Over at Being’s Poem my friend Daniel has a very generous and thoughtful response to my response to his review of The Democracy of Objects. Let me emphasize that Daniel and I are good friends. Whenever we get together we have a great time with each other. One of the highlights of my trip to Liverpool for the Thinking the Absolute conference was his surprise appearance. We’ve even talked about visiting his home in Peru together. Our discussions might get heated on occasion, but they are always lively and productive. Daniel makes me think and since, as Artaud mentioned, the most difficult thing in the world is to find ways to manage to think, I find this valuable and am grateful for it. Matters are no different in this discussion.
First, let me reiterate that I find little to disagree with in the defense of epistemological realism Daniel presents in his review. This is a point I’ve made frequently in discussions with the epistemological realists I’ve encountered. I don’t disagree with you. I don’t see myself going off and investing large amounts of my time in the work of thinkers like Sellars, Brandom, or Burge, but this is quite different than claiming that I think their claims are mistaken or false. I’m grateful that others are doing this work so I don’t have to. In other words, I think it’s possible for there to be distributions of labor in philosophy and theory.
Daniel’s critique of my claims about epistemology in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects is particularly valuable, because it helps me to clarify my own aims better. The first chapter is designed to accomplish three things: 1) provide grounds for why we are entitled to speak of entities independent of humans (an epistemological project), 2) carry out a critique of correlationism, and 3) unfold the basic structure of objects (or what I’m now calling machines) that will be the object of investigation for the rest of the book. Daniel nicely shows that there are all sorts of other resources we can pull on to accomplish this first task. He also shows that in my critique of correlationism I tend to conflate epistemology with correlationism, mistakenly suggesting that epistemological projects ineluctably lead to anti-realist positions. I think he’s right in that criticism.
The more I’ve reflected on matters since the writing of The Democracy of Objects, the more I’ve come to feel that my target is not so much correlationism, nor anti-realism, as anthropocentrism. I see my work as attempting to carry out an intervention in fields like cultural studies, critical theory, and social and political thought, where I find certain forms of anthropocentrism to be rife. Here it’s important to be careful, as there are many different types of anthropocentrism. There are, for example, theological anthropocentrisms that treat humans as the crown of creation. We don’t find many of these in those domains of inquiry. There is, by contrast, the far more pervasive anthropocentrism that consists in focus on a single relation, the relation between humans and the world and, in particular, how humans represent the world.
Throughout what I will loosely call the “critical theories”, we get a strong investigative focus on how humans represent the world and analysis of beliefs, norms, language, text, signs, and so on. For instance, you might get the anthropocentric ethnographer restricting his analysis of the Kaluhli to their beliefs about the world and norms. Note that the ethnographer’s analysis of Kaluhli beliefs and norms is not concerned with the truth or falsity of these beliefs and whether those norms are right or wrong. He’s just looking to understand the “worldhood of their world”, or the way in which they represent their world. That ethnographer can simultaneously hold both that the Kaluhli believe these things (for example, that it is a particular spirit that causes plants to grow) and that this belief is a false or mistaken representation of the world. It just happens that evaluating the veracity of these claims is not the project that the ethnographer is engaged in.
The anthropocentrism of this kind of ethnographer lies in the focus on Kaluhli beliefs and norms, in how they represent the world. It is likely that the ethnographer is neither a subjective idealist nor an absolute idealist, believing that there are all sorts of things that exist independent of humans that are entirely real. Rather, the anthropocentrism of such an ethnographer lies in his focus on representations.
It is this focus, I think, that I’m trying to target. The first and crucial point I want to note, is that I don’t think the ethnographer is mistaken in the claims he makes about Kaluhli beliefs and norms. Similarly, I don’t think Daniel is mistaken in the claims that he makes about epistemology. Second, I don’t think discussion of the human-world relation is unimportant, should be excluded, or should be ignored. What I am objecting to is a largely exclusive focus on one relation– the human-world relation –to the detriment of a host of other factors that I believe play a crucial role in why our social assemblages take the form they take.
A non-anthropocentric social theory would not consist in excluding humans or in ceasing to talk about how humans represent the world around them, but in expanding the what can be analyzed and investigated to nonhumans as well. I am not alone in this sort of project. It is a project shared by materialist historians like Braudel, assemblage theorists like DeLanda, vibrant materialists like Jane Bennett, new materialist feminists like Stacy Alaimo, actor-network theorists like Latour, etc. The thesis is very simple: our social world takes the form it takes not simply because of the beliefs and norms that influence how we relate to the world, but also because of the technologies, infrastructure, animals, microorganisms, material resources, etc., that we share the world with. I’m trying to do my small part in drawing attention to these other things. I think this is an important project because if it’s true that social relations don’t take the form they take simply by virtue of the things we collectively believe and the norms we advocate, if it is true that material nonhumans play a significant role in social relations, then producing social change will not simply be a matter of changing beliefs, but will also necessarily involve intervening in material structures. However if we’re to intervene in those material structures, we first need to develop an attentiveness to them and awareness of them.
My hostility towards epistemology– whether of the realist or anti-realist variety –would therefore lie in the way in which it reinforces this anthropocentric focus on humans and their beliefs, norms, representations, texts, signs, language, etc. Again, it wouldn’t be a matter of saying that the epistemologist is wrong, but that he’s confusing the issue being discussed. To see my point, compare how Daniel and I might discuss agricultural practices in the 15th century. Since we’re discussing a remote period in history, Daniel might ask how the historian knows that this was the way in which agriculture was practiced in the 15th century. He might broaden the question to an investigation of the conditions and limits of any historical knowledge whatsover.
That’s a commendable project, but a very different sort of project than the one I’m engaged in. When I talk about agricultural projects in the 15th century, what interests me is how agriculture impacted the form social assemblages took. I would be interested in questions such as how the properties of the grains cultivated, coupled with existing agricultural technologies, influenced how people lived their lives annually. For example, we might find that the absence of fertilizers, pesticides, and various harvesting and planting technologies rendered agriculture so labor intensive that people were not free to develop themselves in other ways. Likewise, I would be interested in the way in which agricultural production impacted the size that cities and populations could reach. After all, a population needs food in order to sustain itself. I would be interested in how the life of populations, individuals, and cities becomes tied to the rhythms of food production and technologies of food preservation in such a milieu. I would be interested in how the diet of this period affects human development. I would be interested in how climatic changes such as the little ice age, and things such as drought and crop pestilences might correlate with various forms of social unrest.
These are just a very different set of questions than the types of questions Daniel is asking. I am not asking how we represent these things, nor how the people of this period represented these things. I am not asking whether or not these are true realities or what is really real. I am asking, among other things, what role these things played in the form society took at this period, what political structure it might have had, and whatever turmoil it might have experienced. My basic thesis, you might say, is that the world is a sticky place, that networks are sticky things, and that often we find ourselves trapped in less than ideal social assemblages because of these material agents. If we wish to have better more ideal social assemblages, then you better know something about these material assemblages so you can intervene in them in such a way as to unstick life.
Now at this point, one might legitimately ask “aren’t you here concerned with a human-world relation?” Yes, of course, I’m particularly interested in how these things impact human life. Yet this is quite different than the sort of anthropocentric human-world relation I’m trying to move past. Rather than focusing on questions of whether or not the peoples of the 15th century had an accurate knowledge of agriculture, or what their discourses about agriculture might have been, I’m temporarily bracketing those questions, to focus on what real differences the properties of grains, production technologies, travel technologies, climate, storage technologies, natural events, etc., had in organizing social relations in this particular way. Here compare the sort of analysis we get in Tim Morton’s brilliant earlier book The Poetics of Spice with the sort of analysis we get in Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism. In Morton’s book, we get an analysis of how spice is represented in romantic literature and how this led to the development of certain capitalist and consumerist subjectivities. I’m certain that Morton believes in the real existence of spice. It just so happens that his analysis here is focused on how the people of the romantic period represented spice and what sort of subjectivity this generated. By contrast, Braudel is not investigating how people of a particular period represented agriculture, but rather how the real material properties of organic bodies, climate conditions, geographic distance and proximity, and existing technologies contributed to social relations in particular ways. They are two very different sets of questions. An ideal analysis would include both– which is more than any one person could handle –and would investigate the properties of both what Deleuze and Guattari call the “plane of content” (bodies/things affecting and being affected by one another) and the “plane of expression” (how the semiosphere or field of representation functions and is organized in a particular milieu). In addition to this, it would investigate how these two planes interact with one another. If these days I’ve been focusing on the plane of content, then this is because I think that critical theory of the last few decades has tended to emphasize the plane of expression and currently finds itself faced with a set of frustrating questions as to why certain forms of social change aren’t taking place despite adequate critiques of reigning ideologies or systems of representation. Again, it is not a question of abandoning these critiques, but of exploring some other factors that likely contribute to the eternal return of the same at the material level.
At this point I can here Daniel saying “but don’t you have to represent these things to engage in such analyses?” Sure! Whoever said otherwise? Here I recall Zizek’s joke about Butler. Zizek recounts a situation where a person who says “this is a coffee cup” being confronted with a Butlerian who corrects him saying “your claim is inaccurate! this is a coffee cup from a western, 20th century, european standpoint, within a particular set of institutions and structure of power!” To this, Zizek responds that all of that is presupposed in the statement “this is a coffee cup.” Now I would disagree with Zizek in his apparent suggestion that it’s worthless to point out the structure of the perspective from which we speak, but he does make a good point. Often things are presupposed in discourses and practices. Isn’t this what Brandom points out to us in his account of reasoning? I certainly presuppose that I can refer to the world. How I’m able to do this, however, is not a project I’m engaged in because I’m trying to talk about these other things. I’m glad, however, that there are other people such as Daniel that are engaged in this project. I just wish they’d show a bit more charity and recognize that it’s okay for people to engage in projects different than their own and that these projects don’t have to be mutually incompatible.