Friday 15 March 2013

Temperance, intemperance and the fevers of conversation

Temperance, oh temperance.  I am not emotionally invested in philosophy.  I've never studied it properly; I'm an amateur enthusiast at best – like one of those half-witted nineteenth-century gentlemen who netted and dissected butterflies to no particular end.  If I'm 'trained' in anything then it's social science, political science more particularly.  Within that hazy constellation of epistemic practices I've always gravitated towards the theoretical and philosophical.  But, nevertheless, I am not emotionally invested in philosophy – I am simply not competent enough to suffer from such an attachment

The tagline to this blog is "In which I form strong opinions about things I don't know enough about" – strong but not especially gut-felt; polemical, wry but, I hope, never rude or aggressive – these are the low standards to which I aspire.  I say this not to cast aspersions against those who are emotionally invested in philosophy and who get correspondingly fiery and confrontational when discussing it.  This is not judgemental, just confessional.

I frequently write things that I later regret because I realise them to have been stupid and ill-informed, though I don't regret writing in general.  There's a pleasure that comes from looking back over old posts and realising 'hey, that's not bad.'  Occasional cringe-worthy stupidity is the negative externality of that positive process.

I'm congenitally shy but I've always found a way to speak up in classrooms, seminars, conference fora, etc.  These situations invariably induce a profound degree of nervous excitement in me; raised heart-rate, dry throat, clammy palms – on edge.  This tension at once pulls me out of the conversation – since the thought of having an entire room's eyes and ears trained on me makes me dizzy – but also draws me in – the fight-or-flight infusion of heat, purpose and adrenaline makes every word and thought stand out as if outlined with a sharp, black marker pen.

This contradiction, this critical disposition can go either of two ways: frantic silence or eager loquation.  The trick is to break the fever early on – jump in head first, say whatever is on your mind.  There's always a good chance that these initial rat-a-tat-tatting bursts of first impressions will, like so many blog posts, later be regretted for their inchoate pretension – but they set the conversation, the dialogue, the dialectic into chuttering, whirring motion – they set aflame the fuel that fear and anxiety provide.  Stupidity, it seems, is the practical precondition of wisdom.

But it's not just social anxiety – disagreement too, even when imagined, is fecund for thought.  Bickering, however, is not.

The things we love enfever us.  Our nervous energies draw us in, sharpening our wits, forcing us to think; but they also pull us apart, closing our throats and raising our hackles.

All too often we choke.

Revolutionary conservatism

We do indeed live in an era of revolutionary conservatism.

Generally, conservatives are characterised by wanting to keep things like they are at present.
More often than not, conservatives are also traditionalist: they want to maintain the present's continuity with the past.
Not infrequently, conservatives are also regressive: they want to turn the clock back to a lost, glorious bygone era.

However, our conservatives, the ones who dominate our politics at present, are revolutionary: they want the future to be like the present, only more so.

More prosaically, our conservatives identify the prevailing power structures and inequalities of the present, find them to be pleasing and seek to entrench them even deeper, extend them even further, build them even taller.

It's a particularly fearsome kind of revolution that is driven from above, by the most powerful.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

The question of correlation; Becoming sensitive to barbarians

Distancing himself from the concept of 'correlationism,' Levi Bryant muses on how his OOO is, in a sense, the most 'correlational' of philosophies:
Can I ever experience the world the way a mantis shrimp experiences the world?  Of course not.  However, through my knowledge of optics, electro-magnetic waves, its reactions to the environment about it, and so on, I can make all sorts of fallible inferences about what mantis shrimp have access to.

Sometimes I think my position is better described as “pan-correlationism” rather than as “realism”.  “Pan-correlationism” is the thesis that everything is an “observer” or that all things have access to the world in particular ways.  Put in Deleuzo-Spinozist terms, it would be the thesis that every entity is affected and affects other entities in its own way.  The way in which rocks have access to the world about them and act upon the world around them is different than how trees affect and are affected by the world, as well as from how corporations, governments, octopi, persons, and tiger sharks are affected by and affect the world.  Leibniz said that every monad is a point of view on the entire universe from a particular perspective.  Leibniz was saying that monads are observers.  Observing how observers observe is what really interests me.
This reminds me of a passage from Latour's eminently Leibnizian 'Irreductions':
The seagull, far from its name, far from its species, in its own world of air, sea, and favored fish; the fish far from its shoals, far from the gull and its beak, innocent in the icy water; the water that gathers together and shapes itself, mixed by the winds, knotted by the currents, heaving and breaking itself onto the beach ... The bird, far from its name, flies from the name that I give it, but continues to fly in treatises on zoology and the poems of St. John Perse. The gull is in its sky, irreducible to ours, but the language of the taxonomist is in the books, itself irreducible to any gull ever dreamed of, living or dead.
Oddly, perhaps, it also reminds me of a passage from Plato's 'Statesman.'  In this dialogue the Stranger is in conversation with Young Socrates; the topic of conversation is discovering the essence of the statesman; the method of discovering essences is that of dividing reality into classes, starting with the most general distinctions and working towards specifics.  After a while the Stranger invites Young Socrates to have a stab at it himself:
STRANGER: Very good, [Young] Socrates ...
And now, as you say, leaving the discussion of the
name,--can you see a way in which a person, by showing the art of
herding to be of two kinds, may cause that which is now sought amongst
twice the number of things, to be then sought amongst half that number?

YOUNG SOCRATES: I will try;--there appears to me to be one management of
men and another of beasts.

STRANGER: You have certainly divided them in a most straightforward and
manly style; but you have fallen into an error which hereafter I think
that we had better avoid.

YOUNG SOCRATES: What is the error?

STRANGER: I think that we had better not cut off a single small portion
which is not a species, from many larger portions; the part should be a
species. To separate off at once the subject of investigation, is a most
excellent plan, if only the separation be rightly made; and you were
under the impression that you were right, because you saw that you would
come to man; and this led you to hasten the steps. But you should not
chip off too small a piece, my friend; the safer way is to cut through
the middle; which is also the more likely way of finding classes.
Attention to this principle makes all the difference in a process of

YOUNG SOCRATES: What do you mean, Stranger?

STRANGER: I will endeavour to speak more plainly out of love to your
good parts, Socrates; and, although I cannot at present entirely explain
myself, I will try, as we proceed, to make my meaning a little clearer.

YOUNG SOCRATES: What was the error of which, as you say, we were guilty
in our recent division?

STRANGER: The error was just as if some one who wanted to divide the
human race, were to divide them after the fashion which prevails in this
part of the world; here they cut off the Hellenes as one species, and
all the other species of mankind, which are innumerable, and have
no ties or common language, they include under the single name of
'barbarians,' and because they have one name they are supposed to be of
one species also. Or suppose that in dividing numbers you were to
cut off ten thousand from all the rest, and make of it one species,
comprehending the rest under another separate name, you might say that
here too was a single class, because you had given it a single name.


STRANGER: Suppose now, O most courageous of dialecticians, that some
wise and understanding creature, such as a crane is reputed to be,
were, in imitation of you, to make a similar division, and set up cranes
against all other animals to their own special glorification, at the
same time jumbling together all the others, including man, under the
appellation of brutes,--here would be the sort of error which we must
try to avoid.

Plato's crane, Latour's seagull, Levi's mantis shrimp.  In different ways and for different reasons all these unassuming creatures represent the conclusion that the world of things is a plurality, not a duality.  There are real classes and real things but each of these things exist on their own and in their own right any distinction that sets one kind of thing apart from all others is arbitrary and false so long as one fails to recognise that it is a distinction within a world of distinctions.

'Barbarians' are imagined by the same process that dualist philosophies are: by hiving off one tiny corner of reality and taking that fragment to be sui generis and exceptional, while everything left unmarked by that distinction is homogeneous, indistinguishable a babbling mass of incoherence barbarian.  Instead of performing the necessary labour of making distinction after distinction, whittling wholes into groups, sub-groups and sub-sub-groups, the dualist hives off one group alone and declares everything else to be of one kind in relation to it.  The real 'barbarism' is this demarcation itself.

It is interesting that Plato has the Stranger make this argument.  Xenophobia irrational fear of strangers or foreigners comes from the Greek xenos meaning "a guest, stranger, foreigner".  A 'barbarian' is thought to 'babble' because she speaks in a tongue that one cannot understand.  The xenophobe, in arrogance, takes an other's babbling to be 'what the other does' -- thinks that the other is a babbler, a fool; a blank, blinking vessel of incoherence.  And yet it is the xenophobe who is the fool babbling is only manifest to the untrained ear of a monoglot.  To a polyglot the world is a rich, fully differentiated sea of differences every language existing in and of itself, defined by its own characteristics, in a relationship of plurality to every other tongue.  The monoglot is unaware of any regime of expression or articulation besides his own every other tongue is 'just noise.'  A monoglotic xenophobe takes the experience one step further and fearfully imagines the apparently undifferentiated mass to be of a single kind because they are undifferentiated to him.

There are two morals to this story:

First, take the correlate seriously.  The monoglotic xenophobe is a naive realist he believes that because he experiences all the others of the world as an undifferentiated mass that they are; that there exist his people, on the one hand, and all the other barbarians of the world, on the other.  His demarcation, it turns out, is born out of ignorance rather than knowledge by a correlational insensitivity; a perceptive poverty.

Second, being a pluralist rather than a dualist is a matter not of refusing or ignoring correlatedness but of working on becoming more correlationally sensitive becoming more sensitive to the differences among things as they are representationally, correlationally manifest by correlational sensitivity; by perspicacity.

If one looks out into the world and sees 'barbarians' babbling, terrifyingly indistinguishable hoardes this says nothing of those bodies and everything of one's own insensitivity towards difference.  The dualism of 'Hellene/barbarian' is an expression not of knowledge but of ignorance; not of sensitivity or intelligence but of the contrary.  The dualism of 'human/nature' is scarcely any different.

Plato's Stranger knew that.  He knew that differences must be worked out and distinguished carefully, gradually, without shortsighted shortcuts that would render any one group exceptional relative to a jumbled remainder that had no identity themselves that A must be distinguished from B, C, D, E, etc. not from not-A.

Ignorance of correlate-dependence leads to dualism because it makes the perceiver insensitive to pluralities of difference.  It is only in recognising the profound existential significance of correlatedness (or whatever you want to call it) that real ontological pluralism is possible at all.  Far from ' the correlate' being the enemy, it is an indispensible component of any conceivable pluralist reality.