May 2013


aimagesI’m behind the curve on this, but Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have written a very nice manifesto for accelerationism that you can find here.  While I’m just beginning to get a sense of what the accelerations are on about, my initial feeling is that this is the most exciting and promising proposal for political change that I’ve seen in a number of years (that’s different than saying I have no reservations).  It’s certainly a breath of fresh air compared to the models that currently dominate these discussions.  Put differently, reading this manifesto doesn’t fill me with pessimism, gives me the sense that there are real things that can be done, and doesn’t fill me with the sense that the authors are just in a state of willful denial that they try to patch over with happy talk about organization, protest, and subjects.  That’s a good start.  Here are the good points of the program as far as I can tell:

1.  While it has a place for critical analysis, it is not based on the naive– and self-servingly academic! –belief that critique is sufficient to produce social and political change (“I will vilify you for all time through my mighty pen!”)

2.  It clearly recognizes the futility and narcissism of protest politics.

3.  It calls for a clear-sighted understanding of how complex power is organized today (what I call “cartography”) as a necessary component for political engagement, and doesn’t disavow sociology and other cartographic tools such as economic knowledge as we see in the case of figures like Badiou and Zizek (figures who, while I adore them, I increasingly feel are merely “inspirational” discourses not unlike certain forms of Christian apologetics on faith.

4.  It clearly understands how ecology is a key issue today and therefore doesn’t restrict its Marxism to issues of labor and social justice (though these are at the core of its program as well)

5.  It does not repeat tiresome denunciations of technology and science such as we find among those influenced by Heidegger, Stiegler, and Adorno, but clearly discerns how technology and science are both necessary components of any effective cartography of the complex ecology of our political world today, and are necessary elements of solution (perhaps we’re finally moving beyond pious Heideggerian discourses on enframing and “Western metaphysics” as the “real problem”?  I sure as hell hope so!).

6.  It recognizes the need to form institutions such as think tanks and to acquire funding if we’re to produce any real political change.  It’s about friggin time!

7.  It recognizes the twin dangers of centralized political organization such as we find in some disturbing recent calls to resurrect “the party” and absurd claims that the party is the “position of the analyst” (those folks need to read some systems theory!), while also recognizing that ideas such that of spontaneous self-organization aren’t tenable either.

Perhaps leftist political theory and strategery is finally abandoning its romanticism, academism, and reaching a point of maturity.  I hope so!  For a critical perspective, see McKenzie Wark’s critique of the manifesto here.

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mmimagesThere’s a sort of Hegelian contradiction at the heart of all academic political theory that has pretensions of being emancipatory.  In a nutshell, the question is that of how this theory can avoid being a sort of commodity.  Using Hegel as a model, this contradiction goes something like this:  emancipatory political theory says it’s undertaken for the sake of emancipation from x.  Yet with rare exceptions, it is only published in academic journals that few have access to, in a jargon that only other academics or the highly literate can understand, and presented only at conferences that only other academics generally attend.  Thus, academic emancipatory political theory reveals itself in its truth as something that isn’t aimed at political change or intervention at all, but rather only as a move or moment in the ongoing autopoiesis of academia.  That is, it functions as another line on the CV and is one strategy through which the university system carries out its autopoiesis or self-reproduction across time.  It thus functions— the issue isn’t here one of the beliefs or intentions of academics, but how things function –as something like a commodity within the academic system.  The function is not to intervene in the broader political system– despite what all of us doing political theory say and how we think about our work –but rather to carry out yet another iteration of the academic discourse (there are other ways that this is done, this has just been a particularly effective rhetorical strategy for the autopoiesis of academia in the humanities).

Were the aim political change, then the discourse would have to find a way to reach outside the academy, but this is precisely what academic political theory cannot do due to the publication and presentation structure, publish or perish logic, the CV, and so on.  To produce political change, the academic political theorist would have to sacrifice his or her erudition or scholarship, because they would have to presume an audience that doesn’t have a high falutin intellectual background in Hegel, Adorno, Badiou, set theory, Deleuze, Lacan, Zizek, Foucault (who is one of the few that was a breakaway figure), etc.  They would also have to adopt a different platform of communication.  Why?  Because they would have to address an audience beyond the confines of the academy, which means something other than academic presses, conferences, journals, etc.  (And here I would say that us Marxists are often the worst of the worst.  We engage in a discourse bordering on medieval scholasticism that only schoolmen can appreciate, which presents a fundamental contradiction between the form of their discourse– only other experts can understand it –and the content; they want to produce change).  But the academic emancipatory political theorist can’t do either of these things.  If they surrender their erudition and the baroque nature of their discourse, they surrender their place in the academy (notice the way in which Naomi Klein is sneered at in political theory circles despite the appreciable impact of her work).  If they adopt other platforms of communication– and this touches on my last post and the way philosophers sneer at the idea that there’s a necessity to investigating extra-philosophical conditions of their discourse –then they surrender their labor requirements as people working within academia.  Both options are foreclosed by the sociological conditions of their discourse.

PLG NEWTHINGS 1 SJThe paradox of emancipatory academic political discourse is thus that it is formally and functionally apoliticalAt the level of its intention or what it says it aims to effect political change and intervention, but at the level of what it does, it simply reproduces its own discourse and labor conditions without intervening in broader social fields (and no, the classroom doesn’t count).  Unconscious recognition of this paradox might be why, in some corners, we’re seeing the execrable call to re-stablish “the party”.  The party is the academic fantasy of a philosopher-king or an academic avant gard that simultaneously gets to be an academic and produce political change for all those “dopes and illiterate” that characterize the people (somehow the issue of how the party eventually becomes an end in itself, aimed solely at perpetuating itself, thereby divorcing itself from the people never gets addressed by these neo-totalitarians).  The idea of the party and of the intellectual avant gard is a symptom of unconscious recognition of the paradox I’ve recognized here and of the political theorist that genuinely wants to produce change while also recognizing that the sociological structure of the academy can’t meet those requirements.  Given these reflections, one wishes that the academic that’s learned the rhetoric of politics as an autopoietic strategy for reproducing the university discourse would be a little less pompous and self-righteous, but everyone has to feel important and like their the best thing since sliced bread, I guess.

ASIDE:  Autopoiesis refers to the activities a living, conscious, exchange, or information system must engage in to continue its existence from moment to moment.  For example, cells must engage in all sorts of processes to continue to exist as cells.  A cell is simultaneously that which produces and what is produced.  Likewise, capitalist economy must engage in acts of exchange and production at each moment to continue to be that economy.  It is both the market that produces itself and the market that is produced through activities of exchange (cf. Althusser on the necessity of reproducing the conditions of production).  Academia too, if it is to continue to exist, is simultaneously both that which produces itself and that which is produced.  It does this through scholarly work.  As an autopoietic system, academia is not concerned with its referent or what its discourse is about, but is a strategy for simply continuing to reproduce itself.  This is the article, the production of students that will later become professors and researchers, conference presentations, and so on.

In the humanities, politically inflected discourse has proven to be an extremely effective strategy of autopoiesis (which is why we can wonder whether it’s really political at all).  Why?  It provides a telos for researchers, giving them meaning to their work (when they’re really just reproducing their own discourse).  It provides a strategy for addressing those forces of power that are outside the academic system but which threaten it (administrators, legislators, boards of trusteees, the public) by giving a rationale for their work.  In the eyes of administrators, for example, scholarly work on Dante might appear decadent, but if you can persuade them it has vital political importance you might convince them to let you continue your work in reproducing the discourse of your discipline.  Finally, it provides an auto-immune system, that defends against that which would prevent autopoietic operations.  You can castigate the critic by casting aspersions on their politics (or lack therof), thereby insuring that your kind of work will continue.

But the situation is even worse!  Despite its solipsism and the fact that we perpetually end up only addressing one another rather than the broader world, the university discourse has been one of the most effective– if not the most effective –discourse in gathering knowledge of how the social field functions, how oppression is produced, how power functions, and all the rest.  We just haven’t yet created a more effective machine for producing this sort of knowledge.  Of course, this machine is sadly deficient in applying those critical tools to itself (to see this, amuse yourself one day applying the tools of critical theory to your critical theorist friend and see how he reacts.  Apparently everyone else is a dupe and he’s the only one that doesn’t have a discourse structured by dominant sociological relations; narcissistic denial, anyone?).  Now Marx, especially in Grundrisse, distinguished between production, distribution, and consumption.  He argued that there’s a production of production, a production of distribution, a production of consumption, a distribution of production, a distribution of distribution, a distribution of consumption, and a consumption of production, consumption of distribution, and a consumption of consumption (that last one is fascinating!).  Now I’ll tell the story of this baroque grid another day, but what I mean to say here is that the university system has managed to create a system of production (S2 or academic knowledge), a production of itself (the reproduction of the academic system through the production of new academics and the writing of articles (academic commodities) that perpetually reproduce this system, and a production of consumption (academics consuming the work of each other), but it’s done a piss poor job creating a system of distribution (disseminating it’s “knowledge” throughout the broader social world outside the walls of the autopoietic system of academia) and a system of consumption (devising strategies to assist non-academics in integrating those S2’s or knowledge).  The academic system is solipsistic, even though it claims to be worldly.  The question is how to break the self-enclosed membrane of that solipsistic cell, so that the form and content of theory might be aligned with one another.

ADVISORY WARNING:  This post might irritate philosophers and some people in the humanities.

Philosophers are really irritating, and pretty arrogant to.  Now don’t get me wrong.  Y’all know that I love philosophy (is that a double positive?).  I’m up to my ears in Plato, Aristotle, the epicureans and stoics, Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Deleuze, Badiou, Lucretius, and many others besides.  If I could draw a bath composed of philosophy and smother myself in it, I’d do so.  Nonetheless, I can’t deny that philosophers are really annoying and myopic.  Why?  Because we seldom examine the conditions of our own discourse.

“What?!?”, you say, “philosophers…  philosophers!… don’t examine the conditions of their own discourse?  Poppycock!  We’re the only ones that examine the conditions of our own discourse!”

I’m sorry boys, but it just ain’t true (oh, and please understand that I’m using masculine gender in this post advisedly, because philosophy still remains an overwhelmingly masculine discipline and this has all sorts of consequences that are seldom discussed outside of feminist and queer circles).  Oh, I know you engage in your whizbang “transcendental reflection” on the conditions for the possibility of frying eggs and knowing how to fry eggs, but that’s not what I’m getting at.  What I am getting at is that you don’t examine the sociological, psychological, geographical, material, and institutional conditions for your own discourse.  Indeed, you guys are such twerps that you even think these things are irrelevant to your questions and discourse.  Your annoying rejoinder is always the same:  “These things are irrelevant to our discourse because we’re just investigating what knowledge is, what the ultimate nature of being is, etc., etc., etc.  Those things pertain to other disciplines.”  Thus, as Wlad Godzich recounts in his forward to Paul de Man’s Resistance to Theory, philosophy came along in ancient Greece and reduced the question of theory or knowledge to aisthesis, to the question of a subject relating to an object and striving to represent that object, effectively getting rid of the sociological and geographical dimensions involved in knowledge.

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go-gameSo many questions are poorly posed because we fail to think relationally.  Yeah, yeah, I know that over the years us new realists (largely between OOO theorists and Whiteheadians) have had vicious and heated debates.  “Gasp!  Is Levi now doing an about face and saying things are relational after all?!?”  No.  In my view, those debates failed to understand the issue.  The question was never whether or not there are relations, nor whether or not relations are important.  No, the question was whether or not entities can be reduced to their relations.  OOO theorists such as myself argued– for a variety of epistemological, ontological, political, and ethical reasons –that entities can be severed from their relations and enter into new relations.  In other words, OOO argues that entities enjoy some minimal autonomy and independence from the relations to other entities they currently enjoy.  Whiteheadians, by contrast, argue that entities are their relations, such that there is no being of an entity in excess of its relations to other entities.  By analogy, you could say that one side was composed of Deleuzians who hold that relations are external to their terms (entities), such that they can shift, change, and be severed, while on the other side you have the Right Hegelians who hold that all relations are internal such that there is no being of beings in excess of that totality of relations.  Externalism versus internalism.  That was the issue.

I have no wish to rehearse that tiring debate– which at points came to resemble theological meditations on just how many angels can fit on the head of a pin –but rather to point out that within the OOO framework, relations are a key issue.  Indeed, from one vantage, I would say that my central question is “what is the relation between relations and relata (entities)?”  What obsesses me is not objects, but ecologies.  To think ecologically is to think relationally.  However, I believe that if you are to understand ecologies you have to begin from the premise that entities are external to their relations, such that sometimes they are subtracted from an ecology, sometimes they are added to an ecology, and something the relations between entities in an ecology change.  All of these cases lead to substantial changes in the ecology.  In the world of nature, these changes wrought by entities being added or subtracted from a particular ecosystem are what ecologists study.  Ecological practice— not to be confused with the self-reflexive moment of how ecology superficially theorizes or represents what it is doing –is incredibly sensitive to the fragility of ecosystems and the contingency of relations.  Their practice is much more interesting than their theory.

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pohAs some of you know, this has been a very tumultuous few months for me with a lot of big changes.  As a result, I’ve been behind on responding to emails and requests for articles.  If any of you have been trying to contact me and I’ve been non-responsive, please feel free to resend and I’ll get back to you.  Apologies!  Hopefully others have not taken my non-responsiveness as a sleight or indifference.  When addressed by others with questions I often feel paralyzed and without any sense of how to adequately respond.

In response to my last post, Lester asks a set of good questions.

ive been reading your blog with some curiosity for a while now, and would like to ask you a couple of questions, some related directly to this article, some more general that touch on other themes and ideas you have written about in other posts. all of this is coming from a place of growing understanding and interest in the different political and philosophical musings of OOO and political ontology.

i wonder, do you think that your notion of pluralism parallels with that of multiculturalism? coming from a more anthropological disciplinary background, i see many congruities with what you criticize pluralism for and what others have criticized multiculturalism for. namely, that it reduces all difference to that of culture – or the way peoples ‘experience’ and make sense of the world. ultimately, it is about perspectives, of which the pluralist, or the multiculturalist, cannot abide because how to we abandon our experience? i agree with you here, and see the dangers in such a position, the threat of relativism and so on. i suppose the main thing to be said from my point of view here is that we have to know what culture means and implies here. it seems like you are clear about your thoughts on culture by referring directly to naturalism and that you are a proponent of it, or that you side with it at the very least when it really comes down to it. and, from what i know of the history of philosophy and science, this is a very fraught question – culture and nature; where does one stop and the other begin? i take naturalism to be that we humans, or other beings like the animals you refer to, interpret the ‘real’ world, the true nature, and this has, to be sure, characterized the main assumptions of anthro methods and theory for a very long time. but, recently, as im sure you are aware, there have been many oppositions to this philosophical standpoint in many disciplines because of the way it ultimately separates subject from object, culture from nature, modernity, from non-modernity. so, i would be curious to know your thoughts on that particular question of culture and nature (maybe you have another post on it, but i havent come across it?) is it the case that we are all striving, though in different ways, for the one external element, the environment or nature, as the truth? pluralism is but one way of acknowledging the multiple ways people are seeking to comprehend this reality, and i mostly agree with your critique of it. but where i diverge from your critique is in how you separate “true reality” and metaphysical beliefs, which you distinguish based on empiricism and observation and note that its the best method we’ve got. can empiricism account for everything? what about love and so forth? has this not been one major function of phenomenology, to actually provide us with tools for addressing such saturated objects? furthermore, i also dont think that empiricism necessitates direct ‘observation’, but more so experience. if empiricism were to be taken as a tool for directly observing phenomenon and explaining the world only on what we can see and break down, wouldnt this just be positivism?

personally, Latour’s notion of “factishes”, whereby what exists is not reduced to “fact” (the external real world) or “fetish” (reifications of our subjectivity) but to an understanding that what exists is always mediated between subject and object, has been a helpful way for me to think through difference not in a strictly perspectival or cultural way – it is about worlds, or ontologies, and how they develop and clash with other worlds. “facts”, in this sense, are real because they are being done, performed. this, i think, can help us think about morality in a more productive way. for instance, im not sure how you would justify, or ‘prove’, your argument at the end of this piece that stated it is “wrong” to let a child die because of religious belief? an extreme example indeed… but, in any case, perhaps it would be better to think in terms of your own ontology (world) and how things are organized and related within it that makes this morality? that its ‘wrong’ to let a child die for a belief is certainly not a scientific explanation or proof, or even empirically verified fact, is it?

Thanks for the remarks.  You’re questions are difficult and I’m still working through them.  First, my holy grail is a perspective that integrates phenomenological, semiotic, and naturalistic perspectives.  My philosophical work began with the phenomenologists and I still highly prize their descriptive methods.  Later it evolved into semiotic perspectives influenced by Peirce, Eco, and Saussure, inflected by the work Lacan, Zizek, Derrida, and Levi-Strauss.  For me, ethnography, linguistics, and semiotics are every bit as significant as things like contemporary physics and neurology.  Finally, I feel that we need to integrate the perspectives of physics, chemistry, biology, neurology, geology, climate science, etc.  I don’t think we can just wave these things away.  When I criticize something like Lacanian psychoanalysis or Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, it is never to dismiss these things and suggest that we should instead be doing neurology and abandon these things (after all, I use phenomenological and semiotic styles of analysis all the time.  Rather, it is to show that these methods of analysis have blind spots, things that they can’t account for within their theoretical framework, and that we need other frameworks to supplement them.  It’s not a question of choosing between these three different orientations, but of thinking them together.  For example, in a Lacanian context, sometimes cigarette smoking has nothing to do with the unconscious and linguistic structure of ones desire.  Sometimes it really is a matter of ones brain chemistry.  I think we need a framework that’s capable of recognizing the interpenetration of these different spheres.

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exorcism-4Over at Three Pound Brain, Scott Bakker has an interesting post up discussing the conundrums and challenges of pluralism (and I assume that all of us want to advocate some form of pluralism).  Pluralism must be in the air lately, as I’ve been thinking about it myself all week.  The question that’s been haunting me is that of the degree to which anyone can genuinely be a pluralist.  First, it’s worth noting the ways in which I’m a pluralist or think I am.  I readily recognize that different critters and humans experience the world in different ways.  Cats perceive differently than mantis shrimp.  They have entirely different perceptual universes, so we can also say that they have different umwelts.  Many things that are there for a mantis shrimp just aren’t there at all for a cat, and vice versa.  Autistics like Temple Grandin also experience the world differently than people who have different neurological structures.

There’s also pluralism at the level of universes of meaning.  A Christian fundamentalist, for example, interprets the world differently than a naturalist such as myself.  If he’s suffering from alcoholism, for example, he might explain this in terms of demonic possession (in the United States there’s been a huge increase in exorcisms to treat such issues).  Whereas, the naturalist would explain alcoholism either in terms of neuro-chemical addiction or in terms of attempts to deal with difficult life circumstances, past trauma, or some combination of both.

Now were I still practicing as a psychotherapist, treatment would be different in both cases.  As an analyst, you bracket your beliefs about “true reality” and work within the universe of meaning held by your patient.  Your job as a therapist isn’t to teach your patients what true reality is, but to work with their symptoms.  Were I treating a Christian fundamentalist, I would probably work with their universe of meaning and perhaps even suggest that they get an exorcism because I would be working within the constraints of how their transference is structured.  Of course, none of this would be because I think their ontology is true, but because I understand how meaning works in relation to symptom formation in people.  It just happens that what is true or false here isn’t particularly relevant (for treatment).  The situation is the same with the ethnographer.  The ethnographer doesn’t go to the new tribe and try to disabuse them of their metaphysics.  The ethnographer merely attempts to understand that metaphysics.

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