1280px-Edvard_Munch,_1893,_The_Scream,_oil,_tempera_and_pastel_on_cardboard,_91_x_73_cm,_National_Gallery_of_NorwayThis week I began teaching Adam Miller’s extraordinary and beautiful book Speculative Grace:  Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology for my Philosophy of Religion course.  This is the third time I’ve read this surprising book, and I still find it deeply challenging both in the sense that it is difficult to pin down (I’m not sure what I was thinking by assigning it!) and in the sense that it provokes me to think deeper and harder.  Composed of 41 short, sometimes cryptic, and terse chapters, Miller’s book is difficult to summarize.  In many respects, I think, the book enacts one of its central claims.  Things, objects, Miller says are “resistantly available”.  This is his gloss on Latour’s thesis of irreduction:  the real, Latour declares, is that which resists.  While the thing enters into relations with other things in all sorts of ways, there is always something of the thing that resists its relations or that is irreducible to them.  This is how it is with his book.  There are lightning flashes of insight that render something of the book available, where relations are composed between the reader and the text, yet in its short, abbreviated formulations where examples are almost entirely absent, there is something of the book that always feels withdrawn or resistant.  In this regard, the text is not only about the nature of things– in part; it is also about grace –but it also presents itself as a real thing of the universe or a force, no matter how humble.  His book performs what it argues.  Having known Adam now for fourteen years, this is how he himself is.  He is a very quiet and dignified person, animated by a humble charisma, who discloses elements of himself in mysterious flashes, yet who you’re never quite sure you really know.  He’s a singularity.

In a vain attempt to introduce this potent and difficult concept, I brought up a picture of Edvard Munch’s famous painting at the end of class.  I asked them to imagine the ideal book on this painting.  Such a book would adopt every conceivable theoretical approach in producing a commentary.  It would be biographical, historical, psychoanalytic, phenomenological, Marxist, deconstructive, feminist, eco-critical, etc.  It would delve into the psychology of color and shape.  We can. imagine a massive book written on a single painting.  I asked them to imagine such a book and I left them with this question:  could that ideal, comprehensive book replace the painting?  Like Frank Jackson’s famous article “What Mary Didn’t Know”– though with a different aim in mind; it’s odd that he takes this as an argument against physicalism –I was asking them whether there was something of the painting that is irreducible to commentary.  In a way, this is partially what Harman is getting at with his concept of withdrawal.  There is something that resists, something that is irreducible, something that is withdrawn.

In the fourth chapter of the book, Miller makes the claim that classical metaphysics is overwhelmingly composed of conspiracy theories.  One of his aims is to establish a form of metaphysical thinking that doesn’t fall into this trap.  As he puts it,

Classically, metaphysicians consistently fall prey to the same temptation:  they are conspiracy theorists.  They assume a much higher degree of fundamental unity and intentional coordination than is actually needed to account for the patterned complexity of what is given.  (SG, 9)

He begins the book already hinting at this thesis, discussing the difference between pre- and post-darwinian ways of thinking.  In pre-darwinian models of thought, species are conceived as already formatted or modeled in the mind of God.  Echoing Deleuze’s distinction between the difference between the possible and the real and the virtual and the actual, the possible is conceived as identical to the real, as a model that already exists, and the real is merely a passage from the possible into the actual that adds nothing of its own.  The declaration of post-darwinian thought, says Miller, is that “the world is enough!”  Rather than appealing to a verticality in the form of an omnipotent God that brings all species into being from his pre-existent concepts, the post-darwinian thinker instead resolves to account for the genesis of species within the world itself.  Miller wishes to do the same thing with grace.  Rather than seeing grace as dispensed from God on high, he wants to instead develop an immanent account of grace arising from out of the buzzing and chaotic mesh of the world.

Miller continues,

As a venerable brand of ivory tower conspiracy theory, the very work of metaphysics has long been understood as the task of unveiling some invisible hand at work behind the scenes, directing and unifying the movements of the disorganized and passive multitude into a coherent whole by unilaterally reducing that multitude to some more basic common factor.  This shadow hole assigned to this basic common factor can just as easily be played by God, Platonic forms, or Kantian categories as by semiotic systems, capitalism, or subatomic particles.  There is– ingrained in the metaphysical disposition itself –a drive for purity, and this purity is produced by requiring all phenomena to be baptized in the cleansing waters of reductionism.  (SG, 9 – 10)

500px-DIAGRAMWhat Miller describes here, I think, is aptly formalized by the lefthand side of Lacan’s graph of sexuation.  The upper portion of the equation can be read as saying “there exists a being that is the unconditioned ground of all else”, while the lower portion of the equation can be read as saying “all beings are grounded in, conditioned by, and accounted for by the agency of this being.  This is a formalization of the logic of sovereignty in all its forms, or, as Miller calls them, conspiracy theories.

read on!

Let’s tarry with this concept of conspiracy theories for a moment, and approach the term literally.  Ordinarily when writing a blog post like this I would refer to a specific example of a conspiracy theory, but I fear the sort of traffic I might draw, so I will instead speak in abstractions.  Some terrible, horrific event takes place in the world.  Many people die in a gruesome way.  The government, those who were supposed protect us, seem to have been caught completely unaware and unprepared.  Events like this are examples of what Lacan referred to as “missed encounters” or traumas.  This formulation, of course, seems bizarre because the whole problem for those who died and those who loved them is that nothing was missed.  They were the victims.  The problem is that the perpetrators didn’t miss.  However, if we think about the structure of phenomenological experience coupled with the way in which our experience is symbolically structured, we can see what Lacan is getting at.  Our entire experience is structured by anticipations, by the expectation that the world works a certain way and, above all, goes a certain way.  What is missed in the miss encounter, is this structure of anticipation, of how things are supposed to go.  Chance erupts into the world, destroying our reassurance that there is an ordinary, reliable structure to the world.  The trauma is that which cannot be symbolized or mastered.  It is the wildness of being.

The conspiracy theory is an attempt to symbolize and heal this wound that erupts at the heart of being.  We tame the wildness of being by capturing it the net of narratives and symbols.  We say that far from being chance and chaos, instead the event was the fruition of a plan.  “It was an inside job!”  “Far from being incompetent and caught unawares, it was, in fact, the government that did it!”  “They did it for motives x, y, and z, and to gain p, q, and r.”  In this way the untidiness of the world, of the event, is domesticated and now– even if the narrative is loathsome and horrific –we can sleep well again in the belief that there was a rational reason this horror took place, that the people in charge do, in fact, know what’s going on, and that chaos doesn’t lurk at the heart of being threatening to erupt at any moment.

Returning to philosophy, we can draw a continuum between domestic or paranoid philosophy and what Michael James has called “feral philosophy“.  Within a Lacanian framework, paranoia is that structure of thought in which every random event comes to be pervaded by meaning and has its place.  It is a structure of thought in which the Imaginary overtakes the Symbolic and abolishes the Real.  It is the reign of the ego in its drive to achieve identity with itself and to order the entire fabric of the world.  A white car drives by your house three times.  Within a paranoid framework this is not a random event, but rather entails that you must be under government surveillance and at the heart of some diabolical plot.  Everything has a meaning.  Everything has a significance.  There is nothing random.  There is nothing chaotic.

Perhaps one of the greatest instances of conspiracy theories in philosophy, of paranoid metaphysics, would be my beloved Leibniz.  Leibniz asks the audacious question “why does this universe exist rather than all of the other possible universes that could exist?”  His answer is that God created this universe because it is the best of all possible universes.  It is the best because it is governed or structured by the simplest laws that nonetheless allow for the greatest complexity (his astonishing mathematical meditations in The Discourse of Metaphysics where he hypothesizes that were we God we could formulated a simple equation for a series of points that seem to be placed at random), and it is the universe that gives us the greatest opportunity to morally perfect ourselves and find happiness.  There is, for Leibniz, a pattern behind everything with nothing left to chaos or chance.  The principle of sufficient reason states that for everything that exists, there is a reason that it is thus and so– both in terms of purpose and cause –and not otherwise.  We discover, in his beautiful vision, that all things are interdependent and that I could not have existed had Caesar not crossed the rubicon.  My existence is only possible in a universe in which everything else in the entire universe occurred.  It is all, he says in the Discourse, a beautiful tapestry or painting that only looks ugly to us because we’re too close and cannot see the totality in four dimensions as God can see it.  Thus, when I encounter horrific, I can find reassurance, that while I don’t know what the cause of this event was, nonetheless it has a reason and a purpose that is all for the best.

IMG_1502A feral philosophy, a philosophy that refuses absolute domestication– and domestication can’t entirely be avoided, nor should it be –a philosophy that would resist conspiracy theories and paranoid thought, would be a philosophy that would begin from the declaration that the world is enough.  It would not begin with what Daniel Dennett calls “skyhooks” (verticalities) or that grant all order and formatting in advance, but would begin with the wild and wooly resistant availability of the things themselves and that would be prepared to be surprised, and to live in he chaos or the thicket.  It would be thee fulfillment of Husserl’s call to “return to the things themselves!”, but in a way that doesn’t reduce the things themselves to intentions, structures, meanings, categories, or structures, but that instead explores their fecund creativity and how, like Darwin’s species, order arises out of chaos or the wilds.  This, I think, is what I am exploring in my work with the archeologists.  There, in the midden pit, you encounter a wildness of things that defies your expected categorizations.  Of course, we attempt to understand these things, to preserve them, and we approach those fish bones, rusty nails, and bits of pottery and glass with great care.  We are attentive to the shift in soil chemistry and composition, the density and the lay of the land and how it has been put down.  As in the case of Latour’s circulating reference, there is an entire semiotic that is devised to categorize soils and layers and dates.  With your trowel and brush, you gently draw back levels, attentive to everything that appears or is given.  It’s a real skill and it’s hard work.  But what you find in this work is things out of place, revealing a being and independence apart from our categories and expectations.  You discover that the thing has a sort of life of its own that is irreducible to our ordinary narratives and stories and that often challenges those narratives and stories.  You encounter a very different time than historical time– structured by stories defined by periods, beginnings, middles, and ends –for material time, like Freud’s unconscious as described in the parable of Rome in Civilization and its Discontents where all strata of Rome are simultaneous and never die, is a time where the past is there with the present and continues to act in the present.  Like the psychoanalytic setting where, no matter the power of your theory and its precision, you’re exposed to the speech of the analysand and all of the wildness that animates it, leading you to wonder how you will ever catch your bearing, the midden presents you with a thingleness of things, a feralness, where uncertainty is the rule and where your conventional categories and understanding are overturned if you have eyes to see and listen.  Yet the issue is precisely one of learning how to listen, to really listen, to hear and see what is there to be heard and seen, and not simply subsume in a paranoid conspiracy theory that only finds what it expects to find.