Culture_Matrix_Code_corridorIn place of the conspiracy theories of classical metaphysics, Adam Miller, following Latour, proposes an experimental metaphysics.  According to Miller, what is the cardinal sin of classical metaphysics?  On the one hand, it is reductive.  When we are in the grips of a theory, we believe we have mastered the phenomena.  Our metaphysics is based on a distinction between appearance and reality, where appearances are the buzzing confusion of all things that exist in the world and reality is the finite set of principles or laws that both explain those phenomena and that are the grounds of the phenomena.  Here I cannot resist a hackneyed reference to The Matrix.  What is it that distinguishes Neo from everyone else?  Unlike the rest of us that see only appearances– the steak that we are eating, the clothing we are wearing, the car we’re driving in, other people, etc –Neo sees the reality that governs the appearances.  He sees the code that governs appearances.  Neo is the Platonic hero par excellence.  Where everyone else sees shadows on the cave wall taking them to be true reality, Neo has escaped the cave, seen the true reality, and now knows the combinatorial laws that govern all the appearances.  It is this that allows him to perform such extraordinary feats, for like the scientist that has unlocked the secrets of nature, he can manipulate that code to his advantage.

main-qimg-0d8cd712304a3f11bd098c637db0247fThis is the fantasy of classical metaphysics and is what Miller refers to as a conspiracy theory.  The classical metaphysician believes he has unliked the code that governs the appearances and, for this reason, no longer has to attend to the appearances.  Alfred Korzybski famously said “the map is not the territory”.  The classical metaphysician is like a person who gets a map and thinks that because they have a map they have mastered the territory; so much so that they don’t have to consult the territory at all.  In this instance, the map, the model, comes to replace the territory altogether.  The map becomes the reality and the territory itself, such that the territory no longer enters the picture.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons people often find philosophers so frustrating.  We have our models, we have our metaphysics, and we debate back and forth about the finer points of these respective maps, yet the territory doesn’t enter the picture.  The map has become more real than the territory (isn’t this what Lauruelle is diagnosing in his non-philosophy:  the manner in which the philosophy posits its own reality).

It is in this sense that classical metaphysics is reductive:  the map comes to replace the territory such that the territory contributes nothing.  Indeed, the territory comes to be treated as an epiphenomenon.  Consider the following equations:


lemon/combinations of atoms

The latter might be an equation from Lucretian atomism.  That thesis states that the lemon is explained by combinations of atoms, both the shapes of those atoms and how they are combined.  Now, in the Lucretian framework– as much as it pains me to say so, given my deep love of Lucretius –we can ask whether the lemon contributes anything?  Isn’t it the atoms that do all of the work?  Suppose we take a neo-atomist.  Someone says it was the baseball that broke the window.  Our neo-atomist smugly responds that that is a folk metaphysical explanation.  Rather, what really happened is that one combination of atoms interacted with another set of atoms producing a new combination of atoms.  Baseballs and windows contribute nothing.  They are fictions.

read on!

FractalLichtenbergWe see this sort of thinking all over the place and often engage in it without even realizing it.  The bad form of psychoanalysis, so rightfully criticized by Deleuze and Guattari, already knows all of the answers.  The patient speaks for fifteen minutes, outlining his problems with his boss, and the analyst sagely strokes his beard and says “I see!  Your problem is that you have an unresolved Oedipus complex!  It is not your boss who you have a problem with, but rather your boss is a stand in for your father.  It is your unresolved issues with your father that you must work through!”  Read Deleuze and Guattari’s discussions of psychoanalysis carefully– this often doesn’t take place because ironically readers of Deleuze and Guattari already know what they expect to find –especially their discussions of Freud’s approach to Schreber.  Their objection is not with the method of free association– if you doubt this, read Guattari’s notebooks; he applies rather traditional psychoanalytic techniques to himself –but rather that Freud knows exactly what he will find in Schreber before he even approaches his writings.  He is thus led to ignore all sorts of other materials that are there in Schreber’s writings that might lead to very different conclusions.  Or again, consider a certain form of Marxist literary theory deployed by less skilled hands.  The critique always knows in advance what he will find in every novel or cultural artifact:  some story about class antagonism and the mechanisms of ideology by which those antagonisms are veiled.  We see this in a wide variety of different forms of theory.  The Luhmannian knows that they will find systems of communication governed by certain distinctions, the paradoxes that emerge as a result of how those distinctions function and the system manages those paradoxes.  Like a fractal pattern, we discover the same thing over and over again.  We discover exactly what we expected to find.  And it is in this way that the world is erased.

And this, above all, is the upshot of Miller’s critique of classical metaphysics as a series of conspiracy theories.  The conspiracy theory abolishes our capacity to be surprised because it always already knows what it will find.  It has reduced the territory to a map and replaced the territory with that map.  There is no unruliness to things within classical metaphysics.  Everything is always already formatted.  This, of course, provides us with great metaphysical comfort in a world that is deeply uncertain and often opaque, but it carries danger as well.  Theory becomes a form of blindness, preventing us from seeing what is already there.  This is what the symmetrical archaeologists are critiquing, in part, in traditional archaeology.  For example, because archaeology often organizes time historically– history and the past aren’t the same thing for the symmetrical archaeologists; I hope to write about this soon –these periodizations come to structure what the archaeologist sees in the dig.  As Chris Whitmore observes in his article “The Politics of Periodization” in Alfredo González-Ruibal’s collection Reclaiming Archaeology, this can lead us to overlook the way in which different elements of the material past are intertwined with one another in the dig in a way that defies purification and easy classification.

Experimental metaphysics, by contrast, would above all shelter a space in which we might be surprised.  As Miller puts it, “…a genuinely contemporary metaphysics ought to be shaped by its refusal to countenance any conspiracy theories.”  He continues, “[o]f course… like all metaphysical projects, [it] must begin with some axiomatic assumptions… but an [experimental metaphysics] means to turn the need for such assumptions on its head by banning, axiomatically, any axiomatic decisions about the nature of the real” (SG, 12).  We do not begin with assumptions about the real, about what exists– and, to be sure this is very difficult, but we’re here talking about a methodological ideal that we might never fully be able to realize in practice –but instead go to the things themselves.  We don’t begin, like Margaret Thatcher, with the declaration that “society does not exist, there are only individuals and families”, but rather practice a sort of agnosticism as to what we will find.  We allow ourselves to be surprised.

Take the example of a marriage.  Common sense might tell us that marriage consists of exactly two entities:  the two people who are married to one another.  However, if we practice experimental metaphysics, we might question this assumption.  We might wonder whether there are, in fact, three entities here:  the two people who are married and the marriage itself.  What if the marriage itself is a third object in addition to the two people who are married?  Is there any evidence for this?  Recall that the criteria for being real is that the thing resists or withdrawn, that there is something of the thing that can’t be undermined, as Harman would put it –by its constituent parts, but that has a sort of solidity, no matter how brief or fragile, of its own.  If we wish to demonstrate that the marriage itself is something, then we would have to show that it has a resistance, an obstinance, independent of those who are married.  I will, of course, be accused of reifying marriage in making this claim, but perhaps the reification critique misses the nature of marriage.  People certainly speak of being in a relationship as if the marriage were a container, as if it is something they are inside of.  Moreover, in a bad marriage, people talk about being stuck in their marriage.  In speaking of being stuck in a marriage, they suggest that the marriage is a third thing independent of them that is irreducible to their individual wills.

Our metaphysics here will be “experimental” in the sense that we will propose the hypothesis that a marriage consists of at least three objects, the two people and then the marriage itself.  We will next ask how something like a marriage can become a thing or an object.  How does such an entity get constructed and come to possess an ontological stability of its own?  How does it become a thing?  As Miller remarks later, quoting Latour,

Where in traditional metaphysics ‘the rule is order while decay, change, and creation are the exceptions,’ for Latour ‘the rule is performance and what has to be explained, the troubling exceptions, are any type of stability over the long term and on a larger scale” (Reassembling the Social, 35).  Unity must be understood as a product, not a given.  It should be approached as a performance, action, or operation, and it goes without saying that time, energy, and money are necessary to negotiate the formation of any concatenation.  (SG, 30)

If our hypothesis is to bear fruit, we must give an account of how marriage becomes an object, a thing, a being with an ontological solidity of its own.  We must give an account of how it comes to be constructed.  Here, when we refer to construction, we should think of something closer to the construction of a house or a bridge, not what is often referred to as a social construction.  “Construction” is not a synonym for “unreal” or “simulacrum”.  Constructions are entirely real.  That’s the point of calling it a thing.  If the house is to stand– and “to stand” is a good expression for what it means for something to be real –then it must be constructed in the appropriate way.  The poorly constructed bridge collapses.  The question here, then, would be how marriage becomes a thing.  How does it thing (verb)?  Who knows what we will find?  We might talk about inscription in documents, changes in legal status, how others come to treat the couple differently and as a unit, how their possessions get intertwined, etc., etc., etc.  Gradually this third thing comes to be, a thing that the other two must navigate and that has a reality of its own.

Elsewhere Adam says something like “a bee’s nest is a good metaphor for an object.”  As Graham notes in his beautiful book on Latour, Prince of Networks— a book that, for me, was life changing –every object is a black box that when opened is filled with all sorts of objects.  As I quoted him from Guerrilla Metaphysics last night, from one vantage every object is a unity and from another it is a network of relations.  Every object is a swarm.  Every object requires a number of objects to become an object, but at some point, perhaps different in every case, the thing achieves a threshold of endo-consistency and becomes a thing in its own right that must itself be navigated.  Miller, in his formulations, says that every thing is a “resistant availability”.  By this he means, I think, that there is something of everything that refuses reduction to its parts, but also something that is available to enter into relations with other things.  I believe that this is Miller’s formulation of both Harman’s withdrawal and his vicarious causation (more on the difference between the intermediaries of classical metaphysics and mediators of experimental metaphysics).  A marriage, perhaps, has a resistant availability.  It is something that cannot be reduced to its parts but that has a reality over and above those in the marriage (strange mereology again), but is also something available to those other things, whether they be the parts or other objects.

A hypothesis, nothing but a hypothesis.  I have not carried out an account of how a marriage is built as a thing or an object, but only suggested a possible approach and hypothesis.  That minimally there are three, not two.  What difference does it make?  I don’t know.  In matters of knowledge, I tend towards pragmatism.  For me, pragmatism doesn’t mean “what works”– who defines “working”? –but that with any hypothesis or concept, we should ask what difference it makes in practice?  Who knows, in the context of a marriage, perhaps such a strange thesis would lead to very different ways of thinking about marital practices and marital therapy.  Perhaps in a troubled marriage it would lead to the exploration of other questions merely than those of the psychodynamics of the two.  How would such an experimental metaphysics lead us to do things differently?  For me that is always the question, and that is why I simply cannot agree with my old friend dmf and his claim that Harman’s withdrawal is merely a “theo-logical hangover”.  I think that the concept of withdrawal makes quite a difference in our practices, not least among them, leading us to practice an experimental metaphysics that refuses to know the answers in advance.