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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The dialectics of diddling




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.

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

LI, I'm sort of bummed that no one has commented on or responded to this post. Which says something about the great debates in the blogosphere.
And oh that thing of confronting what is - ontology you know. As if 'what is' and confronting was just a matter of "something" in front of one, not anything that one traversed and inhabited and was traversed and inhabited by. Drugs for example. How does one delimit drugs?
I haven't followed the debates or links to the IT post you linked to, but I'm not quite sure I follow the bit about the "break" between the natural and the artificial. I''m not so sure the break is just "between" the natural and the artificial, or that the "relation" of nature and artificial is as clean cut as a break. And what precisely does one mean by "break"? Not to mention, where and when does this happen? Which I mention, since IT does say that one should attend to what happens.

But what if what happens is "contamination"?

Amie

N Pepperell said...

May not have had time to comment, but reading... I've always been puzzled by debates over ontology - in the recent blog discussions where competing ontologies have loomed large, I find myself unable to comment, because I'm simply at a loss how one can argue about the issue. What's the basis for deciding that one ontology is better than the next when, as far as I can tell, ontologies seem to be grasped - or at least defended from critique - as precisely non-empirical? It's not that I have objections per se to someone having some sort of commitment to some ontology - it's that I don't understand how the commitment can be discussed? These positions seem precisely to remove themselves from possibility of contact with others - they seem self-shielding... And so I find myself, perhaps weirdly, responding by respecting that impulse as well as I can, and remaining silent - unless, as IT suggests, someone tries to leap from these shielded spaces into things of consequence for persons, for lives... Then the strategy of the discussion shifts - ontological commitments become a means of protecting one's own politics from the mess and contingency of politics - of wishfully reaching for certainty in areas where this cannot be found... Ossifying nature in order to claim it as one's own - and push everything but oneself into the category of contingent artifice...

Fighting artifice with artifice - fighting to achieve a contingency better than the contingencies we currently have: I'm unclear why it's so unacceptable for politics just to be this... Rorty has a comment somewhere about philosophy operating as though its task is to persuade sociopaths - to demonstrate to some sensibility utterly divorced from human connection that a certain course of action were good or true - so that the argument needs to be made "objectively". But political work plays out in a field of social interconnection where experiences have been and can be shared - context-transcendent frames of reference aren't required... We can shame and persuade and convict one another based on the accidents of our contingent shared history... I don't understand why more is required?

Apologies - very tired and not producing a very developed or coherent comment... I think with your posts far more often than I comment - my apologies for the silence. Hopefully it will be less when I have a calmer schedule next year. But silence doesn't mean I'm not thinking alongside (hopefully usually more cogently than I'm expressing here...)

roger said...

Amie and Nicole - you both wrote much better responses than I did!

I, too, have read the theory blogs going on about ontology and realism and -- wondering if I should care more about this stuff. But the responses to Nina have been so astonishingly naive - naive from a point of view that brought me, in a rush, back to philosophy grad school. There, questions can be asked in no language, by no person. Can anybody be so naive as to make the argument that the study of x is the same as x? The "study of" strikes me as a big verbal cue, here.

More interesting, though, is the idea of contamination, and of "confrontation" - the trait, the stroke that separates artificial from natural. Here, I think, asking for an ontology is asking for the wrong thing - rather, you see a distinction arise, and you see that it carries with it a logic that always undermines it. So you ask, how does this feature, this "side effect", work?

Here's a story. I learned this from a paper I read on Halcion. Halcion was tested, by Upjohn, to see if it had any adverse effects. Naturally, they needed a compliant and willing population to test with - and isn't that what our prisons are for? So a bunch of prisoners in a Michigan prison volunteered for the test, which went in the standard form - some were given Halcion, some a placebo, some another form of hypnotic. The result of the test was that there was a significant number of Halcion taking prisoners who reported paranoia.

What did upjohn do? They wanted this drug on the market, of course. It would be a blockbuster. So they pleaded that the reason they reported the paranoia was... that the testers were prisoners! It was actually a feature of being in prison, they argued, to be paranoid.

Of courss, the FDA, which was taken over by drug company reps in the Reagan years, swallowed this pill like it was honey. And so Halcion was put on the market place. And sure enough, the users of Halcion reported a marked rise in paranoia. But by that time the drug was too important to the upjohn profit line, so the FDA ruled, like a corrupt King solomon, that the problem would be fixed if the dosage was lowered to .025 grams, or whatever. And so it happened. Everybody was happy, and everybody overlooked the fact that, according to Upjohn itself, Halcion's main effect - sleep - doesn't work at that low dosage.

Do we confront the pill we swallow? This is where I consult Baudelaire, instead of the ontologists.

Duncan said...

Can anybody be so naive as to make the argument that the study of x is the same as x? The "study of" strikes me as a big verbal cue, here.

Ha! Good god the theory space needs this observation.

Anonymous said...

NP, I just want to say that I really like your comment. I've also being trying to read through your posts over at Rough Theory, which I find pretty amazing and suggestive. I've thought of commenting there several times, but haven't quite been able to without going all long and meandering.
One of the things in your comment that struck me was your quote from Rorty about philosophy operating as though its task is to persuade sociopaths - to demonstrate to some sensibility utterly divorced from human connection that a certain course of action were good or true - so that the argument needs to be made "objectively".

So once again philosophy or philosophical discourse or logos is pretty much a counter-drug, a counter-poison, an antidote. Which is to say, a drug. But a good one. And persuasive. Which requires institutions. And power.

Plato's Pharmacy that LI has been exploring.

Amie

Anonymous said...

NP, I just want to say that I really like your comment. I've also being trying to read through your posts over at Rough Theory, which I find pretty amazing and suggestive. I've thought of commenting there several times, but haven't quite been able to without going all long and meandering.
One of the things in your comment that struck me was your quote from Rorty about philosophy operating as though its task is to persuade sociopaths - to demonstrate to some sensibility utterly divorced from human connection that a certain course of action were good or true - so that the argument needs to be made "objectively".

So once again philosophy or philosophical discourse or logos is pretty much a counter-drug, a counter-poison, an antidote. Which is to say, a drug. But a good one. And persuasive. Which requires institutions. And power.

Plato's Pharmacy that LI has been exploring.

Amie

traxus4420 said...

hi roger, was looking for a good place to really groan about this stuff without pressure to be 'supportive of new trends.' i tried to make a very naively critical comment on the SH blog but it didn't work.

this comment of NP's:

"These positions seem precisely to remove themselves from possibility of contact with others - they seem self-shielding..."

gets at something really key here, i think. reminds me a little of (bad) poetry readings. or, to take it to another level of remove, poetry blogs. this is just what a community without politics looks like isn't it? the congregation of eternally inverted leibnizian monads. much easier to generate and sustain a scene when members only get in iTouch to generate more scene.

i have more to say about this than just snark (maybe you saw my earlier incredulous postings from a few, ah jesus, over a year ago), but my self-enforced light blogging mandate must continue a bit longer...

traxus4420 said...

hi roger, was looking for a good place to really groan about this stuff without pressure to be 'supportive of new trends.' i tried to make a very naively critical comment on the SH blog but it didn't work.

this comment of NP's:

"These positions seem precisely to remove themselves from possibility of contact with others - they seem self-shielding..."

gets at something really key here, i think. reminds me a little of (bad) poetry readings. or, to take it to another level of remove, poetry blogs. this is just what a community without politics looks like isn't it? the congregation of eternally inverted leibnizian monads. much easier to generate and sustain a scene when members only get in iTouch to generate more scene.

i have more to say about this than just snark (maybe you saw my earlier incredulous postings from a few, ah jesus, over a year ago), but my self-enforced light blogging mandate must continue a bit longer...

roger said...

Amie, I like to think that I'm engaged more in orbiting than exploring - o these geographical terms! When I was a kid, we moved a lot, and my older sister and I would take our bikes out, in the new neighborhood, and go exploring. It was a nice word - explore, to make flow out, to make weep - or so the etymological dictionaries say. Yet the explorer doesn't make flow out, but flows - something gets inverted in this word, the actors change.

But I think that instead of me making Plato's Pharmacy flow out, to find the tears in texts, I am - rather like one of the crewmembers of the Solaris - finding it hard to be the explorer, rather than the one explored.

I wonder if Philip Dick knew that etymology? Flow my tears. the policeman said - flow tears, explore.

I know, I'm babbling.

roger said...

Traxus, now now. Reading poetry is hard!

Yes, the discussions so far have not been very ... uh, well, I mean, have been very much on the level of philosophy grad classes, with all the vices one is trained in - most particularly, the odd idea that philosophy first has to make up the rules, and then can allow the other disciplines to do their thing. Thus, you would never go to sociology or anthropology of political science to "define" politics, but you define it from philosophical principles. In the beginning, God said, let there be theory.

This goes against my grain. Not because I hate philosophy, but because it makes for such weak philosophy - it is at that point that NP's quote from Rorty seems so pertinent.

roger said...

A bit of self quoting, here, about that monadic blindness. I left a couple comments on a site, Common Lies, that wrote about this stuff:

"Ultimately, this is the solipsism problem. It is as if one were playing chess with someone who rejected the idea that he was playing chess. I could point out that he uses only the chesspieces on the chess board, he confines his play completely to the rules of chess, and to the spaces on the board, and ask what else he was doing. He might claim he was playing something completely different which only always coincides with the outward procedures of chess. Ultimately, there is no way to persuade that person he is not playing chess, even if you point out that every move, and every piece, and every game he plays looks exactly like chess. Because every time he can say that you are proving he is playing the game that completely coincides with chess – not chess. He could even say that chess is demeaning, biased, and ultimately enslaving, and he would never do it - especially as it would take away from the time he spent playing this other game.

Anonymous said...

How wisely Nature did decree,
With the same eyes to weep and see!
That having viewed the object vain,
We might be ready to complain.
(...)
Open then, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practise so your noblest use;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep.
(...)
Thus let your streams o'erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things:
And each the other's difference bears;
These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.

- Andrew Marvell, Eyes and Tears

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0EhF0g1MuU

Amie

duncan said...

Non-chess, it could be called.

traxus4420 said...

but i like philosophy tooo!

and poetry, though i admit i've never found a live scene that didn't succumb to the above vices, or seem like group confessional.

'non-chess' is excellent. now you've got me thinking about how it might be a winning strategy for chess.

N Pepperell said...

Hey - sorry for taking such a long time to comment - little time online... (just tried to post an hit a length limit - sorry roger - will break into chunks...)

Amie - If it helps, I don't think long and meandering comments are a problem at my site... :-)

N Pepperell said...

roger: yes: "Do we confront the pill we swallow". I mean, the discussion you've cited above, on solipsism - and Dr. Seuss (which is just brilliant by the way) - reading it, just felt like conversations I tried to have over and over again, before effectively falling offline eighteen months ago...

The evocation of Seuss ties in with the Rorty point above, really: there's a tantrum-like quality to this, and in fact that quality cannot be defeated, if someone wants to hang onto it. It becomes more a matter of shrugging and moving on - not that I'm opposed to making the arguments (I've done it myself, and I think what you wrote on the other site is very clear (I also don't know the blogger, so it may even be impactful, in a way I don't think my own interventions on this stuff ever have been) - but I've come to the position that making the arguments can be useful mainly for others, looking on and not in the actual discussion.

There is a set of oppositions - so, as in the discussion you cite, if you are trying to talk about the historical, changeable, transient dimensions of reality, somehow this is imposing artifice between the observer and the reality observed. This takes the observer to be intrinsically outside "reality" - and then tries to overcome the resultant angst by asserting a god's-eye perspective.

The thing I like best about Marx is that he doesn't do this sort of thing... ;-P We are part of the reality we discuss - when we change, in history, so does that overall reality. Not because we make reality as a whole, in some idealist fashion, but just because, in our little corner of things with which we tend to be concerned, our own history shakes up new modes of relating to and accessing one another and the other things it occurs to us to interact with. There's a desire for completion - for absoluteness - a rejection of the seriousness of the humility that we will pass and that, while we're here, we are finite and limited - that ironically runs through an enormous amount of apparent concern with the heat death of the universe, etc.

The collection of thinkers associated with this loose movement is, I think, so intensely concerned with confronting other people with grand narratives of decay and destruction because at some fundamental level it can't accept that this is the case - its affective problem is the opposite, I think, of what it's overtly presented as being (which also means it's attracting people who believe its self-presentation, and who don't see that this self-presentation is constantly substantively undermined by its actual moves): it doesn't really want other approaches to confront the significance of death - it wants to overcome death - a move that, while psychologically understandable, is also very tired and not something to encourage.

As a result, it misses that many other traditions really have taken the whole transience-of-life issue on board (as Nina's quote from Engels captured well). We aren't talking incessantly about the issue because we've taken it on board - in forms of theory that accept the transientness of our own perspective - the limited duration of our small realities - and have moved on. By contrast, this stuff is actually a regression...

Sorry... more strongly worded than I should be... I haven't worked on these authors systematically, and I should before going here - but in part I haven't because it seems an immense amount of work to show that this stuff simply has not assimilated things that have been long assimilated elsewhere. The issue isn't that it's ahead of the curve - that it's, as traxus says, a "new trend" to be supported - the issue is that it's a very old trend that doesn't have the history to recognise itself as such. It's also a very "young" trend - in your Dr. Seuss sense...

Sorry to post a rant on your blog... I've not felt I had the time to write on this, and so it's all just sort of splurted here...

roger said...

I should say that at first I misread Common Lies to be really on my side in this quarrel, and that was my fault. And really I am not such an asshole to go to someone's site and pick a quarrel with what they believe for the hell of it. I thought of Dr. Seuss as a peace offering.

To my mind there are terms - reality, nature, artifice - that will run like quicksilver through your hands. They can't be tacked to a board by way of definition - like one could hope to define, for instance, the word, well, tack. On the one hand, they aren't, formally, shifters - but in philosophy, they operate like quasi-shifters. They are referentially fucked, since they aren't properly variables and they aren't properly not variables. (Referentially fucked is, I believe, the technical term in Quine's Symbolic Fucking Logic, second edition). This is when looking around becomes your friend - you see how other people have used these words. It was a good impulse of the ordinary language people to suggest such linguistic excursions; unfortunately, they all lived in Oxford and restricted ordinary language to what they heard over port. But still!!!

To tell God's honest truth, I have no passion about ontology at all. I suppose I am closest, on this question, to Nelson Goodman's worldmmaking. I can't help but think the word magic of thinking that if I say I'm a realist, that means I'm closer to the real, is funny. And if it works, I'm going to try it out with the word millionairist - since it is that time of the month to pay rent. Or maybe sexist... hmm, but I think that one is taken.

The one thing this discussion has taught me is that I was wrong to think that, since the whacking claims to disinterest took in the sixties and seventies, nobody would naively put forth the idea again that some enunciation could simply float free of its conditions. But here it is again, as fresh as a daisy, with all the pre-Nietzschian assumptions attacked.

traxus4420 said...

what about positive nihilism? seems like much of this stuff is attempting to go post-nietzschean. i think it's more marx than nietzsche that's being 'actively forgotten' here.

N Pepperell said...

Hey roger - yes, this is pretty much me, as well:

To tell God's honest truth, I have no passion about ontology at all.

I sort of... short-circuit? when it comes to questions of ontology - because, as I said above, I'm just never clear how these things are meant to be discussed and debated in meaningful ways. I mean, in an external sense I can see how this might happen - one could discuss possible ramifications of particular ontological commitments or whatever - what I lack is an understanding of how someone comes to have internal convictions about ontological commitments. It's something I've never grokked... Religious commitments make much more sense to me, since there is a practiced social dimension...

I love this in too many ways to explain:

my mind there are terms - reality, nature, artifice - that will run like quicksilver through your hands. They can't be tacked to a board by way of definition - like one could hope to define, for instance, the word, well, tack. On the one hand, they aren't, formally, shifters - but in philosophy, they operate like quasi-shifters. They are referentially fucked, since they aren't properly variables and they aren't properly not variables. (Referentially fucked is, I believe, the technical term in Quine's Symbolic Fucking Logic, second edition). This is when looking around becomes your friend - you see how other people have used these words. It was a good impulse of the ordinary language people to suggest such linguistic excursions; unfortunately, they all lived in Oxford and restricted ordinary language to what they heard over port. But still!!!

Also: just to be clear - I don't know the Common Lies blogger at all, so I don't assume the sorts of sweeping comments I made above actually apply to them - I've sort of used my reaction to your comments to process some reactions I've had to a whole range of other stuff, and I don't want to make any claims one way or another about the site where your interaction took place. Also, I didn't mean to assimilate your comments to my reaction - sorry if my idiosyncratic reaction to the Dr. Seuss comment did that... Can't stress enough how tired I am at the moment, so not the most coherent... But thank you for providing the space for the rant :-)

duncan said...

"its affective problem is the opposite, I think, of what it's overtly presented as being"

Yes - I think this is precisely right, and is also present at many different levels of this movement's self-presentation and self-understanding. One of the many frustrating things, to me, interacting with this nonsense, is the way the 'correlationism' card is played. (No one seems to have noticed that Meillassoux's 'correlationism' argument is entirely based on the inversion of the meaning of this term, halfway through his book. Among other things, these folk apparently can't read.) If we point out that philosophical positions are in fact produced from a real location in social, political, biological, etc. space, this is a submission to 'correlationism', the great enemy. The entire trumpeted rejection of anthropocentrism is premised, then, on an extreme human exceptionalism - the refusal of the 'submission' of ontology to epistemology is, precisely, a refusal of human limits - the God's Eye View is, for someone like the early Brassier, more or less explicitly theological. Your thing about legs and hands captures it perfectly, Roger.

For this argument to have any purchase at all, a great forgetting is required - a wild misreading of the philosophical (and political) tradition, a misreading which this movement is actively disseminating - and which I worry will be its real effect. Speculative Realism - by (among other things) simply refusing to understand the meaning of the difference between ontology as discipline and reality as object of study - is exemplarily correlationist. [That elision is required, of course, in order for the argument (such as it is) to work: since 'Speculative' Realism can't be common-or-garden evidence-based realism, which is so passe, thought itself must somehow contain the key to all mythologies.] It's a return to the ontological argument - or to Hegel - which seems (willfully) ignorant of both, and therefore presents the entire tradition (not just philosophical but social-theoretic and political) as a kind of debased Kantianism. These people really seem to believe that nobody except them accept that objects exist independent of consciousness. I find it simply impossible, in practice, to argue against a position so bizarre. Where does one start?

All this is why I think your work on the Human Limit touches something important, with regard to this movement, Roger. Here one kind of human limit (extinction! lack of resurrection! the near-unthinkable trauma of objects not being just for us!) is wielded and romanticised in order to suppress the limits that confront us every day. It is a fundamentally reactionary movement, a frightened and (probably non-coincidentally) a bullying one. I sincerely hope it doesn't get a wider purchase.

Anyhow, before I burst a blood vessel, I'll say that I, too, thought your comments at Complete Lies were pitch perfect. I wish I could be so measured.

duncan said...

Damn - I also meant to say, in relation to your human limit work, that it's probably not a coincidence that this philosophical movement has emerged at this historical moment - as the society-wide suppression of the human limit begins to fray. In this scenario, two things are required: 1) a channelling of consciousness of that fraying; 2) an ever-more-belligerent insistence on the suppression of the limit. There's a lot more going on besides, in Speculative Realism - but these are two of the things the movement does.

roger said...

Oh, off topic, but -- HAPPY HALLOWEEN, Y'ALL!

Anonymous said...

'there are terms - reality, nature, artifice - that will run like quicksilver through your hands. They can't be tacked to a board by way of definition - like one could hope to define, for instance, the word, well, tack. On the one hand, they aren't, formally, shifters - but in philosophy, they operate like quasi-shifters. They are referentially fucked, since they aren't properly variables and they aren't properly not variables. (Referentially fucked is, I believe, the technical term in Quine's Symbolic Fucking Logic, second edition). This is when looking around becomes your friend - you see how other people have used these words. It was a good impulse of the ordinary language people to suggest such linguistic excursions'
...

"What matters for the dialectician is have the wind of world history in his sails [den Wind der Weltgeschichte in den Segeln zu haben]. Thinking means for him: setting the sails [Denken heisst bei ihm, Segel setzen]. What is important is how they are set. Words are his sails [Worte sind seine Segel; which could also be translated as 'his sails are (merely) words']. The way they are set makes them into concepts.... Being a dialectician means having the wind of history in one's sails. The sails are the concepts [Die Segel sind die Begriffe]. It is not enough to have sails at one's disposal [über die Segel zu verfügen]. What is decisive is knowing the art of setting them [die Kunst, sie setzen zu können].

- Benjamin, Passagen-Werk
...

Amie

roger said...

I love that quote! which, of course, goes along with our exploring theme. Which goes into the post I'm thinking about next, the voyage to the continent of synthetica. But all things must wait for the wind.

Nick said...

Hi Roger, I've always been a big fan of your site here, and find you to be consistently interesting and incisive. So it's a bit peculiar to hear how one's own ideas are passing through your ears and others. I actually don't sense any hostility here (and I've had many great discussions with Nicole and Duncan before), more just frustration with what you (perhaps rightly) see as a fruitless venture.

I don't want to turn this comment thread into the comment threads at Speculative Heresy, so I'll just try to make a few quick points. In part, my attempt to argue that something like ontology can be separated from politics is precisely because people doing politics don't have to worry at ontology. I study international relations in school, and I'm quite happy to not make metaphysical arguments when discussing the Congo, Palestine, or China. So my attempt is in one sense, precisely to set the perhaps fruitless arguments surrounding metaphysical concepts to the side, and let people who want to do politics, do politics. No more hiding behind 'radical' philosophies, and pretending that doing ontology is doing politics.

The one other point I want to make is that I'm not trying to say that people doing ontology are magically separated from their political or social conditions. My basic intuition is of a Marxian (influenced by Nicole's reading) and actor-network theory position. I believe we are inextricably embedded within a social, cultural, technological, natural collective - I just don't believe that we can't make scientific progress or conceptual progress in philosophy. We can gain knowledge of the absolute, and this knowledge must be apolitical in the sense of being a reflection of reality. One major influence for me, in this aspect, is Philip Kitcher's work, which gives a reading of scientific progress despite the psychological and cultural peculiarities of individuals.

Anyways, I won't comment any more unless asked a question. Just wanted to try and argue that the issues aren't necessarily as naive as you may think. (Well, hopefully!)

roger said...

Nick, of course I'm not hostile to you! I find the flame wars that go on between theory bloggers to be mostly way out of proportion. And I feel like this statement, at least about science, has some basis in history:

"My basic intuition is of a Marxian (influenced by Nicole's reading) and actor-network theory position. I believe we are inextricably embedded within a social, cultural, technological, natural collective - I just don't believe that we can't make scientific progress or conceptual progress in philosophy."

It is an interesting question for philosophy of science just what science is, if we progress in it - as I'm sure you know, the puzzle taken up by science philosophers in the 60s and 70s is how something could be science, at time x, and false, at time y - for instance, Newton's corpuscular theory of light. Obviously, validity does not define science in itself.

However, I think in your response to Nina you forgot, perhaps, too quickly the respectful reading given by, was it Brassier? One of those SR guys, of Wilfred Sellar's the myth of the given - for its isn't something you can just dismiss and make any progress. It has a tendency to control our metaphors and examples. For example, your argument that surely there is nothing human about a galaxy far away doesn't really address the level of possibility on which you are actually grounding your argument. If there could be a non-political study of anything, then there can be non-political study period. You could, for instance, study politics non-politically. You need an argument about ontology that shows it is possible to study being non-politically - not that a content of that study will, retrospectively, erase the symbols and social mediations by which it was enacted.

So, the argument is, in other words, about the social mediation of study, what Hjelmslev would call form. Content ought not to matter - which means that you need an argument not about any random non-human thing, but about the non-political possibility built into the very condition of any study whatsoever. Failing to give this will skew any example you want to produce - because, of course, questions of form aren't settled by questions of content. It is possible to be eurocentric, believe in progress, use telescopes and give us facts about galaxies - we can look around and see it done every day. But, the question is, is it possible to become an astronomer, refer to a culture of astronomy, have a certain notion of facts in which they appear discretely, trust that - as Eugene Wigner put it - mathematics has an unexplained power to describe space-time, put your findings into circulation in a journal, hold down a position, etc., etc. and not engage in social mediation that give a grip to politics.

Of course, this doesn't mean that the all social mediation falls under the definitions of a local system and nomenclature of power, developed in the last two hundred years. I've just finished editing a book about public health policy in Yucatan, and the politics of separating animals and humans go back to the conquest itself. What is the conservative or liberal view of keeping a pig in the kitchen? You could probably develop one, but the actual terrain in which this issue is fought out has little to do with left/right.

Generally, then, I'd hold, unless I read a great knockdown argument that can somehow put a hole in this belief, that you cannot part the curtain of symbols and enter into communion with raw facts. And that such a belief works on the level of ideology - in fact, it is one of the great ideological gestures to use content to de-politicize form.

Wow, I've used a lot of words, there!

traxus4420 said...

to half-heartedly devil's advocate here, a counterargument to your position roger is to say that since facticity is a mediation (not being able in itself to define the there that is there, a fact can only testify) and there are no 'raw facts,' what the fact mediates - the real itself - must either reduce to 'matter' or be explained some other way through ontology ('object-oriented' realism, say). latour is used as a jumping off point here, particularly his critique of the dualism between 'naturally' objective facts and 'socially' relative values inspired by shapin/shaeffer's leviathan and the air pump. (which he sees as the double bind of post-17th century or 'modern' epistemology). but where latour explicitly mediates this ontological question mark through a theory of the social, the SR people who follow him drop their ontological systems.

and this is where things get tricky, because behind the geometrical presentation there doesn't seem to be any expectation that a right answer (a true ontology) can be arrived at. in fact everyone is encouraged to invent their own ontologies. 'speculative realism' is a remarkably accurate heading. so i don't see in it so much a repetition of the old search for secure foundations -- rather philosophical production predicated on the absence of truth, which is itself 'naively' taken to both permit and demand these products. in the name of progress.

Nick said...

Thanks Roger - I didn't think you were being hostile, but I'm just realizing in all the responses that it can be unfortunately hard to distinguish between attacks against your argument and attacks against your self. Some are pretty clearly oriented towards one or the other, but indistinguishable in others. I really shouldn't even care about the latter attacks, but it does wear one down.

Anyways, agreed about your point with 'what science is' - one of Kitcher's arguments (among a number of them) is to argue that increased specification of what fundamental scientific concepts refer to is a sign of progress. One, moreover, that has empirical backing in light of the increased stability of the sciences' fundamental terms (contra the 'pessimistic induction'). They need not be valid in the sense of exact matches to reality, but it's the best explanation of the 'miracle' of science (the idea that its predictions would be a miracle if they didn't grasp onto fundamental determinations of reality). The issue of 'philosophical progress' is obviously a more fraught issue, but one I don't think is a priori impossible (and one that may be able to piggy-back on scientific progress).

As for how this fits into Sellars' myth of the given, I may have to write up a post on it as it's something I'd need to think through. It seems like there's a certain sense in which Kitcher's idea of progress can avoid making reference to some pure given, though, merely by relying on science's success and increased stability. In other words, there's never any need to match a theory up to a pure given, and measure their adequation.

The galaxy example is definitely the easy case - it was an attempt just to get past the knee-jerk reaction which says everything is clearly political. My very minimal goal was to try and puncture a hole in this idea that everything is political - and to raise anew the question of what a meaningful definition of politics might be. But certainly a non-political understanding of politics would be the hard case for an apolitical understanding. Though I don't know that it's necessary to have that to prove that an apolitical study in any area is possible. It's a common position to argue that the social sciences must be done differently than the natural sciences. Content does matter then. So limiting apolitical study to one area of reality doesn't reject the very possibility of attaining apolitical knowledge. (And to my knowledge, even Latour never argues that we can simply use the same approach to different content. In fact, I just finished reading an article where he argues precisely the opposite.)

Also, I like what I read to be your suggestion of a distinction between social and political. We can certainly disagree and debate about whether social mediation is an irreducible part of the human condition (this perhaps goes to the heart of the realist/anti-realist debate). But we can also acknowledge that what is 'political' is a much more refined sphere than the social in general. As I think is clear from my posts, I'm tired of definitions of the political which place it everywhere - I don't think they have any use for what we would commonly call political questions. So I do think it's helpful to argue that the political is not co-extensive with the social.

Traxus, I would just argue that (1) speculative realism is an incredibly new field, so I don't see multiple ontologies reflecting badly on it (just as multiple philosophies in the past have never made Deleuze or Derrida or Lyotard merely spurious philosophers), and (2) insofar as realism is accepted by them as the foundation, the difficulties are arising from other aspects, and not from this basic point that realism is in some sense correct. As for Latour mediating things through the social, I'm sure you know he redefines the social to be a matter of associations in general, and not some social substance. So I think Graham is quite right to argue that Latour is an object-oriented philosopher. (Though I'd be interested to hear if and why you disagree.)

traxus4420 said...

i think harman's reading of latour capitalizes on an ambiguity within latour's use of ontology (as i think harman says himself, though being involved in a separate research project i haven't really got into his book yet). i've just always found that ambiguity (between objects and relations) to be important to his overall project, and not reducible either to some sort of base matter/phlogiston or an ontology in the traditional sense that it seems SR people (maybe excepting Meillassoux) seem to want to reinvigorate.

anyway as someone else pointed out (NP above) the claim that everything is political in the reactionary sense you're talking about nick has been made from a variety of different positions -- it's fine and i agree, but my criticisms (and intemperate snark) are directed at what the new versions of these arguments give license to. this is why i haven't addressed the arguments themselves -- to me they're just standard assumptions.

oh, and the point about the hundred blossoming realisms isn't that they're blossoming but how they relate to each other. and it seems they do so by agreeing to disagree. as everyone says, there is no commonly held assumption about what reality is and/or what its signs are - this is anathema. and this is what makes it different from similar shake-ups within the natural sciences, or even most philosophy of science. how could OOP possibly ever disprove eliminative materialism, or meillassouxian radical contingency? aside from what, especially within the limited context they cordon off for themselves to hash this out (blogs and graduate departments), can only be understood politically?

roger said...

Nick and Traxus, well, I've really had pretty much my say, here. But I'll just add a few things - wordily.

To be simple, Nick, I'd find the idea of progress as you are construing it a very strongly political position - which doesn't mean reactionary or progressive, which are not the only cardinal points of politics. As I'd written on the Common Lies blog, politics operates on two planes - one is institutional, where the enunciations are situated, and one is external, where the institutions are situated.

As for this: "It's a common position to argue that the social sciences must be done differently than the natural sciences. Content does matter then" - well, this is a statement where an ideologiekritik, even a puppy, can show its teeth, since this is not proof that content counts, but that the standard ideological gesture of using content to erase the symbolic trajectory of form is institutionalized, and just in the way one would expect - the argument becomes one that is 'common' - and moves towards being a natural feature of institutional life. This is its function, after all - to make a controversial claim into a natural one. So, the history of institutional decisions leading to the separation of the social and positive sciences allows one to avoid, or to stigmatize, questions about that decision as 'political.' Politics then becomes something that is the opposite of truth - it becomes a distortion, a way of securing power, as opposed to those who are selflessly committed to exploring the truth about the world. This drama is enacted every day - it is where the 'common' has its site.

Our argument, at this point, resembles not so much the cliche of blind men arguing over an elephant as two drunks turning a rubber glove inside or rightside out.

Finally, I'd have to disagree with "the idea of he increased stability of the sciences' fundamental terms" - to my mind, contemporary science has, instead, forsaken the hope that they can stabilize the terms. That magic Newtonian moment summarized in the fairy tale of the apple (which is always misconstrued - the breakthrough, of course, is that the apple is like the moon, the sun and the distant stars, in that universal forces combine them into one system)has been shattered, and macroworld and microworld seem about as far apart as ever. Physics keep going down string theory cul de sacs, and even Watson and Crick's central dogma of genetics - that information flow is only one way - is under attack. The old positivist program of reductionism is dead - and exists, like all old philosophy programs, as a ghost, infinitely deferred to some future where the bridging principles will all come on-line, and it will be revenged.

roger said...

Traxus, I haven't said anything about your devil's advocacy - but I have to get to work. I'll have to think about it, cause I don't immediately understand it.
Which may have to do with the hindleg kick of my sleeping pill!

traxus4420 said...

just to be clear - i'm not against ontology or philosophy - nor do i think it 'bad' that dueling ontologies can't obliterate one another - i'm just trying to point out that there is no apolitical basis for SR debates. the basis is that there is no such basis, and that opens the door to a political self-conception. no, this isn't grand style nation-state politics and it's narcissistic to think that it's even close, but no other word seems appropriate to discuss what SR and its members in fact engage in every day in order to develop and promote their views. and the refusal to acknowledge this is extremely irritating.

traxus4420 said...

ugh, clearing up one other ambiguity - above i suggest the natural sciences agree on what reality is - no, they agree most of the time on what is good enough. and over time (bouncing off of roger's reply) this agreement has necessarily becomes more, not less, self-consciously political.

roger said...

Traxus,
I guess I could see how that is irritating, and it certainly does irritate a lot of people - but since I live in Texas, I sorta accept the whole team spirit thing. A lot of people read the same books, get enthused about some ideas, start chanting we're no. 1... What you need next is a song and a hand sign - like UT's horn fingers.

But I am going to be disappointed if, after all this excitement, all we get is simply another reprise of naive positivism, with an obeisance to the ghost of reductionism and another argument for philosophy as a science. So far, I haven't seen what the excitement is about. But to be fair, I'm temperamentally skeptical of ontology talk to begin with, which is why I cotton to Nelson G's worldmaking stuff.

roger said...

This is one of my best comment threads ever! But I do miss North. I don't understand where my cybernaut has gone to.

duncan said...

It's not the naive positivism side of SR that irritates me, personally - even though I strongly disagree with the reductionist and eliminativist stuff, that's on a different level. What irritates me (or one of the things that irritates me) is that this stuff is then tied to ontological claims that are simply theological / religious / mystical in character - without any acknowledgement that this is the nature of the argument. When Meillassoux writes about his emergent God that can resurrect the dead - he means it. When Laruelle writes about a gnostic mode of knowing, and the mystical experience that constitutes the human - he means it. Harman's work isn't religious, as far as I can tell, but it's entirely unclear what possible evidence he could have for his vicarious causation and his vacuum-sealed objects - not to mention allure and so on. It's all either being made up out of whole cloth (my preferred view), or it's being generated by a mode of enquiry the standards and methods of which are wholly unclear - and I think deliberately unclear, because it's simply not adequate to the task. What are the criteria for differentiating between true and false claims about 'the absolute', to which Speculative Realism is supposedly returning us? What are the communally-produced methods, here? What are the standards by means of which the community assesses those methods? If various branches of Speculative Realism want to set up little religions (oriented to the future God brought forth from absolute contingency, or whatever) - that's fair enough, and different criteria for assessing the work would then apply. (This is why, for what it's worth, I'm much more sympathetic to the work that Anthony Paul Smith is doing with Laruelle than to any of the other Speculative Realism-informed projects. APS basically sees Laruelle as a theorist of revelation, if I understand him right - and I agree.) But this stuff is often presented as if it's of a piece with (and indeed capable of helping out with) scientific endeavour. Which it simply isn't.

[To be clear - I'm not claiming that Speculative Realist thinkers are mostly aiming to be theological / religious / mystical in their thought (though Meillassoux and Laruelle certainly are - and it speaks very poorly of the space that no one's recognising this [APS the notable exception].) I'm claiming that this is the structure of the argument - the only structure that could let a lot of this stuff make any sense at all. Which is why, again, the question of the politics of the space - or, if you prefer, the social norms guiding Speculative Realist study - need to be placed front and centre, not swept under the rug on the grounds that if we talk too much about epistemology ("how on earth do you know that?") we're being correlationists.]

[I could probably put all this in a less grouchy way - but as Nick knows, when I try to get thorough I spend about a week writing, which I can't right now.]

roger said...

Duncan, you obviously have a deeper knowledge of the literature than I do. In fact, I've been pretty much a punter on the sidelines of the whole SR thing. Laruelle is the only author I really know at all well. Although the experience does not encourage me to go back there.

Now, what I really hoped would happens is that IT would make an anthropological turn, and creates a vocabulary that will bury the current the latent philosophical anthropology, which is a lingua franca that has its root in Lacan. I don't exactly regard Lacan as a maitre.

However, I did not know about ontologists raising the dead. Which sounds like something Max Ernst should have painted. And also of N.F. Fedorov, the Russian philosopher of immortality and eupsychia. Unfortately, I've only read about Fedorov - I can't find translations of his works.

But apparently Fedorov links man's coming immortality to the discovery of the truths about time and space.

Here's a good quote:
"Mortality singifies that individuals do not coexist, but follow one another sequentilly. If, on the other hand, individuals of all generations could re-crete their own bodies and become immortal, they would coexist and their sequence would be found in unlimited action. This would be so, because time would no longer restrict the individuals, and would thus become their action and their motion."

Maybe it is time for speculative eupsychism! Fedorov was extremely influential among the first Soviet rocket scientists, apparently.
Anyway, your comments have made me think that SR is more relevant to my own projects than I thought. Thanks for that!

traxus4420 said...

already commented too much, but just came across this great passage by China Mieville on science fiction's efforts to distinguish itself from fantasy:

"Astonishingly, as I have argued, it has been so in full knowledge that the claims about 'cognitive logic' are specious, as when Jameson explicitly privileges SF utopias over 'generic fantasy' on the grounds of the gravity granted by the former's 'scientific pretensions.'

In fact, this simultaneous adoption by the genre's writers, readers and theorists of SF's self-declared 'rationalist' agenda, and their clear-sightedness about the spuriousness of its predicates, is an important reminder of the fact that the purchase of ideology, in all spheres, is dependent on the persuasive power not of its specific and explicit truth-claims, but of the ideological project as a self-sustaining totality. The lies of ideology, in other words, do not necessarily do their job by being believed, but by hegemonising a conceptual agenda irrespective of whether they are believed."

duncan said...

Oh wow Roger, Fedorov looks quite something. Where do you find this stuff?

"make an anthropological turn, and creates a vocabulary that will bury the current the latent philosophical anthropology, which is a lingua franca that has its root in Lacan."

Yes, this is so right - philosophical anthropology and... actual anthropology... are so distant - and, in the important respects, so fundamentally opposed - that it's sort of a scandal the same word does this double service. Historical roots, I guess - plus hey, that's how two-timing language works...

The speculativeeupsychism domain names are still free! You should take your chance!

roger said...

Duncan, that is tempting. But I'm a speculative zona-ist.

I'm thinking I'm going to write a post about politics - since it is an oddly confusing concept here, and always seems to be a bad thing. What has to happen to make the word "political" mean full of hate, resentment, and spite?