April 2009

entropyWe really differ very little from the so-called pre-moderns. This is above all the case with our social sciences and in many of the orientations of philosophical thought. When encountering phenomena such as lightning or a terrible storm, the early Greek might have evoked Zeus or Neptune. When seeking to explain some sort of social phenomenon, we evoke things like “social forces”, “power”, “ideology”, “structures”, etc. When seeking to account for some form of thought or knowledge, we evoke things like “categories”, “reason”, “intuition”, and so on. In both cases we believe that we have explained something, but all we’ve really done is provide a short hand name for the phenomenon we wish to understand. In naming it we believe that we have somehow accounted for it. These names are our Greek Gods. What we have here is what Hegel called “tautological ground”:

Five year old: “Why do the planets move about the Sun and objects fall to the Earth?”

Parent: “Because of gravity!”

Child: “What is gravity?”

Parent: “The manner in which planets move about the sun and things fall to the earth.”

Child: (discouraged expression)

This sort of practice sticks out to me with special clarity when I reflect back upon my days among Lacanians. If there was one sort of question that was off limits, it was questions pertaining to ontogeny or development. Ontogeny, the Lacanians declared, was always necessarily off limits because it was inherently “mythological”, retrojecting the very thing it seeks to ground back into origins. Such was the argument. One wonders whether the vehemence with which they denounced questions of ontogeny wasn’t more a defense formation than anything else.

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science_boyle1Throughout his work, the object of Latour’s analyses are networks. In our contemporary context the term “network” is misleading as it immediately brings to mind images of the internet, where computers are “networked” together through communications technologies. Although Latour’s notion of networks is designed to underline relations among actors, his concept of networks refers to something far more heterogeneous than something like the internet. Where the elements of the internet are all more or less the same in that they are all computers sending and receiving computer messages, Latour’s networks are composed of heterogeneous assemblages of diverse objects acting and reacting to one another. As Latour writes in Reassembling the Social, the term

…network does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway, or a sewage ‘network’… It qualifies [rather] its objectivity, that is, the ability of each actor to make other actors do unexpected things. (129)

If, upon hearing the term “network”, we immediately think of points connected by lines, we have failed to understand Latour’s concept of what networks are. A network of highways is fixed and static. Latour’s networks are not a series of points connected by relations, but rather are interactions among actors that perpetually transform one another through their interaction. “A good ANT (Actor-Network Theory) account is a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the [network] may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation” (RS, 128).

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Over the next few weeks I will, as time permits, be writing a commentary on Bruno Latour’s wonderful We Have Never Been Modern. In part, this is in preparation for the final release of Graham Harman’s long awaited Prince of Networks. If Graham’s study of Latour is so unique and exciting, then this is because he approaches Latour not as a sociologist, but as a philosopher. In form of reading not unlike Deleuze’s approach to Foucault or to great artists, novelists, and cinema, Harman reveals a highly original– and relevant –philosopher in his own right. Thus, extending the comparison of Graham’s Prince of Networks to Deleuze’s Foucault, Deleuze in his great Foucault book, approaches Foucault’s thought not as a series of historical or sociological analyses of various things such as madness, discipline, the human sciences, etc., but rather as the work of a great philosopher proposing a very new and highly original account of the nature of knowledge. While Deleuze certainly touches on all of Foucault’s great archeological and genealogical studies, it is this question of the nature of knowledge that is at the heart of his book. Likewise, while Graham certainly delves into Latour’s various sociological investigations, his approach to Latour is so unique insofar as he reads Latour primarily as a philosopher proposing a new ontology. In part, I am also writing on Latour as I will be teaching We Have Never Been Modern for the first time and this will help me to prepare for that course.

However, finally, I am undertaking this close reading of We Have Never Been Modern because, with Graham, I think Latour presents a new philosophical epistemology and ontology consistent with a realist position, but which also allows us to retain the best of a critical tradition arising from sociology and Continental linguistic philosophy from the last century. It is sometimes said that you must be doing something right or original if you manage to upset everyone from all different orientations of thought. This is certainly, above all, the case with Latour. Some readers of this blog will recall that, a few months back, I proposed what I called the “Hegemonic Fallacy“. There I wrote that the Hegemonic Fallacy consists in “the reduction of difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference. This fallacy arises from failing to observe Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction, thereby ignoring the singularities of the assemblage to which differences from another assemblage are being transported.” A more detailed treatment of this principle can be found here.

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I’m sure these posts are getting old by now, but despite the acrimony and heated nature of these discussions, I do think a good deal of progress has been made in clarifying points, posing questions, and developing positions. I doubt that ultimately there will be any consensus, but this development of respective positions is itself worthwhile and, I think, it is refreshing to see an actual philosophical debate taking place rather than endless exegesis on texts without asking the much broader question “is this position true?”. It’s a shame that these discussions have to get so ugly. I’m guilty of being ugly in some of my rhetorical tactics, as are, I think others. Over at Grundledung, there’s a post up discussing the recent debates surrounding Kant, Meillassoux, realism and anti-realism, announcing a more thorough discussion of Kant to come. At the end of his post, Grundledung writes:

In the posts that follow, I will concentrate on three cases, with an eye towards why the readings of Kant matter. (I won’t address the recent hot topic concerning time and ancestrality, since I can’t devote the energy to it, especially as tempers are flaring once again.). Again, the aim will be to show why a focus on Kant is not a morbid fixation but a useful piece of the puzzle. I want to show how the cases I’ll look at bear upon substantive issues in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, even when abstracted from the historical issue of what Kant thought. Also, I shall try to counter the second-guessing of the motivations of critics of speculative realism, providing some symptomatological musings of my own. However, I also want to issue a plea for a bit of old-fashioned bourgeois civility, which would not go amiss on all sides. I’ve no interest in questioning other people’s intelligence or integrity.

Unfortunately I’m having difficulty linking directly to the post, but that aside, I cannot agree more. It is difficult to practice this sort of civility in the heat of debate, but I do think it’s something worth striving for. As I’ve remarked before, I do not think that sarcasm and jest translate well in this medium, and they often are counter-productive to the course of discussion, shifting the discussion to the speakers involved rather than the analysis and evaluation of the claims being made. Everything spirals out of control. It’s difficult to understand why these philosophical discussions get so heated or ugly.

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Over at Speculative Heresy, I think we get to the core of the issue in the debate between realism and anti-realism, as well as how philosophical debates should be conducted. Responding to Mikhail, Nick gives a succinct summary of Meillassoux’s argument, writing:

I think we may be talking past each other to some degree, but let me try to clarify what I’m saying.

To be clear, ‘absolute time’ is not referring to Newtonian time. Einstein empirically discredited that (and Kant and Leibniz, as you note, philosophically discredited it). Absolute time, as Meillassoux uses it, is just a short hand for a time outside of the correlationist time (again, I’ll take Kant and Husserl as being the archetypes of this view).

Now when I say that absolute time is a fundamental assumption of cosmology, evolution, etc., I mean that these sciences are speaking of a time before the very possibility of correlationist time. To deny that an absolute time outside of correlationist time exists, is to deny that these sciences are speaking about anything. They literally make no sense if we assume time (and really, existence) burst onto the scene with the emergence of thought. But to argue that absolute time exists is only to accept a very minimal definition of it – that correlationism emerged within something larger. What that something is, is undetermined so far and a problem for future work. But that it is, seems indisputable to me. (And I believe Hawking’s quote says no more and no less than that, as well.) But maybe this is another manifestation of our differend, since I take these empirical sciences to clearly show the existence of an absolute time, whereas you are more focused on the philosophical conundrums?

The problem for correlationism then, as Levi succinctly points out in his post, is that correlationism sees the mind as condition for Nature, whereas the existence of absolute time shows Nature to be the condition for mind. (Although I’d need to read Kant’s later work to see how the Opus Postumum fits into this schema. I do have Forster’s book, on your recommendation, which I should really crack open.)

As for Hawking’s quote, I think he’d need to respond to the idea of structural realism. No one is denying that theories are used to give us knowledge about reality. What the instrumentalist says is that these theories are only pragmatic and have no truth-value, whereas the structural realist will say that this is incapable of explaining the predictive success of science.

To this, Mikhail responds, remarking that:

Nick, I think I understand your position but the problem with Meillassoux’s argument succinctly is this: while it looks as though he is critiquing correlationism from “inside” by showing how it cannot account for something like arche-fossil, he in fact is critiquing correlationism from outside perspective by imposing the meaning of time on correlationism that it would not accept. As I tried to show, his refutation of correlationism rests on the assumption that correlationism does not share, i.e. that time is something that is a property of mind-independent world.

Before proceeding to parse Mikhail’s actual argument, such as it is, let’s pause to note something. Mikhail criticizes Meillassoux for critiquing correlationism from the outside. I may be mistaken in my understanding of what Mikhail is suggesting here, but I think this is a revealing moment in his understanding of philosophical methodology and what it means to critique another position. If I am reading Mikhail faithfully, for him the only legitimate critique of a philosophical position would be an immanent critique. From the standpoint of immanent critique, you work within the constraints of whatever philosophical system you happen to be working with, bringing nothing external to bear on the position. A famous example of immanent critique would be nearly any movement in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. When Hegel critiques, for example, sense-certainty in the opening of the Phenomenology, he doesn’t bring anything from outside the claims of sense-certainty to show that this position is inadequate, but rather shows how the very claims of sense-certainty itself fail to say what it purports to say, thereby generating an internal contradiction with itself. Very different examples and procedures of immanent critique can be found in the works of Derrida or in the works of hermeneuticians such as Gadamer. In all of these cases the procedure is to restrict oneself to the text and the claims of the text in analyzing the text. All of us trained in the tradition of Continental philosophy more or less were trained in this tradition of critique and hermeneutics. In far less sophisticated terms than those of Hegel, Derrida, or Gadamer, this would be the standard pedagogical practice where the professor forbids the student from rejecting the claims of Aristotle’s Physics by bringing the discoveries of contemporary physics to bear. Here the reasonable pedagogical aim is for the student to understand Aristotle in his own terms, to attend to Aristotle’s own arguments, and to develop “close reading” skills (as Adrian Peperzak always used to say to us) rather than dismissing texts from the history of philosophy outright. From this pedagogical perspective, the only legitimate critique of a philosopher’s position in a student essay would be the demonstration of an internal contradiction in that position or the failure to take account of something crucial or fundamental with respect to our experience.

While I believe this pedagogical approach is laudable in its aim of cultivating close reading skills, developing an attentiveness to text, and promoting a respect for the history of philosophy, I also think that in textually oriented philosophy programs has had the negative and unintended side effect of developing philosophy students that see this mode of textual approach as the way that philosophy as such should be conducted. That is, rather than a question of determining the truth with respect to these questions, philosophy almost entirely becomes an engagement with texts from the history of philosophy and often texts from a highly specific canon. I also think it is worthwhile to ask why this approach to philosophy has largely been embraced by private liberal arts religious schools, rather than state schools (there are, of course, notable exceptions such as Suny Stonebrook, Memphis, and Penn State). The question here, however, would be that of why Continental philosophy, with its text based approach, has found such a welcome home in private religious schools. I don’t have the answer to this question but I do have some suspicions.

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As I’ve often suggested on this blog, I think that one of the greatest moments in the history of philosophy was Hume’s declaration, in the introduction to An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, that the abstruse language and questions of the schoolmen is just an elaborate defense of superstition dressed up in pretty clothing to mislead the ignorant. In other words, there is very little point in taking the intricacies of these positions seriously, delving into their myriad distinctions and arguments, because they are already pigs with lipstick. Their bristling language, distinctions, terminology, arguments, etc., might appear to be saying something convincing, yet at the end of the day it’s just the same old tired superstitition.

Nowhere is this more relevant than in a recent quasi-interview with Radical Orthodoxy giant John Milbank (via An und Fur Sich). As Milbank remarks:

He urged the movement’s followers to “grasp the hands of labour unions, feminists, gay and lesbian activists”, and warned that “if they remain content, as I fear some of them do, to carp and posture before gatherings of the anointed, then the movement will become at best a beloved clique and at worst another academic vaudeville show”.

The groups mentioned may not want to shake Milbank’s hand: he opposes gay marriage (“I don’t want to get into the situation where we deny there is something special about being attracted to the opposite sex”).

He says he is concerned about working-class women being left to raise children alone, “in part – alongside economic factors – because of the collapse of the male ethos of supporting the woman”, and has written most stridently in opposition to in vitro fertilisation treatment for single women.

“By supporting the total disjuncture of sex and procreation, the Left is really supporting a new mode of fascism,” Milbank says.

I am not sure what else should have been expected from a movement that refers to itself as “Radical Orthodoxy”. Clearly, at the end of the day, this position simply becomes an apologia for a particular sort of social order at odds with freedom, gender equality, and equality of sexual orientations. That is, it becomes an apologia for the reigning positions of the church. Why listen to the arguments behind this position at all given that we already know what it is ultimately arguing for?

In response to a terrific post by Nick over at Speculative Heresy, the debate surrounding correlationism has continued to swirl. I tried to post a long comment responding to criticisms by Mikhail and Alexei over there, but for some reason it wouldn’t post, so I’ll post it here. I also worry that Nick might be getting upset by the “thread jack” of his own post, as the issues have diverged markedly from the claims he was there making.

Quoting me, Mikhail responds:

Within a Kantian framework we cannot make sense of the idea of a time belonging to things in themselves, but this is precisely what is required by knowledge statements about times that precede the existence of humans or life.

Actually, as I mentioned several times, this is not a “Kantian framework” – Leibniz already had issues with Newtonian absolute time (and so did, if I understand it, Einstein, but don’t quote me here) – let me ask you this simple non-scientifically phrased question: was there time before the Big Bang?

It is difficult to have this discussion if we do not define our terms. Up to this point I have been assuming that by “absolute time” Mikhail referring to time pertaining to things-in-themselves. He now evokes Newton, yet, subsequent science has refuted Newton’s particular account of time and space. From here on out, I will use the term “absolute time” to refer to time belonging to things-in-themselves rather than time imposed on things by mind. It will be understood that this time is broadly construed and in need of a detailed definition. I take it that it is the responsibility of science to define this time, not philosophers.

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wffm040-wilddog-dingoOkay, not really, but there are rabbits all over the place around here and the horny little critters are getting into my garden, damn it! While I admire their horniness, I still don’t want them to eat my veggies. They’ve been nipping at my spinach and lettuces, and I’m just not willing to share. Any suggestions as to how to keep rabbits away without having to put in a fence? I really would prefer not to buy an air gun and go hunting. Besides, my friend Melanie would never forgive me were I to start shooting rabbits.

As I have recounted in previous posts, I had a rather schizophrenic experience in my philosophical trainng. As an undergrad at Ohio State, I was trained in both the analytic and Continental traditions; and, in fact, most of my 116 hours of course work in philosophy was in analytic and Anglo-American philosophy. Although I found a great deal of value in this style of thought, I often found myself dissatisfied as the problems this style of philosophy dealt with often struck me as remote from the sort of “existential” concerns that first drive one to philosophy. Consequently, when I began looking for graduate schools– and deeply in the midst of an addiction to all things Heideggarian and Foucaultian –I looked for a Continental program that also had a healthy dose of Anglo-American philosophers in its faculty. As a result, I finally decided on Loyola of Chicago, where I would get to study with philosophers of mind like J.D. Trout and Moser, philosophers of science like Blachowicsz, Kantians like Paul Abela, and Continentalists like Thomas Sheehan, Patricia Huntington, Andrew Cutrofello, Adrian Peperzak, and David Ingram. Loyola also offered an excellent grounding in the history of philosophy which I believed vital to any philosophical education.

When I got to Loyola my coursework quickly became focused on Continental thought. I must have taken six courses with Peperzak, ranging from Kant, to Hegel, to Heidegger, and Levinas, whose mannerisms I still remember with great fondness and a slight smirk. I took a number of seminars with Cutrofello on Deleuze, Foucault, Kant, and Derrida. I took a number of courses with Huntington on postmodern feminist theory, Heidegger, and various existentialists. However, in the mean time I was reading a great deal of biology, physics, complexity theory, and neurology. I’ll still never forget the look of horror on the faces of my peers when they found out I was reading Dennett, Dawkins, and Gould. “Why”, they exclaimed, “would you possibly read that?” “What are you thinking reading Paul Churchland?”

Although I worked heavily on Deleuze throughout my five years in graduate school, the best description of my philosophical orientation at this time would be phenomenological. I think, maybe, I’m one of five people in the world that actually devoured Husserl’s various texts and lectures with delight. I suspect that means I’m cracked in some way. It is certainly a good thing that I eventually entered analysis with Bruce Fink. I delighted in the work of Merleau-Ponty. I thought Levinas was perhaps the most beautiful stylist of all the philosophers who had ever written. I shivered with pleasure at Jean-Luc Marion’s discussions of givenness. I ravenously read the work of Ed Casey. I guiltily read Sartre throughout, believing him to be gauche at that time, but still secretly loving his work. For some reason I had largely lost interest in Heidegger, wondering why I had been so enchanted with him. Perhaps it was his style. At any rate, my friends would joke that I was living in a permanent “transcendental epoche chamber”.

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As more and more information comes to the surface concerning the torture memos, I simply cannot fathom that we are having a discussion as to whether or not torture was effective in producing information and whether the United States has been endangered by releasing the memos. Of course, many of us already knew that this was going on and probably much worse. What is wrong with these people such that they can even situate the question in these terms? These people are sociopaths, yet they have presumed to lecture us about morality for the last thirty years. I really don’t know what to say. Words fail. All I can think of, in bleak despair, is Ethan Coen’s poem “The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way“,

‘The Drunken Driver Has the Right Of Way’

by Ethan Coen

The loudest have the final say,
The wanton win, the rash hold sway,
The realist’s rules of order say
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The Kubla Khan can butt in line;
The biggest brute can take what’s mine;
When heavyweights break wind, that’s fine;
No matter what a judge might say,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The guiltiest feel free of guilt;
Who care not, bloom; who worry, wilt;
Plans better laid are rarely built
For forethought seldom wins the day;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

The most attentive and unfailing
Carefulness is unavailing
Wheresoever fools are flailing;
Wisdom there is held at bay;,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

De jure is de facto’s slave;
The most foolhardy beat the brave;
Brass routs restraint; low lies high’s grave;
When conscience leads you, it’s astray;
The drunken driver has the right of way.

It’s only the naivest who’ll
Deny this, that the reckless rule;
When facing an oncoming fool
The practiced and sagacious say
Watch out — one side — look sharp — gang way.

However much you plan and pray,
Alas, alack, tant pis, oy vey,
Now — heretofore — til Judgment Day,
The drunken driver has the right of way.

This is the world we live in.

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