Events


In a generous response to my post “Realism Through the Eyes of Anti-Realism“, Lee Braver writes:

Your discussion of translation is very intriguing and, when applied to mind-world interactions, it does sound a death knell for passive correspondence. This seems to be a version of Kant’s position–our mind’s activity (A5) in organizing experience rules out capturing (R2) the way the world is independently of our experience of it (R1). Then the question becomes, what sense can we attribute to the existence of this independent world (R1) if it remains forever closed off to us. Even the bits and pieces are heavily constructed and interpreted. I take your response to be something like, the existence and nature of an object consists in its interactions with other entities, something like some of Nietzsche’s musings on WTP, and this includes the mind, so that what an entity coughs up in our interactions with it is part of its very nature. Is that right? Of course, if an entity is the totality of its interactions (a la Leibniz), then it isn’t truly independent of us, since interactions with our minds make up 1 of its essential properties. Also, how do we differentiate between accurate/true/illuminating bits and pieces and false/misleading ones? Why go to all the trouble of setting up experiments if my mundane interactions with a thing are just as valid and real? But maybe I haven’t got your idea at all. BTW, Joseph Rouse is also really good on the construction of artificial environments in science.

This is an important and deeply challenging question that I am still working through myself. A couple of points are worth noting here. As I have articulated it, Latour’s Principle states that there is not transportation without translation. This is to say, there is never a transport of a difference from one entity to another entity where the target entity functions merely as a vehicle for the difference from the source entity. The first point to note with the Anti-Realist project would thus be that Anti-Realist positions consistently violate this principle. Here we get a curious inverted mirror between Anti-Realism and Realism. Where Braver rightfully criticizes a certain variant of realist positions for treating the mind as a passive locus (R5) that merely reflects the world as it is (what I would call “naive realism”), Anti-Realism falls into a similar positing of passivity, but with respect to the object. For the Naive Realist the relationship between world and mind, object and subject, is uni-directional and uni-lateral, such that the object does all the “work” and the mind merely receives and registers the object. Similarly, for the Anti-Realist, the relation between mind and world, subject and object, is uni-directional and uni-lateral, such that the object, now, is a passive vehicle of the mind’s synthetic activity, contributing nothing of its own beyond the manner in which it “affects” the mind providing it with matter for intuition.

In other words, for Anti-Realism the mind is not “translated” by the object and for Naive Realism the object is not “translated” by the mind. In both cases, these claims are based on certain assumptions about the nature of identity. In the case of Naive Realism, identity is placed “in” the object (R3), such that the object is exactly what it is and knowledge consists in discovering or reflecting this identity. Knowledge cannot change this identity in any way as to do so would be to distort the nature of the object. Identity-in-the-object is thus a sort of inert and unchanging identity. We are supposed to get to the object as it is beyond any of its shifting changes. We find a similar thesis with respect to identity asserted by the Anti-Realist position. Where it is the object that remains the same in the case of the Naive Realist position, it is the mind that remains the same in the Anti-Realist position. The mind does not become something other in its encounter with the object, but the object does become something other in its encounter with the mind.

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narcissusMuch to my surprise and delight, I have been exceedingly pleased by the discussion my post “The Monstrosity of Christ” has generated. For me, Jesus is an incredibly important political thinker who proposes a new vision of communal relations. What has been so great about this discussion, apart from a few bumps here and there, is the manner in which the religious and the atheist have been able to discuss these issues, without the question being one of debunking the other. Towards the end of the comments, Guavatree asks a couple of questions which, I believe, get right to the heart of the issue. First, Guavatree remarks that,

By explaining the difference between interpretations: traditional (Jesus and God above all things) and “radical and revolutionary” — I think you clarify what I think the blog dispute is about. Is Jesus “Resolving” the Imaginary or “Challenging” it?

More than whether Jesus is really asking you to hate your family or not, I’m interested in how you think the Imaginary can be challenged. Is this even possible? To what extent does challenging the bonds of the tribe/family/Imaginary involve the Real and the Symbolic?

Guavatree is responding to a comment I made earlier clarifying my position on Luke 14:26 where Jesus claims that in order to follow Jesus one must hate their mother, father, brother, sister, etc. I have read this, following the findings of ethnographers, as a devaluation of the role of familial or kinship relations as a foundation of social and political structure.

Thanks for the additional passages (here Guavatree provides numerous Gospel references to Jesus making injunctions similar to that found in Luke 14:26), Guavatree. Based on your remarks, I wonder if I haven’t missed the point of some of Kevin’s criticisms. You write:

So in terms of this argument on the blog, hating your family and loving Jesus and God hardly strikes me as a textual oddity.

The real question is whether Jesus’ “dissolution of “the law” into two vast identifications (God/neighbor)” as kvond puts it is a resolution of the imaginary OR a “challenging of this dimension of the imaginary” as larval subjects puts it.

If I’m following your gloss correctly Guavatree, then the dispute revolves around Jesus’ declaration to love one’s neighbor as ourselves and his charge to hate our parents, where it is being claimed that there is a contradiction between these two positions. With respect to the second command, it had never occurred to me to read the demand to hate our family literally. That would be a bizarre reading of the Gospels no matter how you cut it, so I’m surprised to discover that others might have read me as claiming such a thing. Rather, I am interpreting Jesus’ charge as the injunction to cease privileging familial relations or tribal identifications. As such, this separation from the primacy of kinship structures would be a precondition for love of the stranger or the neighbor. This is also why I’ve drawn attention to the story of the Good Samaritan because here we have an instance of a love extended to the other that falls outside the tribal community.

I reject, of course, the remainder of the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ injunction to “hate” one’s family, where it is argued that we are to place Jesus and God above all other things. First, I reject this reading because I think it covers over the whole socio-political issue that he’s getting at with respect to the role that kinship relations play in his historical setting. Second, however, I don’t think this reading is very well supported given how cagey he always is about identifying himself as the son of God (doesn’t he only directly say this in the book of John?). I think this traditional reading places too much emphasis on the person or figure of Jesus, turning him into a screen as described in the post above, thereby allowing us to ignore the truly radical and revolutionary form of social organization that he seems to be proposing.

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Switzerland Particle ColliderAs a result of recommendations from both Nick (in his thesis) and Graham, I have been reading Roy Bhaskar’s remarkable Realist Theory of Science over the last couple of weeks. I am still trying to fully understand Bhaskar’s position and arguments, so if I misconstrue it in what follows I would greatly appreciate the input and clarification of those more familiar with his work. Bhaskar attempts to develop a position he refers to as “transcendental realism”, where it is argued that the entities and mechanisms discovered by science are not simply beings as they are for us or beings in terms of our access to these beings, but rather where these mechanisms or beings exist as they are regardless of human access to them. In a manner very similar to Meillassoux’s argument from the “Arche-Fossil”, Bhaskar argues that the intelligibility of science requires that mechanisms or entities discovered by science must be thought as belonging to a world without humans. In other words, according to Bhaskar, the existence of objects that are as they are independent of humans is a transcendental condition for the possibility of science. Just as Kant argued that we cannot account for how synthetic a priori judgments are possible unless we begin from the thesis that the mind imposes a priori forms of intuition and categories of the understanding on the manifold of sensibility, Bhaskar argues that objects completely independent of humans are a necessary condition for the intelligibility of scientific practice.

Bhaskar’s thesis is thus three-fold: First, Bhaskar is committed to the thesis that objects exist completely independent of humans. So far, with this first thesis, Bhaskar does not depart from the tradition of epistemological correlationism. The linguistic, social, or cognitive correlationist does not deny the existence of independent objects, only that we can have any direct or non-discursively mediated access to these objects. As Bhaskar sums up the correlationist argument,

…it might be objected that the very idea of a world without men is unintelligible because the conditions under which it is true would make its being conceived impossible. But I can think of a world without men; and I can think of a world without myself. No-one can truly say ‘I do not exist’ but that does not mean that ‘I do not exist’ is unintelligible; or that it cannot be meaningfully (sic.), just because it cannot be truly said. (47)

stellar-nebula-cone-nebula-stars-wallpaperThe epistemic correlationist holds that while it is true that a world without men exists, and while it is possible to think this world, it is impossible for us to know this world because our relationship to the world is always mediated by the concepts, language, history, or social constructs that we bring to bear on the world. As a consequence, we can only ever say what the world is for-us, not what the world is in-itself or for-itself independent of us. It is here that Bhaskar parts ways with the correlationist. For Bhaskar, we can come to know the world as it is in itself, as it is without humans, and not simply as it is for-us as mediated by human concepts, language, history, or social institutions. Bhaskar will call this form of knowing science. Moreover, he will argue that science is unintelligible if we do not being from these premise, and will go so far as to refer to the correlationist argument as a fallacy, where it is held that questions of ontology can be reduced to questions of epistemology.

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water_liliesIn a response to “The Ontic Principles Tangled Beard“, Alexei contends that difference is an insufficient ground for an ontology:

Leaving aside the idea that ‘difference differs’ (which suggests to me that you can’t actually identify a difference because identification is re-identification, cognition is recognition, and something that is always differing isn’t stable enough to be identified) I am claiming that there’s a paradox here, but it’s not exactly the one you outline. To put the matter simply, ‘difference’ is an insufficient notion for developing an ontology and this insuffiency is exhibited in the lack of context and context-dependence that differentially construed objects exhibit.

The idea seems to be that if everything differs then we don’t get enough stability within being for entities to exist, much less be theorized. It seems to me that this criticism moves too quickly, failing to explore the resources that difference offers in responding to these sorts of issues. What this criticism fails to take into account are differences in scale and duration characteristic of the world. A blooming flower is constantly undergoing change at each moment of its existence, both at the cellular level of the processes or operations being undergone by each cell and at the the level of the petals, opening and turning towards the sun. On the one hand, I am unable to perceive the cellular activity of the flower because of the scale at which I exist. Likewise, I seldom notice the process the flower undergoes as it blooms, instead noting only the result or final product of the now open flower. If this is the case, then it is because of the relatively slow duration that characterizes the movement of the flower with respect to the duration that characterizes my being.

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nietzscheIn Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche famously argued that metaphysics is a product of grammar.

With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact, which these superstitious minds hate to concede—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” It thinks: but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty.” After all, one has even gone too far with this “it thinks”—even the “it” contains an interpretation of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. One infers here according to the grammatical habit “thinking is an activity; every activity requires an agent; consequently—.” It was pretty much according to the same schema that the older atomism sought, besides the operating “power,” that lump of matter in which it resides and out of which it operates, the atom; more rigorous minds, however, learned at last to get along without this “earth-residuum,” and perhaps some day we shall accustom ourselves, including the logicians, to get along without the little “it” (which is all that is left of the honest little old ego). (Part 1, §17)

graph13jThe world is parsed into nouns in the form of subjects and objects, adjectives or predicates, and verbs. Subjects and objects are then treated as substances or that which endures in times and lies beneath. Verbs or events are treated as that which happens to objects and subjects, such as the movement from one position to another in space as if on a sheet of graph paper. And finally predicates are what are said of substances. The ball, a substance, is red and spherical (predicates). The ball moves this side of the table to that side of the table.

As a consequence of this parsing of the world, all sorts of metaphysical and epistemological problems emerge. Insofar as subjects and objects are conceived as substances, the epistemological question arises of how it is possible for a subject to relate to an object. The object, as a substance, forever transcends the subject, necessarily being beyond the subject in all ways. We know the object through its predicates or properties, yet we encounter the entire problem of primary and secondary qualities or the indiscernibility of properties. That is, how do we determine whether the predicates we find in the object are a product of us or whether they belong to the object itself? Is color, for example, in the object or is it in me? On the metaphysical level, is the object simply a bundle of properties or is the substance something more, in addition to its properties, beyond these predicates? If the object is nothing but a bundle of properties, doesn’t it cease to be that objects when it gains or loses properties? If the object is a substance beyond its properties, what does it mean to speak of it as this object at all insofar as the substance which the object is is always in excess of any properties that it might have (the bare substratum problem).

Yet certainly “to be”, to exist, is something more than simply being a substance characterized by identity? Generally we restrict the verb “to act” to living beings. Animals act in bringing themselves to motion. Some claim that only humans are capable of acts. Action here is conceived as necessarily containing a component of will or self-willing. A rock, it is said, does not act insofar as it cannot will itself to act but can only be made to move through external forces. Etymologically the term act comes from the Latin actus, “a doing”, and actum, “a thing done”. These are derivatives of agere, “to do, set in motion, drive, urge, chase, stir up”. These Latin terms, in turn, derive from the Greek agein, “to lead, guide, drive, carry off,” and, interestingly, agon, referring to “assembly, contest in games,” as well as agogos or “leader”.

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Shahar Ozeri of Perverse Egalitarianism has written a very interesting post responding to my diary Language and Passivity, and Paco’s diary Is Philosophy Irrelevant?

This question really, at least for me, cuts to the heart of the problem. For one, the traditional idea of liberal education is to foster a critical consciousness. Yet, if Paco is correct about the decline of the broader structure of the University–from a marketplace of ideas to a bottom line minded business–the university simply reflects the broader culture, which is largely anti-intellectual, disapproves of critique and as a whole tends to reward social status not talent. One thing is certain: many of our students simply refuse to think things through, or think, in the most Heidegarrian sense. I don’t know how to produce such a critical consciousness in my students either, other than trying over and over to point it out. This is interesting, one of the more odd things that my students could just not wrap their minds around was the emotive use of language, that it’s not necessarily mere emotion.

Anyway, all of this has gotten me thinking about two figures I haven’t thought about in quite some time: the (under-rated) Roland Barthes and (always interesting) Louis Althusser, who both point to this very phenomenon of the passivity of language I think.

Unfortunately, I am far too exhausted this evening to comment at length, but I did want to throw out a couple of thoughts for future development. I do not know whether this situation is unique to our age. Following Lacan, I am inclined to think that ignorance is one of the three passions… That we have a passion for ignorance. Thus, while I am sympathetic to the thesis that the decline of print culture and the rise of the spectacle has also had a developmental impact on the nature of our cognitive structures, I suspect that by and large things were not much better in the past. I’ll get to this in a moment.

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“No, it’s not Zygote that made me,” he said to Art, looking behind them to make sure that Coyote was really sleeping. “You can’t shoose your childhood, it’s just what happens to you. But after that you choose. I chose Sabishii. And that’s what really made me.”

“Maybe,” Art said, rubbing his jaw. “But childhood isn’t just those years. It’s also the opinions you form about them afterward. That’s why our childhoods are so long.”

~Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Mars

In response to my post on resonance and my other post on assemblages and emergent organizations, ktismatics writes,

For Prigogine emergent order is still deterministic, isn’t it? Though structures emerge that are qualitatively different from their precursors, the process by which the transformation occurs is repeatable and can be described mathematically.

As ktismatics points out, for Prigogine chaos is really shorthand for “deterministic chaos”. The idea is that apparently random behavior nonetheless is governed by a principle of some sort. However, Prigogine also seems to suggest that emergent orders are genuinely creative or that they bring something new into being. The organization has a structure or a lawfulness to it, but it is a local organization. This is one of the more interesting aspects of Stengers and Prigogine’s work. As they put it,

The dialogue between man and nature was accurately perceived by the founders of modern science as a basic step towards the intelligibility of nature. But their ambitions went even farther. Galileo, and those who came after him, conceived of science as being capable of discovering global truths about nature. Nature not only could be written in a mathematical language that can be deciphered by experimentation, but there would actually exist only one such language [my emphasis]. Following this basic conviction, the world is seen as homogenous, and local experimentation can reveal global truth. The simplest phenomena studied by science can thus be interpreted as the key to understanding nature as a whole; the complexity of the latter is only apparent, and its diversity can be explained in terms of the universal truth embodied, in Galileo’s case, in the mathematical laws of nature. (Order Out of Chaos, 44)

This would be one understanding of the philosophical conception of logos. The thesis here would be that every local manifestation is an instantiation of a global logos, such that one and the same logos applies to the apparent or manifest diversity of appearances. As such, the investigation of the case (the local) discloses the global logos, such that all diverse appearances are homeomorphic to one another or are variations of the same. Thus, for example, one and the same set of principles applies to the falling apple and the movement of planets and galaxies. I have tried to argue against this position in a variety of contexts, arguing that a whole or a global logos does not exist (here, here, here, here, and here).

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Niklas Luhmann on some basic principles of systems theory. (very good despite its brevity)

Niklas Luhmann on the function of theory in relation to science.

One of the marks of theory in the last forty years is a conception of the subject such that the subject is determined and structured through history, structure, language, social context, or some other sort of field in which it is embedded or thrown. Thus in Althusser, for example, the subject is simply a puppet of ideology or an iteration of the total system in which it emerges. In early Lacan the subject falls under the signifier, such that the signifier functions like a prophecy in its unconscious, determining its destiny and the structure of desire. For Foucault and Butler, the subject is a discursive construction and product of power. The merit of these views is the manner in which they overcome abstraction by virtue of thinking entity in relation to its context or the world in which it emerges, rather than treating entity as a simple substance that is self-sufficient. Of course, these positions tend to suffer from another sort of abstraction, for they often treat social and cultural formations as the only determinative elements of context, ignoring the biological body, experience, and the natural world. In terms of the history of philosophy, we could see these paradigms of thought as reactions to the subject-centered systems of thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, where– in his earlier work, at least –there was little attentiveness to what Heidegger referred to as “the worldhood of the world”. To put the matter crudely, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Where prior to this there was a focus on the supremacy of the subject or agent, on its self-determining freedom, there followed a shift towards the supremacy of what Burke refers to as the “scene” in his pentad. Scene (whether in the form of language, economics, power, social structure, etc) becomes determinative of entity, where before it was the agent, the subject, that was seen as determinative. Not surprisingly, we today find the pendulum swinging yet again in the other direction. Exhausted by decades of theory dominated by the primacy of the scene such that all agency seems to merely reinforce structure and power without realizing it, we now find the pendulum swinging once again in the other direction, seeking to enact a return to the agent or agency in the rather poorly developed and abstract accounts of events and truth-procedures in Badiou and the Act in Zizek.

Not unpredictably, these rejoinders suffer from the same abstraction, albeit in inverted form, as the abstraction to be found in Frankfurt school Critical Theory, hermeneutic orientations of thought, and French (Post)Structuralism. Where the former places everything on the side of either history, power, language, social structure, etc., effectively causing the agent to disappear, the latter places everything on the side of the agent, the Act and the truth-procedure, leading any meaningful discussion of socio-historical context and concrete understanding of the situation to disappear. It is difficult, for instance, not to guffaw when Badiou announces that the French Revolution was an event (I fully agree), but then goes on to say that this event marked a complete break with history, as if centuries of subterranian work hadn’t been done during the Rennaissance and early Enlightenment period, slowly transforming the social space, introducing the requisite concepts for a radically egalitarian republic, undermining confidence in governance by the Christian Church and the metaphysics that accompanied that view, and so on. Both solutions are poor. What is needed is an account that is both sensitive to what Burke calls scene, has a rich place for the agent, and, above all is capable of thinking the dialectical relation between these two without falling into abstraction by privileging one pole or the other, turning agent into a mere puppet of scene or ignoring scene altogether in favor of the fantasy of a completely sovereign subject free of any determinations save those it posits for itself.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about both of these orientations of theory is that they are so obviously. One wonders whether some thinkers ever pull their noses out of their books to look at the world about them. Those theorists that assert the primacy of scene (e.g., Althusser, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Butler, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, perhaps Adorno, etc) seem to miss the obvious point that context, scene, language, power, history, the social, etc., never functions so efficaciously as to smoothly reproduce itself in its agents. As Adam Kotsko points out in a recent post without using these exact terms, subjectivization never quite works as intended. The agents produced in and through structure are never perfect fractal iterations of that context, but always surprise us. There is something novel about each agent that appears in the world that such theories, when taken to their extreme, should exclude a priori as being impossible on theoretical grounds. Yet there it is, subjects going against the total environment in which they were raised, subjects introducing new trajectories into their social system, subjects that share little resemblance to where they came from. On the other hand, those theoretical orientations that assert the supremacy of the sovereign agent seem to fare even worse. Such theories perpetually miss the commonalities we find among populations and in the agent itself, thereby missing the manner in which the agent emerges and is individuated within a scene that it integrates, selects from, and makes its own. Inevitably such theories of the agent (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Zizek, Badiou, certain moments of Lacan), where the agent is prime and supreme, end up trapped within magical thinking, as they’re almost always led to assert a creation ex nihilo. Well, there are no creations ex nihilo for good materialists, whatever Badiou might like to say as he desperately strives to convince his readers that he maintains tied to the Marxist tradition.

What is needed is something entirely different. If we are not to fall into abstraction, we need a theory that both shows how entity arises from a scene, a context, a field (whatever you wish to call it), but, in its process of development, becomes transcendent to that field. That is, we require a conception of the agent that isn’t detached from the field, that isn’t above it and undetermined by it, but also which isn’t strictly determined by the manner in which it prehends the world about it. Rather, there must be something creative and novel in how the world about the agent is prehended, that progressively (not all at once), allows the agent to stand forth from the field and define its own vector of engagement and development… A vector that is no longer simply a fractal iteration of the organization of the field.

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