March 2013


nickieatmirrorAs time has passed, I’ve become increasingly hesitant about using the term “correlationism”.  For those new to Speculative Realism, it all began with a critique of correlationism.  Coined by Quentin Meillassoux,  “correlationism” denotes “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (After Finitude, 5).  While there’s very little resemblance between the philosophies of Ray Brassier, Ian Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux, all have shared the common feature of critiquing correlationism and of attempting to think what the being of being is without thought or as posited by our intentionality.

My hesitation with the term has arisen from witnessing how the term has evolved in these discussions since 2007.  Two things in particular have bothered me about the use of the term.  First, I increasingly see mere evocation of the term used as a way of arguing against other positions.  “X is correlationist, therefore x is mistaken.”  This isn’t really an argument, but rather just a way of dismissing through a label.  Second, I increasingly see it implied that correlationism is a taboo or fallacy to be avoided in all circumstances.  If, in SR circles, you point out, for example, that a color blind person processes electro-magnetic waves in a particular way, you’re likely to hear someone decry such a remark as correlationist.  The problem is that I don’t see any other way of understanding and analyzing phenomena such as this.  The way in which my best friend’s father experiences electro-magnetic waves is different than how I experience electro-magnetic waves, and our ways of encountering electro-magnetic waves are different than how cats and mantis shrimp experience electro-magnetic waves.

Is this correlationism?  I don’t know.  Correlationism is the thesis that we only ever have access to the relation between thought (or experience or language) and being, never one of the terms considered apart from one another.  Something very different seems to be asserted in the examples of vision above.  First, it is noted that something like electro-magnetic waves exist regardless of whether any entity registers them at all.  In other words, in making such a claim I am endorsing the existence of something independent of thought.  I can’t see or experience infrared light without the use of some sort of technology, but my lack of access to these sorts of electro-magnetic waves doesn’t undermine the fact that those waves exist.  Second, I am making the claim that other entities such as my best friend’s father, mantis shrimp, and dogs access electro-magnetic waves in different ways.  It’s not possible to make such a claim without having some access to other entities independent of how I access the world.  Can I ever experience the world the way a mantis shrimp experiences the world?  Of course not.  However, through my knowledge of optics, electro-magnetic waves, its reactions to the environment about it, and so on, I can make all sorts of fallible inferences about what mantis shrimp have access to.

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sbimagesIn a previous post I discussed a similarity between the non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle and the sociological work of Niklas Luhmann.  Outlining Luhmann’s theory of observation, I there wrote:

Proceeding from Spencer-Browns calculus of forms, this is exactly where Luhmann begins in his “sociology”.  All observation, Spencer-Brown argues, requires a distinction to be possible.  Here it’s important to be careful.  “Observation”, for Spencer-Brown and Luhmann is not an empirical terms referring to the five senses and measurements, but is a formal and functional structure.  Spencer-Brown begins his Laws of Form with the imperative “first draw a distinction”, which is a structure similar to Laruelle’s theory of decision.  With the drawing of a distinction, a space is cleaved in two.  This space cleaved in two is what Spencer-Brown calls a “form” and is the unity of a marked space and an unmarked space.  With the distinction it now becomes possible to observe or indicate what falls under the unmarked space, e.g., white males (marked space) vs everything else (unmarked space).

The key point for Luhmann is that the distinction itself is always invisible for the observer that uses the distinction to observe because of its functional nature.  One can observe a marked space through a distinction or observe a form/distinction, but cannot observe through a distinction and observe the distinction one uses to observe or make indications.  And, of course, if one opts to observe a distinction, they must make yet another distinction to observe that distinction which will itself be invisible to the observer and have its own unmarked space.  At any rate, Luhmann refers to the distinction that allows an observer to observe a marked state as the blind spot of the observer.  Every observation implies a blind spot, a withdrawn distinction from which indications are made, that is not visible to the observer the observes.  The eye cannot see itself seeing.

Putting Luhmann’s thesis into Kantian language, his thesis is that distinctions are “the condition for the possibility” of observations.  In other words, the observation does not precede the distinction, nor does the distinction arise from an observation.  Rather, observation is only possible where a distinction is first drawn, and then one begins to make indications or observations based on this distinction.  The observation, of course, is an indication of what falls under the marked space of the form.  For example, biology is only possible based on a form that cleaves a marked space (life) from an unmarked space (everything else).  The biologist sets aside everything else in order to attend only to what falls within the marked space of its distinction.  Once again, in Kantian terms we can say that the form is the transcendental, while the indications of what falls in the marked space of the distinction is the empirical.

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For anyone who’s interested, I’ll be giving a talk to the Toronto Lacanian organization on March 23rd and at York on the 22nd.  More info can be found here.

borromeanI’ll probably regret writing this post, but I would like to return to the question of Epicureanism as an ethical and political philosophy.  In her description of Epicurean thought, Catherine Wilson writes:

There is no ambivalence about pain in Epicurean morals:  it is an unqualified evil.  Because death is the end for each sentient being, we should enjoy ourselves to the extent that our enjoyment of present pleasures does not diminish the quantity of pleasure we can enjoy in the future, to the extent that our present enjoyments do not destroy health, bring down the wrath or contempt of others upon us, or subject us to the torments of guilt and regret.  Moral wisdom consists not in ascetic practice, but in prudence and foresight, for the age-old experience of mankind assures us that moderation and avoidance of dissipation tend to make for a less painful life.  Endurance of our mundane sufferings has, at the same time, its own dignity, although it is not a foretaste of hell or morally glorious.  The recognition that human life is temporary and fragile follows from physics, as does the recognition that all suffering comes to an end.  ‘[A]ll the punishments that tradition locates in the abysm of Acheron’, said Lucretius, ‘actually exist in our own life.’  An emblematic figure for the poet is the mythical giant Tityos, whose type, he thinks, exists among us.  ‘He is the person lying in bonds of love, and consumed by agonizing anxiety or rent by the anguish of some other passion.’  Lucretius’ pacificism, his sense of closeness to the animal world, and his sympathetic portrayal of the effects of romantic uncertainty and jealousy, but also the reawakening, and renewing effects of the goddess Venus, are still moving to his readers (Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, 5)

I don’t wish to get in a debate with my medievalist friends about the merits of Wilson’s book (they’re right), but rather focus on the content of this ethics itself.  Epicureanism is perpetually derided, but why?  Why is this framework not all that we need for an adequate ethics and politics?  What is missing here?

Drawing once again on Lacan’s borromean knot, we here seem to have an ethics that embodies all three orders in the name of minimizing suffering or, as Freud put it, for transforming “neurotic suffering into ordinary human misery”.  At the level of the order of the Real we have our material bodies– the body as described by phenomenology doesn’t count here –as well as our ecological relations.  There are certain ways in which we should relate to our bodies in terms of diet and exercise, to maximize health (clearly these will differ from person to person insofar as people are individuals).  Additionally, it is not simply a question of our own individual bodies, but of our ecological relations.  Insofar as our bodies are necessarily embodied and insofar as we always exist in an environment, we should also be concerned with the environment in which we find ourselves embedded.  As Alaimo teaches us, our bodies are never purely our own, but are transcorporeal or interpenetrated by a variety of other foreign bodies.  At the level of the Symbolic, we get our social relationships.  Our social relationships include not only our relationships to other people and how we should conduct ourselves with respect to other people, but also our relationships to the nonhuman animal and mineral world.  If we wish to minimize both our suffering and the suffering of others, then there will be optimal ways of relating to our human others, as well as our animal and mineral others.  Finally, at the level of the Imaginary we have the psychological or our cognitive and affective relationships to others.  There’s a tendency to reduce pleasure to the five senses, but our enjoyment is not simply a matter of the pleasure we can gain through our five senses.  It involves aesthetic enjoyment, fulfilling relationships with both human and animal others, our appreciation of beauty and wonder, and so on.

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