Vitale has written a post responding to my last post. I think more or less agree with Vitale that we’re finally reaching the nub of our disagreement. My mind is mush after a long day, so hopefully I’ll make some sense in my responses. Vitale begins by writing:

Truth: I don’t believe in it, and it seems he does. A philosopher who doesn’t believe in Truth?! Well of course! Ok, I believe in one truth, namely, that there is no truth. For Meillassoux, this is radical finitude, and this is precisely what Badiou desribes as his faith in ‘the void’, which is included in every multiple, that which safeguards the infinite potential of thought, symbolized as ∅, his riff on the Lacanian Real.

Here I deeply disagree with Vitale’s reading of Meillassoux and Badiou. I think this is an especially deep misreading of Meillassoux. First, Meillassoux is not defending the concept of finitude, but critiquing and rejecting it. The title of the book is, after all, After Finitude. Second, when Meillassoux makes that claim that being is radically contingent, he is making a claim about being itself. It is not that being is radically contingent to us, it is that being, regardless of whether we exist or not, is contingent or characterized by hyperchaos. Moreover, all of Meillassoux’s thought unfolds in response to a critique of correlationism. One variant of correlationism is the perspectivism that Vitale defends. Meillassoux, by contrast, wishes to think the in itself, i.e., the absolute or that which isn’t merely a matter of perspective. All of this requires a commitment to truth in one form or another. In a number of respects, this is what all the debates between the realists and the anti-realists have been about.

read on!

Vitale goes on to write:

What’s odd to me is that I thought Levi would agree with me on this, for after all, if we go to the formulas of sexuation, it is the side of the Woman in which the ‘not all’ resides, and it is this not-all which prevents the closure of the phallic function.

I think Vitale needs to go back and read my post on sexuation as I explicitly rendered the graphs of sexuation in ontological terms. Before proceeding to articulate this point, I do, however, wish to express my gratitude that Vitale did read this post. It’s nice that someone, anyone!, read this post! Returning to the graphs of sexuation, it’s important to note that I proposed that they be read not in terms of the phallic function (i.e., the subordination of the subject to language or the signifier), but in terms of withdrawal. As such, I argued that the two sides of Lacan’s graphs represent two fundamentally different ontological discourses. Here the “masculine” side subordinates being to a fully self-present being, whether in the form of the transcendental subject, a transcendental signifier, norms, etc. In short, the “masculine” side or philosophies of presence eradicate withdrawal. By contrast, the “feminine” side, makes withdrawal its primary reference point. The thesis here is that all beings withdrawal, but that not all of any being withdrawals. Setting all this aside, the point here is that these are claims about being, not about perspectives.

Of course, implicit in my analysis is that the philosophies of presence are false discourses about being. Here the graphs alone can’t do the work of argument. All they do is schematically represent the basic structure of the difference between philosophies of presence and object-oriented ontology. The argumentative work– i.e., the demonstration of the truth of object-oriented ontology and the internal incoherence of any ontology of presence –has to be demonstrated in another way.

My sense is that past Goedel, Heisenberg, and Russell, we are left with either completeness or consistency, take your pick. This fundamental insight has occurred differently in different formations in different discourses, Derrida has a name for it, so does Lacan, etc. Either you ban paradox, or you work to integrate it within your system, what Luhman describes as ‘second order observation.’

Vitale draws very different lessons from Goedel than I do. Goedel’s incompleteness theories are not theorems about truth, but about the completeness of formal systems. What they demonstrate is that it is impossible to demonstrate the completeness of any formal system because you end up with logically derivable propositions whose truth value cannot be determined. Nothing about this, however, establishes that the propositions of mathematics are merely a matter of “perspective”. All it demonstrates is that the completeness of mathematics cannot be formally established. As an additional caveat, one fun fact about Goedel is that he was a Platonic realist, i.e., he believed that mathematics was genuinely real and transcendent, rather than a matter of mathematics. This conviction was part of what motivated Goedel in the development of his incompleteness theorems. The incompleteness theorems were, in part, a response to Hilbert’s formalist program that more or less reduced mathematics to a sort of game arising from rules. As I understand it– and many one of the mathematicians lurking around these parts can expand on this more –Goedel understood the demonstration of the incompleteness of mathematical formalization as establishing the reality and transcendence of mathematical entities, i.e., that maths aren’t just a language.

Setting all this aside, nothing about the realist position commits one to rejecting undecideable truths, nor to does it lead to the claim that any philosophy or position or body of knowledge knows all truths. All the realist position commits one to is the thesis that there are truths that aren’t dependent merely on the observer. I’ll set aside the issue of Heisenberg here, with the caveat that I believe this is a problematic interpretation of Heisenberg as well, and that this sort of evocation of QM is ontologically suspect as it is premised on the view that the smallest things are the most real things and that there aren’t higher order emergent realities that have no characteristics in common with atomic and subatomic entities.

When it comes to science, I’m a Kuhnian, we always do science through paradigms. I’m not going to say, therefore, that medieval alchemy was more or less ‘true’ than contemporary science. Rather, there are other criteria of value which are more useful, ie: to what extent did it make its users happy, or efficacious in regard to their worlds (either inner or outer), etc. But truth? There’s no such thing! All is perspective. So, either everything is true, or nothing is. Which is NOT to say that everything is at the same level. Some things are better than others at achieving certain goals – implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious, etc. You can’t evaluate something’s ‘truth’ outside of its paradigm. Truth is a transcendent value that was the provincial domain of particular discourses in the West. It has no more universal validity than the Christian notion of god, no matter what the Christians might think.

I certainly agree that there are paradigms, but I don’t believe this commits one to the thesis that all is perspective. In many respects, my position can be seen as a sort of compromise between realist and anti-realist positions. As both Harman and I argue, no entity has direct access to another entity. This is part of what is meant by “withdrawal”. However, this is an ontological thesis, not an epistemological thesis. Withdrawal is a property of beings, of really existing entities, not merely a matter of how minds relate to the world. Mind are just one specific instance of this broader ontological phenomenon. I believe that these are claims that I can demonstrate or– since I think demonstration really only occurs in the register of mathematics –that I have compelling arguments for.

Now, the “cash-value” of the thesis that all entities withdraw from one another or that no entities directly encounter one another is that all entities relate to one another through translation. Translation, in a number of respects, is an all purpose term for Vitale’s term “perspective”. If I prefer the term “translation” to that of “perspective”, then this is because I think its a foreign enough term in the history of philosophy that it avoids the anthropocentric and mentalistic connotations of “perspective”. This is a matter of rhetorical taste, so I understand if others don’t wish to follow me in the use of the term “translation”.

Now, the key point about translation is that a translation is never identical to its original. In Irreductions Latour presents two nice aphorisms on translation. He remarks that “[t]o say something is to say it in other words. In other words, it is to translate (2.2.1).” Earlier he says, “[n]othing is, by itself, the same as or different from anything else. That is, there are no equivalents, only translations” (1.2.1). While I disagree with the first part of Latour’s claim here, I certainly agree that no entity ever encounters another entity as that entity itself is. There are always translations or interpretations. But these interpretations are not interpretations of minds or knowers (though them too), but are objects interpreting one another, regardless of whether or not humans exist. Earlier, when discussing hermeneutics and semiotics, he suggests that objects themselves interpret one another.

What those who use hermeneutics, exegesis, or semiotics say of texts can be said of all [actants]. For a long time it has been agreed that the relationship between one text and another is always a matter for interpretation. Why not accept that this is also true between so-called texts and so-called objects, and even between so-called objects themselves? (1.2.9)

The point is that every translation makes something new. A translated text is never identical to the original text. Whenever an entity encounters another entity, the entity encountering the entity transforms the perturbations of the encountered entity into something new. The mechanisms of translation are very different here from entity to entity– and in many instances we can observe how these mechanisms work –but the basic phenomenon is the same.

Now there are a couple of points worth making here in regard to onticology. First, with Vitale, I want to preserve the insight contained in the idea of “perspective”, while not drawing anti-realist conclusions from this. The basic insight behind the idea of perspective, I believe, is that different beings experience the world differently. No argument here. However, this is one of the reasons that I believe my distinction between local manifestation and virtual proper being is so important. Vitale and I part ways on a very subtle point. Vitale, I believe, wants to say that objects are our perspectives on them. In other words, Vitale wishes to reduce other beings to the perspective another entity has of it. I believe that this position ultimately leads to incoherence. I’ve never much cared for Levinas, but folks like Morton and Skholiast are making me think I need to take another look. Here I’m not so much interested in Levinas’ ethical philosophy, as I’m interested in his thesis that the other always radically withdraws such that it cannot be reduced to the same. The problem with the sort of perspectivism Vitale seems to advocate is that is a form of this reduction to the same. There’s no alterity where perspective is conceived in this way. And as a consequence, you end up falling into Malkovichism (I can’t resist posting the clip again).

The problem with Malkovichism is that you’re basically saying that beings are me. Perspectivism seems to be a tolerant and egalitarian position because it appears to acknowledge that there are other perspectives, but it suffers from the self-referential paradox of being forced to conclude that all of these other perspectives are really just me. This, of course, is a somewhat ethical argument. At the more fundamental ontological level, however, this position ends up in incoherence because if it is held that everything is perspectives, then we’re forced to conclude that there are no beings at all because there is no longer any entity to have perspectives and there are no entities upon which to have perspectives. After all, if everything is perspectives and it is argued that you’re just talking about perspectives, it’s difficult to see how you can talk about having a perspective when you just are a perspective of something else. Everything becomes a hall of mirrors and being evaporates.

This leads to the conclusion that perspectivism– or better yet, translationism –is only coherent under certain ontological conditions. Namely, there must be beings capable of having perspectives and there must be beings upon which we can have perspectives. But once we’ve noted these simple points, we have now conceded that being is not composed of perspectives. Or rather, we have conceded that there are beings independent of whatever perspective something else might have of them.

Now, as I said a moment ago, I wish to find a middle point between realism and anti-realism, and I believe my distinction between local manifestation and virtual proper being allows me to do this. The concept of local manifestation allows me to explain how two or more entities can have different perspectives on one entity and both can be right. The virtual proper being, of course, would be the entity that is what it is regardless of whether anything else relates to it. Local manifestations would be ways in which a virtual proper being is actualized in the world. Here the local of local manifestation is important because it refers to conditions. Under what conditions— no, that’s not right, too transcendental, start again –under what circumstances does an entity manifest itself in this ways. Under what circumstances does an entity manifest itself in that way. Hopefully Vitale will see that this question and the reference to circumstances both integrates the concept of “perspective” while maintaining a realist orientation.

The point here is that perspectives can’t happen in any old way. There are constraints to perspectives and these constraints are part of what make local manifestations real events in the world. I’m all about, following Donna Haraway, situated knowledge. But the fact that a knowledge is situated should not lead to the inference that it refers to something that is unreal or that only exists for us. No, the fact that a knowledge is situated means that a particular manifestation or phenomena is only produced under such and such conditions.

Now some will draw from this thesis the conclusion that I am arguing that everything is true. I can hear it now. They’ll saying that since all relations to entities are translations, and since translations are always object-specific, there’s no possibility of truth here. How can you, I will be asked, distinguish between fictions, imaginings, and truths? After all, all propositional states are system-specific and systems are closed. I personally think this is a particularly stupid line of criticism because what it fails to recognize is the temporality of truth. Systems capable of knowledge and learning are also temporalized systems. They have retentions and anticipations. Were we timeless systems, systems without any time-references, then indeed the question of how we distinguish mere fictions or imaginings and truths would be irresolvable. All we would have would be our representational contents and these representational contents would be indistinguishable from one another. It is the dimension of time however, of the failed anticipation, that allows something like a sorting of truths to become possible. Are these truths partial? Sure. Whoever said otherwise?