The Democracy of Objects: Derrida and Dinosaurs

More or less, I started reading Derrida because of dinosaurs. I was twenty-three. I’d spent two years as the Mormon equivalent of an itinerant monk, celibate, media-less, begging bowl in hand, white shirt yellowing, bike peddles peddling, 24/7. I was pretty serious and I had a lot of questions.

Christianity and postmodernity look like an odd couple at first but, more and more, it seems to me that the seriousness of contemporary, conservative, American Christianity has come to depend on the kind of supplemental epistemological anti-realism that postmodernism keeps stocked on its shelves. Some of this dependence is thoughtful and intentional, much of it isn’t.

Christianity and postmodernity are cozy bed-fellows because their liaison allows us to build creationist museums. Only a trenchant and thorough-going “hermeneutics of suspicion” could give us enough space to squeeze Adam, Eve, dinosaurs, Noah’s flood, and a couple billion years of evolutionary history into the same room while keeping a straight face.

The transcendent creator-God of classical Western theism was getting squeezed off-stage by the critical suspicions of a secular hermeneutics. It was only fair to turn these suspicions around and critique secularism’s own assumptions about the world as an unbroken field of immanence. Voila! With great effect, the field of immanence is broken and a big, slippery, epistemological gap opens up. The space of this doubtful ignorance is, then, the space in which Christianity can set up its shop of faith. This black hole becomes the refuge of transcendence. There is nothing here to oppose or mitigate God’s word. If it’s not in the Bible (or the Book of Mormon!), it gets tossed under the bus. It’s a bumpy road, but it feels like we’re making progress.

We’ve had a good roll in the hay, but I don’t think this relationship is meant to last. Rather than being helpmeets for each other, we’re more and more like co-dependent enablers. And I’m pretty sure our previous girlfriends are no longer waiting around. Neoplatonism and Thomistic scholasticism have already moved on. They’re now happily married to History rather than Religion.

What, then? It won’t be easy, but to manage this break-up we’re going to have to learn how to sincerely say: “It’s not you, it’s me.”  Or, more honestly, we’ll have to confess that “the problem is that I think this relationship is all about me!” In academic vernacular, we’re going to have to stop assuming that philosophy must, as it has since Descartes, begin with the subject. We’re going to have to stop assuming that philosophy must begin with epistemology (how “I” know things) rather than with metaphysics (how things are).

This is the great, salutary contribution of Levi Bryant’s recently published book, The Democracy of Objects. This book is what the future of philosophy looks like.

Working along the same lines as Graham Harman’s “object-oriented” approach to philosophy (though, I think, with greater success), Bryant’s work is an attempt to transpose the most valuable philosophical insights of postmodernity out of an anti-realist epistemological register and into an ontological one. The key to this transposition is his highly original account of objects and the robust but original brand of realism that follows from it.

On Bryant’s own account, the aim of The Democracy of Objects is to finally “think a subjectless object, or an object that is for-itself rather than an object that is an opposing pole before or in front of a subject” (19).

The phalanx of operationally-ready objections to such a project are legion. We’ve been stockpiling this kind of ammunition in the West for the last 400 years. But Bryant’s work addresses these objections directly and he offers persuasive arguments for a fundamental shift in how we approach basic philosophical questions in our post-postmodern age.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll offer a series of posts that engage the nuts and bolts of Bryant’s project and reflect, in particular, on their significance for thinking about religious questions.

In the meanwhile, you may as well get a copy of your own. You’ve already read Derrida. And those dinosaurs aren’t going anywhere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Couch/754868806 Robert Couch

    Thanks for this, Adam. I’m hoping to get to Levi’s book, but it won’t happen before summer, at the earliest, so these posts will be a good tide over, and good preparation.

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  • http://hewhocutsdown.blogspot.com hewhocutsdown

    It’s not perfect, but it is a fantastic introduction to object-oriented materialism/onticology.

  • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net/blog/ geoffh

    Adam,

    Thanks for this post. Looking forward to future engagements with Bryant’s book.
    Two questions (as one just beginning to get in on Speculative Realism and OOO):

    1) Why do you think Bryant’s work is more successful than Harman’s (esp. since Harman is so prolific recently)? Why is Bryant a better place to start? If you are going to cover this later in your posts then I’ll happily wait for the answers there.

    2) How is Bryant’s “subjectless object” related to Badiou’s “objectless subject”? Are they different aspects of a similar project, or opposed projects.

    Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=871940056 Phil Snider

    Thanks for this post. It reminds me of why Caputo (rightly I think) says that the post in postmodern shouldn’t be understood as being over and done with modernism, but rather conveys a sort of passing through modernism, “so there is no danger of the emergence of an irrational relativistic left, on the one hand, or of lapsing back into a conservative pre-modernism masquerading under the guise of postmodernism, on the other” (On Religion, 60-61).

  • http://twitter.com/walrusmuse dustin ragland

    It might be playing to what are here being rendered old questions, but would love to see this in dialogue with Buber’s I and Thou, and perhaps, though I haven’t read it yet (other than the intro), Stanley Grenz’s The Named God and The Question Of Being (which he calls a Theo-Ontology).

  • Adam Miller

    Geoff, good questions. I’ll offer a couple of quick responses that I hope to fill out as we go along.

    1. I prefer Bryant’s account of OOO in two respects: (a) I think his (crucial) account of what it means for an object to be “withdrawn” is sharper and more useful than Harman’s, and (b) perhaps mostly as a matter of taste, I prefer to work as Bryant does with the Frenchy Deleuze/Lacan paradigm rather than with Harman’s Heidegger.

    2. There is, I think, a very interesting relationship between the two. In EE, Badiou does all that long, complicated work with set theory so that, in the end, he can THEN offer an account of a finally “objectless subject” as a subject coupled with an event rather than an object – but I think all that initial stuff with a set theoretical ontology essentially plays out as a highly formal version of a “subjectless ontology of objects.” That might be place to start. Levi, though, probably also has his own ideas about how this works, especially with Logic of Worlds, which I haven’t spent much time with.

  • Adam Miller

    PS, anyone interested can find Open Humanities’ free PDF of the whole book here:

    http://openhumanitiespress.org/democracy-of-objects.html

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