Saturday 19 October 2013

Caputo on Latour; Messianic Realism vs. Realism in the Present

dmf posted a good article from John Caputo on Derrida's 'hyper-realism' over on the aime-group blog.  It basically reinforces what I thought before (conveniently, for my ego).  If Derrida is a 'realist' then he only fulfils the absolute bare minimum condition for that status - not hyper-realism so much as hypo-realism.  He identifies something like a 'desire for the thing itself despite the impossibility such a meeting'.  Yes, it's true that his entire corpus can be understood as being about that.  But if that's realism of any sort it's the absolute bare minimum ('love of the world') - he doesn't go beyond that to try and say something else of the world or produce something else in the world in spite of the impossibility of the absolute, fully present meeting of the subject and the thing itself (other than that our 'love' of the 'impossible' compels us to live through the impossible - which is saying almost nothing).

Indeed, Caputo's very fixation on the thing itself goes to show how Latour has moved away from this tradition; beings of REP are not things themselves, no mode can claim that title.  However, we are no more estranged from REP than we are from anything else, we just have to learn to speak in the correct way, to articulate ourselves competently.  That's a pretty fundamental metaphysical difference.  'Loving' things themselves might stop one being a Berkeleyan but little more than that.  Take Kant, strip out the transcendental, replace it with some linguistics, add a quasi-Freudian desire for the unachievable object and you have something pretty close to Derrida's 'realist' position.
...the thing itself always eludes our grasp, always gives the slip to the net of signifiers in which our desire had hoped to catch it up.
Latour follows in this vein inasmuch as he rejects Modern absolutisms, of course, but surely he would have to reply: 'things only slip away and elude our grasp if our institutions fail, if our networks degrade, if they are shocked beyond our ability to maintain them.'  That's a pretty fundamental difference too.  Deconstruction does good work inasmuch as it detaches signifiers from having any essential or pre-given relation to signifieds and then demonstrates the impossibility of structures of signifiers, taken in isolation, having any final, fixed configuration that would be free from flux and contradiction.  In that sense it opens the door, as I said before, to Latour's relativist (as in relationist) theories of truth - and it is in this respect that Latour is wrong to distance himself from deconstruction so radically - however it by no means anticipates them, much less does Derrida 'get there first.'

In short, 'love of things' is not enough!  Messianic realism is barely realism at all.  Latour gives us reality, gives us presence here and now and distinguishes between many ways of being present, being made present, being kept present, being kept in the present (i.e. being kept in existence).  It's not perfect but it's progress.

I must add that from what people have been saying on other blogs John Caputo is a nice, generous kind of guy.  I still think he's very wrong, though!