September 2013


800px-Longleat_mazeOver the years I’ve struggled to articulate why nonhuman objects are relevant to our understanding of the form societies take and questions of politics, only to encounter great difficulty.  The problem, I think, is that objects and features of materiality are largely invisible.  Oh sure, we see them about us all the time and interact with them in a trillion ways every day.  Nonetheless, it’s very difficult to discern how they contribute to our action and are a condition for our action.  Our action, I want to say, is never entirely our own, it never arises fully from us, but rather is a sort of collaboration or interaction with the features of the world about us.  Action is interaction and those material features both afford our possibilities of action and constrain our possibilities of action.

lou-ferrigno-as-the-hulkWhen I say that we need to attend to what objects do rather than their properties, what I’m after is the way in which they afford and constrain action.  I’m not suggesting something silly and absurd like the idea that objects have motives, that there’s some sort of psychology of objects that leads them to act on us in various ways; but am instead saying we need to look at how objects create paths and vectors of movement and behavior that mark the trajectory of our journeys throughout the world, which others we relate to, which others we don’t relate to, and so on.

I think it’s extremely difficult to think in these terms– at least I struggle with it –because its so damned obvious.  There’s no need for a depth hermeneutics here.  There’s no need for a hermeneutics of suspicion.  No, the gravity of the world, the gravity of things, is all there on the surface.  For example, I encounter the people I encounter daily on campus because of the layout of the hallways in the building where I teach as well as the time schedule of the classes.  For the same reason, I don’t encounter others because of this same material configuration.  Sure, I could tear my way through walls like the Incredible Hulk or go through windows, but as I put it in my California talk last week, much of our movement arises not from any intentions we might have, but is instead like the trajectory of a raindrop along a leaf, following the path of least possible resistance.  Because this is so obvious we overlook it, we overlook materiality, and thus come to explain the action of people and their relations with one another by reference to their intentions, beliefs, propositional attitudes, etc.  We look almost entirely to the domain of the psychological to explain why people behave and relate to one another as they do.  The point, of course, is not that the psychological, textual, semiotic, ideological, etc., don’t play a key role in social formations.  Of course they do.  How could it be otherwise?  The point is that they are only one part of the puzzle, that they are only one element of a vast domain of power.

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Do we need to believe in anthropogenic climate change?  I pose this question, of course, to be provocative as I do think it’s useful to believe in things like anthropogenic climate change.  However, the point of posing the question is to draw attention to how a lot of us academics think and what intellectual movements such as actor-network theory and the new materialisms and realisms might bring to the table at the level of political strategy.  A lot of us seem to think that our political work consists in persuading others to believe certain things.  People must be persuaded to believe that neoliberal economic philosophy pervades all aspects of contemporary life (true).  People must be persuaded to believe that current climate change is caused by human activity (true).  Etc., etc., etc.  The idea seems to be that if people have the right theory about the world or the correct set of propositional attitudes, then they’ll modify their action accordingly and do the right thing.  Let’s call this the intentional attitude.  The premise of the intentional attitude or intentionalism is that since action is based on belief or propositional attitudes, persuasion is a key component of political activism.

The intentional attitude can be contrasted with the functional attitude.  The functional attitude doesn’t deny that people have intentions and that these intentions play a significant role in why they do what they do, but it notes that functionally much of what our action produces has very little to do with what we intend in our action.  For example, as I write this post I intend to persuade and convey certain ideas; however, functionally I am also contributing to the reproduction of the English language (and am probably making it worse!).  When I go to the supermarket to get food for dinner I do so because I intend to feed myself, but I am also contributing to the reproduction of agrocapitalism.  A lot of work in Continental political thought is undertaken for the sake of various emancipatory projects (intentional stance), but because it ends up accessible only to other expert level academics it functionally just reproduces university discourse, the tenure system, and contributes to the publication of new journal issues.  In Latour’s famous example, we slow down for the cement speed bump not because of any particular belief we have about speed laws, but because of how the speed bump functions.  Things that happen at the level of functionality are independent of beliefs and intentions, but contribute to why we act as we do all the same.

From a functional standpoint, let’s look at intentionalist strategies again.  My strategy is to persuade my interlocutor that climate change is human caused so that they will take action against these causes and support things like reducing carbon emissions and whatnot.  That’s my intention.  But looks at what happens.  Now a massive debate goes on between the climate change denier and the person defending anthropogenic climate change theories.  The denier wins either way, because functionally we end up discussing the issue to death rather than taking action.  In continuing to debate we’re still doing nothing even though that’s not our intention to debate.

I wanted to say more about these two approaches (gotta go teach)– and I suspect some readers will misunderstand me and think I’m trying to reject the intentional stance in political action –but the foregoing raises the question of whether or not people need to believe in something like climate change for us to make meaningful change.  Returning to Latour’s example of the speed bump, aren’t there ways in which we can simply modify the environment in which people act, diminishing their carbon footprint, regardless of whether or not they believe climate change is caused by human activity?  In other words, aren’t there all sorts of interventions we can make at the level of the nonhuman actants that populate the world that would address this issue independent of what people believe?  How far might this sort of design practice extend in other domains of politics?

As I think through ethics, I find that I’m confronted with something of an antinomy.  On the one hand, no ethical action is possible whatsoever without affect.  It’s not just me saying this.  The philosophical tradition as well as empirical evidence seems to suggest this.  Those who have suffered brain damage to certain reasons of their brain become moral morons, unable to determine right action while nonetheless retaining reasoning skills (take that Kant!).  But even Kant recognized this.  In both the Groundwork and second Critique he argued that we have to have a special sort of affect– “respect for the moral law”, whatever that is –in order to become ethical agents.  On the other hand, you can’t base an ethics on affect because, simply put, people don’t have the affects.  This person experiences outrage with respect to that thing, while that person is completely indifferent.  For this person it’s an obscenity to club a seal to death, absolutely disgusting and horrifying, while that person feels nothing at all and just sees it as a purely utilitarian matter pertaining to gathering fur for coats (the thought process wouldn’t be very different in the case of enslaving others).  It’s great that people have tender feelings, but when we talk about ethics we’re talking about grounding and persuasion.  You just can’t get very far if the affect isn’t there.

This is why Kant said that ethics can’t be based on the “pathological”.  He meant this in a very literal way:  pathos = body = feeling.  He wasn’t referring to “mental problems” or affect being “out of control”, but was simply referring to affect as such.  We can’t expect people to feel such and such because, well, people are different (Spinoza), and not all people feel the same thing (Hume, von Uuxkull), so the grounds of ethics must come from elsewhere than sentiment.

This is why I don’t think Levinas– despite finding him very beautiful –has much to offer to serious ethical thought.  Great, such and such a person experiences such and such an infinite obligation with regard to such and such a face, but just as many don’t.  Just as many people don’t encounter the faciality of the Other in relation to people of different races, classes, nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc.  For them this face is just an obstacle to their own aims.  Levinas really has nothing to offer in this situation.  Great, you feel this way.  Others don’t.  The whole question of relation to the Other was that of the face of the Other that we don’t recognize as a face.  In other words, ethical thought begins at a different level where this phenomenological experience has failed.  It begins where we don’t experience that pathology.  It begins, perhaps, at the level of rhetoric.  So enjoy Levinas but also forget him when it comes to ethical discussions.  He hasn’t identified the problem.

Hume understood the problem much better.  Hume rejected the liberal idea that we’re primarily selfish individuals that first are concerned with our own self-interest and who must then learn to have a regard for others.  No, for Hume, we’re first defined by sympathies to others:  our siblings, our parents, the members of our village (or in a more contemporary setting, our neighborhood, workplace, those who share our same ethnicity and gender, etc).  But this is not yet ethics.  That’s just how we are:  social beings (which is why it’s so disturbing and perhaps symptomatic that our ethics has become anonymous and rule based, i.e, it suggests a collapse of that communal/social dimension of our existence…  if you need to appeal to a rule for right action towards others something is wrong or has failed).  For Hume, the question isn’t “how might we come to care for others?”, but how might we come to have sympathy for the stranger or the person/entity outside our familial, fraternal, ethno-sexual, tribal order.  Ethics proper begins with the question of how we might begin to cultivate sympathy for those for whom we aren’t initially inclined to regard:  the anonymous face, the different face, the animal face, the mineral face, the disfigured space, etc.  No ethical action is possible without an affect, but affects also don’t come naturally or as the result of a contingent experience.  How to move beyond the limits of our cognitive/affective enframing, our enculturated affect, that’s the question.  This requires a formation or paideia of affect; which also implies aesthetics as a crucial dimension of ethics.

alienAs I teach Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (along with the thought of Epicurus and Epictetus), I’m struck by just how much our ethical discourse has changed.  This is attested to by what is absent in these discourses as much as by what is present.  What’s so striking in Aristotle, is that the question of ethics is one of eudaimonia, happiness, or human flourishing.  How ought we live our lives in order to attain human flourishing or happiness, he asks?  Similarly, in the case of the Epicureans and stoics, the question is one of ataraxia, peace of mind, or tranquility.   For these thinkers there is a clear telos to ethical thought and action:  happiness and tranquility.

Such questions seem thoroughly absent from the ethical thought of the last couple hundred years.  Ethics instead seems to become a question of how to determine the rules that should govern behavior and that would allow us to assign praise and blame, a discourse about remaining committed to a particular cause when everything suggests it will fail (Badiou), or a particular encounter with the Other (Levinas).  Of these three I find Levinas the most baffling, for while I find his work deeply beautiful, I just don’t see how you can get a robust ethical philosophy out of a contingent encounter that one might or might not have.

indexIn the case of Aristotle and Epicurus, we also see the question of ethics deeply intertwined with the question of the polis.  Aristotle opens the Nichomachean Ethics arguing that every science (body of knowledge) aims at a good and that if we aren’t to fall into an infinite regress, there must be a highest science that investigates that good that is valued for its own sake rather than for the sake of something else.  In other words, there must be a “science” of happiness.  Much to the reader’s surprise, Aristotle declares that this highest science, this science of happiness, is political science.  I suspect that Aristotle was presupposing that we are inherently social beings, such that not only are our relations to others a condition for our happiness (he devotes two chapters to friendship), but also if we don’t live in the proper way others will rebound back upon us diminishing our possibilities of human flourishing.  In the work of the Epicureans we find a similar preoccupation with our social being.  It’s necessary, for example, to the proper sort of community– “The Garden” –to achieve ataraxia, for if we have no control over our social world it will be very difficult to achieve peace of mind.  Likewise, there are remarks about the necessity of friendship scattered throughout Epicurus’s writings.

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For anyone who’s interested, here’s the text of my talk today:  pasadenaagentialobjects

bluebandAs I teach Morton’s The Ecological Thought this semester, I find myself thinking a lot about ecological ethics and politics.  I really think we’re only barely able to pose these questions at this point.  Part of the problem lies at the level of the very connotations of language, perpetually getting in the way of what needs to be thought.  In a lot of ways this is what Tim is trying to address in his critique of what I call the “spatial or geographical concept of nature” is a critique of this issue.  If I understand Morton correctly, what he’s critiquing in works like Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought is a geographical or spatial concept of nature.  On the one hand, there is the domain of the city, the suburbs, the town, and the farm that is the world of society; while on the other hand there is the domain of the great barrier reefs, Brazilian rain forests, and Utah Badlands outside of society.  Under this model, nature is a place that you go to outside of the city and suburbs.  It’s a geography.  From an ecological perspective, this is problematic because it places ecological concerns pretty low on the hierarchy of concerns.  Are you going to worry about things like economic injustice, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. (the city) or the great spotted owl?  Worrying about the great spotted owl seems like the worry of the privileged and the decadent because antagonisms revolving around the economic, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are more directly relevant to our social world or geographical locality.

Morton’s proposal– notorious among some environmental activists –is that we abandon the concept of nature.  Now, I’m with the environmentalists in being bothered by the idea of abandoning the concept of nature, but I think for different reasons.  In other words, I think they’re missing his point.  Morton’s point, it seems to me, is not that we should abandon the concept of nature so as to no longer worry about the great spotted owl, but that where we conceive of nature as something outside society, we also end up treating things like the demise of the spotted owl as being of no social concern.  My reason for being reticent to abandon the concept of nature are different from those of the environmentalist.  First, I understand nature in a different way than Morton.  For me “nature” does not signify a place outside of society, but rather is a synonym for being or existence, signifying the totality of what exists, composed entirely of physical or material beings, interacting through causes.  In other words, for me minds and society are no less a part of nature than society.  This is a part of my general polemic against idealism, Platonism, theistic religions, etc.  There are only physical causes in my ontology and I think there are a number of reasons that it’s important to emphasize this.  I’m not sure that Morton would disagree with this, though I have been troubled by his polemics against materialism as I think materialism, far from leading to an “enframing” of the world, instead leads us to appreciate the bodily, affective, and fragility of things, as well as the work and energy that go into everything (I think the expenditure of energy is one of the great oversights of how power and control functions in critical theory).

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I will be giving the keynote address at the Objects as Actors symposium in Pasadena, California this Saturday.  The title of my talk is “Agential Objects:  Towards an Ontology of the Act”.  If you’re in the area, please drop by!  More information about the event can be found here.

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