March 14, 2014
Scattered thoughts that will probably get me in trouble, but here goes. In preparation for the three-part GCAS course on Atheology I’ll be teaching in the coming months, I’ve found myself reading Schmitt’s Political Theology. One of the things I hope to do with this course is show how theism is far more pervasive in thought than figures like the work of the vulgar new atheists would suggest. This is a point I’ve made for a long time, beginning with my first published article “The Politics of the Virtual”, throughout my work on masculine sexuation in Lacan’s graph of sexuation, and in my discussion of flat ontology in the final chapter of The Democracy of Objects. “Flat ontology” is basically synonymous with “atheism”, “naturalism”, and “materialism”. The point is that theism is not simply the thesis that a divine, supernatural being exists, but is rather a structure of thought that can come in both religious and secular variants. For example, despite his avoid atheism, I take it that Laplace’s thought is a variant of theistic structure due to the position he grants to the observer in his imaginary thought experiment designed to defend determinism. In imagining a completely deterministic universe, Laplace invites us to imagine an ideal observer that is above and outside of all being and that knows the trajectory, velocity, and position of every particle that composes existence.
March 11, 2014
I’m pleased to announce that Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media is now available. Here’s the blurb:
Onto-Cartography gives an unapologetic defense of naturalism and materialism, transforming these familiar positions and showing how culture itself is formed by nature. Bryant endorses a pan-ecological theory of being, arguing that societies are ecosystems that can only be understood by considering nonhuman material agencies such as rivers and mountain ranges alongside signifying agencies such as discourses, narratives, and ideologies. In this way, Bryant lays the foundations for a new machine-oriented ontology.
This theoretically omnivorous work draws on disciplines as diverse as deconstruction, psychoanalysis, Marxism, media studies, object-oriented ontology, the new materialist feminisms, actor-network theory, biology, and sociology. Through its fresh attention to nonhumans and material being, it also provides a framework for integrating the most valuable findings of critical theory and social constructivism.
February 20, 2014
“Tolerant” Pluralist Postmodern Theologian (TPPT): Look, being a pluralist I’m absolutely committed to the thesis that demons are real. They’re just not what people think they are. What you call a seizure and a neurological disorder, the believer calls the effects of demonic possession. They’re just different vocabularies for the same thing. [Aside: I'm not making this thesis up, I've had it or some variant of it said to me on a number of occasions]
Frustrated Materialist (FM): The believer that makes that claim doesn’t think it’s “just a way of talking” but believes there’s a real referent corresponding to those entities.
TPPT: (Sly smile). Look, I’m just being a pragmatist here and am not concerned with questions about truth. For the believer the demons are real. After all, these ideas have effects and that’s gotta be real right? So really the neurologist that calls these things a seizure caused by a neurological disorder and the believer that talks about demons and effects of possession are talking about the same thing.
FM: But they’re not.
TPPT: They’re not? How so? Come on, remember pragmatism? We’re not interested in truth.
FM: Have you heard of Charles Sanders Peirce and Robert Brandom.
TPPT: Sure, both great pragmatists!
FM: Well they’d disagree with your “different vocabularies same phenomenon” hypothesis.
TPPT: What? Why? They’re pragmatists!
FM: Well Peirce said, in his pragmatic principle, that the meaning of a concept is all of the consequences that follow from it; while Brandom said that the meaning of a proposition is all that can be inferred from it.
TPPT: Yeah? So what?
FM: So what? Demonic possession and neurological disorder have entirely different entailments just as the four humors theory of sickness and the germ theory of sickness have different entailments.
TPPT: I don’t follow.
FM: Demonic possession calls for an exorcism. Neurological disorders call for some form of medication and perhaps surgery. These different ontological hypotheses lead to different practices. They’re not just different vocabularies for the same thing and the pragmatists, except for that scoundrel James, say exactly the same.
TPPT: You’re just an intolerant atheist realist materialist that doesn’t respect the worldviews of others!
FM: Well if I were a believer, I can’t say I’d much want to have you as my friend or defender.
TPPT: What? Why not? I respect their beliefs!
FM: It doesn’t seem to me that you do. In fact, it seems to me that you’re rather patronizing. Rather respecting the persons you’re “defending” enough to recognize that they mean what they say and really are asserting the existence of these things, you instead say these are just “vocabularies” and are perhaps potent and meaningful symbols used to describe core things in the human condition to be analyzed by the likes of Jung or Joseph Campbell who are capable of saying what these things really mean. That doesn’t sound like pluralism or respect at all! Rather, it sounds to me like the way adults sometimes pat children on the head when they’ve said something charming but naive. It seems to me that you’re already adopting a materialist and naturalist framework and are just trying to blunt the implications of that framework by saying there are lots of vocabularies to describe the same natural phenomena. Isn’t it really the materialist who’s a pluralist because they respect these others enough to recognize that they really mean what they say and are making genuine claims about beings and not simply claims about meanings?
TPPT: You materialists are so intolerant and mean! Disagreeing with others and challenging their claims is the height of violence!
FM: Are you familiar with the exorcism of Anneliese Michel? Place that in the context of Pierce’s pragmatic principle and Brandom’s inferentialism.
TPPT: I’m leaving now you intolerant cad!
February 20, 2014
I know, a third post tonight but I write so little these days that I have to get it down when I do. So a couple of weeks ago I was having a nice discussion with some good peeps on facebook and one of the participants said they don’t like Badiou because they think he’s exclusionary. Whatever the failings of Badiou the man might be, I don’t think this is a criticism that can really work for his ontology and political theory, i.e., he might not carry it through consistently, but the resources are there in the ontology to compellingly address this criticism. This requires a little discussion of history and mathematics.
Late 20th century Continental political theory was marked by the critical dissolution of all universal categories. The task of both postmodernism and deconstruction was to show the fraught nature of all cultural universals. This was generally done in one of two ways. One either showed that what claimed to be universal was secretly a veiled particularity hiding an unjust hegemonic exercise of power (what a mouthful!). For example, one would show that talk of human (a universal) rights that purported to apply to all humans beings was, in fact, a particularity. Through careful discourse or textual analysis, one would show that “human” really signifies “white, male, hetero, property owners” and that, therefore, “rights” don’t apply to all but are constructed to benefit the interests of that particularity.
Another strategy was to show the aporetic nature of all universals and categorizations. For example, you might show how the general category in fact relies on the borderline case whose identity cannot be decided in terms of whether or not it belongs or does not belong. This, for example, is what Derrida demonstrates in his brilliant essay “Parergon” in The Truth in Painting (my favorite Derrida, strangely). There he shows how the frame is the condition for the possibility of the artwork, while also being its condition of impossibility. Why? Because we can’t decide whether the frame belongs to the artwork or doesn’t. However, more substantially, Derrida shows that aesthetic theory itself is a frame for art whose status with respect to art is undecidable. In my view, Derridean deconstruction can be thought as the disciplined application of Goedel’s incompleteness theorems coupled with Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic theories of the symptom to case after case. The upshot of showing, in case after case, this constitutive incompleteness and undecidability is that classificatory terms– universals of a sort –are dissolved and no longer have their claim to authority. Everything becomes a platypus and Plato and Aristotle lose their shit.
Under this project, the political danger to be overcome– it seems –is the destructive effects of categorizations and their hierarchies. And in the aftermath of World War II, in all the wars surrounding nationalism, in the face of colonial horrors, in resistances to civil rights movements, why not? Dissolving categories and demonstrating their internal contamination went a long way towards ameliorating the horrors arising out of “identity”. No longer would identity categories be able to hold sway.
February 20, 2014
From what I understand, Ray Brassier will soon be giving a talk about flat ontology. Since I’m pretty sympathetic to his positions and since the concept of flat ontology is central to my own work, I thought I should give a few words of clarification. It appears that Ray takes the thesis of flat ontology to be the claim that “everything is real”. I adamantly reject any position of this sort. For me flat ontology signifies three things: materialism, naturalism, and atheism. The thesis is that only material and natural beings exist. As a consequence, the following entities are rejected by a flat ontology: anything supernatural, God, souls, Platonic forms, and so on. I wholeheartedly agree with Brassier’s contention that the thesis “everything is real” is absurd.
Now perhaps the idea that flat ontology holds that everything is real arises because I’ve sometimes said that beings like Harry Potter are real. What do I mean by this? Something very trivial, I think. I mean that if everything is material, then fictions, which obviously make up the furniture of the world we live in, have to have material being as well. What do I mean by that? Do I mean that there is a living being named Harry Potter that eats and drinks, breaths air, shits, fucks, and casts magical spells? No! I mean that “Harry Potter” has to be inscribed in brains or on pieces of paper or on video clips. I mean that there has to be some material medium for this fiction to be present in the world. That said, I do not think there is any referent to this fiction. The absence of a referent to the fiction is precisely what makes it a fiction.
A trivial and obvious point, right? Nonetheless, I think it has important consequences, especially in the realm of political theory. The mark of materialism is that it recognizes that things are located in time and space. Unlike a Platonic form that can be anywhere and everywhere at once, material beings are in a place and a time (though as Whitehead has taught us in his less “woo-ish” moments, place can be pretty complicated). This entails that ideas are place-bound as well. Why’s that significant? I don’t know, maybe it isn’t. However, I think that perhaps it is because I think a lot of our political theorists have the unconscious assumption that it’s enough to develop a compelling critique or develop the right concept to overturn whatever idols they wish to demolish. From a materialist perspective, however, it’s not enough simply to develop the critique. In addition to formulating the critique, it’s necessary for that critique to materially circulate throughout the world to produce effects. Emphasizing the materiality of thought draws our attention to networks of transport or how ideas circulate throughout the world and encourages us to develop strategies to enhance the possibility of those ideas circulating broadly, thereby maximizing the transformative effects they might have.
February 20, 2014
A great deal hinges on how historical and psychological time is structured or operates. Indeed, I think the issue of historical time goes straight to the heart of a number of issues in social and political theory; for whether or not revolutionary change is possible will depend, in part, on the nature of time. Before getting to this, I’ll stipulate that by “psychological time” I’m referring to time as described by phenomenologists such as Husserl and Heidegger. I know that those working in the phenomenological tradition will find the descriptor “psychological” objectionable, but we are, after all, talking about how humans experience time. I suspect that there are deeper phenomena of psychological time that aren’t registered in lived, intentional, conscious experience, but that are increasingly being mapped by those working in cognitive science and neurology through the use of a variety of experimental methods. As another aside, I absolutely hate that I placed Dali’s painting in the upper corner of this post as it’s become so commodified. As an aside on an aside I hate that I’ve come to hate this painting because it’s become so commodified.
So why is the issue of time so important? Everything hinges on whether we adopt what I call continuist or discontinuest theories of time. Roughly– and I’m simplifying matters here tremendously –I take it that a continuist theory of time holds that for each event E^3, that event arose out of prior events E^2…E^n. This, I take it, is the premise of all historicisms and hermeneutic orientations of thought. Reduced to its barest possible form– and again, I know there are many more bells and whistles to someone like, say, Gadamer –the thesis seems to be that given any cultural artifact or social event, that event is to be explained in terms of the historical context in which it arose. This is why we are told that in order to understand Kant we have to read all of his predecessors, going all the way back to the pre-Socratics. The meaning of Kant is a product of these inheritances. Time here is conceived in terms of continuity and the thinkable is always a function of what has come before.