Friday 15 November 2013

Between aesthetics and reasoning – Brown reviews Harman and Morton

Terence Blake approvingly posts a review of Harman and Morton by Nathan Brown in Parrhesia. It's definitely an interesting review. I don’t agree with every bit of it but it raises some important points. The general accusation seems to be that of style over substance – aesthetics over reasoning. I like what James says at the start of A Pluralistic Universe: 'the distinctive quality of a philosophical truth is that it is reasoned.' There seems to be a generation of theorists who, one could argue, in rejecting Reason have forsaken reasoning too. It's a matter of rigour in a very specifically philosophical sense. Derrida's writing is notorious for its overstylised self-indulgence but there's no doubt that he was rigorous in his argumentation, in his own way. Rigorous to a fault, if anything! He worked incredibly hard to work through his analyses. His process was exhaustive and exhausting. His 'truths,' whatever their value, were most definitely reasoned.

I wonder whether this new philosophical aestheticism results in some way from Deleuze's claim that philosophy is the creation of concepts. I know that he meant something very specific by 'concept' (he had a rigour of his own) but that definition of philosophy has been taken very loosely by many people. It's seemingly become accepted that philosophy is the creation of concepts any-old-how. I am an unrepentant Jamesian in this respect. A philosophical truth or a philosophical concept must be reasoned. There is no one mode of reasoning called Reason but that doesn't absolve philosophers from the duty of reasoning. Every philosopher must construct their own version of reason and this may be something of a Sisyphian task but it cannot be avoided. No reasoning, no philosophy. Reasoning involves not just a series of utterances outlining an idea but a proliferation and working through of problems. It's not enough to paint a picture, that picture has to be closely scrutinised; the canvas has to be worked over again and again. Philosophy should be hard work. Producing concepts via aesthetics (or “riffs”, as Brown puts it) just seems a bit too easy – and, much more seriously, the end product is compromised as a result.

I suppose I'm a bit of a Platonist too in a very specific, methodological sense. Plato's dialogues are hard work. They are twisting, winding roads. There is no slick, smooth, polished superhighway in a Platonic dialogue (or, at least, there is none until the end – each dialogue is the construction of such a superhighway, a well-oiled cosmic escalator leading out of the cave). Contrasts and disagreements have to be worked through, there's no shortcut. Okay, interlocutors aren't all given a fair hearing, there are clear favourites, the field is tilted and the conclusion of the argument is usually fairly predictable. But the point is that the argument is worked through, it isn't just sketched out and put into circulation. Philosophy is a journey, a process, a travail – it isn't a product or a commodity. Yes, that’s the best word for it: philosophy is a travail in both senses of that word. It takes us back to the days when travel was hard work, when the roads were bumpy, muddy and potholed and, often enough, there were no roads at all. Philosophy qua aestheticism is an ironic, postmodern philosophy that skates about on the surface of concepts without giving a great deal of thought to what made that surface so smooth. It can be exciting, yes. Thrilling, in fact. But it’s like a sugar rush; it quickly gives way to fatigue and regret.

I suppose it would be unfair to hang this ‘philosophy qua aestheticism’ sign on Harman and Morton without a serious caveat. There is reasoning in their texts, undoubtedly. Genuine conceptual creation, too. There is philosophy. But I would agree with Nathan Brown, as I understand him, that there isn’t enough philosophy; that an interesting and suggestive lashing together of this and that is not enough; that difficult questions have to be worked through, they can’t be fobbed off; that superficial iterations of complex ideas is dangerous; that thinking of philosophical texts as objects in circulation does a tremendous disservice to philosophy. Every philosopher may lean on it to some extent but such freeform ice-skating can only go so far. If it isn’t held together by the laborious processes of philosophical reasoning, of whatever kind, then it produces texts that are shallow and misleading. And OOO, I would agree, sometimes skates too much and labours too little. That is what makes it so thrilling and wide ranging but it’s also what makes it oddly unphilosophical at times.

That said, OOOers are certainly not the only ones guilty of this sort of thing. Manuel DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society is a stunning book – stunning in part because it contains almost no philosophy whatsoever. Indeed, philosophy seems to be something he desperately tries to get out of the way early on so that he can get on with stitching together these concepts out of various elements of historical sociology. It’s an interesting and conceptually suggestive read but it’s not really philosophy as I'm prepared to understand it – it's more of a prolegomena to a new philosophy of society.

I’m about to read William Connolly’s new book The Fragility of Things (I’ve ordered it but it hasn’t arrived yet). While Connolly’s books are generally enjoyable reads I find them to be quite superficial (see his book Neuropolitics in particular – a text largely undeserving of its title). My preconception of this book is that it will largely follow the philosophy qua aestheticism scheme that I’ve outlined above. So, this isn’t something particular to OOO. I think it may have more to do this specific aspect of Deleuze, far from the best aspect, that has been extracted, simplified and rather impoverished – the idea of philosophy as the creation of concepts any-old-how.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Latour, Diplomacy and Anarchism

There is a giant, bright red, stompy, irritable elephant at the centre of Latour's concept of diplomacy (or his version of it, anyway).  Here's how he defines diplomacy:
The present investigation is presented as a diplomatic enterprise in the sense that there is no outside arbiter - survival of the fittest, universal reason, state, law, laws of nature etc. In this case, for want of a "referee" acceptable to all, we must "retake language" and, with the aid of a minimal number of forms, organize identification and bring negotiable and non-negotiable positions into contact with each other.
In other words, we must henceforth be 'diplomats' because we no longer have 'nature' to appeal to as a sovereign that could decide disagreements for us.  Okay, but diplomacy is the practical response to the absence of a deciding sovereign.  What is the condition of having no sovereign to appeal to itself?  Anarchy.  So, whither anarchism?

Anarchism is a word conspicuous by its absence from Latour's entire corpus.  There are only a few mentions, all of them dismissive.  This is from a 1993 interview:
I think deep down, Feyerabend rendered a disservice to the history and philosophy of science. I don't take very seriously political anarchism, and I don't take very seriously anarchism in science because it is completely reactionary. Again, it is a debunking strategy, and all debunking makes people believe in the thing being debunked. The attitude of unveiling and denouncing the falseness of the scientific method always reinforces the argument of the scientist, so I think Feyerabend has been rather counterproductive. His is a constant negative argument that the true method is not there, which makes you believe it is important to find the true method. 
This denouncing presupposes the existence and importance of what is at stake, and I think Feyerabend has been fighting a nonexistent element from the beginning--in exactly the same way as political anarchism or Dadaism. It is very chic but finally not very interesting. Feyerabend is a critical mind and all critical minds are disappointed. Deep down they believe very seriously in rationality, and they have been disappointed--something has not happened as they believe it should have. Maybe they believed something in their childhood, never got it, and were consequently disappointed.
In Pandora’s Hope (p.298) he dismisses anarchism because despite “its beautiful slogan ‘neither god nor master’” […] it has always had one master, man!”  But that's about it for Latour on anarchism.  And this is hugely ironic because Latour's post-natural world is as anarchic an imaginarium as was ever conceived!  I think that this needs to be redressed.

One thing hampering Latour's diplomacy metaphor is that it is not anarchic enough.  It does not recognise quite how anarchic the world it is supposed to mediate has become.  If diplomacy is modelled after interstate diplomacy then it is conceptually inadequate because such diplomacy is premised upon sovereignty.  While there may be no sovereign 'above' the state diplomat there are sovereigns 'behind' each one.  There is anarchy but only 'outside' the state, in the domain of the international.  A very partial, limited state of anarchy - nothing like that chao-scape which Latour sets in front of us Earthlings.

Latour's political philosophy deliberately transcends the state, seeing it as one set of points along many political trajectories.  Okay, so he doesn't urge us to burn the state to the ground, far from it but it does become just one flawed institution among many.  'Latour the Anarchist' may be an ironic figure but he's far from an absurd one.

So, Latour's diplomats cannot be state representatives.  There is no more a sovereign 'behind' than there is one 'above.'  This is generalised anarchy.  There is no one to 'report back to.'  No sovereign to appeal to anywhere.  It is anarchy in the most pure sense.  Indeed, it is far more anarchist than the classical anarchists like Proudhon for whom Man was the sovereign from which all questions could answered and upon which all politics could be assembled.

The anarchy of the international is partial because it presupposes the National.  Classical anarchism's anarchy is partial too because it presupposes Man or Nature.  Latour's anarchy is total.  Can 'diplomacy' make sense of such a world?

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Having culture without bifurcating nature

Jeremy at Struggle Forever has a post on the social, culture and nature.  The first paragraph:
I’ve been following an interesting discussion of Facebook where Levi Bryant says that the way to eliminate essentialism is not to erase “nature” and make everything “cultural”, but rather to embrace “nature” and queer it. The discussion is largely conceptual and not worth rehashing here, but it did remind me of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot of lately. As a cultural anthropologist who works extensively with natural scientists, I walk this tight-rope a lot. We are continually trying to insert or tack on what is generally referred to as “the human dimensions” to environmental science projects. This is how it was with the invasive species project that I was working on and this is how it has been with many of the projects on which I and my cohort have been involved. “The human dimension” is secondary and often perfunctory rather than integrated and systematic. Nevertheless, we continue to try, going to great lengths to fully integrate our research with that of natural scientists.
It's an interesting question that I've thought a bit about recently.

What's unnatural about agriculture, horticulture?  Even if they're not natural in the strict, old school sense because they're human activities then they certainly blur the line.

The way I understand culture is simply as cultivation.  If culture is peculiarly human then it is mostly because it pertains to institutions that persist over time.  There is no isolated instance of agriculture.  If you don't collect the muck from your cattle and plough it into the fields at one time of year you can't harvest your crops at another time.  Other beings don't have such complex, long term or social activities like this.

But then again, don't squirrels collect nuts for winter?  That's simpler but is it so different?  Well, 'cultivation' implies a process that is cyclical and cumulative.  It builds year on year rather than being built up and then broken down again like a reserve of blubber.

Also, I suppose we can say that cultures are modes of human activity.  There were humans before agriculture and one doesn't have to be directly involved with agriculture to live now.  We might agree with Nietzsche that life without music would be an error but it wouldn't be the death of us.

Maybe squirrels don't have to collect nuts but can live off of discarded food in urban areas.  I'm not sure, I don't know a lot about squirrels!  But in that case then scavenging isn't really cultivating anything, it's just servicing a need.  And the modal requirement counts e.g. ants out of the equation.  Yes, they cultivate their empires in a sense but they have no real alternative.  That is what they do.

Culture is cultivation - a set of practices that relate to the beings that practice them as modes and need to be reproduced over time and space, looping back into themselves in a cyclical and cumulative fashion.  Still woefully inadequate as a definition but there's something there.  I'm just thinking 'out loud,' anyway.  There's definitely a way of conceptualising culture that doesn't destroy its usual meanings but doesn't bifurcate nature either.

'Homemaking' is a kind of cultivation, for sure.  Yes, there is a culture of domesticity.  Many cultures.  What cultures there are is an entirely empirical question.  The philosophical point is to transform the concept so that it (a) doesn't exist in opposition to nature (or anything else in any dualist fashion) and (b) doesn't deform so far from its conventional meanings that it becomes meaningless.  I.e. if music ceases to be thinkable as culture then the concept has lost value.

Politics of ontology/ontology of politics; The great wall of philosophy

Levi Bryant has a new post on the separation of politics from ontology:
Ontology is about what is, about what it means to be, how things are, and what types of things– in the broadest terms possible –are. At its best, it makes no claims about what ought to be. Rather, ontology is concerned with the being of beings in their pure beingness (how’s that for a sentence!). By contrast, politics is a machine that evaluates how things ought to be and develops strategies and techniques for attempting to bring this selection and arrangement of being into existence.
As I see it 'political ontology' can mean (at least) two things:

1. Politics of ontology: While I agree that the idea that politics can determine ontology is absurd it doesn't follow that ontology must be hermetically sealed from politics.  Any ontology can potentially be opened up to political criticism but political (or ethical) criticism alone is unlikely to constitute an effective critique.  Politics is a perfectly valid motivation for criticising an ontology but it must marshal more forces than 'ought' statements to be effective - and this is something that politics can do, of course.  The reduction of politics to 'ought' is a failure of the second possible meaning of this phrase:

2. Ontology of politics: Every politics assumes certain things to exist and to exist in a certain way.  Moreover, every notion of politics thinks politics itself to be a certain kind of thing.  It makes a huge difference whether 'the personal is political' or whether politics is just a matter of senators, MPs, parliaments, etc.  Also, it makes a huge difference whether classes, for instance, are real, historical forces or whether they are just figments of the imagination of 'bloody pinko commie femofascists,' or whatever.

Any ontology can have a politics read into it; any ontology can be said to have implicit political biases buried within it even if it doesn't declare any allegiances. This is the work of critique.  At the end of his post Levi writes:
We’ve gotten very good at denouncing, I think, but for the moment I think we would be far better served by plumbing these ontological issues.
I agree with this up to a point but politics is not ethics, nor critique, nor denunciation.  'Doing ontology' doesn't require a drastic separation of it from any of these things - ontology and politics can cohabit, albeit in a state of tension.

What is politics, then?  Ah, that's the corner I've painted myself into, isn't it?  Well, I've not got any satisfactory answers but, off the top of my head, it's something along the lines of: the practices by which human beings deliberately structure or liberally destructure their common relations of order and obeyance.  Inelegant, for sure, and maybe it begs more questions than it answers but the point is that this definition can be understood as involving ontology in all kinds of ways without determining it.  Politics is everywhere but it's not everything.  Its practical omnipresence is an historical a priori - the result of prodigious networking activities - not a metaphysical a priori - always already there, whatever anyone does or says about it.

So, politics is undoubtedly concerned with 'ought' but its practices are no strangers to 'is' - how could they be?  'This is the way that things are' is the political statement par excellence.  However, that doesn't mean that ontology can be dissolved into politics, only that the two things involve each other in all kinds of ways and that any ontology can be politicised via critical reading practices.

Those who would make the politicisation of ontology the only legitimate ontological reading practice are just textual vampires, draining all the life out of discourse.  However, those who would separate the hallowed lands of ontology from the barbarians of politics by some kind of great wall are kidding themselves - the urge to strictly separate ontology and politics is the deadest of dead-ends.

I suspect that Levi may agree with some of the above and I don't think that he's really a 'great wall' advocate as such but it does come across that way in his post.