attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: speculative realism

Tim Morton on Buddhism

In light of my last few posts dealing with Timothy Morton’ new book Realist Magic, and the efforts of others to do the same, I’m glad to see he has published a new paper. I’ve already started to think of Morton’s object-oriented ontology as a form of mysticism with much in common with Buddhism and Gnosticism. To be sure, I share his feeling that these are linked and have shared words with him in the past to that effect. For this reason, I feel very close to his project. On the other hand, a commitment to embodiment and corporeal materialism prevent me from following him all the way down the rabbit hole. An extract:

mysticism is a form of speculative realism: the attempt to talk outside the ego, based on the fact that ego is only an illusion. In fact, from this point of view, what’s perplexing is that confusion happens at all. What’s perplexing is “this life,” not what lies “beyond” life. It’s perfectly “natural” that enlightenment happens all the time, because we don’t have an ego, but we do have physical bodies. It’s not some gift from above, but the spontaneity of what is below. Which is why esoteric traditions jealously guard their secrets: they can be abused because enlightenment is not difficult at all—it is in fact the default mode of existing, period.

Read the full paper here.

On this topic of mysticism I have been casually reading D.T Suzuki’s Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist and came upon his discussion of The Unattainable. An extract:

The unattainability of Nirvana comes from seeking it on the other shore of becoming as if it were something beyond birth-and-death…refreshments cannot be taken outside of time. The taking is time. The taking is something attainable, and yet it goes on in something unattainable. For without this unattainable all that is attainable will cease to be attainable. This paradoxicality marks life. (p.87).

Perhaps the idea of virtuosity that I want to develop (a kind of corporeal ontological pragmatism that all objects engage in by degress) is this attainability for me. For Morton, on the other hand, attainability is hermeneutic. To be clear, the dis-agreement is not just about the status of matter and causation but also about the primordial disposition of thing to worlds.

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Hermeneutical and Corporeal Objects: withdrawal and causation

Everything exist; nothing exists. Either formula affords a like serenity. The man of anxiety, to his misfortune, remains between them, trembling and perplexed, forever at the mercy of a nuance, incapable of gaining a foothold in the security of being or the absence of being.

– EM Cioran, The trouble with being born.

…The life of the living in the struggle for life; the natural history of human beings in the blood and tears of wars between individuals, nations, and classes; the matter of things, hard matter; solidity; the closed-in-upon-self, all the way down to the level of the subatomic particles of which physicists speak.

Levinas, Entre Nous.

Causation is corporeal, not aesthetic. In this post I want contribute to the argument that causation is a matter of bodies acting on bodies. This is also part of a response to Timothy Morton’s beautifully evocative book Realist Magic (2013, all references to Morton refer to this text). It is a wonderful, touching, and almost viscerally moving book in places, even if, by its own concept of withdrawal and causation, it could never touch or engage anything viscerally. To be fair, I haven’t yet finished reading Morton’s book owing to too many responsibilities and too poor time management. As such, any mischaracterising of his positions are all my own fault and I deserve to be publically flogged for them. What follows began as a set of notes but has (I hope) transformed into a more cohesive blog post.

Withdrawal and encryption.

Objects are a ‘reading, an interpretation’, of one another. Early on Morton provides us with two out of what I consider the three strong definitions of withdrawal presented in Realist Magic (as far as I have read so far):

They [objects] have withdrawn, yet we have traces, samples, memories. These samples interact with one another, they interact with our us, they crisscross one another in a sensual configuration space. Yet the objects from which they emanate are withdrawn.

Withdrawal means that at this very moment, this very object, as an intrinsic aspect of its being, is incapable of being anything else: my poem about it, its atomic structure, its function, its relations with other things … Withdrawal isn’t a violent sealing off. Nor is withdrawal some void or vague darkness. Withdrawal just is the unspeakable unicity of this lamp, this paperweight, this plastic portable telephone, this praying mantis, this frog, this Mars faintly red in the night sky, this cul-de-sac, this garbage can. An open secret.

Withdrawal is set into play with the ‘unspeakability, enclosure….secrecy’ that Morton holds is the essence of mystery. He states that ‘things are encrypted’. On encryption, Tom McCarthy (author of the fantastic Remainder “leader” of the International Necronautic Society) notes the immanent etymological relation of the word; encryption. In an encrypted communication only the person with the key can access the message but Morton states that the encryption of objects is ‘unbreakable’. If objects were messages they would be messages that were destined to go undelivered (later in the book, Morton will discuss appearances-perturbations as deliveries in a specific sense- a house is a delivery, an mp3, a book, etc). For now, I want to stress the crypt. McCarty points out that the crypt is simultaneously the space of encryption and the space of burial. In an interview with McCarthy, Cerith Wyn Evans says that

‘the crypt is perceived as a model whereby the subject is unable to…as they say or as Freud would say…mourn properly’.

It is no accident that Morton also speaks of objects being mourned and mournful in his Introduction. I can’t help but get the feeling that the withdrawal of the object is its encryption both as the secrecy of the coded message that can never be read (picture the Rossetta Stone pre-translation, or the “schizophrenic speech” before people realised it wasn’t asignifying non-sense), and as the secrecy of the corpse in its tomb. It is because of this unbreakable withdrawal, this uttermost mystery of the object that causality is said to operate at on or as ‘the aesthetic dimension’, a dimension often identified as the ‘realm of evil’, although Bataille might disagree. There is a lyricism to this treatment of withdrawal, presented as it is in much the same way as death: an secret everyone knows prefer flee from.

An odd statement: ‘aesthetic dimension floats in front of objects. If causality operates on the aesthetic dimension, and this dimension floats in front of objects, then it isn’t really objects that are interacting with each other. In my own terms, bodies don’t seem to be acting on bodies but on incorporeals. Morton says this floating in front of is figurative but I suspect this doesn’t mean not real or not literal. Figurative in this case is less likely to mean metaphorical, more likely to mean derivative of real objects as it does for figurative art. Withdrawal and causation are what Realist Magic are all about.

Causation and varieties of emptiness

Morton makes reference to a ‘meontic void’ being concealed, This concealment is clearly the concealment of withdrawal, the concealment of what the object can’t ever express of itself, what the object can never share. In art theory there are two main kinds of representation:

1. Mimesis: the reproduction of what is able to share itself; the nonwithdrawn. This is representation of what is experienced. It is a species of fixing presence.

2. Me-ontic: This is the attempt to represent what is not there, what does not show up, what can only be imagined or speculated on; precisely the withdrawn. Obviously, the meontic is a void. A species of absence.

At the moment I have the sense that causality is being painted as mimesis (against Plato), but that this mimetic pseudo-contact- the caricaturing of objects as ‘object x-for-object y’- is always going to have this ambiguous pull of the me-ontic, the suggestion that that is what is being aimed for? Every causal interaction is going to be suggestive of something more; every aesthetic interaction is a testament to the distance and isolation of objects from each other. The me-ontic is, after all, also the not-ontic and this makes sense as non-actual, non-evental. In this form of withdrawal the object does not exist in space or time as to delimit it this way would be to make it an event, a causal and therefore mimetic thing. It is also non-actual in the sense that despite being absolutely real it is absolutely absent. We can understand this by way of analogy: the meontic void is exactly void, the kind of void that the Epicureans thought that atoms moved through. Yet it gets weirder, because the void in this sense is the ontologically autonomous real object and not some emptiness that it is situated in and through which it moves. The situated and the mobile belong to the causal dimension, the aesthetic dimension. As such we should think of Epicurean void as being divisible- every atom moves in its own particular void. The atom is the sensuous object, the void the withdrawn object. So every atom, every sensuous object, moves in its own void, its own withdrawal. But this doesn’t make sense in Morton’s terms because the aesthetic objects is the causal object and therefore it is only this that is involved in interaction. As such, and here Baudrillard rears his head once again, we have reversibility: it is the void that is ‘within’ the atom.

There is another sense of the me-ontic as a being’s origination, the source of its being the being that it is. This could have the spatial sense of ontological ground or foundation, but it could also have the temporal sense of being a being’s pre-being (the being of a being before it becomes what it is). The sense of me-ontic void here would signifying the lack of ground and foundation, and emphasise the idea that there was no primordial being out of which the particular being produces itself, no permanent Being subsisting ontic beings. In this way, we start to get a sense of withdrawal as

(not) hard to find or even impossible to find yet still capable of being visualized or mapped or plotted. Withdrawn doesn’t mean spatially, or materially or temporally hidden yet capable of being found, if only in theory. Withdrawn means beyond any kind of access, any kind of perception or map or plot or test or extrapolation.

(Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

The me-ontic of the ontic, the absent real of the casual presence, is not a ground, foundation or origin. The me-ontic is void because it lacks all determination and all possibility; the me-ontic, that is to say the withdrawn, is under this reading the object’s horizon of im-possibility. This makes sense if we put recall that for other variants of object-oriented ontology the withdrawn aspect of the object is precisely the domain of the object’s capacity for action. In Levi Bryant’s formulation, the withdrawn ‘virtual proper being’ of a machine is the domain of its pluri-potent volcanicity, its capacities for propertising itself and producing local manifestations. Bryant’s generative concept of withdrawal retains a Deleuzianism insofar as it is a philosophy of production involving a concept of the virtual; whereas, in Morton’s concept of withdrawal as absolute absence, the withdrawn dimension of the object seems to be an absolute spectrality, an insubstantiality at the heart of substance. This might be related to Morton’s Buddhism, so here, a quick trip down another version of withdrawn, a version that Morton has called attention to him; emptiness (sunyata).

Sunyata is a fairly difficult idea to isolate and talk about without doing it injustice, largely because it is not a concept in the sense that, say, “power-knowledge” is; sunyata belongs to a long, live, and self-differentiated Buddhism. Interestingly though, sunyata has been translated into English as “emptiness”, “nonsubstantiality”, and “voidness”. This list doesn’t exhaust the translations of sunyata but they do nicely display the resemblance between withdrawal in object-oriented ontology and sunyata in Buddhism, at least in the what seems to be Morton’s understanding of it.

The monk Nagarjuna systematised the thought on sunyata and is seen as one of the pivotal expressions of its meaning. According to Douglas Berger of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Nargarjuna’s intellectual project was an attempt to undo all ‘systems of thought which analysed the world in terms of fixed substances and essences’. For Nagarjuna, it is only because things lack essence and are insubstantialities that they are capable of change or of becoming something else entirely. I only introduce this idea because I think it might become important for understanding things later.

But back to the text, Harman states that things withdraw from total access. This, at least here, suggests that objects don’t withdraw completely and offers a chink of access. We can still “get at” them and they can still “get at” each other.

Attuning to emptiness

‘Tuning is the birth of another object: a tune, a reading, an interpretation’. (Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

Objects seems to be tunings, readings, interpretations of one another. In this sense, they aren’t mimetic. After all, an interpretation isn’t a mirror of the thing itself in the way that mimesis is- although of course, mimesis can be more or less faithful, more or less distorting. The point here is that the interpretation, the mimetic object, is not the original object. My experience of the sun is not the sun itself, it is a reading of it. My reading, my experiential object, and the sun pre-experiential sun, the sun in itself, are not the same. Here, Morton is restating the Kantian noumena-phenomena and producing a pancorrelationism: every object-object relationship sunders the object between noumena and phenomena. Every object is an experiential object and a pre, or non-experiential object. What is fascinating though is that Morton doesn’t say that this object is split from itself. What Morton actually says is that mimetic work is ‘the birth of another object’. I can only conclude that the experiential and non-experiential objects, the sun-for-me and the sun-in-itself, are not dual aspects of a single object but two distinct objects. This is sort of the core of object-oriented philosophy. Indeed, it also accords with an enactivist approach in which the sun such as I experience it is co-enacted by my neurology, my lived and biological body, and the sun itself. Except that the warmth of the sun can’t be my interpretation of it, unless we’re talking about interpretation as impoverishment of that which is being interpreted. My experience of the sun’s heat is thus an impoverishment of the sun itself.
But isn’t this reminiscent of Plato’s Cave? Aren’t we then living in a world where all we have the shadows cast on the wall? Morton states this is the case plainly, describing the ‘interobjective space’ as exactly that.
The new object is real-for-me but only sensuous-for-itself. Yet does the object itself experience my experience of it? Is the new born object fully fledged or still-born? To put it otherwise, to whom does the third object belong? To me, to itself, or to the sun? These questions are premature given that for Morton the object is withdrawn from total access in such a way that I can only interpret it. But:

Yet when you tune, real things happen. You are affecting causality. You are establishing a link with at least one other actually existing entity.

(Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

It is true that tuning is efficacious, that interpreting produces effects. When you interpret a text you make a new text and that new text is link to the original. These things can even happen simultaneously. I am re-reading Marcus Aurelieus’s Meditations, and it has a few annotations. The annotations are interpretations of Marcus and are therefore not part of the Meditations. Some complexity is present here because the interpretation and the text (the new and the original) are contained in one object (the book), which is itself a translation (an interpretation). I think this is what returns us from the mimetic to the me-ontic. The me-ontic is what is what does not show up, what is not present but is nevertheless real. An interpretation is what does not show up in the thing interpreted. The annotations about Marcus are not the writing of Marcus, nor are they Marcus himself, even though a link is established between all of these moments. The link is tenuous and mediate. It is through the interpretation I can know the text; after all, even without the annotation my own interpretation of the words on the page would filter and frame them. If this is how we consider affecting casuality to operate then it seems like it is merely the ‘establishing a link’ that counts, and not the nature of that link. This is understandable when we consider the strangeness of the phrase “affecting causality”.

Causality usually refers to material causality, to bodies acting on bodies. As discussed in my post on corporealism, I take ‘bodies’ to be materialities that possess a capacity for action (to be acted upon, or to act on). Causality is the name for the system of bodies acting upon and being acted on by other bodies (a discussion of incorporeal subsistence remains to be undertaken). In this material causality it is bodies that interact with bodies. I repeat this point in order to emphasis the idea that acting on causality seems strange. If causality is bodies acting on bodies then acting on causality is acting on bodies acting on bodies, which is causality. The link that one establishes with bodies seems not itself to be a corporeal one and therefore exist outside of the domain of causation. What exactly is this link? In my own post I suggested it may have something to do with a concept of virtuosity but that still involves direct contact between bodies.

In terms of this virtuosity, Morton does go on to state that

We must tread carefully here, to avoid the thought of overmining. This doesn’t mean that there is no table, but rather that how I use the table, including thinking about it, talking about it, resting my teacup on it, is not the table.

In the philosophical perspective of “mereological nihilism”, almost defended by Peter van Inwagen (Material Beings), there are no wholes, only parts that fail to cohere into wholes. Inwagen’s only exception to this ontological rule is living organisms that do manage to cohere into composite units. Inwagen is rather like the Epicurean atomist in that he claims everything besides live organisms are ‘simples’ and that these are independent of one another. So, Morton is discussing a table. He is discussing this table in the context of the Sorites paradox and states that we can’t say a thing is a table because of its use or because of parts. If we go with its use then the table can fail to be table, it can break, or I can use other objects as tables (hence he calls this “overmining” process the tables ‘as-structure’). Likewise, if we go with the table’s components then we could infinitely divide them without ever locating the table hidden within that heap. For Morton, these upward-downward reductionism fail to visualise, map, plot, find, perceive, test, extrapolate or otherwise access the object itself because the object itself is not ‘as-structured’ or heaped but withdrawn. This withdrawal is such that

The total vividness of this actual table, this tode ti (Aristotle), this unit, this unique being here, wooden cousin of the friend of many philosophers, is what is unspeakable, ungraspable.

Unspeakable, ungraspable. Once again, we see Michael’s contention of the epistemic (unspeakable) and the structural (ungraspable) relations being conflated, as if the being-able-to-say-the-object is the same thing as the being-able-to-touch-the-object. The particularlity of this particular table, this table that I am sitting at now, is withdrawn to the point that its vividness to me, its ‘as-structure’ is a certain tuning, a definite interpretation.

So when I link to the table, when I engage in a causal relationship with the table, it is not this table “tode ti” that I am linking up with. It is instead the system of casual relations that comprises the interobjective aesthetic realm. Of course, when ‘I’ link up to the table this ‘I’ is not necessarily me, Arran James, but might instead be the coffee cup resting on its surface, or the laptop, or the lightwaves colliding on its grainy surface, or one of the wood chips that the table contains without being reducible to. Object-object relations are mediated through a causal system that stands separate from them.

To return to Buddhism and sunyata with Morton, we are told that

Emptiness is not the absence of something, but the nonconceptuality of reality: the real is beyond concept, because it is real.

This nonconceptuality is really another way of saying that the real is not epistemic. Emptiness in this sense is a kind of substractive principle akin to the workings of mysticism: the negative theology of Meister Eckhart; Zen; the Gnosticism of Thunder Perfect Mind. At this point, Morton recalls Graham Harman’s account of occasionalist vicarious causation in order to show that emptiness can serves as this kind of occasional link between objects, a link that Morton now calls a ‘magical illusion’. There is a strong sense that theological-mystical concepts are operable in this metaphysical system, and this gives us a pretty clear idea of withdrawal for Morton. If something is nonconceptual then it can’t be cognised and thus presents a limit to thought. It is for this reason that the object can’t be epistemically accessed through the ability to visualise, map, plot, find, perceive, test, extrapolate etc. In order to discuss the object in itself it becomes necessary in this system to eliminate what it is not, to dissolve it in reciprocal contradictions, and to give to its substance all the (non)qualities of the insubstantial. Consider Nagarjuna:

One may not say “there is emptiness” nor that there is ”non-emptiness”. Nor that both (exist simultaneously), nor that neither exists; the purpose for saying (“emptiness”) is for the purpose of conveying knowledge.

(Nagarjuna quoted in Magliola 1984, Derrida on the mend).

A kind of pragmatism

Talking about objects is already too much if we want to have any access to them. “Emptiness” is itself an epistemic link to the object rather than a way of gaining direct partial contact or intimacy. Here we might just as well quote Wittgenstein, a philosopher accused of mysticism himself, and his famous dictum that ‘whereof one cannot speak thereof one must pass over in silence’. The point is that in discussing withdrawal we aren’t really legitimated to say anything at all because whatever can be said can’t possibly be withdrawn. Again, the “speculative” of “speculative realism” is obviously part of the (il)legitimation of speaking about beings themselves. I can’t speak of my table, or of Morton’s table, but I speak about it all the same, always missing it, always somehow falling short of it. Here is another example of such emptiness taken from Stephen Bachelor’s highly accessible Buddhism without beliefs (1997), and its one that almost anyone reading this can take part in:

Pick up a ball point pen. Take off the cap and ask: “Is this still a ballpoint pen?” Yes, of course- albeit one without a cap. Unscrew the top part of the casing, remove the ink refill, and screw the top on again. Is that a ballpoint pen? Well, yes, just about. Is the refill a ballpoint pen? No, it’s just a refill- but at least it can function as a pen, unlike the empty casing. Take the two halves of the empty casing apart [or break it in two if it’s a nice cheap bic]. Is either of them a ballpoint pen? No, definitely not. No way.

This is the same kind of example that Morton provides for withdrawal, and we can recognise in it the bi-directional reductionism that Morton already discarded. I like this example because I can engage with it right now without much effort at all. I engage with it corporeally in an embodied interaction. In this case it is my embodied manipulation of the thing that reveals its emptiness; it is my coping-with-being that exposes the objects innermost absence. Yet this absence could only be reached because the body that I am corporeally manipulated the body that the pen was. Of course here I am attempting to return to the very virtuosity that has already been rejected. To accept virtuosity is to accept that interobjective space is in fact a kind of intercorporeality in which bodies are virtuous agents. For Stephen Bachelor the above example is evidence that objects ‘emerge from a matrix of conditions and in turn become part of another matrix of conditions from which something else emerges’. If we follow this argument then

Withdrawal = sunyata = emptiness = conditions of emergence.

Batchelor doesn’t go into whether these conditions of emergence are corporeal or transcendental, material or formal, and this is very clearly the horizon of this post (and those it is inspired by and alongside). I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer, but to me it seems that the question is answered by the consideration of how we “get at” the fact that we can’t “get at” the sun, the pen, or the table, and that is through corporeality. I “get at” the emptiness of the table by attempting to chop it to pieces or by it failing to do what I wanted it to do. The fact is that these are structural relations between bodies; they are embodied relations wherein I discover the excess of the withdrawn over my conceptualisation of the real. In order to realise that bodies withdraw from their embodiment I have to approach them in a pragmatic, embodied way. Emptiness is itself empty except ‘for the purposes of conveying knowledge’. The epistemic relation attempts to cope with withdrawal by saying too much of nothing.

But emptiness isn’t just a metaphysical principle in Buddhism. As Batchelor points out emptiness also names the awareness of emptiness, naming an ethos, a way of being that is

A life centred in awareness of emptiness…an appropriate way of being in this changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn, and ambiguous reality. Emptiness is the central path that leads not beyond this reality but right into its heart. It is the track on which the person moves.

It is clear that the awareness that Batchelor is talking about is fully existential. It is a ‘way of being’ as much as it is the condition of being. A way is an orientation, a chosen direction that I move in; a form of life, replete with political engagements and ethical commitments; it is a style or a particular mode of doing that requires cultivation; it is a threshold, a “way in” or a “way out”, and as such involves a kind of territorialisation; and it is a skilled doing, the way of being as analogous to the way I draw up a medication from a phial into a syringe, having first to assemble that syringe and then to administer it into the exposed flesh of the patient, careful not to hit blood vessels or the sciatic nerve. In this polysemy there are notions of a conscious and engaged movement, an appropriated practicality. Emptiness as a way of being is not something passively undertaken but is an active engagement with my own being and the very onticity of ontic bodies. What runs throughout this pragmatic orientation to living is precisely a sense of embodied activity, of the embodied capacity to act that the ancient stoics called God. Furthermore, insofar as emptiness is conceived of as the very conditions of emergence, this existential emptiness is a commitment to live with ontological emptiness:

the “empty life” is not naked life; the empty life is the life lived in awareness of ontological intimacy, material vulnerability, and the radical incompletion of all beings, including myself.

Obviously, not all bodies can embody emptiness as “empty life”; this is the problem at the heart of debates surrounding animal ethics and personhood. We could say that persons are those beings that appropriate an awareness of emptiness. If this sounds all-too-Heideggarian, I can only apologise. I have commented elsewhere that my own problems with Heidegger centre on Da-sein’s tragic heroism, more than anything to do with his ontology (as far I am capable of understanding it). At any rate, we could say that the appropriation of emptiness as empty life is what we mean by consciousness. If this is the case, obviously nonconscious bodies can’t have emptiness as a way of being in that sense, but they can in the minimal sense of simply being-empty. Whilst the two modes aren’t in duet with one another, they do share the same choreographic space. The point is that nonconscious bodies- objects without minds- don’t grasp emptiness epistemically. They don’t interpret emptiness, they enact emptiness. This is also true for conscious bodies insofar as their capacity for reflexivity is emergent from but irreducible to their specific carnalities. In this way, I completely agree with Morton’s footnote that states that ‘this refreshes the Buddhist idea that different sentient beings inhabit different sorts of reality’, but it is an agreement with a disagreement, a repetition with a difference.

I turn my gaze back to my table. It has a cup on it, now empty of coffee, a laptop heats the surface beneath it, my forearms rub and bump against it as I type, a stack of books extend vertically from its horizontal plane, extending the choreographic space (the space of activity) upwards. Also on the table, invisible to me, are countless microorganisms. These microorganisms crawl out from gorging on the pages of my books (they chew on The Trouble with Being Born as if in parody), and from my poorly covered coughing mouth and sneezing nose. Bookbugs and cold germs mingle with grounded dust mites and their excrement. The invisible life proliferates whether I know it’s there or not. And all these organisms are also pragmatically concerned with the environment, but in radically different ways than I am. From the environment, in it, as it, across it, involving so many more bodies, there comes multiple worlds- mine being the only one I have epistemic access to. The books? They are real bodies, they act and are acted upon, but this doesn’t mean have their experience their own ‘reality’; they constitute worlds but lack the capacity to experience their worlds. My ballpoint pen, now lying in ruins, can’t ‘read’ the book its pieces rest upon, and the books can’t translate or interpret the ballpoint pen. Virtuosity, the practical orientation of bodies towards one another, the very activity of their being active, is explainable by the stoic materiality of God. There is no need to interpret, translate, or otherwise operate ideally. Intercorporeality is always a mutual making use of, even if that making use of is, in Harman’s word to describe the fire-cotton relation, “stupid”.

Photographer Trevor Paglen, in an interview with ‘Smudge’ recently published by Punctum Books in Making the Geologic Now, (thanks to Adam at knowledge-ecology for pointing it out) says that

I often think about this notion of geology, or geomorphology, in relation to hu¬man institutions. Consider a place like Guantanamo Bay, for example. I would submit that the reason why Guantanamo Bay still is there is because it’s there. The chain link fences and the brick and mortar that the buildings are made of actually have a kind of historic agency. They actually want to reproduce themselves. We’re all familiar with the 19th Century idea about the “annihilation of space with time” but the obverse is also true. Space also annihilates time. Whether we’re talking about nuclear waste or Guantanamo Bay, we can see how materialities produce their own futures. This is a way in which materiality and politics intersect. Material¬ity is not politically neutral, so I think that you can talk about Guantanamo Bay as a political phenomenon. I think that materiality can explain some things.

This “geomorphology” seems to me to be proximate with DeLanda’s morphogenic capacity, the same capacity I have identified with the stoics materially immanent God; it is the capacity for matter to self-organise, for bodies to embody themselves. This is far from the image of material causation as ‘clunky causation’. This hypnotic notion that ‘materialities produce their own futures’ is also incredibly close to Morton’s own concept of ecological crisis in connection with the burial of nuclear waste in the Earth.

In other words, there is no need for causality to be magical or to seem like an illusion when God is the operations, and the interoperations, of bodies. Bodies are both cause and effect. This stoic doctrine is closer to Buddhist codependent arising than I can see realist magic allowing. The table-for-my-books, the table-for-my-forearms, the table-for-me, the table-for-the-cup, the table-for-the-laptop and the table-for-the-table aren’t going to be the same kind of table-for. I take this as part of the reason for attending to what Michael calls onto-specificity, and what has come to be known as Buddhist mindfulness practice. Virtuous beings, pragmatic bodies, are not always sentient beings, and are therefore not always centres of an “alien phenomenology”. At the same time, emptiness does not translate as spectrality but the perishability of all corporeal existences: bodies reach their apotheosis in dissolution, destruction, and death.

Final words then, I get the sense that for Morton any assertion to the effect that ‘reality is mingled and uncanny mesh’ is mistaken. The mingling and meshing is a property of the ‘sampling’ effect of object’s interactions in the aesthetic domain- a domain he seems to think is derivative of but not coexistensive with objects. Causation thus seems to be something like the transcendental conditions of possibility for the emergence of objects, akin to codependent arising in Buddhism. If causation is an illusion and a non-illusion, it is magical and mysterious, for Morton then that is because it is ’empty’ (shunyata). If I’m right about this (and I’m in no way certain that I am), then the problem is really about what it is that is casually interacting. Objects as samples of other objects? Objects as interpretations of other objects? Sensuous appearances? These hermeneutical objects seem to be the objects of causation, and causation seems to be the hermeneutic labour undertaken by objects on other objects. My disagreement with Morton, if I have understood him at all, is over the question of whether objects and causation are corporeal or hermeneutic.

Political plasticity: part one.

Thus, even more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; it is, as its common name indicates, ubiquity made visible; and it is indeed in this aspect that it stands as a miraculous matter: the miracle is always a brusque conversion of nature. Plastic has remained totally impregnated with this admission: it is less an object than the trail of a movement.-Roland Barthes.

Recently there has been something of a disagreement going on in the philosophical blogosphere that revolves around Alex Galloway’s accusation of the capitalism inherent in object-oriented thought and certain people close to speculative realism. This disagreement has produced a few interesting comments, not least among them Levi Bryant’s post Pluripotecy: some remarks on Galloway. I don’t want to dwell on the specifics of that disagreement but I do want to elaborate some kind of commentary on a part of Levi’s post dealing with Galloway, and an earlier post entitled Networks. I want to talk about, in a modest way, political plasticity. In order to talk about political plasticity I want to get more intimate with the idea of plasticity as such, and in order to do so I want to outline a story. In Adam Curtis style, this is the abbreviated story of how neuroplasticity came to be our dominant conceptual frame for talking about the brain.

At this point most people know that neuroscience has undergone a shift in its understanding of the brain. The brain used to be thought of as having all of its basic organic units, neurons, from birth and that these units were organised and fixed in that organisation within the developmental period of infancy and early childhood. The brain was seen as a three pound mass arranged in a static manner that did not elaborate beyond that early development. What a brain was, what it could, was fixed and any further changes in neuroanatomical structures and functions were those produced by psychiatric conditions and trauma or disease mediated impairment. If what a brain could do changed, if it deviated from its fundamental wiring, this could only be conceived in terms of aberration, deterioration, and degeneration. The brain was rigid, total, and closed. Maybe the most extreme example of this comes from the work of the man who has been seen as the father of modern psychiatry, Emile Kraepelin. It was Kraepelin who first documented the existence of what would come to be known to this day as the schizophrenias but which he tellingly named dementia praecox. This earlier name meant that the brain of the individual who suffered from the so defined psychotic illness had entered an inevitable decline in its capacities that could only result in death. ‘Dementia praecox’ translates as ‘premature dementia’ and a dementia is an organic brain disease in which cognitive capacities are progressively and irreversibly eroded. For Kraepelin the essence of the disease lay in its incurability. Much can be said about this conception of a form of distress that remains controversial today, especially in regard of how it shapes and legitimises so much of psychiatry’s power whilst revealing the paucity of scientific authority that justifies and naturalises that power, but this is not the place for such a discussion. The point here is that Kraepelin, a well respected empirical scientist who sought to alleviate human suffering, could not conceive of what some would now call an example of neurodiversity (or brain difference) as anything but a tragic affliction that moved only in the direction of increasing madness that resulted in an inevitable death. If the brain was static than any variability was evidence of, and constitutive of, pathology. The brain could not differ from itself. I would also contend that contemporary psychiatric practice, despite changes in its theoretical pronouncements, remains utterly Kraepelinian.

The paradigm shift alluded to above, and with which most people concerned with the mind in any sense are now familiar, was enacted by the discovery of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Neurogenesis refers to the fact that brains produce new neurons throughout the life of the organism, and neuroplasticity refers to the fact that both new and existing neurons and neuronal circuits continually undertake restructuring and changes to their function in response to interactions with the environment. Much more can be said about neuroplasticity and the way this dynamic is embodied, and how this relates to our evolutionary becoming as a species, but for our present purposes the important thing to note is how this discovery fundamentally alters how we conceive of what a brain can do. The brain is not a fixed unit in the way that Kraepelin would have understood it in the 1800s but is open and responsive to experience. The brain, in a popular phrase, is plastic.

The picture elaborated here that sees a historical shift in our understanding of the brain might not be as significant as this brief sketch of the story makes out. It is not so much that the story is inaccurate as it is that some voices have been raised to ask to what degree the transition between these two pictures of the brain are ruptural, and to what extent the plasticity story has become a rhetorical narrative without content. First of all, and this is nothing revelatory to say, the idea of the brain being plastic is not entirely without precedent. In William James’s landmark text The principles of psychology the pragmatist philosopher postulated that the brain was capable of reorganisation in response to experience as early as 1890. Again, in 1896 George R. Wilson published a text on the roles of what would later be called neurogenesis and neuroplasticity play in psychiatric disorders. Indeed, work can be found that discusses plasticity of brain tissue and function from the 1890s onward, with the term ‘neuroplasticity’ being coined in 1948. The second point concerns the way in which plasticity is regularly deployed popularly without much in the way of explanation or specificity, becoming a kind of empty signifier that merely means that the brain is capable of change.

There are several ways in which the brain is considered plastic. For instance, the connections between neurons can change in strength becoming stronger or weaker, more or less effective. In this instance, known as synaptic plasticity, the quantity of neurotransmitters release to a synapse across the gap between two neurons can be higher or lower and this, in turn, can alter how receptors respond to that neurotransmission. Synaptic plasticity can also refer to how many receptors are available to receive a given neurotransmitter that has been released. This is effectively a material change of the way in which parts of the brain communicate with one another and it underlies the so-called dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia, which is that either a change in the quantity or in sensitivity to the neurotransmitter dopamine produces psychotic symptoms that lead clinicians to diagnose someone as schizophrenic. I will not run through all of the ways in which neuroplasticity can be conceived but I will point to a recent study that is indicative of a new form of plasticity that is a candidate for showing how social isolation can affect the brain such that the form of experience we call depression emerges [link http://www.buffalo.edu/news/13797%5D.
The point of these examples is that when we discuss how the brain can be plastic we are referring to specific material processes in the biology of consciousness. A further point is the way that when we pay attention to the specifics we discover that our experience shapes our brain which shapes our experience. We could go on here to discuss the example of depression I link to and how this shows that all this is an issue of embodiment for social isolation means nothing if it does not mean the withdrawal of a body from interaction with other bodies in a shared social space. However, that would be to wander to far from path I am treading. To summarise, the discovery of neuroplasticity is a real and important contribution to neurology and to its contribution to how we understand ourselves, but it is one that has been seen as creating an abyss between historical and contemporary brain science and, by extension, an analogous abyss between one conception of human nature and another. Instead, there has been something of an evolution in the understanding of neuroplasticity even if it is one that stumbled forward without having always enjoyed the status of mainstream banality that its rhetorical use indicates its conceptual handling currently enjoys. This is not dissimilar to something I want to talk about under the name political plasticity. This kind of plasticity is not new, and I am not sure I can do justice to it in what follows. All the same, I’ll go on.

I want to turn to Catherine Malabou’s way of talking about plasticity, a concept she derives from both neuroscientific discourse and Hegelian dialectical philosophy and which she has been developing throughout her philosophical career. For Malabou neuroscience seems to have done what Foucault thought that theory had failed to achieve; to cut off the king’s head. Anyone reading this is probably familiar with the idea of the head as a metaphorical stand-in for the sovereign in political philosophy, especially in Rousseau and Hobbes’s Leviathan. The sovereign is usually thought of as the head, the mind, the brain, the organ that co-ordinates, dominates, originates, and typifies the state in these discourses of the body-politic. The brain is thought to make all the decision and this translates in a way that is immediately understandable to the justification that the sovereign is the one who makes all the decisions, who keeps the rest of the body in line and making sure the hand performs the job assigned it, while the stomach performs the job assigned to it. The head maintains order. This is the idea of the brain-sovereign. I make no claims to originality when I say that this is the statist body; the body determined by the head. One of Malabou’s claims in What should we do with our brains? is that the science of neuroplasticity exposes the error of this organising conceptual metaphor. We might think that this opens up a space to think about a non-statist political philosophy but Malabou doesn’t follow that route. She goes on to instead draw parallels between the neuroscientific and the post-Fordist discourses of flexibility, of the ability to infinitely reorganise, and to hierarchies that don’t localise or ossify but remain open and nodal. Foucaultian power, the society of control, neoliberalism look just like the supposedly new image of the brain that neuroscience has discovered. To this list of terms for palpating late capitalism Malabou adds that what she is discussing, this decentralised acephalic body-politic, is ‘neuronal ideology’. The plastic brain does not have fixed centres, it does not have permanent circuits without their continual activation and reactivation, and it is always open to new circuits and pathways being forged. So to the plastic society and the plastic market. (Here one might legitimately ask if this hadn’t already been described by the Marxist observation that all that is solid melts into air). In her own words:

Employability is synonymous with flexibility. We recall that flexibility, a management watchword since the seventies, means above all the possibility of instantly adapting productive apparatus and labor to the evolution of demand. It thus becomes, in a single stroke, a necessary quality of both managers and employees. If I insist on how close certain managerial discourses are to neuroscientific discourses, this is because it seems to me that the phenomenon called “brain plasticity” is in reality more often described in terms of an economy of flexibility. (Malabou 2008, What should we do with our brains? p.46).

What Malabou is talking about here is the well established identification of the condition of labour as one of precarity. The history of precarity is the history of the rise of neoliberalism and carries us into the current condition of austerity, the nostalgic retrofitting of neoliberal policy and aesthetics. Of course we should be careful to note, as Mario Tronti and others in the autonomist tradition have, that the production of precarity was not the nefarious design of a contingent of ruthless venture capitalists but also depended upon the demands of an increasingly powerful labour movement (although capitalists do not escape the circuit, to continue the neuronal metaphor). In the 1970s labour figured flexibility as a kind of decoupling from a life dominated by work, by its patterns, space, places, and routines. Flexibilisation meant a degree of autonomy. The shift from such an autonomy to the conditions of neoliberalism and austerity have been well traced at this point and don’t bear repeating here. Suffice to say, the power of workers to live independently of capital’s demands was directly translated into one of capital’s most potent modes of organising labour and life thereafter. It is in part because of this translation and domestication that Malabou wants to redeem what is plastic from neuroplasticity and late capitalism’s alleged convergence, and to activate political and neuronal circuits that break with those responsible for our domestication. As she puts it the goal is to ‘refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify at the whim of fluxes, transfers, and exchanges, for fear of explosion’ (ibid. p.78).
Against the neurocapitalist picture of plasticity as an infinite flexibility, of being an ever ready to be modified subject, happy to fit itself to whatever market produced social conditions it finds itself in by seeking the most adaptive and well regulated affective, existential, and social responsivity, Malabou wants to think plasticity differently. Malabou again:

The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in not only the creation of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model”

(ibid. p. 6).

I have admittedly glossed over several steps in Malabou’s argument in order to arrive at a point where we can talk about plasticity in a different mode. The point isn’t whether or not Malabou’s account of plasticity is true but whether it can be used as an organising metaphor for thinking politically. In this last quote plasticity is not meant to be received by us as the idea of an infinite flexibility or as a naturalisation of that same flexibility but rather as a name that gives expression to a dialectical tension between creation and destruction. Plasticity is the name of a process of creative refusal, of a kind of wilful divergence from typicality or the same. As such that which is plastic is understood as that which produces itself and simultaneously undoes itself, that which denies its own stasis and sets itself again in motion, a kind of restlessness. In the same text Malabou will talk about the plastic brain as ‘formable and forming’. To be the kind of thing that is formable is to be the kind of thing that has as its condition the capacity to be given form but at the same time to be the kind of thing that is forming is also to be the kind of thing that has as its condition the capacity to form itself and its environment. Essentially, this is a dynamic dialectic that occurs within and outside of the plastic thing. The plastic has no essence outside its giving and being given form. Between the thing and its environment there is an agency that cannot be located in one of these terms but arises out of the interaction of their separate agencies. Malabou uses the example of clay in order to talk about things that have the capacity to be given form. Let’s consider that.

In pottery one begins with clay. The potter is presented with a lump of earth, a malleable lump of wet, cold clay. This clay is not presented to the potter without form. It looks like a lump of clay; it is a block of brown, yielding but resistant, solid matter. As a block it has a shape and has dimension in three dimensional space. It feels cold in the potter’s hand, and when wet it will feel slick and slippery. It smells a particular way and is mottled in particular ways. Some of those mottles were there when it was presented to the potter and some may have been caused by her fingers pressing in as she examined its dimensions. The clay is a material thing with a form the potter has not bestowed on it. The clay must be wedged, either by hand or by machine, in order that air bubbles that would cause cracks in its surfaces in the kiln are removed. Next, the clay is made into a ball (or a series of smaller balls maybe) and thrown onto the wheel. Now on the wheel the intended form is moulded by hand and maybe with the aid of other tools. A number of other steps might take place before it’s fired in the kiln but it is at the point of throwing the clay that we’ll stop. Things can go wrong at the throwing stage. The potter, if inexperienced, might fail to produce the shape they wanted to or, as can happen, the intended shape may be abandoned out of a sense that it is not ‘in’ the clay, that some other shape is ‘in’ the clay. What is the point of this? That clay, Malabou’s example of a formable thing, is already the kind of thing that can partake in its being given form. The potter’s autonomy is not absolute, she must work on a pre-existent form, with the use of multiple other objects, and learned techniques, and, even if she is an expert, the clay might resist the model of her intended product. Between her imagination, the material ensemble required, her eyes and hands and the clay itself, interactions take place. It might well be that this is not so dramatic an example as we could think of but I like it for its modesty. Were this a post on ontology I would be tempted to pursue the notion that substance is itself plastic.

A quick summation of the plastic: the plastic is something that forms and is given form, or more importantly has the capacity to form or be given form. The plastic can form and can be given form. Plastics are thus always open to environmental others. They are also the kind of thing that in activating their capacity to provide themselves form, to do forming, are also engaged in a process of un-forming. Plastics as I am discussing them are neither static nor infinitely flexible, neither ossified and rigid, nor flowing and nebulous. Plastics are also able to resist and maintain their form under pressure; what enters into relations with them does not necessarily re-structure them. Plastics are therefore constitutively resistant or autonomous materials. It is here that I want to turn to Levi Bryant’s recent response to Alex Galloway’s criticism of object-oriented thinkers like himself, Timothy Morton, and Graham Harman. Levi writes that

If everything is defined by the historical setting in which it emerged, if things– above all people –are not pluripotent such that they harbor potentials in excess beyond the way they’re related and deployed in the present, then there’s no hope for ever changing anything. Everything will be tainted through and through by the power dynamics in which it emerged. Everything will be but an expression of those networks of power. It is only where relations can be severed and where entities are pluripotent that emancipatory change is possible.

What I take from Levi’s remarks here, and it is a point that he has stressed on several occasions, is that emancipatory politics, a politics that still identifies itself with revolution and at least a spark of utopian hope, can only exist where things (social systems and all their constituents, including individuals, for instance) have the capacity to give form and to be formed. In order to do either of these things they must not be fixed. In Levi’s terms things are always pluripotent (meaning something like ‘having many powers’) in the same sense that I have been talking about things being plastic. I turn to Levi and draw on this quote in particular because it situates plasticity in a political and not simply metaphorical or ontological context. Levi’s pluripotency is a condition of politics as much as it is a condition of the people and things caught up in those politics. Here Levi seems to be suggesting that a good part of politics has precisely to do with enacting the severing of the dynamical interaction between specific objects and returning things to a more active plasticity. It is only if we are plastic, only if we are not fixed and static (either as defined by history or, as others might want to claim, genetics) that change even makes sense. It is only in our being able to be re/deformed that we can hope for a better world. This conception of agreement finds contemporary resonance in Ranciere’s theorisations of dissensus as the provocation and creation of disruptions in the circuits of power and in the aesthetic arrangement of knowledge, space, bodies, and their acts and productions that maintain those circuits. That relations have the capacity to be otherwise than they are is precisely what makes emancipatory politics even a possibility, and it is also what makes the project so fraught and rife with sectarian conflicts. There is a choreography involved in radical politics, a setting of bodies in motion so that they move differently with one another and with themselves, but no dance follows its choreography perfectly (indeed, the relationship between the choreographic imagination and the concrete dance is a relationship of intense plasticity). The practice of radical politics thus reveals itself as being a practice that admits to and affirms the plasticity of the situation and its players.

What then is political plasticity? Sure, it is just the practice of blowing up social relations, of disrupting them and attempting to find new ways of relating- to our fellow persons, to social groups, to our environment, to the digital sphere, to production, consumption, and whatever else finds itself way into our politics. I also want to suggest it is more than only that and, just like with the story of neuroplasticity and its supposed paradigm rupturing status, this is something that has been around for a long time.

In an earlier post Levi wrote that ‘[N]etworks won’t save us, nor will assemblages. Sometimes we contrast networks and hierarchies in value-laden terms. “Networks good, hierarchies bad!” But like any ontological truth, networks are just what there is’. We have already seen that whether we use Foucaultian, Deleuzian, or neuronal terms this remains the case. The network is an ascendant metaphor and reality, with some decrying it as the ultimate diffusion of power and others embracing it as a decentralised form of social and political organisation. In the same post on networks Levi characterises anarcho-communism as a type of politics that wants to abolish what he calls ‘. These hubs are any specialised social material organisation or object that you have to pass through in order to achieve some given intended end- Levi gives the example of an airport as being a ‘hub’ that allows you to get from your home location to some other location; we could equally well call them checkpoints or, in neuronal terms, ‘centres’. In order for some centres to operate they must pass through other centres. Levi provides the example of construction having to pass through fossil fuels. We could also think about the neuroscientist who must pass through the medical school, or the unemployed worker who must pass through the department of work and pensions. In Levi’s post he states that the communists are the party who want to create new hubs, and he calls this revolution, and states that the anarcho-communist wants to remove all hubs in favour of ‘a distributed network’. It is with this notion of anarcho-communism as seeking a distributed network that I want to introduce the kind of political plasticity I have in mind, in part because I take issue with this characterisation of anarchism, and, more to the point, because it allows me to show that the suggestion that plasticity is a political concept is as old as anarcho-communism itself.

It is in Anarchist communism: its basis and principles that we find a reference to plasticity. In Kropotkin’s massively influential 1927 pamphlet plasticity is not derived from findings from neuroscience but is nonetheless a metaphor that is deployed from within the findings of natural science, specifically from his appreciation of Darwinian evolutionary theory. To quote

By bringing to light the plasticity of organization, the philosophy of evolution has shown the admirable adaptability of organisms to their conditions of life, and the ensuing development of such faculties as render more complete both the adaptations of the aggregates to their surroundings and those of each of the constituent parts of the aggregate to the needs of free cooperation.

What we find here is a brief statement of Kropotkin’s commitment to evolutionary theory, a commitment he is well known for, and one that is perhaps more nuanced than many others who made evolution in a metaphor for political philosophy. Where we might think about evolution as providing a theoretical bedrock (often unarticulated) for teleological progressivist tendencies in the history of political philosophy, those characterised by the idea that some social end would necessarily be accomplished by the movement of history itself (the classless society, the stateless society, the end of history, the triumph of capitalism being the culmination of all historical becoming), Kropotkin isn’t a part with such tendencies. In the above quote Kroptokin clearly has an appreciation of evolution as being a process in which organisms respond or react to the ‘conditions of their life’. Indeed, Kropotkin is well known to have rejected the progressivist elaboration of evolutionary theory propounded by Lamarck. Indeed, against this reading Kropotkin saw periods of biological and social change as episodic and violent, determined by conditions of necessity. Elsewhere, in Anarchism: its philosophy and ideal, Kropotkin would write that his idea of an anarchist society, one fully consonant with the aims of communism, was on that aimed toward

[t]he highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; everchanging, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms.

I would suggest that the evolutionary metaphor that allows Kropotkin to talk about the plasticity of organisation is exactly what allows him to talk about a society that constantly alters the nature of relationships between people in such a manner as to be both durable and taking on new forms. Here, the evolutionary metaphor allows Kropotkin to speak of social organisation as being both stable and enduring whilst being dynamically open to the conditions of life. Anarchist forms do not collapse or dissolve, nor do they remain as they are once they have been established. Yet doesn’t this dialectic between the rigid and the fluid, exhibiting a kind of closure and openness in terms of formation, bring us in line with the ideas of plasticity and plastics we have been discussing? Plasticity finds itself somewhere between, and in a strange antagonism with, rigidity and fluidity, the fixed and the flowing. I want to suggest that this is the kind of social and political organisation that is favoured by anarcho-communism and that this is what makes it the plastic politics.

I’ll hopefully pursue this in the second part of this post. In that second part I will discuss forms of anarchist political organisation in the light of this discussion and attempt to sketch the ways in which they attempt to be at once susceptible to the milieu from which it is organised and resists that milieu so as not to suffer a breakdown of integrity. As I have also used Malabou in the foregoing, it might make sense to return and speak briefly about her notion of a destructive plasticity, as developed in Ontology of the accident. To draw this to a conclusion I want to make it clear that this isn’t really a statement of belief as it is a working through of these ideas. I remain open to being told that this is all nonsense, I’m an unrepentant amateur 🙂

Elizabeth Grosz interview

Here’s a snippet from an interview with Elizabeth Grosz, to be published in the inaugural issue of Interstitial Journal (if you’re interested in submitting, the deadline is December 31, 2012):

Q: To begin, you’re often recognized as a feminist materialist, yet materialism, itself, is a hotly contested theoretical frame, and one whose traditional parameters are being challenged by new philosophical trajectories, like speculative realism. How has materialism informed your political and ontological commitments? Moreover, why do you think new feminist materialism has been so heavily utilized in thinking through twenty-first century social problems, even beyond feminist research or women’s studies?

A: Materialism is an ontology, one that is often set up in opposition to the ontology of idealism. I would not call myself a materialist at all because of how strongly this opposition has figured in the history of Western thought in framing what materialism is, whether it is understood in terms of atomism, of physicalism or in terms of dialectics. I am interested in an understanding of the real or the universe that does not reduce what is there to matter but is capable of conceptualizing the nuances and layers of ideality that matter carries within itself. For me, this ontology is a politics (and an ethics) to the extent that this is the open ground on which we exist and the forms the horizon of possibility for all out actions. It does not give us a politics (or an ethics) in itself, but it does orient us toward political and ethical action.

Do you think that ‘new feminist materialism’ has been so heavily used in thinking about social problems? This would surprise me. I would not accord it quite this power. There is a convergence of interest on the part of a number of feminist theorists that has returned to the question of materiality that was so powerful with the rise of Marxism and its reliance on historical materialism in the 1960s and 1970s. But with the demise of that project that so interested many feminists, the so-called ‘new materialism’ that has been published in a few anthologies recently, looks like a revitalization of materialism. Almost everyone—especially in the natural sciences—is committed to some sort of materialism. The more interesting question is: what kind of materialism? I am not at all sure that the ‘new feminist materialisms’ share a common concept of materiality. Certainly there is not a close fit between speculative realism and feminist materialism. This is in part because speculative realism doesn’t address itself to the questions of power and resistance that are so central to feminist (and other politically oriented forms of) materialisms, but also because speculative realism, and its cognates, including object-oriented philosophy, situate themselves so clearly in the tradition of a post-Kantian epistemology that denies any specificity to the corporeal form of the knowing subject.

objective nihilism (reprise)

This time from Michael of Archive Fire.

“Man can build his greatness on the nothingness that crushes him.” – André Malraux

Levi Bryant has yet another brilliant post up (here) discussing the aim of Speculative Realism (SR) in relation to nihilism and extinction more generally. I think Levi is on target with his comments about how North Americans seem to be working through our growing realization of the possibility (probability) of extinction in the face of ecological collapse (among other calamities). I believe this “awareness” is still mostly registering on subconscious levels – i.e., biologically as toxins, ecologically as climate, hurricanes, floods – and denied or obfuscated on political and ideological levels, but it is definitely becoming expressed.

The following are some key passages from Levi’s post:

Everything hinges on asking why the critique of correlationism– the most contentious and controversial dimension of SR –has arisen at this point in history. Why have so many suddenly become impassioned with the question of how it is possible to think a world without humans or being without thought? It is such a peculiar question, such a queer question, such a strange question. Why, after all, would we even be concerned with what the world might be apart from us when we are here and regard this world? There are, of course, all sorts of good ontological and epistemological reasons for raising these questions. Yet apart from immanent philosophical reasons, philosophy is always haunted by a shadow text, a different set of reasons that are not so much of the discursive order as of the order of the existential and historical situation and which thought finds itself immersed at a given point in history. Over and above– or perhaps below and behind –the strictly discursive philosophical necessity for a particular sort of thought, is the existential imperative to think something. Here the issue is not one of establishing how a certain philosophical imperative demands a response to a strictly philosophical question, but of addressing the question of why a particular question begins to resonate at all at this point in history and not in others…

…if I were to hazard a guess as to why the critique of correlationism, the thought of a world without humans, has suddenly become a burning one, then my suggestion would be that this is because we are facing the imminent possibility of a world that is truly without humans. If it has become necessary to think the possibility of a world without humans, then this is because we face a future– due to the coming climate apocalypse –of a world that truly is without humans…

Culture can be seen as a symptomatic thinking through– veiled and concealed, while nonetheless present and on the surface right there before our eyes –of the Real of its historical moment. This seems to be the case with apocalyptic films and movements in recent decades. What we seem to be thinking through is the possibility of our own extinction or, at the very least, the extinction of the world as we know it.

Speculative Realism is important because several of the authors involved seem interested in operationalizing the need for novel understandings and engagements with the creeping potencies of the nonhuman and the precarious. SR offers widely dispersed possibilities for reconsidering human thought and behavior after the hideous yet enlightening realizations of being-in-a-material-world.

My sense is that North Americans currently tend to reject such realizations and then bury the accompanying dread of finitude and animality through consumption and/or fantasy – with T.V or crystal meth no less than simply commodities – in order to sooth the pain of their existential fears and resentments. To be sure, there are variances in the manner people respond but i believe the push and pull of consumption and distraction remain paramount.

I’m reminded of Ernest Becker’s work in this regard:

“Full humanness means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day. When you get a person to emerge into life, away from his dependencies, his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else’s power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the power¬lessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view? Luis Buimel likes to introduce a mad dog into his films as counterpoint to the secure daily routine of repressed living. The meaning of his symbolism is that no matter what men pretend, they are only one accidental bite away from utter fallibility. The artist disguises the incongruity that is the pulse-beat of madness but he is aware of it. What would the average man do with a full consciousness of ab-surdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror. Sartre has called man a “useless passion” because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies. As Ortega so well put it in the epigraph we have used for this chapter, man uses his ideas for the defense of his existence, to frighten away reality. This is a serious game, the defense of one’s existence—how take it away from people and leave them joyous?” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p.58-59)

As Heidegger argues with tremendous force in Being and Time, humans are fundamentally coping-beings. By composition and disposition we seek to make-sense and understand ourselves. We are the weirdo-beings that give a damn about being – creatures required by circumstance to adapt. But what adaptations are possible for us this late in the ‘game’?

As Levi states:

It is our circumstances themselves, the material reality of our world, that has become nihilistic, not the thought of this or that thinker. Indeed, I suspect that many of us are terrified and anguished by this objective nihilistic darkness that approaches and that may very well have happened, as Timothy Morton suggests. Perhaps we are already dead and we just don’t yet know it.

I believe the task of intellectuals (and not just philosophers) today is to indulge rather than mask the nihilistic forces of contemporary life – forces which manifest in both subjective and objective ways. Partaking in the dark revelations of current ecologies can only push us further towards more earthly, or creaturely, that is to say materialist modes of thinking and doing. Thinking the visceral and consequential facticity of intercorporeality entails thinking about our intimate connections as immanent achievements (our continuity with ‘nature’) and our vulnerability (or precarity with-in ‘nature’) simultaneously. We will have to effectively integrate the facticity of matter as matter in order to generate useful and mutually understandable expressions and sentiments among participants (or at least those of us left behind, so to speak). The practical motivations of material and speculative adaptation and communicability are at the core of any possible species of ecological and humanist thought.

Of course, we could take up the lines purposed by Laruelle or Brassier, or the eliminativists, or cleanse our phantasies in the rhetorical psychedelica of Timothy Morton, or even come up with our own codes and performances capable of limiting thought and opening us to the intercorporeal facticity of life – to Life as Flesh – but even this would be just a start. The important work to be done is decidedly practical and not necessarily academic (as Levi notes above). We must build new infrastructures.

The reference to ‘coping-beings’ and to the work of Ernst Becker (and in the Terror Management Theory that is inspired by his work) are particularly interesting. This is the direction I’m moving in as well, albeit in a way that is more willing to immerse itself in that nihilism. The new infrastructures that Michael is talking about are, I think, the materiality of the self-conscious meaning productions that I discuss as coalitions in favour of death here.

Of course I am quite happy to state that any attempt at the coming work that Michael talks about as both philosophical and practical is just another coping-mechanism. The thought of extinction is a coping with the possibility of extinction, a rendering it into the relative safety of a fantasy cognition. In the language of TMT the new infrastructures Michael is calling for would be called cultures and in my terms it would be machines of meaning-production. Yet part of me keeps on hearing the question; why cope? why go on? And, as I repeat again and again, the only answer I can come up with is a certain human addiction to living. My temptation is altogether more Schopenhauerian, more ‘literally eliminativist’: what if the only work left to us weren’t recovery or salvage but merely the possibility of a self-managed extinction? Only those who still refuse the truth of our possible extinction could regard this question as horrific.

This might not be horrific but I think we are constitutionally unable to follow such a program. Indeed, what we have essentially hit on in all this talk of culture, infrastructure or meaning-production has already been hit upon before. To add to Michael’s list of Heidegger and Becker, and to my own addition of TMT, we should really add Peter Wessel Zapffe’s concept of anchorings. In order to grasp the concept of anchoring I quote from Zapffe’s essay ‘The Last Messiah’ at length:

Anchoring might be characterised as a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness. Though typically unconscious, it may also be fully conscious (one ‘adopts a goal’.) Publicly useful anchorings are met with sympathy, he who ‘sacrifices himself totally’ for his anchoring (the firm, the cause) is idolised. He has established a mighty bulwark against the dissolution of life, and others are by suggestion gaining from his strength. In a brutalised form, as deliberate action, it is found among ‘decadent’ playboys (“one should get married in time, and then the constraints will come of themselves.”) Thus one establishes a necessity in one’s life, exposing oneself to an obvious evil from one’s point of view, but a soothing of the nerves, a high-walled container for a sensibility to life that has been growing increasingly crude. Ibsen presents, in Hjalmar Ekdal and Molvik, two flowering causes (‘living lies’); there is no difference between their anchoring and that of the pillars of society except for the practico-economic unproductiveness of the former.

Any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas. The average person makes do with the collective firmaments, the personality is building for himself, the person of character has finished his construction, more or less grounded on the inherited, collective main firmaments (God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future). The closer to main firmaments a certain carrying element is, the more perilous it is to touch. Here a direct protection is normally established by means of penal codes and threats of prosecution (inquisition, censorship, the Conservative approach to life).

The carrying capacity of each segment either depends on its fictitious nature having not been seen through yet, or else on its being recognised as necessary anyway. Hence the religious education in schools, which even atheists support because they know no other way to bring children into social ways of response.

Whenever people realise the fictitiousness or redundancy of the segments, they will strive to replace them with new ones (‘the limited duration of Truths’)- and whence flows all the spiritual and cultural strife which, along with economic competition, forms the dynamic content of world history.

The craving for material goods (power) is not so much due to the direct pleasures of wealth, as none can be seated on more than one chair or eat himself more than sated. Rather, the value of a fortune to life consists in the rich opportunities for anchoring and distraction offered to the owner.

Both for collective and individual anchorings it holds that when a segment breaks, there is a crisis that is graver the closer the segment to main firmaments. Within the inner circles, sheltered by the outer ramparts, such crises are daily and fairly painfree occurrences (‘disappointments’); even a playing with anchoring values is here seen (wittiness, jargon, alcohol). But during such play one may accidentally rip a hole from euphoric to macabre. The dread of being stares us in the eye, and in a deadly gush we perceive how the minds are dangling in threads of their own spinning, and that a hell is lurking underneath.

The very foundational firmaments are rarely replaced without great social spasms and a risk of complete dissolution (reformation, revolution). During such times, individuals are increasingly left to their own devices for anchoring, and the number of failures tends to rise. Depressions, excesses, and suicides result (German officers after the war, Chinese students after the revolution).

Another flaw of the system is the fact that various danger fronts often require very different firmaments. As a logical superstructure is built upon each, there follow clashes of incommensurable modes of feelings and thoughts. Then despair can enter through the rifts. In such cases, a person may be obsessed with destructive joy, dislodging the whole artificial apparatus of his life and starting with rapturous horror to make a clean sweep of it. The horror stems from the loss of all sheltering values, the rapture from his by now ruthless identification and harmony with our nature’s deepest secret, the biological unsoundness, the enduring disposition for doom.

We love the anchorings for saving us, but also hate them for limiting our sense of freedom. Whenever we feel strong enough, we thus take pleasure in going together to bury an expired value in style. Material objects take on a symbolic import here (the Radical approach to life).

When a human being has eliminated those of his anchorings that are visible to himself, only the unconscious ones staying put, then he will call himself a liberated personality

Anchoring is thus a term for all those means by which we protect ourselves against meaninglessness that the threat of extinction opens up in this historical period and, of course, the joint threat of a very real extinction actually taking place.

So I agree. We shouldn’t turn away from the objective nihilism of the world, nor should we allow that nihilism to crush us into the ‘dust of this planet’. But if we are to build, to create, then we can only do so based on the knowledge of the emptiness of all our constructions, whether those things- and all the other things that compose the cosmos- are potent agents with their own agenda or not. The issue confronting humanity isn’t one that can be lost or won in debates about realisms or objects or concepts of life either. It is only one that can be won by openly admitting a cosmological pessimism, a materialist pessimism, that is self-conscious of the nothingness of which is partakes and generates.

objective nihilism

But perhaps, with this last charge of nihilism, the proper gesture is not one of disavowal, but embrace. However, the nihilism here is not the subjective nihilism described so well by Nietzsche, but rather an objective nihilism characteristic of the material reality of our times. It is our circumstances themselves, the material reality of our world, that has become nihilistic, not the thought of this or that thinker. Indeed, I suspect that many of us are terrified and anguished by this objective nihilistic darkness that approaches and that may very have happened, as Timothy Morton suggests. Perhaps we are already dead and we just don’t yet know it.

Levi Bryant on the charge of nihilism put to speculative realism and/or object-oriented ontology. Now here is something I can affirm. Read the full article here.

The radical denial reprised: skin of the world.

The radical denial of reality, crystallised in the declaration that ‘reality itself is speculative’, does not end in a species of idealism or deconstructive deferral of some real-to-come.Instead it is to assert the real of the Cosmos understood not as in the overmining concept of Universe-as-Totality or Nature as a distinct realm from the cultural but as the in-itself thingliness of which each thing keeps hidden as it gives itself to-us. Cosmos is the virtual source, the withdraw aspect, the generalisation of the Baudrillardian concept of the ‘objective Illusion of the World’, the empty space of the in itself indifferent even to itself. This dark and hermetic real, this Gnostic real, is exactly what the radical denial affirms. The everyday, quotidian reality of phenomenal experience and perception is an epidermal world. It is the ongoing production of the space of Illusion.

Yet Illusion is not a deception. What it produces is real. And what Illusion is productive of is only this epidermal layer. Biology makes no ontological problem of the relation of the skin to the bone. If we got rid of Illusion there would be nothing to conjure that layer of reality that we come into contact with- the Aesthetic Real.

In this sense, all reality is Illusory. The Illusion of reality is what exceeds our intelligibility and what generates that intelligibility, what is and what we can’t represent to ourselves. To deny reality is to affirm this sense of reality-in-itself, approachable perhaps only in Catastrophic instances (or, in computational terms, glitches). Reformulated in poetic and nontheistic sense, the death of God, the nonexistence of God, and the presence of God are all of the Illusion of God.

Virilio once wrote of a new stereo-reality produced by mediatic technologies that generated intense anxieties and ontological disequilibrium, maps that substituted themselves for territories that can’t disappear. What if, instead, this stereo-reality is merely an expression of what reality has always been?

Anxiety. Panic. Doubt. Truth. We only see the skin of the world.

Thesis on radical denial

A capsule form of the radical denial, a proposition:

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to destroy it. This is the road to an (ir)realism that confronts us with the malignant indifference of cosmos.

Child-eating sharks galore!!! Ethics, objects, death and Darwinism

Thus, when people obtain the right to life, the fact is that they are no longer able to live. – Jean Baudrillard [1] 

 There have been all sorts of things posted about flat ethics recently. My previous post was on the same topic but I’m peripheral to the whole thing, just an interested observer. I particularly like this point though, made by Alex Reid:

In [a] soccer match, those ethical relations are mediated by a grass field, white lines, goal posts, nets, flags, a soccer ball, uniforms, shin guards, cleats, a whistle, a timing device, etc. They are also mediated by language,which is also nonhuman. In fact, one could (and often does) say that one must compete not only against the other team but field conditions, weather, ref calls, and so on. So in imagining ethics, a flat ontology requires us to see that there is no such thing as “human” ethics. All ethics are nonhuman in the sense that “human” refers to a particular modern, ideological context. As such perhaps it is better to say nonmodern ethics than nonhuman ethics.

I also like Jeremy Trombley’s point:

I don’t have a clear answer to this dilemma except that I would consider the ecology of relationships that are involved – the relationships between myself, the child, and the shark, as well as those that extend beyond this specific spacio-temporal interaction.  What would the child’s parent’s think if they knew I could have saved it, but chose not to?  What would the court system think?  Is the shark an endangered species?

(emphasis added)

 All ethics are nonhuman ecologies in which humans may appear.

 

Yet I think it is crucial to remember that in the first quote the key word is that the ethical relationships between players of a football (soccer) game are mediated by nonhuman operatives. Likewise, a trip to the zoo is mediated by the animal feed producers, train operators, railway lines, animal handlers, money, the machinery used to produce a ticket handed over at the gates… but would we say that a trip to the zoo consists of these things? Or rather, would we say that the ethics of a trip to the zoo consisted of these things?

 

I think we would. If the ticket-machine were produced by a corporation who exploited workers in order to  produce that machine, or some other of its product line. We might feel the same way if the animal feed being given to animal X were made out of intensively farmed animals of the same species as animal X. Yet while we might say they are agents within an ethical ecology, that they are composite operatives within an ethical system, I doubt that we would ever suggest that  either the ticket-machine or the animal feed are ethical agents in that ecology. To risk a paraphrase of poor taste, they really are ‘only following orders’; the banality of evil become the banality of the object. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that it is wrong for the animal feed to allow itself to be fed to animal X.

 

I suppose the thing I’m getting at is that an ethical relationship is much like the love relationship that I believe (I think I remember) Levi Bryant theorised a while ago on his blog; a third, independent object. There is me. There is my partner. We do not fuse into a singular object (two does not become one) but both of us remain autonomous, nested within the third object called the relationship. While we are busy talking about ethical relationships we’re forgetting that each particular ethical ecology is singular (which is the point in Trombley’s quote). the point here is that the ethical ecology is an ontological ecology and not an ecology of ethical actants. In the original shark-child relationship nobody thinks to include the ocean, the sand on the sea floor, the moon and it’s capacity to effect the tides, sea-going vessels.

 

It appears absurd to me to include these things in an ecology of ethical operatives even though they are ontological units involved in the original ethical ecology, playing a part in determining the shark’s behaviour. Likewise, we might consider why the child is near the shark. Is this a holiday bought by its parents? Should we then include the travel agent that sold the holiday in the ethical ecology, or at least as an operative that aided in the sculpting of process of causality that arrived at that juncture? I suspect we wouldn’t.

 

That there is a flat ontology does not necessarily imply that all the things that build or generate a particular situation should be considered being ethical agents. I suspect that because things exert an influence on each other, that is because they have powers or capacities to act and act in concert with each other to generate the situations in which ethical problems arise, it is easy to be led to think that they too are subject to ethics. To labour the point let’s return to Alex Reid’s example. There is a football game. A problem of ethics arises in the playing of this game. This ethical problem is mediated by nonhuman things, including language. Here was the ethical problem:

 

Last week, we found ourselves winning 6-0 about 15 minutes into a 70-minute game. I pulled our strongest players, but we were still up 9-0 at half. In this league, goal differential is a potential tie-breaker for determining the champion, so I suppose there is potential motive for running up the score. But that’s just not something you do with 11 year-old boys. At half-time a instructed the boys that only those who had not yet scored that season should really try to score and that otherwise their job was to make good passes. Again, I kept my best players mostly on the bench, and the final score was 11-3. It probably could have been 22-0. And I’ve seen scorelines like that in my time as a coach, though our team has never been on either end of one.

 

The question is over the ethics of competition and whether it would have been unethical to give the opposing team a thrashing. Reid suggests that in part this is done out of respect for the game of football. To have won the game by 22 clear goals would be to play football ‘out of the spirit’ of the game, to disrespect football as ‘an emergent object’. Yet why would football care? It can’t care. Here Reid alludes to a kind of spirit and to respect. A sense of fair play and tradition then? I don’t understand why one would need a flat ethics to highlight two pretty standard reasons for playing the game without taking the piss. (A far more compelling reason might be that if you keep playing games where your team- Reid is the coach of child’s football team- constantly embarrassed other teams- composed of kids- you may risk losing having anyone to play with).

 

Reid is the coach of this football team and he writes about what he can do to have an impact on the emergent object of the game in order to highlight how we can have an ethical relationship the thing called ecosystem:

 

 As a player or coach, I can’t affect the game directly. As a coach I can put players in different positions, suggest tactics, and prepare players in practices. As a player, I can make decisions about how I play. Those decisions participate with others to create the game experience. I can modify my decisions in response, but there isn’t a direct relationship with the game only with other actors in the game. The extent to which I realize that whatever decisions I make to win require that the overall game continues

 

Neither Reid, nor myself or any body else, can have a direct relationship with the ecosystem wherein they can directly affect that ecosystem. Instead, Reid might be able to affect petrochemical companies through lobbying against them by joining a lobbying group with other people. You might organise a coalition of environmental or ecological activists to carry out direct actions ranging from tree-hugging, to consciousness-raising, or from occupying an airport to committing acts of ‘ecoterrorism’. I might simply be the kind of person who refuses to recycle and thereby assists in the mass anonymous effort of building the giant debris filled landscapes of landfills (which, I must admit I do find aesthetically pleasing and intriguing). None of these decisions and actions will make direct contact with the thing called ecosystem (things are withdrawn), nor could it ever do so in a unilaterally determinative manner (just as the coach is within the football game, so I am within the ecosystem), and finally because the ecosystem as a thing is emergent from all those other things that we have made contact with (other people, lobbying organisations, parliaments, airports, just as much as trees, oceans, clouds, frogs, catfish and children and sharks).

 

In Reid’s example we ought to act in a way that allows the game to continue, so by extension we should also act in ways that allows the ecosystem to continue in order to consider ourselves as being ethical in relation to the ecosystem. For Reid these considerations mean that  ‘I am engaged in an ethical relationship’.

 

A couple of brief problems before returning to the ethical. First, I’m not sure if we can say that winning a game of football 22-0 would mean we were no longer playing a game of football. Playing by the rules and regulations, associated objects (a football etc), the people required (players, coaches, referees and linesmen) are all that are minimally required for us to consider ourselves playing a game of football. In the absence of any of these elements we are not playing football; these are the things in the assemblage that minimally form a game. If we play outside of the spirit of the game, if we do not respect it as an emergent object, we are still playing football but we are playing badly. The second point is whether Reid is talking about a specific game or the game of football itself (is there a ‘the game of football’ that exists in any other form than metaphor? Surely that would be a kind of ideal game or ur-game?)

 

This reveals the actual problem of the ethical here. Each ecosystem, including that planetary ecosystem as a whole, must be considered in it’s singularity. Isn’t that the point of object-oriented strains of philosophy? If we treat all ecosystems the same, and if we treat ecosystems the same as games of football/the game of football then aren’t we performing a kind of reduction of the singularity of each to the abstraction of all? The pragmatic deployment of Reid’s metaphor might have a material impact on how we conceive of the ethical relationship we have to the ecosystem in a way that draws attention to the complexity and partiality of that relationship but I still don’t see that this is something new to an object-oriented approach or that is inaugurated by a flat ethics.

 

The original question was whether or not the shark should eat the child. This question is the question of the shark’s ethical relationship to the child, of whether it can be considered an ethical operative. Is a shark the same as a football or a football player? A shark is no more the same as these things as it is the same as a ticket-machine or a batch of animal-feed. The point I’m making at some length is that it makes no more sense to say that the shark should or should not eat the child than it does to say that the goalpost should or should not be an obstacle to scoring. And there is a very good reason for this that Alex Reid hits on: the ethical relationship is one burdened with decision. A shark cannot be said to count within it’s capacities that of making an ethical decision. This is not to say that no animals can make ethical decisions, it is probable that many of them can. This is also not to say that no nonhuman nonanimal things can (or could) make ethical decisions. If we listen to the technoevangelists and transhumanists it might soon be possible for AI to make such decisions, or to simulate them so perfectly as to baffle these considerations even further.

 

 

I believe that the entire issue of whether we should let the shark eat the child is centered on this mistake. A shark cannot be held responsible. It can only be held accountable. We can say ‘the shark is going to eat the child’ or ‘the shark ate the child’ but the should has no place in anything. (The question of whether we should kill the shark for what it has done is a separate issue).

 

A further point emerges from Trombley’s quote- and from others- regarding evolution. Levi Bryant has written in the past about how we have failed to take Darwinism and the lessons we have learned about evolution seriously. Nature, all of nature (and there is nothing that is not nature) is utterly pointless. That is, it is without ultimate purpose. Nature, life, existence, is useless. I think that Levi Bryant hasn’t taken this lesson in fully either. I don’t think any of us can really. We are nature…the pointlessness of the cosmos and of the subatomic particle is the pointlessness of arranjames who is sitting here typing. All ethical problems arise in this context, to those species that have an evolved moral sense…a moral sense that is, in impossible last instance, useless. Yet because the final cause of ethical decision making is pointless does not mean that the affective life of the one making the ethical decisions are pointless; they are immediate and do not require much of a point beyond themselves.

 

Should the shark eat the child? From the ontological position there is absolutely no reason why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. It would upset me, that is all. Human ethics boil down to ‘this is good, this is bad’.

 

So it is that I agree with Bryant’s assertion that there is no nonanthropocentric ethics. It is always humans judging what it is that they consider ethical, making their ethical decisions. Other animals might also make such decisions and so might other beings in the future- thus it might not be a human ethics that remains human for all time. The separate question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should hold that which cannot be held responsible responsible. Why would we do this? I think because, in some sense, our ethical attitude to other things arises from the blind, stupid, pointlessness of the evolutionary processes that compel us to fear death and reproduce. The question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should pretend to ourselves that their is a meaningful, ordered universe. The clash between the stupidity of nature and our desire for a meaningful (or just) nature is what produces the question of the shark. The shark eats the child because it is a shark; we kill the shark because we are terrified of a cosmos in which children can be eaten.

 

Like Levi Bryant I don’t think the shark has a right to live. At the same time I don’t think that the child has a right to live either. Bryant’s concern is with the way neoliberalism has deployed rights-discourse, and one could also point to Deleuze’s concerns over rights-discourse being a (non)political sleight of hand where the rabbit is pulled out of the hat only to disappear in a puff of cigarette smoke [2]. I am not concerned here with rights discourse as such but specifically with the idea of a right to life. Life is something that simply happens. As Thomas Ligotti [3] has cogently argued, it is also a phenomena that doesn’t always get off the ground (abortions, miscarriages, still-births, mother and neonate dying during labour). It is imaginable that some process in the Big Bang could have failed or that the Earth did not exhibit the conditions required for the emergence of life. That a conscious operative, capable of making ethical decisions, were somehow to survive a possible Earth swallowing blackhole created by the CERN particle accelerator, could we really imagine that being bemoaning the right to life of all that died and was destroyed? I don’t think so, but I’m sure it’d be extremely upset. There is nothing new in claiming that the right to life is little else than a hangover from a society still enthralled to Divinity; the shark and the child’s right to life are equally fictions pertaining to the sacredness of life that is directly contradicted by the science of evolution; the right to life is a Sacred Left-over. And here, in the divine, lives are considered something inaugurated for a purpose, given a purposeful function, guided and developed…in short Created by a Creator. An ethical Creationism.

 

It is possible that the ethics we set up, as we necessarily will and do, are rooted in our fear of death, our evolutionary heritage, and our emotions. In the mixture of all these elements. It is a question of finding ourselves with questions about our conduct, questions that are often immediate and in no sense hypothetical (I’d take this juncture to remind people that I’m a nurse), where we don’t know what to do but know we must do something. As such ethics remains a human problem…for now. It is a human problem that is intricately bound-up with (often radically) nonhuman beings.  It is even possible, I am spontaneously inclined to the thought- the feeling,  the sense- that our ethics are a kind of therapeutic aesthetic; a production in the Ballardian sense of a real that finds its reality as a stage-set that may be pulled away. The therapeutics of ethics in this sense would be that ethics are that production that codifies our monstrous awareness of suffering, of ontological vulnerability, of the Inevitable; the disavowed denial of the metaphysical truth of Darwin. None of which prevents there being better or worse ethics, and none of which prevents the production of ethical truths being real or any more or less worth holding on to. It is just the case that in this instance we realise ‘a definitive recognition of nature as waste’ [4], and there is nothing that isn’t nature. To borrow from an earlier post by Alex Reid not concerned with all these sharks and children, it is possible that ethics are a therapeutics that we deploy in order to fix the glitches of reality.

 

 

All ethics are human problems embedded in fragile nonhuman ecologies. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A disclaimer: if I misrepresent anyone’s positions, any ideas or arguments I take fully responsibility for that.

 

 

 

References:

 

[1] Baudrillard. 2007. Darwin’s Artificial Ancestors and the Terroristic Dream of the Transparency of the Good. Read here.

[2] Deleuze. 1996. On Human Rights. Read here.

[3] Thomas Ligotti. The Conspiracy against the human race.

[4] Baudrillard. Ibid.

An indifferent and arrogant reply to Christian Thorne

Henceforth, the term ‘political ontology’ will be met only with derision. This is the decree of every object, and I embrace my own object-existence. Politics might not have a leg to stand on…but isn’t that what makes it political? We used to fret about the aesthetisation of poltics…maybe we ought to realise that all our Visions and declarations are a matter of aesthetics. Why else would people still call up the meaningless name of Revolution? There is no reason, except for the nostalgia of a Form that has been surpassed.

While we argue the basis of our politics, the stars still burn out, the oceans still rise. Let us acknowledge the simplicity of things: we want to feel good and we do not want to die…the rest is aesthetics and a question of who and what we include in this ‘we’, a pronoun which is impertinent whoever speaks it.

The names for things are like the stars…they flash into existence and burn brighter or dimmer before they are of their own accord finally extinguished. Ontography, onticology, object-oriented philosophy, vital materialism, eliminative materialism, nihilist naturalism……………whatever, whatever… let the system builders have their names.

I echo that old anarchist, Renzo Novatore…. my priniple is Life and my end is Death.

What else can I legitimately say of myself and of anything that may come forth from me, embedded in multiple systems that are themselves living and on their way towards death.

Everything is catastrophic. So let’s give birth to a new nomenclature: pessimistic potentialism; ontocatastrophism; moribund materialism; exhaustionism; indifferential ontocartography; autopsy vitalism. These names are as serious and as ridiculous as those given to any other philosophical movement. They are, in a stolen phrase, my own nonsensical philosomemes.

If melting icecaps aren’t to be affirmed, perhaps its because they hasten death, they hasten an Inevitability. We can of course choose the Inevitable…and in many ways that is precisely what we should do.

If this isn’t much of a reply it is perhaps because I’m not defending the position that Thorne has attacked… I’m not defending anything at all. What is left that is worth defending?

Autopsy vitalism. Isn’t that poetic?