As I reflect on the looming deficit ceiling crisis I find myself thinking about what it might be that came to attract me to ontological realism. I confess that I still have deeply ambivalent feelings towards both epistemological and ontological realism, and have been disturbed by much that I’ve seen arise out of both speculative realism and the new materialisms (though I feel that the latter have been much better about these issues). I wasn’t always a realist, and even now I’m a realist in a very limited sense. Throughout graduate school, I’d classify myself as a fairly militant social constructivist and linguistic idealist. My work on Deleuze, I suppose, had realist-materialist tendencies– in particular, I was interested in deconstructing the subject of phenomenology to uncover a more primordial ground of being in what Deleuze called the “transcendental field” or “immanence” –but for a long time I was all signifier/sign all the time. I lived and died by Lacan’s thesis that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” and Peirce’s thesis that the universe is a semiosphere where even “man” (as Foucault nicely demonstrated in The Order of Things) is a sign. In short, I held the view that all of being is a semiological construction– which isn’t to say that there isn’t something else, just that we can never know anything of it –and that these semiological constructions are variable from culture to culture, group to group.
I believed this thesis– and with qualification I still do today –to be emancipatory for two reasons: On the one hand, if true it reveals the fundamental contingency of every social formation and set of social identities– I take this thesis of contingency to be axiomatic for all genuinely critical or emancipatory theories –opening the possibility of things and identities being otherwise. In this regard, the rise of neo-essentialism in some circles of speculative realism has been extremely distressing and disturbing (at least to me). It’s difficult to see how the return of essences, no matter how weird and withdrawn, can’t eventually function as an apologia for certain forms of social oppression and stratification. On the other hand, I found this anti-realism to be emancipatory because it prescribes the possibility of self-creation (as opposed to what we might call “typification” within the Great Chain of Being where every social subject has its “proper place”). However, I came to have doubts.
Why? Doubts aren’t necessarily rejections. They can be qualifications and enrichments. It’s important to avoid binaries where if one is rejecting this aspect of that thing, then one is rejecting that thing tout court. At the risk of being an indecisive weenie (Badiou would be so ashamed), there are– as I have always contended (just read the introduction to The Democracy of Objects you block headed weenies) –places where anti-realism is absolutely correct, true, and appropriate. If, by “real”, we mean “substantially existing”, not everything is “real”. The beauty of sunsets? No, only beings with certain nervous systems experience that. The essence of the Egyptian people? Nope, doesn’t exist. What came to bother me about semiotic and linguistic idealism, about social constructivism, had to do with the observer that sees the world in terms of semiotic (in the Peircian sense) and linguistic constructions. Who sees the world in this way? It was hard for me to avoid the conclusion that it is the middle class, economically stable, academic that sees the world in these terms. This, for two reasons: First, as the old expression goes, for the cobbler, everything is a shoe. Naturally the humanities academic sees everything as a text because a) when you deal with texts day in and day out you tend to see texts (signs/signifiers) everywhere (in Uexkull’s terms we could call text the umwelt of the academic), and b) because it’s narcissistically gratifying for the humanities academic to think that the entire world is composed of texts. If that’s true, if the world is composed of texts, signs, signifiers, beliefs, concepts, and norms, then we are the most important people in the world because we’re the ones that hold the skeleton key to the truth about “reality” (which, in this context, signifies the human umwelt.
So what’s the problem? For me the problem was that the world is also– note the “also” you obsessional, binarized men and women –roads, mountain ranges, buildings, crops, soil, weather events, oceans, gamma ray bursts, etc., that make a serious contribution to why people come to live and relate as they do. Semotic and linguistic idealism– anti-realism in general, as well as correlationism –just don’t do a very good job at dealing with these things. Why? Because to think about these other agencies you have to think about real, material, causality that functions independent of the purposes to which people put things to, what they signify to them, their ideological motives, etc. No, a speed bump causes your car to slow down by virtue of what it is or fucks it up regardless of your beliefs, language, signs, signifiers, concepts, and etc. Anti-realism just isn’t good with this not because anti-realists– like the earlier version of myself –are boneheaded idiots, but because they’ve drawn attention to a set of things in the world (signs, concepts, signifiers, beliefs, and norms) that tend to push causality into the background. By the way, wouldn’t that speed bump to the right suck?
But I’d be lying if I said that this issue of class privilege reflected in reality and the erasure of causality/materiality was the trauma referred to in the title of this post. That trauma was the aftermath of 9-11. I hear you now:
Oh gawd, here he goes, he’s saying shit got real on 911 so we can’t be Wittgensteinians, postmoderns, or social constructivists any longer. How typical.
No, you fuckers– and how I loathe comments on this blog –I said the trauma was the aftermath of 9-11. For Christ’s sake, listen and pay attention. For me what was traumatic wasn’t 911– though that was horrific –but how we reacted to it. And, in particular, I’m referring to the lead up to the Iraq War. Many of you fuckers have been in car accidents I’m sure. Do you remember how time slowed down? You saw it happening, knew what was happening, but were still powerless to do anything about it. Well for me this was the lead up to the Iraq War (not 911, you idiots). The facts were everywhere during these discussions. Iraq had nothing to do with 911. The aluminum tubes they were ordering were not weapons grade. The story about yellow cake was shaky. Iraq was a secular nation so why would it be involved in such an event? Etc., etc., etc. On and on it went. The story made no sense at a factual level and at the level of reasonable ways of responding to terrorist attacks it made no sense. Yet still we did it, everyone ignored it, pundits talked in the future tense saying “when we go to war with Iraq…”, etc.
Everything was already decided and the facts be damned. Hell, you could lose your job if you questioned the narratives. Reality was erased. It was horrific. Everyone talked about how “everyone was now united” and how nice that was, and all I could think was “yeah, against Goldstein in a ‘ten minute hate'”. Nothing real, no facts, existed anymore. The real had been erased and that erasure of the real, of something public and shared that could decide debates, was traumatic. And then it occurred to me: Isn’t this the dark side of anti-realism and correlationism? Aren’t we led to a point where because we’ve said everything is a correlate and a construction that we have to erase all facts and therefore all possibility of adjudicating disputes?
Aside: I need to revisit Lyotard’s Differend
And this is how it is as we listen to the debt ceiling crisis, climate change, evolution, reproductive issues, etc., etc., etc. For us anti-realists and social constructivists who had put so much hope in the revelation of the constructed nature of things, we (I) everywhere find ourselves encountering “anti-realist’s remorse”. Why? Because where all realism has been erased, where everything is a correlate and semiotic construction, we’re left without the means of addressing these debates. “That’s their way of correlating and constructing. Who can say whether the debt ceiling will be a boon or not to the economy?” Can’t you see that the reactionary forces practiced second-order observation, perpetually raising the question “who sees in this way?”, advocating a pluralism that draws attention to the perspectivism of the observer that says this will destroy the global economy? In a dialectical twist that would make Hegel– the man who, deplorably, was old even when young (according to his fellows) –we see our own emancipatory tools being used against us in the name of exploitation, inaction, and oppression.
But then there’s psychoanalysis. As we flee into the arms of realism and materialism– the latter being preferable despite the enunciations of some realists because of its commitment to ontological (and therefore historical), rather than phenomenological, immanence –those of us with a psychoanalytic or Derridean bent (they’re the same, by the way) must ask “is this a symptom?”, an attempt to cover over the trauma of the real in the Lacano-Derrridean sense, and has it been carried out well? Oedipus at Colonus– and we still haven’t caught up to Sophocles’s Oedipus, saturated as it is by Freudian appropriations –tore his eyes out in response to the real so that they might gaze back at him in the horror of the fissure that had been disclosed in the Real. This was admirable as an ethical response to the Real, even if, at a certain level, it remained an ambivalent/ambiguous act insofar as it looked every bit as much as a refusal/defense of the real.
Here it’s difficult to escape the impression that much of our new realism and materialism isn’t also an ambivalent/ambiguous defense against the real, that it isn’t an attempt to erase the trauma of the real yet again, creating the possibility of transcendent authority– in the form of “facts” that would transcendentally, not “not transcendently”, –allow us to suture over the way in which the world is riven by the plurality of umwelten, undermining the possibility of final arbiters. In short, is it possible to have a realism that isn’t based on– to put it in Lacanian terms –the fantasy of the existence of an Other of the Other; or in Derridean terms, a transcendental signifier or “phallus”. So far I’m not heartened and therefore remain traumatized, while nonetheless feeling now, more than ever– as climate crisis, economic crisis, and the rest sit at our doorstep –that we need a post-Oedipal realism.