12.5.10

Critical Aggressions

It seems I have been pegged correctly by another PhD. Levi Bryant from Larval Subjects has responded to a recent comment I made in relation to Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) on Adrian Ivakhiv’s site Immanence. Levi writes,
I’ve often found Michael to be rather belligerent, combative, and disdainful in his questions, so I seldom respond to him, but while I have little interest in entering into dialogue with Michael (everything seems to be a fight or about tearing things down with him), I do think his question raises an important point that might be on the mind of other readers.
 My only response is that he is right. I am often combative, frequently disdainful and I do have a tendency to want to tear things down. I would argue, though, that I’m rarely belligerent - especially towards Levi’s work (or OOO generally) if only because I admire it so. If I thought OOO was rubbish I would simply pass over it and move on to something else. Instead, I read everything Levi offers up and most of what the other members of the OOO tribe post on their blogs. So, if his criticism of my approach is coming from a perspective that seeks to eliminate (or at least point out) barriers to communication - and in this case quasi-academic communication - I plead guilty and sincerely apologize to Levi for any past offences.

Part of my problem (and it is my problem) is that I hold critique as too valuable, and as a result often begin pulling apart ideas I encounter rather than allowing them to peculate and settle. I’m too hasty. The proper gentlemanly thing to do would be to approach carefully and thoughtfully, and get to know a set of ideas before jumping in and trying to wrestle with them. And in the case of Levi’s onticology, I may have been less gentlemanly and cautious than what would be expected by the professor. (although I would note that I was reading Larval Subjects serveral months before ever leaving a comment.)

Another part of the problem, in this case, could be that I abhor metaphysics. Any discourse or philosophy that proclaims to have some strong handle on untimate truth is, to me, worthy of being torn asunder and revealed for what it truly is: learned poetics. Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated to the academic world decades ago that all our attempts to delineate the world through philosophical language are inherently limited and utterly implicated in the wider ‘games’ of concrete social life. Thus whatever we say about the real world is fundamentally tentative and constructed.

Through my own investigations in the world I have also come to believe that many of the intellectual projects supported by industrial society have become superfluous to the more primal and necessary project of human flourishing and becoming. We have designed amazing tools for understanding (science generally speaking) and coping (technics) in the world, yet we squander our innovations by orienting our productive activities towards product creation, consumption and the proliferation of superficial differences. So too with philosophy: we are affluent enough to create fantastic institutions of learning and research, yet we pay intellectuals to debate endlessly about the minutia of irrelevant arguments and/or create superfluous theories on which to build careers. Footnotes to Plato indeed!

For me, instead, a radically immanent philosophy takes a definitively pragmatic stance on the world of objects and relations, and enters headlong into direct confrontations with the concrete entities, structures, assemblages and social systems that shape our everyday manifest reality. This is not to say that I reject all intellectualization, because one quick sweep through this blog will show that I’m in love with ideas and often seduced by theory. Yet, in everything I do, say or write my attention has been towards praxis: the practical application of ideas and discourse towards political engagement, social justice and individual development.

What I do mean to say, however, is that both epistemological and ontological questions - e.g., questions about ‘how’ we know and ‘what’ we know - are practical rather than metaphysical issues. And although theory is important to both research and practice, at some point the internal coherence of any particular professor’s model/system becomes ridiculously irrelevant to the work that needs to be done within the social field more generally.

My style of engagement, albeit crude and sometimes less than congenial, reflects an impatience with spending time with the extrapolation of anyone’s personal ideology/model and is pointedly more interested in cultivating or extracting what I interpret to be the most useful ideas, kinds of reasoning and concepts within that particular discourse, or set of discourses. It simply just doesn't occur to me to want to collect and reify any individual theory or fashionable philosophical position. Therefore, and returning to the issue of my aggressive tendencies towards Levi’s work, any theory or philosophy worth my attention (which OOO certainly is) is also worthy of being deconstructed and held to mirror of practical significance.

All that said, I’m still deeply saddened by the prospect that my approach may end up preventing fruitful dialogue with Levi (and his brethren) about object-oriented thinking, and would only ask that before they consign themselves to slamming the door shut on my input that they also take the time to consider (perhaps in light of what I said above and not in spite of it) that if I truly thought for one moment that WHAT they were talking about and thinking about was wholly irrelevant and unimportant would I be so willing to critique it?

next I will turn to the strictly philosophical issues Levi raises in his response to my comments made on Adrian’s blog. I think Levi makes some great points, and, as will hopefully become clear, I am in agreement with most of what he writes. ]

13 comments:

Jeremy Trombley said...

I'm with you, Michael. I stay out of metaphysical discussions because 1) I don't think I have anything worthwhile to contribute 2) because I'm too preoccupied with the practical matters that you mention - though I do recognize the practicality of ontology and epistemology as you say - and 3) because it all ends up being meaningless anyway. Not meaningless in the sense of having no value - I think the discussion is fascinating and extremely valuable - but in Wittgenstein's sense of being untestable.

Empirically speaking all this discussion amounts to words on a screen - very important words, but words nonetheless. No-one can prove to me through words that the world is made up of objects or of process-relations, and, as physicists have known for a hundred years or more, there are very concrete limits to our ability to know the world. Anything beyond that is mere speculation. Any ontology or metaphysics should be humbled by those epistemological limits, even if it refuses to be defined by them.

Levi says that ontology should be "first philosophy." Maybe it would be better to understand the ways in which ontology and epistemology are entangled.

michael~ said...

Well said Jeremy.

I think you are exactly right. Philosophical discussions about the universe can only take us so far – the real significance of our speculations is borne out in our engagements.

As I will argue in a future post, I think there is a way we can move the whole issue of speculative thinking and engagement forward: we can consciously develop what I would call “post-metaphysical ontology”. In brief, such a practice/discourse would anchor its speculative activities in a rigorous multi-methodological orientation.

How is this different than science someone might ask? Well, science, for the most part, deals with material properties (or what I am calling ‘tangible’), whereas the more symbolic (and ‘intangible’) aspects of the world call for a more hermeneutical or interpretive science.

Well then how is this different than the social science or humanities the critic might rejoin? And I would respond by saying that it’s not a matter of differentiating where or how a post-metaphysical ontological project is different than the sciences or the humanities, it is about recognizing how all those different disciplines and programmes have something important to say and then weaving their respective data and insights into a series or multiplicity of mutually approachable narratives with which to debate, refine and apply viz. institutional efforts towards planetary sustainability.

Post-Metaphysical Ontologies (PMOs?)are synthetic projects grounded in a multi-methodological praxis and oriented towards more practical, creative and adaptive conversations.

My position in reference to object-oriented thinking and its anti-correlationist attitude in general is just as you so clearly say: there are concrete (and I would say biological) limits – which paradoxically are also affordances - to our ability, or power, or capacity to know the world, and therefore any philosophy that explains away, or glosses over, or logically dismisses this fact will be less than adequate.

You write, “…as physicists have known for a hundred years or more, there are very concrete limits to our ability to know the world. Anything beyond that is mere speculation. Any ontology or metaphysics should be humbled by those epistemological limits, even if it refuses to be defined by them. Levi says that ontology should be ‘first philosophy.’ Maybe it would be better to understand the ways in which ontology and epistemology are entangled.”

And it is exactly this issue of 'entanglement' where the real theoretical work needs to be done, in my opinion.

skholiast said...

Michael, I've been troubled by the epistemology/ontology question as regards the speculative realists for a long while, and it was very eerie to find your remark (via Larval Subjects) just after writing a blog post on it... Of course, you were lot more succinct that I was. I second (or is it third now?) Jeremy's point (it's weird, he's the first person I quoted in the post) that "the ways in which ontology and epistemology are entangled" are the most interesting question. But this is liable to always be critiqued as "correlationism," so the challenge is to articulate this entanglement in a way that either rebuts this charge or makes it uninteresting.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Wow, I'm being quoted now! Better watch what I say. :)

I like it, Michael. I look forward to reading your upcoming post on the issue.

michael~ said...

Hey S,

You write, "...so the challenge is to articulate this entanglement in a way that either rebuts this charge or makes it uninteresting."

I couldn't agree more.

There has got to be a way forward here. I understand and I am very sympathetic to the anti-correlationist argument, if only because experience and science (which is a technological extension of human experience) prompts us to believe that objects are indeed independent of our perceptions of them.

But how do we reconcile these two facts philosophically: 1) that we can only ever know the world through our embodied perception of it, and therefore everything we will ever say about the world will be relative the situatedness of our knowing, and 2) everything that we experience as embodied beings indicates that the world is full of relatively independent and enduring objects?

Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, in my thinking, have provided part of the way forward, and Richard Rorty and John Searle have offered very cogent arguments on how to deal intellectually with such facts, whereas Foucault and Boudieu have, for me, provided strategies for some of the more complex practical implications – however, finally, ethnography and anthropological research are for me the best available means to begin understanding how all of this plays out in the Real world.

At least, as a very superficial sketch, that is where I'm coming from...

cheers~

michael~ said...

And just so everyone is aware I will be posting much more on this topic in the future and would love your feedback!

michael~ said...

S,

I just read your post, “Outflanking Parmenides: epistemology, ontology, pragmatism”. That was about as lucid a summary as we are gonna find about the major issues related to this “debate”. Anyone who is reading these comments or is stimulated by the debate flowing from Larval Subjects et al. must go read that this post. (go do that now).

m-

skholiast said...

Michael,

thanks kindly for the shout-out.
My own instincts seem close to yours-- I tend to put my faith in practices. (even, as I wrote on SCT, 'pseudo-practices'). A degree of paradox arises, as "practice" as a word becomes, well, theoretical.

I am strongly attracted by the language you use for your notion of 'post-metaphysical ontologies'--- "synthetic projects grounded in a multi-methodological praxis". While I'm a bit wary of all things 'post-', I am very sympathetic to methodological pluralism. At the same time, I'm very uncharmed by the relativism that often goes along with this. I am attracted to speculative realism because it dares to question today's nigh-axiomatic relativism, but (aside from being dispositionally suspicious of trends, which is just a personality flaw masquerading as discernment) I am unsure of how it (spec. rlism) can address the "limits" you and Jeremy both refer to. My own thinking on this is informed by a somewhat idiosyncratic reading of Wittgenstein (e.g. "the limits of my language means the limits of my world", Tractatus 5.6), and I am less sanguine than jeremy seems to be about what science per se (e.g. physics) has to say about it; the latter conclusions (i.e., heisenbergian uncertainty, quantum indeterminacy, etc) are always revisable, but in philosophy, nothing is ever definitively refuted.

And yet, the real limit is always-- what are we going to do? (Lenin, for instance).

michael~ said...

SCHOLIAST: My own instincts seem close to yours-- I tend to put my faith in practices. (even, as I wrote on SCT, 'pseudo-practices'). A degree of paradox arises, as "practice" as a word becomes, well, theoretical.

MICHAEL: As a word it certainly does, but as a non-linguistic causal event – or instantiated act, behavior or occasion – practice overflows our translations or interpretations of it. The holocaust, for example, was felt on the skin of the people who lived it outside of any of our pretensions to morning it or morally condemning such practices. I like to think of human kinds of practice as ‘engagements’. Still, as you indicate, it remains that we should be careful even with such seemingly objective issues. This is why I like the ancient term and connotations of praxis instead of practice per se. Praxis is sticky enough of a term to include theory as act as well as practice as event in my thinking.

SCHOLIAST: I am strongly attracted by the language you use for your notion of 'post-metaphysical ontologies'--- "synthetic projects grounded in a multi-methodological praxis". While I'm a bit wary of all things 'post-', I am very sympathetic to methodological pluralism.

MICHAEL: Thanks, but I’m still developing my language and struggling with a vocabulary that can be accessible and still rigorous enough to remain both relevant and progressive.

I’m no big fan of all things “post” either, but I think the way ‘post’ operates for me is in signifying ‘that which acknowledges, accepts and moved forward’ (evolves beyond?) as opposed to simply ‘that which comes after’. For example, ‘post-modernism’ for me is about honoring the insights of modernity (scientific methods, technological rationality, respect for the individual) while jettisoning the errors it generated (enthnocentrism, industrial modes of existing, crude materialism) and then developing an eclectic, ethical and, most importantly, adaptive set of perspectives and practices with which to make our way in the world.

My epistemological attitude is thoroughly participatory and evolutionary – but in a strong non-teleological sense. I would even go so far as to advocate an almost epistemological anarchism coinciding with a rigorous methodological pluralism.

michael~ said...

SCHOLIAST: At the same time, I'm very uncharmed by the relativism that often goes along with this. I am attracted to speculative realism because it dares to question today's nigh-axiomatic relativism, but (aside from being dispositionally suspicious of trends, which is just a personality flaw masquerading as discernment) I am unsure of how it (spec. rlism) can address the "limits" you and Jeremy both refer to.

MICHAEL: I don’t want to preempt my own writing on this topic (as I will be posting something on this very issue either tonight or tomorrow), but I will agree with you that relativism, at least as it has been superficially presented, is truly a dead end. I’d rather us be thinking/talking about some sort of post-critical ‘perspectivalism’, where the situatedness of epistemic claims is seen as a virtue and explored deeper rather than viewed as some sort of pariah.

SCHOLIAST: My own thinking on this is informed by a somewhat idiosyncratic reading of Wittgenstein (e.g. "the limits of my language means the limits of my world", Tractatus 5.6), and I am less sanguine than jeremy seems to be about what science per se (e.g. physics) has to say about it; the latter conclusions (i.e., heisenbergian uncertainty, quantum indeterminacy, etc) are always revisable, but in philosophy, nothing is ever definitively refuted.

MICHAEL: So true. I think that philosophy should embrace what Derrida called ‘undecidability’, and what you note about Wittgenstein saying about the limits of language games, in all its practices and mannerisms. Philosophy, to me, should be about seeking human flourishing through ethics (justice) and deep praxis (sustainability) – as “wisdom”.

Personally, like Jeremy, I think science as method generally has much to say about the manner in which we primates come to know the world, and about the world of-itself. Although I’m still working out how committed I am to this belief.

SCHOLIAST: And yet, the real limit is always-- what are we going to do? (Lenin, for instance)

MICHAEL: Exactly. Pragmatic concerns always trump the theoretical issues in my opinion. Hypothetically we could articulate the most eloquent, logical and beautifully reasoned philosophy the world is ever know, but still live in a world filled with racism, child molestation, meth addicts, bankers, tar sands, and Dick Cheney. If a so-called thinker’s model doesn’t directly and practically speak to obliterating those kinds of “objects” in that kind of world then, at least for me, they have wasted the paper it was printed on. What is to be done indeed.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Just to clarify, I'm not wholly uncritical of science. I just think that, if you're going to talk about the way scientists think about what they do (as Levi does in his post), then you ought to recognize the limits that they themselves recognize. And, as people who have run into the limits of knowledge time and time again, I think we should pay attention to how they've dealt with those limits in the past, which is generally to focus on the practical and empirical aspects, as all three of us have thus far mentioned. That's not to say that we have to accept their approach as the best or only one, just that we can learn something from what they've done.

I draw primarily from Bateson, who of course draws from his own set of philosophers (Whitehead, most notably). But I'm not a philosopher myself, so I generally get lost in all the Kants, Humes, Badious, Hegels, Husserls, etc. I can't articulate my own philosophy very well and I don't know how it would stand up to genuine philosophical critique, so my comments here and on Skholiast's blog are as far down the philosopher's road I'm willing to travel.

skholiast said...

Michael,

an enormous amount here, though I will wait til your post, which I look forward to, before I respond in depth. At this point, I could only nod in agreement, except to finesse some points. These might of course hide more substantive disagreements (e.g. I might be more open to teleology than you, albeit as a matter of faith or hope) but such places are always (at the risk of sounding a trifle flaky) where the growth happens anyway. For now though I'll say that I see your point about 'post-'; as to relativism, there's a truth there too, but of course this means that 'naive relativism' won't do, any more than 'naive realism'. I must say though that I'm a little suspicious of claims to having done with naivete. It seems like putting our hand atop our own head and saying, My, how we've grown! (But I'm aware that I'm the one who introduced the term 'naive', so don't think I'm pointing fingers here).

To Jeremy, I'd add that I'm a fan of Bateson. But if you get lost with the philosophers, what other anthropologists do you find helpful in this context?

michael~ said...

@J,

Point taken, and I certainly agree.

@S,

I hope to learn more about how our positions might differ, and look forward to seeing how we can mutate any such disagreements in some form of mutual understanding.

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