The following is a response to a very good friend of mine who, I think, got a little bit irritated with an exchange we had in comments. You can read that comment exchange here.

Hi Jerry,

Your tone here sounds a bit irritated. I hope I didn’t provoke that as it wasn’t my intention. I don’t think I understood your point, but genuinely disagree with you. While I readily acknowledge that the cave painters were the cause of the paintings, I strongly disagree that the painters are a part of the being of the painting. Just as ones parents are the cause of one’s being while nonetheless the child is an autonomous being, the painting is an autonomous beings that have its own power that exceed any particular cultural or historical context. I don’t disagree that the question of what the paintings were for the cave painters is an interesting and important one, but in raising that question we’ve entered into a new machinic relation and are no longer talking about the paintings for themselves as autonomous entities that circulate throughout the world beyond their origins. What they were for a particular group is an important issue. My only point is that no work can ever be reduced– nor any entity, for that matter –can be reduced to what it is for another entity.

I confess I’m rather wounded by your evocation of Goethe, as you’re basically calling me superficial. One of the core theses of my work– the critique of correlationism or the thesis that being can never be thought apart from thought –is that no being can be reduced to what it is for an observer. Every being is in excess of however it might be grasped by another entity. Put differently, there are always depths to entities that escape observation (I call the contrary view “pornography”). In this context, the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects is entitled “Towards a Finally Subjectless Object”. The idea here is to reject that move that treats every entity as correlated with observers. Entities do just fine without being observed and don’t depend on their being on being observed. This does not entail, however, that suddenly we ignore observers. While I begin from the premise that no entity can be reduced to how it is grasped by another entity, I do engage in lengthy examinations of what takes place when one entity observes another entity in chapter 4 where I discuss the inner worlds of entities and their relations to other entities.

read on!

I’m distraught by your dismissal of my references to Deleuze and Guattari and Maturana and Varela on machines insofar as they were offered in a gentle ethnographic spirit to mark, as you readily admit in this most recent response, that perhaps you’re encountering a discourse that you’re not particularly familiar with. Your response here suggests that you’re simply dismissing different lineages of practice and thought out of hand as a way of asserting the primacy of your own theoretical jargon. If I encounter a group of people– say the Dutch –who behave in very different ways than my people do– say, not making eye contact on the streets –I do not dismiss this cultural practice saying that mine is right, but rather try to understand a bit more about it and even explore whether it might be a good practice for me to adopt. I think there’s something similar in the world of theory. None of us can master all the different orientations that are out there anymore. While I know Bateson and the structuralists fairly well, I certainly know little to nothing of Mead or Gestalt theory, and my background in ethnography is pretty limited.

When I encounter something from you that comes from your particular theoretical and disciplinary background, I don’t say that you’re wrong or try to divest you of that, but am instead happy to practice Margaret’s Pepper Principle and glean what I can from your strange customs. My only point is that this particular use of the term “machine” is, for you, a strange custom and that perhaps rather than objecting to it, you should recognize that there’s a rich theoretical lineage here and content yourself with just seeing where people who speak in this strange lineage and inhabit this strange world composed of machines might go with it. The issue is no different than when the ethnographer encounters the Maori talking about trees, the oceans, the fish, etc., as their relatives and things being inhabited by spirits. The ethnographer doesn’t tell them what they’re saying is nonsense, or dispute it, but instead seeks to understand the world that they inhabit. It’s the same reason that I ask my good friend’s father, who was a Baptist minister, to lead prayer when I eat with them despite being a fairly committed materialist and atheist myself. None of this is the suggestion that you’re obligated to delve into that literature, just as no one is obligated to adopt the practices of another culture. It is only the suggestion that you should be cognizant of it and perhaps not so dismissive.

I guess what I’m calling for is a sort of radical ethnography– though it’s not all that radical as many ethnographers have been interested in questions of reflexivity with respect to their positions of enunciation –where we refuse to treat one practice or discipline as the master discipline of all the others. In this regard, I’ve been very taken with Donna Haraway’s idea of “situated knowledges”. The radical ethnographer recognizes that there are a variety of situated knowledges and that the idea of any one knowledge, practice, or discipline trumping all the others is an illusion. There’s an old aphorism that runs that “to a cobbler everything is leather.” This is the way it is in academia. To the sociologist everything is sociology, to the rhetor everything is rhetoric, to the philosopher everything is philosophy, to the artist everything is art, to the economist everything is economics, to the chemist everything is chemistry, to the political theorist and activist everything is politics, etc. Each discipline then proceeds to evaluate, legislate, and judge the other disciplines and practices according to its own form of leather.

These days, this spirit of radical ethnography or situated knowledge is what I’m trying to practice. I think it follows directly from my refusal of correlationism or reduction of beings to what they are for observers. Instead of evaluating other practices and knowledges by the criteria of my own practice and knowledge, I instead try to adopt a stance of resonance– like a Jacob’s Ladder –across divergent worlds. Sometimes, for example, I’ll get a farmer or poet that comes up to me saying “I’m stupid, I don’t know anything like you philosophers!” That’s absolutely ridiculous. Farmers know about soil, seasons, chemistry, farming equipment, plants, insects, etc. Poets are the forges of language. I’m ignorant with respect to them and am unable to legislate with respect to their practices. Far better for a resonant encounter to take place between those divergent practices and knowledges that sets both knowledges and practices in motion. You have always been that for me in our conversations with one another over meals, our discussions online, and when teaching together. Those encounters have been a powerful instigator or seed for concept creation in my own work; though I do grow weary at how you sometimes seem dismissive of other practices and knowledges in the realm of academia, instead measuring everything by the lights– and they are lights –of Bateson, Mead, Levi-Strauss, Gestalt theory, and ethnography.

I suppose, then, what I want is an end to what Kant called “the battle of the faculties”, or the will for every discipline to try to reduce everything else to its bit of leather. Such practices were terrible during colonial expansions and they’re terrible in academia. What I instead want is a series of surprising encounters– the theme of my first book, Difference and Givenness –where everything gets scrambled and produces nice breakfast food as a result. I hope you read this response in the spirit of friendship with which I offer it.

Best,

Levi

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