August 2013


k-bigpicIn my last post I claimed that there is no meaning, value, or normativity to be found in nature, that there is nothing natural beings ought to be, but that, rather, these judgments arise from us.  Both here and on facebook this has led some to raise valuable questions about the coherence of these claims.  The problem arises when the following three propositions are taken together:

1.  There is nothing outside of nature.

2.  Beings have no intrinsic meaning, purpose, or value (in and of themselves, there’s nothing they ought to be).

3.  Value judgments about what beings and being ought to be arise from us and beings like us (bonobo apes, dolphins, institutions, birds of paradise, etc).

The problem arises between proposition 1 and 3.  How can it both be true that there is nothing outside of being and that normative judgments belong to us and other beings capable of making normative judgments, not nature?  The problem arises from restricting these judgments to humans and beings capable of making these judgments.  In making such a claim it seems as if we’re saying that there’s something outside of nature, something that is beyond nature, thereby violating the first thesis and potentially reintroducing the nature/culture distinction.  This is quite a dilemma.  If we obey the strictures of consistency, then we’re back to claiming that normative judgments belong to the things themselves and are therefore forced to concede positions such as Elisa Chan’s regarding homosexuality that I criticized in my last post (i.e., we seem forced to say that there is something that sexuality ought to be by nature).  By contrast, if we say that normative judgments are the special domain of those living beings with the proper degree of sentience to make such judgments, then we seem to reintroduce the nature/culture distinction and fall back into the sorts of problems that I outlined in my last post (and that are so nicely critiqued by thinkers such as Latour).  Is there a way out of this?  I don’t know.

Great_Chain_of_Being_2_(lighter)ASIDE:  It seems to me that this is really what the debate between realism and anti-realism, realism and socio-linguistic constructivism surrounding the new materialisms and speculative realists has really been all about.  It’s very easy to treat this as an abstract, academic debate:  “Are you a realist or are you an anti-realist?”, as if it were just a matter of what happens to be true.  But it seems to me that this debate has, in reality, always been about politics.  As I outlined in my last post, we have perpetually seen how appeals to the real and natural have been used in the name of oppressive power, inscribing both the exploitation of nature and the oppression of various people in the very fabric of being itself.  Theistic theology and realist ontology have perpetually been used in the name of what Deleuze called “State Philosophies” or philosophies that ontologize contingent orders of power and privilege (e.g., “the great chain of being” used to justify patriarchy, monarchy, serfdom, poverty, etc, and appeals to nature used to justify poverty and racial inequality (The Bell Curve), patriarchy (evolutionary psychology), heteronormativity, capitalism, etc).  Because arrangements of power and inequality are always contingent in the sense that there’s no marked difference in the capacities of peoples, power always looks for a transcendent supplement that would provide justification through ontological necessity.  Antirealism– from the Greek atomists to present –became the radical and emancipatory gesture because it revealed the lie behind all of these forms of social organization or their inherit contingency or arbitrariness.  Realism, by contrast, has all too often functioned as an apologetics for arbitrary power and social organizations.

Here it’s worth recalling what Foucault said about science:  “…[E]ven before we know  to what extent something like Marxism or psychoanalysis is analogous to a scientific practice in its day-to-day operations, in its rules of construction, in the concepts it uses, we should be asking the question, asking ourselves about the aspiration to power that is inherent in the claim to being a science.  The question or questions that have to be asked are:  “What types of knowledge are you trying to disqualify when you say that you are a science?  What speaking subject, what discursive subject, what subject of experience and knowledge are you trying to minorize when you say ‘I speak this discourse, I am speaking a scientific discourse, and I am a scientist.’  What theoretico-political vanguard are you trying to put on the throne in order to detach it from the massive, circulating, and discontinuous forms that knowledge can take?” (Society Must Be Defended, 10).  All of these questions hold equally for claims to something being real.  What is one trying to minorize when claiming something is real?  What becomes privileged?  What is excluded?  It is these questions that have been at the heart of the the realism debates, for as Spencer-Brown taught us, every distinction has a marked and unmarked space, draws attention to something to be included and pushes something into the unconscious or the domain of the invisible, hidden, or veiled.  This is above all the case with evocations of the real.

However, as I’ve tried to show antirealism leads to its own problems.  First, so long as we exclude real beings from our ontological inventory, we are unable to fully understand how power functions (“such and such a set of cultural formations have been thoroughly debunked, yet people still live as if they believed them”).  Not only do we not fully understand the sources of the problems due to too much focus on the discursive and semiotic, but we deny ourselves valuable sites of political intervention at the level of infrastructure.  Second, we are prevented from addressing things such as cultural racism, such as that found in Heidegger’s privileging of the West and the Greeks and Germans in particular.  We do a good job addressing biological and theological racism, heteronormativity, and sexism by showing how it is a cultural construction, but when faced with racism such as Heidegger’s where he argues that there’s something “unique” about the Greek event, it’s language, and about the German language, or Badiou/Zizek’s racism with respect to the “Pauline Event”, we really have no response. Here someone like Jared Diamond or Fernand Braudel is needed to explain global-geographical inequalities.  Third, the tools of the cultural turn really do not provide us with the means of thinking the ecological as a site of the political.  For this reason, I’ve tried to formulate a third way– which might be called “constructivist realism” or “constructivist naturalism” –that retains the insights of the cultural turn, while also allowing a robust place for the material.  I don’t claim to be original in this.  I think that many such as Manuel DeLanda, Deleuze and Guattari, Stacy Alaimo, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, etc., are up to something similar.  It’s a vast project that requires the work of a multitude of voices, especially given the way in which culturalism pervades the humanities.

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about-landscapes-natureI’ve written about this quite a bit over the last year, but it’s worth repeating again and again.  When thinking of things that need to be overcome in philosophy and culture, forget philosophies of presence, forget ontotheology, forget identity thinking; if there’s one thing that needs to be overcome it’s the pre-modern concept of nature.  Okay, I exaggerate here a bit.  Ontotheology (which I see as deeply tied to the pre-modern concept of nature), philosophies of presence, and identity thought are things that need to be worked through as well, but I can’t help but believe that the premodern concept of nature trumps all the rest.  Is there any form of oppression and exploitation for which the premodern concept of nature has not been evoked?  “Women are naturally inferior to men.”  “Some groups of people are naturally inferior and therefore worthy of being slaves” (Aristotle).  “Some groups of people are naturally of inferior intelligence and therefore racial class distributions are both inevitable and naturally justified.”  It goes on and on.

I was reminded of this again today as I read the remarks of District 9 (really!) Councilwoman Elisa Chan in San Antonio, Texas.  Discussing laws pertaining to discrimination against homosexuals, she remarked

It is actually, what you call, suggestive, for the kids to be corrupt, which is against nature. I’m telling you, anything that is against nature is not right.

This is only one of her more choice remarks, read the rest here.  This distills the essence of the premodern concept of nature.  Within the premodern concept of nature there is something that beings ought to be.  There is a telos, a teleology governing beings, drawing them to their true destination.  Nature is therefore treated as a normative force sorting beings and defining their being.  This is a strange sort of normativity as nature is simultaneously treated as an ineluctable force that makes entities what they are– the acorn is ineluctably drawn towards becoming an oak tree —and it is possible for beings to deviate from these aims, thereby meriting the condemnation of something “going against nature”.

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