In response to one of my posts over at Deontologistics, Traxus writes:

latour and social constructivism is a tricky issue. he’s not technically a social constructivist, but his metaphysics is anti-normative. if everything is a product of forces (without additional predicate), then no ‘kind’ of force can be superior to any other. any justification for why a given constellation of forces is right in a given case would have not have recourse to metaphysical arguments. in terms of his metaphysics only force decides (naturalism might be superior to theism because it has stronger relations to different types of forces, but this can’t be determined in advance).

i see the OOO-osphere as reacting to the nietzscheanism inherent in this view by asserting objects over relations as the fundamentally real units.

oh, and badiou’s antiphilosophers aren’t necessarily sophists. for badiou they’re essentially religious — they assert a founding ahistorical, moral intuition — for latour it would be the importance of ‘democracy.’ like foucault, latour engages in genealogical (of a kind) critiques of knowledge in the form of case studies, with one rather ironic foray into systematic philosophy with ‘irreductions.’

At the outset, I suppose I should confess that I have an almost visceral suspicion of philosophical and political discourses that make normativity their central focus. On the one hand, I associate this sort of focus with neoliberal and conservative discourses that obfuscate social issues by portraying them as issues of “values” and rights. There seems to be a way in which the moment we begin talking about values and normativity, discussion and politics gets detached from the structure of concrete situations, rendering all of that invisible. This has even been enshrined in the whole distinction between the “is” and the “ought”. Insofar as the “is” is completely separated from the “ought”, normative discourses see themselves as entitled to ignore the “is” altogether. As a Marxist and a historical materialist, I simply think this is the wrong way to go. Moreover, contrary to those who seem to believe that neoliberalism is a discourse where self-interest is the only deciding factor and that Marxism is an axiological discourse independent of self-interest, I can’t help but see that Marx’s arguments are based on interests. What Marx shows is that our self-interest lies with the collectivity. This is why, for example, we join unions, pay taxes, form institutions to protect ourselves, and so on.

read on!

On the other hand, following Nietzsche, it has been my experience that those who scream the loudest about normativity are often the most wretched and despicable human beings. To clarify, I am not suggesting this of Pete or Traxus, both of whom seem to be above board and terrific persons. However, again and again it seems to me that those who are obsessed with rule based normativity are those who are cruelest to others, most hypocritical, and most abusive to those about them. We see this again and again in public politics where we discover that some culture warrior has been doing the very thing he publicly denounces in his public life, but also with the manner in which certain normative positions are manipulated as ways of oppressing others and vilifying them. It’s difficult not to discern that talk of family values is really about hating women and homosexuals, rather than any genuine care about family. It’s not difficult to see that talk about charity as opposed to government programs is really about the desire to selfishly keep one’s money despite having benefited so much from society, rather than anything to do with cultivating public involvement and charity. Whenever I hear talk of norms I just can’t help but hear the rumblings of some dark and sadistic desire behind the public space of moral motives. Nine times out of ten a focus on normativity seems to be an alibi for people behaving badly towards others. And yes, I realize how paradoxical these observations are given that I am here making all sorts of normative claims in this analysis. The point is that somehow the focus on normativity seems to create rather terrifying monsters in people. I am not sure why this is. Moreover, this seems somehow restricted to rule based normative systems that are focused on “right” and “wrong” and judgment. You do not seem to find it in Eudaimonistic ethical systems, Stoic ethical systems, or Epicurean ethical systems, where the question is one of how to live a life of human flourishing, not a question of how to distribute guilt, blame, and debt. Judgment seems to be a poison in the soul. It is difficult, for example, not to feel as if one is suffocating or drowning when reading the work of Adorno, pervaded as it is by this dark spirit of judgment and all it produces psychologically.

Setting all of this aside, I wonder what it is that Traxus is asking for in a contemporary philosophy. While Badiou certainly rejects those anti-philosophers that ground their views in a religious or mystical intuition, I think the real criteria for Badiou as to whether or not one counts as an anti-philosopher lies in whether or not they hold that Truths are possible. Latour doesn’t fit with this model. Whenever Badiou references religious anti-philosophers he speaks of thinkers like Wittgenstein or certain trends that have taken place in contemporary phenomenology with the so-called religious turn. Not all of his anti-philosophers fit this model.

More to the point, I am not sure what alternative Traxus is proposing. It seems to me that Traxus’s argument puts the cart before the horse. In short, he’s arguing that because he would like to live in a world where there are transcendent norms, he is warranted in rejecting any philosophy that does not grant the existence of these sorts of norms. That is called wishful thinking, and is a habit we seem to find in many politically driven philosophical discussions, where a set of normative commitments is being used to decide what is and what is not. If we begin from the premise of immanence or the death of God– a premise, I believe, more or less shared by everyone in this debate, even those in theology –we can no longer appeal to transcendent norms to ground our discourse as this would require either something like Platonic Forms, Divine Laws, or Kantian style a priori categorical imperatives. The first two choices are out the window in an immanent universe. The mostly likely candidate is the third, but that doesn’t work within an evolutionary universe because Kant explicitly evokes design arguments in his ethical writings to ground the categorical imperative.

What is required is an immanent genesis of norms without reference to transcendence. This genesis must be historical in character, rejecting the notion that norms are ahistorical and eternal, and provide an account of how these norms come into existence. Marx’s dialectical materialism was one such account. Marx doesn’t begin from the premise of ahistorical and eternal norms, but rather shows how norms are generated within historical settings or how they become available. When I hear obsessive focus on normativity among those who purport to be Marxists, I cannot help but think that they are turning Marx on his head, arguing once again that it is spirit or the ideal that defines the real, not the reverse.

Badiou’s theory of the event is another model of how norms come into existence. However, note how close Latour and Badiou are on this issue. Like Latour, Badiou holds that norms cannot be grounded a priori and that they are not foundational. Rather, for Badiou norms are the result of a decision that itself has no ground. We can’t even prove that events have taken place. Rather the event only sustains itself through our fidelity to the event. Second, like Latour, Badiou emphasizes that the truth of an event is established through a truth-procedure or the activity of a subject re-configuring the elements of a situation in terms of the event. Here we have something perfectly analogous to Latour’s trials of strength.

I suppose I’m being a bit of a realist here. What is it that transcendent norms add to our concrete politics? It seems to me very little beyond narcissistic gratification of “being right”, while the world nonetheless remains the same. How do norms change the world as was demanded by Marx?