I was delighted to wake up this morning– um, well, really this afternoon… I was up very late grading and have much more yet to do –to find a comment by Lee Braver in response to my post Problems of Immanence. Lee writes:

This is a really interesting topic, and one at the heart of my book. Its 2 epigraphs directly raise the issue:

“The all-decisive question… [is] What happens when the distinction between a true world and an apparent world falls away? What becomes of the metaphysical essence of truth?”


And, somewhat as a response,

“Truth is a thing of this world”

Once Kant closes off the possibility of correspondence with a reality that transcends our grasp of it, the notion of truth must undergo profound revision, which I take to be one of the core projects of continental thought. Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and early Heidegger all wrestled with new understandings of truth but were still entangled in the traditional sense. It was Heidegger’s later work, building on “aletheia,” that decisively broke with traditional understanding on my reading, freeing the post-modernists to experiment more radically.

Nietzsche correctly diagnosed the danger of swinging from absolute metaphysical foundations to complete nihilism (to which many relegate po-mo), which leaves the problem of how to carve out a path between these extremes. What does truth mean where there is no transcendent umpire to issue infallible rulings, or even a realm of objects existing in absolute separation from us to supply even a conceptual foothold for comparing our beliefs with their objects? In classes, I call this a “just-us-chickens” epistemology: how do we determine what’s right when it’s just us humans, endlessly squabbling? On one reading, this is what Hegel’s absolute (ab solus) knowledge teaches us.

Okay, back to grading as I’m way behind right now!

Jon, I have a lot of sympathy with what you’re sketching out–it sounds a bit like Rorty’s picture of animals making complicated noises at each other. The problem in reducing discussions to the level of causality is that normativity falls out of the picture. Builder A can respond positively or negatively to B’s bringing him a block upon A’s speaking “block,” but Wittgenstein wants to maintain the idea that B’s action’s being right or wrong is not determined entirely by A’s satisfaction or lack thereof. This correctness cannot lie coiled within the command or A’s mind, of course, but Wittgenstein frequently claims that it must still be there, somewhere (in wider society’s reactions, according to some). Now, we may want to simply jettison this evaluation; all there is is people’s interactions and reactions and the demand for over-arching normativity is just a metaphysical hang-over. My sense is that the vast majority of analytic philosophers emphatically demand retaining it, while continentals get a lot less excited over its loss. But it is something to consider.

I haven’t read Lee’s book yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it over the summer. In response to Lee’s remarks, what I’m looking for is something that retains the best of correlationism or anti-realist positions– preserving their kernel of insight –while nonetheless situating it within a realist framework. In other words, in adopting a realist position I think it would be a mistake to re-inscribe the division between culture and nature, where the “real” is on the side of nature and the side of culture and spirit is somehow something other than the real. Here I find Latour’s critique of this distinction in texts like We Have Never Been Modern and The Politics of Nature to be deeply compelling and right on the mark. Moreover, if the split between nature and culture is inscribed in this way we will eventually, as Alexei points out, find ourself back at all the questions that first motivated the Kantian position. I think this is one of the major differences that distinguishes the Object-Oriented Ontologies of Graham and I, from the realist ontologies of folks like Brassier and perhaps Meillassoux. What is needed is not a sharp reinscription between mind and world, culture and nature, but a flat ontology where all of these things are elements of the real. I have outlined what such an ontology would look like in very schematic forms in my post Principles of Onticology (and here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In developing this ontology it should be noted that I proceed experimentally in much the same way that Freud proposed the Death Drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. That is, in proposing the Ontic Principle (the principle which states “there is no difference that does not make a difference), I do so in the spirit of a hypothesis, saying “suppose we were to begin with difference as the ground of being rather than sameness or identity as Parmenides did, what would follow and how would we have to rethink our understanding of Being and beings?”

read on!

In avoiding the perils of a two world ontology divided between mind and world, I think a self-reflexive gesture is required where mind and the social are no longer seen as something other than the real, but rather as elements of the real itself that are immediately situated in the real. In other words, what’s needed is a sort of flat ontology where all beings are on equal footing rather than treating the real as a transcendent beyond that is to be reached by getting through the “filters” of the social, the linguistic, and the mental. Deleuze and Guattari nod in this direction at the beginning of Anti-Oedipus when they write,

…we make no distinction between man and nature: the human essence of nature and the natural essence of man become one within nature in the form of production or industry, just as they do within the life of man as a species. Industry is then no longer considered from the extrinsic point of view of utility, but rather from the point of view of its fundamental identity with nature as production of man and by man. not man as the king of creation, but rather as the being who is in intimate contact with the profound life of all forms or all types of beings, who is responsible for even the stars and animal life, and who ceaselessly plugs an organ-machine into an energy-machine, a tree into his body, a breast into his mouth, a sun into his asshole; the eternal custodian of the machines of the universe. This is the second meaning of process as we use the term: man and nature are not like two opposite terms confronting each other– not even in the sense of bipolar opposites within a relationship of causation, ideation, or expression (cause and effect, subject and object, etc.); rather, they are one and the same essential reality, the producer-product. Production as process overtakes all idealistic categories and constitutes a cycle whose relationship to desire is that of an immanent principle. (4 -5)

While grumbling a bit at Deleuze and Guattari’s description of man as a “custodian” of everything else in the universe, I nonetheless think they get the relationship between man and nature right in this brief passage. The social and the natural are not two self-enclosed spheres operating under a condition of “operational closure”, such that the question is that of how we can relate to nature is a question of how we can escape the self-enclosed sphere of mind, culture, or language, but rather these are all elements of an assemblage that are on equal footing with one another and in immediate relation to one another. My desk is not a piece of matter that is a mere vehicle for cultural significations and “intentions”, but rather enters into an assemblage with cultural significations and intentions that are both objects themselves and related to other objects. As Alexei might say following Adorno, there are always non-conceptual differences that haunt any object.

I confess I do not understand the issue of normativity that Lee raises above. In treating everything in terms of a flat ontology, it does not seem to me that everything becomes a matter of cause and effect interactions such that normativity disappears. What this misses in my view is the fact that we have emergent systems at both the individual and the social level that have memory as one of their dimensions. Culture is, in part, a memonic system that maintains a relationship to its own past in the ongoing reproduction of itself as an object across time. As we can amply see here in the blogosphere, there are no real transcendent norms governing our interaction that we can appeal to to resolve disputes and determine the true and the false, the right and the wrong, etc. We have, as Lee puts it, the “just-us chickens endlessly squabbling”. However, that squabbling is not nothing. Rather, just as we refer to legal precedent in court, drawing on results generated in a past, that squabbling is generative of norms– if only fuzzy ones –that feed back into the network of ongoing relations, contributing to the manner in which the future of the system or network re-produces itself. In other words, in the course of these squabbles new objects are invented or produced that enter into the assemblage of actors in that network.