May 2013

Water dropletIf I were to name a single thing that I most regret in all that I have written in since 2011, it would be my defense of Latour’s principle of irreduction in my article entitled “The Ontic Principle” in The Speculative Turn.  Having reflected on this principle in the intervening years, I can’t help but believe that it would be a catastrophe to any knowledge-producing practices were it taken seriously.  Why?  Because to explain is to reduce.  The sciences explain the powers of H2O by reference to the features of hydrogen and oxygen.  Likewise, I explain the powers of hydrogen and oxygen by reference to more elementary particles.  When someone interprets a novel, they’re carrying out a reduction saying, in effect, that the “manifest content” of the novel refers to this latent, ideational content.  When a psychoanalyst interprets a symptom, they’re carrying out a reduction.  Indeed, even Latour’s own actor-network analyses are reductions.  He takes complex aggregates such as corporations and looks at all the actants that make them up.  He’s reducing these aggregates to more elementary units.  What we need is not a principle of irreduction, but of reduction that would allow us to distinguish between good and bad reductions.

The problem with the principle of reduction when taken at face value is that it leads us to treat every entity as an ontological given.  “God, is but a set of beliefs, you say?  Well by Latour’s principle of reduction this is an illegitimate reduction!  Therefore we must include God in our ontology!”  “Your depression is a chemical imbalance, you say?  Well that’s an illegitimate reduction and it really means all that your confused says it means!”  And while you’re at it, us Jews really were what the Nazis said we were because, well, it would be reductive to say otherwise!

I suspect that Latour himself didn’t think this is what the principle of irreduction means.  After all, all of his actual analyses speak against this as he perpetually carries out reductions.  What does Latour actually say?  He says, “[n]othing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (The Pasteurization of France, 158).  It’s the second part of the proposition that’s important.  When he refuses reduction he’s challenging bad sociology.  Like the mathematician, he’s saying you have to show your work.  Somewhere or other he gives Freudian dream interpretation as an example of virtuous reduction.  What’s good about a Freudian dream interpretation.  It shows all the transformations (the dream-work) that lead from the dream-thought to the manifest content of the dream.  It doesn’t just say “dream x means y”, but shows how the thought or repressed desire gets elaborated into y.  Similarly, in the domain of Marxist social theory, it’s not enough to say “capitalism causes r”.  You have to show all the mediations and mechanisms by which we get from the dynamics of capitalism to a particular social phenomena.  We have to show our work.  However, showing your work is a reduction nonetheless.  A bad reduction is merely one that doesn’t show the mediations or how you get from point a to point b.  Not everything exists.  Sorry folks, there are no rainbows, though we certainly experience them as a result of the properties of light, raindrops, and our own neurological systems.  Whiteheadian nonsense aside, in the absence of those neurological systems rainbows just ain’t there.

renaissance-the-school-of-athens-classic-art-paitings-raphael-painter-rafael-philosophers-hd-wallpapersIn response to my post on dark ontology, a friend remarks:

I find these propositions intriguing but I have a few questions I would like you to address if you can.  You stated in two of the responses that you’re using ‘axiom’ not as ‘self-evident truth’ but as ‘constraint or rule w/in types of math’ and that if the term ‘axiom’ is unsatisfying then feel free to replace it w/’thesis’. Two questions: one, if axiom is used with little or no problem and in this instance for types of ontological issues, how would axiom as ‘constraint or rule within types of mathematics’ apply here? When referring to axioms of set theory for example, there are procedures (and I’m not using that term in any badiouian sense) and operations I could do; there are problems to be solved, and so forth such that it makes sense that this constraint, rule, or what have you productively governs my behavior as it pertains to specific types of mathematics. Here though, #12, and #15 for example, I’m not aware of how if they constrain certain moves within a discourse or are rules w/in a discourse that could do anything; be operationalized. How would they do any work? Like, how would #12 change discursive behavior? Would we stop singling out the Greeks in terms of past civilizations; would attempts to retrieve aspects of the past that some find potentially beneficial in a non-christian/post-christian setting be deemed/regarded as non-helpful? Same w/no. 15, would admitting the inability to resolve the climate crisis (or even alleviate it), do anything, produce an effect, in the way that certain rules within specific mathematic discourses produce effects?

Second question: if ‘axiom’ gets changed to ‘thesis’, what then occurs? How is thesis being used here? If thesis is simply retaining its’ everyday, colloquial use or meaning, then aren’t there supposed to be examples, or arguments, evidence of some sort, or just something to “back this up”? I mean how do you back-up number 12, or 15, or 16? Classicists view a lot of religious texts simply and utterly as literature, and isn’t it reasonable to suppose that a majority of religious believers view other religious folk’s text(s) as simply literature when reading them (albeit they don’t see their own as just literature)? Plus, a lot of literature comes from these prior texts. If I use ‘thesis’, should I be thinking ‘claims/propositions given where various knowledge-projects are currently’ or more ‘hypotheses’, or maybe, ‘speculations’?

Thanks for the difficult questions!  With respect to the use of the term “axiom”, my position is that sciences such as physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and neurology as well as social sciences such as sociology, ethnography, cognitive science, and psychoanalysis have shown us certain things about ourselves and the world that function as constraints within which philosophical questions must be posed to be legitimate.  We can’t just brush these things aside, pretend they don’t exist, or that we can continue to pursue philosophy in the same way in the way we did in the 18th century.  Certain positions just aren’t feasible anymore.  What I’ve tried to outline here is the framework within which questions of ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy ought to be posed.  The list, of course, is subject to revision and some of the claims might be abandoned.

Regarding your questions about the Greeks and past civilizations, I’m certainly not suggesting that we just abandon antiquity and pre-contemporary philosophy.  Certainly I’ve spilled plenty of ink writing about Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius (the best of the bunch), Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Leibniz, and a host of others.  When I talk about the splendor of our particular moment in intellectual history with respect to artistic accomplishments, the sciences, mathematics, politics, and the social sciences, I’m responding to a particular attitude I’ve often encountered among those working in the phenomenological tradition (inflected by Gadamerian hermeneutics) that speaks with an almost religious fervor about the Greeks as being an originary event, unparalleled in all of history, and that tends to be dismissive of anything contemporary.  My view– shared with Badiou, I think –is that we are living in the midst of the most exciting time in human history and in the middle of an unprecedented renaissance in knowledge-producing practices, politics, and art.  Antiquity and modernity just don’t hold a candle to the discoveries of mathematics and the sciences in the last century, the daring adventures of contemporary art, and the entirely new form of politics we’ve discovered.

The things we’ve discovered in biology, metereology, physics, neurology, sociology, psychology, ethnography, and mathematics are simply unprecedented in human history.  Comparing ourselves to the Greeks is a bit like comparing Euclid to the working knowledge of geometers possessed by craftsmen.  There’s simply no comparison, nor should we grant the geometrical knowledge of carpenters to the splendor of Euclid’s accomplishment and the manner in which it created mathematics.  My contention, then, is that these radical transformations and inventiveness in science, mathematics, art, and politics, are what ought to provoke contemporary thought in philosophy and theory.  Rather than dwelling in a dusty archive that perpetually tries to pretend these things haven’t occurred by endlessly engaging in a pious commentary on the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and so on, our age calls us to be the new Descartes’s, Spinozas, Leibniz’s, Rouseau’s, Kant’s, and Hegel.  Far from trying to defend the sovereignty of philosophy by protecting it against science, we should embrace the new age and ask what it calls us to think.


Over at Attempts at Living, arranjames has a nice post responding to my manifesto calling for a post-nihilistic praxis.  I agree wholeheartedly.  The points I laid out last night were intended to outline the constraints or framework within which contemporary social, political, and disciplinary questions are to be posed if they’re to be legitimate.  Some have expressed confusion over my use of the term “axiom” in that post.  In modern mathematics, an axiom is not a “self-evident truth” (nothing is self-evidently true these day) but a constraint on how a particular branch of mathematics is to unfold.  In this sense, an axiom is a sort of rule of the game.  It says “given this constraint, how must questions in this branch of mathematics be posed and what can be deduced?”  The axioms I set forth last night are what I take to be the only legitimate conclusions that can be drawn from the state of knowledge today in the physical sciences, biology, neurology, psychology, etc.  It’s simply no longer possible to honestly believe in a world characterized by purposiveness, body/mind divisions, design, the supernatural, and all the rest.  As Nietzsche saw long ago, we’ve completely lost this world.  Here are a few more axioms that I forgot in the last post.

21.  Humans are a particular type of animal among other animals and are not the pinnacle of being or existence.

22.  All human cognitive powers are biologically rooted or grounded.

23.  These cognitive powers evolved for the sake of getting around in a hostile world pervaded with other predators and for         reproduction.  It does appear, however, that our nervous systems are able to deploy themselves in ways that go beyond these original evolutionary aims.

24.  Our cognitive systems did not evolve for the sake of knowing the world or representing it as it is; which is why we must perpetually engage in critique in our knowledge-producing practices to protect against the insufficiencies of our cognitive structures.

25.  Consciousness has no special insight into the workings of the body from which it arises, nor any special insight into the causes of its cognitive and affective states.  As a consequence, evidence drawn from introspection has to be treated with caution.

26.  Given that all minds have a neurological substrate, we can no longer speak in generic or general terms about human minds as neurological structures are diverse in our species.  This is also attested to by the developmental plasticity of the brain.

27.  No philosophy can ignore or bracket the findings of the sciences and be legitimate.  Some basic scientific literacy is necessary for good philosophical work.  Similarly, basic literacy in the findings of ethnography, linguistics, sociology, and psychology are also necessary for good philosophical work.

28.  Philosophy is not a foundation for any other discipline, nor does any other discipline require philosophy to grant them legitimacy.  Each discipline develops its own epistemic criteria and protocols as a function of its investigation.  While philosophy can, of course, engage in critique of these protocols and render a service in doing so, other disciplines are in no need of the epistemological work of philosophy.  Indeed, philosophical epistemologies are often a hindrance to research in other disciplines as the philosopher is seldom aware of the specific questions and methodologies pursued and used in these disciplines and therefore arrives at them with a highly distorted understanding of what knowledge is in these disciplines.

29.  Everything that exists is the result of a genesis or development.

30.  Religions are not beliefs but are political institutions that exert power in the world in various ways and that organize people in various ways.  As a consequence, discussions of religion at the level of belief and whether or not those beliefs are true often miss the fact that religions are sociological entities.

31.  Theology seldom contributes anything to our understanding of religion and often muddies the water by presenting a rationalized version of popular belief and religion.  The claims of theologians are seldom reflective of what the population believes.  As a consequence, we have more to learn about religion from the ethnographer and the sociologist of religion than we do from the theologian who is generally what Deleuze called a State Thinker, even in his most progressive moment.

32.  There is no religion that does not involve the supernatural.  Those theologians that attempt to persuade us that religion is really about meanings and symbols do not understand what they’re talking about.

33.  Culture is not a domain outside of nature, but is a formation within nature.  Cultures are one more ecology among others.

34.  Nature is not harmonious nor does it strive for harmony, though harmony does occasionally happen for a brief period of time.

36.  The world is riddled with antagonisms and always will be.

37.  In ecologies and societies, there is no one cause for any particular event, but rather all events are “overdetermined” or the result of multiple causes.

38.  Everything is in a constant state of disintegration.  For this reason, work, energy, and operations are required for any ordered existence to continue enduring in time.

39.  Existence is indifferent to us, our sufferings, how we live our lives, and whether we continue to exist.  We aren’t, however, indifferent to each other.

40.  If aliens ever visit our planet they won’t be nice and they’ll be up to no good.  Star Trek is not a documentary.

41. Molecular biology has discredited vitalism and all its variants.

  1. mimagesThere is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe.  Life is an accident and has no divine significance (though it’s obviously important to the living).
  2. Nonetheless, many living beings give meaning to the universe.  It’s just not inscribed in the things themselves.
  3. All life will pass away and be erased.  Our sun, for example, will eventually expand and devour all life and culture in a fiery end.  It’s unlikely that inter-stellar travel will ever be realistic or possible given the vast distances of space, so all sentient life and artifacts of culture will be gone when this happens.
  4. There is no afterlife in any meaningful sense (yes worms will use our corpses as food to continue their life but that’s not me).  When you’re dead you’re dead and that’s it (though maybe the trans-humanists are right and we’ll develop computer technologies capable of uploading selves and thereby establishing a materialist immortality; I doubt it, but who knows).
  5. There are no purposes in being (in the Aristotlean, Platonic, and Christian Sense), nor is there any goal or aim of history.  All eschatologies are thus shams.  With that said, organic and technological beings arise in nature that appear to create purposes and goals for themselves.
  6. There is no plan to being, but rather it’s all anarchy and accident.
  7. There is no supernatural causation of any kind, nor any genuinely mystical experiences (e.g. astrology and merging with the totality of things) so anything that posits deep meanings, supernatural causes, purposes, and so on ought to be treated with disdain and ignored.
  8. Nonetheless, people do have “mystical experiences”.  They just aren’t caused in the way they suppose and are perfectly ordinary natural/neurological events (the oneness with everything that certain epileptics describe after a seizure resulting from all their neurons more or less firing at once).  Buddhist meditation is therefore a good psycho-neurological therapy.
  9. Dark ontologists experience wonder, awe, and a reverence for things precisely because everything is an accident and meaningless and therefore irreplaceable.  There’s nothing “spiritual” about this, unless one wishes to abuse language and, indeed, spirituality often dulls our ability to experience wonder at things such as the existence of life despite its improbability because it thinks there’s a designer behind these things.
  10. Nothing takes place in being that doesn’t have a physical or material substrate.  There’s no magic.
  11. There’s no particular wisdom of the ancients.  They just had techniques for producing effects in the minds of others through a different form of transference.
  12. The Greeks don’t hold a candle to the accomplishments of the last three hundred years in the sciences, social and political thought, mathematics, art, etc.  Heideggerian and hermeneutic reverence for the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Aristotle is therefore silly and myopic.  The Greeks should live up to us, not we to them.
  13. Everything is in nature, including culture.
  14. No God will save us.
  15. We’re very likely have ringside seats for the end of this particular chapter in evolutionary history because it’s not clear how we can respond to the crisis of climate change.
  16. If, as Caputo says, religious texts are like comic book stories that provide valuable life stories and ideals, we’d do better to draw our examples of such things from great literature than horribly written and poorly organized sacred texts that invite superstitious, non-materialist brutality and ignorance.
  17. There will never be a progressive form of spirituality as any discussion of the divine is always recouped as a justification for various forms of oppression (e.g., fundamentalists enlisting Hawking’s and Einstein’s statements about God for their own cause).  As a result, moderate believers are often worse than fundamentalists as they enable these dynamics of power.
  18. It’s cynical to say people are dopes and need to believe these things so we should make political use of them.  The people we say this about also sense that’s what we think.
  19. The worst abuses of history arise from believing that we’re acting on behalf of a goal or aim of history or an afterlife.  Once the permanence of death is erased in thought, the most horrific abuses of life are all justified as this world doesn’t matter, and when we say that history has a goal we justify doing anything in the present to reach that goal.
  20. This world is all we have.

don_draperIn response to an earlier post, the outstanding blog Attempts at Living writes:

Couldn’t I also say that no one ever experienced vision, though everyone has experienced seeing and not seeing, that no one has ever felt a punch to the guts but that they have felt pain. This is just absolutising the separation of experience of the thing and the thing itself, as if it could ever be possible to experience the source of experience except as an experience. Sure, when I experience tiredness and wakefulness I don’t experience every single part of metabolism, but in order to experience metabolism it isn’t necessary that I experience all of it, only part of it. After all, I have been to Ypres in Belgium, so I experienced Belgium…but it would be ludicrous of me to claim that I experienced all of Belgium in all its possible modes of being experienced. But if I say “I have been to Belgium” or “I enjoyed visiting Belgium” I’m not really making a claim of that order of intensity.

Here’s the problem.  The claim is not that we don’t experience effects of our bodies or that consciousness isn’t embodied.  That’s all taken for granted.  The thesis is that consciousness gives us no reliable guide to causes of our lived states.  Let’s recall that phenomenology is a foundationalist discourse that more or less argues that all claims need to be grounded in the evidences of consciousness and experience.  If we find that consciousness is a pretty unreliable guide to its causes, this is a pretty serious problem for it as a methodology.  Before getting to that, I’ll note a couple things:

  1. The value and importance of phenomenological descriptions is not here being contested.  Phenomenology has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of ourselves, our own experience, and so on.  None of that should be abandoned.
  2. Nor am I disputing the thesis that we can’t have good cognitive science or neurology without good phenomenology.  A lot of cognitive science is nonsense on stilts because it has a thoroughly mistaken view of experience and mind arising out of a failure to engage in careful descriptive analysis.
  3. What is being disputed is the sovereign and foundationalist role that phenomenology tries to claim for itself.  Phenomenology might give us insight into what needs to be explained, but it does not explain.

Now back to the issue.  My thesis is that conscious states give no reliable insight into their causes and that therefore we risk completely misconstruing our mental life if we take phenomenological description at face value.  Let’s take an example I discussed on facebook this morning:  Heidegger’s discussion of anxiety.  Heidegger argues that anxiety arises out of our “being-in-the-world”, meaning, being-towards-death, and authenticity.  My state of anxiety, he argues, arises from awareness that only I can die my own death, that no one can die it for me, and leads to an awareness that all of our decisions are our own.  Above all, Heidegger argues that anxiety is a special attunement or affect pertaining to meaning.

read on!


bodies-splitjpg-fbad928e64c4b110_largeElsewhere I wrote that “one of the greatest oxymorons is the idea of a lived body.  The body is never given to consciousness or lived experience”.  Some people have had trouble understanding this.  All I mean when I say this is that we never have direct experience of our bodies and the causes of our affective states.  In an earlier post on the opacity of affect, I articulated this in terms of nicotine fits.  In the midst of a nicotine fit I believe that my friend is the cause of my irritation, when, in fact, it is a mess going on with my neurotransmitters that is the cause of my nicotine fits.  My conscious mind casts about for an explanation of the displeasure of this situation and alights on my friend, when the cause has nothing to do with my friend and everything to do with bio-chemical processes.  If you think you’ve ever experienced a nicotine fit you’ve never understood phenomenology or its methodological requirements.  You experience the effects of nicotine fits, not the organic causes.  You can’t experience the organic causes of anything taking place in your body and never have.  Organic causes can only be understood in the natural attitude and from a third person perspective that correlates the descriptions of people with what’s chemically, and through the use of brain scans being detected in bodies.  No one has ever experienced their brain.

This is what Spinoza is getting at in 2p27 when he says that the body is affected in many ways of which we’re unaware.  We think that x, y, and z is the cause of why we’re feeling as we are, when it’s really p, q, and r.  This is where semiotic (symbolic) and (imaginary) discussions of the body will always fail to reach the real body.  The paradox is that I both am my body and have no privileged insight into the causes that animate the affective life of my experience.  They could be of the imaginary order (phenomenology) or they could be of the semiotic order (culture, the signifier) or they could be of the real order (organic, chemical, material).  First person experience can never decide these issues.  At best, it can give us a “pataphysics” of our bodies, never an ontological ground of embodied experience.  Descriptive analysis can only take us so far and certainly not give us reliable knowledge of causes where our bodies are concerned because our real bodies are withdrawn from us.  If we uncritically accept the descriptions of phenomenological approaches and semiological approaches, we risk misconstruing all sorts of issues.  Oddly only a third person approach coupled with first person descriptions can give us any insight into the real body (consider the distorted image of the body experienced by an anorexic or the more familiar experience of phantom limbs).

4.1alzheimersCatherine Malabou has done a wonderful job underlining these issues in works like The New Wounded, when discussing phenomena like strokes and Alzheimer’s.  These are phenomena that don’t fit with the semiological fetish of the Lacanians, nor the phenomenological prejudice of first-person experience.  They require a different analytic framework.  Jane Bennett made similar points about the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on cognition and lived experience in Vibrant Matter.  Were we to adopt, for example, a phenomenological mode of analysis for the impact of omega-3 fatty acids we would get things entirely wrong.  We’d be talking about the lived experience of students and prison inmates, their “horizon of meaning”, and so on, missing entirely what the causes of these changes are and how they had nothing to do with meanings, signifiers, lived experiences, horizons of significance, and the rest.

People get nervous when these things are mentioned.  Usually the first words that come out of the mouth of those of us in the humanities are “reductionism” and “scientism”.  Lord knows that Bennett got plenty of grief for what she wrote about omega-3 fatty acids.  There were calls to “burn the witch” or the polite academic equivalent.  In response, people should remember that the claim is not that these are the only causes, but that these types of material causes are excluded from the sorts of analysis we in the humanities and social sciences generally engage in.  The point is not to exclude all we’ve gained from phenomenology and semiotics, but to recognize that they’re limited and that there are other fields of causation that we don’t even begin to entertain or explore.  Us humanists really have nothing to say about strokes, Alzheimer’s, nicotine fits, and partial lobotomies.  It’s text, text, text and lived experience all the time.

We call ourselves materialists, yet exclude any materialist form of anlaysis a priori; so effectively that we don’t even recognize we’re doing so.  I suspect that part of the reason for this is that academics do not work with people who suffer from these things, and have generally led fairly privileged lives where material reality works (exactly what Heidegger described when discussing the withdrawal of tools when they’re working) and have seldom experienced poverty or homelessness as a result of coming from privileged backgrounds.  We just don’t see because we’ve never experienced broken material worlds and therefore reduce everything to first-person descriptive experience and texts to be interpreted (the things available in our offices when pondering issues about mind, culture, human behavior, meaning, etc).  The issue is one of recognizing our blind spots and making room for these other causal factors.  It’s a logic of both/and, not either/or.  It’s a question of multiplying sites of intervention, not abandoning sites of intervention.  I think that’s a good thing.  At any rate, our experience of our bodies is not identical to our bodies and how we narrate or experience our bodies is no reliable guide to what’s going on inside us.

corpse51033820In response to a a previous post, my good friend Michael and one of my most valued interlocutors cites Merleau-Ponty and writes:

“Everything I see is on principle within my reach, at least within reach of my sight, and is marked upon the map of the “I can.” Each of the two maps is complete. The visible world and the world of my motor projects are both total parts of the same Being.

“Immersed in the visible by his body, itself visible, the see-er does not appropriate what he sees; he merely approaches it by looking, he opens onto the world. And for its part, that world of which he is a part is not in itself, or matter. My movement is not a decision made by the mind, an absolute doing which would decree, from the depths of a subjective retreat, some change of place miraculously executed in extended space. It is the natural sequel to, and maturation of, vision. I say of a thing that it is moved; but my body moves itself; my movement is self-moved. It is not ignorance of self, blind to itself; it radiates from a self….

“The enigma derives from the fact that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the “other side” of its power of looking. It sees itself seeing; it touches itself touching; it is visible and sensitive for itself. It is a self, not by transparency, like thought, which never thinks anything except by assimilating it, constituting it, transforming it into thought—but a self by confusion, narcissism, inherence of the see-er in the seen, the toucher in the touched, the feeler in the felt—a self, then, that is caught up in things, having a front and a back, a past and a future….

“This initial paradox cannot but produce others. Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself.3 Things are an annex or prolongation of itself; they are incrusted in its flesh, they are part of its full definition; the world is made of the very stuff of the body. These reversals, these antinomies,4 are different ways of saying that vision is caught or comes to be in things—in that place where something visible undertakes to see, becomes visible to itself and in the sight of all things, in that place where there persists, like the original solution still present within crystal, the undividedness of the sensing and the sensed…

“A human body is present when, between the see-er and the visible, between touching and touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand a kind of crossover occurs, when the spark of the sensing/sensible is lit, when the fire starts to burn that will not cease until some accident befalls the body, undoing what no accident would have sufficed to do…

“Once this strange system of exchanges is given, we find before us all the problems of painting. These problems illustrate the enigma of the body, which enigma in turn legitimates them. Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a secret visibility. “Nature is on the inside,” says Cézanne. Quality, light, color, depth, which are there before us, are there only because they awaken an echo in our bodies and because the body welcomes them.” [Merleau-Ponty, ‘Eye and Mind’, p.3]

There is a “carnal formula” of presence. Things have a consistent presence in/through our bodies – beyond all thetic codings – which forces us to confront structural (material) consequences. Life and politics are no less than this.

penfieldhomunculusAmong the other things I wish to say in the post to which Michael is responding, is that phenomenology is constitutively unable to think the real of the body.  This is the root of my debate with Sara Ahmed, as well.  While phenomenology can certainly describe how we experience our bodies, it never manages to get at the fundamental opacity of body and affect.  The body, as real, is not something given to consciousness or lived experience.  Put differently, our bodies are something we never experience.  At most, we experience the effects of our bodies, never our bodies as such.

In an earlier post on the opacity of affect, I make this point in terms of Spinoza.  As Spinoza writes,  in the Ethics, “[t]he idea of any affection of the human body does not involve adequate knowledge of the human body” (2p27).  For Spinoza, the cause of any affect is never given to consciousness.  Is my depression the result of a neuro-chemical process, a bad diet, a lack of nicotine, or something else besides, or is it the result of something pertaining to my existential life project at the level of experience and lived consciousness?  This question can never be answered from the standpoint of lived experience.  Lived experience tells me of all sorts of affects that inhabit my embodied life, but tells me nothing of their causes.

read on!


fvbdy8For Karl Steel:

Teen1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
Teen2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen1: I don’t even know anymore.

~The Simpsons, “Homerpalooza”

dimagesA lot of ink has been spilled discussing the differences between Anglo-American and Continental thought.  Are Anglo-American and Continental thought merely discussing things in different vocabularies and do they share far more in common than we normally think?  Can the divide be bridged?  Is there an irreconcilable difference in the questions and problems of these two traditions?  In other words, these discussions tend to be situated at the level of the discursive or content.

I really have nothing profound to add to this discussion.  Because of the idiosyncrasies of my professional career since getting my position, I haven’t had much of a stake in pledging allegiance to either of these traditions.  For that matter, I haven’t had much of a professional stake in having to restrict myself to philosophy, ignoring work in other disciplines such as literary theory, media studies, psychology, sociology, media studies, and so on.  This is one of the benefits of being a community college professor.  No one really cares whether I’m a Continentalist or an Anglo-American thinker, whether I’m bridging the divide, or whether I restrict myself to a canon strictly recognized by academia as philosophy.  As a consequence, I’m able to take up whatever theory, in whatever discipline, I find valuable without worrying about the networks of power that inhabit departments and professional organizations.  I doubt it would have been possible to write The Democracy of Objects in a department with a graduate program; at least, not at this point in my career.

WorldMapSetting all this aside, one thing I find interesting about the entire divide discussion is that it almost always seems to be approached at the level of the discursive or content.  In other words, I seldom see discussions of the so-called divide in terms of geography and sociology.  Oh sure, we all recognize that the divide has a geographical dimension.  Continental philosophy is primarily philosophy that arose out of Germany and France from the 19th century on, while Anglo-American philosophy arose during the 20th century out of Great Britain and the United States.

When I say that we don’t discuss this divide geographically and sociologically, what I mean is that we really don’t raise the question of the degree to which this divide might be an accident of both media networks of communication between different regions of the world, as well as linguistic barriers.  The lack of communicative connections between different regions of the world leads to geographical isolation or the formation of isolated linguistic/conceptual communities.  These isolated communities then develop along distinct conceptual routes.  I really have nothing to say in response to the questions with which I began this post, but I do suspect that as we become ever more globally connected we’ll see that it becomes more and more difficult to talk about something like distinctly Continental thought or distinctly Anglo-American thought.  This divide can only sustain itself in and through the isolation of social communities.  That implies the absence of communications media quickly linking these communities.  As that changes it will become more and more difficult to maintain those conceptual unities.

francis-baconThe last couple of years have felt like the gradual confession of a dirty and embarrassing secret.  My intellectual background is resolutely Continental.  The first philosophers I encountered in High School were the Sartre of Being and Nothingness, the Husserl of the Ideas, the Heidegger of Being and Time, Nietzsche, of course, and thinkers such as Whitehead, William James, Dewey, Saint Spinoza, and Kant.  As an undergraduate at the Ohio State University, I discovered Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and Lacan.  I chose to go to Loyola to study Heidegger with Thomas Sheehan and Levinas with Adriaan Peperzak.  There I encountered Andrew Cutrofello and Patria Huntington, both of whom drove me deeper into the French post-structuralists, Kant, and Heidegger.  There I went through a period where I was so intensely engaged with Husserlian and Merleau-Pontyian phenomenology that my friends would joke that my apartment was a permanent “transcendental epoche” zone.  Later I became obsessed with the structuralist and post-structuralist linguistic turn as a result of my encounter with Lacanian theory and practice, Freud, and spent years studying the semiotics of Peirce and Eco, structuralist semiology, and structuralist anthropology and literary criticism.  During this time it was “signs, signs, everywhere signs.”

Yet during this time I also had a deep naturalist streak.  As a child I had dreamed of being a marine biologists and I had spent many happy hours wading about in creeks pursuing tadpoles, frogs, turtles, and fish, and running barefoot through the local woods learning all about different mosses, ferns, and salamanders.  I could never accept the bracketing of the natural attitude proposed by the phenomenologists.  It wasn’t that I rejected the importance of phenomenological description and analysis.  Not at all.  Rather, it was that I couldn’t discount biology, neurology, physics, chemistry, neurology, and all the rest.  I couldn’t see the findings of these disciplines as instances of naivete.  Likewise, I couldn’t fully accept the semiotic constructivism, the linguistic turn, of the structuralists and the post-structuralists.  This was a point driven home all the moreso when I began suffering from depression and started taking medication to treat it.  Heidegger and Sartre had implied that attunements such as depression had to do with the existential meaning of my life.  Perhaps.  Yet I found that when I took the right SSRI, I found that I genuinely felt better, despite the fact that nothing in my existential project or “being-in-the-world” had really changed.  I reflected on the nicotine fits I would experience when I was quitting smoking.  In these moments, I would experience the world as a threatening and aggressive place, with people attacking me and starting fights.  Was my nicotine fit the result of my existential being-in-the-world?  Or was it rather simply that neurotransmitters my brain had come to rely on to engage in operations were not being produced as a result of the absence of nicotine and I was therefore experiencing irritation because I couldn’t properly filter the world?  If the latter, why couldn’t it be the same with depression?  Why did depression have to be bound up with my fundamental life meaning, my existential being-in-the-world, and not just the dynamics of neurotransmitters?  The case was the same with Lacanian psychoanalysis.  At the level of the “hermeneutic horizon” of my existence, I benefited tremendously from analysis.  However, I wouldn’t say that analysis was particularly effective in dealing with other maladies such as my depression.  I wondered how the phenomenologists and proponents of the linguistic turn could explain things like intoxication, nicotine fits, the sublime experiences of mushrooms, and all the rest.  I wondered how they could explain why white wine makes one person happy and gregarious, while tequila makes them mean and aggressive.

read on!


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