Wednesday 26 December 2012

Monbiot's Dilemma

George Monbiot: The day my inner anarchist lost out to the bourgeois me

A very enjoyable and well written story, however it seems to me that George and his friends were never anarchists in anything more than name to begin with.  George's anarchism didn't 'give way' to his bourgeois liberalism.  To be an anarchist means to take responsibility for oneself all the duties and otherwise performed by the state -- to stop recognising such authority but also to stop relying on such authorities.  These so called anarchists didn't do these things.  They were actually pacifist liberals; they thought they could do away with violence (or even confrontation) and simply reason with whoever they came into conflict with.  Turns out that doesn't work, so they needed the police to step in.

There can be no such thing as a pacifist anarchist.  Or, rather, a pacifist anarchist probably isn't going to live very long.  Or, a pacifist anarchist can only survive in a world of pacifists.  You can be a pacifist if you get other people to protect you (if you accept statist liberalism -- free of violence or the threat of violence because you get others to do it for you).  But without that 'outsourcing' you either have to grow a spine and do it yourself or pretend that good intentions and reason can overcome all divisions and obstacles (quite a delusion).

The moral of the story, I think, is that you can recognise that people such as this traveller have been abused, excluded, disenfranchised and still be faced with a very real problem with regard to how to deal with them.  Explaining how they are the way they are (by social factors not genetic predisposition or theological 'evil') tells us nothing about how to deal with them as they are.  They are no less a problem, despite all the explanation.  The old hippyish liberalism which would have everyone just being a bit nicer to each other comes crashing down the moment such bourgeois pretensions actually meet anyone genuinely downtrodden and disenfranchised and realises that some of these people would rather kick you in the head and steal your phone than listen to your self-involved bourgeois psycho-babble, which is literally meaningless to them.

Recognising that there are bad, broken people in the world who no amount of care or reasoning can reach doesn't mean that 'there are just evil people in the world who were born evil and that's that'.  That's a totally false deduction.  It means that, despite having a clear idea of how and why people turn out like this, we have no magic wand to wave to make people nice and friendly and non-violent.  Only a totally different upbringing is likely to do that.  And it's a bit late for grown men, who know only bitterness and violence and whose very personality is built from that world.

Nobody is 'born evil'.  Criminals are made, not born.  But that doesn't help us much when confronted with real, non-abstract, criminals, right there, in our faces, stealing our stuff and threatening to break our bodies.  It's not that the abstract ideas about what causes criminality are wrong or that they're not 'real', it's that they don't help us much in immediate situations.  In fact these ideas about criminality in the abstract are real and are important but they do not in themselves give us a course of action.  Why?  Well, because they won't stop people who don't share our ideas stealing from and attacking us.  If we are pacifist liberals we can pretend that we do no violence (because we've outsourced our violence to others).  But 'anarchists' very quickly realise that violence can't be so easily set aside -- that if it isn't outsourced it can't just be ignored, not without disregarding one's own safety and well-being.

It's all very well to have grown up avoiding confrontation and abhorring violence (I know I have) but that world can only exist because it is protected from the less fortunate, more violent worlds of others.  That's George's dilemma -- how to step outside the protections that liberal society have granted, given that one of these is protection from the violence of criminals.  (And, of course, quite often that very apparatus of 'protection' is the source of violence, but that doesn't change the fact that most of us rely on it for protection most of the time.)

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Pro-scientism or Anti-scientism? Yes!

Adam Kotsko has an interesting post on the "hottest new trend in continental philosophy", namely "scientism."

The question of scientism is an interesting one and it's not an easy question to resolve, despite the 'with us or against us' way that most people deal with it.  There are two things I have to say about it:

Firstly, I am a fully subscribed Latourian insofar as I see science as one kind of knowledge practice among others, albeit one that is tied into very peculiar and massively powerful networks and perhaps one that has its own modes of reference and so on.  So, I don't accept that on the one hand we have science and the other we have all other kinds of knowledge or that scientific knowledge is necessarily better in any given instance.  Science is itself a plurality and while it is quite different to other practices (politics, religion, pseudo-science etc.) these are differences within a plurality, not a duality.  So I'm rather anti-scientistic in how I specifically and explicitly cognise scientific practice -- I'm anti-scientistic, intellectually speaking.

But, then, secondly, am I not quite naively scientistic in my everyday practices?  Do I believe in evolution, global warming, atoms?  Of course I do.  When I get sick do I follow medical science or voodoo?  The former, of course.  Do I accept the claims of geocentrism just because it's just one cosmology among others?  Of course not, I accept whatever I understand of the prevailing scientific consensus is, however complex and processual I understand such consensus to be.  Insofar as science has a widely accepted answer for a question of fact I basically accept it (this probably isn't absolutely true but it's true enough).

So, I actually feel slightly dishonest when I repeat the Latourian/Foucauldian, etc. slogans about science .  I preach these lessons and I hold them to be true but don't I practice a whole different kind of truth, generally?

Of course the Latourian pluralism with respect to scientific knowledge qua practice that I describe above isn't actually *incompatible* with this kind of naive, 'grade school' scientism that I otherwise assume but nor are the two things really harmonious.  They're not irreconcilable but nor do they sit easily together.  I do experience some cognitive dissonance between the two -- why is this?  I don't know.

Science is one kind of knowledge among others, yes.  But am I prepared to give other kinds of knowledge an equal hearing on questions of fact?  Hardly.  Am I anti-scientism or pro-scientism?  Both!

Just a thought rather than an argument but hopefully people can see where I'm coming from.  For the time being I think that scientism makes for a more interesting open question than it is a debating topic with sides pre-decided, as if anyone has all the answers.  We should take its contradictions as indication that no one has adequate answers yet.

Nature and Influence

To my last comment Levi replies:
"Given that naturalism and materialism have historically been the underdog positions, it’s difficult to see how they have been guilty of self-righteous entitlement. It’s hard to see how anything could be more self-righteous than Heidegger’s talk of enframing and the destining of being, or Derrida’s bombast about metaphysics. I also have a difficult time seeing naturalism and materialism as responsible for historical atrocities. Aren’t these more accurately laid at the feet of religion, fascisms, and totalitarianisms?"
I should have been more specific: within the Continental arena, yes, it's historically been an underdog.  But that's hardly true outside that specific arena, is it?  If we look at most other Western discursive traditions -- in science, technology, politics, even Anglophone philosophy -- naturalism and materialism have hardly been the sickly, downtrodden relatives, quite the contrary.  And which has had more ideological influence over the years, Continental philosophy or natural science?  Hegel or Darwin?  Heidegger or Spencer?  Zizek or Dawkins?  I'd bet on the latter each time, particularly in the first case!

The picture is complicated, of course, and idealism has its tendrils everywhere but you can hardly ignore the centrality of naturalism to the entire modernist mindset -- a mindset hardly troubled, in terms of its practical preponderance, by anything post- or anti-.  I definitely know far more hardcore naturalists than I do even mildly militant anti-naturalists (if I know any at all) and the vast majority of people who have no particular interest in one side or the other tend to accept 'grade school' naturalism as a given -- at least where I'm from.  Britain is rather more secular and science-friendly than other parts of the world, of course.  I was taught evolution and climate change as facts strictly separate from religious education and the difference was never an issue.  Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Anyway, the basic point is that while naturalism/materialism might be all shiny and new in Continental climes they have been the default setting elsewhere in the West.  The fact that it's new and exciting for Continental philosophers says more about that tradition than anything else.

With regard to the politics of it, weren't the colonial administrators who turned up to rationalise and administer the 'inferior races' doing so in the name of naturalism, materialism and science?  Okay, they were doing so in the name of 'Empire' too but not only that.  What gave them their 'white man's burden' in the first place?  The ideological basis of their venture was that, as Latour put it, they had access to 'Nature' while everyone else merely had culture.  Of course their 'Nature' is rather unlike yours but if you want the good of naturalism you have to at least acknowledge its baggage too -- and this it has in abundance.  Nothing that's been so powerful for so long can pretend to be innocent.  Making a bonfire from your enemies' beliefs makes for powerful polemic but you have to stop and consider that some people have put this into practice -- and it's not usually the fallacies and nonsense of the rich and powerful that get consigned to the flames.  Are you prepared to look someone who believes that the spirits of their ancestors watch over and protect them in the eye and tell them that their cherished beliefs are worthless and should be immolated?  That's what it takes -- and that's the been the political programme of naturalism over the years.

If you have the stomach for that kind of missionary work, fair enough.  Personally, I'd rather turn my scrutiny towards the phonies and cynics who mouth anti-naturalisms but don't really believe them at all -- the people who laugh off the naive realisms of scientists but still pop whatever pill their doctor tells them; those who decry all semantic closure as 'violence' but still believe that global warming is a fact that should be acted on; those who endlessly 'problematise' everything except their own problematique.  These are far more numerous in academic (and blog) circles than true believers, I'm quite sure.  A bonfire of their half-thought, myopic intellectual balsa wood would be a spectacle that I could enjoy, especially given the season!  (It's Guy Fawkes Night on Monday -- we're all about communal pyromania, us Brits.)

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Do Anti-Naturalists Really Exist?

It is not unusual for people to respond to claims I make such as the thesis that Continental thought has tended to systematically ignore naturalistic and materialist orientations with rebuttals to the effect that “thinker x is a naturalist and materialist and works in the Continental tradition!”  In other words, the idea seems to be that a few counter-examples are sufficient to rebut claims about what is dominant in a population.
I think that part of the general disagreements with regard to whether or not the Continental tradition is 'anti-naturalist' or 'anti-materialist' may have to do with the difference between rejection and ignorance.  Does Derrida, for example, reject naturalism/materialism or does he simply ignore the issues that these -isms are concerned with and focus on something else?  As I understand it, Levi generally argues that Derrida rejected them but others seem to assume that he simply ignored them and, consequently, that his thought is, in principle, compatible with them in some way shape or form.  Of course the problem with Derrida et al. is that they never really rejected much of anything.  To reject something is an affirmation in reverse, after all.

Anyway, whether it's rejection or ignorance it surely must be one of the two -- and, whichever it is, this is a problem for these thinkers.  In fact I think ignorance may even be more of a problem than rejection.  If one genuinely believes that the things and forces of naturalism are fallacious bunk then I can see how language- or phenomena-centered philosophies can be justified.  However, if you secretly believe in these things but nevertheless place them beyond your philosophical purview and limit yourself, your peers and your students to just a small corner of the wider natural reality then, far worse than rejection or ignorance, this constitutes abandonment -- abdication, indeed.

I might disagree with an anti-naturalist who genuinely believes that speaking of anything beyond the socio-linguistic is absurd and nonsensical but I would respect their opinion far more than someone who readily accepts the existence of things and forces other than the human but who has given up on them, refused to speak of them and done their best to prohibit anyone else from doing so.  The former might be silly but the latter is intellectually unjustifiable, politically malfeasant and morally reprehensible.

If there are 'true believers' in anti-naturalism or anti-materialism out there (and I have my doubts about this) then their cherished beliefs should not be so hastily 'consigned to the fire' as Levi put it.  We must avoid the very worst historical tendencies of Naturalism towards self-righteousness and automatic entitlement in defining what is -- at gunpoint if necessary.  Let's not paper over how cruelly this has worked out in the past or how necessary the philosophical reactions -- even overreactions -- to this history were.

However, let us also call out the phonies for what they are.  If you find a place for nature, science, medicine, technology and so on in every part of your life except your philosophising then there is something seriously amiss.  The real enemy is not idealism or correlationism but ontological double standards and the philosophical ignorance that they breed.

Friday 12 October 2012

EU: Champion of Peace and Democracy?

I can only agree with Richard Murphy's assessment of the Nobel committee's decision to award the peace prize to the EU as "utterly bizarre".   It's not so much the attribution as the timing.  Ten years ago when Europe was enjoying relative prosperity and democracy with the Cold War a faded memory and peace the likes of which the continent had never seen perhaps you could see the point.  But at this time when the EU has effectively removed democratically elected leaders and installed a technocracies as well as decimating the social and economic fabric of half of Europe, leading to a resurgence of the far right not seen in seventy years...

Well, it's almost as laughable as the 2009 award to Barack Obama -- he who subsequently became the King of Drones and failed in almost all his headline foreign policy pledges (close Gitmo, negotiate an Israel/Palestine settlement).

All Grand Prizes are farcical, but this one more than most.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Materialism and World Politics Conference: ANT and IR, Offshore

I finished my paper for the upcoming Materialism and World Politics conference hosted by the Millennium journal at the LSE over the weekend. Apparently papers are going to be posted on the conference website but I've posted mine below anyway (also available here). My paper is for the Theory Talks panel on 'Accounting for Symmetries in the International.'

The paper explores the benefits of Actor-Network Theory for International Relations by taking up the case of 'offshore' in general and offshore financial markets in particular.  I take ANT to be a social ontology (that makes things themselves social) and a spatial topology (that defines space by connection between elements, not in terms of an abstract container).  I find that what I call 'absolute' conceptions of space are intimately bound up with social/material dualism and that offshore can only be consistently, symmetrically and materially understood through ANT's 'network' space.  I conclude that ANT has great potential for IR but we need to avoid, as John Law argues, naturalising any one spatial topology.  My case study indicates a strong future for ANT in IR but, moreover, I suggest that IR could benefit ANT insofar as, in many ways, it does not fit its ontological and methodological presuppositions (and therefore it challenges them).

Thursday 27 September 2012

Relata, relations, independence, externalism

Levi Bryant critiques Karen Barad's statement that "relata do not precede relations."

I find this whole question very difficult to grapple with because, it seems to me, we are lumping together far too many things.

Am I independent of the glasses on my nose?

Yes, I think that I am.  I can't see a damn thing without them but I won't perish if they are misplaced.  Equally, the glasses won't necessarily shatter or disintegrate if they are estranged from my needy fizzog.  I'm happy to say that the relation between my body and my glasses is one of independence.

Am I independent of the cold I had last month?

Yes, I am.  The remnants of that virus may leave traces in my body and, were I immunologically weak somehow, the virus could have killed me but it didn't, I persisted, I moved on.  My relation to the virus (whatever traces it leaves within my body) is clearly logically external.

However, both the glasses and the cold virus make me different to how I would be without them.  Therefore, it is incorrect to say that the specific form I take at present is independent of my history.  Counterfactually, I would probably have persisted had I never gotten that virus and I'd probably survive without my glasses but the absence of these things would make me different to how I am with them.

If I am made what I am by my history -- my past relations -- is it still accurate to say that I am 'independent' of my relations?  Clearly we are running up against different meanings of the word 'independent.'  I would still BE without these relations but I wouldn't be what I am without them.

And could I be without any relations?  Of course I could get by without my glasses and I wouldn't be at all upset if I never got a cold virus again but I would surely perish rather swiftly if the air got sucked out of the room.  Am I independent of all relations?  Again, this begs the question of what we mean, precisely, by 'independent.'

Well, according to, 'depend' derives from the Latin dependere "to hang from, hang down; be dependent on, be derived."  I thing that last word is the most telling: derive.  Could I exist without a great many of my relations?  Sure.  But do I derive nothing from them?  Hardly.  Could I exist without deriving anything from any of them?  I can't see how.

If every thing is a trajectory then everything is a derivation, everything hangs down from or latches onto its history.  Of course 'derivation' sounds a lot like 'translation' and we can think of it in similar terms: just because A derives from B doesn't mean that B determines A but it does mean that A wouldn't be A without B.  Like translation, every derivation is a transformation -- if you're 'hanging down' from something you can always 'hang down' from something else but you can't float away as if by magic.

Long story short: these questions would make a lot more sense to me if we didn't take words like 'relation' and 'independent' as if they name undifferentiated phenomena or as if their meaning is obvious.

If all relations are of the same sort then it does seem as if we must either be internalist or externalist.  However, if we pick that term apart a bit we can see that both internalists and externalists have a point.  Similarly, one thing's independence from another thing is as much a question of the meaning of 'independent' as it is a question of the metaphysics of relations.

I should add of course that Levi does make a distinction between different kinds of relations (endo and exo).  But I still feel that terms such as relation and, particularly, 'independence' can mean a number of different things and, as such, often cause antagonism when people mean different things by them.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Busy Weekend

This technique is turning out to be pretty labour intensive in terms of sanding, cleaning and getting it all evened out (although the initial wood treatment is very quick) but the results are really beautiful.  Absolutely worth the effort.  I did the whole guitar, back and front, yesterday:

You can't see it in the picture but to the naked eye the colour after several treatments (and after 5 or 6 hours drying time) isn't black, it's a very, very, very dark purple.  I think it'll be close to jet black once it's got the Tru Oil on it though as that seems to make it darker.

I've spent the last couple of hours wiping it down with a damp cloth then some dry paper towels, lightly sanding the raised grained and repeating.  I'm still working out the technique but it actually looks quite nice when it's lightly sanded as it emphases the grain patterns a bit more.

Had a quick gander at how the final product should look too:

Unfortunately, the phone camera pictures look even worse in artificial light than it does in daylight.  I'll have to see if I can borrow a better camera to photograph the final results because the beauty really is in the fine details.

Anyway, I'm pretty pleased with how it's going considering I've not done anything like this before.  It's very therapeutic, in fact.

Saturday 22 September 2012

And now for something completely different: Ebonising Alder, Luthiery

Endless rambling on about politics and philosophy is fun and all but I think this blog could do with a bit more variation.  Fortunately it turns out that I have other hobbies too.

I'm currently building a guitar from parts and I finally have all the pieces together:

I've not done this before so it's all very exciting (for me if not for anyone else!).  I'm having a local luthier do some of the more tricky jobs (installing the bridge and the nut, dressing the frets) but I'm going to stain, finish and bolt everything together myself.  The guitar is going to be black from tail to toe, apart from a bit of chrome here and there.  Very rock 'n' roll.

Being the adventurous and slightly obsessive soul that I am, however, instead of using paint, polyurethane or woodstain I've decided to colour the wood using a kind of chemical ebonising treatment that involves rusty iron dissolved in vinegar.

This is a fairly well known technique and lots of information can be found online about it.  The iron/rust + the acetic acid in the vinegar (roughly 5%) = iron acetate and this reacts with the tannins in the wood, changing the colour of the wood fibres themselves.  On darker woods such as mahogany the wood can go completely black.  However, lighter woods turn a greyish-blue colour, which can look very nice but isn't what I'm after.

One method for strengthening the chemical reaction is to treat the wood with tea, which increases the tannin content of the wood and, consequently, makes the wood much darker when the iron acetate is added.  However, I wanted to see how far I could take the process so I bought 100g of pure (minimum 96.5%), powdered tannic acid for £7.79 plus shipping from an online chemicals shop.

The tea method works well but the pure method is astonishing.

But let's back up: there are several how-to guides online but here's what I did:

To make the iron acetate:
1. Take some 0000 grade, oil-free (wash if necessary) steel wool, fray it (i.e. pull it apart a bit), get it damp and leave it out for a few days, until it turns rusty.
2. Put the resulting rusty mess into a jar and add just enough vinegar (I used normal, clear pickling vinegar) to submerge the wool.
3. Cover it up but be sure to leave some way for gas (mostly oxygen) to escape as the jar might burst otherwise.
4. Leave the concoction for a few days until the wool has mostly dissolved.
5. Strain your solution through a coffee filter into a fresh container to remove all remaining bits and lumps.
6. Let the solution settle and you should have a clear-ish layer on top and a load of reddish-orange gunk underneath.

The clear-ish stuff is your iron acetate.  Apply this to the bare wood and you'll see the reaction in a few minutes.  To strengthen the reaction using tea just brew a small amount as strong as you can and apply it to the wood, letting it soak in a bit before adding the iron acetate.  This works well enough.  With the powdered tannic acid I took just half a teaspoon (a tiny, tiny amount) dissolved that with just enough water to dissolve the powder and applied it to the wood in the same manner as the tea.

Here I've added a stripe of tea (on the right) and tannic acid (on the left).  I let it all dry before adding the iron acetate:

Immediately (approx. 10 seconds) after adding the iron acetate (left=tannic acid+iron acetate, middle=tea+iron acetate, right=iron acetate on its own):

And after letting everything dry (took about 10 minutes):

Up close with tannic acid:

Up close with tea:

Up close with just iron acetate:

As you can see the reaction with the tannic acid is spectacular.  The colour changes instantly (it's like adding milk to coffee -- it's that quick) and it dries with a really nice, solid black result.  The tea-treated and un-treated stripes look about the same in these pictures.  In reality the tea-treated one is a slightly darker.  Regardless, between the tea and the tannic acid there's no comparison.

I'm still experimenting with the technique (as you can see!):

One treatment is enough to turn the wood black but I think several treatments with a light sanding inbetween works better as it smooths out any raised grain, removes any excess residue and gets the colouring a little bit more even and consistent.

This is a very, very cheap and really satisfying way of colouring any kind of wood.  I reckon I could colour hundreds of guitars with that 100g bag of tannic acid and if it works on something as pale as alder it should work on anything.  The best thing with this technique (and this is exactly what I was hoping for) is that because you're actually changing the colour of the wood fibres themselves in accordance with their own chemistry you keep the detail of the grain visible up close instead of just piling layers of pigment on top of it.  You get a nice, dark finish but the natural variation in the wood's texture, grain structure and chemical composition still leaves a little variation in the end product.

What a way to spend your weekend.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Einstein and Hayek, On Planning

Dark Chemistry posts a nice Einstein quote (I won't re-post the whole thing -- that's thunder-stealing):

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. ...

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. ... How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

Very interesting.  As it happens I'm just reading Hayek's essay 'The Use of Knowledge in Society,' which serves as a useful counterpoint to this.

The question of economic planning as both a problem in the sociology of knowledge and political theory (not to mention economics) doesn't get anywhere near enough attention from leftists.  The right-wing polarisation of the debate between totally 'free' decentralisation on the one hand and, monolithic Big Brother-esque central bureaucracy on the other is incredibly important but isn't widely challenged.  What we've tended to end up with in policy terms is a Third Way mishmash of centralisation and decentralisation -- a mix that, in some ways, might be the worst of both worlds.

Hayek's discussion of these issues (in the aforementioned essay at least) is actually rather more sophisticated than the manner in which his acolytes have appropriated his ideas.  While I find his solutions absurd he raises some very serious problems for socialism, problems that I'm not sure have ever found a decent answer -- something that Einstein himself seems to hint at.

Michael Meacher, Tax Avoidance Bill

Mr Meacher seems to be fighting an uphill battle to get his General Anti-Tax Avoidance Bill the time of day in Parliament.  He was restricted to just 11 minutes to introduce the bill because of Tories deliberately delaying previous business.  It's par for the course for the Tories, but some Lib Dems fare little better -- in particular my local MP, Stephen Williams.  While numerous Labourites have backed the bill it doesn't seem to have gotten much traction with the front benches.

Tax avoiders have many friends in very high places.  Still, I think it's very interesting how this issue has gained so much ground in just a few years.  It wasn't even remotely on the agenda in 2008 but now even the right-wing papers routinely criticise the practice.

It's also an interesting fissure between the neoliberalism present in all three parties (to a greater or lesser extent) that wishes to hack back the state and see tax avoidance as justified because it does just that and the state-based nationalism of the general public who find tax avoidance abhorrent.  It's given politicians some serious headaches on both sides of the Atlantic, having to reassure their backers that they won't expect them to play by the same rules as everyone else while duping the public into believing that the contrary is true.

Monday 17 September 2012


Dark Chemistry writes to Levi Bryant:
“Ontology has value insofar as it is difficult to form being in the way we aim for if we do not have a knowledge of what being is and what entities are active in assemblages.” When you use the term ‘knowledge’ is this actually an admission of a need for some interaction with an epistemological perspective onto ontology? And, if so, then wouldn’t there be a need to see epistemology and ontology as reinforcing each other than as divisive enemies vying over territorial jurisdictions? I mean, it seems that there is a need to formulate some form of dialectical interplay between the two domains of epistemology and ontology, which even for Aristotle was a not seen as a problem since in his systematic thinking he formulated both an ontology and epistemology.
I know it wasn't addressed at me but I'm going to think this question through from a realist perspective, for whatever it's worth!  (My brain started whirring and I had to write it down before I forgot it, so I thought that I might as well post it now.)

If 'ontology' names the practice of providing *accounts* of being then it does not name being itself.  Therefore, ontologies are items of knowledge.  Since all knowledge is known by someone and all knowers are finite then there are practical preconditions for and limitations on all knowledge, including ontology.  If 'epistemology' names the practice of providing accounts of the preconditions for and limitations to knowledge then ontology can, of course, be analysed epistemologically.

This does not, however, make epistemology a *precondition* of ontology.  You can produce ontological accounts without having first produced epistemological ones -- you can make claims about what is without first laying out the epistemic preconditions for your claims.

Ontologies qua items of knowledge presuppose finite knowers and, consequently, conditions for and limitations to knowing.  But such conditions and limitations on knowing are not epistemology itself, they are its object.  Ontology presupposes the conditions and limitations studied by epistemology but not epistemology itself.

Therefore, ontology does not *need* epistemology.  You can have ontologies without epistemologies (and vice versa).  Ontology owes nothing to epistemology.  Its first, foremost concern is being.  It's primary duty is that of providing accounts of being.  Epistemology is not even a secondary concern, it is separate concern entirely.

Whether or not you choose to ally ontology and epistemology or set them at each others' throats is entirely up to you.  There is no strict need for a dialectical relation between the two.

The main reason to ally your ontology with an epistemology is in order to make the latter, as Latour would say, a political epistemology.  Epistemologies are generally devices meant to convince people of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of certain ways of knowing.  To addend an epistemology to an ontology is to go one step beyond making claims with respect to what is and saying, additionally, why it is that you're right and why people should agree with you.

So, yes, they can reinforce each other but they needn't do so.  They bear each other no a priori commitments -- no arranged marriages!

Sunday 16 September 2012

Politics and Ontology: Yet More

Alexander Galloway responds to my previous claims:
My reference to Citizens United simply references what we might call the “Personification problem” in Harman. When people quote only those two sentences, they’re unfortunately doing a straw man on me. But if one reads *the very next sentence* you’ll see that I address these concerns. 
Anyhow, here is the personification problem laid out in more explicit language: 
1) Harman assigns the as-structure to all objects. (Rationale: This is self evident, since it’s the central thrust of Harman’s tool analysis.) Specifically, Harman locates the as-structure in the sensual or phenomenal part of the object, as opposed to the real or noumenal part of the object. 
2) The as-structure is the essential ingredient of personhood. (Rationale: this is just straight phenomenology. In Heidegger, from where Harman borrows it, the as-structure is the key ingredient in Dasein, which we know is the special mode of being that is associated with the human person.) 
3) Thus to assign the as-structure to all objects is equivalent to granting personhood to them.
Sorry if I misunderstood you, it wasn't my intention to misrepresent anyone.

I can't argue with the specifics of the Heidegger stuff since I don't know him very well though I must say that just because Harman takes this idea from Heidegger it doesn't necessarily mean that he has to take everything that goes along with it.  Just because (a) this is the criterion of personhood for Heidegger and (b) Harman extends it to objects generally this doesn't preclude the possibility that (c) Harman can supply a separate criterion of personhood that separates political or legal persons from objects altogether.  If he fulfils the latter then your point 3 doesn't hold for him.  Assigning "the as-structure to all objects" is only "equivalent to granting personhood to them" if the Heideggerian concept is both adopted unmodified and if there is no other ontological distinction between objects and persons addended to that concept.  From what he's said it seems that this is just what he claims -- that personhood follows on from bare objecthood and it isn't implied by it and, therefore, that he doesn't swallow the Heideggerian concept whole.

If you're saying that using Heidegger's personhood criterion to define objecthood *suggests* the personification of things while it doesn't strictly *denote* it then your critique really just amounts to 'guilt by association.'  You've not demonstrated any concrete link, just hinted at a vague and possible one and taken that to be a symptom of a deeper ideological prejudice.  I'm sorry but, with all due respect, that's weak.

I appreciate that the above quote was out of context.  Here's what you say just after the Monsanto bit:

"The way out of this problem, at least for Bogost and Bryant, seems to be a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too Animal Farm koan: that all objects are equal, but some objects are more equal than others. This seems to be rather nonsensical, since on the one hand they want to reject correlation and put all objects on equal footing, but on the other hand retain a pop science view of the world in which some equal-footed objects nevertheless have more “gravity attraction” than other equal-footed objects. What this produces is a kind of marketplace ontology that essentializes and reinforces hierarchy even as it claims to circumvent it. The only thing worse than inequality is an inequality founded in equality. But that’s capitalism for you: everyone is equal in the marketplace except for, ta-da, the 1%."

In other words, they claim that (a) all objects equally exist but (b) they don't exist equally (or exist as equals).  In their view, there is no contradiction between a 'flat ontology,' metaphysically speaking, and between social or political inequality.  A slave and a plantation owner equally exist but they don't exist equally -- it'd be absurd to say that one is more real than the other due to social subordination and it'd be equally absurd to say that their position within the social hierarchy is equal because of the bare fact of them both existing as material beings.

But then I suspect that you know this.  What you really seem to object to is the very notion of 'equal existence' (the first part) since you suggest that equal existence implies existing equally.  You refuse the separation between the two because you find it nonsensical.  And because you refuse the separation you can then say that OOO adopts a 'marketplace ontology' and is neoliberal in character, etc. since there is no longer a reasonably maintainable difference (in Bogost or Bryant's own accounts) between being equally materially existent and being socio-economically equal.  Collapsing the two together by pointing to their alleged absurdity makes the critique possible.

So, the disagreement here is really on the possibility of collapsing the separation between equally existing and existing equally (or existing as equals).  You say that this separation is based on little more than pop-science and so on.  Maybe, but that isn't a good enough reason, in my opinion.

Can the separation be maintained?  I think so.  To be honest you don't really provide any particularly strong argument to contradict this claim, you just make suggestions to that end.  This is important since, as I understand it, your entire critique hinges on it.  If the separation is absurd and unsupportable then equally existing can be taken to imply equal existence and torn asunder for all that implies.  If, however, it is a reasonable separation then taking equally existing to mean existing equally is just over-reading or over-reaching -- the connection hasn't been demonstrated or justified but the same conclusions are drawn regardless.  Again, it's guilt by association.  And, again, that's just weak critique.

I don't think that intellectual condemnations should be made on the basis of such loose, undefined and vague connections.  To be honest it comes across as being ideological itself.  Gaps in the reasoning are bridged not by reasoning but by rhetorical fiat.  It is just declared to be so.  This is ideology just like the reactionary who denounces the immigrants who 'come over here are steal our jobs' and simultaneously 'sit around and mooch off our welfare system.'  The obvious contradiction points to a deeper cause: hatred of foreigners is being rationalised according to whatever narratives are available.  Similarly, here it seems that you just plain don't like what Harman et al. are saying so you're trying to find reasons to justify that dislike but, upon inspection, the dots just don't join up.  There's a clear drive to tear these arguments apart but it's done in such a way that doesn't hold together.  There just are too many unjustified inferences.

At least that's my critique.  Harman, Bryant and the rest say that they do not believe that objecthood denotes personhood or that flat ontology denotes marketplace-esque equivalence between things or humans.  Because you take each of these things to connote each other (but you don't by any means demonstrate that one follows from the other) then I don't think that your critique holds water.

Perhaps I'm still getting it all wrong -- it's perfectly possible.  I've certainly rambled on for long enough.  However, I don't think that I can be much clearer.  A large part of these disagreements results from poor communication.  I hope that I've at least communicated well enough!

Repeat after me: 'Explanation is not justification ...'

There's one similarity between the embassy-centred violence in the Middle East in the past week and the riots in Britain last summer that sticks out at me.  Indeed, it's something common to all instances of members of an underclass doing something shitty: all attempts at explanation in terms broader and more sophisticated than the typical reactionary 'evil-doers do evil - burn them!' are accused of excusing or justifying the acts.  Those who tried to point to the socio-economic causes of the riots were accused of justifying them, or taking the rioters' side.

Explanation is to justification what correlation is to causation: the one is not the other.

The Clean, Neat Lines of Fundamentalism

Glenn Greenwald writes:
[T]o act as though Muslim anger toward the US and Israel is primarily the by-product of crazy conspiracy theories is itself a crazy conspiracy theory.
True, though it does beg the question: why is it the nutty conspiracy theories and faux-spontaneous outrage at cartoonish prophet-mocking that form the lightning rods around which these larger angers vent themselves? (Please excuse the mixed metaphors.)

Those who claim that the US is responsible for everything good that happens and those who claim that it's responsible for everything bad are just two sides of the same fundamentalism. There's a purity to conspiracy theories that both sides love since they are unburdened by any of the actual messy complexity of a reality characterised more by finitude, contradiction and accident than awesome, looming, all-powerful super-baddies.

Politics and Ontology: The Question of Racism

Sara Ahmed writes:
I am using the example of racism to show the entanglement of ontology with politics which is not the same as saying all ontology IS politics (or all politics IS ontology).
I don’t think anyone ever claimed that politics and ontology aren’t entangled. It’s just that two things can’t be entangled if they’re not two different things to begin with. There doesn’t seem to be much disagreement here. We can give examples of where politics and ontology are all bound up together or examples where they aren’t. I think the point is that it’s casuistic. On that we would all apparently agree.

I think part of the problem here is that, to take the example of racism, we live in a society where racism has already been made political. It is, in a manner of speaking, an historical a priori. A racist act such as a racially motivated shooting is understood to be political because there has already been decades upon decades of campaigning, protest and so on in order to politicise such events. We encounter such events as being a priori political, historically. With this I see no problem. However, this is not the same as saying that racism is essentially political — as if it were a priori political regardless of the history of the thing.

Because racially motivated killings are already widely regarded as political issues, when such an event occurs it only takes a minimal push to enroll that act into the wider political networks — the networks are there ready and waiting, as it were. For that reason it may seem as though such an event is essentially political; that it’s political character is simply given. However, if we imagine a time or place where racially motivated killings aren’t widely accepted to be political then any given instance of such violence would be very difficult to enroll into the political networks.

The claim that racism is political as an historical a priori is, I think, basically compatible with an OOO or ANT understanding of the situation. That it is political according to some more abstract a priori — this I can’t imagine. If anyone believes this to be the case I can only ask: how?

Universal Politics, False Radicalism

For some it is the epitome of radicalism to extend politics to cover everything but actually I think that this is the most conservative of moves since if everything is always already political then the work that I believe is necessary to make something political, to tie it into those networks, is unnecessary.  The universalisation of politics, far from being intellectual radicalism writ-large, is a conceptual rationalisation of political quietism and a justification for inaction.  We need only sit around and lament.

If politics is nothing without politicisation, on the other hand, then we're not faced with a universe of politics that some people are too stupid to open their eyes and see but rather a meshwork of politics that hasn't gone far enough, yet.  The tasks required to set the latter straight are, if not simple, then at least thinkable.  There's no mystery.  The tasks necessary to solve the former, however, are so gargantuan as to be frankly unthinkable.

Politics and Ontology: More from Agent Swarm

Agent Swarm remarks on an old comment of mine on the politics/ontology question:
Harman scores points against a very silly opponent: “Once blog exchanges reach a certain point of fruitlessness, I tend to stop reading them. Hence it came as a shock to me to learn that anyone ever made the argument that if I say that corporations are real objects, I must therefore support corporations”.

If we go back to Alexander Galloway’s original post, we see that nowhere does he say this. Something like this is falsely attributed to him by a commenter called Philip, of Circling Squares: “And as for the claims that granting reality to corporations justifies their political enfranchisement … well, my mind boggles at that. That would only be the case if ontology and politics were fused. Only then would the granting of ontological thing-hood simultaneously be the granting of political personhood”.

Once his position has been caricatured in this way, the caricature can live a life of its own and be”refuted” effortlessly in both curt (Harman) and long-winded repetitious (Bryant) versions. And the original argument, containing (horror!) concepts, can be forgotten.
From Alex Galloway's "A response to Graham Harman’s 'Marginalia on Radical Thinking'":
This brings out a secondary problem with OOO in that it falls prey to a kind of “Citizens United fallacy”.. everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc.
For what it's worth I did read the post that I commented on. I didn't just take Harman's word for it. And I agree with his interpretation of what I've quoted above. It seems to me that Alex made ontological thinghood and political personhood one and the same thing and used that supposition to critique the philosophy of Harman et al. Harman's claim, like mine, is that this doesn't follow. Whether or not a thing is a political person is a property of that thing, not a question of the thing's bare existence. Saying that an object exists tells you nothing about what kind of object it is. Therefore, nothing about saying that corporations are real necessarily means that they are or should be political persons.

Simply, the claim that ontological realism vis-a-vis corporations necessarily entails the granting of political personhood to corporations is a non sequitur. I don't know what 'concepts' of Alex's got lost in my interpretation. As I read it his post was a fairly weak caricature based upon some simple misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations. It was actually rather light on concepts.

p.s. I try to avoid engaging in the malice that these discussions seem to generate so I hope that this comment is met in the spirit of friendly discussion that it is intended, rather than the vindictive turf wars that these things seem to all too often degenerate into!

Politics and Ontology: The Multiplicity of Regimes

 The Agent Swarm blog writes:
The attribution of ontological commitment must take into account the regime of enunciation, otherwise you are guilty of the declarative fallacy: reducing all enunciations to the declaration of facts. Levi Bryant’s example is typical: “if you tell a person that your mother is seriously ill and going in for surgery and they reply by saying “I will pray for you”, their statement, whether they realize it or not, presupposes an ontology. Minimally such a statement presupposes ontological claims about the types of beings that exist and about causation.” Not necessarily, Latour would tell you that religious enunciation does not have the same ontological commitments as “double-click”discourses. Lyotard’s philosophy of phrases in THE DIFFEREND converges with Latour’s analysis. Bryant’s technique of revealing the ontological commitments of enunciations does not take into account the heterogeneity of regimes of enunciation. I agree that the enunciation (not the “statement”) does have ontological presuppositions, but not those that Bryant describes.
On the contrary, as I understand it, Bryant's answer is premised upon the heterogeneity of regimes of enunciation. This is why he claims that politics and ontology are separate -- because they belong to different regimes; different practices, with different rules. They can overlap and one can depend on the other but that's the thing with enunciation regimes: they needn't be distant in space and time. Any one person can speak from a number of regimes at once. They can speak ontologically, politically, scientifically, all jumbled up together. The important claim is that these this spatio-temporal co-existence doesn't detract from their difference qua regimes (I think this is broadly Latour's position and Bryant's claims vis-a-vis discourse are basically Latourian). Their difference qua regimes depends on their different rules and internal operating principles, not on their being confined to any particular place and time. Consequently one can speak politically while having ontological presuppositions without politics and ontology becoming coterminous. The fact that there are different kinds of ontology shouldn't make a difference. Perhaps there is a specific kind of ontology particular to political talk -- that'd have to be demonstrated. But even so that wouldn't make them one and the same thing, it'd only establish a meshwork of relations between the two.

Politics and Ontology: Entangled but Several

I confess that I’m thoroughly baffled by the question of what politics an ontology should entail. I readily recognize that an ontology can be pervaded by illicit ontological assumptions and that these should critiqued, but still maintain that as a regulative ideal, our claims about what is and what is not should not be based on our political and ethical preferences. ...
This again! I agree with Levi.

Politics and ontology are both human discursive practices — two different practices. You can think about politics ontologically and you can think about ontology politically — but you’re either ontologising or politicising, either way.

Either ontologising or politicising may or may not be the right thing to do in any given circumstance — it depends. For example, if someone approvingly repeated Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society only individuals and families’ then clearly that is an ontological claim that needs to be attacked both ontologically and politically. But the manner of attack would differ depending on which approach one chose to adopt. It’d involve different kinds speech acts, different regimes of truth or modes of enunciation. These modes and regimes can be mixed and matched even in the course of a single sentence but they’re still part and parcel of different practices.

They’re just not the same practice. The only way anyone can make out that they are is if they do the ‘everything is political’ trick, which really just amounts to demonstrating that anything can be politicised and inferring from that that everything is therefore political, which doesn’t follow. Frankly I’ve never understood it since if everything is political then no work ever has to be done to politicise anything — everything just is political, always already, regardless of whatever anyone does about any of it. How?

But what I fail to wrap my head around most of all is why people seem to want politics to be omnipresent — and for apparently political or moral reasons. Politics is an ugly, inglorious business much of the time (and I’m not just talking capital P, parliamentary politics either). Why would anyone want that ugliness to be universalised? If omnipresent politics sounds blissfully utopian rather than horrifically dystopian to anyone then I can only question your rather blinkered and peculiar definition of politics!

I’m really quite glad that politics is, as Latour might put it, restricted to its own particular conduits — just like everything else is. It can be made to overlap with any other practice and, in practice, it has been spread far and wide, insinuated in some small part into most aspects of our lives but each extension of the network was nevertheless an event and it cannot ever cover everything, like Borges’ proverbial map did. Thank goodness!

Anything can be politicised but politics is still a practice limited to its own variegated and widespread but still particular and partial networks. If you want to extend it to something hitherto unattached then do so — but it’s folly to pretend that politics is a reality somehow there already, under the surface just waiting for us if only we’d shed the scales of ideology from our tired, downcast eyes. Not that such surreptitious objects of our ignorance don’t exist but calling them ‘politics’ is a misnomer. Latour called them another P-word — ‘plasma’ — meaning that on which the requisite formatting work has yet to be performed in order to make these things circulate in social (or, in this case, political) networks. This seems to be a far stronger ontological basis for thinking politics, to me.


‘Politics is everywhere’ — yes.

‘Anything can be politicised’ — also yes.

But: ‘Everything (including ontology) is always already political’ — I don’t think so.

Consequently, ontology can be politicised but it must be politicised and, therefore, one should present a reason for doing so rather than just lazily claiming that it must be because everything is. Often that politicisation is perfectly justifiable but such justification must be casuistic, not universal.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Philosophy or Science? Yes, please!

In the Guardian today, a conversation between philosopher Julian Baggini and physicist Lawrence Krauss.  The former asks the latter:
So tell me, how far do you think science can and should offer answers to the questions that are still considered the domain of philosophy?
The language of 'territory' and 'mission creep' has it exactly wrong. It's a 'God of the gaps' argument for philosophy that goes like this: Before 'science,' philosophy was the method used to answer the various questions of existence. As science has progressed it has provided convincing explanations of various aspects of existence and as it has done so it has made philosophy superfluous in those areas.

Or, in short: philosophy recedes as science advances -- their's is a zero sum game.

Rubbish. Science and philosophy are, first and foremost, methods. You can investigate anything or ask any question either scientifically or philosophically. They do not and cannot have separate 'territories' -- that isn't the difference between them. The difference is the methods they use, the standards they adhere to and, consequently, the conclusions they arrive at.

Science beats the heck out of philosophy in many, many respects. In terms of instrumental value there is clearly no comparison to be made. However, instrumentalism is not the only criterion for assessing value -- to believe that this is the case is an extremely impoverished world-view.

Moreover, historically, science developed out of philosophy. Philosophy provided the cognitive preconditions for scientific thought -- and, in my opinion, it still does in many respects.

Scientific practice has philosophical presuppositions. To say that we can or should do away with formal philosophical thought doesn't make those presuppositions go away it just means that we lose the capacity to interrogate them and we are thereby condemned to unthinking dogmatism with respect to them.

If science and philosophy are not engaged in a zero sum game, if they are not competing over territory like horny, rutting stags, then we, instead, need to look more broadly at their relative values with respect to specific problems and questions. For instance, morality. It is dead wrong to say that science 'cannot' answer questions of morality. Scientists can and they have!

Since most of us are taught basic science from a young age and since it permeates through all our culture and media and so on, science informs every aspect of our moralities just as it informs every aspect of our worldviews (whether we know or like it or not).

The pertinent question is not whether science can answer moral questions but whether scientific answers to moral questions are ever going to be sufficient. I think that they most certainly will not be. They have a place in the conversation but, nevertheless, moral judgements require more than explanations of why we make moral judgements.

Anyway, it's an interesting piece, although I'd have preferred reading a conversation between a physicist and a philosopher who doesn't suffer from such an acute case of physics envy. Saying 'science doesn't know everything yet' is as pathetic a justification for philosophy as it is for religion.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Anthropocentrism, Humanism and Growing Up

The moral case for non-anthropocentrism is far stronger than for the contrary -- even from the point of view of a self-interested human!

Anthropocentrism isn't just bad for the trees, birds and algae that, through no fault of their own, have to share the planet with us -- it's bad for us humans too. It's a narcissistic ignorance that stops us from really taking care of ourselves. Or, if you like, genuine humanism needs to be non-anthropocentric.

It's like growing up: to become an adult you have to take responsibility not only for yourself but for others too -- and you do this not just to be nice, you do it because that's the only way anyone will do anything for you. Becoming an adult means engaging in a web of interdependence and breaking from the wonderful but naive narcissism of childhood.

So it is with the anthropocentric myopia. It seems as though it's the most human, most moral of mindsets but actually it's naive, a distraction. Children lucky enough to have caring parents don't have to worry about how the care of themselves presupposes their care of others. Humans aren't so lucky -- God's dead, after all.

Yet more on Latour, Things and Geography

Patrick Jackson replies to my previous argument:
What we have here is a failure to communicate ;-) which is because your reading of Latour -- which I generally agree with -- links his scientific ontology of the social to a dualist/representational philosophical ontology that I think is neither what Latour is up to nor self-evidently what we social scientists/analysts ought to be engaged in. "If we live in an ontologically hybrid world we need modes of analysis suited to that world. Social constructivism or discourse analysis in the vein of Foucault, Laclau, Wittgenstein, etc. are well suited to particular areas of our world but they miss out entirely on vast swathes of it because of their blinkered and entirely unnecessary dualist predispositions..." I would disagree pretty fundamentally here, because like most philosophical mind-body dualists you're trying to "put ontology first" and make categorical claims about how we should study the world based on the character of the world -- a gesture that just side-steps the basic conundrum of how we might get to that character of the world without the conceptual equipment that you are suggesting follows from that character...leaving us with a profession of faith in the character of the world (in this case, that it is made up of "hybrid networks"). Instead of this, why not spend time demonstrating how regarding the world as made up of "hybrid networks" allows us to explain it better? Once one does that -- once one shifts one's philosophical ontology from dualism to monism, come to the dark side, we have cookies -- a lot of the supposed "controversy" dries up and withers away.

I'll say again: no discourse analyst who actually has read Foucault can consistently claim that discourse is somehow opposed to practice or "the material." The scientific-ontological duality you keep bringing up is a misreading of the social constructivist and discourse-theoretical claim, because it persistently misunderstands such explanations as ideational determinism. Which they are not. I am not putting a line between sociality and materiality, and you are not doing so in your Latour-inspired account of the social world. You are doing so only in the straw man you persistently attack ;-) Let it go, no one is actually arguing that here, and let's get down to business: whether Latour is better or worse than, say, Bourdieu or Foucault or Luhmann (or, what the heck, Gramsci or Braudel) as a way of making sense of the social world. In that vein, for my money what Latour is doing is relational discourse analysis, with a considerably broader sense of the extent of the relevant networks of discursive practice than most Foucauldians have and perhaps than Foucault himself had. Latour's networks make meaning possible, so we can sensibly refer to cities and the time and the results of an experiment; in that sense they're meaning-making practices just like Foucault's epistemic grammars are. So I personally don't see the fundamental difference.
I appreciate that our opinions are maybe not as different as I have suggested (oh, academic-types and their nitpicking!) but riddle me this: if discourse analysts by and large do nor operate on the basis of a 'bifurcation of nature,' as Whitehead put it, then why are the non-human things upon which ANT analyses focus almost completely absent from DA texts?

Let's back up: the ANT concept of 'actant' comes from semiotics (mostly from Propp and Greimas) where it can refer to any character or thing within a narrative that does something -- it can refer to mountains and unicorns, equally, if either of those things does something in the course of the narrative. (This is where the 'principle of symmetry' between human and non-human things in ANT comes from.)

Looking at an ANT analyses in these terms the actants in these texts are many and varied: Latour's aforementioned 'Paris: Invisible City' invokes bollards, security cameras and atoms as well as people, texts and so on. If you look at any given discourse analysis text in the same way you will find a far less heterogeneous assemblage of actants: you'll have signifiers, meanings, subjects, texts -- at a push you might have human bodies and printing presses and so on, but rarely (I don't think that Foucault is especially representative of this creed, as it happens).

DA texts just don't draw on the same range of resources as ANT ones do. Doesn't this suggest some more profound philosophical differences beyond simply substituting 'discourse' for 'network'?

To take another example, in his book on Pasteur, Latour describes an event that Pasteur hosted at Pouilly-le-fort in 1881. What Pasteur did was stage essentially an act of scientific theater. He gathered together scientists, journalists, politicians and others and made a grand wager: He took two groups of sheep and infected them with anthrax. One group were inoculated with his vaccine, others were not. The inoculated group would survive, Pasteur claimed, and the rest would be dead in a few days. If he was right he would have proved his theory of microbial infection (or at least he would have submitted an extremely convincing proof of it to all in attendance and, consequently, also to their colleagues, readers, constituents, etc.).

Latour considers the whole event as theater, quite literally. He shows how it was carefully stage managed down to the last detail in terms of how the farm-cum-lab was set up, how the guests were treated, how the vaccines were administered and so on. But, and this is the point, who (or what) is the star that comes onto the stage at the end -- the fat lady, if you will --, at the triumphant moment? It is the microbes themselves. They enter the fray as fully fledged actors when they kill the unvaccinated sheep and spare the vaccinated ones. Not the microbes as they are represented -- not microbes as linguistic terms or microbes reduced to their meaning (and he is very careful to make this point). Sure, the whole socio-linguistic apparatus was necessary to make their appearance thinkable but it is still the things themselves that enter into the performance, as actors or actants.

Could or would a discourse analyst ever write such a thing? Could a non-human actant ever occupy such a role in a DA text? Would a discourse analyst ever even be interested in such an event?

Of course this is an impossible argument in the abstract -- there is no such thing as 'Discourse Analysis' only discourse analyses. If we include, for instance, 'Discipline and Punish' within the corpus of 'discourse analysis' (and I'm not totally on board with that) then perhaps we can say that some DA texts do allow for non-human actants to enter the narrative on an equal basis with signifiers and so on. But even then such instances are extremely rare.

Which brings me back to my previous claim: DA texts are extremely actantially homogeneous compared to ANT texts. Why is this so if DA does not, by and large, bifurcate nature and bracket off a sociolinguistic realm from everything else? I believe that it does, although I appreciate that my own 'theater of proof' may be less than convincing and is somewhat under-evidenced.

p.s. I wasn't trying to be unduly polemical in previous comments -- although sometimes that mode of discourse can be fun ;)

This discussion now bears little resemblance to the original post but hopefully it has been interesting to someone, somewhere!

Related to the OP, I've just started reading Robert Kaplan's article 'Revenge of Geography' and I can see that geographical determinism of the most blunt and ignorant sort is very much alive and kicking. This is food for critique, yet I do think that ANT and the like stand a better chance of taking apart this sort of paleo-materialist block-headedness than social constructivism as it has been traditionally practiced -- and for the reasons I've mentioned above.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Reductions of Irreduction

There's a little debate going on over at Installing (Social) Order with regard to irreduction: Hendrik argues that reduction is inevitable in order to explain, that irreduction is itself reductionist and asks what an irreductionist epistemology would look like.  In response Rowland asks "how do we reject (but not fully do away with) essentializing or reductive ideas?".

I think it's a misreading to take 'irreduction' to mean 'anti-reduction' or 'non-reduction.' It's a source of great error for proponents and critics, alike.

What's the first principle of that treatise? "Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else." It's important to note that this is, first and foremost, an ontological rather than an epistemological proposition.

Things exist insofar as they are irreducible to other things. If A is reducible to B then A cannot exist, only B can since A is literally nothing more than B. So, our bodies cannot be reduced to their constituent atoms, a painting cannot be reduced to the intentions and skills of the painter, etc. Everything is its own thing. Every thing is 'irreduced and set free' as Latour puts it.

But things are not hermetically sealed, eternal monads, transcending all else. Nothing is irreducible either. Nothing can be without something else, without something to translate and be translated by. Moreover, there are no categorical divisions in reality, cutting things off from one another -- , no nature, no ideality, no sociality, etc. Anything can be allied to anything else and any alliance is a reduction -- however, it is a partial one. If I eat an apple I have somehow reduced that apple to my being but not entirely since I do not control whether it makes me healthy or ill or whatever. I reduce it, it isn't irreducible, but I don't reduce it entirely, since that would make it, literally, a non-entity.

So what this means for inquiry is that preconceived, universal categories are wrong. You can't just pick up categories of nature, culture and so on and thereby exclude most of reality from your purview a priori. You don't ever know what is going to be important so you have to keep an open mind, or an open ontology at least.

But, furthermore, whatever actors, traces and trajectories you end up following you will never see them 'as they really are' because your own inquiry is itself reducing those things. A scientist isn't only an agent chopping up rat brains and pouring chemicals over neurons and so on. A scientist has a whole backstory, hopes and dreams and fears and ambitions; they had toast for breakfast, they've got a bad right knee -- but, so far as the study goes, that stuff only matters if it impacts upon the assay you are following. If you're interested in the chain of reductions or translations that the scientist is performing then you must set limits on what matters. You must yourself reduce.

So, of course, irreduction is a weapon against the kinds of reductionism that say either that life is reducible to DNA or physics to particles or human history to economics. Indeed, to 'perform an irreduction' means to 'escort things back inside their networks' and dispel their appearance of essential potency. Reductionisms point to one portion of reality and say that that is fully real and determinative and everything else is little more than an apparition emerging from what really matters. This is anathema to irreduction. But the point is emphatically not that we should therefore never reduce anything, that we must be anti- or non-reductionists. This is impossible. Every translation simplifies and misunderstands that which it translates -- and this is so because every translation is a reduction.

In this sense, irreduction doesn't end or dismiss reduction so much as it redefines it as something inherent in each and every translation, rather than something that occurs between two ontological realms, one real, the other derivative.