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!

With Latour, I don’t like the nature/culture distinction.  It gives us the impression that there’s a realm of nature that we can investigate outside of culture; yet all natural science involves politics, cultural assumptions, and all the rest.  Likewise, it gives us the impression that there’s a domain of culture that is somehow outside of and immune to nature that we can investigate in its own terms.  Yet there is no society or culture that isn’t intertwined with nature at every point, whether we talk about the biology of humans, the impact of epidemic diseases on culture as during the Middle Ages, the need for energy to sustain bodies, social relations, cities, etc.  Take your example of love.  You seem to suggest that things like neurology and biology have nothing to teach us about love.  I readily recognize that there’s a phenomenology of love and that there is also a culturally diverse and changing set of semiotics about love.  However, I think it would be mistaken to conclude that this means love is somehow distinct from, for example, neuro-chemistry and the way brains are structured.  I don’t know.  The issue is one of not foreclosing that possibility.

As I’ve argued in a number of places, I think the humanities and social sciences have a pre-modern concept of nature.  If you’re interested in some of my arguments on this you can consult my preface to this work.  Under the premodern concept of nature, nature was conceived as essence or that arises ineluctably and inevitably in the things by virtue of their “nature”.  For example, it is in the nature of an acorn to produce oak trees and it is in the nature of spiders to spin webs (without any need for education or learning).  By contrast, the domain of culture is conceived as techne or that which is imposed on something from the outside.  It is not in the nature of a piece of wood to become a table, but rather the form of table is imposed on the wood through the agency of humans or craftsmen.  Techne is therefore treated as the domain of the historical and accidental (cultural variation), whereas nature is treated as the domain of eternal and unchanging species or essences.  In the case of humans, the question then becomes that of whether our being is techne or “constructed” or whether our being is “natural” or, for lack of a better term, innate.

I believe that modern science has demolished this conception of nature and that the humanities and social sciences have not caught up to this.  Astronomy has shown us that atoms themselves are historical, that they are the result of fusion processes taking place in the heart of stars.  Biology has shown us not only that species are the result of a history, not only that species don’t really exist but that when we use the term “species” we’re really making a claim about the statistical predominance of certain traits in a population of individuals, but also that individuals are developmentally plastic.  There isn’t one set of things, the genes, that function like a blueprint and that ineluctably unfold in the development of an organism, and then another set of things, “environmental influences” that give organisms their unique form, there is plasticity all the way down.  One and the same genome can develop in very different ways in different environmental contexts.  Genes are not a blueprint, but one set of tendencies, among others in the organism and environment, that can be actualized in a variety of different ways (epigenetic theory, evolutionary and developmental theory, and developmental systems theory are sublime on these points).  We’re now even learning that “culture” can actually change genes.  The nature/culture split endlessly harped on in the humanities just is not at all representative of what actually takes place in the development of organisms.  In this regard, nature begins to look a lot more like culture than anything described as nature under the old essentialist conception.  For me it’s construction all the way down.  It just so happens that construction isn’t exclusively cultural or linguistic, but involves contributions from geography, biology, plant life, other animals, and so on.

Recognizing this, my strategy has been to argue that everything, including culture, is nature.  In making this move, I hope to diffuse the essentialist concept of nature that contrasts it with techne.  There are regularities in being that move and change at a slower pace, but they are no less historical and accidental than the quickest cultural changes.  I also hope this move helps us to diffuse the knee-jerk (and highly defensive!) rejection the humanities and social sciences so often have to discussion of anything pertaining to the natural sciences and biology.  Increasingly I am trying to replace the words “culture” and “society” with the word “ecology”.  Cultures and societies, I say, are ecosystems.  Notice that ecosystems such as Amazonian rain forests, are every bit as historical and contingent as any particular culture you might look at.  Cultures, I argue, are just particular types of ecosystems embedded in broader ecosystems.  By shifting to this sort of pan-ecological view, I hope to both preserve all that we’ve learned through the semiotic analyses of culture that we find in ethnography, while also drawing attention to the way in which every culture is embedded in a broader natural world without which it couldn’t exist and that perpetually has cultural effects as in the case of the black plague.

It’s true that at the end of the day I feel compelled to preserve a distinction between our theories of reality and reality itself.  I can straightforwardly say that I think the Aztec theory of reality is wrong.  However, believing that the Aztecs (or the Greeks or Romans or Kahluli, etc) got their theory of reality wrong doesn’t somehow prevent me from recognizing that this is how they interpret the world around them and that if I’m going to communicate with them and get along I need to understand something about this world.  Is this some sort of horrible form of ethnocentrism?  I don’t think so.  I think every cultural framework draws a distinction between its theory of reality and reality itself; thereby recognizing that it could potentially be mistaken in how it understands the world about it.  Positions that don’t draw such a distinction or that don’t recognize fallibility are what we refer to as psychoses.  I don’t think we give other cultures enough credit when we fail to recognize that they two draw this distinction and that they are open to persuasion (just as we are).  Part of the problem with radical pluralism is that it tends to forget that both subjectivities and cultures are porous, instead treating them as solipsistic little bubbles that people can never get out of.  However, it seems to me that we manage to communicate across cultures all the time and that this is part of how change takes place in cultural ecologies.  Moreover, believing that someone else is mistaken doesn’t amount to calling for them to be killed or eradicated.  I have a friend, for example, who passionately believes in astrology.  I think astrology is nonsense.  That doesn’t prevent us from having interesting discussions about astrology and for me being fascinated by the way he interprets me through the stars.  It just means that I think his picture of reality isn’t true.

All that aside, if I’ve been harping a lot about the biological and neurological these days, then this isn’t because I think these things are the only truth, but because I’ve already written reams on semiotics and phenomenology (neither of which I’ve abandoned), and because I think these things are huge blind spots for Continental theory.  It’s my hope that by writing about these things I can contribute to others complicating their own views more to develop richer theories and to do a better job responding to the things we’re quickly seeing take center stage in popular culture (genecentrism, evolutionary psychology, the new eugenics, climate change, etc).  We can’t respond to these things if we comport ourselves like proverbial ostriches and simply trying to pretend they’re not there.  We need a framework that takes materialism seriously and that develops sound critiques of these things.