room for improvisational thought. But, you’re right, what sustains me as reader in such situations is vividness. As, for example, your gorgeous invocation of Dante or of a giant ferris wheel in Circus Philosophicus. Among poets, some of us talk about the music of meaning. It seems increasingly that among the new philosophers, yourself and other “Speculative Realists,” it is the chatter of objects that holds sway.
What is an object, anyway? And why should philosophy be oriented toward objects rather than language, social change, sexuality or animals?
GH: An object is a unified entity that has qualities differentiating it from all other objects. The majority of philosophies we see are attempts to annihilate most objects. This is done by those who want to say that there are no mid-sized horses, tables, and chairs in the world, but only tiny little particles or mathematical structures. But they fail in this effort, because larger-scale objects are not merely an illusory aggregate of the behavior of their tiny little components.
The other kind of reductionist works in the opposite direction. They say that there are no objects because objects are merely superstitious fictions posited as lying beneath whatever is presented to the mind, or whatever has real effects in the world. But they fail as well, because if objects were nothing more than their givenness to the mind or their effects in the world here and now, there would be no reason for anything ever to change. There would be no surplus in the present world capable of making things other than they currently are, just as Aristotle saw when critiquing the Megarians for saying that no one is a house builder unless they are building a house at this exact moment. (I simply disagree with Aristotle that “potentiality” is the way to solve the problem.)
Objects are paradoxes, because they are more than their subcomponents but less than their effects on other things. Objects live on the mezzanine level of the world. Or rather, there are countless mezzanine levels in the world, because a proton is an object no less than a horse is.
This makes some people worry, because they assume that this would lead to a wild proliferation of imaginary entities bloating the cosmos. But there is no problem here, since not all objects are real. If I conceive of some bizarre monster, it is no less an object than genuine trees and horses are. But whereas the trees and horses are deeper than any possible effects they might have (because they are real objects) and can act on each other even if all humans are dead, the same is not true of the monster in my mind (which Husserl called intentional objects, a term long since distorted to mean the same thing as “real,” though it means exactly the opposite).
To answer your second question, the reason to focus on objects rather than on “language, social change, sexuality or animals” is because philosophy is obliged to be global in scope. If philosophy were to give one of these other entities a starring role, it would have to reduce the rest of the universe to them. “Language is the root of everything.” Here, you are choosing one specific kind of entity to be the root of all others, and there is no basis for this. Sociology tends to view all reality in terms of its emergence from human societies and belief-systems. Psychology treats all reality as made up primarily of mental phenomena. Physics deals with tiny physical objects and says that everything is made out of them, except that physics is useless when trying to explain things like metaphors, the Italian Renaissance, the meaning of dreams, and so forth.
All these other disciplines focus on one kind of object as the root of all else in the world. Only philosophy can be a general theory of objects, describing Symbolist poetry and the interaction of cartoon characters just as easily as the slamming together of two comets in distant space.
TB: I began this interview wanting to pursue your ideas about language and the poetics of experience. Instead I find myself stuck on your idea of “philosophy installations” and imagining a room full of simultaneous translators amidst a giddy “carnival of things.” Have you given any further thought to what form a philosophy installation might take?
GH: The closest we ever came to this in the history of philosophy was a strange manuscript by the young Leibniz in 1675, proposing a sort of carnival of knowledge. He mentions magic lanterns, optical exhibits, fireworks, and water fountains, along with gardens of medicinal herbs, laboratories, adding machines, and even including such sideshows as rope dancers, fire eaters, and “perilous leaps.” Plenty of the activities at this circus would also be purely scientific, but always surrounded by the aforementioned carnivalesque entertainments, which Leibniz obviously took great pleasure in imagining.
If it were my carnival, I’d probably go about it a bit differently. For me, philosophy has a great deal to do with the tension between objects and their qualities, and with the various forms of breakdown in this tension. I would want exhibits that shed light on these processes somehow. Probably the easiest to envisage at this point would involve the “Heideggerian” sort of breakdown of environmental equipment when we least expect it.
My thoughts about this are rough and green, but given the increasing frequency of my contacts with artists of various sorts, it’s probably just a matter of time before someone from the arts world comes and throws down the gauntlet and says: “we have backing for this, so what are your ideas?” And then I’ll have to turn my energies very suddenly in that direction. It feels almost inevitable.
TB: I can’t wait to see that eventual collaboration.
Meanwhile, at the end of Guerrilla Metaphysics, you wrote: “…although we have tried to undercut all claims for the preeminence of language in philosophy, it would still be important to know a thing or two about language even if it is no longer destined to play the starring role it has enjoyed for the past one hundred years.” I took that to mean that you still have some issues that you want to work out regarding the role of language in philosophy. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on these matters at this point in time.
GH: Heidegger famously distinguishes between the “ontological” and the “ontic.” The ontological is what pertains to being as such, while the ontic is that which is of relevance to specific beings.
What we saw during the very long Broadway run of the “linguistic turn” in philosophy was language elevated to an ontological role, with all philosophical problems reinterpreted as problems of language. Obviously, this is no longer allowed by object-oriented philosophy, which treats all objects as equally objects.
Nonetheless, our new ontological principle does not mean that all objects are equally interesting or important. We might say that language and aluminum cans are equally objects, but a philosophical exploration of aluminum cans is unlikely to bring much light into the world. Language, however, is an extremely interesting ontic topic even after being deprived of its ontological monarchy– just as Rome remains one very interesting city among others, even though it is no longer the center of the universe.
In this respect, language may still loom large in object-oriented philosophy even though it must be stripped of its transcendental-ontological constitutive power for everything else that exists.
TB: I understand that you’re working on a study of H.P. Lovecraft. What instigated that?
GH: Most readers discover Lovecraft in adolescence, but I never read a word of him until my late thirties. My reaction to reading him was not quite immediate, but when I finally reached “The Call of Cthulhu” and also “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (perhaps the most underrated Lovecraft tale), the effect was powerful and lasting.
As the years passed, I found that I was rereading the best Lovecraft stories almost compulsively. And I found that he had little in common with what is usually called “pulp” literature. I saw Lovecraft not just as very imaginative, but as a literary stylist of the highest caliber.
Then, when the original speculative realist group started in 2007, we were astonished to discover that while there were no shared philosophical heroes in the group, we had all read and adored Lovecraft, even Meillassoux in Paris.
I wanted to share my enthusiasm for Lovecraft by someday writing a book about him. Thanks to the experimental spirit of Zero Books, the chance arose much earlier than expected.
The American University in Cairo has generous research funding available, and thus I was able to spend a large part of the summer of 2011 in Providence, Lovecraft’s very formative home city, a place I had never been before. It’s important to see the hometowns of authors you’re writing about, I’ve found. You might not be able to put in words what you learn about the author from seeing the place where they were molded, but you can get a sense of the atmosphere– a glimpse of what they regarded as normalcy.
The atmosphere of Providence? Charming and a bit eerie. It’s more quiet than I expected, and also incredibly hilly, at least in Lovecraft’s part of town near the Brown University Campus.
Lovecraft is one of the greats in American literature. I don’t think it’s a stretch to put him in the same league as Poe, and I say that as something of a Poe-worshipper. And both Poe and Lovecraft are given too little credit as stylists. Everyone is in a rush to identify them as co-enthusiasts of “scary content.” But what they really have in common is style, a certain way of hinting and alluding to make things more horrible than if they were directly stated.
Poe is the more polished high-literary figure of the two, but if Lovecraft is slightly more awkward at times, he makes up for it with a vaster cosmic vision than Poe ever attempted.
TB: China Miéville is a writer who emerges as a character in Circus Philosophicus. Does his fiction figure importantly for you too?
GH: I met China at a Lovecraft event at Goldsmiths College in London, just one day before the inaugural Speculative Realism event, and we’ve occasionally corresponded since then and I’ve met him a few other times in London. He’s a well-spoken guy who makes a great impression. This may sound silly, but I met him without realizing how famous he was, so I asked him a dumb question: "Where can I find your books?" He answered graciously and humbly, but then I felt like an idiot on the way out of London when I saw his books all over Heathrow Airport.
I’ve read a number of China’s books. My overall favorite is probably The City and the City, which uses a superb idea that someone should have come up with a long time ago. It changed my experience of daily walks, as I often try to practice “seeing” and “unseeing” people to imagine what it would feel like. But my favorite individual feature of any of the novels is probably the magnificent descriptions of music in his debut novel, King Rat. You wouldn’t think that techno music could be described in words, but he pulls it off in that book. China has also written a treatise on international law with a strongly Marxist flavor, which is not as well known among his fans. He’s charismatic, smart as hell, and I’m glad he’s around. We’re not close personal friends, but he did enjoy being put on an oil platform in Circus Philosophicus, which was a bit of a prank on my part.
TB: In the chapter on Humor in Guerrilla Metaphysics, you wrote: “In this book, we will have to bypass the topic of dreams, despite its obviously promising connection with two of our central topics, simply because a reading of Freud in terms of object-oriented philosophy would require more than a few pages.” I’m wondering if you could at least provide a sketch of your approach to the subject.
GH: Allow me to begin with an anecdote. I didn’t read Freud until my senior year of college, largely because he is one of those authors, like Marx, where you feel (wrongly) as though you already know what they’re going to say, simply because they have permeated the culture. So, you grow up hearing that “Freud thinks everything is sex,” and it sounds too robotic, and so you don’t bother to read him. That was my own experience until I was 21 or 22 years old.
Then much to my surprise, I loved Freud. It was an immediate passion and a rather strong one. (Among other things, he was one of the best writers of the twentieth century in any genre, fiction included.) Along with the three works we read for class –On the Interpretation of Dreams and a couple of the case studies– I then spent the entire summer before graduate school reading pretty much nothing but Freud for three months.
But backing up to senior year, a gruff classmate of mine walked into my workplace on campus one day and asked what I thought of our Freud readings for class. I said I loved them passionately. His reaction was dismissive: “What? I thought you were a Heideggerian. What does it mean to say that a dream ‘is’ a wish-fulfillment?”
I didn’t have a good answer to his question, and of course I did agree with the anti-reductionist sentiment behind the question. But I somehow felt there was something different going on in Freud from the reduction part of it. For me it was more the reverse movement that was underway in Freud: a system of translations, not of reductions.
An easy object-oriented critique of Freud would go something like this: “Last night I dreamed that I was a harpooner. But this dream cannot be reduced to a wish for mighty phallic prowess. Instead, it might also refer to a desire for adventure on the high seas, or to have a remarkable object of quest in my life analogous to Captain Ahab’s White Whale. In many ways a harpoon is more interesting than genitals in the first place. Aside from that, the harpoon is a symbol resembling the trident, which through Poseidon is linked with horses and earthquakes. Indo-European anthropologists tell us further that earthquakes are connected symbolically with Such-and-Such and So-and-So, and these further symbols are more the meaning of the dream than any phallic connotations. Freud is wrong.” And so forth. And all these critiques have been made many times, yet they somehow fail to make Freud uninteresting.
We would have to say not just that the harpoon symbol in the dream is irreducible downward to its libidinal causes and irreducible upward to its systematic anthropological interrelations. This is true enough, but something more is going on as well.
First, there is the fact that the “phallic” aspect of the harpoon is already an overly specific translation of a rather amorphous libido, which Freud knew can cathect objects in many different ways.
Second, it may very well be the case that the harpoon does serve as a kind of substitute satisfaction for whatever frustrated impulses the dreamer is undergoing. This idea of indirect fulfillment is what made Freud one of the greats, opening up a vast field of psychoanalytic study covering all of human culture.
But I would say that they are not just substitute satisfactions. They soon become real ones. If you become an ace harpooner on board the Pequod and begin to take real pleasure in it, perhaps your Freudian analyst in the morning will trace this back to some sort of compensation for organic inadequacy, and perhaps your Jungian analyst in the afternoon will tell you about the harpoon archetype (which I doubt even exists in Jungian circles; this is a made-up example just for fun). But maybe what is really happening is that an erotic wish has been transformed into a self-fulfilling love of the harpooner’s career. And this leads me to a more basic idea that interests me in many different spheres.
There is a widespread tendency to think that if anything is moved in any way by ulterior impulses, then it must be entirely corrupted by those impulses. For instance, John Dean of Watergate fame came to lecture in Cairo six years ago. He was presenting himself to some extent as a hero for turning on the Nixon people and testifying against them in Congress. A rather cynical friend of mine said: “So what? He only did it to save his own skin.”
To which I should have replied: “So what to you too?” The fact that something is guided initially by self-interest does not reduce it utterly to that aspect. For example, the initial reasons for St. Thomas Aquinas becoming a Catholic may have been something petty like the wish to please his parents and be treated as a good boy. Well, that hardly matters, does it? The origins of a thing do not always contain its truth. Supposing young St. Thomas wanted to please his parents, then enjoyed the praise he received during his studies, who cares if these were his original motives for extreme piety? Over time, it became something much more. We could say that the original incentives lured him into the profession, but then the profession became much more to him than the original lures.
To give another example, about twenty years ago I dropped by a co-worker’s house after work. He had a number of ballet books on his coffee table, and in no way was he the ballet-loving type. I asked him about the books, and he candidly admitted that he had met a ballet dancer, found her extremely attractive, and was reading about ballet to impress her, out of purely sexual motives. He even chuckled about it in a way I found unpleasantly cynical.
Whether or not he succeeded with the young woman I don’t know, but I’m sure he went nowhere in his knowledge of ballet. But what if he had? Let’s say he had become fascinated by the books, forgotten the woman, and realized his vocation and become the world’s greatest expert on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” It wouldn’t really matter how crude his initial motives were, would it? Aristotle is very clear about this. We become good by imitating good people, meaning that we’re fakes and frauds in stage one, and become genuine only later. This is the main reason that it’s unfortunately difficult to trust young people, because they’re often at a stage of imitation or play-acting as a way of becoming the real thing, and you can never be sure if what you think you see before you is the genuine item, or just an assumed costume that will be reversed the next week under different impulses. Over time, we all become more and more who we are.
And so it is with desires, I think. The cynical approach would say something like: “Basically, all people care about is sex and power.” Perhaps at some stage that is more or less true of everyone, but the lust for sex and power can be transformed by a kind of alchemy into a love of harpoons, Catholicism, or ballet. This isn’t quite the same thing as “sublimation,” which still assumes a kind of dualism, with the libido lurking underwater and ballet a pristine Other that provides substitute satisfaction. Instead, I would say that the libido is in the ballet, which isn’t really sublimated at all, but simply a metamorphosis of the libido that has now become autonomous and self-contained.
The issue goes beyond dreams, and covers all transformation of one thing into another. I’m against the reduction of anything to its causes or foundations, but also against the idea that anything rises too far above those causes and foundations. A child can never be reduced to its parents, yet the child will always preserve a disturbing number of features and mannerisms from its parents. Do you ever cough and hear the sound of your father coughing, or recognize your mother’s eyes when you look in the mirror? It would be like if you transmute lead to gold, but then the gold is still somehow lead at the same time.
To go back to the original anecdote, where my gruff classmate mockingly asked what it means to say that a dream “is” a wish-fulfillment, I would turn this around and ask: how does a wish turn into a dream? That’s what I always loved about Freud: the fact that one thing always had the power to turn into another, especially if blocked or stymied.
TB: A final semi-articulate question, then. Where do you locate your hope(s) for transformation and change?
GH: In the avoidance of trench war, and that’s what insight always means. There is a tendency to set oneself in opposition to a certain position and attempt to annihilate it, as if that were the work of thought. “If only there weren’t so many stupid people who keep believing in irrational things like God, then everything would be OK.”; “If only people would stop clinging to the pathetic illusion that a self exists, then we would make real progress.” Look at the political sphere, and you’ll find some examples of this as well.
But the key to overcoming trench wars is not to compromise with some watery hybrid of the two. This will always secretly favor one of the two sides. The golden example of such a gesture is correlationism, which claims to “overcome” the idealist/realist opposition, but is really just idealism with some defense mechanisms built in. “We’re not idealists, we believe the self is always already outside itself in pointing at the world” (phenomenology); “We’re not idealists, we believe in the Real as an originary inassimilable trauma” (Fichte, Lacanians).
No, the way out of the trench war is usually to adopt openly the “old-fashioned” side that is being critiqued, while finding some way to flip it completely into something strange. I think of Cézanne in painting, who amidst the impressionist revolution found a way to retrieve the solidity of objects without relapsing into academicism, and in doing so he paved the way for cubism. In philosophy I think of Leibniz, who amidst the general assault on substantial forms in the new physics, and the general assault on multiplicity in Spinoza (who has been a bit too much in vogue lately), revived substantial forms and the multiplicity of individuals. Instead of merely extrapolating from the general modern critique and pushing it a step further, Leibniz like Cézanne gave us an unexpected reversal. This is the only way to win a trench war, otherwise you’re simply locked in a war of annihilation with an enemy defined as the evil that must be crushed so that things can turn out happy in the end.
Cézanne was really an impressionist, but he also understood what had been lost with the breakdown of three-dimensional pictorial space, and that forced him to discover an innovative way to render solidity simply because he had no other choice. Leibniz was really a modernist, but he had read Suárez like a fiend in his youth and understood how solid the Scholastics really were, and this led him to his strangely gorgeous retrieval of Aristotelo-Scholastic philosophy. These are my heroes: the people who look at first like throwbacks, but are actually more modern than the moderns, because instead of just tweaking daddy’s nose, they also preserve the ways in which daddy was right, and thus go further than the more overt radicals.
And that’s how it is with object-oriented philosophy, we hope. There has now been a long assault on objects, objectivity, essence, substance, and so forth. The cutting edge opposes these concepts and the supposedly gullible, oppressive patriarchs who champion them, and seems to think they are superstitions that must be put behind us forever. But history doesn’t work by putting things behind us forever. It puts things behind us for awhile, and then they resurface in some non-archaic form suited to the new conditions. Who really thought that pirates would return as a major threat to the world, for instance? Who in 1965 would have guessed that political Islam would reappear on stage, at a time when the Arab world was in a socialist and secular phase? Who could have thought in 1646 that someone was being born that very year who would write great philosophy by retrieving the substantial forms, which modern thought was supposed to have exterminated? If you want to see the future, look for the supposedly naïve theories that have just been debunked, and try to figure out some futuristic way to modify them so that they would be feasible under the new conditions without being mere relapses.
And let me just add that I’m not sure how this would apply to the present political situation, which is one reason I’ve kept a certain distance from it (I’m against Badiou’s conception of philosopher-as-militant, refreshing though it may be after decades of deconstruction). What is the truth here? Was Marx wrongly thought to have been refuted in 1989, and is now returning from the dead in novel and highly pertinent form? Or is it that the protestors, in letting their prefixes do the thinking for them (“neo”-liberalism), are missing the inner truth and greatness of liberalism?
There is undeniably a certain banality to the world in our time, a demoralizing commercial hustle. But I’m extremely suspicious of the near-unanimity that prevails in political views in world intellectual circles right now. The price of admission to these circles is a series of expected denunciations that reassure everyone that you’re on their team. This is why I don’t respond immediately to demands to provide a politics of OOO, because I suspect that I’m just being asked to provide the usual, predictable denunciations, just as if I were being ordered to wear a flannel shirt and beard stubble at a grunge music party. That’s not intellectual debate, that’s just group solidarity, and I don’t care how good you think your group is– group solidarity is not a form of thinking.
For example, I’m writing this response from Istanbul, where I saw the 2011 Biennale yesterday. The theme was art and politics, and I was disappointed to find that all the political messages were exactly the same! Everything is America’s fault, Israel’s fault, capitalism’s fault. So, is the answer really that easy, and all we need to do is join forces to fight all the stupid and greedy corporate interests that prevent the truth from prevailing? Maybe, but this smells too much like trench war to me. It looks too much like the very “failure of imagination” of which everyone is so quick to accuse the current system.
There’s a wise old saying: don’t become worse than what you’re fighting. I would put a twist on that and say: don’t become less imaginative than what you’re fighting. This is the big danger for the political Left right now. I’m not interested in its moralistic self-congratulation, but only in what it can build. This is why I loved Žižek’s speech at the Occupy Wall Street protest; he hit the spot and said exactly what needed to be said. Maybe this Left will be able to build quite a lot. We will soon find out, because they are probably on the verge of seizing the upper hand. What is now called neo-liberalism is a little over thirty years old: the California property tax revolt in 1978, Thatcher in 1979, Reagan in 1980. Like any way of looking at the world, it has turned into a robotic application of clichés and no longer seems to be up to the challenge. We are about to undergo a big Leftward swing. When that happens, let’s see what people can do other than critique and oppose. They’ll have about thirty years of leeway before they start to become completely banal themselves, and then we’ll swing in the other direction again in about 2045, just as my own life is coming to a close.