February 2014

luis-kobieta-royo-demonBecause my brain just won’t shut down tonight.

“Tolerant” Pluralist Postmodern Theologian (TPPT):  Look, being a pluralist I’m absolutely committed to the thesis that demons are real.  They’re just not what people think they are.  What you call a seizure and a neurological disorder, the believer calls the effects of demonic possession.  They’re just different vocabularies for the same thing.  [Aside:  I’m not making this thesis up, I’ve had it or some variant of it said to me on a number of occasions]

Frustrated Materialist (FM):  The believer that makes that claim doesn’t think it’s “just a way of talking” but believes there’s a real referent corresponding to those entities.

TPPT:  (Sly smile).  Look, I’m just being a pragmatist here and am not concerned with questions about truth.  For the believer the demons are real.  After all, these ideas have effects and that’s gotta be real right?  So really the neurologist that calls these things a seizure caused by a neurological disorder and the believer that talks about demons and effects of possession are talking about the same thing.

FM:  But they’re not.

TPPT:  They’re not?  How so?  Come on, remember pragmatism?  We’re not interested in truth.

FM:  Have you heard of Charles Sanders Peirce and Robert Brandom.

TPPT:  Sure, both great pragmatists!

FM:  Well they’d disagree with your “different vocabularies same phenomenon” hypothesis.

TPPT:  What?  Why?  They’re pragmatists!

FM:  Well Peirce said, in his pragmatic principle, that the meaning of a concept is all of the consequences that follow from it; while Brandom said that the meaning of a proposition is all that can be inferred from it.

TPPT:  Yeah?  So what?

FM:  So what?  Demonic possession and neurological disorder have entirely different entailments just as the four humors theory of sickness and the germ theory of sickness have different entailments.

TPPT:  I don’t follow.

FM:  Demonic possession calls for an exorcism.  Neurological disorders call for some form of medication and perhaps surgery.  These different ontological hypotheses lead to different practices.  They’re not just different vocabularies for the same thing and the pragmatists, except for that scoundrel James, say exactly the same.

TPPT:  You’re just an intolerant atheist realist materialist that doesn’t respect the worldviews of others!

FM:  Well if I were a believer, I can’t say I’d much want to have you as my friend or defender.

TPPT:  What?  Why not?  I respect their beliefs!

pimagesFM:  It doesn’t seem to me that you do.  In fact, it seems to me that you’re rather patronizing.  Rather respecting the persons you’re “defending” enough to recognize that they mean what they say and really are asserting the existence of these things, you instead say these are just “vocabularies” and are perhaps potent and meaningful symbols used to describe core things in the human condition to be analyzed by the likes of Jung or Joseph Campbell who are capable of saying what these things really mean.  That doesn’t sound like pluralism or respect at all!  Rather, it sounds to me like the way adults sometimes pat children on the head when they’ve said something charming but naive.  It seems to me that you’re already adopting a materialist and naturalist framework and are just trying to blunt the implications of that framework by saying there are lots of vocabularies to describe the same natural phenomena.  Isn’t it really the materialist who’s a pluralist because they respect these others enough to recognize that they really mean what they say and are making genuine claims about beings and not simply claims about meanings?

TPPT:  You materialists are so intolerant and mean!  Disagreeing with others and challenging their claims is the height of violence!

FM:  Are you familiar with the exorcism of Anneliese Michel?  Place that in the context of Pierce’s pragmatic principle and Brandom’s inferentialism.

TPPT:  I’m leaving now you intolerant cad!

beach-love-couple-silhouetteI know, a third post tonight but I write so little these days that I have to get it down when I do.  So a couple of weeks ago I was having a nice discussion with some good peeps on facebook and one of the participants said they don’t like Badiou because they think he’s exclusionary.  Whatever the failings of Badiou the man might be, I don’t think this is a criticism that can really work for his ontology and political theory, i.e., he might not carry it through consistently, but the resources are there in the ontology to compellingly address this criticism.  This requires a little discussion of history and mathematics.

Some History

Late 20th century Continental political theory was marked by the critical dissolution of all universal categories.  The task of both postmodernism and deconstruction was to show the fraught nature of all cultural universals.  This was generally done in one of two ways.  One either showed that what claimed to be universal was secretly a veiled particularity hiding an unjust hegemonic exercise of power (what a mouthful!).  For example, one would show that talk of human (a universal) rights that purported to apply to all humans beings was, in fact, a particularity.  Through careful discourse or textual analysis, one would show that “human” really signifies “white, male, hetero, property owners” and that, therefore, “rights” don’t apply to all but are constructed to benefit the interests of that particularity.

platypus_662_600x450Another strategy was to show the aporetic nature of all universals and categorizations.  For example, you might show how the general category in fact relies on the borderline case whose identity cannot be decided in terms of whether or not it belongs or does not belong.  This, for example, is what Derrida demonstrates in his brilliant essay “Parergon” in The Truth in Painting (my favorite Derrida, strangely).  There he shows how the frame is the condition for the possibility of the artwork, while also being its condition of impossibility.  Why?  Because we can’t decide whether the frame belongs to the artwork or doesn’t.  However, more substantially, Derrida shows that aesthetic theory itself is a frame for art whose status with respect to art is undecidable.  In my view, Derridean deconstruction can be thought as the disciplined application of Goedel’s incompleteness theorems coupled with Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic theories of the symptom to case after case.  The upshot of showing, in case after case, this constitutive incompleteness and undecidability is that classificatory terms– universals of a sort –are dissolved and no longer have their claim to authority.  Everything becomes a platypus and Plato and Aristotle lose their shit.

Under this project, the political danger to be overcome– it seems –is the destructive effects of categorizations and their hierarchies.  And in the aftermath of World War II, in all the wars surrounding nationalism, in the face of colonial horrors, in resistances to civil rights movements, why not?  Dissolving categories and demonstrating their internal contamination went a long way towards ameliorating the horrors arising out of “identity”.  No longer would identity categories be able to hold sway.

read on!


From what I understand, Ray Brassier will soon be giving a talk about flat ontology.  Since I’m pretty sympathetic to his positions and since the concept of flat ontology is central to my own work, I thought I should give a few words of clarification.  It appears that Ray takes the thesis of flat ontology to be the claim that “everything is real”.  I adamantly reject any position of this sort.  For me flat ontology signifies three things:  materialism, naturalism, and atheism.  The thesis is that only material and natural beings exist.  As a consequence, the following entities are rejected by a flat ontology:  anything supernatural, God, souls, Platonic forms, and so on.  I wholeheartedly agree with Brassier’s contention that the thesis “everything is real” is absurd.

Now perhaps the idea that flat ontology holds that everything is real arises because I’ve sometimes said that beings like Harry Potter are real.  What do I mean by this?  Something very trivial, I think.  I mean that if everything is material, then fictions, which obviously make up the furniture of the world we live in, have to have material being as well.  What do I mean by that?  Do I mean that there is a living being named Harry Potter that eats and drinks, breaths air, shits, fucks, and casts magical spells?  No!  I mean that “Harry Potter” has to be inscribed in brains or on pieces of paper or on video clips.  I mean that there has to be some material medium for this fiction to be present in the world.  That said, I do not think there is any referent to this fiction.  The absence of a referent to the fiction is precisely what makes it a fiction.

A trivial and obvious point, right?  Nonetheless, I think it has important consequences, especially in the realm of political theory.  The mark of materialism is that it recognizes that things are located in time and space.  Unlike a Platonic form that can be anywhere and everywhere at once, material beings are in a place and a time (though as Whitehead has taught us in his less “woo-ish” moments, place can be pretty complicated).  This entails that ideas are place-bound as well.  Why’s that significant?  I don’t know, maybe it isn’t.  However, I think that perhaps it is because I think a lot of our political theorists have the unconscious assumption that it’s enough to develop a compelling critique or develop the right concept to overturn whatever idols they wish to demolish.  From a materialist perspective, however, it’s not enough simply to develop the critique.  In addition to formulating the critique, it’s necessary for that critique to materially circulate throughout the world to produce effects.  Emphasizing the materiality of thought draws our attention to networks of transport or how ideas circulate throughout the world and encourages us to develop strategies to enhance the possibility of those ideas circulating broadly, thereby maximizing the transformative effects they might have.

dali20persistence20of20timeA great deal hinges on how historical and psychological time is structured or operates.  Indeed, I think the issue of historical time goes straight to the heart of a number of issues in social and political theory; for whether or not revolutionary change is possible will depend, in part, on the nature of time.  Before getting to this, I’ll stipulate that by “psychological time” I’m referring to time as described by phenomenologists such as Husserl and Heidegger.  I know that those working in the phenomenological tradition will find the descriptor “psychological” objectionable, but we are, after all, talking about how humans experience time.  I suspect that there are deeper phenomena of psychological time that aren’t registered in lived, intentional, conscious experience, but that are increasingly being mapped by those working in cognitive science and neurology through the use of a variety of experimental methods.  As another aside, I absolutely hate that I placed Dali’s painting in the upper corner of this post as it’s become so commodified.  As an aside on an aside I hate that I’ve come to hate this painting because it’s become so commodified.

So why is the issue of time so important?  Everything hinges on whether we adopt what I call continuist or discontinuest theories of time.  Roughly– and I’m simplifying matters here tremendously –I take it that a continuist theory of time holds that for each event E^3, that event arose out of prior events E^2…E^n.  This, I take it, is the premise of all historicisms and hermeneutic orientations of thought.  Reduced to its barest possible form– and again, I know there are many more bells and whistles to someone like, say, Gadamer –the thesis seems to be that given any cultural artifact or social event, that event is to be explained in terms of the historical context in which it arose.  This is why we are told that in order to understand Kant we have to read all of his predecessors, going all the way back to the pre-Socratics.  The meaning of Kant is a product of these inheritances.  Time here is conceived in terms of continuity and the thinkable is always a function of what has come before.

read on!


Just a brief post.  From time to time I express my ire over how Continental philosophy is practiced in the English speaking world.  To be clear, I see this as an institutional issue pertaining to how English-speaking Continental philosophy graduate programs are organized, how our conferences are structured, and how our journals and presses are structured.  It is a question of how power functions in these institutions and the impact of that power on thought.  We are too attached to proper names.  All thought, it seems, has to be filtered through certain privileged figures, rather than directly focusing on questions and problems.

I think the issue can be summed up with the simple question “could a continentalist write Naming and Necessity?”  Would an English-speaking Continental philosophy program authorize such a work for a grad student?  Kripke gave these amazing lectures at the astonishingly young age of 29.  When I ask whether or not a continentalist could write such a book, I am not asking a question about the content of the text, but rather of a certain style that directly works through a problem or a question.  We could just as easily ask where an English-speaking continentalist could write the Logical Investigations or Being and Time or Difference and Repetition?  Here the question is whether the English-speaking world has created institutions and venues that are open to this sort of direct work.  We can imagine what sort of forms these texts would take in an English-speaking Continental framework.  Rather than Naming and Necessity simpliciter, we would get something like Husserl on Names and Necessity.  Rather than Difference and Repetition, we would instead get Derrida and Kierkegaard on Difference and Repetition.  Everything, it seems, has to be filtered through the proper name of some master-figure or father, and responsibility for authorship can never be directly claimed.

Where a Kripke can say “I am responsible for what I have argued and conceptualized, I am committed”, the English-speaking world seems to foster an environment where one can always say “well that’s just what Husserl says, I don’t know if I fully buy it or not.”  It’s something closer to intellectual history than philosophy.  If you doubt that English-speaking Continental philosophy is structured in this way, just look at the program for SPEP on any given year.  In the English-speaking world we have debates between Deleuzians and Badiouians, whereas in Anglo-American thought we have debates between, say, connectionists and functionalists.  The former makes the debate a debate between different masters, while the latter makes it a debate between different theories (and I realize I’m being a bit too black and white here).

I think there are two basic problems here.  First, the continentalist approach is often an impediment to thought.  Insofar as everything must be filtered through the voice of a master-figure, you’re not dealing directly with the problem and what the development of the problem dictates according to its own immanent logic as it’s unfolded.  Instead you get a sort of interpretive scholasticism that is often more a matter of textual debates over just what the thinker meant and that all too often misses the field of the problem and is unable to follow it wherever it might lead due to allegiance to the master-figure:  “The problem seems to lead in this direction but I can’t go in that direction because it would be contrary to what Lacan says in these other matters.”  My ability to think through depression, for example, is stunted because certain dimensions of the malady are rendered outside the field of sanctioned discussion in a Lacanian framework due to these categories of that framework.

Second, I think this framework is deeply at odds with those political intuitions at the heart of continental thought when it’s at its best:  anarchism and communism.  Scholarship organized around the authority of master-figures is inherently Oedipal in character.  It is not an-archistic, but mon-archistic.  The master-figures are the monarchs and the job of the rest is to dutifully maintain allegiance to their thought.  Yet genuinely anarchist politics must be communist in spirit.  It can admit of no hierarchy of thinkers, no thinkers more privileged than others, no thinkers that would be masters, but must instead treat all thinkers as voices who do or do not prevail by virtue of the reasons and arguments they’re able to marshal for their case.  Anarchist and communist practice ought reflect itself both at the level of worldly political engagements and at the level of a sort of style and ethics of thought.  The young upstart like Kripke at the tender age of 29 with little in the way of extensive scholarship in the history of philosophy under his belt should, through the force of his arguments, the novel problems he poses, and the concepts he develops be able to stand on equal footing with Plato…  Not in the sense that he has accomplished as much as Plato– of course not! –but in the sense that his concepts, arguments, and problems should count just as much.  Instead what we seem to get is monarchial scholarship, where some voices count as others and the rest are lesser lords and serfs that obey those monarchs (monarchialism being one avatar of Oedipus and authoritarianism more generally).  There thus seems to be a deep performative contradiction between the institutions we’ve actually formed and the sort of politics we advocate.

(a)void_1-07_1_905Often people ask how there can be any possible meaning, purpose, or values if God does not exist.  That would be the Nietzschean problem, I guess.  The paradox is that if God does not exist then God never existed, so values, purposes, and meaning were never dependent upon him in the first place.  The real question, then, is not whether or not values, purposes, and meanings are possible without God– we always had them –but rather how we can still sustain them once we become aware of this.

Yeah, I’m having an existential moment today.  Materialism and naturalism are hard doctrines from the standpoint of questions about meaning and purpose.  This, no doubt, is why people have such allergic reactions to these positions, even while implicitly, I think, knowing their true (if their responses and attitudes towards death are any indication).

FireflyreaverIn the television show Firefly, one theory of the Reavers is that they reached the end of the universe and went mad because all they saw was empty nothingness.  This is how it is with materialism and naturalism.  It invites madness borne from despair at the utter pointlessness of it all.  Our curse is that we are capable of thinking something more than this, better than this, yet are trapped in this.  We are trapped in our stinking, decaying, hungering bodies, caught in geography, in appetites, in yearning, in fatigue, yet able to glimpse beyond this condition.

Yet it’s not just our stinking, hungering, decaying, fatigued bodies that yield this horror of matter and nature.  It’s also the bodies of others.  We’re driven mad by the loss of loved ones, by watching them suffer as they die, by knowing that we can never bring them back, and by the distance we sometimes suffer in space from those we love and who give our lives meaning and value.  Love is the positive side of our relation to others, even if it causes us such anguish and renders us so vulnerable.  The dark side of our human relations lies in having to live in a world inhabited by others who act in stupid and cruel ways in their collective governance, forcing us to endure that stupidity and cruelty without being able to do much about it.  We’re driven mad by the horror and cruelty of humanity, by a world where we glimpse things could be better, kinder, more compassionate, less stupid yet without being able to bring this world about.  We’re driven mad by the manner in which our utopian strivings, based on the most noble of ends, so often lead to even more suffering and cruelty as nothing ever translates perfectly throughout a population due to stupidity and mendacity.

What tradition hasn’t hated the body?  In Eastern thought we encounter either doctrines of reincarnation of images of sages able to escape all laws of physics and limitations of the body through spiritual discipline such as that Shaolin monks.  In Western thought we have the fantasy of an incorporeal soul defined by intellect found in Plato, Descartes, in Christianity.  Even in the post-religious frameworks we get the visions of the transhumanists dreaming of our selves being uploaded to computers and thereby freed of our bodies.  And throughout philosophy we everywhere encounter a privileging of the idea, the ideal, the intelligible, of sense, of meaning, of all that is not physical over the material.  Or we find the persistent claim that this world is really just an illusion, an appearance.  A horror of the body, a horror of the physical.  We’re mad from the body and its finitude, mad from the material, mad from the pointlessness of it all; and above all mad because we nonetheless have some form of transcendence– even if illusory –that can imagine something else.  And as the ability to sustain these dualisms increasingly fails as the result of our ever growing knowledge of being– that is, of matter and the truth of monism –we’re left with little but despair.  We’re then confronted with the question of how it might be possible to sustain some meaning, hope, and purpose where we are our bodies and nothing more.