Relative Universalism?

Who owns nature? International policies for the protection of the Environment rest on a very specific conception of nature, which appeared in Europe during the Enlightenment. This conception is far from being shared by all the peoples of the earth, who value different cosmological principles. According to Philippe Descola, the preservation of biodiversity can only become fully effective if it takes into account this plurality in the understanding of nature.
Here is a lengthy quote from Philippe Descola’s “Who owns nature?” (2008):
[M]odern universalism flows directly from naturalist ontology, based as it is on the principle that beyond the muddle of particularisms endlessly churned out by humans, there exists a field of truths reassuringly regular, knowable via tried and trusted methods, and reducible to immanent laws the exactness of which is beyond blight from their discovery process. In short, cultural relativism is only tolerable, indeed interesting to study, in that it stands against the overwhelming background of a natural universalism where truth seekers can seek refuge and solace. Mores, customs, ethos vary but the mechanisms of carbon chemistry, gravitation and DNA are identical for all. The universalism of international institutions implementing nature protection policies springs from extending these general principles, originally applied to the physical world alone, to the realm of human values. It relies in particular on the idea that the Moderns alone would have availed themselves of a privileged access to a true intelligence of nature whilst other cultures would have arrived at mere representations – crude but worthy of interest, according to those charitably inclined, false and pernicious by their contaminating capacity for the positivists. This epistemological model, which Bruno Latour has called ‘particular universalism’ [7], entails therefore inevitably that nature protection principles be imposed to all the non-moderns who were not in a position to acquire a clear grasp of their necessity for want of adopting a thinking pattern like ours, and more particularly for having failed to imagine that nature existed as a sphere independent from humanity. You lived once in symbiosis with nature, Amazonian Indians are told, but now, you have chain saws and we must teach you to leave alone your forests become world heritage on grounds of their high rate of biodiversity.  
How are we to make that universalism a bit less imperial without renouncing in the process the biodiversity which enables us to preserve the world’s dazzling splendour? One possible avenue, the twists and turns of which I have begun exploring elsewhere would be what could be called a relative universalism, with relative as in “relative pronoun”, that is making a connection. Relative universalism does not stem from nature and cultures, substances and spirits, discrimination between prime and second essences, but relationships of continuity and discontinuity, of identity and differences, of likeness and unlikeness which humans establish everywhere between existing beings by means of tools inherited from phylogenesis: one body, one intentionality, one aptitude to discern distinctive gaps, the ability to establish with any other relations of closeness or enmity, of domination or dependence, exchange or appropriation, subjectivation or objectivation. Relative universalism does not demand prior equal materiality for all, and contingent meanings, it is content to recognize the irruption of discontinuity, in things like in the mechanisms to grasp them and to admit that there are only a restricted number of formulae suited to their best use, either by endorsing a phenomenal discontinuity or by invalidating it within a continuity.  
However, if relative universalism is to lead to an ethos, that is to rules for world use to which everyone could subscribe without denying anyone the values of their upbringing, this ethos has yet to be built stone after stone, indeed connection after connection. The task is not beyond us. It supposes a grand stock taking of inter-human connections and of those between humans and non-humans and an agreement to banish those which give rise to general opprobrium. It is more than conceivable that the most extreme forms of inequality would come under this heading, such as the gratuitous taking of life, the objectification of beings endowed with sensible faculties or the standardization of lifestyles and behaviours. And as, because of the consensus needed to arrive at the selection of the connections retained, none of them could be deemed superior to another, the values attached to practices, knowledge and wisdoms or singular sites could rest on the connections they bring out in the specific context of their use, without slipping into contingent justifications or narrow interest calculations in the process. For instance, resuming the protection of nature argument: where humans consider it normal and desirable to engage in intersubjective relationships with non-humans, it would be conceivable to legitimate the preservation of a particular environment not in virtue of its inherent ecosystemic features but of the fact that animals there are treated as persons by the local populations – truth to say, usually hunted, but subject to ritual precautions. This would give a category of protected zones broadly operating on an ‘animist model’ – in the Amazon basin, Canada, Siberia or the malaysian forest. This would not preclude the adjunction of justifications based on the naturalist type of connection – e.g. biodiversity optimisation or carbon capture – in so far as the second type of connections, those favoured by remote actors did not excessively undermine the conditions in which the local actors exercise the type of connection they have set up. It is pretty clear that the connections presiding over the registration of Mont Saint Michel of the Banaue rice terraces as World heritage sites would be quite different: no longer the presence of non-humans seen as subjects, but the materialisation of a project connecting macrocosm and microcosm, the traces of which can only be found in analogic civilisations wherever they flourished. One might say that this is in the realm of Utopia: undoubtedly, if Utopia is understood in its better sense of a multiplicity of virtual futures opening the possibility for solutions not hitherto considered.
All this considered, this is exactly the kind of approach we need when navigating the problem sets established by the tensions between ontography as praxis and pluralism as politics..


The Metaphysics of Meaning - Part 1

In a recent post I challenged Adam Robbert to elucidate his use of the language of conceptuality, and to make explicit his understanding of the ontological status of concepts. Adam's response was, as usual, thoughtful and concise. In his response to a commenter on that exchange Adam asked a question I think gets right to the core of our discussion:
"From your view, then, are there anything like propositional statements?"
My response is as follows:

First, that human animals can make ‘propositional statements’ is uncontroversial. Humans are capable of all kinds of expressions. What is at stake here is how propositional statements come into being and whether or not they have a relatively autonomous existence beyond the interplay between neurological functioning and physical coding in texts, images and so on. The only requirements for statement-making are bodies capable of memory, recursion, articulation and mimesis, as well as the existence of socialized natural language (as learned reference and gestural flexibility) and a community of interlocutors.  Until those statements become marks on a page or sound recordings (thus coded) there is nothing about making such statements that suggests the relatively autonomous existence of an object that can be called a ‘concept’.

Interactions between perceptive-sapient bodies and ambient information affordances unfold according to the skillful difference navigation and mediation (as you say) by bodies/assemblages phylogenetically and ontogenetically oriented towards coping-with-in complex causal and information rich environments. And this embodied communicative dance between complex expressive and/or potent entities conditions, but does determine, our active and reactive coping responses within particular ecologies via the formation of information rich brain patterns/habits instantiated in relation to prior and ongoing exposures to socially instituted references and speech-acts. Sapient-bodies generate, store and recall a range of neural-semantic associations that are communicable – and thus available to be captured in codes, text, images, etc. – between sapient bodies, therein receiving feedback and varying degrees of intensive expression and reciprocal activations and reactivations, in ways that coordinate subsequent thetic brain patterns (“understandings”) and behaviors.

Again, cognizing bodies (things A) are endowed with particular capacities and acquired brain habits. These bodies communicate with each other via natural language and personal memory/recall in relation to socially circulated semiotic tokens (things B) such as writing, images, materials, etc. The communicative (gestural, verbal, symbol-deploying, material) dance between things A and B generates informational complexity, and thus “meaning’ via consequential expression, expectation and response. There is nothing about communicative encounters that requires us to posit ghostly mediating entities (things C) such as ‘ideas’ or ‘concepts’. Semiosis is something that happens between material objects (things A and things B) within niches of differential assembly and potencies – affording various time-space possibilities (cf. Heidegger’s ‘clearings’).

In this onto-story, then, ‘ideas’ and ‘concepts’ are not autonomous entities circulating among humans and media, but words (nouns) created to describe and ultimately misrepresent enacted and consequential, and therefore “meaningful” relationships between bodies and semiotic tokens and media within situations (ecologies). And mistaking the semantic/informational aspects of the enactive realities these relations generate and maintain for relatively independent objects sets up what I believe to be a damaging onto-theology of transcendental meaning.

Herein we could enter into a discussion about the importance of a nihilistic (re)turn to primordial affection and a subsequent deflation of doxic thought, but perhaps this is not the appropriate context for that discussion. I will only suggest here that what drives the most sophisticated forms of nihilism - and thus post-nihilist thought - is realization that only relations and materials exist, and that semantically laden embodied experience is an emergent capacity and epiphenomenal expression – albeit phenomenologically rich and existentially significant.

I think the core issue I have with Adam’s model is the way he (and almost every other intellectual I know) reifies the relational patterns that obtain between brains, media, and/or social objects (i.e., texts) as things-in-themselves. As ontographers I think we need to be rigorous, precise and clear when distinguishing between assemblages, relations, processes, and flows. Our historical linguistic practices and semantic habits no longer work. We have an awkward and kludged semantic heritage that has become, in large parts, obsolete in the context we now seek to exist with-in. So we need to jettison certain aspects of existing semantic infrastructures and fashion (salvage and design) new semiotic compositions – if only because we need to adapt better to reality and design healthier niches. And thinking about and using words like ‘ideas’ and ‘concepts’ as objects is part of the rotted superstructure of reference and metaphysics I see as problematic.


Are concepts a substance?

Continuing his project of critically integrating ecology, media studies and the enactive paradigm in cognitive science Adam offers the following gem (by way of an abstract for an in-progress paper):
"I suggest that human experience and behavior is an ongoing and distributed activity achieved at the intersection of conceptual knowledge, physical perception, and environmental affordance. But what is knowledge? What is a concept? How do they participate in larger ecologies? To understand how knowledge participates in human action, I propose that knowledge is a skill waiting to be acquired. It is an attunement to new contrasts made possible by the coordination of multiple species, practices, and technologies. Similarly, I define conceptualization as a speculative capacity, a performance of the body that leaps the subject beyond immediacy into the spaces of possibility afforded by the present. Stated differently, knowledge represents the acquisition of a conceptual faculty, an ability to mediate difference and contrast in the environment in a meaningful way. One way to visualize this intersection is to underscore that ecology entangles perception with cognitive activity through the enaction of experience. The intersection of concept with sense, then, is the basis for the ecological understanding of knowledge" (Adam Robbert). 
[Image: Nunzio Paci]
I can dig that. Intersectionality, affordance, distributed activities, and knowledge as embodied skill and attunement. Exactly that.  What I still can't understand is what conceptuality actually is in Adam's model? Is a ‘concept’ a linguistic unit (node) attached to a set or chain of other linguistic units (in a network), or is it the internal neurological pattern instantiated in the central nervous system as it relates to those external tokens? Or both in some sort of semiotic reciprocal influence?

I think it is important for a materialist/realist ecological ontography to be able to specific how conceptuality works by locating the components of its assembly, and thus conceptualize the unit operations or individuated 'thingliness' that we call concepts or idea.

UPDATE (Feb 21, 2015):

In response Adam comments:

This is clearly the key question for me, Michael (at least in terms of the above issues). And the short answer is "all of the above"; that is, we can't think of a concept as cleanly residing in language or in linguistic tokens, which need an interpreter, nor inside a neurological pattern, since whatever such a "pattern" is must necessarily be extended outwards and entangled with the environment. So, on the one hand, concepts are relational and dynamic capacities of a body engaged in his or her environment (we should say something about affects and somatics here, too, but one thing at a time). On the other, the content of the concept can be learned through teaching, practice, and engagement with the available media ecologies and thus integrated into the action of the body (though not without transforming that body in the process and never in the same way for all bodies).  
Take for example this comment by Evan Thompson in his recent Tricycle interview (D and I have been going back and forth on these issues for several weeks, so maybe he'll chime in here too):  
"Experience and concepts are interdependent. Whether there are nonconceptual modes of experience is a complicated matter that both Buddhist and Western philosophers have argued about a lot. But in most cases of human experience you can’t have one without the other. Take science. Here you observe things, of course, but you can’t see them properly unless you have the right concepts. If you just look through a microscope with no guidance on how to look at what you see, you have no clue what you’re looking at. Even if you’re doing high school biology, you need to have concepts like “cell wall” or “organelle”—to say nothing of what’s happening at the edge of scientific discovery, where you’re using new imaging technologies and learning to see things. So observation is happening there, of course. But also a lot of conceptualizing." [source]
What I like about this quote is that it gets at the interdependence of experience and concepts, or sensation and knowledge, in a way that also implies that knowledge has to circulate and become available in a certain way for people to obtain certain skills of action and perception. So there's a sense in which there is a representational dimension to concepts, insofar as distinctions and contrasts are identified and represented in a medium, and an enactive or non-representational one, insofar as knowledge really only exists through the actions of knowers. They stand as different stages of the ecology of learning—the former as the unlearned skill obtained from the available ecology of knowledge that needs to be thought through, step-by-step in consciousness, and the latter as the internalized capacity for action in part made possible by conceptual acquisition.  
So, I don't think I'm at the point of getting to a nice, one-line definition of a concept yet—and there may not be one—but that's how I'm thinking about it at the moment.
I will have more to say on all that shortly.


The Anthropocentrist Loop?

One of the core motivations in peddling a postnihilist rhetorics (as praxis) is an interest in disrupting the cognitive hegemony of anthropocentric thought. Meaning and rationalizations are local human expressions, not constituent features woven into the fabric of the cosmos. Yet, all human action seems to be routed through self-referential circuits of existential concern and human-focused interest. Inflated egos everywhere – with only a hint of the kind of perspective-taking required to speculate about what it might ‘be like’ to be an otter, or an orchid.

More significantly, anthropocentrism narrows the associative cognitive-neuronal tunnel within which we can evaluate the overall necessity, function and agency of otters, orchids, or even carbon-dioxide molecules. This makes for bad ontography and therefore even worse social design. Thus deflating the aspirations of folk transcendentalisms inherent in the cultural codes of Western thinkers, viz. a perpetual negation of its doxic contents, can make room for new circuits of evaluation and habits of communication wherein humans interface and relate with nonhumans in a more authentic and ecologically tenable way.

“There is no life without the conditions of life that variably sustain life, and those conditions are pervasively social, establishing not the discrete ontology of the person, but rather the interdependency of persons, involving reproducible and sustaining social relations, and relations to the environment and to non-human forms of life, broadly considered. This mode of social ontology (for which no absolute distinction between social and ecological exists) has concrete implications for how we re-approach the issues of reproductive freedom and anti-war politics. The question is not whether a given being is living or not, nor whether the being in question has the status of a “person”; it is, rather, whether the social conditions of persistence and flourishing are or are not possible. Only with this latter question can we avoid the anthropocentric and liberal individualist presumptions that have derailed such discussions.” ― Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? 
“In the twentieth century nothing can better cure the anthropocentrism that is the author of all our ills than to cast ourselves into the physics of the infinitely large (or the infinitely small). By reading any text of popular science we quickly regain the sense of the absurd, but this time it is a sentiment that can be held in our hands, born of tangible, demonstrable, almost consoling things. We no longer believe because it is absurd: it is absurd because we must believe.” ― Julio Cortázar, Around the Day in Eighty Worlds

Anthropocentrism is the belief that human beings are the central or most significant species on the planet (in the sense that they are considered to have a moral status or value higher than that of other animals), or the assessment of reality through an exclusively human perspective. The term can refer to the concept as human supremacy or human exceptionalism.



So much philosophical intelligence hinges on comprehending the inescapable reality of facticity as disclosed via phenomenological encounter. Being is prior to knowing, and our corporeal relations with-in the world afford a primordial condition for ontological intimacy. Thus, we are always already at home in the universe.
The term is first used by German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and has a variety of meanings. It can refer to facts and factuality, as in nineteenth-century positivism, but comes to mean that which resists explanation and interpretation in Wilhelm Dilthey and Neo-Kantianism. The Neo-Kantians contrasted facticity with ideality, as does Jürgen Habermas in Between Facts and Norms (Faktizität und Geltung).

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) discusses facticity as the "thrownness" (Geworfenheit) of individual existence, which is to say we are "thrown into the world." By this, he is not only referring to a brute fact, or the factuality of a concrete historical situation, e.g., "born in the '80s." Facticity is something that already informs and has been taken up in existence, even if it is unnoticed or left unattended. As such, facticity is not something we come across and directly behold. In moods, for example, facticity has an enigmatic appearance, which involves both turning toward and away from it. For Heidegger, moods are conditions of thinking and willing to which they must in some way respond. The thrownness of human existence (or Dasein) is accordingly disclosed through moods. [wikipedia]
We are well past the point where a shift in frames necessitates discussion about the ecology of know-ing, rather than the supposed solidity of know-ledge. Human knowing is a material and ecological process generated within particular structural and expressive matrices - never fully consumated nor completely detached from the facticity of its activities. Both 'matters of fact' (factuality) and 'matterns of concern' (Latour) are rooted in facticity. It is corporeal intra-action all the way down..

Dasein is always marked by facticity. It does not exist as an independent thing hovering in a void, but always finds itself in a particular situation with highly specific possibilities. For the most part, this facticity does not take the form of knowledge. Too many philosophers have constructed their model of human being by imagining humans as entities that know the world. Heidegger sees that knowing is only a rare special case of the way that we deal with our environment… Knowledge is not primary, because it arises from out of the world. Dasein somehow has to rise above its usual interaction with the world in order to gain anything resembling knowledge. Dasein and world are bound together closely from the start. If this seems to eliminate the traditional problem in philosophy of how human beings can know a world lying outside of them, then so much the better. For Heidegger as for Husserl, this is a false problem that never should have existed in the first place. (Harman, Heidegger Explained, 2007:62 )
“The bad dialectic is that which thinks it recomposes being by a thetic thought, by an assemblage of statements, by thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; the good dialectic is that which is conscious of the fact that every thesis is an idealization, that Being is not made up of idealizations or of things said.” (Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, p.94)


the ecological a priori?

Adam Robbert bringing the Foucault and Deleuze eco-style: 
For Foucault, then, the nonhuman impresses itself onto anthropic space through the production of laws and regulations, the production of material infrastructures that manipulate human behavior and perception, and the enforcement of practices that condition human beings. In Foucault’s understanding, the human is always born into a larger historical condition that is not of the same kind as any one person’s individual experience, an experience that is, to an indeterminate degree, an effect of historical trends rather a starting point for historical evaluation. 
Similarly, for Deleuze, nonhuman forces already act on the inside of human experience. Here all knowing is an inter-species effort; multiple species are always on the inside of anthropomorphic space, undermining it from within. The Kantian transcendental subject is for Deleuze a complex and multiple collective of diverging syntheses of cognition and perception. If Foucault initiates a move from the transcendental a priori to the historical a priori then Deleuze initiates a similar movement—from an historical a priori to an ecological a priori. Crucially, the enfolding of divergent species into human cognition marks not just an ecological basis for all human thought—a mark that suggests that all human thought is dependent on a multiplicity of nonhumans living and dying on the inside of human subjectivity—but more cosmically that human cognition is a higher dimensional enfolding of spacetime itself, a synthesis that makes the vastness of the cosmos thinkable to the human mind.
What I like about Adam's framing of F & D here is his seemless demonstration of how each of these Frenchies are already thinking ecologically in their appeals to structure and materiality, without having explicitly stated as such. Reading Adam's post (here) reminds me exactly why the work of these two gents is so near and dear to me: each attempts to think about the structural dynamics embodied in material relations of power, subjectivity and episteme in an ecological manner.

I cannot stress enough how important it seems to me to find ways of operationalizing the insight that nonhuman forces always already act on the "inside" of human experience, as the non-human-in-human - the dark flesh conditioning and positioning hominid experience. Experiencing bodies are complex multiplicities of synthesizing assemblage - higher dimensional enfoldings of space-time...
"[M]an and nature are not like two opposite terms confronting each other – not even in the sense of bipolar opposites within a relationship of causation, ideation, or expression (cause and effect, subject and object, etc); rather they are one and the same essential reality, the producer-product" (Anti-Oedipus, p. 4-5).



"To say, with Rousseau, that we do not know what our nature permits us to be, is to say that our status as natural beings underdetermines our status as normative beings—in other words, that “our nature” does not answer the question of what it means to be a human being, or dictate what it is that we should become. This is somewhat reassuring since it tells us that there is a domain of human freedom not dictated by our biological nature, but it is somewhat unnerving because it leaves uncomfortably open what kind of beings human beings could become." (Kompridis 2009:20)



Nikolas Kompridis is a Canadian born philosopher and political theorist contaminated by the the work of the Frankfurt School of critical theory (having worked closely with influential academic Jürgen Habermas), romanticism and the aesthetic dimension(s) of politics. His writing re-works the concepts of receptivity and Heidegger's 'world disclosure' into a minor paradigm he calls "reflective disclosure". He is currently a Research Professor and Director of the Institute for Social Justice at the Australian Catholic University.

In Critique and Disclosure: Critical Theory between Past and Future (2006), Kompridis argues that Habermasian critical theory has largely severed its own roots in German Idealism, while neglecting modernity's distinctive relationship to the utopian potential of critique. In the book, Kompridis draws upon Habermas' work, along with the philosophical traditions of German Idealism, American Pragmatism, and many others to propose an alternative approach to social criticism as a facilitator of social change. Arguing against Habermas' "procedural conception of reason" and in favour of reflective disclosure, the book suggests that critical theory should become a "possibility-disclosing" practice of social criticism "if it is to have a future worthy of its past."

His publications include:


"To theorists whose thought is self-consciously developed as a response to some deep and abiding experience of crisis, we might wish to give the name 'crisis thinkers'. Although not always apparent, and certainly too little understood, the experience of crisis may well be the primary inducement to thought in our time, the time of modernity. This is not an accident or some contingent fact about modernity; rather, modernity induces 'crisis thinking' because it is inherently crisis generating." (2006:3)


"revolution is not a moment in the future; it’s a line we trace in the present."

From Woodbine1882:
"Distress. Existential, metaphysical, planetary. If our time resonates with that of other civilizations in the process of collapsing, we have to also note that the collapse we are experiencing is so much worse than that of say ancient Rome. Whereas the inhabitants of these eras witnessed and aided in the passing away of a certain order to the world, the catastrophe we live today is not just a crisis of a world, but of the world.The extent of what we face, as we watch species, languages, and coastlines disappear before our eyes, while we watch ourselves disappear a little more and more with every selfie, is a devastation so total, so encompassing, that we can literally say we have utterly lost the world. Unlike us, the Romans could probably know that even if the structuring, knowledge-giving ground of the empire, or the gods, wouldn’t be there, the literal ground they walked on would in fact still be there. We can’t really say the same."
"Faced with the catastrophe, there are those who get indignant, those who take note, and those who get organized. History depends on those who get organized. Revolution is not a moment in the future; it’s a line we trace in the present." - Woodbine1882


When The Levee Breaks

The levee is not the only thing about to break. 'Time' is the Michael Jordan of catastrophic catalytics. This heat trap of clusterfukk is going down.

 "Crying won't help you, praying won't do you no good..."

"When The Levee Breaks"
Written by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy
Based on Led Zeppelin's version.

Performed by Zepparella

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