Today’s New APPS interview is with Graham Harman, Professor of Philosophy and Associate Provost for Research Administration at the American University in Cairo.
Thanks very much for doing this interview with us today, Graham. Let’s start with some general questions about the affective side of things. What are the pleasures and pains of philosophy for you? How do you experience solitary study and writing, collaborative writing, camaraderie at conferences?
Here I’m a split personality. On the one hand I spend tremendous amounts of time alone, and even require this for basic sanity. I have many thoughts to sort out, and can’t do it when I’m having too many conversations. For example, I rarely make telephone calls. So I have a very introverted side in that respect. You probably have to, if you’re writing a lot.
Yet on the other hand, many people have described me as outgoing, friendly, a builder of networks, and so forth. This is also true. Tremendous energies can be unleashed if you simply encourage other people in what they are doing and feed off the energies they are already unleashing, rather than trying to impose your will on them through critique or any sort of high-handed negation.
If someone has an interesting idea, I try to build on it by linking it to something I’m doing myself, and then suddenly you have a temporary partnership that takes you somewhere you never expected. That’s why I like university administrative work more than you might expect. People receive encouragement from others too rarely, and I like to give it to them as much as I can.
Let’s narrow the temporal focus a bit. What is your daily practice of philosophy? Do you have a set routine?
How do you get yourself in the mood to do philosophy?
One habit that has emerged over the past half-decade is that most of my work is done in response to requests. Now that I have a readership, I receive plenty of invitations to lecture or contribute articles, which wasn’t true six or seven years ago. As a general rule I say “yes” to almost everything if I can; the word “no” feels like a power trip and a killjoy maneuver (“my time is more important than your project”), or like a petty angel of death. So my default response is “yes.” And once you’ve said yes, you don’t want to let people down by not delivering the promised goods, and that’s a tremendous motivator. But it’s finally getting to be too much, and soon I may have to force myself to refuse requests and focus on fewer but larger projects.
How about diet? I’m very interested in how different people set up their material practices, how they adapt them to their practice of philosophy.
Yes, you and Nietzsche in Ecce Homo! I’m interested in these things too. As for diet, I’ve been a vegetarian since age 7, so that far predates my philosophical life and may not be directly related to it. Otherwise, I’m afraid my routine is not very healthy and shouldn’t be imitated: when writing effectively I tend to smoke a lot of apple shisha in Cairo cafés (though I loathe cigarettes and never touch them), and I also eat too much sugar. From time to time I break both habits, but they return whenever I have a lot of writing to do. These bad habits provide the needed energy bursts.
What about music?
You may be surprised: it’s almost always techno. The simplistic vocals or outright lack of vocals in techno is beneficial, since voices distract us while thinking. And the repetition and quasi-industrial character of the genre has a strange naturalness to it, like the rhythm of breathing or heartbeats. My workspace is either silent, or else it sounds like a dance club at 2 A.M.: one of the two, depending on the mood of the day. Guerrilla Metaphysics may as well have been written in the middle of a rave in some Detroit warehouse, given the amount of electronic dance music I listened to while writing the book. And sometimes I will listen to the same track 75 or 80 times in a row, so that it becomes like the repetitive crashing of the waves or the humming of cicadas.
How did you come to study philosophy?
At age 16 I sat down one chilly October night, read the whole encyclopedia article on “Philosophy,” and realized my vocation.
Wow. Sounds like a classic tale of a sudden awakening!
There’s a bit of pre-history to the story, however, stemming from my unusual family background. My parents are full-blown 1960’s hippies. My father is a member of the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (yes, it exists), and my parents met at a Rolling Stones show in Chicago, with my father pretending afterward to be Mick Jagger to his future in-laws, fake accent and all. Our household guests during my childhood were long-haired minor rock stars, a few of whom eventually died of drug overdoses. And there were hoboes as well, since my father was a film student for awhile and filmed hoboes as his thesis project, leading him to strike up friendships with several of them. The Hardrock Kid, eventually elected as “King of the Hoboes,” would occasionally sleep on our couch, and was especially beloved by Juniper, our family dog. But Hardrock destroyed himself through alcoholism.
Not quite “carnivalesque,” but still it sounds like you met a wide range of folks.
I mention this to indicate that my parents not only tolerated, but even encouraged bohemian approaches to living and thinking. The meaning of “philosophy” came up a number of times in conversations at home, though neither of my parents had studied the subject seriously.
But in fact, it was my mother who sensed my vocation a few years earlier than I did. She more or less forcibly enrolled me in a pair of philosophy courses in my early teenaged years, with memorable persistence in the face of my indifference, though both philosophy courses were misfires for me at the time.
The first was a workshop for 7th and 8th graders on Plato’s dialogues, taught by a local college professor. We did the usual Apology, Crito, Phaedo sequence. At age 14 I’m afraid it bored me, and I didn’t feel like I had any especial talent for it. It all felt boring and arbitrary to me at 14. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said that I was unimpressed by Socrates’ pious-sounding discussions of justice and virtue. It seemed like a boring dead end leading only to insincere platitudes. This may be why it wasn’t until my thirties that I really started to love Plato.
A delayed reaction, then. Sounds about right.
The second course was a night workshop on philosophy of law, led by a very popular local high school teacher named Mr. Peters. I think I was 15 years old for that one. This interested me a bit more, but still not that much more. We discussed questions like: “Three people were marooned in a lifeboat, and two of them cannibalized the other. Should they be found guilty of murder?” Somewhat intriguing, but nothing I felt moved to build my life on.
OK, tell us about this encyclopedia article!
In that article, philosophy was presented as the rise and decline of speculative systems of thought throughout the course of history. And that interested me a lot more than what I’d seen in the two teenaged courses. I’ve never been attracted to philosophy as a discipline based on arguments with other people in the name of the cumulative amassing of specialized insight. What really drew me were the big names who gambled on systematic and often bizarre views of the cosmos, each of them inevitably fading as the limitations of their positions became clear, but always leaving something of value behind.
I know you take issue with his metaphysics of the virtual, but Deleuze has the same taste for grand speculative systems (Spinoza, Leibniz, Bergson).
Perhaps, but I’m thinking now of a wonderful essay by Brentano on “The Four Phases of Philosophy.” There he says that philosophy is in some ways like natural science with its cumulative acquisition of truths, and in other ways like the history of art with its alternating periods of ripeness and decadence. The admirers of Brentano trained in analytic philosophy tend to ignore the latter aspect and focus on how philosophy should become more scientific, by which they mean something like a Kuhnian “normal science” of micro-breakthroughs expressed in focused professional journal articles.
But I tend to see the history of philosophy more in the art history way: not because philosophy is an art rather than a science, but because I think even science is most interesting when viewed as alternating periods of ripeness and decay. Yes, we “know more” in physics today than they did from 1905-1929. But think of how much more interesting a period that was for science!
That’s a wonderful way to put it: “alternating periods of ripeness and decay.”
That’s what I got from the encyclopedia article at age 16: a sense that there have been truly great periods in human speculation, and that there will probably be more such periods. Philosophy no longer seemed to me like a series of wheel-spinning disagreements in which the pushiest person always wins (I have a nearly visceral reaction against aggressive arguers and one-uppers, since it is they above all who make the weaker argument appear the stronger). Slow and silent contemplation and individual risk-taking now seemed like an important part of the mix in philosophy. From then onward, I was obsessed with reading the very best philosophers who have ever lived and learning how they did it. And not only philosophers: also people who did big and risky things. The history of science was one area that provided many lessons in this respect.
We’ve talked about your adolescence, but can you now tell us a little about your childhood? Did you move around a lot, or mostly live in the same place?
I was born in Iowa City, a fine university town. But I grew up in a small town 20 miles to the north called Mt. Vernon, and strongly disliked it at the time. It had 3,000 residents in those days (4,000 now). 1,000 of those were students at Cornell College, with which my family had no connection. Mt. Vernon was simply where my father grew up, and he liked the idea of his three sons growing up there as well. It isn’t a typical Iowa town, since it is hilly with brick streets and also culturally New Englandish thanks to the college faculty, rather than flat and agricultural like most nearby towns. Over time I’ve learned to appreciate many things about Mt. Vernon, but my early memories of the place are mostly unhappy. I felt trapped in the middle of nowhere, to the point that even a night road-trip to Missouri at age 12 was a euphoric adventure that I still treasure in memory. To this day I feel somewhat claustrophobic without regular journeys to the seaside, and indeed without constant roving across the planet as a whole.
How about school? Were you bookish, artsy, athletic as a child?
In those years the teachers thought I was a bright student, but I never did especially well in school. I suppose I was the “creative slacker” type, at least from adolescence onward. None of the subjects in school interested me much. Even after I was struck by the philosophy lightning-bolt at age 16, it simply made me an even more indifferent student as concerns normal course assignments. I didn’t actually read very much from ages 10 through 16, so I doubt I was bookish. I loved sports but wasn’t a good athlete, though I did have a good long-range jump shot in basketball and was a reasonably good passer as a soccer midfielder. Music was one thing I succeeded at, carrying on the family tradition. I played saxophone well enough to win a number of high school awards, though I’m afraid I haven’t touched the instrument in well over a decade. I’ve simply become too busy. But whenever I run across acquaintances from the 1980’s, usually the first thing they ask is if I’m still playing music.
What about undergraduate days: where did you go to university?
St. John’s College, my freshman year at the Santa Fe campus and the final three years in Annapolis. As soon as I discovered the college, just before senior year in high school, there was no question where I would study. It was the perfect undergraduate life for me: almost no tests, papers only on interesting topics, and four years of reading the best works that have ever been written in both the humanities and the sciences. The only thing I didn’t like is that it’s very much a talker’s college, dominated by students who find it easy to articulate their thoughts in speech, which I never did back then. At that age I was a bit tongue-tied, slow to formulate my ideas. Writing was easier for me. As a result, St. John’s was an environment in which I flourished internally but not always externally. For this reason some of my teachers there expected important work from me in the future, while others thought I was a puzzle. I probably wasn’t even sure myself how things would turn out.
What about graduate school: who were your most influential teachers?
Alphonso Lingis, who is still one of the most fascinating human personalities I’ve encountered after all these years. In continental philosophy circles his work is certainly respected, but he’s also treated by the SPEP mainstream as a sort of domesticated eccentric, the subject of a stock fund of anecdotes that are usually amusing though they also miss the point. I don’t think everyone appreciates what an exceptional personality Lingis is– surely one of the most interesting intellectuals alive in the United States at this moment on a human level. He’s also a stunning prose stylist, and just from spending time with him you want to write better. But above all, he has a childlike capacity to become interested in almost anything. His own self disappears and he becomes completely absorbed in whatever it is that fascinates him.
Your closest friends?
Paul Schafer, who was my roommate in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago for two years, and who now teaches at Xavier University in New Orleans. Our combined music collections complemented each other well, though we missed a golden opportunity in the 1990’s to buy d.j. equipment and mix our own music. We could have been a spectacular dj’ing duo, though I was also occupied by sportswriting in those years.
What was the atmosphere like at your schools: friendly, competitive, stimulating, stressful?
The atmosphere at Penn State, where I did my M.A., was mildly hostile circa 1990 (though they say it became even worse later on). Some of the faculty hated each other, and one of them even hated the students to some extent. The latter gentleman called me into his office one day and gave the following speech: “I saw you with Student X. He’s a French postmodernist. He thinks I’m the incarnation of the devil. Don’t believe anything he says.” He then proceeded to denounce various colleagues in the department and the profession at large with words like “insane,” “gasbag,” “useless,” etc. On another occasion I was in charge of the colloquium series, and the same professor put in my mailbox a grateful acceptance letter from one of his friends—though we had never invited the friend! But not everyone was that crazy, and the students were very bright.
At DePaul, where I did my Ph.D., the atmosphere was basically positive and liberating, except for one difficult individual who skewed the psychological space towards darkness.
Otherwise, DePaul let us work on whatever we wanted to work on, and after the no-elective years of St. John’s classicism, that’s what I wanted: to work as I wished only on very contemporary philosophers. I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time, however, because I was wrapped up in grad school Angst and saw more negatives than were actually there.
What did you do for your dissertation?
Tool-Being, which became my first book. As you know, it’s an unorthodox look at Heidegger’s tool-analysis, which it pushes in the direction of a speculative metaphysics.
I read it quickly when it first came out, but have gone back to it for a more careful reading in the last year along with Jon Cogburn. We spent some very enjoyable afternoons going over some sections line-by-line. But this isn’t the venue for too much discussion of the fine points. Let’s continue with the chronology. Where was your first job?
I’m still there: the American University in Cairo. And what a job! Now we’ve even had a revolution this year.
It made a bit of splash in the media! How do you think it will impact AUC?
It’s too early to say, though the immediate impact isn’t hard to explain. If we were still located on Tahrir Square (as we were from 1919-2008 before moving to New Cairo, east of the city), there would be more complications since protests and shutdowns are ongoing. AUC’s Tahrir campus, now used mostly for continuing education and for advanced Arabic and some graduate classes, couldn’t reopen for three weeks after the Revolution.
As for the job, I greatly enjoy teaching here. The students do tend to come from the upper classes, given that we charge American-style tuition rates, but there are also quite a number of scholarship students as well. Egyptian students have different strengths and weaknesses from American students, but there’s so much intellectual talent in this country. I am overjoyed at the prospect that a new system of government might be able to unlock that talent and maybe bring home portions of the talented Egyptian diaspora– people who never saw enough opportunity at home in Egypt until now.
That’s something for all of us to hope for! Let’s continue with your story. What were your first publications?
My first publications were all Chicago sports articles for a long-since bankrupt company based in Silicon Valley, written from 1996-98 during my dissertation years. The highlight was asking a question at a post-game press conference in the United Center that made Bobby Knight very angry. In response to my question he cussed out the President of the University of Minnesota, who “made [Knight] want to vomit” and “hadn’t cared about the kids since… Christ was in Omaha,” apparently the first appearance of a strange catchphrase that Knight continued to use for the rest of that season.
Ha! Anyone who gets Bobby Knight mad is okay in my book! What about philosophy pieces?
My first philosophy piece was also my breakout piece: Tool-Being, the book. It’s basically the same work as the dissertation, though I changed the subtitle, rewrote nearly every sentence for stylistic purposes, and added the sections on Dreyfus and Žižek.
It was published in 2002, by which time I was already 34 years old, without even a single philosophy article to my name before then. Most of the continental presses had no time for the book. It was eventually published only because of a positive review at Open Court from a hardcore analytic philosopher (I shouldn’t name him without permission, but you’ve surely heard of him). It was an unexpected lesson: the SPEP Heideggerians wouldn’t have anything to do with me, but a famously harsh analytic philosopher strongly recommended publication. I owe him a great deal.
Speaking of those kinds of crossovers, the relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict? Are there signs of a rapprochement? What suggestions do you have to overcome this division in the profession?
First, I think it’s premature to say that the analytic/continental divide is being bridged. Notice that this is usually said by analytic philosophers who think that if a few of their analytic friends write books on Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty while employed at blue-chip institutions, the divide has been ended. But there are real cultural and even behavioral differences among practitioners of the two types of philosophy that must not be denied.
And moreover, why do people even want to unify the two kinds of philosophy? I’m a realist who believes in one reality, but it doesn’t follow that there should be only one kind of theory about reality. The world is subtle and mysterious and enough that we probably ought to increase the schools of philosophy, not compress them back into one sort of philosophy-in-general. Rather than unify analytic and continental philosophy, my goal is the opposite: I want to fragment continental philosophy into ten or more warring camps. Now that would be interesting: “Multiply the schools, and let God sort them out.” By this I mean that the ultimate criterion of excellence in philosophy is standing the test of time, not ripping other schools to shreds in an argument. No one finds it scandalous that there are millions of animal species rather than one, yet we’re supposed to be bothered that continental philosophy continues an independent life apart from the flotilla of “mainstream” philosophy. If there’s anything we need, it’s increased philosopher biodiversity.
Let a thousand schools bloom!
To put it in a formula, I’m interested in seeing more cross-fertilization between analytic and continental philosophy, but not the least bit interested in “unifying” the two. Projects of unification are usually hegemonic forays by the stronger party as it tries to crush all resistance beneath its heels. And in the Anglophone world, we in the continental tradition are obviously not the stronger party. So let’s not fall for any unificationist programs.
Good, I like that, “cross-fertilization” rather than “unification.” What about identity and difference in your own career? Have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
One core idea: the world is made up of individuals, and they are inexpressible in any sort of relation whatever, whether causal or epistemic. Not only do we humans not grasp things in their depth– the things do not even make contact with each other, but only with masks or caricatures of each other. This has been my position since my late twenties, from 1997 onward. (I’ve told the story in other interviews and won’t repeat it here.)
Yes, it’s a wonderfully challenging and important idea. I’m really looking forward to grappling with it even more explicitly in the future. As we move to a conclusion, what would you say is the most rewarding experience of your professional life? What was the most frustrating?
The most rewarding is writing books. Each book is a surprise and a spur to intellectual growth, and brings me into contact with a new crop of readers working on different things. I’d feel lost if I weren’t working on a book at any given time.
As for the most frustrating things in our profession, it is better not to dwell on them. We’re all growing old very quickly, so let’s enjoy of academia what we can.
Yes, I’m always happy to sign on to affirmation and positivity! So in that spirit, what are you looking forward to doing next? What are your short and long-term projects?
At present I have two more books under contract: one is called Treatise on Objects and the other is called Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy.
Looking a few years down the line, I plan to do what everyone in philosophy hopes to do at some point: put all of my best ideas in one book and weave them together in an especially convincing way. This project has gone through several provisional titles, but the current one is Infrastructure. It’s a metaphor I like a great deal. A “system” of philosophy tries to cover the entire world with a gridwork from the start. But an infrastructure, as in the case of light rail or subway systems, starts by serving major population centers and builds slowly outward as budget constraints and engineering breakthroughs allow.
I see philosophy as an infrastructure rather than a system because I think as a philosopher you have to build on your surprises. That is to say, we all have opinions about pretty much every topic, and most of our opinions about most things are mediocre viewpoints no different from those upheld by everyone else who reads the same newspapers we do. Only here and there does each of us have flashes of individual insight, and I think surprise is what alerts us to these moments. Don’t tell me you aren’t surprised by something and knew it all along; that’s just boring self-congratulation. Instead, write a book about all the things you were surprised by in your researches, and then work to link those surprises together one by one, trying to discover what holds them all together, hidden from sight. That’s what infrastructure means in the philosophical context.
But I also hope to find some new intellectual interests that are completely unforeseen. Maybe a sudden intellectual passion will force me to learn a new language unexpectedly. Or maybe I will become enthusiastic about some new author or discipline and end up completely transformed. Or maybe I’ll have another of those big intellectual shocks like I had at 16 or 29, and all bets will be off.