In 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.
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.
Returning to the issue at hand, might it not be that the difficulties with which I find myself faced are more a matter of formulation, than ontological inconsistency? In other words, perhaps the problem arises from saying that “norms are not in nature“, when I should be saying that “value-predicates, meanings, and norms are not in the things themselves.” Put differently, upon reflection, my claim is not so much that norms, meanings, and values are not in nature– by thesis 1 they’re as “natural” as anything else, so long as we understand that we’re working with a modern, not premodern, concept of nature –but rather that norms, values, and meanings are relational predicates. Here I take a cue from Spinoza who, like Lucretius, pervades everything I think. In the appendix to Part 1 of the Ethics Spinoza writes, many…
…notions… are nothing but modes of imagining whereby the imagination is affected in various ways, and yet the ignorant consider them as important attributes of things because they believe… that all things were made on their behalf, and they call a thing’s nature good or bad, healthy or rotten and corrupt, according to its effect on them. For instance, if the motion communicated to our nervous system by objects presented through our eyes is conducive to our feeling of well-being, the objects which are its cause are said to be beautiful, while the objects which provoke a contrary motion are called ugly. Those things that we sense through the nose are called fragrant or fetid; through the tongue sweet or bitter, tasty or tasteless; those we sense by touch are called hard or soft, rough or smooth, and so on…. All this goes to show that everyone’s judgment is a function of the disposition of his brain, or rather, that he mistakes for reality the way his imagination is affected. Hence it is no wonder… that we should find so many controversies arising among men, resulting finally in skepticism. For although human bodies agree in many respects, there are very many differences, and so one man thinks good what another thinks bad; what to one man is well ordered, to another is confused; what to one is pleasing, to another is displeasing, and so forth. (Spinoza: Complete Works, 242).
Perhaps this is the modernist gesture par excellence: the recognition that meanings, value judgments, and norms are relational predicates. Here I hasten to add that it is likely the modernist gesture occurs many times in history, only to be forgotten again and again. For example, perhaps Protagoras and other sophists also made similar gestures. Spinoza’s point, at any rate, is that the meaning and value isn’t in the thing itself, but only arises from the relation between the being making the judgment and the thing. The flower is not beautiful in and of itself, but rather, the flower is only ever beautiful for another being. Such is the lesson of the obscene picture with which I began this post. Most of us would be disgusted by the rotting carrion of a dead water buffalo, but for the hyena it is a gourmet meal. All of this is in nature, it just wouldn’t be there without these relations between natural beings. Everything is in nature, but not everything ranges over all of nature. This should be no more astonishing than recognizing that photosynthesis isn’t involved in every physical reaction. This, incidentally, is also why I think there’s really no place for panpsychism.
An angry dog barks at me on a country road. in order to get rid of him, I grab a paving stone and chase the attacker away with a skillful throw. In this case, nobody who observed what happened and picked up the stone afterward would doubt that this was the same object, ‘stone,’ which initially lay in the street and was then thrown at the dog.
Neither the shape, nor the weight, nor the other physical and chemical properties of the stone have changed. its color, its hardness, its crystal formations have all stayed the same– and yet it has undergone a fundamental transformation: it has changed its meaning. As long as the stone was integrated into the country road, it served as a support for the hiker’s foot. Its meaning was in its participation in the function of the path. It had, we could say, a “path tone.” That changed fundamentally when I picked up the stone in order to throw it at the dog. The stone became a thrown projectile– a new meaning was impressed upon it. It received a “throwing tone.”
The stone, which lies as a relationless object in the hand of the observer, becomes a carrier of meaning as soon as it enters into a relationship with a subject. (A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, 140)
Nothing changes in the stone itself, but something does indeed change in the meaning of the stone. Uexkull masterfully investigates these logics of sameness and difference, of the relationless and the relational, in his investigations of the different worlds of animals and humans. This is why I suggested that onticology or machine-oriented ontology– various terms through which I refer to my own views –is as much a “monad-oriented ontology” as an “object-oriented ontology”. Ontology is necessarily Janus faced, requiring the analysis of both what something is non-relationally and how it is grasped or apprehended by other entities. This is the secret link between, on the one hand, the account of local manifestation and virtual proper being as developed in The Democracy of Objects, and autopoietic sociological systems theory. The first dimension of the framework plumbs the depths of the absolute, the nonrelational, or what happens when beings interact with other beings in the production of properties, while the latter investigates what other beings are for that being at the level of meanings, norms, and values. This is why– I hope! –I can have my realism and eat my antirealism too, all within the framework of a flat ontology without transcendence.
This would also be a fault-line of my dispute with Graham Harman, from whom I’ve learned so much, but with whom I also so strongly diverge. There is, of course, the issue of the material where I suspect we’ll never come to terms with one another. However, there’s also the debate of where to make the cut of the “absolute” or the “real”. It’s likely that Harman sees me as an “underminer” of objects both because of my materialism– I maintain fidelity to Lucretius in all matters– above all the ethics of epicureanism and the critique of superstition and ideology, but also with the general outlines of his materialism; but more fundamentally because I simply don’t believe that everything is an object (and Harman doesn’t either, though with respect to different things). For example, I do not believe that money and hammers are objects (though I believe that both are entirely real in their own ways).
I am a dastardly underminer of hammers! This is for Uexkullian reasons. “Being-a-hammer” is a relational predicate. A hammer is only a hammer for a particular set of beings. Were a global catastrophe to take place eradicating all life, hammers (and money) would be eradicated as well. Oh, to be sure, there would still be these particular configurations of matter would still exist. There would still be entities that have wooden handles with metal heads. There would still be bits of paper covered in ink fluttering in the wind. But these entities would not be hammers nor money. The rat that lines the nest of its spawn with the paper of a paupers horde does not line its nest with money, but with something that has a very different meaning in that knot of relations. Suggesting otherwise is to suggest an untenable reification of meanings. What would it possibly mean to say that hammers exist as real entities independent of beings that use hammers?
Does this amount to a reinstantiation of the nature/culture distinction? I hope not. Again, pointing out that photosynthesis doesn’t occur in all physical reactions doesn’t somehow amount to asserting a bifurcation of being into the botanical and everything else. It is simply the recognition that there are processes and interactions that don’t occur everywhere. Likewise with meanings. Harman likes to say that many philosophical concepts– substance, form, and essence, in particular –are there for good reason and that we reject them at the risk of intellectual incoherence. Can’t we say the same thing about philosophical distinctions such as those between the absolute and the relational? Don’t we deny ourselves crucial critical tools if we abandon these distinctions?