Seventy more essays to grade and a mind that has been reduced to mush as a result of reading student writing. At least I’m finally making some progress in the face of the pile of grading that’s been haunting me for the last couple of weeks.
As I reflect on a number of debates surrounding Speculative Realism and, in particular, its object-oriented variant, it seems to me that a few distinctions haunt all of these discussions, rendering them very difficult. A couple weeks ago, in the middle of me venting frustration at the tendency for any evocation of realism to be understood in terms of representational and epistemological realism, Melanie– who always sees what I need to see but am not yet ready to see –asked if this is a battle that I really want to fight again and again, a point that I endlessly want to reiterate with each new audience I encounter. She has a point. And as Graham suggested a while back– I can’t find the original post now –perhaps the term “realism” has outworn its usefulness. Given the historical resonances this term has, the question arises as to whether this term doesn’t obscure more than it illuminates. The problem is that I’m not really sure what to replace it with.
At any rate, on to the distinctions. These distinctions, I believe, function somewhat like a “philosophical unconscious”, what Levi-Strauss referred to as a “structure”, or what Foucault referred to as an episteme. It is, of course, scandalous to suggest that philosophy possesses an unconscious because, in certain respects, the aim of philosophy is to escape from all presuppositions. But if philosophy has an unconscious, then it has failed massively in this endeavor. When I evoke the notion of a “philosophical unconscious”, I am referring to a set of distinctions that organize philosophical thought without themselves being explicitly stated or brought before reflection. These distinctions would thus be what goes without saying in philosophy, organize the nature of philosophical problems, how questions are posed, what “solutions” are admissible, and so on.
The big daddy of all these distinctions is the distinction between society and nature. This distinction can take a variety of forms. It can take the form of the distinction between subject and object, nature and culture, mind and world, and so on. The key point is that this distinction underlies both idealisms and traditional realisms. Thus, for example, when Infinite Thought writes the following in a marvelous post, her argument is either a) presupposing this distinction as its point of leverage in her criticism, or b) (and more happily), criticizing the way in which this distinction functions in certain contemporary realist strains of thought. As IT writes:
…a historical materialism (that of late Sartre, for example, or even Firestone when she speaks of it being ‘too late’ to save nature) that is able to conceive of politics from the standpoint of catastrophe but carries on anyway strikes me as rather more relevant: proliferating ontologies is simply not the point – further, what use is it if it simply becomes a race to the bottom to prove that every entity is as meaningless as every other (besides, the Atomists did it better). Confronting ‘what is’ has to mean accepting a certain break between the natural and the artificial, even if this break is itself artificial. Ontology is play-science for philosophers; I’m pretty much convinced when Badiou argues that mathematics has better ways of conceiving it than philosophy does and that, besides, ontology is not the point.
I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of Nina’s post. However, nonetheless, the contrast she develops between historical materialists like Sartre– and everyone needs to be reading Sartre’s later work and Nina is singular among the neo-Marxists in that she’s doing genuine work to re-invigorate its relevance despite unfortunate rhetorical choices he made like use of terms like “totalization” (talk about poor timing!) –and ontologists that race to the bottom of meaninglessness is only plausible where being is treated as something outside the human. In other words, it is only where we treat meaning as something other than being that it becomes plausible to talk about a “race to the bottom” of meaninglessness. Yet this argument only makes sense where the social, the cultural, the mental, is treated as something other than the natural, and where being is equated with the natural.
I say this not to pick on IT– I think her argument comes from the right place –but to criticize those positions that treat the real and being as something apart from the human. While I certainly agree that there are forms of being that have nothing whatsoever to do with the human, I vigorously reject any thesis that suggests that the human and human phenomena like meaning are a domain apart from being and the real. Meaning, norms, the social, and so on are variants that the real takes, not something outside of being. Moreover, I would argue that no position can coherently hold that phenomena such as meaning are other than being. It is only where we bifurcate the world into two entirely heterogeneous realms– a bifurcation that has never been able to be maintained in practice –that this thesis seems plausible. Here, I think, Latour’s arguments in We Have Never Been Modern are absolutely convincing and are essential reading for any genuine realist.
But why is it, I wonder, that this distinction between nature and culture, nature and society, the world of causes and the world of meaning proves so intractable to the contemporary philosophical unconscious? Lurking behind the distinction between the world of causes and the world of meaning is, I believe, a distinction between nature and artifice. On the one hand, the story goes, we have the domain of the natural which is eternal and unchanging. Nature is that which, given a particular “cause”, produces a certain effect. Culture and meaning, by contrast, are the domain of history, where the historical is that which is outside the domain of natural laws, but is rather an order of the unrepeatable and the event.
This distinction, I believe, is a carry-over from the old theological heritage that distinguishes the incorruptible order of nature or the divine decreed by the divine and the corruptible order of the world and the human. The constructed, produced, or built is treated as being nature’s other, while the order of the constructed, the produced, or built– all, in short, that is equated with the artificial –is treated as being radically outside of nature. Yet how is it possible for philosophers to maintain this dichotomy between the artificial and the natural today? Arguing a posteriori, our best science in physics now tells us that the very laws of physics, those laws that are treated as being most universal, are themselves the result of a contingent physico-genesis that could have been otherwise. We now know that even the elements of nature, all those things we see on the chemical chart, are the result of a genesis in stars that might not have existed at all. We now know that species are not eternal forms, but are the result of a random and chance driven process combining random variation, the accumulation of differences over time, natural selection, and a hell of a lot of chance such that were we to rewind evolution it would have had entirely different outcomes. Drawing a page from Meillassoux’s After Finitude without accepting his ontological conclusions, the trick of arguments between natural necessity and contingency has revolved around treating the contingency of all natural formations as something that change at every moment rather than seeing them as regularities that persist over broad expanses of time and at different levels of scale.
If contemporary science has revealed anything, it has revealed that nature is contingent and the result of a construction. When I claim that nature is the result of a construction, I am not claiming that it is the result of a social construction– this would reduce nature to the side of the culture distinction in the nature/culture distinction –but rather that nature builds itself and builds itself in ways that could– and no doubt will –be otherwise. But if this is the case, then there are no longer any grounds for distinguishing between the eternal natural and the cultural historical. Nature is itself historical regardless of whether or not humans exist. And if it is the case that there is no difference in kind between human phenomena and natural phenomena, only a difference in degree, then there is no longer a reason to treat the “artificial” (note the scare quotes) as being less real than the natural. How is a contingently evolved species any less real than Einstein’s relativity? If we grant this, why should we treat human meaning as somehow more artificial (and therefore less real) than a species or the principles governing relativity in our portion of the pluriverse?
This leads me to the final distinction that must be both rethought and abolished: the distinction between the is and the ought. This distinction is ultimately derived from the distinction between nature and spirit, where nature is treated as the order of causes alone and all meaning is exiled from the domain of being by virtue of equating being with nature. When the modernist constitution claims that the “ought cannot be derived from the is”, I see a couple of things going on. First, insofar as the modernist constitution equates the “artificial” (note the square quotes) with the unreal, it needs a ground for normativity that isn’t built, constructed, instituted, or generated. Somehow, the unconscious line of thought reasons, that which is built or which must develop is less real than what is “natural”. But here the natural is treated as that which is eternal and unchanging. Consequently, second, normative thought seeks an analogue to natural laws (which only exist in a theological conception of nature anyway), such that the normative is conceived as something that is eternal and unchanging outside of anything that is “socially contingent”. Kant states this baldly when he tells us that we must conceive the categorical imperative as like the laws of nature. Here he reveals his theological conception of nature as an eternal and unchanging order and then transfers this to the domain of normativity. In subsequent deontologists this premise will go underground, no longer being stated as baldly as Kant stated, but it will continue to be operative in all deontological arguments nonetheless. The constant touchstone of these lines of thought will be that anything that is built, constructed, instituted, or created is somehow less real and less binding than the so-called “natural”. This will be why deontological approaches necessarily have recourse to occult entities, evoking beings such as transcendental subjects (outside of any natural evolutionary phenomena and contrary to all neurology), or “a priori categories” (outside of any historical or natural developmental processes), or “principles of reason” (outside of any dynamic developmental processes). Somehow the human and human norms are supposed to be outside of the dynamics that govern all other domains of being ranging from the laws of physics to the chemical elements to the formations of species. We’re told that this is “rigorous” and careful thinking, but what it instead looks like is superstition or the occult dressed up, as Hume would put it, in “abstruse language” all the better to deceive the gullible. From the standpoint of the ought-o-philiac this argument looks like an “anything goes” argument, yet this interpretation only arises when one’s thought continues to be pervaded by onto-theological assumptions that strongly distinguish between the divine order of the eternal and unchanging (which does not exist except perhaps retroactively) and the “artificial” order of the constructed. Just as Nina says, we need another effort that doesn’t require transcendental guarantees or bow to neo-liberal accusations of “anything goes”, to keep going and that doesn’t denigrate the built and carefully maintained in the face of some supposed eternity.