borromeantheoryOver on Facebook, my friend Carl Sachs expresses sympathy for social epistemologies and wonders whether it’s possible to be both a social constructivist and a realist.  As it turns out, this is an issue I’ve struggled with a great deal as well.  As I remark in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects, what I want is not a rejection of social constructivist positions, but rather a framework that is sophisticated enough to make room for both correlationist frames of thought and realism.  In subsequent work, I’ve referred to this with the rather inelegant term “borromean critical theory”.  Drawing on the resources of Lacan’s borromean knot along with the Venn diagram in logic, I’ve tried to think the intersections and divergences between nature, signs, and phenomenological experience.  I realize the danger of evoking the term “nature”, so carefully critiqued by Latour and others, yet I’ve been unable to find any better term to refer to things like atomic elements, stars, storms, diseases, etc.  Please think of the diagram to the right as an imperfect heuristic rather than as a set of hard and fast categories.  Roughly speaking and with important qualifications, the category of nature corresponds to Lacan’s Real, the category of signs (culture) refers to Lacan’s Symbolic, and the category of phenomenological experience refers to Lacan’s Imaginary. venn_8_regionsI’m interested in how these three orders intertwine, modify, and diverge from one another.  I can’t explain all the intricacies of Venn diagrams here– though they’re very simple and you can learn how to use them in an hour or so –but the nice thing about these diagrams is that they allow us to visualize relations between different categories and discern possibilities of relation we might otherwise miss or overlook.  Venn diagrams allow us to discern how categories overlap and diverge through a set of visual relations.  Not that a three circle Venn diagram is composed of 7 regions (right).  If something is in region number 1 in category S, then it is outside of categories P and M.  This would be a nice way of representing Laruelle’s Real that is completely unrelated. If something is in region 2, it shares a relation between S and P; there is an overlap between these two domains.  In the sciences, string theory would below here.  We have a mathematics of string theory (symbolic) that potentially explains certain things about nature (it remains a hypothesis), but the n-dimensional spaces of string theory have no correlate in phenomenological experience because we can neither imagine (produce an image of), nor experience 11 dimensions.  If something appears in region number 5, there is an overlap between categories S, P, and M.  This might be the case with a disorder like depression.  Depression, of course, has all sorts of phenomenological correlates or is a structure of lived experience.  It could be that certain symbolic systems (culture) have neurological effects (nature) that in turn produce the lived experience of depression (or vice versa). read on! Along these lines, I think the debate between speculative realism and anti-realism/correlationism/social-constructivism has been poorly posed and that there are a number of possibilities that are overlooked.  When using a Venn diagram you only look at two categories at a time.  Keeping this in mind, we can easily diagram the positions of social-constructivism/anti-realism and realism. Strong social-constructivism/anti-realism/correlationism would be as follows: strongconstructivism When using a Venn diagram we shade a region to show where something is not.  The above diagram thus says “there is nothing of nature that is not culture.”  Here one would be saying that nature is entirely a social construction.  This would be equivalent to saying that beings such as atoms, stars, viruses, etc., have no reality independent of culture.  As a consequence, one would here be committed to the thesis that should a culture cease to exist, these entities would no longer have any being.  Latour comes very close to such a position in his article “On the Partial Existence of Existing and Nonexisting Objects” where he claims that it’s an anachronism to suggest that Ramses II died of tuberculosis, and in “The Historicity of Things” where he suggests that microbes did not exist before Pasteur.  Here “existence” seems to be equated with something being symbolized and believed by a culture. The strong realist position could be represented as follows: strongrealism Here the thesis is that there is no point of overlap between the real and the cultural.  The real is what it is regardless of what people believe, how it’s symbolized, whether or not people know about it, etc.  Here tuberculosis exists regardless of whether anyone knows it and regardless of what theory a culture might have about a particular set of symptoms. Often it’s not clear whether the realist and anti-realist are talking about the same thing.  One version of anti-realism, a strong version, might have it that there are just different stories about the world and that all of these stories have equal validity.  This would be an ontological anti-realism that holds that everything is cultural constructions. Here we could imagine a person holding that the bacterial theory of tuberculosis has no more ontological legitimacy than a humorist theory of tuberculosis.  Both the bacterial and the humoral theories of tuberculosis would recognize a common set of symptoms because these are given in experience– ontological anti-realism tends to be based on a sort of Humean positivism without realizing it, i.e., it restricts itself to what’s given in sensation –but one causal account would be no better than the other.  Rather, these would just constitute two different cultural worlds.  Here the realist would hold that these theories can potentially be mistaken. By contrast, a softer anti-realism still falling into the strong anti-realist camp might instead be making an epistemic point: because we can never get outside of our culture to see the world as it is apart from our ways of speaking, conceptualizing, etc., we can only ever speak of being as it is given in and through our culture; and therefore must remain skeptical as to whether or not bacteria (or humors) exist in being apart from our culture.  This epistemic strong anti-realism would perhaps concede that one or both of these theories are right, but would claim we can never know because we can never get outside of culture or language to determine whether or not the world is, indeed, this way.  A strong realist may or may not share this position.  If she rejects this position and claims we can know that one theory or another is right, she’s obligated to give an epistemological account of just how we’re able to know this.  As an aside, it’s worth noting that the realist that does claim we can know this is not necessarily committed to a “view from nowhere” (a favorite rejoinder from strong anti-realists).  A realist can concede that knowledge is mediated in all sorts of ways and even that it’s not exhaustive, while still holding that we sometimes get at features of the being of something independent of culture. This debate is interminable and, at a certain point, has diminishing returns.  One noteworthy thing from the foregoing is that both positions are pitched in universal terms:  “All nature is culture”, “No nature is culture”.  We might get further– and yield more interesting concrete analyses of the world –if we focus on propositions that are particular in their quantity.  “Some nature is not culture”, “some culture is not nature”, and “there are hybrids of nature and culture”.  I’ll have more to say about this in a future post, but the diagrams for these propositions– which can all be simultaneously true –are as follows: nature

Some nature is not culture.

This would be the thesis that, for example, the tuberculosis bacteria is not a social construction or invention.  It existed before it was discovered.  It will exist after humanity exists.  It is a being in its own right.  None of this is to say that the discovery of this bacterium didn’t involve all sorts of social mediations and that it wasn’t discovered as the result of certain social problems.  Moreover, none of this requires us to deny that there can’t also be all sorts of cultural discourses surrounding tuberculosis (social meanings) that have nothing to do with the disease.  All that’s said here is that this bacteria is a real being in its own right.  In short, the bacterial theory is right (if it is right) and the humoral theory is wrong.  Here we abandon the talk of “multiple worlds” with “different ontologies” that we sometimes encounter in the world of theory.  It’s important to recognize that cultures believe different things exist.  However, that’s quite different than the ontological claim that they do exist.

Likewise, there are phenomena that fit the following schema:


Some culture is not nature.

These would be cultural constructions in the purest sense.  The value of money, ideology, gods, national identities, etc., seem to fall into this category.  They have no being apart from the society in which they are named and are brought into being by their naming.

Perhaps the most interesting relation of all would be the hybrids.  These are beings and forms of beings that wouldn’t exist in nature without the intervention of culture, but that also have substantial existence of their own:


Some beings are hybrids.

An example of such a being would be the synthetic atomic elements.  These beings do not occur naturally, but are constructed in a lab.  Nonetheless, they have substantial existence of their own.  Diet seems to be similar.  On the one hand, diets are symbolic codes defining taboos, things we have a duty to eat, cultural identities, etc.  On the other hand, food has a chemistry in relation to the body.  If the developmental systems theorists (as well as theorists of evolution and development) are right in their claim that the genome is a set of tendencies rather than a blueprint and that that field of virtual tendencies can be actualized in a variety of different ways, then perhaps diets can literally form different bodies at the level of the phenotype in different ways as a result of actualizing the genome in different ways.  Diets would affect the very materiality (nature) of the body and not just be a system of cultural habits.  Here the symbolic would be writing the material and not merely as an imaginary topography.

I realize all of this seems rather wishy washy and simplistic; however, I think it promises a great deal of complexity.  What these circles allow us to approach, I hope, is the hyper-complexity of social assemblages in non-reductive ways that do justice to a variety of different critical frameworks.  First, with this borromean framework, we get three forms of the Absolute:

Absolute Nature

Absolute Signs

Absolute Imaginary

This would be each of the three categories independent of the other.  Then, second, we get a variety of combinations, where one element or the other can be dominant or can overdetermine the others:



Nature-Imaginary (here, for example, we might talk about neurology structuring lived experience in ways that are inaccessible to that lived experience).

Imaginary-Nature (here we might get the posthuman or the experiential worlds of other, nonhuman, creatures).

Then we have the three triads where the three categories interpenetrate in different orders of dominance:




Etc.  Each set of relations will require a different style of analysis and will refer to different sets of phenomena.