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.

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Post-Nihilistic Practice: Levi R. Bryant and Arran James

Both Arran James’s ideas on post-nihilistic practice and Levi R. Bryant’s Axioms of a Dark Ontology and …Some further Axioms have some interesting and suggestive ideas. What Levi presents is the Lucretian heritage that we see within modern reductionary naturalism with some modifications and extensions from critiques of this heritage as seen within Levi’s own philosophical project. His work starts with the basic dictum that “There is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe. Life is an accident and has no divine significance (though it’s obviously important to the living).”

Since this is from the first axiom and underpins every other axiom as a sort of figure/ground of the system, then it is here that the system either frees up or fails to meet the criteria of the system as a whole. The stipulation is that there is no meaning in existence nor is there any meaning in anything in the universe. Why not shorten this to the simpler: “There is no meaning.” Period. Why the need to constrain it to “existence” and the “universe”. To do so is to imply that existence or the universe in themselves are already implicated in certain human meanings that we must free ourselves from in order to accept this criteria. Meaning already implies “sense, import, and intent”. Which in itself already implies either a subjective or objective awareness or intelligence to provide such intentionality. So to say that that meaning doesn’t exist automatically refuses consciousness, awareness, or intentionality its qualification as an arbiter for judging the meaning or non-meaning of existence or the universe. Removing human judgment from the equation also eliminates any “sense” of meaning, aesthetic or otherwise, from the equation.

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Bryant, Spinoza, Negri: The Foundations of Materialist Thought

Materialism and collectivism are  fundamental aspects of constitutive thought. Ontological constitution can be  given only as the appropriation and accumulation of material elements, both  physical and social. … The reconstruction of the world is thus the very  process of the continual physical composition and recomposition of things — and,  with absolute constitutive mechanisms of historical, practical, and  ethico-political nature.

– Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly

William Forsythe’s Synchronous Objects.

After listening to a lecture online by William Forsythe (World renowned choreographer) and Alva Noë, author of Out of Our  Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness provided to me by dmfant from Anthem: video conversation. I began thinking about something Levi R. Bryant said along with my interest in Spinoza and Antonio Negri.

Flat Ontology and Spinoza: The Foundations of Materialist Thought

Levi R. Bryant once stated his views on Flat Ontology this ways:

Someone might remark that because a text has multiple layers there can be no flat ontology of the text.  In other words, it is here asserted that where there is a logic of depths and surfaces there is necessarily a vertical ontology.  However, this is precisely what flat ontology rejects.  If we take seriously that texts are composed of multiple layers, then only a flat ontology can properly preserve the layered nature of a text.  The claim that the text is flat is the claim that each of these layers is absolutely autonomy and irreducible to the others or that all of these layers are on equal ontological footing.  That is, flat ontology refuses a logic of expression that would reduce one thread, series, or layer of the text to another.  Instead, flat ontology would defend the dignity of each of these layers as a distinct multiplicity.  What is hereby refused is the reduction of anything to anything else.

– Levi R. Bryant (Larval Subjects) A Quick Remark on Flat Ontology

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Levi does it again… he offers us an irreductionist account of Naturalism. One based on three basic axioms: 1) first, one must hold that there is no supernatural causation, only natural causation; 2) second, naturalism entails that one reject metaphysical teleology; and, 3) third, naturalism treats culture as part of nature. He affirms efficient causation while rejecting final causation. Interestingly he treats the relationship between culture/nature as a part/whole theory.

He also cites the work of Andy Clark whose anti-representationalist theory offers a cognitive resolution to idealism by externalizing our intelligence and memories within systems outside our brain (as Levi says: “the important point is that he’s able to arrive at this thesis by taking our biology seriously, by taking seriously limitations of our brains, memory, etc., and by taking seriously the fact that like all other critters we need to get around in the world, respond to events in the world in real time, etc”); and, next, the work of Kim Sterelny (Thought in a Hostile World), whose ideas on our development within nature and culture are treated as unitary, as part of  a theory of co-evolvement, and that we need to take both biological and cultural development seriously “and investigate how they mutually influence one another, modify one another, and generate unique individuations.”

As Sternly says in a new book, The Evolved Apprentice, arguing against a certain type of empirical reductionism to individualist and internalist methodologies: “…empiricists have typically been individualists and internalists. I am neither: one message of this book is that human cognitive competence is a collective achievement and a collective legacy; at any one moment of time, we depend on each other, and over time, we stand on the shoulders not of a few giants but of myriads of ordinary agents who have made and passed on intact the informational resources on which human lives depend.” 1 This idea of collective achievement and legacy is something that I believe Levi tends to support in previous blog posts. It’s this ‘depends’ that is the key, that we are embedded within nature and culture as envrionment and communication, as something that we have to negotiate with our material being in an ongoing movement of development and growth that has no final end, no teleological frame of reference, but that just is is telling. I agree with Levi’s non-reductionist or irreductionst view of Naturalism. We need more of this kind of theory.

1. Sterelny, Kim (2012-01-24). The Evolved Apprentice (Jean Nicod Lectures). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Larval Subjects .

I’m pleased that my last post on naturalism has generated some interesting discussion– pro and con –about naturalism.  As I reflect on that discussion, it occurs to me that “naturalism” is one of those nebulous terms that means a variety of different things.  For some naturalism seems to mean eliminativism, of the variety advocated by the Churchlands.  For others naturalism means reductionism of the type advocated by evolutionary psychologists such as E.O.Wilson.  There, all social phenomena are explained in biological terms pertaining to reproduction and survival.  For others, naturalism means positivism.  I do not advocate any of these positions, though I do think that theorists like E.O. Wilson shed important light on human behavior.  I just don’t think they tell the entire story and that there are other causal factors involved that can’t be reduced to reproductive and survival aims.  I take it that this is part of…

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Levi comes out fighting for naturalism and materialism… bravo! A true Lucretian! The likes of Benedict Spinoza, David Hume, Denis Diderot, Julien La Mettrie, and Baron d’Holbach would have embraced such statements as the mark of a fellow laborer. His main point being that the reactionary forces within Continental thought in that past twenty years have led to positions of Idealism which have tried to efface Science and Naturalist explanations of life, the universe, and everything. The return to theological thought has been a deeply troubling and divisive within Continental philosophy. I commend Levi’s turn toward naturalism and materialism, which in some ways has always underpinned his philosophical positions.

Larval Subjects .

The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution: subject or lived experience as the ground of being (phenomenology), spirit as ground of being (Hegel), economics as ground of being (Marx), signifier as ground of being (structuralism and post-structuralism), power as a ground of being (Foucault), history as a ground of being (Gadamer), text as a ground of being, ect. We even get romantic visions of nature evoking the will to power and élan vital.

In Freudian terms, these are so many responses to the narcisstic wound of nature and materiality. It is not the…

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Levi answers my concerns over incorporeal/corporeal objects in his new essay…. quite interesting, indeed! I’ll have more to say on this later. I’m still not convinced, being a materialist of the new school materialisms I still affirm what I want to call a two-aspect theory of entities much in the same way that some Kantian scholars support a two-aspect theory of the noumenon/phenonmenon divide (see Henry E. Allison: Transcendental Idealism). As Allison and others situate it, there is no dualism, no two different entities, one called noumenon and the other phenomenon; instead, there is only one entity with two aspects or faces. Allison in an anti-idealist reading of Kant proposes a two-aspect epistemolgical based understanding of transcendental idealism in which the transcendental distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves (phenomenon/noumenon) be understood as holding between two ways of considering things rather than as two ontologically distinct sets of entities. The only thing I would argue against Kant is instead of a normative epistemological account I would opt for a transcendental realism and an ontological account of this two-aspect theory. This paradox is at the heart of Karen Barad’s treatment of intra-action and entanglement theory as I’ll investigate below.

One of the things I see in Levi’s distinction between incorporeal/corporeal is that in doing this he is buying into a dualistic scheme to support this thesis, and for many of us this will not offer a solution within a materialist framework. Levi supports a substantive view of reality, incorporating the whole schematic relationism of a substance based approach to objects. I still am not convinced, although I admire it as an architectonic system that aligns well with putting all the pieces into place as a systemactic effort to negotiate the actualities that we know and see, yet I wonder how it would explain such disturbing truths as the wave/particle distribution effect? As a monist I see quantum theory as supporting two-aspect theory of a single energic flow of energy/matter. Relativity theory supports a two aspect theory of energy/matter as two aspects of the same underlying reality. Instead of a dualism, there is a monism with two faces…

Karen Barad recently described this wave/particle paradox as the problem of the “very nature of nature:  “light seemed to behave like a wave, but under different experimental circumstances, light seemed to behave like a particle. Given these results, what can we conclude about the nature of light-is it a particle or a wave? Remarkably, it turns out that similar results are found for matter: under one set of circumstances, electrons behave like particles, and under another they behave like waves. Hence what lies at the heart of the paradox is the very nature of nature” (KB 29).

Diffraction experiments are at the heart of the “wave versus particle” debates about the nature of light and matter. Indeed, the so-called two-slit experiment (which uses a diffraction grating with only two slits) has become emblematic of the mysteries of quantum physics. The Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman once said of the two-slit experiment that it is “a phenomenon which is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. (KB 72-73)

As she states it recent studies of diffraction (interference) phenomena have provided insights about the nature of the entanglement of quantum states, and have enabled physicists to test metaphysical ideas in the lab. So while it is true that diffraction apparatuses measure the effects of difference, even more profoundly they highlight, exhibit, and make evident the entangled structure of the changing and contingent ontology of the world, including the ontology of knowing. In fact, diffraction not only brings the reality of entanglements to light, it is itself an entangled phenomenon. (KB 73)

To deal with such phenomenon she offers a diffraction mode of analysis in which diffraction phenomena will be an object of investigation and at other times it will serve as an apparatus of investigation; it cannot serve both purposes simultaneously since they are mutually exclusive; nonetheless, as our understanding of the phenomenon is refined we can enfold these insights into further refinements and tunings of our instruments to sharpen our investigations (KB 73).

As she summarizes her thesis:

“What I am interested in doing is building diffraction apparatuses in order to study the entangled effects differences make. One of the main purposes will be to explore the nature of entanglements and also the nature of this task of exploration. What is entailed in the investigation of entanglements? How can one study them? Is there any way to study them without getting caught up in them? What can one say about them? Are there any limits to what can be said? My purpose is not to make general statements as if there were something universal to be said about all entanglements, nor to encourage analogical extrapolation from my examples to others, nor to reassert the authority of physics. On the contrary, I hope my exploration will make clear that entanglements are highly specific configurations and it is very hard work building apparatuses to study them, in part because they change with each intra-action. In fact it is not so much that they change from one moment to the next or from one place to another, but that space, time, and matter do not exist prior to the intra-actions that reconstitute entanglements. Hence, it is possible for entangled relationalities to make connections between entities that do not appear to be proximate in space and time.  The point is that the specificity of entanglements is everything. The apparatuses must be tuned to the particularities of the entanglements at hand. The key question in each case is this: how to responsibly explore entanglements and the differences they make. My hope is that this exploration will provide some insights that will be helpful in the study of other entanglements” (KB 73-74).

I agree that the ‘specificity of entaglements is everything’. If it is true that space, time, and matter do not exist prior to the intra-actions that reconstitute entanglements, then Her agential realism offer us one path among others toward an understanding that is both monistic and two-aspect in its promotion of the processes at the core of entaglements. I like that she is exploring the notion of difference as situated within this complex of ideas: how to responsibly explore entanglements and the differences they make. Her theory is underpinned by the notion of intra-action and change. The idea of bringing the “contingent ontology of the world, including the ontology of knowing” into close proximity in theory and praxis is long overdue. More on this later…

1. Karen Barad. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.

Larval Subjects .

In response to my talk on flat ethics, noir realism raises some interesting questionsabout my defense of the existence of incorporeal machines.  As noir realism writes:

The only question I have is in your division of incorporeal/corporeal.  I guess I have a conflict with this dualistic approach of incorporeal/corporeal… i don’t see any separation between these two types of entity. The reason I say that is simple, even as I write this sentence I’m interacting with physical material objects that then through math and logic are manipulated through physical hardware and transformed into binary code that is translated into bits that are trasnported to the servers on the web from my own machine conveying the very material thoughts that I’m now about to publish. Are these incorporeal or corporeal? Is there a difference? What makes something incorporeal or corporeal? Is it a kind of object? Why not admit…

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