The other day a friend of mine who’s read the manuscript for Onto-Cartography and I were talking, and he expressed surprise about the claims I make about materialism there. Paraphrasing, given my claims about materialism, it would follow that I don’t think that things such as fictions, souls, Gods, and so on are real. Why? Because I would hold that nothing outside the material and natural world exists.
Well, my friend is right. I don’t think that anything outside the natural and material world exists. This is what I mean when I say that “being is flat”. I think this is what I’ve always said, though I might not have expressed it very clearly in the past. For me, all there is is the natural and material world. Gods might exist– Lucretius and Epicurus believe they do –but if they do they are material entities subject to all the same constraints and limitations pertaining to causality and the transfer of information that all other beings are. Jesus can turn water into wine– just as anyone else can –but he has to go through the same time-consuming activity of crushing the grapes, adding yeast, and allowing them to ferment (unless he has a molecular assembler). If a god exists, it might be able to see a lot, but not because it is omnipresent, but because it has a technologically superior means of discerning events around the universe, not unlike the satellite technologies used by meteorologists.
So what do I mean when I say audacious things like “fictions are real”? I just mean that fictions, like any other units of information, are real signals that circulate around the world and that therefore, qua information, are capable of producing real effects. If I say that Twilight is something real, I am not suggesting that Bella somewhere exists and has unrequited and unconsummated panting love with vampires and werewolves. I’m saying that there is a physical thing in the universe– the Twilight novels and films –that produce real effects. Saying this is no more radical than what Peirce said about the nature of symbols (right). When speaking of symbols rather than icons and indexes, Peirce said that there is no necessary relation between “representamens” or “sign-vehicles” (the medium through which a sign is conveyed), “interpretants”, and entities out there in the world. In Saussurean terms, we can have signifier/signified relations that lack any referent (e.g., Eldorado). Nonetheless, signifiers and sign-vehicles are material entities that circulate throughout the world, and both therefore are capable of producing real effects on other material entities in the world. That doesn’t mean they have a referent. It just means that the signifiers and sign-vehicles are something. Semiotics and semiology 101.
As a consequence, there are certain things I believe are valuable. First, I endorse the project of debunking developed during both the Enlightenment and critical theory. I think it’s valuable and important to show that superstitions are mistaken (e.g., I like those that debunk ghosts and possession), and I think it’s important to show that there is no referent for certain things (e.g., race). My gripe with critique isn’t that we shouldn’t practice it, but that it’s a very limited form of politics and that power takes a number of forms that aren’t discursive in character. Mea culpa, though. If there’s one thing I reject in my article entitled “The Ontic Principle” though, it was my defense of Latour’s “principle of irreduction”. I regret this for two reasons: first, I regret it because I think that every explanation– including Latour’s actor-network explanations –is a form of reduction. And second, I regret it because, inverting Freud’s famous quote about cigars, sometimes pimped up trucks and assault rifles really are about penis size (a reduction). If you doubt this, spend some time on conservative blogs and read what they say whenever the issue of feminism and the decline of marriage comes up. You’ll be reducing pretty quickly, I imagine. At the time I wrote that article, I only endorsed Latour because he authorized reductions so long as the reducer demonstrates the series of mediations between something like, say, pick-up trucks with big wheels and V-12 engines and male sexual insecurity. In Irreductions, Latour shows that you have to show the mediations and praises Freud’s analysis of the “dream-work” as an example of such a demonstration. Sadly, remarks about the principle of irreduction suffered a reduction where this principle was taken to mean that everything is real and nothing can ever be reduced to anything else. I think that’s bullshit, but I like the hermeneutics of suspicion… I just think it’s limited.
Second, I just can’t agree with Whitehead regarding things like rainbows and the beauty of sunsets. Oh sure, I think these things are real enough because they involve the properties of light coupled with brains. Yet readers of The Democracy of Objects will recall that I draw a distinction between “exo-qualities” and “endo-qualities”. An endo-quality is a quality that resides in the thing itself. It’s there regardless of whether or not anything relates to it. An exo-quality, by contrast, is something that only emerges in a relation between two or more entities. Well I think qualities like the beauty of sunsets and the qualities of rainbows are exo-qualities: they only arise in relations. Take away neurological systems with particular biological (and cultural) imperatives, and there are no beautiful sunsets. There are just waves of electro-magnatism proliferating throughout the world. Take away organisms capable of perceiving colors and there are no rainbows. These things are real in the sense that there are real material events taking place in the relationship between electro-magnetic waves and organic (or technological) nervous systems, but they aren’t real in the sense that they are independent entities. In my view, these things can’t exist or take place without their relata. They need their terms for these things to be possible. They aren’t qualities of the things themselves.
So I’ll conclude by being a bit smarmy. If you’re looking for solace in my flat ontology for your superstitions and ideologies, you’ll need to look elsewhere. I’ll follow you halfway in recognizing that your superstitions and fictions produce real effects, but I won’t follow you– unless you can show that there’s compelling reason for me to think otherwise within a naturalistic framework –in the thesis that there’s a real referent to what these signifiers or sign-vehicles denote. Until I’m shown that there’s good and compelling reasons to believe that something violates the basic laws of physics pertaining to time and space– as, for example, claims about omnipotence and omniscience do –I just see no reason to seriously entertain such claims. At this point folks like to talk about quantum entanglement, but these laws just don’t pertain to aggregate substances where the issue is one of times of transport between entities. In the meantime, I believe that debunking is an important component– though not an exclusive one –of both political thought and genuine philosophy.