One of the things that I really detest about the culture of theory and philosophy is a sort of combative attitude I often encounter among people. Consider the following common experience. There you are at a dinner after a long day at a conference and some philosophical theme from the day comes up. The next thing you know you’re locked in a life and death discussion about, say, the differences between the politics of Deleuze and Guattari and Badiou. Everything becomes a fight, everyone involved suddenly has to defend themselves, and suddenly it seems like everyone is at everyone else’s throat. Were I an ethnographer or sociologist merely observing these cultural practices rather than a participant in those practices, I suspect I would be struck by the absurdity of it all. Rather than approaching matters from the perspective of the content positions being debated, I would instead, as ethnographer or sociologist, evaluate the discussion from the standpoint of labor investments and institutional realities. I would think to myself “what do these people hope to accomplish? Do they really believe that this person they’re talking to, who has devoted years of work to this particular thing, who is entangled in all sorts of institutional relationships as a result of that work, is going to surrender that work as a result of a heated discussion over wine at dinner? Really?” It’s a strange sort of premise.
Now I can feel the strawmen creeping my way. One person will come out of the woodwork and indignantly declare “you’re claiming we shouldn’t be critical, that we shouldn’t evaluate positions, that we shouldn’t look for grounds of positions!” Another person will indignantly declare “you’re saying anything goes, that any position is as good as another!” Yet a third person will indignantly declare “you’re saying that we never hold positions for reasons, but are entirely motivated by social pressure and power! You nihilist!” Oh how those that would find ways to defend their specific form of jouissance— a form of jouissance that, I believe, has little to do with truth, reason, and arguments (i.e., these are only occasions for obtaining this sort of jouissance –in this way make me sigh. To put the matter to rest, no I am not making the claim that we shouldn’t be critical, search for reasons, look for arguments, etc. Graham, Bennett, and I had a rather pleasant and productive time critically evaluating each of our respective positions. And yes there are some things that are just flatly wrong (though I tend to think, following Deleuze in “The Image of Thought” chapter of Difference and Repetition, that these instances of being flatly wrong and of reasoning poorly tend to be rather trivial and that those who approach the evaluation of philosophy in these terms are philistine poseurs). And yes, there are cases where differences in positions are fundamental and non-negotiable. For me there is no divinely designed teleology or final causation in the universe (purposiveness is an emergent effect of non-purposive processes). Nothing is going to change that. However, when encountering such views my sense is that discussion is worthless. It’s best to just move on. In these cases I’ll state my position, I say about about the Grand Architect as hypothetically being the equivalent of a German car engineer (a model of design excellence), and then I’ll talk about things like the appendix, the horrors and dangers of female child birth, and the design weirdness of our upright posture and all the health problems it causes us (i.e., if we are the result of design this designer is a pretty crappy designer).
At any rate, the sense you get in these conversations– both those which occur in the blogosphere and often at conferences (and incidentally folks, for those that come up to me at conferences, I’m really not interested in defending all the foundations of my philosophy in the hallway following a talk, I’d much rather hear about your work… Read my articles, blog, and books; I develop plenty of arguments there. Don’t place me in a position of interrogation, it’s rude) –is that they’re not really conversations at all. No, they are pitched military battles where discussion is impossible. “Deleuze and Guattari or Badiou!” Sheesh, if you find something great in Badiou tell me about that, don’t shit all over my Deleuze and Guattari and try to make me convert to your Badiou. Show me, compel me, seduce me, don’t say to me. I just don’t care because, as Laruelle teaches us, you’re already auto-positing the terms of the debate within your framework. Paraphrasing the Joker in one of the earlier Batman movies, “show me what your toys can do“– “where does he get those wonderful toys?!? –don’t beat me up with lamentations that I don’t belong to your tribe or try to convert me to your tribe. Maybe I just didn’t know about your toys. Or maybe I just never saw what your toys can do and therefore didn’t find them particularly interesting.
I mean heaven’s to Betsy! When you listen to some of these discussions that take place at conferences or in the blogosphere, you get the sense that they literally have nothing to do with truth and understanding at all. No, you get the sense that they have everything to do with insecurity: Academic insecurity from a bunch of people who, no doubt, grew up as disaffected nerds and who therefore compensate by proving their own self-worth and superiority by trying to demolish others and sneer at everyone else (“being right”). Social insecurity at the relative lack of recognition us scholarly types get. Guilt wondering what this form of enjoyment is all “for” (hence, probably, the predominance of political themes in the humanities among so many people who never exerted one ounce of energy actually participating in political processes). And, above all, masculine insecurity of people struggling to occupy the position of the silver back ape. Give me a break! You’re being an asshole. Get over it. The stench of testosterone laden sweat is worse in academia than a high school locker room.
If Jane, Graham, and I were able to have a discussion at CUNY in New York, then this is because we weren’t out to beat each other up or tear each other down. Together we were genuinely trying to figure things out. Graham thought that there were problems with some of my views and Bennett’s views, that there were fundamental things that we were unable to account for. Bennett thought that there were problems with some of my positions and Harman’s positions. I thought there were problems with some of Harman’s positions and Bennett’s positions. Now, in some respects we all thought that none of us fully understood each other’s positions. So we took the time to explain and clarify our respective positions. In other respects, we were involved in an exploratory dialogue, trying to make sense of things, trying to make sense of the world around us, trying to grow. This wasn’t an adversarial cage match where we were beginning with fixed and pre-established positions and where the last person standing “wins”– indeed, there was no “winning” about it –this was a generous discussion of people trying to navigate their way through the world. None of us wished to demolish the others and all of us were rooting for each other. Each of us gained something through each other and saw things that we couldn’t see through our own lessons. Okay, I admit that I literally pounded the table at one point in the discussion, but in a generous way!
So what is this thing called “generosity” that we find so lacking in the testosterone laden, pimple producing, academia? The idea of generosity was already suggested, after a fact, by Davidson in Anglo-American circles, but that idea never quite seemed to catch on. People like to evoke the principle of charity, but it seems that they don’t much like practicing the principle of charity. But generosity is not simply a principle of charity, of giving the most charitable interpretation to another person’s position (i.e., beginning from the premise that they’re rational beings and thus wouldn’t say things that are completely irrational, stupid, and bizarre such that if it seems like someone is saying such things you’re probably the one who’s misinterpreted, rather than the speaker being an irrational idiot).
Generosity is, I think, related to this principle of charity, but a little bit different. Generosity, I think, is an openness to a plurality of theoretical lenses. Let’s put this in Darwinian terms. For Darwin evolution is not simply an evolution of features of the phenotype of a species, but also the evolution of forms of sensibility. Bats evolved this way of sensing the world, humans this way, great white sharks this way, cats this way, etc. I will be developing this thesis under the title of “Deleuze’s Transcendental Aesthetics” in an article for a Deleuze collection coming out next year. Now no one would dream arguing with a blind man for encountering the world through a cane nor of arguing with a bat for encountering the world through sonar. They would never suggest to the blind man (I hope!) that this way of sensing the world is better or superior or to the bat that sonar is the wrong way to go. No. Well why shouldn’t we think of theory and philosophy in this way? This is what wracked my brain in my discussion with Bill Benzon this morning (and I suspect there were religion things going on here). I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why he didn’t have a generous attitude toward the concept of memes. Kubla wanted to kill memes. “It’s either memes or this!” What he didn’t adopt is a generous attitude towards meme theory which says 1) they give us an interesting theory that provides a novel perspective, and 2) that this can be integrated with this, this, this and this. No, the meme of memes as a theory must be killed! Snore. It’s just not a conversation I’m interested in having because it’s purely reactionary, based on negation rather than building.
In a certain way, generosity comes down to Nagel’s famous question “what is it like to be a bat?” This is my whole problem. I’m a bit promiscuous where theory is concerned. I like it all. I can see plausibility in all of it. I love Plato, Aristotle, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Whitehead, Heidegger, Russell, Pierce, Luhmann, Bhaskar, Latour, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc. I love all of them. And just as I’m fascinated by how bees or snakes or bats or great white sharks or various humans sense the world, I’m fascinated by the truths that various theories are able to encounter in the world through their “transcendental sensibilities”. I like hearing how the world looks when viewed through the lens of Badiou and how the world looks when viewed through the lens of Wittgenstein and how the world looks when viewed through the lens of Deleuze and Guattari. And the great thing about theory is that where I’ll never fully understand what it is like to encounter the world like a bat or great white shark (though Ian Bogost is making great strides here), I can, at least, occupy the worlds of these various theories and comprehend things in these terms. I don’t need to demolish those other lenses. They all certainly have their blind spots (this is the fundamental teaching of Maturana and Varela, Luhmann, and Lacan), but there is no view from nowhere (the fundamental teaching of OOO). And if that’s the case there’s really not a whole lot of a reason to demolish. No, it’s better to occupy these various lenses, to practice the savage and the wilderness, and find what is of value in these various lenses. That, I think, is generosity. There’s just not enough promiscuity in the academy.