I haven’t been writing much here and hope to rectify that from here on out. I suppose that I’ve found it difficult to write in this medium for a variety of reasons in the last couple of years. Tonight I find myself reflecting on all of the controversies that new materialism, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology have generated in the last few years. In recent years I’ve heard these vectors of thought criticized for supporting neoliberal capitalism to hating humans to asserting the dominance of things over humans. I’ve always found such criticisms surprising, wondering where it is from which they might come. What is it about these trajectories of thought that elicit so many passions. Is there something new here? I’m not so sure. This evening I came across the following passage in Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge that speaks to something similar, albeit in a different context.
The cry goes up that one is murdering history whenever, in a historical analysis– and especially if it is concerned with thought, ideas, or knowledge –one is seen to be using in too obvious a way the categories of discontinuity and difference, the notions of threshold, rupture and transformation, the description of series and limits. One will be denounced for attacking the inalienable rights of history and the very foundations of any possible historicity. But one must not be deceived: what is being bewailed with such vehemence is not the disappearance of history, but the eclipse of that form of history that was secretly, but entirely related to the synthetic activity of the subject; what is being bewailed is the ‘development’ that was to provide the sovereignty of the consciousness with a safer, less exposed shelter than myths, kinship systems, languages, sexuality, or desire; what what is being bewailed is the possibility of reanimating through the project, the work of meaning, or the movement of totalization, the interplay of material determinations, rules of practice, unconscious systems, rigorous but unreflected relations, correlations that elude all lived experience; what is being bewailed, is that ideological use of history by which one tries to restore to man everything that has unceasingly eluded him for over a hundred years. (14)
It seems to me that the most important moments in this passion lie in the reference to the “synthetic activity of the subject”– that temporalizing activity of the subject capable of forming a totality for itself in how it links historicity and futurity in the formation of a present –and that moment where Foucault refers to man restoring everything that has eluded to him; the possibility of totalization. Here we have the very structure of both mythology and ideology (do the two differ from one another?). Both myth and ideology can be thought as structured around the idea of a lost origin or ground that has been contaminated and to which we must return and the idea of a synthetic function of the subject that can both totalize the field of past and future in the production of the future and thereby regain that lost origin.
I would like to say that the mark of those most vital vectors of 20th century thought have been to contest these yearnings (yearnings that I’ve argued elsewhere are at the root of our drive to mastery (destruction) and autoimmune xenophobia that characterize our social structure at all levels), but the truth is that there has always been a minor tradition of philosophy, of theory, of practice, that has always contested the synthetic function of the subject, the existence of lost origins, the drive to totality. If there’s something new today, it’s the question of how to do philosophy in politics in the face of the likelihood that we’re already dead (the truth of the anthropocene). That aside, the contestation of origin and the synthetic function of the subject capable of overcoming alienation and reconciling itself with itself has been the theme of thought in Nietzsche, Freud, those indebted to Saussure, and a host of others. We live in the age where myth and ideology have slipped, yet still everywhere exert their influence. If there’s a horror to be found among the new materialisms, speculative realisms, and object-oriented ontologies (they must always be written in the plural as they know no identity), it is in the fact that they continue this undermining of the self-present mastery of the subject and effacement of the origin, drawing attention to the manner in which we live in the orbit– in the astronomical sense of the word –of things that exceed us. Speaking to this is not a hatred of humanity– though I contest any univocity attributed to the term “humanity” –but, as Kant said in “What is Enlightenment?”, is a way in which humanity rises from it’s self-imposed infantile state. Such an enlightenment entails abandoning the fantasy of sovereignty, the discourse of the master, the structure of masculinity, so as to encounter the manner in which we’re beings among beings. Perhaps that is one meaning of overcoming correlationism.