November 2011


Over at Critical Animal, James has a very nice post up critiquing human exceptionalism. Here’s a taste:

One of the reasons that I always find human exceptionalism problematic is that most people seem to skip the hard work of philosophical anthropology. Or to put it another way, most people take the human as given, without doing the conceptual work to draw a dividing line between all the variations of humanity on one side, and all manifestations of life on the other side. There is a sort of almost Supreme Court on obscenity feel to such discussions: we know humans when we see them. Of course, our track record of knowing humans is actually pretty bad. Slavery, sexism, colonialism and coloniality, racism, our treatment of the mentally disabled, peasantry and poor, the mad, physically disabled, and more and more. You get the picture, right? It was not uncommon in the histories of coloniality, for example, to believe that the languages of the colonized were not full languages, but existed somewhere between animal languages and full, human languages. Indeed, those colonized peoples were not seen as full people. As little back as the 1950s, it was fairly common to talk and think about people with autism as being not fully human, of not being capable of language, thought, and humanity. We have to have a certain level of hubris to believe that we have finally understood who are humans and who are not, when quite frankly this question of humanness is both old and recent. It haunts the boundaries of every project of philosophical anthropology, it haunts the boundaries of every claim of human exceptionalism.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest here. What James outline– and Alex Reid, to whom James is responding, has a great post up on the issue as well –is something that drives me up the wall about the discipline of philosophy. Not only do we begin from the default position of the subject and the object as if it’s self-evident as to what constitutes a subject, but philosophers seem to have a jaw dropping degree of ignorance when it comes to talking about these issues. Too many in our profession believe that we can just jump into discussion making all sorts of claims about humans without bothering to acquaint ourselves with various ethnographic studies, psychology, the lives and worlds of the disabled (at least read Temple Grandin folks), various histories of everyday life, and so on. In chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition Deleuze remarks that we always speak poorly when we say “we”. It is precisely this sort of issue he’s getting at. We make all sorts of generalizations and assumptions about what human nature is that are little more than repetitions of our own cultural and historical assumptions based on life in this historical moment. How can we even begin to properly pose ethical, political, and cognitive questions without having a rich background knowledge of these things? What makes someone like Jerry Fodor– not to mention socio- and psychobiologists –think that he can simply outline his modular theory of mind or the nature of human kinship structures without looking at the various ways in which people have lived and thought? There’s much more in James and Alex’s posts so be sure to check them out.

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I’m not sure if this interview got around or not. Roman Davis over at Faslanyc was kind to interview me here. He asked really wonderful and interesting questions.

Here’s a fantastic paper by Ian Thomson on ontotheology as developed by Heidegger. Basically everything I’ve developed in my analyses of the masculine side of Lacan’s graphs of sexuation and the discourse of the master have been a critique of ontotheology (my na,e for ontotheology is “phallosophy”). Onticology and flat ontology are an attempt to develop an ontology that is not ontotheological.

UPDATE: Graham has a follow-up to this post here. There Graham reiterates the claim that Derrida is not a realist. I agree, Derrida is as little a realist as is Heidegger or Husserl. I am make the claim that the concept of differance can be deployed (with modification) in a realist fashion (for me what’s important is the concept of objects as blooming and withdrawing temporal structures). This sort of appropriation of concepts from anti-realist thinkers for realist aims is a move I commonly make. I make a similar move with Luhmann and the autopoietic theorists, Lacan, Zizek, Foucault, and likely some other thinkers I’m forgetting at the moment. In chapter two of The Democracy of Objects, I follow Zizek’s Wagnerian route of claiming that “we are healed by the spear that smote us”. The anti-realist error was to believe that it had demolished realism, rather than seeing that the very structures it described are e structure of withdrawn objects. In other words, the mistake lay, as Graham notes in his response, in conflating being with presence. In my view, there is much in the anti-realist legacy that it is absolutely vital to preserve (namely the critique of presence and onto-theology). Not only are the two ontologically untenable, but they have, as I outline in this post, extremely destructive political and ethical consequences (Graham articulates this very nicely when he remarks that onto-theology treats some beings as more beings than others; (hence my ire towards theistic theologies as well, i.e., the great chain of being that ranks and measures beings). For me I feel that there’s a lot worth preserving in Derrida and, especially, in the work of those who have been deeply influenced by Derrida. Given that the challenge for me becomes one of determining how it’s possible to appropriate certain moments and operations of Derridean thought within a realist, object-oriented framework. It’s a similar sort of challenge that I encounter with Lacan, Luhmann, and Adorno.

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Graham has a post up outlining his thoughts on Derrida. Referring to a post I wrote recently on differance, he writes,

I also don’t agree with LEVI’S RECENT IDENTIFICATION of objects with différance. Quite the contrary. The object is precisely that which is deeper than any differing from anything else, precisely because it is non-relational through and through.

I was a little surprised by this post as Graham knows that I don’t hold that the being of objects does not consist in differing from other objects. I probably should have been clearer about this in my original post, but what interests me in my original post is, in particular, the dimension of deferral in Derrida’s non-concept of differance. I read Derrida’s differance as deferral as another name for withdrawal and Heideggarian aletheia. This dynamic is not a difference from or to other objects, but a process within an object itself. The idea is that for any local manifestion an object undergoes, its substantiality nonetheless withdraws. The important point here is that there could be a universe in which no other objects exist, in which there is only one existing object, and differance as I’m describing it here would or could still take place. In other words, differance is not difference between objects and the being of objects cannot be defined by the relations an object has to other objects. Based on remarks Derrida makes about grafting and subtraction in “Signature Event Context”, I have reason to believe that he doesn’t define the being of objects in terms of their relations to other objects either. For Derrida, it seems, any object can be severed from its relations to other objects. An article of mine entitled “The Time of the Object” should be published soon.

I personally share Derrida’s and (Lacan’s, not to ention Adorno’s) political critique of ontotheology and philosophies of presence. I believe these forms of thought contribute to truly horrific social systems that are deeply destructive to the planet, of others, and that are psychologically devastating for the person himself. As Jean-Luc Nancy observes, social systems based on the idea that there is a transcendent essence to the community like blood and soil ultimately will death. First, they inevitably produce an “other”, a remainder or residue, that must be destroyed for the community to attain self-identity with itself. This is the meaning, I believe, of Lacan’s analysis of masculine sexuality in the graphs of sexuation (which I take as a structural depiction of ontologies of presence and transcendence) and of Lacan’s discourse of the master. Second, they will the death of the individual member of the community as his difference must be erased, destroyed, to merge with the essence of the community. No sacrifice is too great. I can’t outline all of the noxious consequences that are entailed by ontotheology and philosophies of presence right now as I am with family in Ohio for my sister’s wedding, but it is worth noting that the identity folks like Derrida, Lacan, and Adorno critique is not the identity of individual entities, but rather general essences grouping individuals under a kind or shared features that erase the singularity of original entities. These essences then function teleologically as measuring sticks, evaluating the truth of an individual by virtue of how closely it resembles the essence and are then used to defend certain forms of oppression. For example, the writers of the American Constitution said that African-Americans are only 2/3rds human and that therefore slave owners were doing them a favor by taking on the role of a benign father directi the lives of these “childlike” people who, they said, cannot govern themselves because they lack reason. Another example would be a student in one of my classes who remarked, the other day, that homosexuality is deviant because we are just naturally heterosexual (as he put it, “keys go in a lock”). “Nature” here is a name for essence as those features shared in common by a plurality of entities. Here it became a measuring rod for certain sexed bodies. Only the essence, in this frame of thought, is fully self-present and abiding because they are eternal and always identical to themselves, but individual entities that come-to-be and pass-away can more or less approximate or resemble these essences and therefore have higher degrees of presence. Ergo we get justification for eradicating that which doesn’t conform to the essence or seeking to make it accord to the essence (the treatment of people with disabilities under the Nazis, for example, premised on the idea of an essence of what humans should be). This style of argument, which we witness again with every racism, sexism, every project of eugenics with the disabled, is based on the presence of essences as defining what is common to a plurality of individuals and that then measures how closely those individuals approximate the essence. The very reason I find OOO attractive is that it avoids this logic. With that said, however, political and ethical arguments are not sufficient for judging ontologies. If we wish to show that an ontology is inadequate, we require ontological arguments. I believe OOO provides exactly these sorts of ontological arguments.

In response to a post responding to my post on Enlightenment (apologies for the convoluted phrasing!), Jason Hills, of Immanent Transcendence, writes:

The denial of the mythic modality of consciousness really frightens me about Enlightenment-promoters, because their disregard for how myth channels their science, etc., blinds them to hubris. That was much of the lesson of WWI and WWII–that science is not a cure-all.

This is the sort of thesis that really frustrates me in discussions about religion, myth, science, and reason, because the suggestion seems to be that science and technology are the cause of the horrors of the Holocaust and World War I. Yet they were not the cause, but rather the occasion for these horrors. The cause was mythological thought in the form of nationalist, religious, and racial myths that animated these two wars. In this regard, there was little difference between 14th century pogroms directed at Jews during the Black Plague or the wholesale slaughter of Muslims by Catholics during the Crusades, than what took place in these wars. The difference was that the hatred generated by these mythological forms of thought during the 20th century was able to exercise itself on a greater scale than ever before due to the new technologies. Nonetheless, the problem wasn’t Enlightenment, but the absence of Enlightenment.

read on!
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This week my metaphysics students and I are beginning with Andy Clark’s Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Before jumping into Being There, we are first reading “The Extended Mind“, an article co-authored with David Chalmers where they first introduced the extended mind hypothesis. Chalmers and Clark are asking very basic and fundamental questions such as “what is cognition?”, “what is mind?”, “what are beliefs?”, and “what is a self?” Yet the basic nature of these questions yields answers that are, in my view, pathbreaking and of the utmost significance for not only cognitive science and philosophy of mind, but also for ethics and social and political thought. To be sure, there are others that touch on the sort of thesis that Chalmers and Clark put forward (Haraway, Stengers, and Latour immediately come to mind), but none, in my reading experience, in quite such a dramatic way as they do.

Marx famously argued that the essence of human beings consists both in production and in producing our own essence. In making this claim, Marx immediately problematized the assumption that we are all human in the same way, transforming the signifier human into– using Deleuze’s language –an “empty square” or moving target, such that we can no longer appeal to some unchanging essence of the human that would be the same under all historical periods and modes of production. To say that the essence of humans is production and that humans produce their own essence through their form of production is to effectively undermine the idea of a transhistorical and unchanging essence of humans. No doubt it is this thesis that would lead Marx to abandon the alienation hypothesis of his early work, for if there is no abiding essence of the human then it is difficult to defend a coherent concept of alienation. As a consequence, it becomes necessary to envision political engagement in terms different from those of emancipation.

read on!
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An interview with me with Roman Davis at faslanyc here.

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