October 2009

AAAADEskSs8AAAAAAE6XqwOver at the blog err…whateverz. snugglebus I has posted a couple of nice posts on Speculative Realism. Before getting to the actual content of the posts, I’d first like to note that I love it that here in the blogosphere making interesting and thoughtful remarks with names like “snugglebus”. Moving on to the content, snugglebug defends speculative realism against some criticisms by Giuseppe in his second post. As snugglebus writes:

Responding in the comments however, Giuseppe thinks I kind missed the point entirely. As he put it:

what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)?… I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientists when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels.

Ok – I’ll take the bait! I’m not an SR scholar, just an interested, but uninvested, spectator, so I might not be the most effective spokesperson, but this will help me start to work out my own thoughts on a group of thinkers who I have been following for a while now.

I think there is a lot more to the success of SR than a reactionary response to the fact that ‘physical’ science is saying ever more concrete things about areas that were once the preserve of social scientists. Just anecdotally SR people (see for example Larval subjects here) seem to be intensely interested in hard science and thinking its consequences (though SR is concerned above all with metaphysics, not philosophy of science). In fact I think it would be more productive to turn Giuseppe’s view on its head: isn’t it actually crude idealism that expresses the insecurity (in a very different, less modest form than Giuseppe meant) of social science? Doesn’t idealism sometimes seem to shut scientific ‘reality’ away, seeing science somewhere between a naïve enterprise at one end of the spectrum (whereas we know that ‘truth’ is a function of consciousness, power, signs etc.), or just a separate field that is at best interesting, but not our concern as social scientists…?

Obviously I cannot speak for all the speculative realists and, in fact, it is impossible to do so as our positions tend to be radically different. For example, beyond a rejection of the centrality of the human, my own thought shares almost nothing in common with that of Brassier’s. Brassier advocates a sort of eliminative materialism that leans heavily on the hard sciences, whereas I advocate a realism. While there is a robust place for the sciences in my ontology, I do not see the sciences as delivering us to “true reality” whereas all the other disciplines investigate things that are epiphenomenal or mere illusions. In this I follow Bruno Latour in his rejection of the nature/culture distinction, the division of the world into two distinct ontological domains– the domain of nature and the domain of the subject –and instead replace this division with collectives of human and non-human actors. This is quite a difference.

read on!


In astronomy the presence of a planet outside our solar system or a black hole is determined not by direct observation, but rather by discrepancies in the movements of other bodies in the neighborhood or vicinity of the planet or black hold. Thus, for example, we do not infer the existence of a black hold by directly observing it– how could we given that its gravitational pull is so great no light can escape from it –but through the acceleration of stars in the course of their orbit. This acceleration indicates the presence of a powerful gravitational force, thereby allowing us to both infer the existence of a black hole at the center of our galaxy and how massive it is. Similarly, in the case of inferring the existence of exo-planets or planets outside of our solar system, we track the wobbles in the orbits of other stars, allowing us to infer the presence of a planet– usually gas giants like Saturn though recently we’ve discovered earthy or rocky planets –and the size of the planet. In short, we here arrive at the presence of an absence through inference from a presence.

In discussions surrounding object-oriented ontology, I sometimes get the sense that the term “realism” is equated with materialism. Thus, over at the excellent but difficult to navigate blog Nothing to Be Done, I today read the following:

I’m still not convinced that the phrase ‘object-oriented realist’ works. It’s the conflation of realism and objects which causes difficulties, Because I do not believe that realism can be extended into these areas. But still I’m looking forward to watching the argument develop.

When faced with a comment such as this, a comment that simply expresses a worry without providing any sort of “why” or reasoning behind that worry, I’m led to wonder why, precisely one has difficulty seeing how an object ontology can be consistent with a realism. Reflecting on this criticism, along with some criticisms that are sometimes leveled at speculative realism in general, the only conclusion I can come to is that realism is being equated with materialism. And here the materialism being equated with realism is not just any realism, but, I suspect (others can correct me if I’m mistaken), are rather contentious, tendentious, and suspect reading of quantum mechanics. The only conclusion I can come to is that if one somehow sees objects and realism as contradictory, then this is because they have drawn certain conclusions from quantum mechanics based on things such as Bell’s Theorem or quantum entanglement that are interpreted as suggesting that there are no objects.

read on!

I’m feeling pretty demoralized this evening, so the only thing to do is try and distract myself so I don’t have to think about things.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about transcendental arguments and their status. I have written this post a few times already in the past, but like a person working through a trauma who must repeat it endlessly in the form of nightmares or neurotic symptoms, I believe I must go over this ground once again. And if I must repeat, then this is because I am myself a reformed transcendental idealist who must therefore marshal arguments convincing to myself. In many respects, the transcendental argument is Kant’s central contribution to thought, his ultimate secret ninja judo move. Outside of philosophy I get the sense that there’s a lot of confusion as to what a transcendental argument is. I often hear it confused with an appeal to the transcendent. However, in many respects, the transcendent and the transcendental are opposites. When we appeal to, for example, Platonic forms to account for justice or to God to account for moral laws we are making an appeal to the transcendent or that which is beyond and independent of both the world and the subject or mind. Take the standard Platonic argument for the existence of the forms (and here I’m presenting a vulgar, cereal box version of Plato).

The argument runs something like this: When faced with all the the things to which justice pertains, we note that they are very different and share no resemblance to one another. For example, in what way do serving one’s function within the polis and getting a coke out of a coke machine when you put a dollar in the machine resemble one another. Both of these events are instances of justice, yet when we examine the properties or qualities of these events, we find no quality shared by the two. Similarly, when we enter into debates and discussions about justice, we seem to all approach justice in different ways. However, apart from the crassest Protagorean relativist, we all nonetheless agree that while we might not know what it is, there is a truth of the matter or fact of the matter concerning justice. In short, justice is not simply a subjective sentiment or opinion, but something real that exists in its own right. But what is this real thing that exists in its own right? Plato’s proposal is that the just is a form, a universal, that exists in its own right, independent of all instances of the just and all opinions about the just. The form of the just is ideal, but its ideality is not a subjective ideality. Indeed, as Derrida likes to point out, the ideal is the most objective of all. It is neither an object in the world (a material object), nor an idea in the mind (a subjective entity), but an ideal entity that is entirely real, eternal, universal, and so on. For Plato, even if all humans ceased to exist, even if there were no individual objects in the world, the form of the just would continue to exist for all eternity. The forms are thus transcendent to subjects and objects. They are the most real things of all.

read on because having arguments for abstruse and abstract issues is concretely important!

The new issue of theory and event is now available. Looks terrific.

Theory and Event 12.3
Introduction 12.3
Jodi Dean and Michael J. Shapiro

The articles in 12.3 suggest a political-theoretical topography marked by the prominence of Freud and Deleuze and traces of Benjamin and Derrida. Screened of proper names, the features contouring the political are swamps and fissures, shifting edges, unstable sprawls and impossible spaces without centers. There are subterranean forces threatening to rupture or exceed the unstable structures unsuccessfully attempting their containment. How one or how we—itself the name of a problem and an aspiration—might make it through or even reside in such a terrain thus becomes the question (dis)orienting this issue of Theory & Event.

In “Freud and the Political,” Mladen Dolar opens with an anecdote about Freud in a cave, a hidden encounter with political resonance. Rather than coinciding with the social surface, the political takes the form of a more fundamental fissure. Psychoanalysis describes and dissects this crack of the political, a point Dolar explores in relation to the psychoanalytic institution, drive, and the opposition between the artificial and the primary masses. Too often, Dolar explains, psychoanalysis’s relation to the political is misread as the Oedipal familial drama (as in the critique presented in Anti-Oedipus). He offers an alternative reading that addresses the subversion of roles and positions, the untying and undoing of relationships, central to psychoanalysis’s circumscription of the political.

James Martel (“The Messiah who Comes and Goes: Franz Kafka on Redemption, Conspiracy and Community”) argues that we only clumsily make our way through the political. Most of the time we misrecognize what’s going on, who’s here and who’s there. Most of the time we fail to do what we intend. But, by reading Kafka with Benjamin, Martel demonstrates that not realizing our intentions is not so bad after all. Failure and misrecognition disrupt the narratives of authority to which we subscribe. Martel writes, “Such disruptions produce less a sense of our own ‘agency’ than a sense of participation in an ongoing conspiracy, one that formally excludes us even as it serves as the means for our (potential and only partial) redemption.

Laura Penny’s “Parables and Politics: How Benjamin and Deleuze & Guattari Read Kafka” is also concerned with Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, which she compares with that of Deleuze and Guattari. For Penny, at stake in this comparison is judgment and its refusal. Thus, she endorses the Deleuzian rejection of judgment insofar as judgment can neither sense nor summon new possibilities for life.

If the Kafkan messiah who only comes the day after his arrival features largely in the articles by Martel and Penny, then the specter of a future to come animates Antonis Balasopoulos, “Ghosts of the Future: Marxism, Deconstruction, and the Afterlife of Utopia.” Balasopoulos introduces the term “apparitional unconscious” as a way to open up utopian discourse to theoretical appraisal. He focuses on Jameson and Derrida, staging a disagreement and disjunction at the site of the (non) site/future of utopia. Moreover, he emphasizes an affirmation that is also necessarily a critical selection, that is, a decision.

The final two articles return to the psychoanalytic themes with which 12.3 begins. Joanne Faulkner considers the place of disavowal in Hobbes, particularly with regard to its exclusion of those positioned as other. Exploring the fantastic position of the other as repository for the citizens’ jouissance, Faulkner gestures toward a Lacanian response to a politics of fear and security—traversing the fantasy. In contrast, Michael Williams (“A Traversal Beyond the Pleasure Principle: From Pervert to Schizophrenic”) suggests an even further traversal, from Lacanian perversion to Deleuzian schizophrenia.

Issue 12.3 also includes an interview and several book reviews. Keith P. Feldman, Anoop Mirpuri, and Georgia Roberts interview geographer Derek Gregory. This interview, “Affect, Ethics, and the Imaginative Geographies of Permanent War,” grows out of the work of the research collective, “Public Rhetorics and Permanent War,” work strongly influenced by Black British Cultural Studies.

Alexander D. Barber’s “Lessons from the Grand Inquisitor: Carl Schmitt and the Providential Enemy” is a review essay discussing Kam Shapiro, Carl Schmitt and the Intensification of Politics and Carl Schmitt, Constitutional Theory. Upenda Baxi reviews Francois Debrix, Tabloid Terror: War, Culture, and Geopolitics. Finally, Kara Keeling’s The Witches Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense is reviewed by Nicole Ridgway.

Introduction 12.3
Jodi Dean
Michael J. Shapiro

Freud and the Political
Mladen Dolar

The Messiah who Comes and Goes: Franz Kafka on Redemption, Conspiracy and Community
James Martel

Parables and Politics: How Benjamin and Deleuze & Guattari Read Kafka
Laura Penny

Ghosts of the Future: Marxism, Deconstruction, and the Afterlife of Utopia
Antonis Balasopoulos

The Eternal Jouissance of the Community: Phantasm, Imagination, and ‘Natural Man’ in Hobbes
Joanne Faulkner

A Traversal Beyond the Pleasure Principle: From Pervert to Schizophrenic
Michael Williams

Affect, Ethics, and the Imaginative Geographies of Permanent War: An Interview with Derek Gregory
Keith P. Feldman
Anoop Mirpuri
Georgia M. Roberts

Lessons from the Grand Inquisitor: Carl Schmitt and the Providential Enemy
Alexander D. Barder

Reading ‘Terror’: Reflections on François Debrix, Tabloid Terror: War, Culture, and Geopolitics
Upendra Baxi

Rethinking the Politics of Visibility through the Black Femme Function
Nicole Ridgway

Jodi Dean has a couple of absolutely chilling posts up on plutonomy (here and here). I don’t know what is more harrowing and depressing here: The fact that the document Jodi links to reads like a mad scientist version of Marxist thought that uses analysis of the structuration of our contemporary situation not as a means for emancipation and developing alternatives but to even more effectively exploit us, or the poster that responds to the Citigroup document by pointing out that it contains bad grammar, that the author is stupid, and that they’re just “wicked”. I don’t find the author of the document particularly stupid– in fact the bits Jodi cites strike me as uncanny and frightening and inverted doubles of something one might find in a “radical political theory” journal or book –rather, what is so upsetting about the document is how clear sighted the author is about the economic structuration of our moment and all the injustices it contains.

Rather than seeing this as impetus for emancipation, the author instead sees it as opportunity for even more effective exploitation. What does strike me as stupid is the idea that somehow suggesting the author of this document is stupid and wicked constitutes an adequate response to such reasoning. The author of this piece is obviously what Zizek characterized as a “knave” or someone who cynically serves the ends of dominant power. The person that denounces such reasoning on abstract normative grounds is clearly the leftist fool that believes he’s won some sort of important victory when secretly not holding the testicles of the lord that claims the right to prima nachte as he rapes the serf’s wife on the dusty road and commands her husband to hold his balls as he does so. The leftist fool thinks he’s here gotten away with some radical victory after not preventing the lord’s testicles from getting dusty as commanded. Unfortunately, his wife has still been raped.

read on for more rant!

Lately I’ve been thinking about the most common informal philosophies in philosophy. These tend to appear when someone is arguing against another position. My vote is for false dilemma and the strawman. Of these two, I think false dilemma tends to be the more insidious as it looks like one is presenting a legitimate argument when they are not. The mechanism is very simple. You characterize the other position in terms of two alternatives, the first of which is fairly undersirable and the second of which is completely unacceptable. In non-philosophical contexts you might encounter an argument like “look, we can either deal with prison overcrowding and an increase in taxes to build more prisons or we can let murderers, pedophiles, and rapists walk free on the streets.” It is likely that few want prison overcrowding or higher taxes, but when contrasted with the alternative it appears to be the only choice open. If this is a false dilemma, then this is because there are other options like house arrest, freeing non-violent offenders, decriminalizing certain drugs, and so on.

In philosophy we see false dilemmas like this all the time. “You either accept that there are eternal, ahistorical norms embodied in a transcendental subject, the mind of God, or a Platonic realm or you endorse the thesis that ‘anything goes'”. Are these really the only two alternatives? Another would be the one Deleuze addresses in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense where we are told that “either there is a supremely individuated world where identity precedes difference (through forms, transcendental categories, essences, etc) or the world falls into an incoherent chaos.” Both Kant and Proclus are guilty of this in their own ways. In the case of Proclus if identity does not precede difference than the world becomes completely irrational chaos. In the case of Kant, without the pre-existent of the categories the field of sensibility is an incoherent chaos. Darwin, it seems, blew this line of thought out of the water by showing how 1) organisms differ from themselves over the course of their development (they’re never the same from moment to moment), and 2) that no two organisms of the same species are exactly the same but that they randomly vary, but that nonetheless 3) we are able to give an account of how pattern, organization, or form is emergent through selective processes.

The strawman is fairly common as well. For example, how many times have we now heard that speculative realists, in placing humans on equal footing with other entities or in claiming that we need an ontology capable of thinking the world in the absence of the human, are guilty of excluding the human, denigrating the human, or not attending to the human? The only speculative realist position that comes remotely close to this position would be Brassier’s radical nihilistic and thought of extinction, but even there his tremendous interest in political and ethical issues speaks otherwise. The rhetorical strategy here seems to be implicit. The idea is to implicitly link SR to a hatred of the human so that it can be cast in the patina of a nihilistic, totalitarian political and ethical philosophy advocating things like genocide or various forms of abuse and murder for technocratic and pragmatic aims. Of course, none of the speculative realists advocate anything remotely like this and many of them even advocate the ontological de-centralization of the human precisely because they believe that treating the human as central leads to rather poor political theorization.

In philosophical debate, whether in text or in action, one almost never sees, I think, an honest or accurate portrayal of the opposition’s positions. We need only think of Husserl’s strawman with respect to the notorious “natural attitude”. Has anyone within the natural attitude ever advocated the crass positions Husserl targets? In Utah Eleanor and I had an amusing moment when she suggested that I’m being rather unfair to the phenomenologists (and a quick glance at my bookcase would indicate, to the contrary, that I’m deeply fond of the phenomenologists), to which I responded “because, of course, the phenomenologists have been so fair to naturalists, realists, etc., etc., etc..” Likewise, we might think of standard Anglo-American characterizations of phenomenology, postmodernism, continental philosophy, and so on. Similarly we might think of Kant’s characterization of Hume in the first Critique. Or think about the endless bullshit media and technology theorists have to face when they are told that examining the role that technologies play in the social they are falling into “technological determinism”. Another favorite (though I’m not sure if this is so much a strawman as an all purpose tool for not having to think about certain things) is the critique of philosophical positions that asks “but did this way of thinking arise at this particular point in history?” In other words, the thesis seems to be that if a particular ontology arose at a particular point in history this renders it false or artificial. Sighs. This is similar to the standard critique of SR where it’s said that the human is being excluded as opposed to not being treated as central. Almost every critique of another philosophical position seems to resemble the position it is critiquing about as much as a shadow resembles the person that casts it. Moreover, the characterization of the position being critiqued is about as substantial as a shadow as well.

read on!

Reflecting on the normativity debates that have been waging recently, I’ve increasingly found myself thinking of Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing”:

As I try to put my finger on just why transcendentalist positions cause me so much uneasiness (as well as certain ways of modeling truth and inquiry), the association that comes to mind is that of wanting one’s “money for nothing”. To get money, of course, one must work in some way. That is, acquiring money has a thermodynamic dimension that requires work, labor, and friction with a world independent of us. Indeed, this is true even of counterfeit money that requires all sorts of labor to be produced. “Money for nothing” would be the fantasy of a production of value in a frictionless universe that requires no expenditure of energy, nor any engagement with resistance to produce itself.

Perhaps the clearest symptoms that transcendent and transcendentalist accounts of normativity want their money for nothing are to be found in the vigorous defense of the is/ought distinction, the imprisonment of normativity in a transcendental subject completely independent of the body, the world and society, or the imprisonment of norms either in the mind of God or in a Platonic realm of the forms. In all these cases, transcendentalist (Kantian and post-Kantian) and transcendent (Platonic and theistic) construct a theory of normativity that carefully divorces norms from thermodynamic questions of work and labor. By taking the norms out of the world and treating them as non-existent yet nonetheless binding, transcendental approaches carefully separate normativity from the frictions of the world.

read on!

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