amygdalaOkay, I have to admit that my buddy Peter over at Philosophy in a time of Error has irritated the hell out of me with his last two substantial posts responding to me (the post on Derrida and tonight’s post responding to my remarks on the principle of parity). I suppose this is a good thing as it motivates me to expand on my remarks, but damn it, I’m still irritated (no doubt because I’m still up at 2:30 marking papers!). Anyway, in response to my post on parity Peter writes (quoting in full; hopefully he won’t mind):

Anodyne Lite writes:

For example, strict social constructionists and anti-realist humanists accuse realists of valorizing science and cry “No Master Narratives!” when findings from science are invoked to support a viewpoint, while they themselves then go on to posit some other, alternative narrative that gets valorized and does all the heavy lifting in their epistemology (be it politics, the social, the “human”, language, etc.)

This is said by Larval Subjects to represent the fallacy of “special pleading” (I suppose with the cry, it’s somewhat literal). LS then cites Latour, and that’s all well and good. But I—-blame me!—-haven’t even heard the words “master” and “narrative” since I put together a panel six years ago on 25th anniversary of Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition—-a book that Lyotard in retrospect didn’t like because of the effect it had—-and before that, I can’t even remember. I raise this because working on certain figures, you get to see this sort of reaction too often, and I don’t want to see this go into the next decade.

read on!

Who, pray tell, is crying this? I smell hay from the straw man here, little more. And while I’m at it, I might as well say that this is not all it takes to knock over Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard and similarly lumped people. For example, it’s easy enough to find someone who wrote something rather silly and then somehow say it’s the influence of one of these three. Analytics have done this for some time. (Recent attacks on Arendt because of Heidegger have a similar wiff.) But just to take the first and most supposedly “social constructivist” of these three: First, in Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault spends some time going through the problems of “social construction” and suggests its something akin to a childish fantasy. I’m not going to reproduce his argument here, but if you’re going to suggest that social constructivism is bad, then fine. But if this is meant to hit others who never argued for such a thing, then that’s another. Foucault, for example, doesn’t argue against science, even when he’s talking about power/knowledge. What is he saying? Well, that science is not neutral, that its produced within a given field of power, and that what it seeks out is not somehow just in some rarified field outside societal power. That’s hardly controversial: it’s saying that if one looks at the history of psychology, one sees the importation of societal power structures, and then one sees those exported back to the society at large, with certain effects (the circuit of this, obviously, is more complicated in Foucault…). Does anyone deny this? Maybe the intricacies of Foucault’s account, but simply this? Does anyone deny, for example, that what interests scientists is part of what gets funding, what interests the society at large, and thus changes over a given time? Does anyone deny this, namely that’s there’s a relation between the two? Science funding obviously shapes what science finds and, for example, it’s obvious that the people in the Middles Ages did not invent the telescope because they were morons, but because the need and desire for such a thing never occurred.

And, frankly, I think given the history of which we are all aware, perhaps some pause should be taken before founding concepts on scientific research: political, sociological, and otherwise. As for onticology, the point is to find a way through the thicket of the social, the linguistic, etc., to speak to the “black box” of the real, taking account of the results of science, without thinking that pointing out what comes up frequently in phil of science discussions is somehow the result of painfully obtuse, whining “social constructivists.”

Besides, what is done in SR I take it is not performing a “grand narrative,” which would erase all the differences in terms of an ontotheology. That’s what I like about LS’s work.

I’ll set aside the unfair jab at Anodyne Lite as I take it she was evoking an example to illustrate a general principle or point, not making a diagnosis of the state of contemporary continental theory. In the remainder of his post I think Peter basically misses the point. If Foucault was giving the rather moderate (and obvious!) version of science Peter is talking about here, I’d have no objection. I suppose I’m left to wonder where in Foucault the other side speaks. For example, where in Foucault do we hear of genetics, biology, neurology, neurochemistry, etc., contributing something to these social organizations in a way that complicates power and discourse? Where is this made a central focus of his analyses? Can someone refer me to these passages? Can someone refer me to those passages where nonhuman objects are genuine actors and contributors and not simply props or vehicles for power and discourse? Having read a great deal of Foucault– and admiring him deeply –I can’t say I’ve come across these passages.

The case is similar with Lacan, my major point of reference. Having read the 28 years of his seminars as well as the Ecrits and assorted other articles, not to mention more of the secondary lit on his thought– clinical and theory-camp –than I care to remember, I can’t say where entities outside the symbolic such as bodies, genes, neurons, stars, etc., play a role in his thought? Can you imagine, for example, Foucault or Lacan talking about the importance of the amygdala as something more than an effect of power or discourse?

Now hopefully my readers won’t get me wrong. My point isn’t that brain neurons, the amygdala, and genes are real whereas power and discourse aren’t. My point is rather more subtle than that, I hope. My point is that in our privileged field of theories these things aren’t treated as genuine actors in their own right, but are reduced to mere vehicles for power and discourse.

The point of onticology and object-oriented philosophy more broadly is to develop a more sophisticated constructivism. Towards the beginning of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern he asks something like “is it our [the actor-network-theorists] fault that the networks we study are simultaneously real or natural, narrated, and have stakes with respect to power?” The “simultaneously” is the key word here. The question any theory should ask itself is “is my theory capable of thinking the “simultaneously” without reducing any one of these domains to the other?” That, I believe, is the measure. What we need, in my view, is a form of thought that is able to take that “simultaneously” seriously.

H1N1For example, can your theory simultaneously approach the H1N1 virus as a physical biological entity, a semiotic text to be deconstructed, a stake in all sorts of fields of biopower and whatever other form of power you might like, a node in a network of technology, and a player in economic and political relations? If not, I believe there is something wrong with your theory. Note, I said something wrong, not that the theory should be abandoned.

Laws_of_Form_-_crossWhitehead famously said that the failings of a philosophy do not generally lie in bad arguments or in making claims that are outrightly false, but in overstatement. One of the most important lessons I ever learned was from the mathematician Spencer-Brown, who attempted to show how arithmetic arises from a particular activity of drawing distinctions. The first proposition of Spencer-Brown’s Law of Forms is an imperative: “First draw a distinction!” Spencer-Brown’s thesis is that our ability to indicate something in the world is first dependent on the drawing of a distinction that bifurcates the world into what is excluded and what is included. Spencer-Brown’s “cross” or mark of distinction, depicted to the left above, distinguishes a this (what falls under the mark) from everything else.

Now the key here is that the distinction that functions as the “condition of possibility” for indication is self-referential. It precedes the indication of something in the world, it is what allows something to be indicated in the world, but it disappears in the act of indicating something in the world. We can say that the distinction qua distinction is the blind spot at work in any claim about the world or indication of something in the world. So here’s the point. When I make power the object of my investigation, I am implicitly first drawing a distinct that allows me to indicate the effects of power. When I make the semiotic the object of my investigation, I am first drawing a distinction that allows me to indicate the semiotic. When I make the social an object of my investigation… Well you get the idea. The problem is not with indicating power, the semiotic, or the social. No. The problem is with forgetting that this is based on a distinction and that the world is always more complex than the distinctions we draw.

Object-oriented ontology, I believe, tries to think this multiplicity or network of actors without reducing one to the other. It takes seriously the biological status of the H1N1 virus, that it is a physical entity, that it can make people sick, that it can kill people. It also takes seriously signifiers, power, economics, and so on. It wants to trace these networks in what Ian Bogost has so nicely referred to as an “alien phenomenology” or a phenomenology that is not restricted to the centrality of the human and obsessed with the human-world gap. In reading Peter’s recent posts I get the sense that he believes I’m somehow dismissing thinkers like Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and etc. But that’s not the point or the aim at all. In my view, there’s something worth preserving in all these thinkers. They just need to be rescued from overstatement and reminded of the distinctions they make to open their field of inquiry. I invite Peter to think of my position on the model of weaving. Yes, literally, weaving. When I criticize something in Lacan this is akin to say “this thread alone is not sufficient, how is it woven with these other threads.” The point isn’t to reject the thread but to think its relationship with these other threads.

Tomorrow our college will be hosting noted neuropsychologist Jonah Lehrer for a series of round-tables in which I will be participating. Lehrer has a number of interesting things to say, especially about the neurological and biological dimensions of our moral reasoning. Tomorrow, when I speak to Lehrer, I will be critiquing him on the grounds of parity as well, not because he’s mistaken about the amygdala and the role it plays in our moral decision making, but because he fails to recognize the dimension that the signifier, power, social relations, etc., play in giving form to the responses of that amygdala. When Peter reads me he should take seriously this notion of parity or the “=” sign and its reversibility. He seems to think I’m rejecting things when instead I’m trying to think the intersection of three circles like a Venn diagram such that we’re forced to modify the claims of each circle while retaining elements of each in a beautiful plaited braid that finally puts its money where its mouth is in thinking difference or how differences are contributed.