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.

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.

read on!


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.

read on!


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.

read on!

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.

read on!


NihilismRecently, with some reference to “weak theology” lurking beneath the surface, I’ve been hearing a lot of folks defending religion on the grounds that it’s really some form of mytho-poetic thought and not to be taken as a set of ontological statements about the world.  The idea seems to be that those who reject religion get it entirely wrong because religion is not a theory of reality, causation, the self, the afterlife, and why things are, but rather religion is really just a set of very powerful stories that help us interpret and understand the world around us.  In one recent discussion about these issues, a friend accused me of being unimaginative and overly literal for failing to understand that these are just potent stories through which we interpret the world, and instead treating them as a theory of our selves, being, the world, and the origin of things.

polls_tornado_5341_690052_answer_4_xlargeBefore responding to these claims, it’s first important to get clear on some points.  The ontological nihilist like me doesn’t deny that we experience all sorts of meaning in the world.  The idea that we would think this is one of the oddest ideas to ever sprout from anyone’s mind.  We’re wired to find meanings, purposes, and motives in everything that takes place in the world?  Why?  As Alex Rosenberg suggests, probably because being able to predict the behavior of others, how they would respond to this or that, was a life or death matter when we were back on the savannah.  You had to have some reliable way of deciding who would help you, who wouldn’t, who was a potential enemy, who might be a friend, who was a potential mate, and all the rest.  Of course, the blind watch maker of natural selection, random variation, and heritability doesn’t do such a good job at being distinguishing.  It gave us the capacity for thinking in terms of narratives, motives, and purposes, but didn’t restrict the use of this capacity to speculations about other humans and animals.  As a consequence, we would inevitably come to see faces in clouds, anger in storms, and favor when something surprising and good happens to us.  So it goes.  That’s how our lizard brains are wired.  Fortunately we’ve begun to develop techniques for getting around this in the last few centuries or so.

Nihilist that I am, I’m no different in this respect.  When something randomly bad happens to me, the thought flits through my mind that perhaps I’m being punished.  When a nice thunder storm happens as I was wishing for a couple days ago, the thought flits through my mind that perhaps I pleased the divinities in some way and they answered my prayers.  When I look at the barks of trees, I sometimes think I see faces or animals.  Us nihilists are wired the same way as everyone else and thus have the same fleeting thought.  The only difference is that we don’t take these speculations about motives that occur to us when we think about nature as veridical statements about the natural world.  We say “that’s a trick of my cognition, not something that’s really there.”  It’s the same with a nicotine fit.  Once you become aware that the absence of nicotine changes your brain chemistry, you no longer say “that person is being a bastard!”, but instead say “my brain chemistry is a mess at this moment leading me to think this person is being a bastard.”  Sure, we still experience the other person as driving like an asshole, but we know this is coming from us not them.  We consequently moderate our response to the other driver because we recognize this is a peculiarity of our cognition of the other person, not a motive on the part of the other person.

So back to the “religion as mytho-poetic thought” line of argument.  Here are my problems with this line of argument:

1)  It’s simply not true that belief is experienced in this way for 99% of the people that have it.  Folks don’t say “the story of Job is a potent story that teaches me a valuable lesson about life”.  No.  They say this is a theory of reality that explains why this or that happens.  I’ll never forget a discussion with an evangelical friend of mine.  A few years ago there was a string of bizarre weather events here in Texas.  We were talking about this and I alluded to climate change.  She chuckled knowingly and said “I don’t worry about such things because I know how the world will end” (alluding to end times theology).  For her– and I’ve heard this countless times since —Revelation is not merely a potent set of poetic stories, but is something like an insurance man’s actuarial table.  It’s a real prediction about what will happen.  It’s a theory of reality and causation and why events are happening.  This effects her entire politics and attitude towards things like climate change.  Outside of the United States, I’m sure there are a lot of folks have a hard time understanding US foreign policy concerning Israel.  What they don’t understand– and don’t believe when they hear it –is that there is a huge voting block that relates the Jews returning to Israel with Biblical prophecy and that any policy that interferes with that means a tremendous loss of votes and campaign donations.  Ergo, certain issues just can’t be discussed here.  I kid you not.  And don’t even get me started on the impact of these beliefs on science education and embodied politics here in the States.

jimagesI loves me some John Caputo, but I just can’t share his view that these myths are potent stories that help us to make sense of the world.  They’re full blown theories that make truth claims about the nature of reality, what will happen, why what has happened has happened, and what sorts of policy and practices we should adopt.  These are theories that have had a profound effect on our ability to respond to climate change, science in the states, as well as all sorts of gender politics.  It’s hard to escape the mytho-poetic theory of religious belief is a lot of hand waving by well meaning academics and enlightened people who just can’t bring themselves to believe that their neighbors really believe these things, that have sentimental feelings about the ritual they grew up with in their churches, and that have the misguided view that they can somehow persuade these people if they just talk about their beliefs in a nice way.  They don’t seem to realize that the lay will always bristle at the thought that their theory of reality is just a set of potent myths to be interpreted after the fashion of Levi-Strauss or, gag, Joseph Campbell.

2) If the mytho-poetic theorists are right, then they’re saying nothing different than the social constructivists and literary critics have been saying all along.  They’re saying that these things aren’t representations of reality or the way things are, but are social constructions, effects of the play of the signifier, creations of cognition, and all the like.  In other words, they’re rejecting the referential dimension of these things and giving culturalist explanations.  But this is what secular-naturalistic orientations have argued all along.  One then wonders why the mytho-poeticists continue to defend religion if they really believe all these stories are referentially false as theories of reality.  Why aren’t they busily deconstructing them?

3)  If it is true that these stories or theories of reality are just potent literature, why do they still continue to privilege sacred texts which have historically caused so much mayhem.  If religion was really just great literary works all along, why not instead find mytho-poetic meaning in great literature like Kafka, comic books, television shows, films, paintings, music, and so on?  Why hang on to these particular stories that were written by sheep herders that barely understood anything of the universe 6000+ years ago.  It’s bizarre that one would hold the theory that these things are just a way in which people create meaning in the world through narrative and then not consider just abandoning those particular stories that have been taken as theories of reality for so long.  After all, no one ever burned a witch, stoned a woman, or sacrificed a daughter over Kafka, but they certain did over these stories and have justified slavery and a variety of other egregious things to boot based on this particular literature.  Let’s make a clean break

4)  The mytho-poetic theory of religion just muddies the waters.  As I said, the vast majority of believers don’t advocate this theory.  Women, GLBT folks, scientists, etc., are all oppressed in very real ways by these things, and they affect American climate policy, scientific research (evolution, stem cell research, etc), and a variety of other things too.  The mytho-poetic theorist comes along and says “but that’s not really what they mean, these are just powerful stories that give life meaning!”  In doing so they provide cover for the worst manifestations of mytho-poetic thought (even though that’s not their intention).  These folks should be looking to what the lay believes, not what they read in their sophisticated journals and by theologians.

Yes, I too find the story of Jesus very potent and inspiring (as I do with Buddha and a lot of Greek and Roman mythology as well; especially the story of Apollo and Daphne).  Moreso, however, his life and not his death.  I’m also all for reading the Bible in exactly the same way as we read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and in the way ehtnographers interpret the religious beliefs of other cultures.

shatter-clingIn a comment, my friend Matt Brown raises some interesting points about science and my criticism of Latour’s principle of irreduction.

Me:  Because to explain is to reduce.

Matt:  This is wrong from a philosophy of science point of view, or at least, an oversimplification. It is noteworthy that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Scientific Explanation ( includes no mention of reduction or reductionism. It is true that in order to explain we need to make some relation between the phenomenon and its explanans, but the explanans is not generally thought of as a reduction to phenonema at a more basic level. Main candidates for explanans include laws of nature (at the same level as the explanandum), causal mechanisms (most of which again are not reductions, e.g., mary throwing the rock explains the broken window), or unifications (again, many of which are not reductions, e.g., Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism).

It is also worth pointing out that one of the most canonical articles on reductionism (Oppenheim & Putnam’s “Unity of Science as a Working Hypothesis”) argues that microreductions can be explanatory, but takes other things (deduction from explanatory law) as definitional of explanation.

Me:  The sciences explain the powers of H2O by reference to the features of hydrogen and oxygen.

Matt:  This example actually doesn’t work for you. While some features of hydrogen and oxygen, and some quantum mechanical principles like the Pauli exclusion principle, are part of the explanation of the features of water, but there are other chemistry-level parts of the explanation, including especially chemical bonds and related structural properties which are not part of atomic physics.

Me:  Indeed, even Latour’s own actor-network analyses are reductions.

Matt:  This looks true if you only focus on one moment in ANT analysis. (I just did Reassembling the Social w/ my grad class so this is fresh.) When Latour turns to look at actants, he recommends that we follow all of the connections that “make up” the actants, that make them do things. So while he might have us follow all of the parts of the Corporation as part of an ANT study of the Corporation, he’d also point out that the actants themselves aren’t themselves on a more basic level. Also, his point about the ways the Corporation “speaks” (wholly in documents) vs. how the person in the customer service department speaks to you on the phone seems relevant.

Unfortunately I wasn’t quite clear in my post on Latour and left out the central point I was trying to make:  there’s a difference between explanatory reduction (ER) and ontological reduction (OR).  Let’s take the materialism of Peter van Inwagen to illustrate OR.  If I understand Inwagen correctly, only elementary particles (whatever they turn out to be) and animal individuals truly exist.  Thus, for example, when a baseball shatters a window, neither the window nor the baseball really exist.  These are just fabrications of our crude perceptual apparatus.  What’s really occurred is an interaction between a plurality of different elementary particles.  There are no windows nor baseballs, only elementary particles.  This is an ontological reduction insofar as it’s basically making the claim that baseballs and windows don’t exist, only elementary particles.  OR’s deny the existence of some set of entities.

read on!


night_critter_by_0149-d358tr6Bill Rose Thorn has a nice post up responding to my theses on Dark Ontology and, in particular, my claim that being is without purpose or meaning.  A couple of folks have misconstrued what I’m saying on this point, so it’s worth making a couple words of clarification.  What does it mean to say that the universe is without purpose or meaning?  It merely means that there’s nothing inscribed in the order of things that has a meaning, purpose, or divine.  Natural disasters aren’t rewards or punishments for how peoples have lived their lives.  The stars have nothing to say about the destinies of peoples.  History is not working towards some final goal.  There isn’t a battle between good and evil.  No divine being was trying to teach you a lesson when you lost a loved one or got cancer.  These are all just things that happen.  Nothing more, nothing less.  There is no grand drama of being where humans are at the center and where some struggle between the supernatural forces of good and evil are playing themselves out.  Humans happened as a result of random mutation and natural selection.  Nothing more.  We could have just as easily not happened and at some point we’ll evolve into another species that might be far more enlightened or far more brutal than us, or we’ll just disappear from the world altogether as a result of extinction.

hurricane-ivan_200_600x450What doesn’t it mean to say the universe is without meaning, design, or purpose?  Obviously it doesn’t mean that humans and other critters don’t create meaning.  We’re up to our eyeballs in meaning every minute of our lives.  When I use a hammer to pound nails I’ve assigned a purpose to it and given it a meaning.  When a person reflects on the significance of their cancer for their lives, they’re giving it meaning.  We set all sorts of goals for ourselves.  We wonder about the significance of Hurricane Katrina for culture.  We wonder what the impact of 9-11 will be on society.  We write novels and philosophies.  In everything we do we do so in a world of meaning.  2844003921_63008aab00_zThe thesis of naturalism and nihilism is not that there isn’t meaning.  It’s a thesis about where meaning comes from.  The naturalistic thesis is that meaning arises from the play of the signifier and our embodied, lived, cognitive experiences.  It’s the thesis that they aren’t in the things themselves.  When my daughter sees ponies in the clouds, they’re not in the things themselves.  We can only talk about the world meaningfully, but one of the neat things about meaning is that it can talk about the non-meaningfulness of existence itself.  Obviously a person’s cancer means a lot to them, but in the order of nature itself independent of their cognition, relation to language, and so on, there’s no meaning to their cancer in the sense of some metaphysically inscribed purpose, plan, or meaning to that cancer.  Nope.  They just suffered a sad genetic mutation as a result of some substance like uranium they were exposed to.  It wasn’t some divine being teaching them a lesson or placing them in some dire straits for some grand cosmic plan.  What I’m saying is no different than anything Spinoza or the Stoics said:  nothing in itself is beautiful or ugly, good or bad, purposeful or purposeless, only our evaluations make it so.  Good/bad, right/wrong, and all the rest are purely relational predicates.  My cats seem to take great delight in resting their little heads in my stinky shoes.  Me not so much.  Is the shoe’s odor loathsome?  Apparently not to my cat.  It’s my cat that gives value to that odor.  It’s value isn’t in the shoe itself.

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