August 2012


I received an interesting email today asking questions about idealism as OOO understands it.  Since a number of people have asked questions like this, I thought I’d address it here as others might find it of value.  The author writes:

I was present at one of your keynote speeches in the spring of this year.

I am a bit confused about the term idealism and its relation to realism. I have read most of your book Democracy of Objects but still have this question.

Why is not possible to be both an idealist and a realist?

Can one not believe in real objects which are ideal. I seemed to have learned that idealism was in opposition to materialism. And I understand that anti-realism is opposed to realism. But it seems like anti-realism and idealism always get associated.

Is this necessarily the case? Wasn’t Plato both an idealist and very much a realist since he believe that the ideas or the forms were the most real?

Good questions.  Idealism, like materialism, is one of those highly polysemous terms that has a variety of different meanings.  It seems that Marxists use the term “idealism” to refer to any position that is 1) ahistorical, and 2) that explains the world in terms of intellect rather than practices and labor production.  When Marx “turns Hegel on his head”, he thus saying that the social world as we know it arises from modes of production, not principles of Spirit unfolding throughout history.  When he criticizes someone like Plato as an “idealist”, he is doing so because Plato treats the forms as eternal and unchanging, rather than giving an account of how various values and ways of living arise out of conditions of production.

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In Empiricism and Subjectivity, Deleuze writes that [For Hume], it is a fact that sympathy exists and that it is extended naturally” (37).  As Deleuze continues, “…it is not our nature which is moral, it is rather our morality which is in our nature.  One of Hume’s simplest but most important ideas is this:  human beings are much less egoistic than they are partial” (38).  In other words, according to Deleuze-Hume, we are not defined primarily by solipsistic and egoistic pursuit of self-interest.  Rather, at our most primordial level we are defined by sympathies or regard for others.  We are defined by sympathies towards our family members, to our children, to our friends, to those who attend the same church as us, to those who look and dress like us, to those with whom we identify.

It is not our regard for ourselves and our own interests that define us primordially, but rather our regard for those others about us with whom we identify.  We see this all over the place in our domestic life.  When I cook dinner or feed my daughter, I don’t expect to be given something in return.  It doesn’t even occur to me to think I should get something in return.  I don’t think of the food in my house as “mine”, such that my daughter should pay for it with money or barter.  When I have friends over for dinner, I don’t do so for the sake of advancing some sort of self-interest, but for the pleasure of their company.  Throughout the day we engage in all sorts of little acts of kindness towards one another as we navigate the world outside our homes that are done without any thought of receiving anything in return.  A door opened here, taking half a cup of coffee in the office so your friend can have the other half there, a light given or a cig shared there, etc.  This even extends towards our pets.  I don’t feed my cat for the sake of fattening her up to eat her later, but simply because she must be fed.  I don’t ask anything of my cat beyond the pleasure of her company; and even then it doesn’t occur to me to be upset when she wishes to spend time away from us beneath the bed.

For most of us we engage in all sorts of acts of kindness and sympathy towards those about us without even thinking about us.  Moreover, we think far more about others than we think about our own self-interest.  If Deleuze-Hume is right, then it follows that the central ethical problem lies not in the question of how we might overcome our selfish and self-interested egoism so as to have regard for others, but rather how we can overcome the partialities of sympathy so as to have regard for the stranger or the anonymous.   The problem is not that we are selfish (though certainly some of us are), but rather seems to be that our sympathies are partial, or that we seem to have great difficulty extending them beyond those to whom we are partial.

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In response to my last post, some folks asked me what it is about logics of exceptions, transcendence, or sovereignty that ineluctably generate violence and exclusion?  One of my shortcomings as a writer and theorist is that I assume that people are readily familiar with a wide variety of theory, such as Hegel, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, Freud, Marx, critical theory, the post-structuralists (especially Derrida), etc.  Mea culpa.  I take it that these things are foundational and that no one would dare speak about, say, transcendence or debates in philosophy of religion without knowing something of the philosophical, ethnographic, and psychoanalytic work that’s been done on these issues.  That’s not always the case.  In my view, no one should be writing about these issues if they have not first acquainted themselves with the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and a good chunk of the last sixty years of social and political theory following the Holocaust and Gulags.  But that’s me.  Apparently others see nothing worthy of reflection there and see no necessity to reflect on what was in the nature of these movements that led to these things and what they might say about identity, transcendence, and movements in general.

On these issues, one would do well to real Paul Livingston’s brilliant Politics of Logic (the bastard wrote the book I wanted to write).  This has also been an obsession of continental philosophy in the work of Agamben on sovereignty, Derrida on supplementarity, Badiou and Zizek on acts and events, Ranciere on the part of no part, Lacan on supplements, Schmitt on the sovereign exception, and on and on and on and on.  It’s even there in Heidegger on ereignis, and Marion on the saturated phenomena.  If one hasn’t explored at least some part of this literature, he has no business talking about transcendence at all.  This is one of the singular advantages of the [French] continental tradition over the anglo-american tradition:  they took the social sciences, linguistics, and ethnography seriously and explored these things.

First, what do I mean by transcendence?  I refer to transcendence as any system that erects some term to a master-term that attempts to disavow the flux and immanence of the world.  Ethnic identities try to do this by positing an ahistorical essence of their being.  Nationalisms do something similar.  Group movements do the same thing.  Theistic concepts of God do this.  Etc.  It’s not an issue whether or not one believes in the supernatural, it’s an issue of identity and identification.  Basically it’s the structure of Oedipus or patriarchy.  My thesis is that the greater our push to form an identity and the greater our identification, the greater our tendency to form an enemy, an excluded other, an outsider, etc., that is seen as attacking the community, and preventing its harmony.  These structures necessarily generate violence and this is well attested to by history, the social sciences, and psychology.  This is because, as Lacan liked to say, identity or the ego is necessarily paranoid.  It necessarily experiences itself as persecuted and tries to lash out at what it believes persecutes it.  The tragedy is that this violence results not from a real other that persecutes it, but rather from the very nature of trying to form an identity.

Why is this?  What is it about the nature of attempts to form an identity that generate paranoia and violence?  Everything boils down to boundary logic.  In order for something to identify itself as identical, itself, or the same, it must distinguish itself from something else.  “We are this” or “I am this” and “they are that” or “you are that”.  Us/Them.  I/you.  Inside/outside.  A distinction implies boundary between inside and outside.  The problem is that a boundary belongs to neither the inside nor the outside.  Boundaries belong to both insides and outsides.  This entails that boundaries are undecidable for any system.  The real world consequence of this is that every system that attempts to form an identity (a self, a transcendence, an essence, etc) encounters an undecidable boundary between inside and outside that renders identity fraught from within.  The inside experiences its identity as threatened and comes to blame this threat on an outside figure, when it is tragically a property of boundary logic itself.  It attempts to overcome this threat from the outside by eradicating that outside challenge to identity or transcendence, when in fact this is a product of the very attempt to form an identity.  Horror ensues.

The question I’m obsessed with is thus the question of how we can overcome this tragedy (if we can at all).  I’ve been writing about this for some time.  The paradox is as follows:  In order for a collective to form itself it must name itself (give itself an identity).  Yet identity necessarily generates paranoia, a sense of persecution, and therefore violence.  Is it possible to form a community that doesn’t fall into this logic?  Here I should confess that I’m a crypto-Christian.  My thesis is that 1) Christianity is the greatest of conspiracies against Christ (we fetishized his death to obscure the trauma of the socio-political philosophy he proposed), 2) that attending to Jesus’s teachings means forming a community of strangers beyond the law where it doesn’t matter whether you’re atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, scientologist, etc., 3) that such a community is based on love not law and involves no sacrifice, and that 4) no true Christian ever names herself as a Christian because it instantiates this boundary logic of violence that follows from attempts to form identities.  True Christianity is anarchism and above all a-theism in the sense that I’ve specified (a rejection of all transcendence). There’s no necessity of associating this alternative, queer, possibility of immanence with Jesus.  It’s appeared in other traditions as well.  The Gospels and the immanence they suggest when de-sutured from the horror of Christianity just happen to be what I’m most familiar with.

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1) The Real Issue: The debate between believers and atheists is confused. The real issue is not whether one should side with believers that assert the reality of the divine and supernatural, and the secular who assert only the reality of the material world or the naturalistic; rather, the debate is between logics of transcendence/sovereignty/patriarchy/state versus logics of immanence/anarchy. The issue of supernatural causation is a historically important issue given our current historical moment, but a sidebar to a much more fundamental issue. For my part, I am an a-theist, not an atheist. What that means will become somewhat clear by the end of this post.

2) Structure, Not Content: In these discussions, it is a particular structure we ought to attend to, not a particular content. Thinking in terms of content blinds us to a far more pervasive structure that can be instantiated in a variety of ways. To think structurally is to think about relations between elements where a variety of different elements can fulfill the same or isomorphic functions within one and the same structure. For example, the blueprint of a house and a house itself share one and the same structure, even though they have very different contents. The content of the house is the materials used to build it, while the content of the blueprint is paper and ink. Nonetheless, they instantiate the same relations. Similarly, the structure of Freud’s myth of the primal father and his account of the Oedipus share the same structure– both posit a transcendent figure as operator of a prohibition –while the two have different contents (one talks about fathers in a particular kinship structure, the other talks about a mythological figure that has no limitations on his jouissance, ie., he is able to enjoy all the women in the tribe including his own mother, daughters, and sisters). If we attend to content we miss that these two things share one and the same structure.

Structure is the reason that discussions about religion are not primarily about the supernatural and the divine. Here are some logics of transcendence/sovereignty that all share the same structure: theistic religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, nationalism, Laplace’s Demon or the all knowing eye in a particular science that conceives the position of every particle in the universe and its current trajectory, patriarchy, Stalinism, group movements organized around charismatic leaders, the relationship between a manager and his employees, correlationism, humanism, ethnocentrisms, essentialism, Plato’s conception of the Good in Book VI of The Republic, negative theology, etc. In each case we have a term treated as transcendent to the rest of the social order, or a term that is treated as an exception. All of these examples are examples of the logic of transcendence or sovereignty. Whether the supernatural is involved is beside the point, though in our current historical moment in the United States, supernaturalist logics of transcendence play a privileged role in the ideological state apparatus.

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The new age nut part comes from the fact that this person once asked to do my astrological chart. The following is a response to a new age nut that occasionally writes about my blog:

It’s hard for there to be any dialogue when you so misrepresent my positions. I’m either led to believe that 1) you didn’t not pay attention to what I said and made an honest oversight (an generous interpretation), or that 2) you’re fundamentally dishonest like Chic-fil-a and are representating my positions in a fashion analogous to the reasons that Chic-fil-a gave for withdrawing Muppet toys (i.e., that they were dangerous, rather than the truth, that Muppets withdrew their toys because of CFA’s donations to oppressive organizations, up to and including donations to Ugandan groups that support the murder of homosexuals. Just like CFA, you instead choose to thoroughly distort what was actually said, rather than present what was actually said. This has been going on for thousands of years; up to and including the description of Satan in a way that was indistiguishable from the great Pan. How are we to trust you when you practice these rhetorical gestures?

It is these sorts of practices that give religious thought a bad name, and after repeated dishonest gestures and mischaracterizations on your part– that have every appearance of being opportunistic –it’s hard to escape the impression that you’re not playing a game like CFA. First, I never made the claim that shifts in social conditions are merely shifts in material conditions. I have repeatedly argued that both are needed. I’m fully aware of the fact that there’s a plane of expression (beliefs, narratives, significations) and a plane of content (things and their affects). I merely argue that the former has tended to erase the latter and that we need to attend to the latter a bit more. If you’re honest, you will update your post to reflect this point so as to not mischaracterize my positions. Or maybe you have an axe to grind and would prefer not to acknowledge certain points? Second, I did not articulate an anti-religious position. I said that a) I fully agree that sometimes religion can be a powerful motivator for emancipation, but that b) when we look at the balance sheets of history, religion has i) tended to support oppressive forces, ii) tended to side with the powers that be against the will and emancipation of the people and try to treat horrifying social orders as natural and divinely decreed (look at the revolutions of the Enlightenment and who fought them, look at Indian attitudes towards women and the impoverished and how these are justified), and iii) has caused more suffering than emancipation. When we look at how religion functions as a set of institutions throughout the world and throughout history, I think that this is overwhelmingly obvious: genocide, persecution, terror, guilt, oppression and apologetics for the powerful. Again and again we see the same results from religion. We then get well meaning people such as yourself that focus on the narrative that these religions present, rather than the social facts of how they function in practice. We get John Caputo telling us that religion merely provides potent emancipatory narratives, despite the fact that women, homosexuals, queers are getting their teeth kicked in based on these narratives. We’re told that these things lead us to attend to the earth, despite the fact that apocalyptic narratives are being marshaled to deny climate change. We get told that these narratives will help us to fight capitalism, despite the fact that these narratives are used to support capitalism again and again. We’re supposed to take you seriously? It’s the materialists, naturalists, and atheists that are the enemy? We’re getting the shit kicked out of us, with little or no support from you, yet we’re supposed to bow to your so-called “superior wisdom” and the “superior wisdom” of that tradition? It’s hard to escape the impression that that tradition wants to destroy our world and demolish all our rights.

And in defending these things without a substantial critique of the majoritarian religious consensus, you become a part of the problem, thinking that the atheist and heretic is your enemy, rather than your own “bretherin” that level unspeakable cruelty on people in the world today and throughout history. When you stop attacking the atheist, heretic, and naturalist as the “enemy” and start taking the majority of your own who support oppression, oppressive powers, and who level unspeakable cruelty on the world, maybe then we’ll take you seriously. Yet until then, you’re an apologist for all this, even as you claim that it’s not “real” religion (a wonderful apologist’s argument), thereby providing cover for the shit that’s really taking place in the world. If you were a little bit more honest and carried out a genuine critique of how religion actually functions in the world you might be taken seriously, but given that you provide cover and support for these kinds of oppressions, suggesting that somehow it’s the materialists and naturalists that are the cause of this horror, it’s hard to take you seriously. You wish to personalize everything, rather than treating it as an objective institution that has real effects. I could care less about your damn beliefs. What I care about is how those beliefs function politically and institutionally. Yet you’ve read your Paul and Kierkegaard and ignore the reality of these things. You comport yourself as the knave, or the one that provides the ideological infrastructure for the master/oppressor. So step up to the plate: first, behave honestly and portray the positions you’re arguing against honestly. Don’t you understand that no one trusts priests, pastors, and so-called “holy men” because you behave in the ways you do in this post, all the while bending over for masters and oppressors? Second, recognize that your enemy is your intolerant and oppressive religious bretheran and suggest a way beyond that. Absent these gestures you’re just another dupe or knave, fellating the 1%, providing them with cover by muddying the issues, and caught in our own ridiculous and damaging/dangerous fantasies. Meanwhile the rest of us have to live with the consequences of your bullshit and creepy new age defenses of horror as we get our teeth kicked in environmentally, economically, and in terms of our liberty. Oh how we love your new age wisdom. You’re just tacky and an asshole to boot. Go watch Avatar.

Over at Cyborgology, David has written a great post responding to my earlier post on McKenzie Wark.  I don’t disagree with anything he says about the pressing political issues of our day, however I do think he quite misunderstands what I mean when I say that we’ve witnessed the erasure of sites of politics.  Here I am talking quite specifically about the difficulty in identifying geographical locations where we can effectively engage the contemporary system of capitalism in which we find ourselves enmeshed.  I am talking about the practice of politics, not the question of where the political issues are (which he nicely underlines in his post).  When I use the word “site”, I am quite literally referring to geographical sites, localized in time and space, and where to engage so as to produce change.

To see what I’m trying to get at, compare contemporary capitalism with late 19th and early 20th century industrial capitalism.  Under industrial capitalism, the site of engagement is quite clear:  the factory.  Workers are able to go on strike, shut down the factory, and thus leverage capitalists or owners of the factory for better working conditions.  They have bargaining power because of the way in which the factory is dependent on their labor.  This form of political engagement was, in part, successful because factories and capitalists were far more dependent on local workers, due to limitations of communications technologies as well as limitations in transportation or paths of distribution.

Notice the object-oriented dimension of these points:  transportation (roads, automobiles, airplanes, shipping routes), communications technologies (telephones, internet, fiber optic cables, satellites), local workers and factories (material bodies), geographical sites and locality (placements in material space and time).  These are all elements of what Braudel, in Civilization and Capitalism, refers to as material structure of possibility that afford and constrain possibilities of engagement at any point in history.  My thesis is that contemporary cultural Marxism, coupled with the rise of postmodernism with its focus on the semiotic and discursive, has generated a blindness to material culture and therefore poorly understands why our contemporary capitalistic system functions as it does and how to properly engage it.

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Responding to my recent post on Mckenzie Wark, George makes a great set of observations:

As for this perennial “ontology” vs. “politics” issue that you guys discuss here over and over again (it seems), it would be nice if it was that easy – ontology is about things being and does not imply politics of any sort – but somehow it’s not (which is why you have to say it again and again like a mantra for years now). So if Nazis think that races exist and that among those, some are superior and some are inferior, is this not an ontological statement about how things are? If that doesn’t in itself imply a certain political view (I’ll grant you that), then surely such an ontological position is very easily politicized.

For me, the issue is rather different.  It’s not that I disagree with the thesis that an ontology can have political implications.  Ontologies do and can have political implications.  At the core of my ontological thinking, I belong to a tradition of thinkers such as Lucretius, Hume, Badiou, and Meillassoux.  When I say I belong to this tradition, I am not saying that I share all of their philosophical positions or claims.  Far from it.  Rather, I am saying that with these thinkers I hold that every configuration of being is contingent– though I wouldn’t go as far as Meillassoux –such that it is capable of being otherwise.  Thus, for example, I reject necessitarian accounts of being such as we find in Leibniz with his thesis that this is the best of all possible worlds and that this world results from a design, or accounts such as we find in Hegel.  For me, the world is not the result of a design, a plan, nor is there a way it “ought” to be (though certainly we have preferences as to how things ought to be).

This is a thesis that I think has important political implications.  If it is true that everything is contingent, then it’s also true that every social order is contingent.  There is no reason that societies have to be organized in this particular way.  If it is true that there is no reason that societies have to be in this particular way, then we are free to envision and fight for other types of social formations.  In my view, every revolutionary political philosophy is premised on the thesis that being and the form society takes are contingent.    By contrast, we will find that every reactionary politics always puts forward a thesis about necessity, whether through claiming that human nature is such that this is the only way that society can be organized without disaster (“people are just greedy, so communism could never work!) or by arguing that this is naturally the way in which society must be organized.  Both of these positions– the revolutionary and the reactionary –presuppose very different ontologies.

read on!

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