January 2014


The new issue of Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies is out.  It includes an article by me that develops an early formulation of the concept of onto-cartography that I wrote prior to writing Onto-Cartography.  Sadly it only discusses the dimension of machinic assemblages or the role that material or physical things play in social assemblages and does not discuss the plane of expression, or the role played by signs, norms, language, ideologies, etc., in social assemblages.

Over at enemyindustry Roden has an excellent post up on the pluralism discussion.  Check it out here.

Responding to one of my comments over at his blog, Jeremy Trombley writes:

“All views are partial and contingent – that’s the lesson of pluralism, and you say as much yourself when you say that we must be attentive to ways our own knowledge might contain superstitions. But it’s not discourse that determines whether one view works and another doesn’t – it’s a confrontation with non-discursive (non-human) agencies.”

I wonder if part of the issue here is that we understand pluralism differently.  For me this doesn’t sound like pluralism at all.  Rather, it just sounds like our epistemological condition.  We [hopefully] come to understand those portions of existence we question or investigate.  The reason we come to investigate them is largely contingent.  Finally, the accounts of these features of existence we give can be mistaken.  All of this is perfectly consistent with a monism.  I’m not sure why what he outlines above is the lesson of pluralism.  It seems to me that every realist knows this.

It seems to me that ontological pluralism is something quite different.  Ontological pluralism is the thesis that there are many different worlds inhabited by many different entities.  Thus, for example, you would have one world, say that of Lucretius, that’s only inhabited by atoms and their combinations.  You would have another world, say the world of the Mongolian shaman, that’s inhabited by spirits that do all sorts of things.  The ontological pluralist is saying that these spirits are, that they exist, that they’re real.  This is something quite different than merely saying that there are partial and contingent points of view on the world.  It’s this saying that these entities are rather than that some person or group of people believe that they are that is the nub of the issue.

Now, I think part of the issue here is that there’s an ambiguity in the term ontology.  An ontology can be one of two things.  On the one hand, an ontology is a group or persons set of beliefs as to what is.  Here it’s trivially true that there are a plurality of ontologies and the realist readily recognizes this.  This is the whole reason there are debates over ontology.  Mongolian shamans have their ontology, Europeans theirs, Christian fundamentalists theirs, materialists theirs, etc.  When striving to understand and communicate with others it’s vital to understand these ontologies because, as rhetoricians like Burke point out, our beliefs about what is are among the things that motivate our action.  Despite having never seen bacteria I was my hands because I believe there are bacteria and viruses on door handles and whatnot and don’t want to get sick.  My belief about a particular thing existing is what motivates my action.  And who knows, perhaps this belief is as superstitious as the belief that the crops failed because God was displeased with my community.

On the other hand, an ontology is a theory about what is.  It is making a claim that something exists.  This is where the rubber hits the road.  The ontological pluralist seems committed to the thesis that every groups set of beliefs about what exists is sufficient for granting the existence of those entities.  This is what I find objectionable in Latour.  Obviously I’m not bothered by Latour’s suggestion that we should take into account the role that nonhumans like speed bumps, rivers, microbes, etc., play in the form that social assemblages take.  But this is not all that Latour claims.  Latour also claims that we ought also to include those spirits posited by the Mongolian shaman– for Mongolian shaman’s see this great article on the Ontological Turn by Morten Pedersen –among our inventory of what is.

This is precisely where the philosopher might balk.  Unlike the ethnographer, the philosopher is not interested in what people believe exists, but rather philosophers– at least of the realist variant –are trying to figure out what is.  In other words, the realist philosopher begins with the premise that not all of these beliefs about what is are true.  So for the philosopher, recognizing that Mongolian shaman’s believe in the existence of shamans would only be the first step.  The next step would consist in determining whether there’s good reason for thinking such entities really do exist, i.e., whether there’s good reason for believing these entities have mind and culture independent reality.  Lest readers think that I’m just picking on the supernatural here, we can ask similar questions about strings, subatomic particles, galaxies, etc., etc., etc.

I guess the question really comes down to what exactly we mean by ontological pluralism.  When we talk about ontological pluralism are we defending the thesis that people have different theories of being?  If so, then ontological pluralism is trivially true.  If this is what is meant, then I certainly share Jeremy’s view that it’s valuable to understand the different worlds people believe in.  Certainly when I was practicing as an analyst I didn’t get in ontological debates with my patients and it was necessary to understand their theory of being or their ontology to properly attend to them.  Or, when we talk about ontological pluralism are we defending the thesis that all these ontological theories are true and refer to really existing entities?  That’s quite a different claim and is not one I would defend or endorse.

Now someone might object that “in both The Democracy of Objects and Onto-Cartography you defend the thesis that there are multiple worlds.”  This is true.  Because I hold that not everything is related I’m led to the conclusion that there are diverse worlds.  However, I also hold that however many worlds there might be, these worlds are nonetheless composed solely of material entities.  Within the framework I propose I wouldn’t suggest that there’s one world where there are spirits and another world where there are souls and yet another where there are only material entities.  My view is that there aren’t spirits or souls in any of these worlds.

One of the things I keep hearing in these discussions is that somehow the realist adopts a view from nowhere.  I honestly don’t understand this criticism.  Investigation always occurs somewhere and requires all sorts of mediations involving technologies, experiments, etc.  It’s that labor of gathering evidence, conducting experiments, using technologies to observe the world, etc., that gradually gives us a body of data that allows us to say there’s good reason to believe that such and such a thing exists and has these powers.  Another charge seems to be that the realist refuses to recognize that their claims about the world are fallible.  I find this charge particularly strange because it’s precisely because the realist recognizes the difference between our theories of the world or what we say about the world and the world itself that fallability is built into the core of his position.  Realism doesn’t mean one holds they have special access to the world, that they know all truths, or that they have the truth in hand, only that there are truths to be known and that we can be mistaken about things.

ffindexOver at Circling Squares Philip has a post responding to my quandries about how to mesh realism and pluralism.  He writes:

Ontologically and metaphysically the idea of realist pluralism is no longer an issue.  There are (appropriately) numerous variants but the basic idea that reality is itself pluralistic is well established.  The question is political-discursive.  It’s what Stengers and Latour are getting at with their concepts of diplomacy and cosmopolitics.

They grant, first, that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says.  They thus shunt onto-political discourse off of the terrain of knowledge/belief in the sense of existence/non-existence.  Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them.  You are thus permitted to say ‘I do not follow that god, he has no hold over me’ but you are not permitted to say ‘your god is an inane, infantile, non-existent fantasy, grow up.’  And it’s not just a question of politeness (although there’s that too).  The point is to grant others’ idols and deities an existence – one needn’t agree over what that existence entails, over what capacities that entity has or what obligations it impresses upon you as someone in its partial presence but to deny it existence entirely is to ‘declare war’ – to deny the possibility of civil discourse, of pluralistic co-existence.

I believe that it was Richard Rorty who once quipped something like claims to reconcile realism and idealism always seem to end with a triumph of idealism.  We don’t, in fact, get a realism through such approaches, but rather just get a pervasive anti-realism.

I think this is also the problem with the “non-controversial pluralism” advocated by Stengers and Latour that Phillip defends here.  Such a pluralism is not a realism but is, in fact, a thoroughgoing social constructivism.  I think this is the central problem with Latour’s argument in Irreductions (these days I regret having ever defended it).  In rejecting both Enlightenment critique and what he calls “reduction” he wants to say something like “The Pentacostal really is filled with the Holy Spirit”, that for the 19th working scientist heat really is a fluid and phlogiston really is what allows things to burn, and that for the Greek lightning really is an expression of Zeus’s anger.  Latour tells us that we aren’t to reduce or explain away the entities posited by another group’s “ontology” but are to develop explanations from within that ontology.

read on!

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timagesI endlessly struggle with the question of what philosophy is or just what I’m doing when I do philosophy (assuming I ever manage to do any philosophy!).  What, for example, is it that distinguishes philosophy as an activity from science?  This is an especially pressing question for a materialist and naturalist such as myself; for I’m repeatedly asked the question “if nature (immanence) is all there is, shouldn’t we just be doing science?”  I don’t think so, but why?  Is it just some sort of disciplinary commitment on my part that leads me to hold that there’s a crucial place for philosophy in human thought?  Is it just a desire to maintain my job?  Again, I don’t think so.

It might not sound particularly sexy– and it certainly doesn’t tell us what is worth thinking –but I can’t help but believe that philosophy is the critical and reflective investigation of basic concepts that guide our investigation of the world about us, how we ought to live our lives, and what form of governance might be best.  Compare two figures.  A scientist might ask,

what causes depression?

We can very well imagine a philosopher turning around and asking the scientist,

what is causality?

The scientist presupposes a concept of causality in her investigations.  She uses this concept in her inquiry.  Now she might have a sophisticated concept of causality or she might never have thought much about causality at all, using it in the sort of colloquial and unreflective way that Plato decried when, for example, people like Euthyphro talked about piety.

A whole cascade of questions arise when we raise a question like “what is causality?”  We can ask whether or not causality exists at all.  We can ask how we distinguish between correlation or two events that merely accompany one another from genuine causation.  This, for example, was Hume’s question.  But perhaps most importantly we can ask whether there is only one form of causality or many forms of causality.  Is there only one-to-one causation; one cause and one effect?  Is there many-to-one causation; or many events conspiring to produce an effect?  Is there one-to-many causation; or one event producing a variety of different effects?  We can even ask whether causality necessarily moves from past to present or whether there aren’t forms of causality that move from future to past!

read on!

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multiple-worldsOver at Struggles Forever, Jeremy Trombley has an interesting post up on “the ontological turn” in anthropology or ethnography.  I’ve been meaning to have a discussion with him about this as I think it’s an issue many of us are struggling with.  For example, the core project of The Democracy of Objects— a project which I think many have missed –is to somehow reconcile some version of social constructivism with a realist ontology capable of making room for ecology (which requires realist and materialist positions as there’s a fact of the matter where global warming is concerned) as well as the role played by objective agencies in social assemblages such as technologies, infrastructure, features of geography, local climates, the growth cycles of plants and animals, waste, etc.  Maybe we can try to organize some cross-blog event to discuss these issues.  I certainly think they’re close to the heart of Jeremy, Michael of Archive Fire, Arran James, and a host of others.

As an aside, I’m beginning to realize how the different sites of the political I’ve been outlining— semiopolitics, thermopolitics, oikopolitics (political economy), geopolitics, eropolitics (the politics of sex and desire), biopolitics, and chronopolitics (and I’m sure there are other political sites!) –are drawing me away from traditional Marxism.  Assuming that classical Marxism holds that economics or the conditions and relations of production are determinative of all other sites of the political, the various sites of the political that I’ve been outlining would lead to the conclusion that there is not one determinative base of the political.  This would not require committing Marx to flames, but rather of recognizing the phenomenon of overdetermination, or of a variety of different entangled sites of the political.

But I digress.  First, I find myself wondering what the ontological turn means in ethnography.  Is it 1) the investigation of the different ontologies held/proposed by different cultures?  E.g., the Aztecs believed that reality was structured in this way, while the Greeks in that way, and the ancient Chinese this way, etc?  Or 2) Is it an investigation of how real entities– independent of cultural beliefs –influence cultural formations?  Or is it a combination of both?  A position that I would favor.

read on!

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LionMirror4Truth be told, as my thought has evolved the issue of correlationism had fallen off the radar for me.  Somehow the debate had come to seem too “philosophical” to me, too “scholastic”, too remote from what interests me:  understanding why social assemblages are organized as they are, how power functions in social assemblages, and what we might do to address that power and change things.  Somehow the question of whether or not we can get out of the correlation between thinking and being just came to seem remote from these sorts of issues.  Somehow it seemed too epistemological.

ASIDE:  Numerous discussions over the years have led me to believe that the debate over correlationism is poorly understood (or maybe I just don’t understand it).  On countless occasions I’ve heard people say “of course we must relate to things in order to know them.”  Well yeah, of course!  I don’t think this is what the critic of correlationism is getting at.  It seems to me that correlationism is something more robust than the theses that we must relate to something to know it.  Correlationism instead seems to require the thesis that thought and being are indiscernible.  Put more concretely, the correlationist is someone who argues that we either a) can never tell whether being is merely a construction of our thought (weak correlationism), or b) who argues that thought actually constructs being (strong correlationism).  In other words, correlationism is another name for idealism.  One can hold that we must relate to something in order to know it without being a correlationist.  As an aside I should also add that I am a correlationist about some things.  For example, I think money is something constructed by society and am therefore a strong correlationist when it comes to money.

At any rate, for a long time I’d become rather indifferent to debates about correlationism and philosophies of access.  I had learned the lessons of speculative realism– which I could have also learned, I think, from Deleuze and Guattari, the new materialist feminists, actor-network theorists such as Latour –and had moved on.  However, occasionally you come across a tone of phrase that pitches something in a different light.  In The Cut of the Real, Katerina Kolozova writes,

…the political problem of contemporary philosophy identified by the ‘new realists’ is, in fact, the product of a more fundamental epistemic problem.  In his book After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux calls this problem ‘correlationism’ and identifies it as an essentially post-Kantian legacy, which continues to dominate and limit philosophy.  As a matter of fact, correlationism lies at the heart of postmodern theory and consists in the premise that thought can only ‘think itself,’ that the real is inaccessible to knowledge and human subjectivity, and that there is nothing but discursive constructs that fully determine thinking and that are meth0dologically accounted for all the way down. (1 – 2)

Thought thinking only itself.  Thought only encountering itself.  In the jargon of postmodern and poststructuralist lingo, this would be the thesis of infinite semiosis, where signs (“thoughts”) only ever relate to other signs.  Within ths framework, discursivity comes to be the hegemonic framework defining all of being.  At the level of politics and social theory more generally, if the correlationist thesis is true the consequences are clear:  all social phenomena are discursive and all solutions to social and political problems will be discursive.  The sole sphere of the political will be the discursive and all questions of politics will be questions of speech-acts and interpretation.

The problem here is not that many theorists recognize that the discursive and semiotic plays an important role in the social and the political.  It does and I’ve repeated this tirelessly.  The problem is with what happens when thought or the semiotic becomes a hegemon, an “all”, foreclosing our ability to recognize other forms of power.  What I’ve wanted to say is that not all power functions discursively.  In my last post and elsewhere I spoke of some other forms of politics:

Thermopolitics:  The politics surrounding energy in the form of calories and fuels such as gasoline and coal, and how our life and our very bodies are structured by energy dependencies and by being trapped in particular distributive networks that render these forms of energy available.  I’m being quite literal when I speak of energy, talking about the effects, for example, of the absence of food in certain educational environments on cognition, for example; and am generally hostile to metaphorical extensions of the concept of energy which I see as erasing the dimension of real materiality.

Geopolitics:  The role that features of natural and built geography such as mountain ranges, rivers, oceans, soil conditions, roads, housing design, etc., play in the form that social relations take and how they impact individual bodies.

Chronopolitics:  The way in which the structuration of time organize what is possible for us.  For example, the structuration of the working day, how much we can say and comprehend at any given time, the impact of things like the invention of the clock, etc.

Oikopolitics:  This would be the domain of political economy described so well by Marxists.

So five different types of politics:  Semiopolitics (or what currently dominates critical theory), thermopolitics, geopolitics, chronopolitics, and oikopolitics.  No doubt there are other sites of the political or political struggle that we could speak of, but this is a good start.  Also, it should be obvious that these aren’t exclusive domains, but are entangled in all sorts of important ways.  For example, something might take place at the level of semiopolitics (speech, law, rhetoric, norms, communication) that has all sorts of impact at the level of thermopolitics.  Congress might decide to cut programs that fund school meal programs.  This, in turn, will have a thermodynamic impact on those students that go without the calories they need developmentally and cognitively to function in a particular way.  There is an entanglement here of semiopolitical and thermopolitical domains.  The young student here has been constrained both at the level of semiotic phenomena and thermodynamic structures.

The point is that if true, semiotic intervention (speech-acts, protests, interpretations, deconstructions, etc) will not be an appropriate response to all political problems because social formations are not entirely structured by the semiotic.  The child in that school does not suffer from a lack of the right signs, but from a lack of calories needed to run the engine of his thought and body.  Certainly semiotic interventions might be needed to render that energy available, but it is the energy itself that is at issue and the absence of that energy that forms the spider web entangling him in his position.  A correlationist perspective tends to erase this as even being a site of the political.

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