Reid has written a lengthy post on the role that normativity plays in Marx’s thought, responding some claims I recently made over at Jon Cogburn’s blog. I’ve learned a lot from these discussions, so I think they’ve been particularly valuable. At the outset, before any discussion can proceed, I think it’s important to note that Reid has significantly mischaracterized my position or view of these matters. I am not attributing any malice to Reid here, but am drawing attention to the fact that the discussion over at Cogburn’s blog unfolded between very different understandings of normativity.

The remark that seems to have inspired Reid’s post was my claim that Marx says precious little about normativity. One of things that I learned from the discussion over at Cogburn’s blog is that I have been using the term normativity in a far narrower sense than that used by many who focus on issues of normativity. When this is taken into account, I can see why Reid would find my assertion jaw dropping. I’ll get to this in a moment, but I wanted to provide the context for my discussion with Reid. Over at Cogburn’s blog, I had written that,

No, I was not claiming that *Pete* was guilty of these things. I was making an honest observation about my reaction to discourses about norms. I find them suffocating and claustrophobic and feel that they contain a crypto-fascist dimension that I find highly suspect. Drawing on Deleuze’s account of Nietzsche, I wonder what the sense of these discourses is, or what sort of *desire* animates them. In my view, they are animated by a desire to police and control. Needless to say, I don’t think that philosophy is co-extensive with a discourse on norms, and I also feel that those philosophies that are dominated by discourses on norms barely deserve the title of philosophy. This, of course, is a matter of taste and pertains to what I believe good philosophies do. Good philosophies, in my view, create work for people *outside* of philosophy. This could be the genesis of research projects for *other* disciplines, or it could be influence in the various arts and political activism. Measured by this criteria, norm driven philosophies have had almost nil impact on the world.

To my remarks about the influence that norm driven philosophies have had in the history of philosophy, Reid responded by remarking that,

I’m curious because to my knowledge, the tradition of philosophical concern with normativity, at least since Rousseau and Kant, has been very explicitly concerned with how to maintain a substantive notion of freedom, what is or is not a legitimate basis of authority, how to conduct elevate the political from the realm of force to that of reason, and how to base politics on genuinely egalitarian principles. In short, it has been explicitly concerned with themes that are about as anti-fascistic as you can get. The passion for control is only a passion for self-control, for a freedom to determine oneself free from the control of others.

I also would like to hear why you don’t think philosophies of normativity deserve the title, especially since philosophy has historically distinguished itself as a discipline through its concern with truth, reason, the good, the right, the just, etc, all of which are normative concepts. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that philosophy is an essentially normative enterprise.

Saying that “norm driven philosophies have had almost nil impact on the world”, measured by your criteria of the contributions they make to extra-philosophical disciplines and activities, is simply incorrect. Political practice, for example, is as much a normative affair as a strategic one. Without concerns as to what we should collectively strive to accomplish, how to recognize others as political agents, what responsibilities come along with political inclusion, etc, politics would be reduced to a purely logistical matter of administration and management. And indeed, political philosophy has had a tremendous influence on the various shapes collective determination has taken over the centuries. This is not to say it is the decisive element, as it is only one ingredient in the public processes of organizing genuinely collective, and hence political, projects; but to claim it has had no influence is to hyperbolically understate its role. The same could be said of philosophies of law, of science (moreso in the 17th through 19th centuries than today, but nevertheless), of mathematics, of art, etc. Philosophy has in each case, at varying point in history, had a very influential role in the decision of what it is to engage in these endeavors, what a legitimate or valuable contribution to these fields is, etc, and these are definitely normative questions.

In reviewing this exchange, the question to ask is in what context do our respective claims about normativity make sense? My claim makes sense if we work on the premise that discourses of normativity refer to something highly specific: Kant’s deontological moral theory, and those deeply influenced by Kant’s deontological moral theory such as Habermas and Brandom. If normativity is understood as a synonym for this style of thought, I think my claim is perfectly valid. I just don’t see that thinkers such as this have had much impact on the arts, science, activist political movement (Habermas has had a lot of influence among administrators), etc. It’s difficult, for example, to imagine a Habermasian or Brandomian architecture, while other figures such as Deleuze have had tremendous influence on a variety of arts, and even in both the physical and social sciences.

By contrast, Reid’s rejoinder to my claim makes sense if Reid is not using the term “normativity” to refer specifically to value theories coming out of Kant, but to any discussions of value whatsoever. If this is what “normativity” means, then Reid is quite right to be shocked when I say that Marx does not have much to say about normativity precisely because Marx talks about values all over the the place. Over at Cogburn’s blog I explicitly stated (a couple of times) that I had been taking normativity to be synonymous with Kant style deontological ethics, so I’m somewhat surprised that Reid is attempting to demonstrate to me that Marx has an important place for values within his thought. But perhaps I’m misconstruing what Reid is arguing, as he also seems to be claiming that Marx advocates a deontological moral theory in his thought.

read on!

When I refer to deontological models of normative thought, I am referring to something akin to Kant’s categorical imperative. Those familiar with Kant will recall that the categorical imperative states “that we must will the maxim of our action such that we can will it as a universal law of nature.” Kant argues that the categorical imperative is a truth of reason alone, and that in formulating the categorical imperative we must make no reference to either circumstances or whatever personal motivations we might have. Working on this premise, this led me to argue that deontological normative theories risk falling into a form of ideological fetishism.

Reid contends that I don’t understand what fetishism is within a Marxist framework. Needless to say, I think he’s mistaken. In the context of his analysis of commodity fetishism, Marx argues that commodity fetishism emerges when social relations between people are expressed as objective relationships between things. For example, rather than seeing value as arising from a particular form of production, we instead treat value as an intrinsic property of the thing itself. The point here would be similar with a priori deontological normative systems. By treating the moral law as preceding social relations rather than as arising from particular types of social relations, these forms of moral thought risk fetishizing norms and obscuring the manner in which norms are reflective of particular forms of social relations. This comes out above all in the fact that so many deontological normative theorists believe that they can engage in their analysis of normativity independent of any analysis of historical and existing social relations. As such, they are deeply prone to simply reflecting, without being aware of it, existing distributions of power from the perspective of, to use the old Marxist jargon, the ruling class. Marx, by contrast, begins in precisely the opposite fashion. Rather than beginning with an abstract normative framework and analyzing the world in terms of that framework, Marx instead begins with the analysis of social relations and examines how particular normative frameworks emerge from those social relations.

In addition to my worries that deontological normative theories tend towards a form of ideological fetishism, I have also expressed concern with both the psychological impact of law-based relations to normativity, and the social impact that tends to follow from these models of normativity. Here I am deeply inspired by Freud and Lacan’s critiques of the law and how it functions in the unconscious, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of the Law in Anti-Oedipus. I will be interested to see how Reid squares his new found interest in deontology with these critiques. In my view, it’s very difficult not to be struck by the style of these deontological discourses and how they appear to strive towards regulating, controlling, and establishing debt and blame in their relations to others. Often I get the sense that there’s an overwhelming urge to compel others to confess, obey, and assume debt. In my view, deontological moral theories, if they are to be maintained, are in deep need of a rich and complex psychological and socio-political analysis to supplement them.

In the course of his post, Reid criticizes me through a criticism of Latour. Reid writes:

This explication has the additional benefit of more clearly spelling out the incompatibility of Latour and Marx. Marx is paradigmatically modern in Latour’s sense, in that he advocates a pure and unambiguous separation of the “cultural”, or that which can only claim socially-valid existence insofar as it is dependent on our attitudes about it, and the “natural”, or that which has objectively-valid existence insofar as the truth of claims made about it are independent of our attitudes about it. Ideology is, in one sense, the conflation of these two spheres, and fetishes are the hybridic offspring of the objectification of the ideal, or the attribution of naturalness to the cultural. I suspect that Levi will object to this characterization of Marx, although I’m remiss to see what grounds there might be for such an objection, as even a cursory reading of “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret” will reveal the primary concern is the conflation of social and objective validity.

Levi’s Latourian commitment to the unreality of the distinction between the natural and cultural is perhaps what led him to characterize fetishism as a matter not of the conflation of these two spheres, but of the ascription of ahistoricity to something historical. While I do not deny that the latter sort of ascription should be highly suspect from a Marxist point of view, the question of historicity is secondary with regards to that of the social or objective character of the entity whose historicity is in question.

There are a few points worth making here. First, perhaps Reid has not been keeping up with my blog, but he should be aware that I have criticized Latour on a number of occasions for his rejection of Marx. Second, and more importantly, Reid needs to speak more precisely when evoking my “Latourian commitments”. While all the object-oriented ontologists are deeply influenced by Latour, it doesn’t follow from this that we are Latourians. One of the major differences between OOO and Latour’s ontology is that OOO endorses the autonomy of objects, where Latour argues that all objects are inherently relational. This should immediately disabuse Reid of the notion that somehow we reject the existence of natural objects. Quite the contrary. We argue that these objects cannot be reduced to correlates of mind, culture, or language but have their own autonomous being.

Finally third, and perhaps most importantly, I think Reid simply mischaracterizes both my own understanding of the relationship between nature and culture, as well as Latour’s. The situation is not entirely unambiguous in Latour, but the entire issue revolves are the thesis that there are two entirely distinct domains of being, such that on the one hand we have the domain of culture that consists entirely of meaning, values, freedom, signs, and mind, while on the side of nature we have purely material entities governed by causal laws alone. The key point, is that the modernist vision argues that we should maintain these realms as entirely separate, such that we never discuss the realm of natural objects in when analyzing the cultural and we never discuss the domain of culture when dealing with natural objects. The basic lesson of Latour’s critique of modernity is not that there is no distinction between natural objects and cultural objects, but rather that we live among tangled networks of culture and nature where natural objects play a key and significant role in social formations and where social formations play a key and significant role in how we investigate nature.

In many respects, Latour (at least this is my interpretation of Latour) is saying precisely the opposite of what Reid seems to be attributing to him. Were Latour claiming that there is no distinction between nature and culture he would be making the rather uninteresting claim that all allegedly natural objects are just screens for human cultural projections. But this is not at all what Latour– or at least my flat ontology –is saying. Within the framework of my flat ontology, the claim is rather that natural objects are full-blown actors in social relations that contribute differences to our world qua their own nature. To put it bluntly, the role that Hurricane Katrina plays in our social relations cannot be reduced to that of a text, sign, signifier, discourse, narrative, concept, category, or minds. In short, in our social and political philosophy we need an ontology robust enough to be capable of discussing what differences Hurricane Katrina makes in our social relations qua Hurricane Katrina and not as a vehicle of human signs and representations. And this is why we should replace the concept of the social with the concept of collectives. The concept of society suggests a realm composed solely of people, meanings, freedom, values, signs, and mind. The concept of collectives includes these things, but also includes nonhuman actors like technologies, hurricanes, microbes, suns, etc. that play a significant role in mediating relations between people and which aren’t simply screens for human projections.

Reid can compare and contrast the modernist explanation of certain social phenomena to understand this point. For example, we can ask a simple question like why China didn’t kick off the industrial revolution earlier given its massive coal reserves. Because the modernist contract is premised on the strict separation of nature and culture, it would have to give a culturalist explanation referring to how the Chinese “think differently”, have “different sets of values”, are dominated by particular collective ideologies, etc. An onticological analysis would certainly want to take these things into account as well, but it would also note that the Chinese coal reserves are thousands of miles from the coastal cities where the Chinese population was concentrated, and that the only way to transport coal to these cities was through the Yellow River. The problem was, that between these two points those transporting coal along the river encounter fierce rapids that require them to take the boats and coal out of the water, transporting it over land, such that the price of the coal doubles for every hundred miles traveled. Nowhere is it here being suggested that there is no difference between nature and culture. Rather, this analysis is analyzing the differences that nonhuman actants contribute to how humans relate and what they do in a way that can’t be reduced to screens for the projection of human meanings. I also note that this sort of explanation is a might bit less ethnocentric or racist than the sort of culturalist explanation we might get, i.e., we aren’t forced to evoke any supposed superiority and “specialness” of Western culture.

In his post, Reid expresses wonderment at my suspicion of law and rule based models of normativity, arguing that all normativity is based on rules. There are two points worth making here. First, I think the emphasis on rules implicit in practice is a sort of intellectualist or scholastic fallacy of the sort described by Bourdieu in Pascalian Meditations. Here the theorist recognizes regularities in the interactions of people, and then formulates a rule governing these actions. He then claims that the rule was already implicit in the interactions of the people. By contrast, I’m of the view that rules are derived not foundational. I am not suggesting that these emergent and deeply open interactions can’t be formalized, but I am rejecting the idea that these formalizations precede the activities or were somehow already there implicit in them. Rather, I see these formalizations as second-order observations of social systems observing themselves and introducing new parameters into the internal functioning of the social system. In Brandomian terms, the activity of “making it explicit” is not a matter of articulating something that was already there, but is actually an entirely new creation that transforms the implicit into something else qualitatively different than the original.

Second– and here I am not making a claim about either Reid or Pete –I’m still inclined to ask with Deleuze in Nietzsche & Philosophy what sort of desire or subjectivity wishes to comprehend the world or all human interactions in terms of rules. I just can’t help but feel deeply suspicious of this desire for reasons I stated above. This aside, I simply don’t think that all normative theories (in the broader sense the normative theorists seem to advocate) are based on rules or laws. Here I’ll simply repeat what I wrote over at Cogburn’s blog on this issue. It seems to me that deontological normative theories and the sorts of normativity I advocate are asking different sorts of questions. The deontological normative question seems to be that of how we judge right and wrong. For example, by what criteria or rule do we determine whether it is right or wrong to tell a lie. My question is what is the good life and what do we have to do in order to achieve such a life. Within the Aristotlean framework, I take it, this is a question about how to live well in society. Here, then, the question is closely bound up with questions of politics, and what sorts of values or excellencies we should strive to embody both to guarantee our own personal satisfaction and the esteem of our fellows. Aristotle’s premise seems to be that we are inherently social critters and that therefore we cannot attain eudaimonia without taking our relations to them into account.

Within the Epicurean, Stoic, and Spinozist tradition, there is concern for the social remains, but there’s also the added dimension of psychology. For these thinkers the question is always one of how to attain peace of mind, how to deal with the arrows fate throws your way, and how to promote joy in one’s life. As such, you get an interrogation of desire and an investigation of what sorts of desires we should pursue in order to attain peace of mind and joy and what desires we should try to minimize within ourselves as they generate sad passions and suffering. As a consequence, the ethical takes on a dimension of therapeutics or a technology of desire. Finally, in the epicurean, stoic, and Spinozist tradition, there is also a pursuit of freedom because it is argued that the greater degree of bondage we exist in the more difficult it is for us to attain the peace of mind and joy that we seek.

These ethical traditions are not about enforcement but about living a flourishing life and working for a flourishing society (the former is hard without the latter). The traditions that I just referred to are not about enforcement or forcing people to live a particular way, but are technologies for cultivating oneself to achieve peace of mind and joy. The idea of enforcement seems premised on the idea that people would prefer not to live in these ways and must therefore be forced in some way or another to live this way. By contrast, the traditions I’m referring to is premised on the idea that people desire eudaimonia, happiness, peace of mind, and joy but don’t know how to go about achieving it. Given insight into how to achieve these things, the argument runs, then people will pursue them of their own accord because they will see that these practices are the way towards the satisfaction of what they truly desire. This, of course, leaves room for wide variation in the things that a person might ultimately pursue.

When I look at normative theories in the broader sense Reid and others have proposed, the question for me is always what kind of normative framework generates the sorts of people and society that is most desirable or that I would most like to live among. My background in psychoanalysis and Nietzsche leads me to the conclusion that it is certainly not law based or Kantian deontological models of normativity. I have outlined the sorts of psychodynamics that I think tend to follow from these models elsewhere, and there’s a massive psychoanalytic literature on this as well. The eudaimonistic models I advocate go some of the way towards avoiding these sorts of problems. On the one hand, they encourage a high degree of psychological development and introspection into one’s own motives so as to mitigate those desires, forms of judgment, and motivations that generate sad passions in both ourselves and which come to detrimentally impact others. On the other hand, they are interested in practical solutions to both that which promotes suffering in society and in ones own life.

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