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Thursday, November 19, 2009

hide and seek and ontology: SR II

Deep Blue I wanna give it all to you
Deep Blue I know that scares you - Ladytron



What was in the beginning? Who was in the beginning? It was in the beginning. It (which comes back to us, as children, as the one who finds the ones who are hiding and tags them – making them it) must have been there – for if it wasn’t there, was there a non-itless world?

“Love overcame it in the beginning, which was the seed springing from mind; poets having searched in their heart found by wisdom the bond of what is in what is not.

Their ray which was stretched across - was it below or was it above? There were seed bearers, there were powers - self-power below and will above.

Who then knows who has declared it here, from whence was born this creation? The gods came later than this creation who then knows whence it arose?

He from whom this creation arose, whether he made it or did not make it, the Highest Seer in the highest heaven he forsooth knows - or does even he not know?” – Max Muller’s translation of verses from the Nasadiya hymn of the Rg Veda.

Prajapati floats in his golden egg. This egg gave birth to him. And then he impregnated the egg. In order to be given birth to. There is no “then”. There is no story here.

Hide and seek may be long ago, but the cosmological shudder, the story of the very beginning, is always a cue for the highest seriousness. In a sense, what is serious is defined by this story. We are all intrinsically interested in it – every eggfucking one of us.

LI has long sought to understand the permutations of the human limit, which is what the last two years of posts here have been largely about. During that time, the school of Speculative Realism has also made it a point that, in thinking through the human limit, philosophy can finally once and for all understand the absolute finitude of the human. O happy days! Thus, I thought, vaguely, that I was on side. But since IT’s post about SR politics, or lack thereof, I’ve read a bit more of the SR literature. Not, by any means, enough to become conversant in it, but enough to form a few opinions. I have long lost the passionate interest in ontology. I understand it, however. And insofar as SR conveys the excitement of something new, it is seductive. But its revolutionary truths come clothed in some very traditional terminology, much of which serves it badly. Myself, I was struck by how much work is done for the SR theory by that enduring trope, independence vs. dependence. Here are a few quotes:

“Science speaks to us of a time that preceded not only the relation of consciousness to the world, but any relation to the itemized world [monde repertorie]- any form of life. But since Hume and Kant, every philosopher knows well that the idea of a knowledge of things in themselves supposed to exist in an absolute fashion, that is to say, independently of the subject, not relative to it- that this conception of knowledge is floated by a realism that is dogmatic and worm-eaten (always according to the expression of Kant).” Meillassoux, Contingence et absolutisation de l’un.

“Correlationism insists that there can be no cognizable reality independently of our relation to reality; no phenomena without some transcendental operator – such as life or consciousness or Dasein – generating the conditions of manifestation through which phenomena manifest themselves. In the absence of this originary relation and these transcendental conditions of manifestation, nothing can be manifest, apprehended, thought or known. Thus, the correlationist will continue, not even the phenomena described by the sciences are possible independently of the relation through which phenomena become manifest. (51)

“For Meillassoux, the possibility of non-correlational reality – i.e. of an objective realm existing independently of any transcendental conditions of manifestation – finds its ontological guarantor in the structure of absolute possibility concomitant with absolute time.” – Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound 85.

What is striking about these passages from Meillassoux and Brassier is the thematic weight that accumulates around the dependence/independence relationship. Seemingly, this binary allows us to do any number of things. For instance, it produces sides, a versus: the correlationists and the non-correlationists. And it allows us to disregard, as inscrutable local politics, differences within the correlationist camp such that those suspects, consciousness, dasein and life can all be rounded up as co-conspirators. Of course, the idea that consciousness and dasein are mere substitutes for each other might disappoint their promoters and authors, and that, in turn, they could substitute for life seems a little odd – life here taking on qualities it isn’t normally associated with in biology - but so the reckoning goes – all of them exist as machines with a function. That function is to pump out possibility. They are transcendance producing machines.

Still, what manner of thing is this parameter, dependence/independence?


“There was no death, hence was there nothing immortal. There was no light (distinction) between night and day. That One breathed by itself without breath, other than it there has been nothing.”

“An axiom A of a logistic system is called independent if, in the logistic system obtained by omitting A from among the axioms, A is not a theorem.” – Alonzo Church, Introduction to Mathematical Logic (quoted by the OED)

Dependence is certainly not determination. Nor does it seem to be a cause. The thing that hangs from another thing, the child or wife that is under the authority of the father – such things are not necessarily born from the father, and certainly not made from the noose – criminals make themselves. They are independent, until they are de-pending.

Let us then roll over in the egg, the egg upon the cosmic sea, and consider some substitutions. Is, for instance, the universe dependent on time? Is it dependent on matter? In one sense – the sense in which it all begins in the big bang – the answer is no. In another sense – the sense in which the ‘laws’ of space and time organized the IT that is the universe – it is.

In this example, we sound much like Gooodman’s worldmakers. There might be a deeper point here for philosophers, which is that one of the puzzles of science is that we don’t understand what we understand. Our understanding has outstripped our imagination. This does not mean that we lack a vocabulary – it simply means that vocabulary lacks an imaginary correlate. Its correlate simply is the frame of reference as an artifact – the formula, the Feynman diagram. And, surprisingly, the things that we understand that we don’t understand we can operationalize. To reintroduce history into a narrative that wants to refuse it entrance, this is why the correlationist, the anti-realist, or whoever we have under surveillance, here, returns to histories.

Thus, it does seem like a revolutionary turn that, out of the field that one associates with an anti-foundational bias, there should arise a school which claims that It is no mystery or monster. We can meet IT and shake its hand. Come out, come out wherever you are.

When we speak of independence or dependence in philosophy, and especially the idea of mind-dependence, we are actually abridging a long and complex metaphysics. It is an abridgement that has, of course, its politics. By the time a certain idealism reached the West, in Berkeley, there was already various ideas floating about concerning the inferiority of the East. There was something distasteful about Irish prelates throwing themselves about like Eastern fakirs, no doubt. Thus, idealism assumed the cloak of the most advanced businessman, who spoke in clear, pure Locke.

It is a good question – why was the idealistic moment so late in arriving in Europe? But it is a question that goes against the grain of universal history, which asks the question, why is x (some European thing) so late in arriving in one of the non-European places. Europe cannot, after all, be dependent.

However that history goes, the Lockean context is still a good one. However bad a tutor Locke was to Shaftesbury (whose journals are an almost psychopathological cry against the man), he was very good at assuming that all men are awake – if you aren’t awake, how can you hear me? – and thus have some business at hand. Here the idea of mind-dependence and mind-independence seemed easily to be settled. Kick a rock. Or you can think of all the things that don’t depend on you thinking of them. Name what is under your power. (To use Shaftesbury’s method – the man was always writing philosophical memoranda to himself). Name what you can do nothing about by thinking. Think of the name. Think of the name as an instrument. Think how, as you take up the name, you take up a thinG that is not in your power. Recall a moment when you, your self, your thinking self, had any power over anything. But to think it is to name it, and to name it is to take an alien instrument into your hand that burns right through the ego, whether it erects itself as the very possibility of experience or as another miserable hider in the game of hide and seek.

At this point, Hume traded Hindoo depths for Lockean commerce and chose convention and habit. (There was then neither what is nor what is not, there was no sky, nor the heaven which is beyond. What covered? Where was it, and in whose shelter? Was the water the deep abyss (in which it lay)?

The SR philosophers pursue Hume on this point – but not far enough to ask questions about their dependent/independent parameters. And it is here that one feels that a certain eagerness has crept in – that the tables have turned on IT and the dogs are lose. But IT is the finder, remember – not philosophers who don’t even remember breathing when there was no breath.

The eagerness comes, perhaps, from the same direction as the rafle that brought in consciousness dasein and life as versions of the transcendental machine – alpha, beta, zeta, perhaps. Or Curly Moe and Larry. For surely it is not consciousness that forms or even dasein that forms the anti-realist core. It is, rather, just those things - convention, frames of reference, language, math – that seem happy to operate without the cogito. To conflate those things with correlationism is not just to mistell a history, but it is, shall we say, a typical philosophical mistelling, one that drops the process of production and holds to the marketer's abstract. Surely the reason that these artifacts have had such a damaging effect on the philosophical faith in realism is that they produced what realism had tried to deny could be the case – for instance, inconsistent worlds. Or rather worlds that could only be made consistent by adopting a number of bridging principles that were so cumbersome, and did so little work, that the task of creating them is slowly dying off with the last of the old logical positivists. Ernst Nagel’s pupils, salut! Instead, to understand them – that is, to operationalize them – we embraced Bayesian probabilities and world making.

Now, I am not an ontologically committing man. I strongly suspect that it is not on the level of ontology that I am going to find answers to my questions about the human limit – or at least that those answers will come from social ontologies that I will, as happily, not commit to. However, I must admit some distaste for a certain moment in Brassier’s program: ‘Nature is not our or anyone’s “home”, nor a particularly beneficent progenitor. Philosophers would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.”

On the one hand, I could just classify that as typical philosopher’s obliviousness. In the age of the last terra seizure, that of the atmosphere by the CO2 emitting conquistadors, what we really need is not to mend any shattered concord. Right. In the larger sense, health has nothing to do with whether you stop cigarette smoking or not – and really, philosophy of health should be more than a pathetic twinge to help the anti-smoking lobby. Etc. The idea that nature is not our home is correct, in that home is an intensional concept which references the place from which we dump our garbage, and nature is the referent meaning, the place into which we dump our garbage. A happy arrangement, as every yahoo knows. And certainly it is going to be most unpleasant when we are thrust out of our home into our garbage, although other yahoos who aren't so lucky have certainly been on the other side of the garbage spilling, boy howdy. So it is hard to tell if SR is being tone deaf, here, to the one truly planetary issue, or if this is spoken out of some deep unconsciousness. But in any case, there is something tawdry about this ‘demystification.” It is heresy in support of orthodoxy, a very gated community paradox. It is the perfect Hummer motto. And it stinks.

We get a signal to leave you alone
Alone's where we leave you
Alone's where we find you

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

LI, I'm going to have to cut up this comment - quote - in two as it seems too long. Sorry.

Nor could one man be found, whom at this awful season neither disease touched nor death nor mourning.
[...]
They would fill all places, all houses; and so all the more, packed in stifling heat, death piled them up in heaps. Many bodies, laid low by thirst and rolled forward through the streets, lay strewn at the fountains of water, the breath of life shut off from them by the exceeding delight of the water, and many in full view throughout the public places you might have seen, their limbs drooping on their half-dead body, filthy with stench and covered with rags, dying through the foulness of their body, only skin on bones, wellnigh buried already in noisome ulcers and dirt. Again, death had filled all the sacred shrines of the gods with lifeless bodies, and all the temples of the heavenly ones remained everywhere cumbered with carcasses; for these places the guardians had filled with guests.

Anonymous said...

For indeed by now the religion of the gods and their godhead was not counted for much: the grief of the moment overwhelmed it all. Nor did the old rites of burial continue in the city [...] for the whole people was disordered and in panic and every man sorrowing buried his dead, laid out as best he could. And to many things the sudden calamity and filthy poverty prompted men. For with great clamouring they would place their own kin on the high-piled pyres of others, and set the torches to them, often wrangling with much bloodshed, rather than abandoning the bodies.

-Lucretius, De Rerum Natura; trans. Cyril Bailey. Book VI, "the end".

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyMm4rJemtI

Amie

roger said...

I like the link - why had I never seen that vid of David Bowie before!!?

As for the Lucretius, hmm, you are making me think about how the nature of things is meant to produce that mood in the reader in which the mind can contemplate anything - even such mass death. And yet, in the midst of that expanded understanding, there is that thing we understand and don't understand - the clinamen.

"Wherefore in the seeds too you must needs allow likewise that there is another cause of motion besides blows and weights, whence comes this power born in us, since we see that nothing can come to pass from nothing. For weight prevents all things coming to pass by blows, as by some force without. But that the very mind feels not some necessity within in doing all things, and is not constrained like a conquered thing to bear and suffer, this is brought about by the tiny swerve of the first-beginnings in no determined direction of place and at no determined time."

Yet of course Lucretius couldn't operationalize the clinamen.

roger said...

Oh, and to move from Lucretius to von Neumann - I was reading a bio of Norbert Wiener by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, and found a fascinating passage about the origin of the Neumann architecture of computers. von Neumann's report on EDVAC - the government organized program to speed up calculators - used von Neumann's reading of neurology to create a division of functions in the calculator - "specialized organs" - that would include "memory". 'Language like this had never before been used to describe the working of a machine," Conway and Siegelman claim - a little too hastily. But the exteriorization of memory - Bruno's dream - is exactly what prompted the anti-realist turn in the 50s, and that cyber influence is clear in Derrida's writing in the 60s as well (the double bind, for instance, which was a notion Bateson got from his association with Norbert Wiener and Von Neumann in a series of conferences (the Macy conferences) held in the 40s in which mathematicians, biologists and anthropologists all attended). Derrida, I think, is not really concerned with a position, here - he is at the foot of the versus. But he saw how the computing revolution was another twist in the history of writing, our metaphysical epic - now tragedy, now Don Quixote.

What gives SR a sort of 50s-ish luster is that it seems to want to skip back to that point as if nothing had intervened. I find that... interesting. Goodman's notion of world-making appeals to me enormously, but it is also true that it conceals an infinite deferral in the relation between the maker and the made - a deferral that one could otherwise name the resistance of the made to the maker. That resistance - is it made by the maker, does the maker make it behind his back, does he start the atomic drops with a swerve that he has calculated secretly beforehand, in his subconscious, in his dreams, does the maker dream, does he make the dream, can the dream resist the maker, does resistance come before the matter comes, is resistance a structure - such are the mutterings of Nobodaddy in his dotage.

Anonymous said...

LI, it is too bad that there haven't been any comments by those who are well versed in the intricacies of SR, all the more so since I've read that certain blogs have had a part to play in the history of SR.

I wonder about their comments in response to what you say, for example, of names, substitutions and mistelling histories. I'm not even going to address the question you bring up of how consciousness, Dasein, and life function as substitutes.

Let's just take the name or term, Speculative Realism. And let's not even go into the history of either of these terms or names- Speculative and Realism. Let's just attend the (re)baptism of SR.

Here is a quote from Mark Fischer, from an article on Freize

‘Though it has always been a badge of honour among intellectuals to dislike being stamped with any sort of label,’ said Graham Harman at the start of his typically exhilarating presentation at the ’Speculative Realism and Speculative Materialism’ conference at the University Of West England in Bristol (UWE), ‘other fields of human innovation have a much stronger sense for the value of a brand name.’ Harman argued that branding is ‘not merely a degenerate practice of brainwashing consumerism, but a universally recognized method of conveying information while cutting through information clutter.’ He maintained that the label ‘speculative realism’ – originally a term of convenience coined at a conference at Goldsmiths, University Of London, two years ago – was just such a potent brand name."

A universally recognized method of cutting through the clutter by a brand name. And where does this cutting happen?

And then there are the "other fields of human innovation" with a much "stronger sense of brand names" , from which philosophy has much to learn, and this despite that Speculative Realism seemingly overcomes and goes beyond human biases and correlation.

What about SR as "originally a term of convenience coined at a conference." Here is Graham Harman again, responding to a blog entry:

The history of the term "speculative realism" is fairly simple. We needed a title for the Goldsmiths workshop in April '07, and it was suggested that we simply adopt the term "speculative materialism" from Meillassoux's book as a group name. 

But I pointed out to Ray that I'm not a materialist-- in my view materialism always veers toward idealism, because it always reduces objects to a fairly shallow set of discernible and humanly accessible properties. No appeal to the Marxist spirit of liberation can redeem materialism from its miserably flawed metaphysical attitude (here I'm speaking only for myself; my three colleagues are to some extent materialists, each in his own way).

Nonetheless, I told Ray I'd be willing to go along with "speculative materialism" if there were nothing better. But then Ray came up with "speculative realism" as a solution. It still seems like a reasonably good term to me (it's caught on fairly well in the blogosphere), but it only has value as a deliberately vague umbrella under which all four of us can huddle. By no means should it be seen as Meillassoux's new term for his own position; he's still quite attached to the phrase "speculative materialism," I believe. 

"Speculative realism" was a compromise between four people, nothing more.
...

titles, names. were needed for an academic conference. and a "compromise between four people, nothing more." quite.

...
and since we are about object-oriented philosophy what does this say about names and substitutes, what kind of objects are they. And that umbrella, that "deliberately vague umbrella" under which the four can huddle and not a little of the blogosphere that caught on.

Amie



.

roger said...

Amie, what damning quotes!
Interesting that the system in which baptism once operated, now operates with branding. Which, as we all know, comes from using the living hide, the skin, as one's medium for writing. I will reply to this more at length when I come back to Austin. Branding and substitution - hmm, this also takes me back to the post about advertising and addiction. Branding, in the world of marketing, is a form of naming that differs from baptism in that the marketer confronts the problem of parity products - products that are indistinguishable one from the other according to the tests they make on volunteers - the peanut butter or cigarettes that can't be distinguished in the blind test. So, as one marketer puts it, we make them "eat the image".

Which also takes me back to the artificial paradise, and Baudelaire's brilliant phrase about happiness: il faut d'abord avoir le courage de l'avaler.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that is quite the phrase by Baudelaire!

Here's something, though you might already know it.

http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/33

Amie