IT – and I will interrupt the continuity of this post in the very first sentence to say that I, at least, refuse to identify the semi-autonomous heteronym, Infinite Thought, with the semi-autonomous philosopher, Nina, so this is about IT – recently wrote a post that makes an oblique but telling point against the current fashion for returning to things as they are via some kind of speculative realist ontology. As she notes, this gesture seems to go along with a taste for a politics that is so catastrophic as to be an excuse for no politics.
“proliferating ontologies is simply not the point - further, what use is it if it simply becomes a race to the bottom to prove that every entity is as meaningless as every other (besides, the Atomists did it better). Confronting 'what is' has to mean accepting a certain break between the natural and the artificial, even if this break is itself artificial. Ontology is play-science for philosophers; I'm pretty much convinced when Badiou argues that mathematics has better ways of conceiving it than philosophy does and that, besides, ontology is not the point. What happens, or what does not happen, should be what concerns us: philosophers sometimes pride themselves on their ignorance of world affairs, again like watered-down Heideggarians, no matter how hostile they think they are to him, pretending that all that history and politics stuff is so, like, ontic, we're working on something much more important here.”
Being the Derridean type, I expect that any attempt to create another, better ontology will produce the kinds of double binds that Derrida so expertly fished out of phenomenology. There have been a lot of replies to I.T.'s post. I thought the most interesting one was by Speculative Heresy, because he makes it clear that Speculative Realism is a return to a distinction that was popular among the analytic philosophers in the 50s, where a value neutral view of philosophy as a technique supposedly precluded the relevance of any political conclusions from conceptual analysis, and at worst blocked the advance of philosophy as a science. Here, the part of the natural is played by the question, which apparently asks itself in the void:
“Which is to say that philosophy and politics are born of two different questions: ‘what is it?’ and ‘what to do?’ The latter, political, question need never concern itself with the former question.”
IT rightly sees this reverence for the question in itself, and its supposedly fortunate alignment with the disciplines we all know and love, with their different mailboxes in the university, as a very Heideggerian gesture. And, as an empirical fact of intellectual history, it is very curious to think that a discipline is “born” from a syntactical unit peculiar to certain languages. Again, we run into a very old thematic, in which the question giving "birth" is entangled in the parallel series of logos and the body, in which each becomes a privileged metaphor for the other. There's nothing more political than this.
Still, when IT refers to Badiou, I – as always – baulk. On the one hand, it seems that she is taking Badiou to be reprising Quine’s pythagorianism, and on the other hand – from what I have read of Badiou – I have never quite understood why set theory or Dedekind's cut gives us an ontology that is purified of its double binds, of its perennial failure to shuck its textuality.
It isn't that I am wholly unsympathetic. To return not to Descartes but to Newton - the Newton of the glorious letters on the theory of light and color, with his attack on the whole idea of hypotheses - strikes me as a valid project. In the letter to Pardies, Newton writes,in response to Pardies attribution of his theory to a hypothesis:
"Tis true, that from my Theory I argue the Corporeity of Light; but I do it without any absolute positiveness, as the word perhaps intimates; and make it at most but a very plausible consequence of the Doctrine, and not a fundamental Supposition, nor so much as any part of it; which was wholly comprehended in the precedent Propositions. And I somewhat wonder, how the Objector could imagine, that, when I had asserted the Theory with the greatest rigour, I should be so forgetful as afterwards to assert the fundamental supposition it self with no more than a perhaps. Had I intended any such Hypothesis, I should somewhere have explain'd it. But I knew, that the Properties, which I declar'd of Light, were in <5087> some measure capable of being explicated not only by that, but by many other Mechanical Hypotheses. And therefore I chose to decline them all, and to speak of Light in general terms, considering it abstractly, as something or other propagated every way in streight lines from luminous bodies, without determining, what that Thing is; whether a confused Mixture of difform qualities, or Modes of bodies, or of Bodies themselves, or of any Virtues, Powers, or Beings whatsoever. And for the same reason I chose to speak of Colours according to the information of our Senses, as if they were Qualities of Light without us."
That is a decisive blow struck for an ontology of the variable, which is a tittilating thought. But I think IT retreats, here, from her more interesting insight into politics by holding that an ontology taken "care of" by mathematics is not political.
While it may seem that we are rowing away from politics, we are really rowing towards it. After all, what is the ‘catastrophe’ of the moment but a prevision of the wreck of our models, the main effects of our side effects. It is, after all, the success of the model in physics that has been the motive force and prompt of the proliferation of the model in economics. And it is here that one would like to see speculative realism show some teeth. One would like it to encounter Stanford nominalism – the work of the pupils of Patrick Suppes (John Dupre, Ian Hacking, Peter Galison and Nancy Cartwright). This school does have a distinct political orientation – or at least Dupre, Hacking and Galison seem to me to be close to a Foucaultian left.
Finally, I am putting this post about IT’s post on Limited Inc., instead of my News From the Zona blog, because of this part of her post: “Confronting 'what is' has to mean accepting a certain break between the natural and the artificial, even if this break is itself artificial.” I am using psychoactive substances not only because, as Mintz has argued, sugar – and I think you could extend this to tobacco - was the commodity around which the factory structure first takes hold, but also because the built environments of modernity exist not only in the streets we walk in but form part of the very bloodstream of our bodies. Our mood alteration drugs begin, very early, to shape our moods altogether. When Baudelaire uses drugs – haschisch, opium – as the keys to the artificial paradises, he has stumbled on an essential structure of modern artifice.