Blood in the Water: Ideology, Realism and Blundering Around

•March 2, 2013 • 2 Comments

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Earlier today, Graham Harman did a rather bad job at PR and advertising for his newest book Weird RealismUndoubtably alerted to its existence via that tool of narcissists everywhere (Google Alerts), he happily announced the existence of a good review (I would like to pause here simply to point out that the above mention of narcissism and Harman’s membership is not meant as a criticism. The existence of any blog and/or twitter account is proof enough for the existence of narcissistic tendencies and wanting to keep track of mentions of yourself makes perfect sense. I, myself, being a nobody who averages two posts a year and only slightly more visitors am largely protected from such tendencies, but not completely). Things began to fall apart for Harman shortly there after when a reader of his blog notified him that the review was housed within a site that was “explicitly racist and anti-Semitic”. Of course, this would be blood in the water for those in the interwebs that hate Harman personally and OOO with a level of viciousness often reserved for opposing sports teams, had he not removed the post. No doubt Mikhail over at Perverse Egalitarianism would have had a clever post up mocking Harman’s mistake, referring to him as OOO the Father, and proceeded it with an attack on Levi Bryant in the process. It would have been funny and I would have laughed. full stop. Eilif Verney-Elliott over at his eponymous blog would have freaked out, and sight the review as proof of Harman’s fascism (a view so logically unsound to hardly warrant a response). As luck would have it Eilif’s latest post is again on Harman and what he is now calling “fashionable fascism”. It would seem that Eilif has again run up against someone talking sense and has collapse into a rant. The most that can be said about this latest post is that Eilif is no longer hiding behind the “just asking questions” cowardice and is actually willing to stake a claim (ridiculous as it is).  

The point of this post is not to further the attack on Harman and OOO/OOP and the fact that he/it has not confused the ontological with the political. I have already put my position forward on this in relation to Alexander Galloway’s article of SR (“The Paucity (and Conservatism) of the ‘Poverty of Philosophy‘”). There are many problems with OOO (see Terrence Blake for some of the possible criticisms) and I have already stated some of my own criticisms. Instead I wanted to use Harman’s mistake to again return to this criticism found in Galloway’s critique of SR and its relation to the political. But before I get into that I would like to go further into the review that got us started.

Looking into the Comedy of a Mistake

What is really funny about the whole enterprise really began when Harman did not read the whole thing. How do I know this? Two reasons: (1) It is not really a positive review and (2) it is not a positive review because Harman is not racist and certainly not racist enough for James J. O’Meara. After the initial positive statements, O’Meara shows his true hand when he cites Harman’s “run of the mill liberalism” as a point of concern. You see Lovecraft has real moments of racism and anti-Semetism and Harman goes out of his way to read a path out of these aspects of Lovecraft’s work. Such attempts are not appreciated by O’Meara and upset his Aryan sensibilities. From his perspective, Harman is robbing Lovecraft of his true power. Such is the non-sense.

What is really funny, in a conspiracy theory sort of way, is what happens to this mistake if one begins to delve deeper into James J. O’Meara and the website Counter-Currents PublishingsAs stated above, O’Meara is not only a racist but a particularly weird (to use the word of the day) racist. As he mentions in the footnotes of the review, O’Meara has published a book entitled Homo and the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics & Popular CultureIt would seem that the main thrust of the book is that the homophobia of Judeo-Christian culture opens the possibility of a “queer” traditionalism that would uphold Western Culture (supported by the existence of homosexual’s within the tradition itself). So, not only racialism but queer racialism. O’Meara has even entitled his blog with a William S. Burroughs reference (Where the Wild Boys Are). To make matters worse for Harman, the latest post here is entitled “Finally, a Movie Guide for Us”, and is a review for a book entitled Trevor Lynch’s White Nationalist Guide to the Movies. Yes, depressing.

I must admit that I really enjoy the abyss that is extreme right web presence. As much as I find their political positions abhorrent, I still enjoy the adventure of looking into their logic. Because of this I delved deeper into James J. O’Meara than was strictly necessary but interesting none the less. What was really funny about this was how every step made Harman’s initial mistake even worse. O’Meara is not the sort of barely literate redneck racist that I am accustomed to here in the Southern US. Instead, he seems to be part of a marginal intellectual racialism tied to neo-pagan revivalism. (I have only a cursory knowledge of this movement from reading Michael Moynihan’s Lords of Chaos. The book itself is on Norwegian Black Metal, but Moynihan is himself part of neo-paganism and those sympathies come through in the work.) But if one continues to push through one will find reference to an author named Collin Cleary who has written on the same website as the initial review on Heidegger (explaining him for the racist scared of metaphysics) and is, himself, an editor for a neo-pagan journal. A further step into the abyss will find “Zizek” listed as category on the website. By selecting that you find a different racist thanking Zizek for pointing out the film Opfergang, a film that finally met the level of propaganda that he wanted in his “National Socialist Film”. Of course, the recommendation can be found in the film Zizek! where Zizek, with tongue fully planted in cheek, states his three favorite films are, “Fountainhead is the best American movie of all time, then the best German movie would be Opferhang…and then…Ivan the Terrible…” To anyone actually watching the film, it is obvious the Zizek has selected as his favorite movies that most sucessful propaganda films of the war years. This was not really an endorsement but part of irony of Zizek. 

Put these all together and the evidence is damning. Or it least it would be if one simply ignored logic. But if one ignored such things, one could easily dismiss all of those under the sign of SR. After all, it is a shared love of Lovecraft that united the original members from Goldsmiths. And as O’Meara has pointed out, Lovecraft is a racist, Anti-Semite. Compounding this is the presence of Heidegger in Harman especially, but he is in the background for the other three as well, although to a lesser degree. Compound this with Zizek suggesting racist movies to racists, and, as everyone, Zizek said nice things about Badiou and Badiou said not nice things about Sarkozy and Badiou said nice things about Meillassoux and Harman wrote a book on Meillassoux. How much more evidence do you need?

Sigh…

Confusing the Ontological and Political

[tomorrow]

Zizek and YOLO

•January 29, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I saw the SNL video parodying Drake’s The Motto and of course, thought of Zizek. Zizek has repeated claimed that the move into a “permissive” society hides an even more oppressive ideological state for the subject. Lonely Island, SNL’s parody/real band, seems to have stumbled upon the same insight.

If you missed the source material, here is Drake’s The Motto.

 

I see your XTC and I raise you Mission of Burma

•December 21, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Destroy All Guns Now!!! But can we?

•December 16, 2012 • Leave a Comment

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“After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.” – William S. Burroughs

Following the recent shooting in Newtown, CT many have come forward to demand the elimination of gun ownership in our country. Interestingly, this debate surrounding the politics of gun control and the recent indictment of OOO and its proximity to capitalism have intersected over at Ecology Without Nature. Even before the most recent shooting, Morton was advocating a specifically OOO political response to such events. In the this post, Morton wrote the following under the title “Nonhuman Agency“:

“A gun, not a person, killed a 7-year-old boy outside a gun store yesterday near to Pittsburgh. The father’s gun. “Guns don’t kill people,” right? I’m not just making a point. OOO has political implications. Nonhumans are already on the inside of social space.”

I expressed my confusion (in the comments) about what this could possibly mean in relation to the gun. Following the shooting on Friday (and as a partial response to my query), Morton wrote this under the title “Guns and Philosophy“:

“A gun is a tool. Tools withdraw from total access. Therefore they can do things that you don’t want them to do…Your psychopathic son can take these guns, kill you, and then go on a rampage. You did not consciously intend this. Tools are withdrawn from total access. They can do things that surprise me. Therefore it would be best severely to limit the number of guns I can own, and their type. Assuming that is, that we decide that it is best if some people should have some access to guns at all.”

But how will the guns become aware of our laws. Mustn’t we destroy all guns. Melt them down as Morton suggests via XTC. But if they are withdrawn from us, how are we to do this? How can we be sure that the gun’s guns most dangerous reality not survive the smelter and the press? Is it not to late? My God, if they have agency, are we not already dead?

Of course, all of this ridiculous. I asked for clarification on how guns could have agency and what I got was, “they can surprise you.” This is not clarification but further confusion. The guns in shooting in Newtown and that in the parking lot at a gun store, did nothing surprising. They did not withdraw. Instead, the guns did exactly what they were built to do. The gun provided a mechanism that allowed for the firing cap to explode and then provided a pathway (adding spin to the projectile for accuracy) for that piece of metal, itself manufactured to do exactly what it did. That people died because of this is not a surprise, but themselves acted exactly as one would expect something (or someone) to act when acted upon a force of greater power. My point in all of this is not to dismiss the tragedy of these and many other shootings but to simply point out that there is no mystery here.

Morton’s OOO is conceptually bankrupt here as it provides little in the way of insight and (worse yet) is contradicted by his own responses to the shooting. So when Morton criticizes American media coverage of violence by saying “When I arrived here in the US, in 1992, I was stunned by the dehumanized ambience of gun violence reporting: ‘Shots rang out,'” is he not contradicting his earlier statement on the agency of the gun. Would “Shots rang out” be the proper response in a word where guns withdrawal from the world around them and have their own agency?

Furthermore, this withdrawal nonsense prevents a more intellectual discussion of the role of economics in gun deaths. Instead of asking how the withdrawal of the gun impacted the death of any individual perhaps we should ask what role the poverty caused by capitalism or the poor state of our mental health system caused by the liberalization of our healthcare has impacted the death of any individual?

Time for a confession: I am a gun owner. How many guns do I own? Enough, that I would have to physically count them for an exact number. Some are handguns, some are semi-automatic, most are for hunting. I am from the south. The fact that I own guns and that I am from the south are probably in themselves are enough to make me a minority in the philosophical blogging community. I have hunted my entire life and my family was locavore before Pollan wrote a book and hipster liberals began traveling to farmers’ markets. There were times when every piece of meat served in my house was something that I killed or something that a family member killed. It was so local that I could give you GPS coordinates to where the animal took its last breathe. For many of my family members, it is like this today and will be like this for any measurable amount of time (if they have any say).

Putting aside the hunting tradition in which many Americans were raised, gun ownership should remain legal for legitimate political reasons. Anyone in favor of the elimination of gun ownership have a faith in the State which is ultimately naive. Any leftist worth the name owns guns, as non-violence as a limit. One only has to see this Atlantic piece to see that the modern gun-rights debate began through the fear of White America when faced by Black gun ownership. There is little doubt that the right-wing racists and militia nuts have largely become the face of guns ownership but this is another in the long line of the Left’s abandonment of both the working class and the idea that there is something beyond the current configuration of the state. Crazy as they may be, they at least are not so naive as to trust the State completely.

There is a need for gun control and if the Left would stop talking about gun owners as if they are lepers, then something might be possible. If its good enough for William Lee, its good enough for me.

Hat tip to Perverse Egalitarianism for drawing my attention to Morton’s original post.

The Paucity (and Conservatism) of the “Poverty of Philosophy”

•December 14, 2012 • 2 Comments

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With the recent appearance of Alexander Galloway’s “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism”, the object that is the internet began a fluttering with what cannot really be called a debate, but there did seem to be some heat, so… I came across the article with a cryptic remark by Graham Harman and then by Harman’s link to Donkey Hottie’s own critical response to the article. The following days, saw increasingly hysterical remarks coming from the area of the internets called Larval Subjects (see here, here, here) (on a side note, I am using the term “hysterical” not in the Monty Python way, but in the Lacanian psycho-analytic way: He seems to be calling out to the Master to recognize his own political radicality. On  a side note to the side note: I am not really that serious here, but it seems that Larval Subjects has difficulty critique something without asserting that the thing is pathological. So this is a serious joke, as Zizek might say). Anyway…the “discussion” seemed to provoke Galloway to attempt to explain himself more clearly, with, I think, little success. All of this is a way to explain, why I hunted the article down and gave it read. What follows is my own thoughts on the article, in that the reactions I have seen so far have not really emphasized the philosophical.

“Realism is dangerous” – Alexander Galloway, “The Poverty of Philosophy”

Undoubtably, the title of Galloway’s paper is meant to invoke two interrelated criticism of the realist movement. On the one hand, he seems to claim that the recent path through realism taken by a few figures is bad philosophy in that it fails to meet the negative aspect of philosophy, namely rejecting the doxa of its time. On the other hand, the poverty invoked in the title is meant to place philosophy (at least in its realist manifestation) within the causal order of capitalism and thus serves as the handmaiden of a vast poverty producing machine. Here is how Galloway himself expresses this two prong attack within the essay:

 “(1) If recent realist philosophy mimics the infrastructure of contemporary capitalism, should we not show it the door based on this fact alone, the assumption being that any mere repackaging of contemporary ideology is, by definition, antiscientific and therefore suspect on epistemological grounds? And (2) even if one overlooks the epistemological shortcomings, should we not critique it on purely political grounds, the argument being that any philosophical project that seeks to ventriloquize the current industrial arrangement is, for this very reason, politically retrograde?” (Galloway, “Poverty of Philosophy” p. 348)

But is this really convincing? I think not, in that he offers little in terms of evidence or argumentation to get us to accept these first two points, and its the status of these two points that really undermine Galloway’s entire essay. What I mean is that he simply assumes that you are already on his side in this. This explains, for example, why the entire work reads like a brief introduction to aging philosophers of the world who spend so much time reading Heidegger and Derrida only to find the world leaving them behind. The essay, then, proceeds along a stylistic line along the following: “Don’t panic. Heidegger and Derrida are still really important. They will not be replaced by this new-fangled realism. And besides its not new anyway. Just remember your old arguments against essentialism and you will be fine in this new future, which, as I said is not new anyway.” This may sound like a joke but how else to approach lines such as:

“Recall what must be discarded when overturning correlationism. One must discard phenomenology certainly, but one must also throw out social constructivism and the various fields that rely on social-constructivist methodology including much of second- and third-wave feminism, certain kinds of critical race theory, the project of identity politics in general, theories of postmodernity, and much of cultural studies.”

How are we to react to this line? Let us assume that what he says is true. That all of these things have to go. And…? What if they do? How is this different from the pope (pictured above) coming to Galileo and saying, “Galileo, you do not understand all of the hard work that Aristotelean physicist, not to mention theologians, put into explaining the movement of the planets and if you introduce something new now then it will all be for not and thats not fair.” This is the conservatism that I refer to in the title. I am not saying that Galloway is secretly a capitalist spy sent to infiltrate a highly provocative philosophical movement (a claim that Levi basically makes by calling Galloway a bourgeois). Instead, Galloway makes a ridiculous “argument” where he wonders out loud what will happen to all of the good work that has been done in the past. Who could this possibly convince except those involved in above mentioned disciplines? Of course, I am not really convinced that all of these things would disappear. Instead of offering an argument, he offers us feelings. Wouldn’t you be sad if these things went away. Even more troubling, is that even if these academic disciplines disappeared, that does not mean that the political processes related to them would also disappear. Its just bad philosophy.

Furthermore, Galloway’s presentation of the paper, stylistically, helps explain its to biggest drawbacks. First, he collapses the entirety of the recent realism movement into the same large mass. The result of this is that he moves, without difficult, from Meillassoux to Bryant’s flat-ontology as though they are the same. Worse yet, this collapse ignores the idea that mathematics is only of central importance to Meillassoux and plays little or no role in any of the other realist that comments on. This collapse only makes sense if you can count on your audience never to have read, and likely will never read, the mentioned texts. Secondly, and relatedly, you get Galloway’s chosen “argumentative” form, the “looks like argument (as in “If it looks like a duck then it might capitalist). Galloway calls this a correlationalist argument, or an argument from “the second correlation”. His attempt is, obviously, to play off the argument against correlationism in Meillassoux, but again, it only works if you collapse essential differences into each other. The first appearance of this argument is in Galloway’s discussion of Badiou’s reliance on set-theory and its similarity to object-oriented programing.

The argument involving Badiou is essentially that his use of set-theory within his ontology mirrors the use of set-theory within Java and other object-oriented programming. Galloway writes (and you have to read this is a conspiratorial tone): “In Badiou’s work, I have discovered a parallel between set-theory and the design of certain computer languages. His work shares much more with software and algorithmic systems than he might realize.” (349) Again, this could very well be true, but it does not really prove anything. How does the shared use of mathematics undermine a philosophical position? As every reader of Marx understands, capitalism operates through the destruction of superstitions and irrational believes (“all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned). Mathematics has been one of the chief, if not the most important, vehicles for this destruction. But Marx is not critiquing capitalism here. Instead, he is asserting that this destruction is a phase that we must pass through in order to get to communism. So when Galloway says that phenomenology is “the return to a more poetic state of being guided by care and solicitude,” I have an overarching desire to “reach for my revolver.” We should not want a more poetic state, we should want a more rational state.

Where things get weird is that after Galloway indicts Badiou, he takes it all back in a footnote. Honestly, I looked over this footnote the first time through the essay, but was drawn back to it by Galloway’s own response to the original kerfluffle. Galloway redeems Badiou, in a footnote, by stating that his flirtation with the soul of post-fordism is ok because he inoculated himself from its terror by mingling his ontology with a radical politics. But how does this work? Why does set-theory suddenly become acceptable if it is used for communism? Why does Badiou’s politics prevent itself from rotting from the inside out, if “in short the logics of belonging and inclusion that structure Badiou’s ontology are identical to the logics of membership and inheritance that structure today’s object-oriented computer language.” (p. 351) But besides all of this, why the hell talk about Badiou if, on the one hand, he does not commit the crime that the paper is discussing. But, on the other hand, if he is the great paradigm for dealing with mathematics and philosophy in the contemporary age, why not make that explicit? Abandon the hemming and hawing, (“…I am suggesting neither …nor) and say what you want to say. Make it explicit. We have had enough of the deconstructive perhaps, the future belongs to the bold.

At the end, Galloway’s essay comes across as being nothing if not an attack on science, and a naive attack at that. For example, in defending phenomenology’s historical outlook he quotes Husserl: “We must note something of the highest importance that occurred even as early as Galileo: the surreptitious substitution of the mathematically [constructed ideal world] for the only real world, [that is,] the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experienceable–our everyday life-world.” However, to get the full impact of this statement you have to supplement it with another quote from Husserl: “The Original Ark, earth, does not move.” Both of these quotes say the same thing. We, humans, should only deal with the world as we experience it. Of course, we do not experience the world move so, ipso facto, it does not move. This is patently ridiculous but it is the position that Galloway is defending. I am at a loss of how this will help overcome capitalism. If this is what it means to be radically politically left then we are all fucked (a technical term).

Again, how does Galloway defend this strange position? He resorts to good feelings and intuitions. Phenomenology arises to defeat positivism so it must be good, because everyone knows positivism is bad. But this is a childish approach to the problem, because both approaches could be bad. How about the phenomenological subject? Should we keep it? Yes. Why? Because “the positivistic sciences morally threaten the phenomenological subject.” Ok. Lets question it then. Weirdly, Galloway does not introduce Brassier here or anywhere else in the essay. I wonder why that is.

Ultimately, we are left for a lose. How do we chose between either perspective? Well, as truth is an agent of capitalism, we must go with the subject that we like. Nowhere does Galloway defend any of the positions that he takes other than to say that the other position is in league with capitalism. This approach might be ok if he could actually prove that association between realism and capitalism. Instead we could that they look alike, if you squint.

In/deflationary Metaphysics

•April 23, 2010 • 9 Comments

Here is my contribution to “Material Subjects or Real Objects” in Dundee

The Parmenidian equation Being = Thought has dominated philosophy from its inception. Nearly every philosophy since Parmenides, maybe every philosophy, has asserted and re-asserted this equation, this happy correlation, at the heart of their formulations. This equation naturalized the philosophical task and allowed philosophy to recognize itself within God’s plan, with Man at the center. Being = Thought is the doxa of philosophy; it is, to borrow a phrase from Deleuze, philosophy’s “image of thought.” And it is in this function that the equation acts as a veil that confuses and distorts, causing philosophy to become stagnant and too sure of itself. It is Being = Thought that prevented philosophers from recognizing what were the actual implications for Kant and his so-called “Copernican Revolution.” But even further, it allowed philosophy to commit a suspicious double move where it simultaneously sneered at the common sense that tells us that the world is exactly as it appears to us while asserting a much more fundamental version of the same story, where the world is exactly as we philosophers think it.

However, we are currently experiencing a crack in this correlationalist façade and new equations are being written. The relationship between Thought and Being can be formulated in four ways. Philosophy has experienced the first formulation for its entire existence. Of the three remaining possibilities, two are obvious. First, there is the path that I have chosen to call inflationary metaphysics. This formulation asserts the inequality of Thought and Being, but does so by asserting the primacy of Thought over Being. The primacy of Thought arriving via the creation of a special form of Thought that is not imprisoned by the empirical (e.g. mathematics). The second possibility, which I will call deflationary metaphysics, reverses this inequality by asserting the primacy of Being over Thought, where Being arrives as specific entities or objects that escape from Thought itself. The third possibility, which I will only be able to touch on, would then assert that Thought and Being extend beyond each other in a game of give and take, combining aspects from both of the other ways of formulating the relationship.

What this paper will attempt to do is to look into the two obvious ways of re-formulating the relationship by specifically looking at a representative from each camp: Quentin Meillassoux for the inflationists and Graham Harman for the deflationists. Specifically, we will be looking at the theories of causality that each of these thinkers puts forward. The issue of causality allows for a framing of precisely what Meillassoux and Harman do and do not share. But first a quick note: The terms inflationary and deflationary are meant to refer to the treatment of Thought under each of the new philosophies. If Parmenides functions through an act of equating Thought and Being, both Meillassoux and Harman undermine the equation by selecting one of the sides to privilege. At first sight, this terminology might be said to display a bias towards thought in that describing Meillassoux’s philosophy as inflationary metaphysics, the word inflationary bringing forth positive connotations, whereas Harman’s philosophy being assigned the term deflationary metaphysics might bring forth a negative connotation. This is not the case as these terms are relative to a particular side of the equation, meaning that if the philosophies under discussion are said to be relative to Being, instead of Thought, then the terms would necessary switch.

Curiously, Meillassoux and Harman’s theories of causality represent a radical re-evaluation of the Ash’arite School in Islamic Philosophy. Harman’s relationship with occasionalism, their theory of causality, is well-known, as he has specifically placed his own work within this history. But Meillassoux is no less influenced, although the influence is of the mediated variety. In The Incoherence of Philosophers, Al-Ghazali argues that cause and effect are related only through the contingency of God’s will and not through any form of necessity. The assertion that there exists a natural and thereby necessary relation between cause and effect, as argued by the Aristotelian philosophers, would eliminate the possibility of miracles and would thereby limit the power of God’s will. Such an encroachment on God’s powers by philosophy is illegitimate, and represents an example of demonstration exceeding what it is capable of understanding. Instead, Al-Ghazali argues that the relationship between cause and effect is contingent upon the will of God, meaning that any perceived necessity arises from both the habit of the observer, who has seen the effect follow the cause over and over before, and the habit of God, who has allowed a pattern to be formed so that humanity may recognize a miracle when it occurs. Harman has shown in his own work that the influence that occasionalism has had on 17th-century philosophy is significant. But the re-interpretation offered by Meillassoux and Harman is radical in its scope. We can understand Hume and Kant, central figures for the new metaphysics, as offering a form of occasionalism that only changes who sits in for God. Hume rejects God and therefore losses one of the strands of habitual action from Al-Ghazali’s own formulation. Without God, it is only humanity’s habit that truly matters. On the other hand, Kant awakes from his “dogmatic slumber” only to collapse the role of God and humanity into one figure, where cause and effect reside within us in the form of the categories. But Meillassoux and Harman both take a more radical line in the formation of their philosophies. Meillassoux’s assertion that the only necessity is contingency mirrors Al-Ghazali’s view of nature, but with only one caveat: There is no God and without God there is no causal relationship. Harman’s own appropriation of Al-Ghazali comes down to his assertion that two objects are never fully available to each other, and thus can only have a mediated relationship. Unlike Al-Ghazali, however, this mediation is not affected by God or his angels but the objects within the relationship only ever approach each other through an intermediary or sensual vicar.

To begin I would like to very quickly run through Meillassoux’s argumentation against correlationism. First, Meillassoux introduces what he calls the arche-fossil, a material “indicating the existence of an ancestral reality…anterior to terrestrial life.” The arche-fossil allows for the formulation of ancestral statements, which as statements about the non-being of Thought are not permissible under correlationism. The ancestral statement is then absolutized by Meillassoux into facticity which he describes as the necessity of contingency. Facticity provides Meillassoux with the principle of unreason, the idea that nothing exists for any reason whatsoever. The principle of unreason is the location of Thoughts ability to extend over reason. As Meillassoux will state, “In a rational world everything would be devoid of any reason to be as it is. A world which was entirely governed by logic, would in fact be governed only by logic, and consequentially would be a world where nothing has a reason to be as it is rather otherwise since nothing contradictory can be perceived in the possibility of such a being-otherwise.” In this world described by Meillassoux the laws of physics are reduced to mere facts and like all facts they can change with time.

What, then, is the problem? The first problem may appear as a rather shallow complaint against such a provocative philosophy. The question is what is the status of science in Meillassoux’s work. In the final chapter of After Finitude entitled “Ptolemy’s Revenge”, he establishes the great invention of modern science was a series of “cognitive processes…no longer of the order of myths, theogonies, and fabulations, and instead become hypotheses susceptible to corroboration or refutation by actual experiments.” So where does the problem lie? Gabriel Catren has pointed out that Meillassoux’s assertions on the principles of unreason are based on his dedication to the event named Cantor and the existence of the non-All. But the absence of a totality should not preclude the existence of localized order or necessity. As Catren writes, “the project of understanding the rational necessity of physical theories defines local problems of scientific knowledge…It is difficult, then, to understand why the supposed impossibility of providing a satisfactory rational global model for the ‘topology’ of absolute knowledge would imply the futility of such a local project.” Worse yet, Catren sums up Meillassoux’s argumentation in After Finitude as follows, “…we can say that Meillassoux’s ‘proof’ begins with an unquestioned (and probably false) presupposition (namely, that physics cannot discover any rational necessity in physical laws), and proceeds by means of an illegitimate ‘deductive’ inference (namely, that of absolutising a supposed limitation).” Meillassoux’s mistake is conflating the absence of a First and Final cause (those that would deliver an absolute necessity) with the absence of an efficient cause. This allows him to dismiss the laws of nature as merely factual arrangements that could change at anytime. But if this were true this would invalidate any experimental data that could corroborate or refute the “cognitive processes” that have replaces “myths and fabulations.” But things are worse for Meillassoux.

As I already said, Meillassoux should be understood as participating in the continuation of the legacy of Al-Ghazali and as such it would be enlightening to look a similar critique that Al-Ghazali himself invokes to critique his own position. “And if someone leave a book in the house, let him allow as possible its change on his returning home into a beardless slave boy—intelligent, busy with his tasks—or into an animal…If asked about any of this, he ought to say: “I do not know what is at the house at present. All I know is that I have left a book in the house, which is perhaps now a horse that has defiled the library with its urine and its dung, and that I have left in the house a jar of water, which may well have turned into an apple tree.” Now, Meillassoux has already dealt with part of this critique in his differentiating of chance and contingency. He defines chance as being the idea that transformation functions via a probability that would produce continual change, thereby resulting in the absolute instability of the world. On the other hand, he puts forward the concept of contingency as a process of potential transformation that is wholly without necessity and therefore, one transformation (or even no transformations) are as likely as any other. In forming the concept of contingency Meillassoux accepts as obvious the stability of the world, but this assumption is without reason. If it is true that the laws of physics are merely factual (i.e. contingent) then even the supposed fixity of the world would have to be called into question. Contingency would allow for the possibility that ever moment before this moment is merely the by-product of a mass formulation of the quanta of memory for all humans resulting in a collective belief in that all previous moments had actually occurred when in fact all of existence began with this very moment. This formulation would include supposed arche-fossils which did not exist the moment before. And without the arche-fossil, correlationism remains untouched.

On top of this Meillassoux’s split between chance and contingency ignores the real advancements in the formulation of probabilities in contemporary physics. In doing this he commits what we could call the Mallarme Fallacy. This fallacy is committed when one absolutizes our own ignorance of the outcome of a throw of the dice into a concept of absolute chaos. Such an approach ignores the other possibility involving probability, which is the assertion that probability is part of the very fabricate of the cosmos. The probability in quantum mechanics is not the same as that of dice or coins. The probability of throw or a flip is produced by out of our own ignorance of conditions effecting the movement of the object, whereas the probability of an electron’s location is part of the structure of the electron. Thus we can see that Meillassoux’s attempts to treat Thought as primary result in the construction of a world that is not only without reason but wholly irrational.

Harman’s philosophy aims to move from a philosophy of access, which is roughly equivalent to Meillassoux’s correlationism, to an object-oriented philosophy. Harman writes, “The drama of the world is never confined to that single layer where human consciousness happens to be located at any given moment. The phenomenal sphere fails to exhaust the riches of reality itself, and for this reason falls short of defining the full scope of philosophy…” For Harman, the move away from the questions of human access or the condition of possibility of human experience, is a move toward autonomous objects that are variously described as “vacuum sealed”, “receding”, “black boxes”, “black holes”, “having a molten core”, etc,; signifying that the inner life of objects are sealed off from everything else, all of these terms are meant to convey the return of the once discredited concept of substance, here revitalized into meaning that which escapes relation.

Harman’s argumentation begins with a re-working of Heidegger’s tool-analysis, which he locates as the central thesis of the Heidegger’s work (the greatest insight of the greatest philosopher of the 20th century). The failure of the hammer, for example, points to a hammer beyond my experience of banging nails or hit my thumb. Harman takes this notion as not just describing how humans interact or caricature their surroundings nor does this become a condition for all animal experience, instead he asserts that this is the condition of relation as such. All relations, whether between animate or inanimate substances or a combination of both, function through a process of caricature where the components of the relation reduce the other members to ridiculous versions of themselves. Whether it’s a baseball striking a window or a dodge ball striking the face of helpless child, the ball does not exhaust the possibilities of either object that it strikes. The result is a view of the world filled with objects, distributed along the vertical and horizontal axis and at all levels of zooming, that retreat from any and everything. The problem that follows is obvious and provides Harman the opportunity to present the most provocative aspect of his philosophy, namely vicarious causation.

Vicarious causation is a process that allows retreating objects to nonetheless come into contact with each other, although it is a contact that is always mediated, never direct. As Harman explains it, this occurs through the creation of a sensual object, the object of perception. For example, when I stand before a tree, the real tree withdraws from my perceptual presence but the sensual tree lies before me allowing for the creation of the intentional object within which perception occurs. Although this example deals with human experience, for Harman perception by a living creature and the causal relationship of inanimate objects are structured the same.

There are, I think, two related problems with Harman’s description of reality: one methodological, the other with the actual formulations. Harman’s horizon remains phenomenological, even if he criticizes it as being a theory of access. My criticism can be seen by returning to Heidegger’s tool-analysis. As Harman has already noted, Heidegger’s insight into the tool is not one insight among many but the central concept of his philosophy, namely the withdrawal of Being (even if in Heidegger it always remains a question for Dasein). The problem, and I believe that this is a problem with phenomenology per se, is that Heidegger moves from the particular, the hammer, to the universal, Being, but the move itself is illegitimate for phenomenology. The “withdrawal” of the hammer could be understood as a by-product of the finitude of a specific individual user of the tool and does not touch upon the structure of Being nor the condition of relation. In this re-formulation, tool-analysis becomes an epistemological issue not an ontological one, as it deals with the ignorance of the user and not the structure of use. In other words, the problem of the withdrawal of the hammer could be solved by a more dedicated individual who, ignoring all other aspects of his life, comes to function as an obsessive attempting to “complete” the hammer-knowledge.

This problem manifests itself in Harman through a conflation of perception and causation. It must be remembered that Harman wishes to move Heidegger’s tool-analysis out of the philosophy of access and the human and make it the condition of all relations no matter the individuals make up this relation. But to do this he must assert the equality of perception and causation. He writes, “All objects relate only on the inside of another object; all perception occurs on the inside of an object. Hence, causation and perception are equivalent to objects and the interior of objects. To say that the entire universe is made up causation and perception is to say it is made up solely of objects and their molten interiors…” But it should be noted that this action of equivalency occurs too quickly in Harman and thus it is not really clear how the quite brilliant descriptions of human experience that one finds in Harman’s work are actually related to the interaction between inanimate objects. And this brings us to the second problem.

The transference of vocabulary between the descriptions of human experience to that of inanimate interaction seems to confuse matters more than clarify. For example, we could return to the classic example from Al-Ghazali that Harman himself uses throughout his work: namely, fire burning cotton. Under Harman’s description there are five objects functioning within the relation of fire and cotton. There is the real fire, real cotton, sensual fire, sensual cotton and the intention as a whole. The fire that burns the cotton is the real fire as it is the active participant, but the cotton that it burns is the sensual cotton, as the real cotton has withdrawn in the subterranean or obscure cavernous world, away from all relation. On the other hand, one could describe the burning of cotton by saying that the presence of fire causes an increase in temperature resulting in the chemical transformation of the cotton into fuel and remnants thus combining with the oxygen in the air bringing about the burning of cotton. I could point out that in the second description that fire never touches the cotton either in that fire is always separated from the object that it burns through what is called the “flame interface.” One could complicate the second description through the introduction of mathematical formulas describing the chemical changes, etc. The question is what is the difference between these two descriptions. I am willing to admit that they may be completely compatible, with the first description serving as a philosophical version and the second roughly approximating a scientific description. But if this is so, then what is point? There are, however, problems that one would have to deal in make these two different perspectives of the same event. First, the question of active and passive is wholly absence in the second description as the absence of the heat, oxygen or the fuel would result in the absence of fire. Second, it is not entirely clear how the destruction of any object is possible under Harman’s description. If it is true that “Real objects can never be brought to presence even partially…”, then how can we understand what fire actually does to the cotton, an action that is different in kind and not degrees from the perceptual relationship. Harman himself has framed his attempt to formulate a new form of causality on the absence of such a theory in science and philosophy’s own rather pathetic position in contemporary society. But such a view of the relation between philosophy and science is return to Al-Ghazali and his assertion that demonstration must not trespass on the realm of metaphysics, a view that itself necessitates Al-Ghazali’s occasionalism.

It is the very inequality between Thought and Being that makes philosophy possible. This is already understood, although perhaps unconsciously, by nearly all the philosopher of the correlation. Strictly speaking, a true congruence between Thought and Being would result in the absolute presence of the world to our thinking selves. But this obviously does not occur. This explains the need in so many philosophers to tell a tale about the difficulty of thought due to some human failing, whether that failing be a stubborn horse, a girl and an apple or the dreaded boogie-boo of human nature. It is only through the incongruence of Thought and Being that the catastrophe of human consciousness can be understood by necessitating a whole series of rational discourses that are broadly named philosophy and science. It is in Meillassoux that the necessity of mathematical thought is proclaimed so as to be able to speak of the nature of reality independent of the human. Furthermore, Meillassoux presents us with a description of philosophy that should not be abandoned. “Philosophy is the invention of strange forms argumentation…To philosophize is always to develop an idea whose elaboration and defense requires a novel kind of argumentation, the model for which lies neither in positive science…nor in some supposedly innate faculty for proper reasoning. Thus it is essential that a philosophy produce internal mechanisms for regulating its own inferences.” Philosophy must be formulated under an epistemological condition so as to prevent it from running too far afield in its speculation. We should eye with suspicion any philosophy that claims to operate above or before epistemology, since the severing of Being and Thought provides Thought with an entire menagerie of mythical creature to become fascinated by. Meillassoux seems to have forgotten his own lesson and creates a world that is at least untenable, if it is no longer unthinkable. Ultimately, Meillassoux too readily abandons Being for Thought.

But this brings forward the other requirement of philosophy. We should eye with suspicion any philosophy that abandons its other condition of ontology. The delving into Being, in both the way it relates to us and in that with no relation, is the other condition of philosophy. This is the lesson that we must take from Harman’s philosophy. The severing of the congruence between Thought and Being must result in Being stretching beyond the reach of Thought. And Harman is quite right to reject materiality as the stuff of which Being is made. Materialism remains tied to a science that really no longer exists and it is time for philosophy to move on. But Harman is mistaken to allow the all too human experience of objects is to be the ultimate horizon of reality. It is highly probable that human experience simply misperceives the world as it is. But again this is to be expected when Being and Thought are no longer so intimately tied together.

Speculative realism, stamp collecting, and the question of Science

•April 1, 2009 • 8 Comments

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“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.(Ernest Rutherford)

“According to Meillassoux we must accept that even physics is mere (mathematised) stamp collecting.” (Gabriel Catren)

In the earlier version of Object-Oriented Philosophy, Graham Harman puts forward the thought experiment of trying to image a time when “Speculative Realism/OOP/Speculative Materialism” would stop beating correlationalism, turn its knives inward and begin hacking at itself. The premise being that something like “Specultive Realism” is a generic term that only finds specificity with a specific enemy (i.e. Kant and his ilk) and that once this enemy is dispatch, the SP will undergo a process of individuation that will create “camps” in the movement. Graham lays it out like this:

“There would be the eliminativist wing with a heavy cog.-sci. bent. There would be a Meillassouxian wing generating fascinating philosophical proofs out of a radicalized correlate (and with Zizekians, Lacanians, and Badiouians in the vicnity). There would be a Grantian wing with a more vitalist/materialist approach and more of a Deleuzian flavor than the others. And then there would be an object-oriented wing, with Latour as a key patron saint and a flat ontology as the price of admission.”

This themes was then picked-up on over at Naught Thought, with the concept of “dark vitalism”. I am sure others that I missed or haven’t formulated their version of the fight is out there. It is in relation to this that I read Gabriel Catren’s “A Throw of the Quantum Dice Will Never Abolish the Copernican Revolution.” This essay is remarkable, both in its positive construction of a theory of objects but also a negative element, constructed as an attack on Meillassoux’s own construction of Speculative Materialism. As I have hinted above, Catren accepts the general outline of Meillassoux’s attack on correlationalism, as he states:

“…the ultimate sense of the Copernican Revolution was, as Meillassoux clearly shows in After Finitude, completely distorted. A narcissistic reaction aims to counteract the Copernicum decentering of the planet earth – and tries to heal what Freud called the ‘cosmological humiliation’ – by re-situating human existence on a transcendental ‘unmoving Ur-earth’ (Husserl)”

But this initial affirmation turns, however, as Catren hits Meillassoux where he lives, so to speak. Part of Meillassoux’s argument against correlationialism is of a emotive variety, in that it attempts to draw a clear line connecting today’s philosophers (i.e. correlationialists) and the creationists that currently populate some areas in the US (such as the area in which I write this). Obviously, this an argument that functions along the “do you know who you are now agree with? Them!” While I don’t really have a problem with this, according to Catren, Meillassoux’s polemics against physics, as that science that wants to talk about the non-existent laws of nature, does not put him in a much better group of friends. Lets have a look.

When Meillassoux turns away from his critical section and attempts to formulate a positive construction of reality he decides to operate on a logical level. In a move that I assume anyone reading this will already know, Meillassoux denies that there are no non-logical rules that govern existence, meaning that the laws of science (e.g. Physics, genetics, etc.) that would provide consistency and permance are illusions, produced from habit (following Hume). One can easily see this as the product of a reading of Hume’s discussion on the “sun rising tomorrow”. What laws do govern reality? Well, the same that govern our own thinking. So, the law of non-contradiction is the only law governing reality. Meillssoux writes, “…the principle of unreason teaches us that it is because the principle of reason is absolutely false that the principle of non-contradiction is absolutely true…As for the principle of non-contradiction, it allows us to establish a priori, and independently of any recourse to experience, that a contradictory event is impossible, that it cannot occur either today or tomorrow. But for Hume there is nothing contradictory in thinking that the same causes could produce different effects tomorrow.” We can see then that causal effects that populate science have no basis in reality, whereas the laws of thought (i.e. logical rules) are at play. But where is the real source of this thinking, as it is a radicaliztion of Hume, and not Hume himself. Of course, it is found in Cantor and the transfinite.

As those of us familar with Badiou know, Cantor provides the ultimate proof for the force of thought in the twentieth century, namely “The One is not.” For Meillassoux, the “One is not” is translated into the impossibility for providing the global laws of nature, i.e. physics is forclosed.

But it is precisely this totalization  of the thinkable which can no longer be guaranteed a priori. For we know – indeed, we have known it at least since Cantor’s revolutionary set-theory – that we have no grounds for maintaining that the conceivable is necessarily totalizable. For one  of the fundamental components of this revolution was the detotalization of number, a detotalization also known as the ‘transfinite.’

This is precisely where Catren’s critique begins. As Catren points out “the project of understanding the rational necessity of physical theories defines local problems of scientific knowledge…It is difficult, then, to understand why the supposed impossibility of providing a satisfactory rational global model for the ‘topology’ of absolute knowledge would imply the futility of such a local project.” In other words, whatever the status of a global (i.e. universal) order, the local projects of science would not be effected. One could equal attempt Meillassoux’s move with Godel’s incompleteness theorems instead of Cantor’s theory “transfinite”, but only the worse reading of Godel would lead one to say that because there is no system that can be shown to be consistent and complete that therefore, all science fails.

Furthermore, Catren even rejects Meillassoux’s image of how science works. The failure seems to revolve around axiomatics. Meillassoux views science as an axiomatic choice made between competing, but equal, systems. This leads Catren to make his statement quoted above about physics and stamp collecting. Ultimately, Catren’s criticism comes down to Meillassoux’s refusal to dirty his hands with the lowly ontic investigations of science and instead remained locked within an ontological framework which will refuse any evidence to the contrary. Catren writes, ” (Meillassoux’s argumentation) is consistingly done without any consideration of physics itself – after all, why should the philosopher consider in detail scientific (ontical) descriptions lacking any rational necessity if he can produce philosophical (ontological) demonstrations? Why would he analyse in accurate terms that of which he speaks –  namely, physical theories – if he knows in advance that physics is only a collection of contigent laws that can change without any reason?”

I believe that Catren’s criticism is quite damning, maybe not completely, but it certainly sweeps most of the legs of support out from under Meillassoux’s edifice. A final quote from Catren:

Even if we can decide legitimately to explore the hypothesis according to which the laws of nature lack any rational a priori necessity, we cannot pretend that we are rationally forced to accept the validity of such an hypothesis, nor that the principle of reason must be abandoned

More later.

 
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