Anita Mason has a contribution to the long running genre debate here at the Guardian entitled “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre”. I think her attempt to constitute this supposed center self-deconstructs spectacularly, but in a manner that is instructive and worth teasing apart.
This metaphorical representation of the literary as the universal and indeterminate hub from which determinate “rule-governed” genres “radiate” does not cohere with her criteria of demarcation between the literary and the non-literary. On the one hand, the literary can be anything; is governed by no determinate rules. On the other, dense psychological characterization is necessary for the literary since, she argues, Brave New World, and Consider Phlebas fail the test of literariness due to their lack of this attribute.
Well, you can’t have it both ways. Despite Mason’s peremptory reading of The Drowned World, Ballard’s oeuvre is famously unconcerned with character and “plot”, such as it is, incidental to one of the most profoundly literary treatments of the condition of modernity in prose. Few modern novels present a more literary and unitary treatment of their subject than Crash, for example, where a brilliantly intricate chain of metaphors and symbols explore the contingency of desire in the face of technical change.
On these grounds we would also have to exclude postmodern fabulists and experimental writers such as Pynchon, Barthelme, Robb-Grillet and Christine Brooke-Rose. So Mason’s Ptolemaic rhetoric of centrality is just a blind for her anthropocentrism. The universe of literature, I hope, is post-Copernican and limitless.
Let this be mistaken as some kind of solipsistic meltdown, I’m not suggesting that we that we’re all living in the Matrix or that there is nothing outside my mind. By “world” I just mean a unique “intersubjective” world in which we encounter fellow subjects and speakers, understand their mental states, interpret or keep score of the grounds and consequences of their statements. Intersubjectivity is a feature of the way we think or experience things. Things are thought or experienced intersubjectively when we understand that they are also there for others or experience them as being there for others. Much of the fun of re-watching the first season of The Wire with my partner, has been our shared appreciation of its grandiloquent dialogue and richly drawn characters. The Wire is not just there for me or her, but for us.
For transcendental philosophers, roughly speaking, intersubjectivity is the sine qua non of objectivity. An object is just something that can exhibit an open-ended set of aspects or properties in a common space and time. A very similar presupposition is at work in the pragmatist idea that rationality is a social trait mediated by norm-governed linguistic behaviour. As Davidson saw particularly clearly, you cannot situate another’s utterance within the “space of reasons” unless there is common topic of conversation:
Communication depends on each communicator having, and correctly thinking that the other has, the concept of a shared world, an intersubjective world. But the concept of an intersubjective world is the concept of an objective world, a world about which each communicator can have beliefs. (Davidson 2001, 105)
But if this sharing is a mode of thought or experience then it would be an error to identify it with a mind-independent reality since thoughts and experiences are paradigmatically mind-dependent entities.
It follows that intersubjectivity would have to be a property of a certain kind of phenomenology, not of anything that would exist even if the universe was a lifeless place without phenomenology.
But who shares this intersubjective phenomenological world? Could there be creatures – like Scott Bakker’s anemone-like Walleyes – so alien that their phenomenological worlds are utterly disjoint from ours?
If there are disjoint phenomenological worlds, however, there are some topics that we can never share in common with their occupants because we cannot adopt the idiomatic perspectives they afford (unless some radical transcendental re-engineering could insert us their orbit). Thus the space of reasons may be kinked or non-unitary.
I’m not in a position to determine whether this is so. But I think it is arguable that nobody is in a position to exclude this possibility. The only way to exclude it a priori is to show that there are certain structural features of human phenomenology that would have to be shared by any significantly intelligent creature – for example, embodiment, temporality, etc. However, I’ve argued elsewhere (Roden 2013) that there are good reasons to think that much of our phenomenology is “dark” – we gain no insight into its nature from experiencing it. Since this extends to the putative structures of experience, like temporality, pure philosophical reflection gives us no fundamental insight into the nature of our experience of worldhood. Phenomenology cannot tell us what phenomenology is. To be sure, there are other avenues of inquiry that might help us grasp its nature – e.g. devising computer models of neural networks – but these provide no a priori understanding of the structure of phenomenology or the “world”.
Since the shared world is a phenomenological datum and we have no future proof knowledge of our phenomenology, then we have no a priori guarantee that this world is a common, unique intersubjective world. It follows that the “world” as experienced is not intersubjective in this sense. Thus understood, there is no world.
Davidson, D. 2001. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roden, D. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169-88.
Catherine Malabou has an intriguing piece on the vexed question of the relationship between the “humanities” and science in the journal Transeuropeennes here.
It is dominated by a clear and subtle reading of Kant, Foucault and Derrida’s discussion of the meaning of Enlightenment and modernity. Malabou argues that the latter thinkers attempt to escape Kantian assumptions about human invariance by identifying the humanities with “plasticity itself”. The Humanities need not style themselves in terms of some invariant essence of humanity. They can be understood as a site of transformation and “deconstruction” as such. Thus for Derrida in “University Without Condition”, the task of the humanities is:
the deconstruction of « what is proper to man » or to humanism. The transgression of the transcendental implies that the very notion of limit or frontier will proceed from a contingent, that is, historical, mutable, and changing deconstruction of the frontier of the « proper ».
Where, as for Foucault, the deconstruction of the human involves exhibiting its historical conditions of possibility and experimenting with these by, for example, thinking about “our ways of being, thinking, the relation to authority, relations between the sexes, the way in which we perceive insanity or illness “.
This analysis might suggest that the Humanities have little to fear from technological and scientific transformations of humans bodies or minds; they are just the setting in which the implications of these alterations are hammered out.
This line of thought reminds me of a revealingly bad argument produced by Andy Clark in his Natural Born Cyborgs:
The promise, or perhaps threatened, transition to a world of wired humans and semi-intelligent gadgets is just one more move in an ancient game . . . We are already masters at incorporating nonbiological stuff and structure deep into our physical and cognitive routines. To appreciate this is to cease to believe in any post-human future and to resist the temptation to define ourselves in brutal opposition to the very worlds in which so many of us now live, love and work (Clark 2003, 142).
This is obviously broken-backed: that earlier bootstrapping didn’t produce posthumans doesn’t entail that future ones won’t. Even if humans are essentially self-modifying it doesn’t follow that any prospective self-modifying entity is human.
The same problem afflicts Foucault and Derrida’s attempts to hollow out a reservation for humanities scholars by identifying them with the promulgation of transgression or deconstruction. Identifying the humanities with plasticity as such throws the portals of possibility so wide that it can only refer to an abstract possibility space whose contents and topology remains closed to us. If, with Malabou, we allow that some of these transgressions will operate on the material substrate of life, then we cannot assume that its future configurations will resemble human communities or human thinkers – thinkers concerned with topics like sex, work and death for example.
Malabou concludes with the suggestion that Foucault and Derrida fail to confront a quite different problem. They do not provide a historical explanation of the possibility of transformations of life and mind to which they refer:
They both speak of historical transformations of criticism without specifying them. I think that the event that made the plastic change of plasticity possible was for a major part the discovery of a still unheard of plasticity in the middle of the XXth century, and that has become visible and obvious only recently, i.e. the plasticity of the brain that worked in a way behind continental philosophy’s back. The transformation of the transcendental into a plastic material did not come from within the Humanities. It came precisely from the outside of the Humanities, with again, the notion of neural plasticity. I am not saying that the plasticity of the human as to be reduced to a series of neural patterns, nor that the future of the humanities consists in their becoming scientific, even if neuroscience tends to overpower the fields of human sciences (let’s think of neurolinguistics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuroaesthetics, or of neurophilosophy), I only say that the Humanities had not for the moment taken into account the fact that the brain is the only organ that grows, develops and maintains itself in changing itself, in transforming constantly its own structure and shape. We may evoke on that point a book by Norman Doidge, The Brain that changes itself. Doidge shows that this changing, self-fashioning organ is compelling us to elaborate new paradigms of transformation.
I’m happy to concede that the brain is a special case of biological plasticity, but, as Eileen Joy notes elsewhere, the suggestion that the humanities have been out of touch with scientific work on the brain is unmotivated. The engagement between the humanities (or philosophy, at least) and neuroscience already includes work as diverse as Paul and Patricia Churchland’s work on neurophilosophy and Derrida’s early writings on Freud’s Scientific Project.
I’m also puzzled by the suggestion that we need to preserve a place for transcendental thinking at all here. Our posthuman predicament consists in the realization that we are alterable configurations of matter and that our powers of self-alteration are changing in ways that put the future of human thought and communal life in doubt. This is not a transcendental claim. It’s a truistic generalisation which tells us little about the cosmic fate of an ill-assorted grab bag of academic disciplines.
Clark, A. 2003. Natural-born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press.
CALL FOR PAPERS
The Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy
Joint Annual Conference
Philosophy After Nature
3-5 September 2014
The Joint Annual Conference of The Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy in 2014 will be hosted by the Centre for the Humanities, the Faculty of Humanities and the Descartes Institute, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.
Professor Michel Serres, Stanford University, Académie française
Information and Thinking/l’information et la pensée
respondent: Professor Françoise Balibar, Université Paris-Diderot
Professor Rahel Jaeggi, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Critique of Forms of Life
Professor Mark B.N. Hansen, Duke University
Entangled in Media, Towards a Speculative Phenomenology of Microtemporal Operations
The SEP/FEP conference is the largest annual event in Europe that aims to bring together researchers, teachers and others, from different disciplines, interested in all areas of contemporary European philosophy. Submissions are therefore invited for individual papers and panel sessions in all areas of contemporary European philosophy. For 2014, submissions that address the conference’s plenary theme – Philosophy After Nature – are particularly encouraged. This would include papers and panels that are after nature in the sense of being in pursuit of nature’s consequences. We invite perspectives on critique, science, ecology, technology and subjectivity as bound up with conceptions of nature and experiment with various positions in contemporary thought.
Abstracts of 500 words for individual paper submissions and proposals for panels should be sent to Rick Dolphijn (email@example.com) by 17 May 2014. Proposals for panels should include a 500-word abstract for each paper within the panel. Proposals from academics, graduate students and independent scholars are welcome.
Conference committee: Rosi Braidotti, Bert van den Brink, Rick Dolphijn, Iris van der Tuin and Paul Ziche.
Enquiries: Rick Dolphijn (firstname.lastname@example.org)
People and cultures have some non-overlapping beliefs. Some folk believe that there is a God, some that there is no God, some that there are many gods. Some people believe that personal autonomy is a paramount value, while others feel that virtues like honour and courage take precedence over personal freedom. These core beliefs are serious, in that they make a difference to whether people live or die, or are able to live the kinds of life that they wish. People fight and die for the sake of autonomy. People fight, die or (institute gang rapes) in the interests of personal honour.
Some folk – the self-styled pluralists – believe that respect for otherness is a paramount political value. Respecting otherness, they say, is so paramount that it should regulate our ontological commitments – our assumptions about what exists. I must admit that I find this hard to credit ontologically or ethically. But it is also unclear how we should spell the principle out. So I’ll consider two versions that have circulated in the blogosphere recently. The first, I will argue, teeters on incoherence or, where not incoherent, is hard to justify in ethical or political terms. The second – which demands that we build a common world – may also be incoherent, but I will argue that we have no reason to think that its ultimate goal is realisable.
According to Philip at Circling Squares Isabel Stengers and Bruno Latour think that this position should enjoin us to avoid ridiculing or undermining others’ values or ontologies. Further, that we should:
grant that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says.
I’ll admit that I find first part of this principle this damn puzzling. Even if we assume – for now – that it is wrong to attempt to undermine another person’s central beliefs this principle seems to require a) that people actually embrace ontological commitments that are contrary to the one’s they adhere to; b) pretend not to have one’s core beliefs; c) adopt some position of public neutrality vis a vis all core beliefs.
The first interpretation (a) results in the principle that one should embrace the contrary of every core belief; or, in effect, that no one should believe everything. So (in the interests of charity) we should pass on.
b) allows us to have beliefs so long as they are unexpressed. Depending on your view of beliefs, this is either incoherent (because there are no inexpressible beliefs) or burdens believers that no one is likely to find it acceptable.
So I take Philip to embrace c). His clarification suggests something along these lines. For example. He claims that it is consistent with respecting otherness to say what we believe about other’s idols but not to publicly undermine their reasons for believing in them. Thus:
Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them. You are thus permitted to say ‘I do not follow that god, he has no hold over me’ but you are not permitted to say ‘your god is an inane, infantile, non-existent fantasy, grow up.’ And it’s not just a question of politeness (although there’s that too). The point is to grant others’ idols and deities an existence – one needn’t agree over what that existence entails, over what capacities that entity has or what obligations it impresses upon you as someone in its partial presence but to deny it existence entirely is to ‘declare war’ – to deny the possibility of civil discourse, of pluralistic co-existence.
I must admit that I find this principle of respect puzzling as well. After all, some of my reasons for being an atheist are also reasons against being a theist. So unless this is just an innocuous plea for good manners (which I’m happy to sign up to on condition that notional others show me and mine the same forbearance) it seems to require that all believers keep their reasons for their belief to themselves. This, again, seems to demand an impossible or repugnant quietism.
So, thus far, ontological pluralism seems to be either incoherent or to impose such burdens on all believers that nobody should be required to observe it. There is, of course, a philosophical precedent for restricted ontological quietism in Rawls’ political liberalism. Rawls’ proposes that reasonable public deliberation recognize the “burdens of judgement” by omitted any justification that hinges on “comprehensive” ethical or religious doctrines over which there can be reasonable disagreement (Rawls 2005, 54). Deliberations about justice under Political Liberalism are thus constrained to be neutral towards “conflicting worldviews” so long as they are tolerant and reasonable (Habermas 1995, 119, 124-5).
However, there is an important difference between the political motivations behind Rawlsian public reason and the position of “ontological charity” Philip attributes to Stengers and Latour. Rawls’ is motivated by the need to preserve stability within plural democratic societies. Public reason does not apply outside the domain of political discourse in which reasonable citizens hash out basic principles of justice and constitutional essentials. It is also extremely problematic in itself. Habermas argues that Rawls exclusion of plural ethical or religious beliefs from the public court is self-vitiating because comprehensive perspectives are sources of disagreement about shared principles (for example, the legitimacy of abortion or same-sex marriage) and these must accordingly be addressed through dialogue rather than circumvented if a politically stable consensus is to be achieved (126).
Finally, apart from being incoherent, the principle of ontological charity seems unnecessary. As Levi Bryant points out in his realist retort to the pluralist, people are not the sum of their beliefs. Beliefs can be revised without effacing the believer. Thus an attack on core beliefs is not an attack on the person holding those beliefs.
So it is hard to interpret the claim that we should grant the existence of others’ “idols” as much more than the principle that it is wrong to humiliate, ridicule or insult people because of what their beliefs are. This seems like a good rule of thumb, but it is hard to justify the claim that it is an overriding principle. For example, even if Rushdie’s Satanic Verses “insults Islam” having an open society in which aesthetic experimentation and the critical evaluation of ideas is possible is just more important than saving certain sections of it from cognitive dissonance or intellectual discomfort. Too many people have suffered death, terror and agony because others had aberrant and false core beliefs to make it plausible that these should be immune from criticism or ridicule. A little personal dissonance is a small price to pay for not going to the oven.
So what of the principle that we should build a “common world”. This is set out by Jeremy Trombley in his Struggle Forever blog under the rubric of “cosmopolitics”. Jeremy regards this project as an infinite task that requires us to seek a kind of fusion between different word views, phenomenologies and ontologies:
The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.
I think there a number of things wrong with cosmopolitics as Jeremy describes it here.
Firstly, seeking to alter beliefs or values does not necessarily reduce agency because people are not their beliefs.
Secondly, some worldviews – like the racist belief-systems that supported the European slave trade – just need to be imposed upon because they are bound up with violent and corrupting socio-political systems.
Thirdly, I know of no Enlightenment thinker, or realist, for whom “unmediated access to reality” is a sine qua non for knowledge. Let’s assume that “realism” is the contrary of pluralism here. It’s not clear what unmediated access would be like, but all realists are committed to the view that we we don’t have it since if we believe that reality has a mind-independent existence and nature, it can presumably vary independently of our beliefs about it. In its place, we have various doctrines of evidence and argument that are themselves susceptible to revision. Some analyses of realism suppose that realists are committed to the claim that there is a one true account of the world (the God’s Eye View) but – as pointed out in an earlier post – this commitment is debatable. In any case, supposing the the existence of a uniquely true theory is very different from claiming to have it.
Finally, much hinges on what we mean by a common world here. I take it that it is not the largely mind-independent reality assumed by the realist since – being largely mind-independent – it exists quite independently of any political project. So I take it that Jeremy is adverting something like a shared phenomenology or experience: a kind of fusion of horizons at the end of time. If we inflect “world” in this sense, then there is no reason for believing that such an aim is possible, let alone coherent. This possibility depends on there being structures of worldhood that are common to all beings that can be said to have one (Daseins, say). I’ve argued that there are no reasons for holding that we have access to such a priori knowledge because – like Scott Bakker - I hold that phenomenology gives us very limited insight into its nature. Thus we have no a priori grasp of what a world is and no reason to believe that Daseins (human or nonhuman) could ever participate in the same one. The argument for this is lengthy so I refer the reader to my paper “Nature’s Dark Domain” and my forthcoming book Posthuman Life.
Habermas, Jurgen. 1995. “Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism.” The Journal of Philosophy 92 (3): 109–131.
Rawls, John. 2005. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press.
Stephen Shakespeare has an interesting post over at An und für sich discussing Hilary Putnam’s argument against Metaphysical Realism and the positions of contemporary speculative realists like Meillassoux and Harman. Putnam (circa Reason Truth and History) treats Metaphysical Realism (MR) a package deal with three components: Independence (there is a fixed totality of mind-independent objects); Correspondence (there are word-world relations between bits of theories and the things to which they refer); Uniqueness (there is one true theory that correctly describes the state of these objects).
He then uses his model-theoretic argument to undermine Uniqueness. Given an epistemologically ideal theory and an interpretation function which maps that theory onto one of some totality of possible worlds, you can always come up with another mapping and hence another theory that is equally true of that world, elegant, simple, well-confirmed, etc. Unless, there is some other property that picks out a single theory as God’s Own other than its epistemic and semantic virtues, Uniqueness fails and with it MR.
Shakespeare argues that speculative realists reject the form of the independence thesis, denying that there is a fixed totality of mind-independent objects:
[Contemporary Realism] need not entail a conviction that objects in the world are a ‘fixed totality’. Objects can change or join to form new, irreducibly real objects. The lists of objects which are part of the rhetorical style of OOO encompass radically diverse things, including physical assemblages, social groups and fictional works. Each of these ‘objects’ consists of other irreducible objects and so on. There is not simply one stratum of object.
For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.
I demur partly from this analysis of where SR diverges from MR – though I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise. By “fixed” Putnam just means determinate. If there are fictional objects or sensa, then these must be part of God’s Own Theory (given MR). If there are assemblages with emergent properties, they too might click into God’s Own Ontology. Moreover, the Harmiverse has to consist of discrete, encodable objects, so it’s quite susceptible to a model-theoretic analysis of the kind that Putnam offers (See my Harman on Patterns and Harms).
Shakespeare may be right about Meillassoux’s ontology. One could argue that hyperchaos is not a thing and thus cannot be part of a model.
If we read Hyperchaos as the absolute contingency of any thinkable possibility then representing hyperchaos might seem pretty easy. Meillassoux is just saying that any non-contradictory event could occur (I will not consider whether he is justified in saying this).
So perhaps his ontology just comes down to the claim that any arbitrary, non-contradictory sentence is true in at least one possible world.
I suspect (but cannot show) that the real problem with reconciling Meillassoux’s SR with MR is in how one interprets this modality. Saying that any arbitrary, non-contradictory sentence is true in at least possible world, is not what Meillassoux has in mind since this resembles a standard definition of de dicto contingency in possible world semantics. Moreover, Meillassoux (2010) denies we have warrant to believe that the thinkable can be totalized a priori on the grounds that set theory shows that there are always more things than can be contained in any totality. If this is right, then it is precipitate to assume a totality of all objects or a totality of all models under which God’s Own Theory could be interpreted. MR cannot even get started.
However, there are other ways in which contemporary realists (and not just speculative realists) could diverge from MR. For example, Devitt denies that realism is really committed to Uniqueness – the view that there is exactly “one true and complete description of the world” (Devitt 1984: 229). We might also demur from the assumption that the world consists of objects or only objects that enter into semantic relationships with bits of language or mind. Structural realists, for example, argue that reality is structure and that this is precisely what approximately similar theories capture – regardless of their official ontological divergences (Ladyman and Ross 2007: 94-5). Some speculative ontologies deny the Correspondence assumption, holding that the world contains entities that cannot be fully represented in any theory: e.g. powers, Deleuzean intensities.
Perhaps the Correspondence assumption just replicates the Kantian view that entities must conform to our modes of representation – in which case a robust realist should reject it in any case. This, interestingly, is where the issue of realism segues into the issues addressed in my forthcoming book Posthuman Life. For, analogously to Meillassoux’s claim about totalizing the thinkable, one can also reject the claim that we have any advance, future-proof knowledge of the forms in which reality must be “thought” If we have no access to the space of possible minds, then we can have no a priori conception of what a world must be as such.
Devitt, M. 1984. Realism and Truth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Meillassoux, Q. 2010. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, R. Brassier (trans). London: Continuum.
Putnam, H 1981. Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Ladyman James, Ross Don, (2007), Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, Oxford: Oxford University Press.