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.