On Dark Realism: Part One

On Dark Realism

The question for speculative realism then becomes: of what does speculation consist? The answers to this are as diverse as the field of speculative realism itself. What they have in common, however, is a desire to break with the recollective model of knowledge as well as the authority of phenomena, and to engage problems that are, roughly speaking, metaphysical in nature.

 —Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism 

For me there is no natural or supernatural, we’ve been imposing human categories on the Real for so long that the these categories of thought have become reality rather than Real. Now that the actual Real is resisting our categories of thought we are left pondering all our idiotic axioms. The Real is what resists our explanatory explanandum; that is the only viable realism. It’s so dark and unknown that we must start from the beginning, erase the human categories of thought and begin negotiating and communicating with the resisting forces of the Real. This is not a War but an admission of absolute alterity in all relations. The non-human other is speaking to us, but we are not listening. Time to enter the dark…

Reading a recent essay by Eugene Thacker on Mark Fisher’s last book before his untimely death The Weird and the Eerie, he reminds us of a statement by H.P. Lovecraft from that horror writer’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Continue reading

Kant: Sensibility, Intuition, and Noumenon

Noumenon

Kant is specific when he tells us that the concept of noumenon is a “boundary concept”:

The concept of a noumenon is therefore merely a boundary concept, in order to limit the pretension of sensibility, and therefore only of negative use. But it is nevertheless not invented arbitrarily, but is rather connected with the limitation of sensibility, yet without being able to posit anything positive outside of the domain of the latter.1

This notion that noumenon is a limit concept, a negative limitation on sensible intuition which binds it to the circle of appearance and representation is a well known aspect of Kant’s system. He makes a point in acknowledging the limits of understanding and its use as empirical sensibility and that it “does not reflect on the sources of its own cognition” but is rather well suited to “determining for itself the boundaries of its use and knowing what may lie within and what without its whole sphere; for to this end the deep inquiries that we have undertaken are requisite.” (KL 8416) So Kant was already in agreement with those scientists who tell us that we might as well give up the notion of accessing the source of cognition since the very device (“cognition”) we would use to do so is blind to its own very real physical processes within the brain. Rather cognition was always built to confront the environment within which our evolutionary existence is tasked. No more, no less.

We’ll come to his definition and limitation of the Transcendental Analytic: That the understanding can never accomplish a priori anything more than to anticipate the form of a possible experience in general, and, since that which is not appearance cannot be an object of experience, it can never overstep the limits of sensibility, within which alone objects are given to us. (KL 8524) In other words we cannot step out of the circle of our sensible intuition to know things as they are in-themselves. Speculative realists want to call this the correlational circle.

Kant says it this way: “Thinking is the action of relating given intuitions to an object.” (KL 8530) Then will qualify it telling us that we have access not to the object-in-itself as it is, but rather we only ever have access to the thought of an object in general through the pure category in which an abstraction is made from any condition of sensible intuition as the only one that is possible for us. (KL 8532) It’s at this point that he introduces the division of phenomena and noumenon:

Appearances, to the extent that as objects they are thought in accordance with the unity of the categories, are called phaenomena. If, however, I suppose there to be things that are merely objects of the understanding and that, nevertheless, can be given to an intuition, although not to sensible intuition (as coram intuiti intellectuali),  then such things would be called noumena (intelligibilia). (KL 8551)

The key here is “intuition”. He will say that sensible intuition is what we as humans are limited too, yet whatever noumena are they might be given to another type of intuition. Then he’ll clarify this telling us that all we have is the sensible intuition of objects that are formed as representations from appearances, and that we never have access to objects directly but only indirectly through these same representations which through inference suggest a “transcendental object” independent of sensibility.(KL 8569) But because all we ever have access too is the representation of this object as sensible intuition it “cannot even be separated from the sensible data, for then nothing would remain through which it would be thought. It is therefore no object of cognition in itself, but only the representation of appearances under the concept of an object in general, which is determinable through the manifold of those appearances.” (KL 8576)

Again Kant will stipulate that sensibility and its field, namely that of appearances, are themselves limited by the understanding, in that they do not pertain to things in themselves, but only to the way in which, on account of our subjective constitution, things appear to us. This was the result of the entire Transcendental Aesthetic, and it also follows naturally from the concept of an appearance in general that something must correspond to it which is not in itself appearance, for appearance can be nothing for itself and outside of our kind of representation; thus, if there is not to be a constant circle, the word “appearance” must already indicate a relation to something the immediate representation of which is, to be sure, sensible, but which in itself, without this constitution of our sensibility (on which the form of our intuition is grounded), must be something, i.e., an object independent of sensibility. (KL 8585)

This notion that if we are not to be caught in a circle of idealism, that appearance itself “must already indicate a relation to something” that is outside sensibility to which the appearance as representation refers as an “object independent of sensibility”. So in this sense Kant is a realist. This is where it gets tricky because its this acknowledgement of an independent object existing outside sensible intuition to which our representations as appearances refer Kant develops his concept of noumenon. And, as he’ll stipulate it “is not at all positive and does not signify a determinate cognition of any sort of thing, but rather only the thinking of something in general, in which I abstract from all form of sensible intuition.” (KL 8591) He’ll continue:

But in order for a noumenon to signify a true object, to be distinguished from all phenomena,  it is not enough that I liberate my thoughts from all conditions of sensible intuition, but I must in addition have ground to assume another kind of intuition than this sensible one, under which such an object could be given; for otherwise my thought is empty, even though free of contradiction. To be sure, above we were able to prove not that sensible intuition is the only possible intuition, but rather that it is the only one possible for us; but we also could not prove that yet another kind of intuition is possible, and, although our thinking can abstract from that sensibility, the question still remains whether it is not then a mere form of a concept and whether any object at all is left over after this separation. (KL 8593-8602).

Humans he will tell us are only given sensible intuition, yet there must be “another kind of intuition than this sensible one, under which such an object could be given; for otherwise my thought is empty, even though free of contradiction.” As he states it sensible intuition “is the only one possible for us”, yet “another kind of intuition is possible” but to prove this is the problem as he suggests: “the question still remains whether it is not then a mere form of a concept and whether any object at all is left over after this separation”. This would be the Gordian knot of consciousness that would lead to so many blind alleys in the following two hundred years. In fact this is where philosophy is situated even today trying to get out of this box of sensibility. It might be that only the neurosciences might provide the clue. Or that we shuck the whole program of consciousness out the window and go with an asignifying form of materialist relations. Either way we’re stuck with this Gordian knot.

This is where he will once again reemphasize the concept of the noumenon, i.e., of a thing that is not to be thought of as an object of the senses but rather as a thing in itself (solely through a pure understanding), saying it is not at all contradictory; for one cannot assert of sensibility that it is the only possible kind of intuition. (KL 8621)

So in this sense the noumenon acts as a heuristic device to limit sensibility within the confines and boundaries of representational thought.  Kant will conclude saying whatever the object is in-itself, the noumenon, “will always remain unknown to us, so that it even remains unknown whether such a transcendental (extraordinary) cognition is possible at all, at least as one that stands under our customary categories. With us understanding and sensibility can determine an object only in combination. If we separate them, then we have intuitions without concepts, or concepts without intuitions, but in either case representations that we cannot relate to any determinate object.” (KL 8660-8667)

Kant came up against a wall realizing that at least from his philosophical notions of sensibility, intuition, representation we could infer that something exists independently of us, but we could not know what this something is; and, yet, he did not exclude that some other type or mode of intuition might someday allow access to this realm of the noumenon. Of course later philosophers, and even Kant’s contemporaries would begin elaborate critiques and problematizations of this whole representational theory of sensible intuition. Even now this is still not concluded. Those within both Speculative Realism and certain materialist philosophies have been trying since Kant to break out of this prison of sensibility, seeking a way into this other type or kind of intuition and a way to think and know the noumenal.

Critique’s of kant’s category theory

Some like my friend R. Scott Bakker say we should forget philosophy and hand it over to the neuroscientists who are already discovering heuristical and hardware devices to do just that. The point is that maybe evolution did not require us to “know” what things are in themselves, but rather gave us other survival mechanisms which allowed us to represent only what the brain gives us after it filters out the excess of reality and delivers to us the fragments and images we need to get on with the tasks at hand. The neurosciences have already shown us that we never perceive reality directly, but only after the fact, after the brain has processed all the data and filtered what it concludes is pertinent. We know and see only the history of this decision.

Kant’s buried himself in feed-back loops of brain and consciousness, where the latter is always bound to what the brain constructs in way of representations of reality objects rather than the objects as they are in themselves; and, truth be told, the brain neglects what isn’t needed or necessary for the task in hand, and it decides even the task. So we are bound to a realm of information neglect, blind to our own knowledge not even knowing that what we know is but a miniscule of the data our brain happily filters out. What we finally perceive as an “object” is but a fragment of what the brain registers then gives us as representation. We don’t even know that we neglect what we don’t know and will never know. Some term this “meta-cognitive myopia“.

Klaus Fiedler describes “meta-cognitive myopia”, using a term once suggested by Robyn Dawes, is the phenomenon that people are pretty accurate in utilizing even large amounts of stimulus information, whereas they are naive and almost blind regarding the history and validity of the stimulus data. This uncritical reliance on the information given is the most conspicuous when the task context makes it crystal-clear that the stimulus data (Kant’s sensible intuition) should not be trusted. In the introduction, MM is located within a broader framework of meta-cognition research, and several examples are provided to illustrate the phenomenon. The central message is laid out that MM offers an alternative account of many biases in judgment and decision making, which have been traditionally explained in terms of capacity constraints, limited reasoning ability, motivational forces, or severely biased environmental input. The explanatory power of the MM construct, and its theoretical potential to predict new findings, is then demonstrated in a major review section with reference to five paradigms:

  1. inability to discard irrelevant information;
  2. utilization of selectively sampled information;
  3. conditional inference biases;
  4. sample-size neglect;
  5. and myopia for the impact of aggregation levels.

The final discussion Fiedler tells us is concerned with the learning origins of MM and the question of why evolution did not equip Homo sapiens with more effective meta-cognitive tools. An analysis of the costs and benefits will reveal that MM may serve important adaptive functions, and that eliminating MM may have maladaptive effects. Nevertheless, in the context of many real decision problems, the costs and irrational consequences of MM cannot be denied.

R. Scott Bakker in a post The Metacritique of Reason will argue that Kant and his followers up to our own time believe that philosophical reflection possessed the capacity to apprehend the superordinate activity of cognition, that it could accurately theorize reason and understanding. We now possess ample empirical grounds to think this is simply not the case. There’s the mounting evidence comprising what Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin has termed the ‘Introspection Illusion,’ direct evidence of metacognitive incompetence or neglect, but the fact is, every nonconscious function experimentally isolated by cognitive science illuminates another constraining/constitutive cognitive activity utterly invisible to philosophical reflection, another ignorance that the Intentionalist believes has no bearing on their attempts to understand understanding. For Scott we are blind to our own cognitive capacities because of medial neglect, the way structural complicity, astronomical complexity, and evolutionary youth effectively renders the brain unwittingly blind to itself. Medial neglect means that the limits of cognition systematically elude cognition. We have no way of intuiting the swarm of subpersonal heuristics that comprise human cognition, no nondiscursive means of plugging them into the field of the natural. And so we become a yardstick we cannot measure, victims of the Only-game-in-town Effect, the way the absence of explicit alternatives leads to the default assumption that no alternatives exist.

Yet, we must go back to Kant’s original statement which stipulated cognition of this nondiscursive domain as a boundary concept in my opening remarks where he makes it obvious that sensibility has limits and is bound by limited capacity to cognize due to a lack of access to the “sources of its own cognition”. Kant was well aware that we are encompassed by a world of information to which we have no access too, and was trying to build tools to access only what is “given” to us through the mental fabrications that the brain “sources” constructs through its mechanisms. I think if Kant lived today he’d admit just how little philosophers truly know, and how much we coming to realize that the little we do know neglects a great deal. We build reality out of bits and pieces of what the brain sees fit to give us in way of evolutionary processes of signifying and asygnifying systems. For Kant we are limited to the boundary zone beyond which the “pretension of sensibility” has little access:

The concept of a noumenon is therefore merely a boundary concept, in order to limit the pretension of sensibility, and therefore only of negative use. But it is nevertheless not invented arbitrarily, but is rather connected with the limitation of sensibility, yet without being able to posit anything positive outside of the domain of the latter.

  1. Kant, Immanuel (1998-01-13). Critique of Pure Reason (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant) (Kindle Locations 8633-8634). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Tom Sparrow: On Graham Harman and Object-Oriented Ontology

HarmanPhoto

Returning once again to Tom Sparrow’s book on the various new realisms abroad in the philosophical scene we discover him in chapter four introducing us to Graham Harman and his brand of Speculative Realism termed Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). Harman early own was indebted to both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and their respective approaches to phenomenology. Yet, Harman would find problems with this tradition of what he termed the “philosophy of access”. As Sparrow describes it “phenomenology is, in Harman’s eyes, metaphysically limited because it effectively holds that the totality of what exists is identical to the totality of what appears to human consciousness”.1 Sparrow reminds us that Harman’s method of “reading phenomenology for unexpected clues to the hidden lives of objects” is not without complications and attendant metaphysical puzzles.2

Sparrow touches base with those specific phenomenologists that have left their mark on Harman’s thought. He begins with the work of Husserl who out of his apprenticeship to Franz Brentano developed the phenomenology and ultimately the methodology of phenomenological description that yields ideal species, involving what Husserl would later (notably in Ideas) call the “eidetic reduction”.  Husserl developed the method of epoché or “bracketing” around 1906. It may be regarded as a radicalization of the methodological constraint, already to be found in Logical Investigations, that any phenomenological description proper is to be performed from a first person point of view, so as to ensure that the respective item is described exactly as is experienced, or intended, by the subject. This deep-structure of intentional consciousness of the subject comes to light in the course of what Husserl calls the “phenomenological reduction” (Husserliana, vol. XIII, pp. 432 ff), which uses the mentioned method of epoché in order to make coherent sense, in terms of the essential horizon-structure of consciousness, of the transcendence of objective reality. The most global form of epoché is employed when this reality in total is bracketed. There is still something left at this point, though, which must not, and cannot, be bracketed: the temporal flow of one’s “present” experience, constituted by current retentions and original impressions.

As Sparrow tells us what Husserl discovered is that intentionality does not aim at qualities; it aims at objects. Even when someone investigates an object from a series of angles that yields countless disparate profiles (even drastically disparate, as in the case of a subway system or funhouse), he always take those profiles to be perspectives on the same object.3 The point being that the subject intends a specific substantial form or object rather than – as in empiricism, a bundle of impressions or qualities. For Husserl empiricism was the enemy for which phenomenology was the solution. As Sparrow demonstrates what makes Husserl an Idealist is his acknowledgement that what intentionality aims at throughout any series of profiles is not a real object located in the physical world. Rather it is an “ideal unity” or unifying form that binds all the qualities of the object together into a substantial form that is “immanent to consciousness”; a product constituted within intentionality.4 The point is that Husserl still held onto the need for the mind/world correlation in which the object was not mind independent but was immanent to consciousness of the human observer. For Harman it is the opposite: there is no need for the human or consciousness for the simple reason that all objects, humans included are real. It has nothing to do with some form of immanence conscious or otherwise.

What Harman takes from Husserl’s intentional methodology is the notion that intentions are not just something enacted by humans. Intentionality comes to figure as the very core structure of an object.5 This is where Harman will define the object as a unit: the object is not a solid, hard thing, but a thing that has a unified reality that is not exhausted by any relation to it, so that the intention as a whole is one thing.6 For Harman intentionality has two separate functions: 1) an “adhesive function”, that brings subject and object together to form a cohesive unity capable of being analyzed as such; and, 2) a “selective function”, intentionality applies a distinctive specificity when brining a subject and object together, as well as it works to draw out objects from the background of the perceptual environment.7

Husserl gave the uncanny feeling that we could have direct access to objects, or as Sparrow tells us he “makes it seem like we live among real objects”. But Harman will show this to be an illusion and that instead what we access is not the real object but profiles of objects, in what Harman calls “a strange medium located somewhere between substances and qualities, unable to touch either of them.”8 Sparrow speaking of Harman’s project says

Harman’s entire project is by his own admission an attempt to radicalize two paradoxes of intentional existence. First, within an intentional act subject and object are fused together in a single relation while still remaining separate from each other and the other objects in their vicinity. Second, any intentional object bears within it a tension between its unified core and its sensuous surface.9

Harman would discover in Husserl’s work the notion of a split object, of a separation between the real inner core and its sensual appendages or features. Harman presents us with an eliminative realism in the sense that a sensual object’s essence is never revealed to any spectator but might be attained by “subtracting [all of its] adumbrations” through the intellectual exercise that Husserl calls “eidetic variation.”10 The difference between Harman and Husserl comes down to his belief that the reality of objects is something that is closed off from both the senses and the intuitive intellect. They are not immanent to intentionality or necessarily correlated with human consciousness, which can only cut them down to human size.11 For Harman a full-fledged realism must give an account of interobject encounters and causal interaction when no humans are around as witnesses.12

… in the next part I’ll take up Harman’s relation to Heidegger as Sparrow interprets it.

1. Sparrow, Tom (2014-06-30). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP) (Kindle Locations 2563-2564). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 2585-3586)
3. ibid. (KL 2606-2608)
4. ibid. (KL 2611-2613)
5. ibid. (KL 2629-2630)
6. ibid. (KL 2633-2634)
7. ibid. (KL 2648-2649)
8. ibid. (KL 2656-2657)
9. ibid. (KL 2665-2668)
10. ibid. (KL 2680-2682)
11. ibid. (KL 2695-2697)
12. ibid. (KL 2727-2728)

Tom Sparrow: From Anti-Realism to Speculative Realism

 

Sparrow

Finally able to begin a back log of reading material that I’ve put off for several months. Several works in the past year or so have come out dealing with Speculative Realism (SR). Four in particular I’m in process of reading are

  1. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects by Peter Gratton
  2. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism by Steven Shaviro
  3. The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism by Tom Sparrow
  4. Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes by Peter Wolfendale

For personal reasons I started with Tom Sparrow’s work which outlines a case against the anti-realist tradition of phenomenology which he argues lacks both a method and a hard core kernel of realist philosophy. He takes Merleau Ponty to task in his appraisal of phenomenology as a style of philosophy, when Ponty states that in his opinion: “the responsible philosopher must be that phenomenology can be practised and identified as a manner or style of thinking, that it existed as a movement before arriving at complete awareness of itself as a philosophy.”1 For Sparrow phenomenology began as a method, a way of combating the naturalist stance of the sciences. As he tells us the phenomenological method, which began with Husserl was first and foremost a way to limit and humble the aspirations of the sciences by “calling radically into question the presuppositions of objectivist sciences and philosophy” (ibid., KL 349) As Sparrow states it:

The corrupting force, according to Husserl, is what he calls the “exteriorization” of reason in the naturalistic objectivism that dominates the science of his day. Naturalism attempts to subject every domain of existence to the rigor of mathematical science, and ideally limit the sayable to the language of mathematics. (ibid. KL 345)

In his preface he will ask What is Phenomenology? He’ll suggest the question as phrased has no answer because the idea of phenomenology “lacks a coherent center”. This is because phenomenology has yet to adequately clarify its “method, scope, and metaphysical commitments”. Ultimately, he tells us that such “clarification is critical to determining what phenomenology can do and assessing whether or not its practitioners are doing it well” (Sparrow, KL 176). The point being that without such clarification there can be no sound judgment, nor any real program for phenomenology.

In some ways Sparrow sees phenomenology within what might be termed a tradition of “discursive idealism” which accentuates the correlational loop of thought and being within the human for-us context that flows out of Kant’s transcendental idealism, which began with the premise that we never have access to Things-in-themselves (noumenal) but only have access to the sense-data objects of our senses as re-presented in the epistemological registers of our human consciousness.  As Sparrow himself will say:

Phenomenology does not get us to the noumenal, it instead keeps us chained to the phenomenal, where we have been all along. Despite appearances, only speculative realism can actually get us out of Kant’s shadow. (ibid. KL 246)

It was Heidegger, the student of Husserl who would stipulate the method of phenomenology as an abductive method rather than deductive “in the sense that it is committed to adducing the matters themselves through concrete experience. The matters themselves are the source of the method, as it were.” (ibid. KL 368) As Sparrow will note, this method of abductive reasoning will lead back to the heart of intentionality:

…by focusing on the “concrete” things themselves we are led back into the ground of experience, we lay open the foundation of experience, and are ultimately referred to the dimension of intentionality. Intentionality forms the subject matter of phenomenological research or, in Heidegger’s words, “Phenomenology is the analytic description of intentionality in its apriori.” (ibid., KL 371-374)

Many scientific naturalists see in this phenomenological approach, and specifically its concern with ‘intentionality’ as in itself the cornerstone of an error, an erroneous belief in mental states and states of affairs that do not exist in themselves. To go into this would lead me too far afield.

In this work Sparrow deals mainly with the phenomenological tradition extending from Husserl to Levinas and beyond, as well as those speculative realists who fly under that banner or against it. Those such as Graham Harman and his co-horts Levi R. Bryant, Ian Bogost, Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett.

In his pursuit of capturing the kernel of a realism in the phenomenological tradition he tells us that it will be discovered in its “rhetoric of concreteness,” within the nonphenomenological core of their work rather than in its phenomenological method per se. It was Bertrand Russell who once suggested that “the adoption of scientific method in philosophy … compels us to abandon the hope of solving many of the more ambitious and humanly interesting problems of traditional philosophy. Some of these it relegates, though with little expectation of a successful solution, to special sciences, others it shows to be such as our capacities are essentially incapable of solving”.2 This antinomic quality of philosophy is both it’s failure and its glory. Some have tried to resolve the antinomic quandaries by bringing thought and being together (idealism), while others have emphasized the inhuman core of things as independent of our thought altogether (realists). While others deal with that intermediary zone between the two realms of thought and being, what Zizek terms the gap, and others like Ray Brassier term the conceptual. This battle between idealism and realism has shifted in our time beyond the phenomenological world for-us and is shaping and re-invigorating philosophy from what Kant and his progeny assumed it to be in its limitation to finitude and what Harman terms the “philosophy of access”. Yet, their are divergent voices in this new tradition, and much renewed argument about just what has taken place in philosophy in its turn toward the Real. It is to this that Sparrow devotes one aspect of his book as it touches base with the kernel of the phenomenological method and its use for a new speculative philosophy.

Ultimately it comes down to the Intentional method itself, what Husserl termed epoché, or the phenomenal reduction (quoting John Sallis Sparrow states):

Husserl’s epoché is nothing other than the installment of the phenomenologist within the correlation of consciousness and being, otherwise known by phenomenology as intentionality or immanence.  The epoché enacts a reduction of transcendent being to immanent presence, and converts real objects into “irreal” or “intentional” objects by neutralizing their existence. As Sallis puts it, the έποχή [epoché] takes the form of neutrality-modification, neutralizing whatever real existence the object might otherwise be taken to possess, especially that unanalyzed objective existence that things in the world are naturally taken to have. By undergoing the reduction brought by the έποχή, objects come to be taken as being precisely insofar as they present themselves in an intentional experience – that is, as being precisely insofar as they are intentionally present. (ibid., KL 528-536)

The point for Sparrow is that phenomenology cannot have it both ways. It cannot continue to speak of overcoming metaphysics, while at the same time trying to be a realism. As Sparrow informs us phenomenology is forced into a choice: either it can prepare the groundwork for the end of metaphysics or it can make itself compatible with metaphysical realism. It cannot be both things at once. If it chooses to bring metaphysics to an end, then it forecloses the possibility of a realist phenomenology. If it allows a return of metaphysics in order to accommodate certain theological or other aspirations, then it can no longer be the harbinger of metaphysics’ demise. How it conceives itself methodologically will inevitably betray its preference for one side of this dilemma or the other.(ibid. 563-567)

One of the points that Sparrow makes is not that phenomenology should be abandoned, but that it should abandon the pursuit of realism itself and stick with the basic truths of its original vision: the human-centric worlds that it knows best, and the pursuit of epistemological constraints that guide and shape our modes of perception. What he seeks to demonstrate is that, while phenomenologists are often keen to present themselves as thinkers committed to the reality, if not materiality (Henry), of the world they describe, phenomenology is a poor conduit for delivering metaphysical realism:

On the contrary, phenomenology is a brilliant vehicle for antirealism in the Kantian vein, and if phenomenology is going to thrive in the contemporary philosophical milieu, it might do well to enthusiastically embrace its antirealist potential rather than disavowing it. This is a prospect that will inevitably appear unattractive to the adherents of the theological turn, but it is, I think, the best live option. So, when this book proclaims the end of phenomenology, it means that phenomenology as a method for realists has worn itself out. Phenomenology, if it means anything, is simply not a method that can commit itself to the human-independent reality of bodies, objects, qualities, properties, material, or events. (ibid., KL 462-468)

I wish that Sparrow might have dealt with the other two main philosophers of our age: Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. But, since this was a book limited to the specific area of Speculative Realism rather than the other more materialist traditions I can see why he chose to limit his work to specific philosophers.

I’ll have more to say about speculation and speculative realism in future posts. I’ll leave you with one last statement by Tom for whom speculative realism is not so much a school of thought, nor a philosophy that has a method; nor is it a unified movement, nor a radical philosophical approach to the praxis of philosophy itself. No. Instead it “is, on the contrary, a loose confederation of thinkers each of whom is committed to a kind of speculation that refuses to draw the limits of the real within the immanence of human consciousness”.(ibid., 607) What it proposes above all is to clear the ground upon which the Kantian edifice of anti-realism has closed philosophy off in a circle of human-centric stasis for far too long. It hopes to open us toward – as Quentin Meillassoux once stated it – to the “Great Outdoors” of Being itself. I would only add that it look at the cracks in Being, too.

One can find Tom on twitter, as well as his university site and his wordpress site: Plastic Bodies. Tom is the author of several works dealing with philosophy: Itinerant Philosophy: On Alphonso Lingis, A History of Habit: From Aristotle to Bourdieu, Plastic Bodies: Rebuilding Sensation After Phenomenology, and Levinas Unhinged. All excellent reads and worth your time.

1. Sparrow, Tom (2014-06-30). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP) (Kindle Locations 301-303). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
2.  On Scientific Method In Philosophy (see Books Online)

David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism & the Future of Humanity (Part 5)

Again I take up from my previous post David Roden’s Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Roden will argue in Chapter 5 that we need a new theory of difference to understand the disconnection between the human and posthuman. He will suggest that the difference should be conceived as an emergent disconnection between individuals, not in terms of the presence or lack of essential properties. He will also suggest that these individuals should not be conceived in narrow biological terms but in “wide” terms permitting biological, cultural and technological relations of descent between human and posthuman. (Roden, KL 2423)

Before beginning to unravel Roden’s thoughts we discover that the philosophy of Manuel DeLanda and his Assemblage Theory will play a major role in underpinning this project. DeLanda above all considers himself a realist, not in the naïve common sense view of the 19th Century, but in the sense that at the very least that reality has a certain autonomy from the human mind. Thus he makes an initial split between reality as it is, and reality as it appears to the human mind. Human access to reality is a sort of translation, distortion, transformation, simplification, or truncation of it.2

Manuel DeLanda

DeLanda also develops a theory of the assemblage grafting many of the ideas from Deleuze/Guattari. An assemblage entails that no object is a seamless whole that fully absorbs its components, and also entails an anti-reductionist model of reality. There is also no ultimate layer of tiny micro-particles to which macro-entities might be reduced. At whatever point we fix our gaze, entities are assembled from other entities: they can be viewed as unified things when seen from the outside, yet they are always pieced together from a vast armada of autonomous components. This also means that Delanda believes in genuine emergence. It is not possible to eliminate larger entities by accounting for the behavior of their tiniest physical parts. (Harman, 172) DeLanda himself will tell us:

Today, the main theoretical alternative to organic totalities is what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls assemblages, wholes characterized by relations of exteriority. These relations imply, first of all, that a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different. In other words, the exteriority of relations implies a certain autonomy for the terms they relate, or as Deleuze puts it, it implies that ‘a relation may change without the terms changing’. Relations of exteriority also imply that the properties of the component parts can never explain the relations which constitute a whole, that is, ‘relations do not have as their causes the properties of the [component parts] between which they are established …’ although they may be caused by the exercise of a component’s capacities. In fact, the reason why the properties of a whole cannot be reduced to those of its parts is that they are the result not of an aggregation of the components’ own properties but of the actual exercise of their capacities. These capacities do depend on a component’s properties but cannot be reduced to them since they involve reference to the properties of other interacting entities. Relations of exteriority guarantee that assemblages may be taken apart while at the same time allowing that the interactions between parts may result in a true synthesis.3

A central point in the paragraph above is that assemblage theory is based on an anti-reductionist in form or what one might term either anti-essentialist or anti-physicalist form of materialist discourse. He opts for what many now term a ‘flat ontology’, but by flat they do not mean that it could be reduced to some flat continuum, rather a flat ontology that allows countless layers of larger and smaller structures to have equal ontological priority. In this sense a flat ontology rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself. DeLanda promotes a hard core anti-essentialism as part of his assemblage theory:

The ontological status of any assemblage, inorganic, organic or social, is that of a unique, singular, historically contingent, individual. Although the term individual’ has come to refer to individual persons, in its ontological sense it cannot be limited to that scale of reality. Much as biological species are not general categories of which animal and plant organisms are members, but larger-scale individual entities of which organisms are component parts, so larger social assemblages should be given the ontological status of individual entities: individual networks and coalitions; individual organizations and governments; individual cities and nation-states. This ontological manœuvre allows us to assert that all these individual entities have an objective existence independently of our minds (or of our conceptions of them) without any commitment to essences or reified generalities. On the other hand, for the manœuvre to work, the part-to-whole relation that replaces essences must be carefully elucidated. The autonomy of wholes relative to their parts is guaranteed by the fact that they can causally affect those parts in both a limiting and an enabling way, and by the fact that they can interact with each other in a way not reducible to their parts, that is, in such a way that an explanation of the interaction that includes the details of the component parts would be redundant. Finally, the ontological status of assemblages is two-sided: as actual entities all the differently scaled social assemblages are individual singularities, but the possibilities open to them at any given time are constrained by a distribution of universal singularities, the diagram of the assemblage, which is not actual but virtual.(DeLanda, 40)

This notion of virtual/actual would take me too far away so I’ll let off from here. The main drift we take away from this is the sense that all entities are on equal footing, that they have an objective existence independent of our minds (i.e., against all Idealisms whatsoever), and the notion of emergence that entails the part-to-whole relation that cannot be reduced to an essential nature etc. are all keys within this notion of assemblage. An assemblage can be made up of independent assemblages, yet there is never a whole or totality, rather one might think of it as a cooperative or synthesis of assemblages that can disconnect or unplug and replug into further assemblages.

Back to Roden and the posthuman difference or disconnection thesis

Roden will begin with an ethical dilemma: We can either account for our technological activity and participation in this process that might lead to the posthuman, or we can discount it. To that he will say that “accounting for our contribution to making posthumans seems obligatory, but may be impossible in the cases that really matter; while discounting our contribution to posthuman succession appears irresponsible and foolhardy” (Roden, KL 2450). Either path will lead to an impasse he suggests. So what to do? First he says we need to schematically understand the basic premises of (SP) or speculative posthumanism. SP argues that the descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration (Roden, KL 2469). Because of this we discover SP recognizes the notion that posthumanity comes about as the result of a process of technical alteration; and, that it represents the relationship between humans and posthumans as a historical successor relation, wide descent (Roden, KL 2475).

Before understanding this sense of the divide or disconnect between human/ posthuman we must first realize he suggests that any theory will by necessity need to be value neutral: “the posthuman it is, it might be argued, not so loaded as to beg ethical questions against critics of radical enhancement” (Roden, KL 2496). What he is implying is that for transhumanists thinkers such as Nick Bostrom there is a positive ethical stance in place to promote both enhancement and augmentation of humans as part of a key component of the global corporate system in which the health, medical, pharmaceutical, technological etc. initiatives have placed it as part of its elite capitalist score card for future world society based on enhanced humans, creativity, technocapitalism, smart cities, etc. While SP has no agenda and is value free in this sense of not being aligned with corporate pressure or governmental control to promote its objectives and gain monetary allocation or funding for its agendas. (He does not state this explicitly, and these are my own views or reading between the lines).

Which brings up a good point. So far Roden’s discourse has kept a high profile academic style that tends toward laying out stage by stage the philosophical, scientific, and technological layers of his argument without going into any ethical or political commitments one way or the other. This is to me one of the bright points of the book. Too many works of late are all so value laden with political, cultural, social, religious, anti-religious or atheistic agendas that one is never sure of the truth under all the ideology. David’s discourse keeps the gray tones, but to a purpose, and is careful to use rhetoric that is value neutral in the way of clarifying and making explicit the underlying truth of the matter without leading the viewer astray with other issues that are extraneous to the main argument. This is not to say that we should not understand the ethical or social implications, and later in the book he will offer that as well. Just an observation. 

Roden will tell us that there is both the sense of a wide descent and a wide humanity: the one dealing with any relationship that can be technically mediated to any degree; the other dealing with the notion of any product of a technogenetic process (Roden, KL 2527). This will lead us back into that concept of assemblage discussed above in DeLanda’s work. If we place this descent and wide humanity within the context of human descent and narrow humanity we understand the notion of becoming human or hominization has involved a confluence of biological, cultural and technological processes. It has produced socio-technical “assemblages” where humans are coupled with other active components: for example, languages, legal codes, cities and computer-mediated information networks. (Roden, KL 2540)

He will, after DeLanda, suggest that narrow humans (Homo Sapiens) exist within a specific horizon of an extended socio-technical network of assemblages, and that whatever the posthuman entails it will inaugurate and emergence from or historical rupture with the narrow human network or assemblage. (Roden, 2564) More specifically any Wide Human descendent will become posthuman if and only if it has ceased to belong to WH (the Wide Human) as a result of technical alteration; and, second, that it is a wide descendant of such a being (outside WH) (Roden, KL 2588). This is the point when many would raise the ethical dilemmas faced by humanity. The simple truth of it is that we cannot reduce whatever the posthuman might become to some moral or immoral human essence or decision making process. Against any anthropological essentialism. Whatever WH might become they have the same ontological status (flat ontology) as our species (Homo sapiens). As Roden suggests they are both are complex individuals rather than kinds or essences. However, WH is constituted by causal relationships between biological and non-biological parts, such as languages, technologies and institutions. A disconnection event would be liable to involve technological mechanisms without equivalents in the biological world and this should be allowed for in any ontology that supports speculative posthumanism. (Roden, 2649)

For the rest of the chapter he goes over several aspects of his disconnection thesis: 1) modes of disconnection (i.e., greater cognitive powers, bodily configurations, linguistic and perceptual alterations, etc.); 2) is disconnection predictable? (unlikely that we will be able to discern the nature or the effects of feasible disconnection-potent technologies without building serviceable prototypes); 3) once the disconnection takes place how do we interpret these posthuman others? The last question he will choose both caution and opt for an accounting: “even if we enjoin selective caution to prevent worst-case outcomes from disconnection-potent technologies, we must still place ourselves in a situation in which such potential can be identified. Thus seeking to contribute to the emergence of posthumans, or to become posthuman ourselves…”(Roden, 2814). So that our best bet is not to turn a blind eye, nor to attempt a retreat and try to control this unpredictable emergence, but rather to keep an eye toward it, account for the anomalies that arise in our midst, keep looking for posthuman occurrence and if we discover it to provide an ongoing accounting and analysis of its paths and trajectories.

Summing up this notion of the disconnection thesis we discover that all it amounts to is an acknowledgement that at some future time technical alternations may occur that will provide a rupture and emergence of the posthuman, but what form it will take is not something we can extrapolate from current theory. The best we can do as he suggests is by satisfying our moral concern with our posthuman prospects through posthuman accounting is by seeking to produce or become posthumans. While objections to the policy of posthuman accounting on precautionary grounds have been deflected here, the reader could be forgiven for being dissatisfied by this resolution of the posthuman impasse. This resolution is tactical and provisional. However, before we are in a position to provide a more satisfactory resolution, in the form of an ethics of becoming posthuman, we will need to devise a general account of the posthuman autonomy or agency presupposed by the disconnection thesis and consider its general ontological requirements. (Roden, 2817)

We will turn to that in our next post.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Harman, Graham (2010-11-26). Towards Speculative Realism: Essays & (p. 174). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
3. DeLanda, Manuel (2006-09-14). A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (p. 10). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism & the Future of Humanity (Part 2)

In my last post on David Roden’s new book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human I introduced his basic notion of Speculative Posthumanism (SP) in which he claimed that for “SP … there could be posthumans. It does not imply that posthumans would be better than humans or even that their lives would be compared from a single moral perspective.” The basic motif is that his account is not a normative or moral ordering of what posthuman is, but rather an account of what it contains. 

In chapter one he provides a few further distinctions to set the stage of his work. First he will set his form of speculative posthumanism against the those like Neil Badmington and Katherine Hayles who enact a ‘critical posthumanism’ in the tradition of the linguistic turn or Derridean deconstruction of the humanist traditions of subjectivity, etc.. Their basic attack is against the metaphysics of presence that would allow for the upload/download of personality into clones or robots in some future scenario. Once can see in Richard K. Morgan’s science fictionalization (see Altered Carbon) of humans who can download their informatics knowledge, personality, etc. into specialized hardware that allows retrieval for alternative resleeving into either a clone or synthetic organism (i.e., a future rebirthing process in which the personality and identity of the dead can continually be uploaded into new systems, clones, symbiotic life-forms to continue their eternal voyage).  Hans Moravec one of the father’s of robotics would in Mind’s Children be the progenitor of such download/upload concepts that would lead him eventually to sponsor transhumanism, which as Roden will tell us is a normative claim that offers a future full of promise and immortality. Such luminaries as Frank J. Tipler in The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead would bring scientific credence to such ideas as the Anthropic Principle, which John D. Barrow and he collaborated on that stipulates: “Intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, will never die out.”

Nick Bostrom following such reasoning would in his book Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy supply an added feature set to those early theories. Bostrom showed how there are problems in various different areas of inquiry (including in cosmology, philosophy, evolution theory, game theory, and quantum physics) that involve a common set of issues related to the handling of indexical information. He argued that a theory of anthropics is needed to deal with these. He introduced the Self-Sampling Assumption (SSA) and the Self-Indication Assumption (SIA) and showed how they lead to different conclusions in a number of cases. He pointed out that each is affected by paradoxes or counterintuitive implications in certain thought experiments (the SSA in e.g. the Doomsday argument; the SIA in the Presumptuous Philosopher thought experiment). He suggested that a way forward may involve extending SSA into the Strong Self-Sampling Assumption (SSSA), which replaces “observers” in the SSA definition by “observer-moments”. This could allow for the reference class to be relativized (and he derived an expression for this in the “observation equation”). (see Nick Bostrom)

Bostrom would go on from there and in 1998 co-found (with David Pearce) the World Transhumanist Association (which has since changed its name to Humanity+). In 2004, he co-founded (with James Hughes) the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. In 2005 he was appointed Director of the newly created Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford. Bostrom is the 2009 recipient of the Eugene R. Gannon Award for the Continued Pursuit of Human Advancement and was named in Foreign Policy’s 2009 list of top global thinkers “for accepting no limits on human potential.” (see Bostrom)

Bostrom’s Humanity+ is based on normative claims about the future of humanity and its enhancement, and as Roden will tell us transhumanism is an “ethical claim to the effect that technological enhancement of human capacities is a desirable aim” (Roden, 250).1 In contradistinction to any political or ethical agenda (SP) or speculative posthumanism which is the subject of Roden’s book “is not a normative claim about how the world ought to be but a metaphysical claim about what it could contain” (Roden, 251). Both critical posthumanism and transhumanism in Roden’s sense of the term are failures of imagination and philosophical vision, while SP on the other hand is concerned with both current and future humans, whose technological activities might bring them into being (Roden, KL 257). So in this sense Roden is more concerned with the activities and technologies of current and future humans, and how in their interventions they might bring about the posthuman as effect of those interventions and technologies.

In Bostrom’s latest work Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies he spins the normative scenario by following the trail of machine life. If machine brains one day come to surpass human brains in general intelligence, then this new superintelligence could become very powerful. As the fate of the gorillas now depends more on us humans than on the gorillas themselves, so the fate of our species then would come to depend on the actions of the machine superintelligence. But we have one advantage: we get to make the first move. Will it be possible to construct a seed AI or otherwise to engineer initial conditions so as to make an intelligence explosion survivable? How could one achieve a controlled detonation? In my own sense of the word: we want be able to control it. Just a study of past technology shows the truth of that: out of the bag it will have its own way with or without us. The notion that we could apply filters or rules to regulate an inhuman or superintelligent species seems quite erroneous when we haven’t even been able to control our own species through normative pressure. The various religions of our diverse cultures are examples of failed normative pressure. Even now secular norms are beginning to fall into abeyance as enlightenment ideology like other normative practices is in the midst of a dark critique.

In pursuit of this Roden will work through the major aspects of the humanist traditions, teasing out the moral, epistemic, and ontic/ontological issues and concerns relating to those traditions before moving on to his specific arguments for a speculative posthumanism.  I’ll not go into details over most of these basic surveys and historical critiques, but will just highlight the basic notions relevant to his argument.

1. Humanists believe in the exceptionalism of humans as distinct and separate from non-human species. Most of this will come out of the Christian humanist tradition in which man is superior to animals, etc. This tradition is based in a since of either ‘freedom’ (Satre, atheistic humanism) or ‘lack’ (Pico della Mirandola). There will also be nuances of this human-centric vision or anthropocentric path depending stemming from Descartes to Kant and beyond, each with its own nuanced flavor of the human/non-human divide.
2. Transhumanism offers another take, one that will combine medical, technological, pharmaceutical enhancements to make humans better. As Roden will surmise, transhumanism is just Human 1.0 to 2.0 and their descendents may still value the concepts of autonomy, sociability and artistic expression. They will just be much better at being rational , sensitive and expressive – better at being human. (Roden, KL 403-405)
3. Yet, not all is rosy for transhumanists, some fear the conceptual leaps of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). As Roden tells us Bostrom surmises that “the advent of artificial super-intelligence might render the intellectual efforts of biological thinkers irrelevant in the face of dizzying acceleration in machinic intelligence” (Roden KL 426).
4. Another key issue between transhumanists and SP is the notion of functionalism, or the concept that the mind and its capacities or states is independent of the brain and could be grafted onto other types of hardware, etc. Transhumanist hope for a human like mind that could be transplanted into human-like systems (the more general formulation is key for transhumanist aspirations for uploaded immortality because it is conceivable that the functional structure by virtue of which brains exhibit mentality is at a much lower level than that of individual mental states KL 476), while SP sees this as possible wishful thinking in which thought it might become possible nothing precludes the mind being placed in totally non-human forms.

Next he will offer four basic variations of posthumanism: SP, Critical Posthumanism, Speculative realism, and Philosophical naturalism. Each will decenter the human from its exceptional status and place it squarely on a flat footing with its non-human planetary and cosmic neighbors:

Speculative posthumanism is situated within the discourse of what many term ‘the singularity’ in which at some point in the future some technological intervention will eventually produce a posthuman life form that diverges from present humanity. Whether this is advisable or not it will eventually happen. Yet, how it will take effect is open rather than something known. And it may or may not coincide with such ethical claims of transhumanism or other normative systems. In fact even for SP there is a need for some form of ethical stance that Roden tells us will be clarified in later chapters.

Critical posthumanism is centered on the philosophical discourse at the juncture of humanist and posthumanist thinking, and is an outgrowth of the poststructural and deconstructive project of Jaques Derrida and others, like Foucault etc. in their pursuit to displace the human centric vision of philosophy, etc. This form of posthumanism is more strictly literary and philosophical, and even academic that the others.

Speculative realism Roden tells us will argue against the critical posthumanists and deconstructive project and its stance on decentering subjectivity, saying  “that to undo anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism we must shift philosophical concern away from subjectivity (or the deconstruction of the same) towards the cosmic throng of nonhuman things (“ the great outdoors”)” (Roden, KL 730). SR is a heated topic among younger philosophers dealing with even the notion of whether speculative realism is even a worthy umbrella term for many of the philosophers involved. (see Speculative Realism)

Philosophical naturalism is the odd-man out, in the fact that it’s not centered on posthuman discourse per se, but rather in the “truth-generating practices of science rather than to philosophical anthropology to warrant claims about the world’s metaphysical structure” (Roden, KL 753). Yet, it is the dominative discourse for most practicing scientists, and functionalism being one of the naturalist mainstays that all posthumanisms must deal with at one time or another. 

I decided to break this down into several posts rather than to try to review it all in one long post. Chapter one set the tone of the various types of posthumanism, the next chapter will delve deeper into the perimeters and details of the “critical posthumanist” discourse. I’ll turn to that next…

Visit David Roden’s blog, Enemy Industry which is always informed and worth pondering.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

A Spectral Inaesthetics: A Manifesto

Dialectics alone might settle the Greek argument whether like is known by like or by unlike. If the thesis that likeness alone has that capacity makes us aware of the indelible mimetic element in all cognition and all human practice, this awareness grows untrue when the affinity—indelible, yet infinitely far removed at the same time—is posited as positive. In epistemology the inevitable result is the false conclusion that the object is the subject.

– Theodor W. Adorno,   Negative Dialectics

Blindness was ever an aspect of art…

– Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

 

The notion of an antithetical philosophy, one that goes against the grain of tradition or even contemporary soundings, that explicates the indiscernible truths that inhabit the hyperstitional, rather than the exposed and propounded truths that light up the fractured mediawaves of our collapsing Western mindset, this and this alone is the path of the inhuman in our time. I follow Badiou in seeking an art by way of aesthesis, by a material perception that is both immanent and singular. Art is immanent in the sense that its truth is given in its immediacy in a given work of art, and singular in that its truth is found in art and art alone—hence reviving the ancient materialist concept of “aesthesis”. Badiou views this as the link between philosophy and art and ties it into the motif of pedagogy, which he claims functions so as to “arrange the forms of knowledge in a way that some truth may come to pierce a hole in them”.

Yet, against Badiou who argued that “acceptable art must be subjected to the philosophical surveillance of truths”, as if the new nova police, the regime of some elite tribunal of truth procedures would oversee the art, philosophy, and education of the populace under the sign of mathematical purity, I offer only a Deleuzian line of flight, a rhizomatic escape valve that does not so much imply a hostility toward the mainstream, but rather it signals a desire to leave the society that exists, to leave it to its own devices, and to grow creative (with new devices) with other like-minded beings out of the ruins of late capitalism.

Rather than staying with the circle of mindfulness, the Kantian phenomenal realm of surface and texture, of the realm of the given – that which is for us – I seek the emptiness, voidness, openness, spaciousness, and vacuity of things, an immanence of their relations as invariant to the human, – as the inhuman within the human and beyond it. What this means is that there are certain consistencies in things and events that even if we as humans perceive them they cannot be constrained or changed by our interoperations and negotiations with them. What used to be the dualism of appearance and reality is marginalized into a monism that seeks neither the surface texture of phenomenon, nor the direct confrontation with things-in-themselves (Kant), but rather the workings of that strange agent at the core of our own being: the brain, creator of worlds and maker of all we know and see.

For it is the essential in our time to explore the operations of that singular organ from which all things proceed if we are ever to understand the truth of ourselves and the world we inhabit. We have no magic access to this organ, and in fact are blind to its processes, as well as ignorant of its ways of manipulating our reality towards ends of its own making. For too long we have presumed our power over the kingdoms of the natural realms, when we are not even masters in our own home. Philosophy has been unable to confront the truth of reality for the simple reason that we are bound by the inner constraints of an organ that was uniquely formed through evolutionary processes to know and understand its environment rather than its own nature.

The self-reflecting entity we assume is our self, the subject at the center of our consciousness if but the flotsam and jetsam of an afterthought, a temporary focal point for the complex operations of our brain in its infinitesimal complexity. We are but the artifacts of its devices, functions of its ongoing exploration of an environment from which it ions ago arose. Like drops of water in an infinite ocean of which we are unaware we flow forward into the realms of the senses taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and touch that our extended appendages have evolved for us.

We are neither the center nor circumference of all we purvey, but rather are the minute and insignificant animals we always were; and, yet because of our weaknesses we developed mental tools beyond the reach or capacity of our cousins in the ape kingdom in ways that were unforeseen. There never was a big Other behind the screen pulling the switches, guiding us toward some paradisial palace of dreams; instead, we are the happenstance accidents of an evolutionary process that is still ongoing, and will like all extinct creatures before us ultimately die off. It is not the individual that survives but rather the species.

With Copernicus came the displacement of the earth as the center of the cosmos. With Darwin the truth of our origins gave us again our true birthright as animals on an evolving planet revolving around a minor star on the edge of a minor galaxy. With Freud cam the knowledge that we are not even the master’s in our own homes: our bodies. And, now, we are entering what Luciano Floridi terms the “fourth revolution” in which a re-ontologization of humans and environment is taking place in which the older metaphysical oppositions and binary codes give way to an acknowledgement of the human as an information organism (inforg) within a complex environment of both natural and technological artifacts that we neither control nor command but as one among many live with on the same ontological footing.

This is not an essentialism, it is an acknowledgement of the voidic core at the heart of being which remains whether we perceive it or not. What this means is simply that one cannot identify one’s self as special, as distinct from all other life on the planet. The realm of nature and our artificial and technological realms – I reiterate, are not for us: not given. We are in the midst of a restructuring process of the notion of what it means to be human, our knowledge of ourselves is limited and fragmented since we as of yet know so little about the mechanics of our own brain much less the operations and informational indexes of our planetary life. What we do know is that our religious and philosophical, cultural and moral, mappings or cartographies of mind and nature need a thorough revamping. Our planet is in a precarious state, and we who know so little act as if we knew everything and can do with the earth what we will. We cannot. The time of human exceptionalism is at an end.

Against the phenomenological traditions based on notions of “intentionality” and “directedness” I seek a nondirected form of perception. Emptiness, the signless, and the undirected are names for a state of concentration that lies on the threshold of Unbinding. They differ only in how they are approached. Accordingly, they color one’s first apprehension of an Unbinding of things: a meditator who has been focusing on the theme of inconstancy will first apprehend Unbinding as signless; one who has been focusing on the theme of stress will first apprehend it as undirected; one who has been focusing on the theme of the inhuman will first apprehend it as emptiness. Though we perceive a world of concrete and discrete objects, these objects are “empty” of the identity imputed by their designated labels. What we perceive is there form emptied of meaning, which is the same as saying form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

For too long things have been attached to human meaning rather than being allowed to have their own meanings. What we seek is an unbinding of those human attachments of meaning: signs and intentional or directed impositions. One might say the unbinding is an act of seclusion, a separation out or unbinding of the constraints that humans have imposed on the forms of things to their own telos or purposes. Deprived of our sensory input, our bodily necessities and external desires the form of things can exhibit their own uniqueness, singularity, and solidarity beyond our human wants and desires. Stripped of human meaning the emptiness of things reveal and revel in their own powers and dispositions.

There is nothing new in this way, I’ve gleaned these ideas, notions, and thoughts from a myriad of sources in my life. From and early age I was trained in martial arts, and was heavily influenced by forms of Daoist and Buddhist forms of thought and life. The notion of Śūnyatā will be well known to those practitioners of the various traditions of the Mādhyamaka. Yet, against the notion of co-dependence and co-arising, an idealism in which things have no independence of their own but are like the Platonic Forms or Ideas (eidos) dependent on us arising with us in unison inwardly. I cut against this philosophical grain and formulate an independence of things that are no longer mind-dependent, a realism not of objects or subjects but of the void between them. At the heart of this is a substanceless view of reality, in which things, events, entities are less than nothing: for to say they are nothing is to give nothing a positive value, and to say they are not nothing is to give nothing a negative value. Instead, as Ray Brassier, remarks after Lacan:

To think oneself in accordance with a real which is without essence does not mean to think oneself to be this rather than that; a human being rather than a thing. To think oneself according to an inconsistent real which punctures nothingness itself means to think oneself as identical with a last-instance which is devoid of even the minimal consistency of the void. The real is less than nothing— which is certainly not to equate it with the impossible (Lacan).1

Against both Zizek and Badiou I oppose any return to a Transcendental Materialism of any form of stripe based on the subject or subjectivation, instead we seek a Transcendental Realism of the Void decentered of subject and objects altogether that accepts that which is form and number as information.

First we should grasp exactly what substance itself has meant in art and philosophy. The philosophical term ‘substance’ corresponds to the Greek ousia, which means ‘being’, transmitted via the Latin substantia, which means ‘something that stands under or grounds things’. According to the generic sense, therefore, the substances in a given philosophical system are those things which, according to that system, are the foundational or fundamental entities of reality. Substances are a particular kind of basic entity, and some philosophical theories acknowledge them and others do not.3

Zizek in his critique of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics puts his hands on the ball then falls back to his own subject based self-reflecting nothingness, etc., when he says:

We can see now why Adorno’s project of “negative dialectics,” which sees itself as the overcoming of Hegel’s “positive” dialectics, misses the point. “Negative dialectics” wants to break out of the confines of the “principle of identity” which enslaves or subordinates every otherness through conceptual mediation. In Hegel’s idealism, negativity, alterity, and difference are asserted, but only as subordinate secondary moments serving their opposite— the absolute Subject re-appropriates all otherness, “sublating” it into a moment of its own self-mediation. Adorno counters this with his “primacy of the objective”: instead of appropriating or internalizing all otherness, dialectics should remain open towards it, granting ultimate primacy to the objective over the subjective, to difference over identity. (Zizek, KL 6094-6107)

What Zizek tries to do is overturn Adorna’s conception and tell us that it is not Hegel but Adorno himself who is caught in the webs of “identitarian” thought:

…it is Adorno’s “negative dialectics” which, paradoxically, remains within the confines of “identitarian” thought: the endless critical “work of the negative” which is never done, since it presupposes Identity as its starting point and foundation. In other words, Adorno does not see how what he is looking for (a break-out from the confines of Identity) is already at work at the very heart of the Hegelian dialectic, so that it is Adorno’s very critique which obliterates the subversive core of Hegel’s thought, retroactively cementing the figure of his dialectic as the pan-logicist monster of the all-consuming Absolute Notion.

Instead it is Zizek himself who is caught in the webs of the Subject, the voidic self-reflecting navel gazing object of his less than nothing identity-void, the core of his lack, the void of his own existence.

Yet, if one reads Adorno’s Negative Dialectics carefully what Zizek implies is a falsification of its features. Zizek has this habit of always turning the screw, of doubling back, of twisting the kernel of another’s conception so that it benefits Lacan or Hegel his pet progenitors, his chosen fathers: his Oedipal fixation and fetish. Against this Adorno holds that dark realities can eclipse dazzling ideas, and that theory, however noncontradictory, cannot undo a contradictory practice. He contends that if nonidentical objects belie the identity of subjectivism—even of collective subjectivism—that identity is not truth but a lie. And his defense of all this, the reason why a believer feels compelled to disavow articles of his own creed, is that the negativity of the concrete particular, of things as we see and experience them in our time, makes his the true, the “negative” dialectics.

As Adorno himself states it:

Nonidentity is the secret telos of identification. It is the part that can be salvaged; the mistake in traditional thinking is that identity is taken for the goal. The force that shatters the appearance of identity is the force of thinking: the use of “it is” undermines the form of that appearance, which remains inalienable just the same. Dialectically, cognition of nonidentity lies also in the fact that this very cognition identifies—that it identifies to a greater extent, and in other ways, than identitarian thinking. This cognition seeks to say what something is, while identitarian thinking says what something comes under, what it exemplifies or represents, and what, accordingly, it is not itself. The more relentlessly our identitarian thinking besets its object, the farther will it take us from the identity of the object. Under its critique, identity does not vanish but undergoes a qualitative change. Elements of affinity—of the object itself to the thought of it—come to live in identity.4

The point here is that there is another use of the notion of identity that Zizek would have us forget or pass over, and instead attributes to Adorno and identitarian thought that is not his at all. As Adorno remarks:

To define identity as the correspondence of the thing-in-itself to its concept is hubris; but the ideal of identity must not simply be discarded. Living in the rebuke that the thing is not identical with the concept is the concept’s longing to become identical with the thing. This is how the sense of nonidentity contains identity. The supposition of identity is indeed the ideological element of pure thought, all the way down to formal logic; but hidden in it is also the truth moment of ideology, the pledge that there should be no contradiction, no antagonism. (Adorno, KL 2700-2704)

But how to attain the real sense of the identity of things that do not trap them in a substantive formalism? Again Adorno:

Such hope is contradictorily tied to the breaks in the form of predicative identity. Philosophical tradition had a word for these breaks: “ideas.” They are neither nor an empty sound; they are negative signs. The untruth of any identity that has been attained is the obverse of truth. The ideas live in the cavities between what things claim to be and what they are. Utopia would be above identity and above contradiction; it would be a togetherness of diversity.

Let’s reread that. These “ideas” are neither sound nor empty sound, they are negative signs; and, this identity is not founded on truth or truth procedures, but untruth and lies; and, these ideas live in the void between things and events rather than in the substantive form of the thing, entity, or object itself as self-identity. This would be a substanceless philosophy based on a negation of human meaning, signs, identities, subjectivities, etc. One that unbinds the thing from its identity and allows an ontology of sound (negative signs) as ideas, as vibrant tonal and atonal dialectic of sound and noise generative and productive within the void between what things and events claim to be and what they are. Isn’t this what Zizek himself once affirmed in Organs Without Bodies “a true materialism joyously assumes the “disappearance of matter,” the fact that there is only void.”

So an inaesthetic philosophy shall follow the negative vita of Adorno while admitting that even Zizek does not know what he knows. We are moving toward an informational ontology here; one that includes the noise of resistance at its core, a cry from the void. Noise is a double-edged sword that can form the core of an inaesthetic resistance toward command and control, but it can also in turn allow those very systems to in turn sap our cognitive resources and abilities, leaving at best only survival, consuming and escapist practices in their wake.

As for Floridi and his accounts of inforspheres, inforgs, and information, he adds a new form of “conceptual design”:

Philosophy as conceptual design  is therefore a realistic philosophy, which treats semantic artefacts as mind-and reality-co-dependent, in the same way as a house is not a representation but the outcome of a specific architectural design both constrained and afforded by the building materials.9

But against this notion of co-dependence which still seems an idealism turned inward one must affirm otherwise that this is not a realism since it does not affirm the independence of the real, but rather makes it dependent upon the mind even if that mind is an information organism. We must find a foothold in the realm of a realism that affirms the transcendent power of the external in the concept for this notion of conceptual design to gain traction. Much work needs to be done here.

In the worlds of myth that have slipped through the secular gates of our age there is a resuscitation of those old legends of the Jewish people that have remained among us like broken vessels seeking redemption. These Jewish rabbis of the Kabbalah once told of a great tree which made up the body of God. That before our world God had created many worlds before ours and destroyed them all dissatisfied with their imperfections. The Bahir  speaks of the Sefiroth Gevurah or Din as the Left Hand of God, and so as a permitted evil. Out of this came the Kabbalistic doctrine that located evil in the spaces of reason, or in Kabbalistic terms Din brought forth the sitra ahra or “the other side,” the sinister qualities that came out of a Name of God, but fell away from the Name.

The Zohar assigned to the sitra ahra ten Sefirot all its own, ten sinister crowns representing the remnants of worlds that God first made and then destroyed. In one of the great poetic images of esoteric tradition, Moses de Leon compared evil to the bark of the tree of the Sefirot, the kellipah. The creatures of this bark – Samael and his wife Lilith, or Satan and the chief of the Witches – became the Zohar, almost worthy antagonists of God. Kellippot, conceived first as bark, became regarded also as husks or shells or broken vessels of evil. But even in the Kellippot, according to the Zohar, there abides a saving spark of good. This notion, that there are sparks in the kellippot that can be redeemed, and redeemed by the acts of men alone and not of God, became the starting point of Kabbalah.5

Walter Benjamin once remarked that in “the idea of a classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And this is a good thing. It was only when the Social Democrats elevated this idea to an “ideal” that the trouble began.”6 As we move forward let us remember that a secularized notion of Kabbalah would also entail the need to redeem democracy from its dark husks that have been entrapped like lost sparks in a dead body, the dead body of Capital. Is this political mysticism, or an inaesthetic appropriation of artistic and religious designs toward secular ends? In using this outmoded forms of religious myth, ritual, and practice are we not giving way to those secret hyperstitional worlds that surround us in the shadows like so many demons waiting to have their moment in the light? Are, or we rather exposing the underlying belly of social forms that need to be thought through so that the sparks or ideas hidden in their secularized voids might benefit us as we emerge from our own evil husks within the ruins of late capitalism?

Maybe like Marx we need a messianic time, a time of renewal and hope, a time to reawaken from our dark dreams of capital and reaffirm the impulses and pulses of those ideas that once trumpeted through the evil husks of the 19th Century a message of communal solidarity and freedom, based on propertyless rights and a sense of justice that was inclusive of all those inhuman creatures which we share this planet with. And even if Marx himself did not think of those creatures in those terms we do, and that is enough. Yet, in this messianic time there will be no influx of the divine, but rather an influx of the void at the heart of things devoid of our human impositions and constraints. For too long we have looked upon the world as given, and tried to read the earth as if it were a repository of signs for us to decipher by the discovery of gaps, absences, and tensions inherent in the world-as-text. No more, no semiotician will decipher this knot of dark kellipots, nor redeem us from our own broken vessels. The earth is not our book, neither is it our network or assemblage, it is neither a totality nor some incomplete object to be concluded. It is an open mystery, neither to be contemplated nor known in its entirety, rather it is part of an ongoing process that is the universe of which we are finite sparks of informational negativity seeking to understand our place in it instead of mastering it for our own use.

And what if this is all conjecture, opinion, speculation? What then? That old goat, Nietzsche believed the little lies we tell ourselves, the logical fictions, the philosophical spin to keep ourselves alive were healthy:

The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live–that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.7

Did not Adorno himself admit as much: “Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity.”8 But this is not Platonic realm of eternal forms, this is a creation of necessity, of the moment, temporary autonomous zones of hazard and risk where the concept, idea, and world come together in strange ways and form relations into odd entities that did not exist before. Like everything art is a product of history, a desiring production of temporary duration, that once it melds with the mesh of the world will – as all things do, pass away. But in the movement of the world that art is we begin to perceive those transitions and becomings that register the virtual patterns of our lives in ways unforeseen. Art is neither mirror nor lamp, but the negative refraction of that spark which lives in the void of your being; and, this is not some transcendental category of subjectivity beyond the present moment, rather it is the immanent relation of your livingness in this becoming instant, a slip from the river of time, a dance on the edge of that black hole where all things – even light fall forward.

Fugitive guests in the midst of complex systems we did not conceive we travel among their becoming processes, neither directed nor directing their paths toward ends other than those offered through their particular modes of existence . We have learned to invent spaces of habitation in the midst of this vast wilderness of timespace, and are only beginning to realize that our continuity is with all the forms of existence we share this fragile earth with. We can no longer think of ourselves independent of the environment which encompasses us and is our actual not virtual foundation. Our lives as a species – and we are not singular, but a multitude – begin and end in this environmental fold as willing guests or as victims of our own misguided volitions. We must choose our path forward. Let us choose wisely. We have much to learn together, and it is a collective enterprise not some solitary game or strategy of reason and power. May we all come together and reason at the table of our habitation and create a way for us all rather than for the few and the mighty.

This is only a beginning – our beginning
————————————-

1. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, London: Palgrave Macmillan 2007, p. 137.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 21362-21368). Norton. Kindle Edition.
3. Robinson, Howard, “Substance”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/substance/&gt;.
4. Adorno, Theodor W. (2003-12-16). Negative Dialectics (Kindle Locations 2692-2699). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
5. Moshe Idel. Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation (Ernst Cassirer Publications Fund, 2002)
6. Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938-1940. ( Harvard University Press, 2006)
7. Nietzsche, Friedrich; Bill Chapko (2010-03-01). Nietzsche’s Best 8 Books (Gay Science, Ecce Homo, Zarathustra, Dawn, Twilight of the Idols, Antichrist, Beyond Good and Evil, Genealogy of Morals) (Kindle Locations 14946-14952).  . Kindle Edition.
8. Theodor W. Adorno. Aesthetic Theory. (University of Minnesota Press, 1997)
9. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 2). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

Levi R. Bryant: Powers, Dispositions and the Analytical Debate

Meaning depends on rules governing use. To say what an expression means is to say what criteria govern its application across all the contexts in which it can be applied.

the late George Molnar. Powers: A Study in Metaphysics

In analytical circles the very notion of disposition is controversial, much less trying to define just what it is. Instead we might ask: What do powers and dispositions do?

Continuing my reading of Levi R. Bryant’s new book Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media under the heading “Machines Are Split Between their Powers and Products” he makes the assertion that the “being of a machine is defined not by its qualities or properties, but rather by the operations of which it is capable” (40).1 First we need to return to what Levi means by “operations”. What Levi is trying to do is move the ball out of the older ontological perspective of subject/object debates. When we think of objects we automatically infer that there must be a relation to a subject and vice versa. But is this true? It may or may not be, but that’s Levi’s point, metaphysics has a history of debating this from every angle to the point that any further debate seems futile. So instead of continuing the debate Levi has changed the terms of the debate from one of subject and objects to the notion of units and operations, or machines and their input/outputs, etc. Relying on Ian Bogost’s articulation of the notion of an operation who defined “…an operation is a basic process that takes one or more inputs and performs a transformation on it”2. Bogost explicating this in a previous book:

I use the term operation very generally, covering not only this traditional understanding but also many more. Brewing tea is an operation. Steering a car to avoid a pedestrian is an operation. Falling in love is an operation. Operations can be mechanical, such as adjusting the position of an airplane flap; they can be tactical, such as sending a regiment of troops into battle; or they can be discursive, such as interviewing for a job. A material and conceptual logic always rules operations. In their general form, the two logics that interest the present study are the logic of units and the logic of systems. In the language of Heidegger, unit operations are creative, whereas system operations are static. In the language of software engineering, unit operations are procedural, whereas system operations are structured.3

For Levi its this sense of a procedural rather than a structural operation that counts for the actions of machines as they provide outputs or receive inputs. So that instead of an ontology based on a structural descriptive approach we get one based on the pragmatic performance of the operations of machines and processing entities that provide inputs and outputs according to the dictates of particular powers and dispositions.

Continue reading

Levi R. Bryant: Machines, Materialism and Onto-Cartography

Everywhere it is machines – real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections.

– Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Levi R. Bryant in his new book Onto-Cartography nods toward Deleuze and Guattari reminding us that in Anti-Oedipus they’d recognized or contended that Freud’s great discovery was the “productive unconscious or unconscious as a factory” (40).1 Levi agrees with them that against Freud’s later investment in Oedipus and the theatre of representation that the unconscious is instead a factory for producing desires, that production not expression, operation not representation, is at the heart of the system we term the unconscious. “Machines do not express, represent, and do not constitute a theatre.” Levi tells us. “Rather, all machines are factories producing outputs through their operations.” (40)

Levi in his book on Deleuze Difference and Givenness – Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence once recommended that to understand Deleuze meant adopting his methodology, a methodology which began with problems rather than thesis to be expounded or expressed. Levi also recommended that in approaching the work of Deleuze that we not get bogged down in any specific set of concepts concerning the problems he grappled with such as him being against representation, established morality, recognition, the State, and so on, ad nauseam. Bryant affirms that taking up the stance of being against something: representation, established morality, etc. is ultimately self-defeating. It is to take up a normative stance which is contrary to Deleuze’s philosophical divagations. Instead Deleuze faces problems to which his philosophy is either a solution or a partial answer, and that his thought responds to a philosophical situation (Badiou) “characterized by the primacy of identity and representation as the common sense or historical a priori within which he finds himself” (DG, 5). Yet, as Levi, stipulates we must not stop there, nor assume that Deleuze thought that the problem was either identity or representation. No. Instead, Deleuze against his more romantically inclined followers sees no issue with representation, identity, and recognition per se; no, these for Deleuze were real phenomena and worthy of investigation. What Deleuze was against was the notion of reducing these concepts to metaphysical or epistemological primitives. For Deleuze argued that when these concepts are reduced in this fashion philosophy falls into indissoluble problems, so Deleuze’s philosophy of the problem was to develop a system that would allow the wary philosopher to navigate through or beyond these insoluble problems and discover alternative lines of flight and thought. (DG, 5)

Continue reading

Visionary Materialism: Entheogens, Magic, and the Sciences

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

– Arthur C. Clarke

Actually the quote above was the last of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous three laws of “prediction”:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

v

Long ago my quest into philosophy, materialism, and the worlds of the sciences emerged from life experiences that converged in the late 1960’s era of Viet Nam, Psychodelia, and street activism in the United States. Having been raised in an isolated conclave of security and cultural conservatism in Odessa, Texas, where the world of Oil and country music were King (although Buddy Holly, Elvis, and other southerners managed to keep to the air waves) I lived in a bubble world of ideological ignorance. Can I blame my parents, grandparents, etc.? Not really. Part of the general ideological passivity of the era that was still in the aftermath of WWII, the 50’s fear mongering, and the culture of religion ( West Texas being on the edge of the notorious Bible Belt). Luckily for me my Dad was pretty much an agnostic, my mother a reserved Methodist who’d abandoned her Church because of its new turn toward apocalypticism. All part of the fare of that world. Hell for me it was all about sports, football in particular. If you’ve ever seen the movie Friday Nights Live or the tv series by that name you’ll know that it was based on a specific High School in Odessa, Permian High School. I admit that I never got to play there because my family just on my cusp of entering that institution moved to Houston (another tale). But I grew up in its culture having had cousins, second cousins, etc. who did go there. Odessa was still a bubble community where everyone new about, of, or personally everyone else. It was a racist town with segregation that took a while to change – if it ever did?

Sadly it was from this closed ideological village of stupidity and ignorance that I emerged during the Viet Nam draft era. Realizing I had two options: 1) run away to Canada; or, 2) join the Air Force or Navy rather than allow the Army to enslave me. Being a Son of the South and engrained with all its ideological colorings I chose the supposed honorable path of joining the Navy. What a mistake! Not that the Navy isn’t a great way to escape the tedium of that West Texas desert of mesquite, sulphurous oil fumes, clichy, tumbleweeds, etc., but I had no real idea what I was getting into at all. (Another tale… )

You may be wondering: Why the hell is this guy baring his personal bullshit online? It’s not some confessional believe me, it’s actually to show how each of us are the fruit of certain epigenetic environmental pressures. Our lives are not whole cloth as some of us would like to assume. I think it was Emerson who once spoke of the long shadow: “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man”. For me life itself is that shadow in the personal. We are born in ignorance with brains that have evolved over eons to meet the pressures of our external environments, to grapple with the materiality of existence, to be selective toward all things in our environment for certain reproductive and survival reasons. Yet, over time something happened, something changed in the animal called humanity: we developed that ability to speak and to reflect upon our speech thereby producing strange anomalies in our brain that evolved into what many unknowing philosophers now want to call the Mind. They talk of the Mind as if it were something different, unique, separate from the brain itself. There are so many notions concerning the mind and its child, consciousness, that it might fill an encyclopedia like Britannica many times over.

That is not my subject.

Continue reading

The Commodification of Creativity: Flows, Nodes, and Transformation in the 21st Century

When we spy our technological fate in the distance, we should not reel back in horror of its inevitability; rather, we should lurch forward in preparation.

– Kevin Kelly,  What Technology Wants

Reading Will Doig’s older portrayal of sentient cities on Salon.com I was reminded of the hype surrounding these new ubiquitous systems of infrastructure and architecture arising around the globe.  As Doig reminds us all “this radical re-imagining of city life is a classic example of top-down urbanism, treating the residents as a problem to be solved rather than as part of the solution.” Maybe that’s it, most of these companies like Cisco and IBM that are offering their computing and networking ideologies to the world’s city managers are stuck in the 20th Century dreaming of utopian markets where capitalism makes a final comeback as the engine of creation at the heart of every intelligent city. I’m sure that if you talked to representatives from these firms they’d spout a complete litany of optimism and advanced technological know-how that will transform the world. But as Doig iterates this top-down planned society of technology may not be the best approach.

My problem is not so much all the optimistic enthusiasm and technological utopianism as it is the actual philosophy behind these new intelligent or sentient cities with their 100 million sensors encased in the flows of the infrastructure and architectures. What’s behind this? If it is a top-down approach, who are those on the top planning this? And what do they want from these cities? And, more to the point, what do the cities themselves – if they are to be sentient – want?

Continue reading

Call for Papers: Philadelphia Summer School in Continental Philosophy

Leon Niemoczynski reminded me of a new Call for papers which will touch on speculative realism and connections to philosophy of religion.

Call for Papers: Philadelphia Summer School in Continental Philosophy – Topic: Continental Philosophy of Religion and the New Metaphysics

Topic: “Continental Philosophy of Religion and the New Metaphysics” (featuring seminars on the work of Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, Bruno Latour, and Catherine Malabou)

Seminar Leader: John Caputo

When and where:

Saturday, August 9th, 2014; 9am-4:30pm

Campus of Immaculata University

Malvern, Pennsylvania

***

Continue reading

Notes on Levi R. Bryant’s Onto-Cartography: Chapter One

Young Man: In this process of “working up to the matter” is it your idea to work up to the proposition that man and a machine are about the same thing, and that there is no personal merit in the performance of either?

Old Man: Yes—but do not be offended; I am meaning no offense.

– from Mark Twain,  What is Man?

Mark Twain lived in a deterministic universe. For him the environment ruled all, external influences controlled, directed, and commanded both human and inhuman agencies from end to end. He might also be the progenitor of what my friend R. Scott Bakker terms the Blind Brain Theory:

Young Man: Oh, come! Where did I get my opinion that this which you are talking is all foolishness?

Old Man: It is a quite natural opinion—indeed an inevitable opinion—but you did not create the materials out of which it is formed. They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings, gathered unconsciously from a thousand books, a thousand conversations, and from streams of thought and feeling which have flowed down into your heart and brain out of the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors. Personally you did not create even the smallest microscopic fragment of the materials out of which your opinion is made; and personally you cannot claim even the slender merit of putting the borrowed materials together. That was done automatically—by your mental machinery, in strict accordance with the law of that machinery’s construction. And you not only did not make that machinery yourself, but you have not even any command over it.1

For Twain the presumption of free will was erroneous, a belief that would fall away one day.  We are the end product of the brain’s ongoing processes, temporary agents or functions in a never-ending cycle of environment testing. We are blind to the very processes of choice and decision that control our lives. We are in fact according to Twain nothing more than mere automata – biological machines built by natural selection over the course of history. The young man of the tale argues that we are free and willing creatures. But the old man says: “I am sorry, but you see, yourself, that your mind is merely a machine, nothing more. You have no command over it, it has no command over itself—it is worked solely from the outside. That is the law of its make; it is the law of all machines.”

Continue reading

The Rise of the Machines: Brandom, Negarestani, and Bakker

Modern technological society constitutes a vast, species-wide attempt to become more mechanical, more efficiently integrated in nested levels of superordinate machinery.

– R. Scott Bakker, The Blind Mechanic

Ants that encounter in their path a dead philosopher may make good use of him.

– Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice 

We can imagine in some near future my friend R. Scott Bakker will be brought to trial before a tribunal of philosophers he has for so long sung his jeremiads on ignorance and blindness; or as he puts it ‘medial neglect’ (i.e., “Medial neglect simply means the brain cannot cognize itself as a brain”). One need only remember that old nabi of the desert Jeremiah and God’s prognostications: Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t… And, like Jeremiah, these philosophers will attack him from every philosophical angle but will be unable to overcome his scientific tenacity.

Continue reading

Levi R. Bryant: First Impressions on Onto-Cartography

Onto-cartography is the investigation of structural couplings between machines and how they modify the becoming, activities, movements, and ways in which the coupled machines relate to the world about them. It is a mapping of these couplings between machines and their vectors of becoming, movement, and activity.

– Levi R. Bryant, Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media

I have barely even begun to delve into Levi’s new work but already I’m pleased with the way he is approaching his investment in materialism. There is an opening preface by Graham Harman that introduces Levi’s previous and current work and situates it within Speculative Realism. Harman is generous with his praise telling us that Onto-Cartagraphy “is not only a thought-provoking and erudite book, but also a thoroughly enjoyable one”.1 I concur so far I’m impressed with Levi’s keen sense of materialism’s many traditions and how he differentiates the subtitles and nuances of these various forms. One thing he does right off the bat is to let the reader in on his own philosophical conversion. Levi like many of us had been weaned on twentieth-century Continental philosophy or as many term it the ‘Linguistic Turn’. Levi had gone the full gamut and become convinced that the socio-cultural or discursive materialism arising out of this era was the only way to go. Yet, something happened.

Continue reading

Tom Sparrow: Levinas Unhinged Arrived!

One recent day I realized that I had written several interrelated essays— which is to say, a book— on Levinas’s philosophy. … Its purpose is to exhibit what might be called a proto-materialist metaphysics leaking through the cracks of the familiar portrait of Levinas as a philosopher of transcendence. It resists the well-worn view that the Levinasian problematic is primarily, if not exclusively, ethical or theological in nature. The singular claim uniting the following chapters is that Levinas provides us with a speculative metaphysics and aesthetics which foregrounds the following: the body in its materiality; the irreducibility of aesthetic experience; the transcendental function of sensation; the ecological aspect of sensibility; the horror of existence. Levinas surprisingly keeps pace on occasion with philosophers of immanence like Gilles Deleuze.

– Tom Sparrow, Levinas Unhinged

I forgot I had preordered Tom’s book on Levinas and got a pleasant surprise this morning when I turned on my kindle fire. I like where he’s going with this and cannot wait to dig in today sitting in my cool pool sipping lemonade. Right… yea, the temperatures have been well above the 110 degree Fahrenheit for well over a week. We’re expecting a little rain later, but in Phoenix when it rains its a monsoon (and, yes, we have a monsoon season) that flushes the skies with muddy waters. But, hey, who cares when you have such great fare to read while the mud flashes by on the desert. I’ll have more to say on Tom’s work if the mud doesn’t float me off somewhere… otherwise I’ll be in that cool pool shades drawn over a too bright sunglint reading… reading… and, thinking as usual…

Yet, already, I’m distracted by the possibilities of Tom’s work. He admits that those rigid defenders of Levinas will probably stand aghast at his work of, as he terms it, ‘impiety’: “I am not trying to “get Levinas right” or advance his ethical program as it is typically understood. What I hope to have accomplished here is an account of Levinas as someone obsessed with matters besides God, the face of the Other, radical alterity, transcendence, and the usual Levinas catchwords.”1 Already the counter thrust, the definitive movement of misprisioning, of thumbing those who so meticulously guard the secrets of the coded world of Levinas, telling them that this will not be such a book, that instead he will offer a book for the uninitiated “so that its metaphysical potential can be fully exploited”. Against the cult of Levinas as a harbinger of some Religious Turn he offer us a Levinas “as first and foremost an engineer of ontology, as someone explicitly engaged in the establishment of a materialist account of subjectivity”. And, most, importantly, this new work is about the “rehabilitation of the sensible,” as against all those other concepts that people tend to fetishize like the “Other, the face, God, infinity, transcendence, or discourse”.

Okay, now I’m off for the pool… have fun all!

1. Sparrow, Tom (2013-06-28). Levinas Unhinged (Kindle Locations 63-65). Zero Books. Kindle Edition.

Architecture for the 21st Century: Postmodernism and Beyond

All architecture (and design) consists of nothing but communications. … Aesthetically it is the  elegance of  ordered complexity and the sense of seamless fluidity, akin to natural systems,  that is the hallmark of parametricism.

– Patrik Schumacher, Architecture’s Next Ontological Innovation (2012)

Looking back on recent postmodern architecture we discover a distinctive panoply of original thinkers: Robert Venturi, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Tadao Ando, Alvaro Siza, Nicholas Grimshaw, Aldo Rossi, Barbara Bielecka, Ricardo Bofill, John Burgee, Terry Farrell, Michael Graves, Helmut Jahn, Jon Jerde, Philip Johnson, Recardo Legorreta, Charles Moore, Boris Podrecca, César Pelli, Paolo Portoghesi, Siavash Teimouri, Antoine Predock, Tomás Taveira, Robert A.M. Stern, James Stirling, Mario Botta, Arata Isozaki and John C. Portman, Jr.. One could keep on going but this is enough for me.

Robert Venturi was at the forefront of this movement. His book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (published in 1966), was instrumental in opening readers eyes to new ways of thinking about buildings, as it drew from the entire history of architecture—both high-style and vernacular, both historic and modern—and lambasted overly simplistic Functional Modernism. The move away from modernism’s functionalism is well illustrated by Venturi’s adaptation of Mies van der Rohe’s famous maxim “Less is more” to “Less is a bore.” The book includes a number of the architect’s own designs in the back, including structures such as Guild House, in Philadelphia, that became major icons of postmodernism.

Yet, it was not until the computer came into play late in the 80’s of the last century that many of the underlying principles of both late capitalism and postmodernity fused in a complex post-structuralist aesthetic to produce strange new worlds from the architectural venue. At the forefront of this new strategy was Zaha Hadid. Often named as the most prominent contemporary female architect, or singled out for notice because of her Iraqi Arab background, Hadid is significant beyond these accidents of birth for her intellectual toughness, her refusal to compromise on her ideas even when very few of them were being realized in concrete and steel. For many years, her designs filled the pages of architecture periodicals but were dismissed as impractical or as too radical, and Hadid even thought about giving up architecture after she suffered a major rejection in her adopted homeland of Britain in 1995. Her star began to rise internationally when her design for Cincinnati, Ohio’s new Center for Contemporary Art was selected and built, earning worldwide acclaim. By the mid-2000s Hadid employed nearly 150 people in her London office and was working hard to keep up with new commissions that were coming in, offering her a chance to help reshape the world architectural landscape. (here and here)

Her Directors in this architectural world are themselves well known architects in their own right (here). But one in particular seems to have made an impact of recent philosophical speculation. That is, of course, the work and teachings of Patrik Schumacher. I have only recently begun reading his two volume architectural masterpiece and manifesto for a new style in architecture to surpass modernism forever with Parametricism, The Autopoiesis of Architecture: A New Framework for Architecture. His work is heavily influenced by complexity theory as well as Niklaus Luhman’s theories of society  and communication. As parametricism becomes a tool more designers turn toward it may slowly redefine the basic frameworks of our social spaces, offering a world where humans once again begin to intermingle and communicate rather than rush through the world like zombies on steroids.  In an effort to identify our architectural style to allow it to be recognized, Patrik Schumacher, a partner at Zaha Hadid, has communicated his beliefs in his Parametricist Manifesto. “As a style, parametricism is marked by its aims, ambitions, methodological principles, and evaluative criteria, as well as by its characteristic formal repertoire.”

Parametricism is a methodologically justified style that takes the concept of using parametric form design from the production of a one-off building and applying it to a cityscape. Architecture and urbanism should be tackled as a set of linked design criteria which form a complete “system” in a building, from urbanism down to the smallest details.  Parametric design links all this information in a way similar to a spreadsheet so that a change in one value creates a corresponding change in all other values. biological systems, organisms, from the microscopic to the macroscopic… these kinds of inputs stay in the repertoire. There’s also mathematics – new mathematics – topological patterns and also what is having a impact is new modeling tools and more recently parametric modeling, parametric fields and scripted fields, a new sensibility with respect to orders of iteration. Looking through these new tools there’s a kind of intricacy of overall arrangement with a very high degree of coherence. There’s a lot of internal laws of correlation; everything relates to everything else. It’s a continuous change but it all fits together. It’s not random or arbitrary.

The life process of society consists of a rich,  diversified panoply of institutions and communicative situations. In order to  communicate within specific situations, the relevant participants have to first  find each other and gather in particular settings, be brought into particular  spatial constellations, and be enveloped by specific atmospheres    that prime and prepare the participants  with respect to the appropriate moods and modes of communication to be  expected. This sorting, ordering, orienting, and framing is achieved by the  designed or built environment. To get a grasp of the importance of the ordering  capacity of a complex built environment, we might consider the following  thought experiment: imagine that the population of a metropolis like London is  thrown naked onto an undifferentiated tarmac surface. Nobody would know where  to go or what to do. Nobody would even know who they were anymore. What is  being erased is all the visible information about society’s order and  institutions. The built environment is society’s material memory. It functions  as a slowly evolving system of signification. (here)

While some disagree with the notion of categorizing work to fit into a style, Schumacher calls for a conceptual reconstruction, meaning that we must disregard style as a matter of appearance, and move to understand style as “a design research program conceived in the way that paradigms frame scientific research programs.”

“Although aesthetic appearance matters enormously in architecture and design, neither architecture as a whole nor its styles can be reduced to mere matters of appearance…The new style poses many new, systematically connected design problems that are being worked on competitively within a global network of design researchers. Over and above aesthetic comparability, it is this widespread, long-term consistency of shared design ambitions and problems that justifies declaring a style in the sense of an epochal phenomenon,” explains Schumacher.

Niklas Luhmann is a distinct influence on Schumacher. Luhmann was especially interested in systems which operate on the basis of “meaning,” in particular, systems of human communication. He regarded society not as a network of individuals united by shared beliefs, but rather as the totality of all communications. But in modern societies many kinds of communication were highly “differentiated,” which meant essentially they operated independently according to the specific functions they served. The bulk of Luhmann’s work consisted of systematic analyses of these kinds of communication (especially those organized in the form of full-fledged institutions, such as education and law) using a set of basic conceptual tools he developed beginning in the 1960s. Economic communication by means of money (rather than exchange in kind) was a case in point; it made possible interaction between buyers and sellers and laid the foundation for a whole economic system with its own specifically economic functions.

Like money, trust also served as a specific medium in modern societies, for example in interaction between professionals and laypersons: on some issues we had to accept the judgment of competent experts without checking its validity. Without some such trust, many social relationships would break down very quickly. Even love was now a specialized kind of communication, made possible by the passion exchanged between individuals who were supposed to treat each other as lovers without regard to their other social roles.

Like many social theorists before him, Luhmann analyzed the implications of the transition from traditional to modern society. In older, stratified societies the various functions that had to be performed were arranged in a hierarchy, from the aristocracy down to the peasantry. By contrast, modern societies have separated various social tasks in a “horizontal” fashion, a pattern Luhmann called functional differentiation. This had many advantages; for example, institutions handled more complex problems and individuals generally enjoyed greater opportunities. But it also raised new problems. Institutions (such as religious ones) that in the past played a broad role must now redefine and limit that role. Also, since all institutions now focused on their own function and performance, certain societal problems may be neglected because everyone can claim it was “none of their business” according to Luhmann, this was one source of the current environmental crisis. (more here)

Schumacher points out that the architecture of today is more of a world architecture, where every work is quickly compared or contrasted to other projects.  We experience this constantly as we compare a project to something another firm would have created and argue over which was more successful.  Schumacher explains that this “merely implies a consistency of principles, ambitions, and values to build upon so that different efforts compete constructively with each other and can establish the conditions for cumulative progress rather than pursue contradictory efforts.” As Theory against Theory explains it:

Schumacher’s view of architecture is Hegelian: evolutive stages of civilisation correspond to certain styles in architecture. He divided entire history of architecture in several dominant styles. In his system, not all recognised styles are epochal. Some of them, such as gothic style, represent merely a transitional stage, but not the big style with its articulated discourse. He claims that modernism still operates as the dominant paradigm, even though postmodernism has been exercised allot in the past few decades. By introducing parametricism as a new style and strongly claiming that it is inevitably going to become mainstream within the next twenty years, Schumacher is predicting the future. He is not only announcing the new style, he is also announcing the new epoch, a new stage in the evolution of the human kind: “When we analyse history, we can see that the built environment always had vital role in building societal order. Social order needs spatial order. Society can progress only within a built environment and the entire world of artefacts. That is why I put architecture and design in the same category.” (here)

What is exciting about this new style is that parametricism offers a flexible set of components to manipulate from simple algorithms, which leads to an infinite amount of variation in fluid dynamics.  While in the past, there was a strong allegiance for rigid geometrical figures, now, a conceptual definition of parametricism shows that “the new primitives are animate, dynamic, and interactive entities—splines, nurbs, and subdivs—that act as building blocks for dynamic systems.” (Above review: The Architect’s Newspaper) As Schumacher says:

“Twenty first century brought about drastic changes and we now live in the network society where communication is crucial. Architecture should increase interaction and information exchange, and can no longer insist on physical separation as it did until now. Moreover, we should not push people through passages like cattle, but make sure they navigate quick and easy. This allows them to self-organise in complex matrix of differentiated spaces and enables multiple communication scenarios. This is an ambitious project of ordering social processes in space. Each space is in fact a communication. It invites its visitors to participate and gives them clues on how they should behave, what to do. But people are no longer satisfied with simple ordering of space with rigid forms and strict compartmentalisation. They need to communicate with each other and move swiftly. This is why rooms should not be separated but rather interconnected. Spaces should be constructed in such a way that everyone can easily see, find and communicate with everyone else. Accordingly, the role of an architect should be understood in this sense: we are constantly making ever more complex matrixes for ever more complex social processes that unfold within. This is portrayed through free flow of lines, whether it is a parking space, library or a business company. The point is that wherever you are you see many different things going on. Many things are in view simultaneously because you don’t want to miss anything. As you move through space you have many options what to select next. Conversely, when running down the corridor where you see nothing, you know nothing and miss everything.”

Ultimately this new ontology follows a parametric semiology:

This implies that the  meaning of the architectural language can enter the design medium (digital  model). The semiological project implies that the design project systematizes  all form-function correlations into a coherent system of signification. A  system of signification is a system of mappings (correlations) that map  distinctions or manifolds defined within the domain of the signified (here the  domain of patterns of social interaction) onto distinctions or manifolds  defined within the domain of the signifier (here the domain of spatial  positions and morphological features defining and characterizing a given  territory) and vice versa.  The system of  signification works if the programmed social agents consistently respond to the  relevantly coded positional and morphological clues so that expected behaviors  can be read off the articulated environmental configuration. The meaning of  architecture, the prospective life processes it frames and sustains, is  modeled and assessed within the design process, thus becoming a direct object  of creative speculation and cumulative design elaboration

If as Le Corbusier suggested the “house is a machine for living,” then for Patrik Schumacher the house is a machine for communicating. Recently Graham Harman was at the The Architecture Exchange seminar series ‘Is there an Object Oriented Architecture?’ at the Swedenborg Society in London. Graham Harman, one of a group of contemporary philosophers arguing for an object oriented ontology spoke, answering criticism and questions posed to him by previous architectural speakers in the series. For an outline of the whole series go here or here. As Lindsay Bremner of Westminister and on the blog geoarchitecture remarks Harman opposed Schumacher’s use of Luhmanian communicative theory:

Harman turned to passing some remarks about Patrik Schumacher’s adaption of Luhmann to architecture. The problem he said, is that in Schumacher’s reading, Luhmann is all about communicative systems, not non-communicative ones; and therefore not about objects. Heidegger’s tool analysis is not a theory of tools and equipment, but of broken tools and equipment. We only know about objects when systems break down. Architectural objects, like any objects, are not parts of systems, but are anti-systems, what disturbs or disrupts the system. They are not about relations, but about non-relationality, unique places, singularities. (here)

As another critic Steve Parnell (here) comments on Schumacher’s polemic to let the style wars begin stating that Parametricism is ‘the great new style after Modernism’. As Parnell explains:

Prompted by Luhmann, Schumacher’s inspired move is to apply autopoiesis to the institution of architecture as a sociological entity. This would be a promising avenue of research for the theory, as architecture is forever trying to assert its institutional autonomy. However, its application here is confused by the obsession with Parametricism, as the book attempts to be an all-encompassing and unifying theoretical framework for the institution of architecture, and manifesto for this ‘great new style’ (Schumacher’s words). At 450 pages (and with only 18 images) it’s the first of a proposed two-volume work, making it surely the longest and, quite possibly, the most opaque manifesto in architectural historiography.

The theoretical framework and the manifesto are so closely intertwined that it is difficult to discuss one without the other. The link between the two is, of course, theory. Schumacher claims that ‘only theoretically informed building design constitutes architecture’. But he does not offer any definition of theory, or address what qualities a theory needs to qualify as the validator of architecture, only that innovation requires it and the status quo doesn’t. Instead we are subjected to a quasi-historical and confused account, which states that architectural theory began in the Renaissance – hence the beginnings of architecture at that point. Only three pages previously, however, Vitruvius’ treatise was cited as ‘the first emergence of architecture’ that ‘remains closely tied to religion and to the political order’. (see here)

Needless to say Schumacher does not fare well with either Harman or Parnell in the above. I haven’t had a chance to read through his essays completely, nor his two books on Parametricism and the new Architecture he proposes to replace modernism and postmodernism, but from a cursory reading of his essays I get a feeling that Schumacher is doing for architecture what others have done and are doing for philosophy, moving things forward into new zones of possibility.

Other reviews of Patrik Schumacher’s work:

Architectural Review: The Autopoiesis of Architecture dissected, discussed and decoded by Peter Buchanan
Academis.edu: Authorship in Algorithmic Architecture: from Peter Eisenman to Patrik Schumacher by Eleftherios Siamopoulos
Icon Magazine: Douglas Murray: here
The Guangzhou Opera House: An Architectural Review

Videos by Schumacher on Parametricism: here
Perltreees vids on Parametricism: here

Speculations IV: Peter Gratton and Post-deconstructive Realism

In On Touching, Derrida argues that ‘for Nancy, touch remains the motif of an absolute, irredentist, and post-deconstructive realism [réalisme … post-déconstructif] … an absolute realism, but irreducible to any of the tradition’s realisms’ (OT 46/60).

– Michael Marder, The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism

Peter Gratton of Philosophy in a Time of Error fame in the introduction to his excellent book The State of Sovereignty tells us “Political mysticism in particular is exposed to the danger of losing its spell or becoming quite meaningless when taken out of its native surroundings, its time and its space”.1 One wonders if the same thing might be true of philosophical mysticism. Is that not what the history of the last two thousand years in philosophy is? Is not one of the basic tenets of modernity the overcoming of our ancestors metaphysical mysticism? Is metaphysics rather than being overcome still very pervasive within our academies hiding under other names other philosophical disguises?

One of the things that Gratton points out in his new essay for Speculations IV Post-Deconstructive Realism It’s about Time is just that: it is about time, about the presumptive arrogance of SR in its castigation of post-structural forms of philosophical speculation, and, as Gratton puts it, these speculative realists seek “means of driving straight past the “linguistic turn” that had side-tracked, they believe, a previous era of philosophers”. But we should not overlook the troubling effects of such a move he tells us, because what these philosophers have done in bypassing the “linguistic turn” is nothing less than a return to pre-modern, pre-critical modes of thought: “But my argument is that this is a dodge: at the heart of this speculative work is a pre-modern (not even just pre-Critical) consideration of time, where time is epiphenomenal when thought against the eternal…”. One of the consequences of this for Gratton is that until until a certain realism of time opens onto SR thought, their “interventions will be anything but timely”.

Peter center his attack on two specific members of the original SR gang of four: Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman. Why them specifically? Instead of answering that question directly Peter goes directly to the heart of Jaques Derrida’s central insight: “There is nothing outside of the text [there is no outside-text; il n’y a pas de horstexte]”. The point of this being as Gratton tells us citing Lee Braver’s rendition of this very notion is this:

There is nothing outside the text because our experience is always linguistically mediated; this makes both subject and object effects of language, rather than entities that precede it from the outside to master or anchor it. Language impersonally structures our selves and our world, and our actions depend on passively taking on these structures.

Continue reading

Speculations IV: Eileen Joy and the Joys of Reading

Art is inherently subversive, after all, as much an act of doing as undoing.

– Eileen Joy, Weird Reading

Who can remember the first book they picked up and read for pleasure? I confess that having been athletic and being raised down south in the fifties of the last century that being a book reader wasn’t on the top priority list of things a jock was ever to be seen doing. So like many I separated out what I had to read to get by in school from my subversive reading pleasures done under the covers late at night so that no one, especially my non-book reading Step-dad or brothers would ever catch me in the act of reading stories about ancient knights, or musketeers, or pirates, etc. All those weird tales that took me away from my hum rum life of being molded into a no brainer jock who was supposed to know more about hunting, fishing, football, baseball, etc. than about strange far away places beyond the temporal ken of our staid grey lives in the Fifties U.S.A. So coming onto this passage in Eileen Joy’s new essay Weird Reading for Speculations IV brought all those first time reading pleasures back to me:

Nevertheless, works of literature are also unique events that possess a penumbra of effects that can never be fully rationalized nor instrumentalized, and there is no one set of relations within which the whole range of any one text’s possible effects can be fully plumbed or measured. There is always something left over, some remainder, or some non-responsive item, that has to be left to the side of any schematic critique, and this is an occasion for every text’s becoming-otherwise.

This excess, this remainder, this something that can never be explicated fully or trapped within the close reading of some master reader or critic’s textual analysis, this is what escapes or withdraws from us beyond our wildest speculations into a reality so intense and alive that our minds barely comprehend its existence much less acknowledge its haunting presence. Yet, like Eileen describes we can always count on certain repetitions to occur exactly the same way and at the same point within these strange narrative structures we call novels, poems, stories, etc. As she describes it Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will repeat the same suicidal tale, jump in front of a beastly train; Macbeth will lose his head; Hamlet will murder too late… each of these things will happen over and over like clockwork each time we pick up these same books, plays, poems, etc. And, yet, something will have altered nonetheless. That something is us. We will have been altered by this reading, this moving through the repetitions of a temporal onslaught of words signifying nothing more than strange characters on the abyss of the page entering into conversation with our mind creating a new sphere or object that is an interpenetration of both worlds: that of the text-as-reader and the reader-as-text, the shifting vagaries of something that is neither one or the other, but of both at once. As Eileen tells us:

Stories are like deterministic, machinic systems in which characters, situations, and other details are frozen, as it were, in certain poses, while also being always “wound,” like watches, to keep the same time. Yet, narratives also contain discrete, disconnected instances of being and becoming that are always attempting to expand beyond or subvert the larger narrative system—these instances, or “units” (as Ian Bogost would term them) are like things, material elements with their own conatus (Spinoza’s term for any thing’s tendency to persist in existing), which always leaves the system open to a creative and possibly fruitful chaos (a plenitude of generative unruliness whose historical tense would be the future perfect subjunctive: what would have been, or, what would have not been).

Continue reading

Speculations IV: Lee Braver and Transgressive Realism

Transgressive Realism, I believe, gives us a reality that transcends our ways of thinking, but not all access to it, offering a middle path that lets us have our ineffable cake and partially eff it too.

– Lee Braver, On Not Settling the Issue of Realism

In the opening of his essay, sounding more like some ancient gnostic, maybe a Valentinian precursor, Lee Braver in his Speculations IV offering gives us a vision of “shadows and reflections, of illusions and elisions, of waste and death”.  Reciting an ancient tale he begins: “Philosophy is a means of escape. Our presence in this world is an accident, in both senses of the word, an unfortunate fate that has befallen us as we have fallen into it”. In other passages he takes on an almost ethereal Christian like ambience, telling us that “we are in this world, but we do not belong here”. Then where do we belong if not in this world? Some other world or sphere of reality, per chance? Exactly! Lee Braver returns, after his excursion into the metaphysical ether, to the Platonic myth of the true world, the real world behind the appearances of this illusionary one where: “We yearn for a reality that is real, and a truth that is true. Since these are not to be found among the detritus of everyday life, we must seek it in a world beyond or behind this one, a realm that truly exists because it has no whiff of non-existence about it—no destruction, no imperfections, no suffering, no death”.

Maybe Lee Braver, like Plato before him, is sick unable to cope with the world around him as it is, but instead seeks to overcome this one by finding some eternal home for his sick soul? But then Lee Braver announces the truth, that no this is not what he believes at all, that if the truth be told this is what for two thousand years certain philosophers, and not only philosophers, but whole tribes of churchmen and their followers believed. Who was the culprit who started this: “it is all Plato’s fault”, Braver tells us emphatically. And all those sick metaphysicians that followed in his wake mistook his parables for the truth, and they too sought to escape this dark world of shadows and enter the true world of light. As he surmises the “lesson of these meta-physicians is that we must not settle for the world we see around us, but must ever strive to transcend it, for the sake of our minds and our souls”.

Continue reading

Speculations IV: Adrian Johnston and the Axioms of Transcendental Materialism

“Any materialism worthy of the name must involve elements of both naturalism and empiricism.”

– Adrian Johnston, Points of Forced Freedom Eleven (More) Theses on Materialism

In a polemical tour de force Adrian Johnston condenses and codifies the elements of a philosophical materialism for the 21st Century. Adrian like others in the essays for Speculations IV returns to Kant, but for him this is not the exact correlationist litany we’ve seen in the others but more of an acknowledgement of Kant’s philosophical breadth and integrity in being the philosopher who put to rest the metaphysical claims of two thousand years of dialectical deadlocks: “The “Transcendental Dialectic” of the Critique of Pure Reason, revealing the precise contours of the dialectical deadlocks forever dooming in advance each and every classical metaphysics to futility, extracts its critical logics from the evidence furnished by two thousand years of philosophical history.”

I must say that I’m bias toward materialist perspectives and especially of late to both Johnston and Zizek with qualifications (more on that at another time), but will do my part to be – as in previous posts – the neutral observer (or as much as one can be) or close reader and commentator who offers hopefully an unbiased condensation of the original discourse. Being more of a poet and fictional writer and not a professional philosopher, I like many – perceive myself as just an average man thinking and trying to discover in current theory and practice some semblance of the problematique we are all facing in our world today. Trying to find a way forward out of the malaise of our current dysfunctional global (dis)civilization. Speculative Realism offers a multiplicity of perspectives in dealing with the domains of epistemic and ontological aspects of both our material and immaterial worlds, and while I may not agree with each and every perspective I agree that each will need to be confronted and rigorously answered if we are to find a way forward.

Continue reading

Speculations IV: Levi R. Bryant and Borromean Critical Theory

If your not familiar with Levi R. Bryant by now I’m not sure if this post will matter. Levi on his blog, Larval Subjects, offers the lively reader purchase on almost everything within the spectrum of current philosophical thought. In his essay for Speculations IV he turns his keen eye toward the political spectrum and specifically the controversies surrounding Speculative Realism and its apolitical theoretic as seen within its four major players: Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux. Although Levi has moved on from the vitalistic shell of his early critique of Deleuze (Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence), and his flirtatious investment in Harman’s Object-Oriented modes (The Democracy of Objects), he continues to evolve a system all his own and has of late rejoined the Lucretian traditions in thought and philosophy. Thinking of Levi within that tradition there may be no better place to start a reading of his current essay on politics (“Politics and Speculative Realism” here: warning: pdf) than by reading Properties and States: Lucretius and Politics.

Levi begins with a Lucretian topos, a theme that runs the gamut of Critical Theory: the critique of the naturalness of categories in both human identities and social relations, uncovering the ideological layers of that underpin their socially constructed, contingent, and historical character.  Levi earmarks Lucretius’s demarcation between properties that inhere in a thing, with the properties that arise out of our human relations with things. An example being slavery: slavery is not he remarks an intrinsic property of a person, but is an unnatural imposition based on power, rank, and privilege. As he restates the matter:

While a number of people—generally those in power or who stand to benefit from a particular way of ordering society—might try to claim that people are naturally slaves, that sexuality is naturally structured in particular ways, that certain groups are naturally inferior, that a particular economic system is the natural form of exchange, and so on, a critical theory reveals how we have constructed these things.

Continue reading

Speculations IV: Daniel Sacilotto on Representationalism

Daniel Sacilotto whose blog Being’s Poem always brings intelligent clarity to philosophical issues offers us a return to Wilfred Sellars in his essay for Speculation IV Realism and Representation: On the Ontological Turn (here: pdf). Like many of the other essays he gives us a litany of the history of SR and its Ontological Turn. Right off the bat he centers us in on the battle between two meanings of this ‘Ontological Turn’: 1) the radicalization of critique; and, 2) the overcoming of critique altogether. Ever since Kant moved us into epistemic territory, developing a transcendental logic that ultimately led us toward Idealism and Anti-Realism, philosophers have been trying to find there way back to what Meillassoux called the ‘Great Outdoors’. For Daniel the term Speculative Realism is almost a misnomer, a sort of loosely coupled conceptual framework or heuristic device to align a group of disparate philosophers who “share nothing more than an antipathy to post-Kantian anti-realism,” and are more like a dysfunctional family who use SR as a term that “coins nothing but an exceedingly vague family resemblance, rather than a concept announcing the advent of a new philosophical epoch, or a reformation of Continental thought.”

What binds these otherwise disparate formations or vectors of the Ontological Turn he tells us is their “rejection of transcendental philosophy understood as critical epistemology, and indeed a sustained attack on the concept of representation”. After outlining a short history of representationalism through its various proponents and opponents he teases out the two senses of its trajectory: 1) the break with the pre-modern vision and a turn from a resemblance theoretic to one based on isomorphy (“The possibility of thinking a correspondence between thought and the Real would then be amplified to be understood in terms of the isomorphy between a perspicuous formal ideography and the structural dynamics of spatio-temporal systems in the real order.”); and, 2) this form of representation deals with the long history of representationalism, of its concepts and its relations between the various domains of knowledge and world, etc. (“The distinctions between appearance and reality, mind and world, concepts and objects, statements and facts, would all partake thus of this more general concept.”).

Continue reading

Follow up on Speculations IV

I haven’t had a chance to read each essay in detail, but I’m discovering in this issue of Speculations IV that it seems to be a time for accounting, for taking stock of where SR started, who the players are, some of the directions for future appraisal, as well as a few critical appraisals that wonder if this is anything new at all. Reading Graham Harman’s introductory essay he lays out the differences among some of the original players: 1) Quentin Meillassoux, whose After Finitude sparked the initial conference in London back in 2007; 2) Ray Brassier, who has distanced himself from the ‘movement’ (If that is what it still is?), Iain Hamilton Grant, as well as Harman himself.

Harman mentions the battle-royal going on within Continental Philosophy between the new realists and the recent century of anti-realists, bringing up a comment by Paul Ennis who offers the succinct opinion that for most Continental philosophers SR and its anti-correlationism is just plain ‘silly’ and not a threat to the dominance of anti-realist traditions:

“Continental realism is the fringe of the fringe. It might be popular for now, but we can already see a sort of knuckling down by the antirealists…the backlash. Most of them find the whole anti-correlationism thing silly and I don’t think continental realism is actually a threat to the dominance of antirealism…”1

Continue reading

Speculations IV Ready for Review

The latest version of Speculations is out: Speculations IV

* * *

A fast note:

Read Manuel DeLanda’s short essay on Ontological Commitments. He breaks ontology down into three competing camps: Idealist, Empiricists, and Realists. For Idealists there are no mind independent things, entities, or objects. For the Empiricist appearances serve up reality through the senses, everything else is a model or theoretical construct of the mind, a set of tools to help us explain what the senses observe. It is the third, the realist camp within which DeLanda situates his own philosophical proclivities. The realist ontology is hard to pin down, it deals with a totally mind independent reality filled with entities that are fully autonomous and cannot be easily reduced to our conceptual mythologies. This is where speculation comes into play:

There is simply no way to specify the contents of an autonomous world without speculating, since this world may contain beings that are too small or too large, and becomings that are too fast or too slow, to be directly observed.

For DeLanda speculation comes into play specifically because he defines the objective identity of entities not only by their properties but also by their tendencies and their capacities. Using the example of water: it can be in a state of hot, cold, lukewarm, etc. As well as under certain circumstances it has a tendency or capacity to become gaseous, frozen, etc., and it can also become a solvent for acids, alkalis, salts, etc.

Continue reading