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abbreviated formulations where examples are almost entirely absent, there is something of the book that always feels withdrawn or resistant.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.

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Over at synthetic zero, Michael James has a lovely post on feral philosophy. We’ve never been enemies, by the way. Check it out here.

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Russian POW Camp Oven, Svaerholt, Norway.  Picture by Levi Bryant, August 2018

On Thursday I found myself sitting in my office with a very bright student who is now taking his second course with me.  He sat down and looked at me very intensely and said “I have some questions for you”.  I was, of course, immediately nervous.  There, in his hands, I saw a very marked up copy of my Poland talk, “Domestic Objects/Wild Things” (one class had expressed interest in the talk so I made it available to them).   I was, of course, flattered that he had taken the time to read it, and chuckled a bit at the irony of my talk being covered with red ink.  “Professor Bryant”, he said, “throughout your talk you’re very critical of philosophy and how it converts the thing into the thought-thing or replaces the thing with the thought-thing.  But isn’t the conversion of the thing into the thought-thing a good thing?  Isn’t that how we know things?  If we can’t convert the thing into the thought-thing, doesn’t that entail the ruin of philosophy and science?”

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Fishing Village Beach, Svaerholt Norway.  Picture by Levi Bryant, August 2018

This is a really great question and criticism and I’m not at all sure how to respond to it.  This is a very difficult point to articulate because I am essentially trying to indicate or allude to something that is outside of language, even if it is entangled in language all sorts of ways.  When I make the claim that the cardinal sin of philosophy (and many other forms of theory besides) consists in converting the thing– in its materiality –into the thought-thing, I am trying to articulate the way in which the thing is replaced by the signifier.  Any attempt to explain this is necessarily doomed to failure.  It simply cannot be done because I am attempting to point at something that is outside of discourse, outside of language, outside of conceptuality; yet, in the very act of doing this, I bring thing the thing into language, discourse, and conceptuality.  Hegel articulated the point brilliantly in the sense-certainty section of the Phenomenology.  There he points out that in the shape of consciousness he calls “sense-certainty”, we mean this singular thing here, yet we find that we can only say the universal or general.  I want to indicate this irreplaceable, Stickley mid-century, side-table that my wife inherited from her grandmother, but the moment I say “side-table” I have evoked a general term that applies– in the order of language –to all side-tables.  No matter how much I attempt to enrich my description by multiplying adjectives, I still find myself caught in the order of generality.  Hegel thus concludes that language is more true than what we mean or intend.  Since, no matter how hard we try, we cannot say the singular, the truth of the singular, he argues, is in fact the universal.  We can replace the singular with the universal and get on with it.  It’s a brilliant argument and one that I wish to avoid as much as possible.

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miscommunicationA leitmotif of Lacan’s earlier seminars was the claim that all communication is miscommunication.  This thesis was so important to him that he made it a fundamental principle of psychoanalytic practice in the clinic.  We must, above all, resist the urge to understand our analysands, he would say.  We must resist the belief that we understand our patients.  Lacan, I think, did not say this out of a desire to be contrarian or paradoxical.  Rather, it was premised on fundamental insights arising out of his engagement with structural linguistics.  Recall that a fundamental Lacanian thesis is that the unconscious is structured like a language.  Although he is careful to emphasize that the unconscious is structured like a language, his claim nonetheless is premised in part on the thesis that the elements that compose the unconscious are characterized by differentiality.  They do not intrinsically possess the signification they have, but rather take on their meaning as a function of their differences from other terms.

fleuve2Consider the following example:  In American English, rivers and streams are distinguished by their size.  A river is larger than a stream.  In French– and I am not a fluent French speaker, so I might be getting this wrong, but it’s the principle that’s important, i.e., other examples could be found to illustrate the point –we might think that translatability between one language and another is a simple matter.  We might think that rivers are to rivières as streams are to fleuves.  Yet this is not how the French language “cuts up” reality.  In French a fleuve is a body of water that flows into the ocean, while a rivière is a body of water that flows into either a fleuve or another rivière.

There’s a sense in which we still speak our native language even when we learn to speak another language because we carry the differential system of our mOther tongue over into the new native language.  We can therefore imagine the following scenario:  we have an American visiting France who does not, of course, speak the French language because he’s a vulgar American, and we have a Frenchman who speaks English but who still speaks French through English (he uses the French system of differentiality when speaking English without realizing it).  Our vulgar American asks him for directions to the historical church a couple miles a way.  The Frenchman responds by telling him to go down the road a ways and take a right at the river before the bridge.  The American, of course, is expecting a large body of flowing water.  Instead he comes across a small body with a bridge across it.  For this reason, rather than taking a right before the bridge, he continues across the bridge expecting to eventually encounter a large body of flowing water with a bridge across it.  The different systems of differentiality belonging to both language have generated miscommunication between these two people.

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51uGAKMBHkL._SX403_BO1,204,203,200_This semester I’ve had the tremendous pleasure of teaching a 2000 level course devoted to philosophy of religion.  Following the last time I taught this course four or five years ago, I had chosen not to teach this course because I simply couldn’t find an edited collection that I felt comfortable teaching.  Everything I came across was like Peterson’s Philosophy of ReligionFollow the link and read the table of contents.  The problem quickly becomes evident.  First, with the exception of a couple of readings devoted to Buddhism, the readings are almost entirely to variants of theism and monotheism in particular.  It’s not that such readings are inappropriate for a philosophy of religion course, but rather that the term “religion” is much broader than theism, questions of whether or not god exists, whether or not it is rational to believe in god, what god’s nature might be, and why it might be rational to believe in god.  I believe that this is a true scandal.  How can I responsibly stand in front of my class, populated by students who are from all over the world and who come from a variety of religious practices, and teach material that is almost exclusively devoted to the rationality of belief in god?  Second, these sorts of collections are almost entirely devoted to doctrine and, in particular, doctrine as it is articulated by the highly educated elite of a religion.  Again, it is not that teaching Kierkegaard, Lewis, Platinga, or Jean-Luc Marion is inappropriate in a philosophy of religion, but rather that 1) well articulated theologies are often quite at odds with popular belief among the lay, 2) not all religions have a strong tradition of apologetics, and 3) belief and doctrine do not exhaust religious phenomena.  In Peterson’s collection of writings, for example, there is no discussion of ritual and ceremony, yet ritual and ceremony are often at the core of religion.  How can we call something “philosophy of religion” without deeply and seriously thinking of the nature of ritual, why peoples engage in rituals, and how rituals might be a form of thinking?  Even in those religions that are doctrine heavy like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, we can imagine students taking such a course and finding their religion completely unrecognizable given the materials that are taught.

Suppose we begin with a presupposition:  every discipline has a sort of regional ontology that pre-delineates the objects that it investigates.  Often the basic concepts of that discipline are largely unconscious and are merely assumed.  Thus, for example, prior to making any observations of society and social phenomena, sociology must nonetheless have a concept of what society is that guide its inquiry and investigations.  Likewise, literary studies must have a basic concept of what literature is that determines what texts it will investigate, what is literary about them, and what texts it ignores.  While it is not outside of the realm of possibility, we would be surprised to discover a literature course or article devoted to directions that accompany appliance.  It is likely that journalistic articles are treated as falling outside of literature.  When there are heated controversies surrounding courses in literature departments devoted to comic books or popular consumption novels, this is because those who oppose the teaching of these things are working with a particular concept of literature or the ontology of literature.  They have a concept of what the being of a literary object is.  These concepts are often unconscious.

1444330527It seems to me that this should be one of the central topics of philosophy of religion.  If philosophy of religion is truly philosophy of religion, it should first and foremost be a reflexive analysis of our concept of religion.  Rather than a focus on questions of whether or not god exists, whether it is rational to believe in god, what the divine nature might be, etc., the first and foremost question of philosophy of religion should be what is religion?  Just as we might engage in philosophical reflection as to what constitutes the literary prior to any investigation of a work of literature, we should first engage in a reflexive analysis of what we mean by religion, prior to the investigation of any religion.  What is it that falls into the basket of religion and what, if anything, is outside of that basket.  What distinguishes the religious from the non-religious?  It was in this connection that I was delighted to discover Kevin Schilbrack’s book Philosophy and the Study of Religions.  Schilbrack’s book asks all of the questions I was looking for years ago when I first taught this course and puts its finger on why I felt so frustrated with edited collections like Peterson’s.  Rather than a text almost devoted entirely to the rationality of belief in god, it explores questions on the nature of ritual and how ritual and religious practices are forms of thinking.  It has another chapter devoted to the nature of belief and different theories of belief and the role they play in our behavior and action.  There are yet other chapters devoted to the ontology of religion, the manner in which the concept of religion has a history and the way it can function to include or exclude.  This, I think, is precisely the way in which philosophy of religion should be taught.  If there is a merit in such an approach, then this is because it leads students to reflect on their own unconscious assumptions about the nature of religion– whether they are believers are not –and how these inform their actions and their evaluations of other religions.  That, in it itself, is worth its weight in gold.

72478670_10218175252205458_4671185712207364096_nSome people have expressed interest in my keynote address for the Rethinking Agency conference in Poznan, Poland. Here it is:  bryantpolandpdfwildthings.  It hasn’t been edited and doesn’t include references, so be gentle!  The talk was well received and generated a lot of discussion.  The conference as a whole was amazing.  Perhaps I’ll write about it in days to come as my thoughts crystalize more.  The great Bjørnar Olsen criticized the talk on the ground that my rhetoric suggests a normative language in which wild things are the good and positive and domestic objects are bad and negative.  This was certainly not my intention as I hope the examples I chose– cracking home foundations, roots destroying plumbing systems, etc., attest.  Nonetheless, I think he’s right that I need to tone down the rhetoric.  I think this problem can be solved by conceiving things as dipolar entities that have two dimensions:  one tending towards the domestic and the other the wild.  This would be somewhat like my distinction between local manifestations and virtual proper being in The Democracy of Objects and Onto-Cartography.  Stein Farstadvoll’s questions and remarks helped me to think of this as well (and he gave a truly amazing talk at the conference).  He asked whether or not there are nonhuman processes of domestication.  I think the answer is an emphatic yes!  I immediately thought of ant and termite nests and how they build their own environments, as well as the way in which trees change the chemistry of their soil in forests to create favorable growing conditions.  I would also like to come up with inorganic and mineral examples of these processes of domestication, such as, perhaps, the way in which wind carves stone creating their own weather conditions.  Stein, I think, did a far better job exploring the wildness of things with his archaeological investigations of birds, aluminum, and certain insects.  

Apart from being great art and a fascinating article, this article deserves to be shared simply because of Julian Hatton’s word “bewilderness”. I’m stealing that, for sure.