Graham Harman’s Circus Philosophicus is that rarest of beasts, a philosophical treatise that is also deeply personal. Although it seems to have been intended both as an approachable explication of Harman’s object-oriented ontology and as an attempt to restore mythic vision to the philosophical tradition, it is simultaneously a slightly fictionalised account of the author’s personal journey both through life and throughout the world. As such, it is currently a one-of-a-kind work – as short as the most restrained scholarly essay yet written in an accessible, narrative style that feels oddly comfortable.
The book is comprised of seven myths – six philosophical metaphors constructed to illuminate elements of Harman’s object-oriented thinking, and one final myth concerning the origin of the book. There is a slightly uneven quality to the chapters, in that the direction of the book transforms from distant to intimate. The opening myth, The Ferris Wheel, concerns a colossal structure presented as a thought experiment, and constitutes the most memorable image that the book has to offer. Unfortunately, the connection with the philosophical model it represents is let down by serving the principle role of disputing other people’s models – namely Alfred Whitehead and Bruno Latour – and as such a reader not already somewhat familiar with ontology (the field which studies the nature of existence) is likely to be left quite uncertain what they are being shown.
However, the second myth changes the style directly into a more biographical context, which is retained for the rest of the book. The story embedded within this tale of love lost is a Dante-inspired, Hieronymus Bosch-esque fantasy in which the devils of hell throw the pre-Socratic philosophers off a bridge into a pool of molten lead as one by one they fail to meet the challenge set before them. Even if one is unfamiliar with Greek philosophy, there is a charm to the way the fable unfolds that helps raise the appeal of the book above its slightly distanced opening. Harman is revealed here, more than anywhere else in the book, as being more than just a collection of thoughts and ideas. He is shown to be human.
The reader is taken both around the world and throughout the history of the Western philosophical tradition as the various myths are presented in turn. Leibniz’s ideas are connected to a macabre mechanical organ in India; Husserl is vindicated via a ghost story on a Japanese ferry; and Latour – the “enemy” of the first myth, appears as a friend and colleague in the Parisian reverie of the last. There is also a rather curious tale of Harman and science fiction author China Miéville marooned on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane. This chapter begins with a recitation of the autopsy of the Elder Thing from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, which despite being entirely out of place seems to fit into the tempo of the work with baroque ease.
I confess to being quite beguiled by the whole endeavour by the time I reached the end of its incredibly short 83 pages, and the afterward – a larger than life account of the origins of the book – is far harder to believe than some of the myths themselves, despite being presented as purely factual! My chief reservation in recommending the book is the uncertainty as to who might enjoy it – since I am far from certain that anyone with no prior experience of ontology will be able to extract anything useful about Harman’s model without having invested in some of his other books. Here again I have a concern, since key terms in Harman’s work, such as tool-being, are referenced only in passing, yet surely the audience for this book should not be expected to have read his earlier, heavier treatises?
But perhaps the point of attempting to “restore myth to its central place in the discipline” (as the blurb states) is to allow some hint of philosophical thinking to be expressed in a manner far more easily grasped. This surely was part of what motivated Plato to use allegory and mythic image in so many of his works. Harman’s myths are perhaps less enduring than Plato’s, and certainly less bold than Nietzsche’s, but they are timely and charmingly presented. I can think of no greater praise than my fervent hope that Circus Philosophicus will encourage other modern philosophers to eschew the arid formalism of the academy and adapt their ideas for a wider audience via allegory and fable. And if it does not, then it can be enjoyed all the more as an oddity, a curio shop for the curious, and, indeed, a circus of ideas.
Graham Harman's Circus Philosophicus is published by Zer0 Books, ISBN 978-1-84694-400-0. ~ Chris Bateman, Zero author, on his website, http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2011/03/circus-philosophicus.html