18.5.10

Situated Knowing and the Visceral Encounter


Recently, I have been following with great interest the debate between philosophers Adrian Avakhiv, Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, Chistopher Vitale and Steven Shivro (and others) on the metaphysical and ontological distinctions between ‘objects’ and ‘relations’. Are objects composed of their internal or external relations, or are real objects some how radically other than any relations they might enter into? Alternatively, are relations primarily what happens between objects (broadly defined), or are relations a result of objects interacting viz. space-time? Or none of the above?

These are questions that arise in thinking about the fundamental nature of reality – what the Western intellectual tradition calls metaphysics, or more specifically ontology. Avakhiv, Bryant, Shaviro and company have provided interested readers with a fascinating exchange of ideas and positions – each offering glimpses into their respective ontologies and metaphysical commitments. Such clashes and exchanges provide ample intellectual sustenance for those eager (or crazy?) enough to follow along. Even those of us who have never committed ourselves to any definitive position end up, at least in my case, left feeling more inclined do so.

Now I will suspend my judgment for the time being on the merits, abuses or otherwise of professional philosophy (and academic theory more generally) and instead simply say that I sincerely believe that what is at stake in thinking and discussing these fundamental questions is nothing less than our ability to effectively address the challenge faced by every generation of thinking individuals: that is, how do we adequately and creatively think the world as it is presented and disclosed to us through our living it in the here and now?

Uniquely evolved to create elaborate systems of discourse and communication our species inevitably seeks to understand the world at large and our place in it. We live and we love, we rebel against convention or rally around tradition, but whatever else we do, we are continually called upon by material circumstance and our social realities to find meaning in our contemporary conditions. Intellectuals, families, artists, religious authorities, musicians, novelists, filmmakers, etc. all contribute to this collective process of meaning-making through narratives and stories, ‘conversations’ and institutions - each effectively helping to frame and reframe the dynamics and events that provide the texture and tone our individual and collective lives. And this generation is no different. We too must use the means available to us in order to weave together meaningful understandings and relevant engagements in the world.

However, the people alive during this young millennium seem to be both blessed and cursed in that our challenge appears significantly greater. Not only do we face grave personal, ecological and political challenges, but we also live an age where all the ‘grand narratives’ or overarching stories with which to make sense of such challenges, and therefore deal with them, have become untenable.

All the ideologies, dogmas and doctrines that have animated the imaginations of generations past have collapsed in a self-defeating critical consciousness of doubt and relativity. To be sure, the old stories persist among those of us either unwilling to face the consequences of what our brightest and most educated minds have to say, or are too entangled in the mesh and mangle of daily life to care. But for those of us reckless enough to take the skeptics path, or to have time enough to listen to the astonishing lessons of our scientists as well as our poets, our world remains open and tentative.

So, then, what of objects and relations, or objects and the relations they enter into, or of the relations that generate objects? How are we to begin to make sense of such questions without already fashioned narratives or maps handed down to us with which to proceed?

For centuries the most inquisitive thinkers have offered their own suggestions on how to proceed towards understanding the world. From Pythagorasmystical intuition, Plato’s allegory of the cave and Popper's falsification, to the Taoist’sun-knowing’, Najarjuna’s negations, Ramakrishna's rapture or Aurobindo’s integrations, we now have a virtual cornucopia of ways to approach reality and seek Truth. But, again, these methods and approaches have also been swept away be the unrelenting force of the critical thought and contemporary technorational experience. 

For me, however, those critics and commentators who either rightly posit the inescapably untenability of all claims to certain knowledge, or point out the limited but reliable knowledge we already possess, miss an even more fundamental insight about the human condition: that all attempts to ground human knowledge, East and West, ancient and post-modern, inevitable lead down a path that returns us right back to brute facts our very own existence. That is to say, all human knowledge becomes anchored in the reality and actuality of our being. And as we become cognizant of the primacy of this self-reflexive return we are compelled to go even deeper and begin investigating the fundamental properties of our all too human experience.

This type of inquiry has gone by different monikers over the years - as phenomenology in the west, known as Dhyāna (ध्यान) in the Sanskrit traditions, or jhāna (झन) in Pāli canon. But regardless of what label we give them, all our inquiries into reality begin in the raw experience of being alive in the world. And, contrary to the influential doctrine of Rene Descartes, a founding contributor to western philosophy and science - which argues the only thing we could truly be certain about is that we have minds with which to think (this is Descartes' famous cogito, ergo sum) - an intense and thorough attentiveness to the experiential quality of our own immediate awareness reveals that it is the more general and distributed  non-linguistic experience of our lived bodies in which the world becomes present. Rather than thinking the origins of human knowledge into existence, as so many rationalists and idealists have assumed, we feel the world directly. Indeed, how else do we encounter the world if not through our very own embodied experience?!

It is only after we feel, experience and encounter ourselves in the world that we then begin to translate and rationalize, or make meaning out of, such encounters. This most basic confrontation with the world I call ‘the visceral encounter’ - and it is radically self-evident in a way that simultaneously preempts, but also occasions, any possible theoretical translation of it. The visceral encounter is, for me, the undeniable nexus – or what the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty called “the chiasm” - where world and experience meet and where meaning and consequence are actually generated.

Going further, if it is through our embodied and perceptual encounters with the world that the world itself becomes available to us then such encounters must also be the basis for any attempt to understand the limits and efficacy of human knowledge. Because without this primordial contact with the world, and the resultant sensations of difference generated between ourselves as perceiving-beings and some relatively separated ‘other’, there would be nothing at all of which to come to knowledge of.

In the west, this search for the conditions and limits of knowledge has, for centuries, been called epistemology. However, if it is through our visceral encounters with the world that we enact the very conditions and possibilities for differentiated experience and knowledge, then epistemology (questions about how we know) and ontology (questions about what we know) are revealed to be fundamentally intertwined.

To be sure, this is no mere tautaology or conflation - but instead the only authentic way of describing the primordial embeddeness of all embodied human action and awareness. It is in the intensive interplay of our visceral embodiments and contact with the immediate multiplicity of the world that all subsequent encounters and interactions become immanently situated. Human knowledge and action, perception and expression are thus two inseparable aspects of a more fundamental process of being and becoming that situates all human activity within a perpetually disclosed horizon of lived awareness and intimately encountered material, biological and differential field of being. Therefore, as a direct result of this entangled simultaneity of embeddedness and embodiment, the task of thinking thus becomes radically more practical and creative.

I will explore the wider implications of this radical and immanent orientation towards being, becoming and knowing in a future post, but for now I want the notion of entanglement and embodiment to act as a platform from which I will build a more general critical commentary on Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). There is indeed much more to be said about the nature and implications of ‘situated knowledge' and radical entanglement, but for the purposes of this rudimentary sketch I will leave these issues only partially articulated and continue to move forward.

At this point, an attentive reader might be asking themselves why I’m rambling on about entanglements and embeddedness when I had started this post with a gesture towards a discussion about actual objects and relations? Hopefully the reader has so far allowed for this extended preamble and continued to read this post because it has become increasingly apparent that for me to say anything meaningful and committed about objects and relations I would first have to make transparent HOW it is that I can possibly arrive at any particular conclusion.

In fact, for me, at this point in the discussion it is of crucial importance to jettison traditional understandings of epitemological and ontological issues in order to avoid the complicated mess that follows from such impoverished and simplistic conceptual distinctions. Questions about ‘how we know’ and ‘what we know’ are only relevant after the more fundamental realization that all such questions are asked and answered by deeply embodied and situated beings whose primary task in existence is not to theorize and gain some ultimate knowledge of things, but to survive, cope and find our way in a very real and consequential world. That is to say, from an immanent perspective, questions about knowing, relating and being are primarily practical issues, rather than philosophical or metaphysical issues - and only ever truly understood through our lived encounters with the myriad of empirical details, dynamic flows, intricate networks, dialogical communications and material relations at play within the general matrix of existence.

The primacy of the visceral encounter, with all its fleshy entailments of animal intentionally and necessity, is quite literally prior to any socially articulated and linguistic framing assumptions about the world. The visceral encounter leads us into the wilderness of actuality, contingency and difference within which we must first dwell, become and adapt. Only by acknowledging these fundamental realities can we then begin to elaborate abstract theories and meaningful narratives about how the real world unfolds.

Yet there are further complications. Far from being a variety of “naïve realism”, the conception of situated practical knowledge and human emdeddedness I have so far been arguing for in this post refuses to take our various encounters with the world for granted. In fact, contra to whole generations of theorists, all those variously encountered entities, monstrosities, intricacies and ecologies need not fit any of our conceptions of them - as there is no human logical necessity that cannot be undone by them. The conditions and possibility of knowledge emerge directly out of our visceral encounters in the world, but our translation and articulation of those encounters remain open and tentative.

To be clear, the position argued in this post does not perpetuate the errors of those who would naively believe humans can attain complete and perfect knowledge of the world and its contents, nor does it support the delusions and arrogance of those who might assert that our signifiers or representations actually create the world we experience. The world overflows the horizons of our experience  – and in doing so overflows both our ability to fully comprehend it and our williness to deny it.

But, as I will argue in my next post, the immediate abundance and reality of the experienced world does not require any such ultimate explanations. In fact it is this ‘immediate abundance’ of the world of objects, relations, dynamic conjunctions and immanent dissolutions that explodes the false boundaries between epistemology and ontology – while perpetually requiring us to remain open and flexible to the derivative meanings, embodied associations and practical opportunities evolving out of our primitive necessities and raw experience of ‘being-in-the world’ (as Heidegger called it). That is to say, the task of human thinking beyond the limits and tools of experience remains speculative – but pragmatically so.

Let me, then, stop here for the moment and leave the deeper pragmatic dimensions of embedded and embodied speculation to be addressed in a future post, because in this initial discussion my intention was to foreground my own epistemological commitments and orientation towards being in order to make clear the context from which subsequent arguments and positions will follow.

Part 2 will move on to directly address some of the issues recently brought up by Levi Bryant with regards to some hasty remarks I made about OOO generally. In asserting what I perceive as OOO’s “crypto-anti-epistemological attitude” I provoked Levi's defence of OOO's project and prompted him to outline some of the nuances of the OOO position. I hope to outline my own differences and disagreements with OOO thinking by responding to some of Bryant's comments direcly while also splicing relevant and insightful remarks made by Ivakhiv, Vitale and Shavrio on the issues related to understanding real-world objects and relations.

Parts 3 will then pick up more intensely on the discussion of objects and relations (and object-oriented positions compared to relational-oriented positions) and part 4 will then gather the loose threads of the previous 3 posts in order to present a tentative and strait-forward set of coneptual tools to begin moving towards a post-critical realist ontology. Fleshing out this 'tool-kit' into a full-fledged theoretical orientation will then be the focus of subsequent posts in the series.

My core intention in pursuing these topics and chains of reasoning over the next couple months is to engage recent innovations in contemporary philosophy and begin delineating more clearly my own theoretical positions and assumptions. To be clear, I am not a philosopher by training and have a limited knowledge of the more extensive academic literature in circulation. I am more of a general theorist who is working out a very idiosyncratic philosophical orientation that owes as much to the anthropological tradition and personal relfection than to any particular set of theories or ideas. My intention here, however, is to allow the words and insightful positions of professional philsophers such as Adrian Ivakhiv, Levi Bryant, Steven Shaviro, Chris Vitale and others to fertilize and stimulate my own feral philosophy and strain of 'speculative realism'.

It is my hope that readers will either find these next few posts stimulating and engage in some productive dialogue, or will simply bear with me while I work these issues out and then quickly return to more readerly and mainstream blogging. All comments are welcome.

[note to the reader: trying to pack all the needed qualifications and nuances in a blog post is extremely difficult without ridiculously increasing the amount of words. given enough space and time this post would have been developed using much less convulted terminology and sentences. therefore i apologize for terse and hurried character of the prose, and will seek to improve presentation as the series develops. thanks.]

5 comments:

Jeremy Trombley said...

Michael, this post makes apparent some of my own concerns about epistemology in a way that I hadn't really thought before. As I read this, rather than looking for what it is we (as anthropologists at least, but as humans in general as well) think we do (grand narratives, complex theory, etc.), you're interested in what it is we actually do. This interpretation/translation on my part is framed within certain things I've been thinking about recently with regard to my upcoming project in Nevada. What is it we actually do when we, for example, evaluate traditional-cultural properties? Beyond that, what can we do, and what should we do? I'm struggling, I guess, with the role of theory in the practice of anthropology. Just a thought - I'll withhold further comment until I've read more of your posts, and had time to digest some of my own thoughts/concerns. I'm looking forward to reading the next posts.

michael~ said...

Jeremy,

You write,

“As I read this, rather than looking for what it is we (as anthropologists at least, but as humans in general as well) think we do (grand narratives, complex theory, etc.), you're interested in what it is we actually do.”

That’s a pretty fair summation. The problem I’m currently having in thinking about all this, however, is how to avoid ‘naïve realism’ without making the common mistake of moving on to a wayward metaphysical realism.

By this I simply mean that I want to take seriously the few valid epistemological concerns that could be raised about our capacity to effectively cognize the world, but while taking embodiment and human experience seriously. I find that most traditional and reworked versions of skepticism or ‘philosophies of access’ posit a priori a special gap between the knower and the know that, they assume, requires explanation or bridging. But this assumption of an ontological gap occasioning an epistemological crisis is simply not warranted through experience.

All sustained and sophisticated explorations of awareness and raw experience – from zazen and vipassana to carnal phenomenology – reveals an immediacy to reality that prefigures the kind of skepticism and doubt exemplified in the philosphy of David Hume. (although Hume is still fantastic for other reasons)

In short, for me, epistemological ‘problems’ are methodological issues, and ontological assertions are issues of description (dare I say ‘thick description’) preformed within and as language games (‘discourses’) by highly cerebral primates making their way, more or less adaptively, in a material world of relational consequence. So what “we actually do” involves the complex interplay of linguistic, imaginal and material realities that can only be navigated through intensive engagement (action) and deliberative (inter-personal) communication.

That is about as authentically and condensed as I could possibly present my view.

But I can also say that whatever it is ‘we think’ we do as anthropologists, capitalists, Buddhists, shamans, prostitutes, politicians or Papua New Guineans, it is infinitely less important than what we do and the consequences our do-ing have for other sentient beings and the sustainability of life in general.

You also write,

“What is it we actually do when we, for example, evaluate traditional-cultural properties? Beyond that, what can we do, and what should we do? I'm struggling, I guess, with the role of theory in the practice of anthropology.”

It’s an important time for you then. I had a similar crisis in grad school which led to me leaving academics to pursue “applied work”. I had quite enough of upper-class white people criticizing other upper-class white people talking about non-white people. Moreover, in a world of Donald Rumsfelds, HIV and genocide, theory becomes more and more like mental masturbation.

But when you ask yourself what good does TCP work do, or what purpose would such activity serve, you are at least being reflexive enough to evaluate your place in the world, among peoples and objects and such, and therefore by virtue of this willingness to evaluate become more capable of bringing whatever skills, knowledge and theory you may have to bear on decidedly practical and ethical issues. The question then becomes what projects will you choose to support or engage and what effects will they have in the short and long runs?

Theory in anthropology, as in any other project or practice, is a cognitive tool-kit with which investigate, evaluate (‘to value and create value’) and engage a world full of practical, ethical and evolutionary consequences. And there are simply no universal answers to these cosmological questions.

ombhurbhuva said...

Michael:
This thing about ontology and epistemology is perfectly intelligible. It has a transcendental aspect to it. The question/aporia is: what are things such that we can know them as they are? The gulf between subject and object as it presents itself seems unbridgable, consciousness on the one hand and the inert object on the other hand. How can that 'thing' come to be inside us in some manner as Aquinas and indeed Shankaracarya (preamble to Brahma Sutra Bhasya) put it? Their ultimate answers are different but they at least were able to put the question about ultimate foundations, to frame the problem. The other aspect to this is how knowledge and ignorance are commingled. Knowledge is open-ended. We know the object as it is; that is the default setting as it were, but the object also escapes our attempt to close it off. This is the Platonic version of realism.

That we can know things as they are; why one may ask is there anything but a prejudice in that assurance? There is an answer to this perhaps in the pre-reflective cogito as Sartre terms it in Being and Nothingness. Much more to be said on this but I await your treatment.

michael~ said...

YOU: This thing about ontology and epistemology is perfectly intelligible. It has a transcendental aspect to it. The question/aporia is: what are things such that we can know them as they are? The gulf between subject and object as it presents itself seems unbridgable, consciousness on the one hand and the inert object on the other hand.

MICHAEL: I agree that the ontology/epistemology division seems intelligible - but I think it is wholly delusional. The metaphysics that underpin such conceptual divisions such as this are, well, just that: metaphysical assumptions. Whether based in a Greek cosmology, Judeo-Christian conceptual legacy of souls v. bodies, Vedic notions of Atman, Samkhya's three elements, or a result of Descartes' writings, or any other philosophical tradition or schema, I simply don't believe that we should create "unbridgeable gulfs" where they don't actually exist. As I argued in the post above, if we open our attention to the raw experience of Being what we 'encounter' is a non-linguistic immediacy which situated us in a real and consequential world. It is this immediacy that makes any conception of a gulf between knower and known merely ideological. A truly honest and empirical investigation in the world reveals the contours of what i call a 'jagged ontological worldspace', or thick ontology, that subsequently unmasks all metaphysics as speculation as such.
Related, it is precisely our faulty assumptions about "consciousness" opposed to "inert matter" that obscure our awareness and lead academics down unproductive philosophical paths, and mentally alienate non-academics from their deep ecological heritage.

YOU: How can that 'thing' come to be inside us in some manner as Aquinas and indeed Shankaracarya (preamble to Brahma Sutra Bhasya) put it? Their ultimate answers are different but they at least were able to put the question about ultimate foundations, to frame the problem.

MICHAEL: Framing the problem is essential. But the problem is not one of epistemology versus ontology. The problem is a conceptual insanity (for lack of a better term), or mental confusion based in very old linguistico-semantic systems. The problem is, as Guatama and Shankara both ultimately concluded, that we humans mistake our mental conceptualizations of reality for reality - when, in fact, reality 'speaks' to us through the 'language' of the body and the world. The problem of epistemology vs. ontology, or of the so-called subject-object gap is one of folk-metaphysics and semantics, and decidedly not ontic (real) in nature. 'Thou art that', 'atman is brahman', 'immanence', the 'being of all beings' - all this points towards an unfathomable depth of presence that bridges all gaps while also creating all modification (difference).

michael~ said...

YOU: The other aspect to this is how knowledge and ignorance are commingled. Knowledge is open-ended. We know the object as it is; that is the default setting as it were, but the object also escapes our attempt to close it off. This is the Platonic version of realism.

MICHAEL: I'm no Plato fan, so I'll defer to you in regards to how realistic his positions was, but I like this notion of a 'default position'. John Searle has a great argument that talks about 'the Background' of all knowledge that speaks to a lot of what a default position might entail. I would agree that all knowledge is always also an 'ignorance' in that when we assert something there is always something more we exclude by virtue of our assertion. Language casts a shadow. Language can never complete code or map any reality as such, but can only refer to it. Derrida, for example, was especially astute is his treatment of this issue. And Heidegger, as is well known, said "Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home." (Heidegger, Letter on Humanism). And, for the most part, academic philosophy has produced shoddy guardians thus far in my opinion.

Objects and processes and assemblages and relations and the combinations these produce will continue to "escape" our understandings if we continue to attempt to 'close them off' - or merely speculate and treat the world as a mere object or resource. Instead, it is when we embrace both the open-endedness of language and its creative impetus, and open to the immediacy of our visceral encounters that we will begin to approach the Real in a more authentic and adaptive way.

YOU: That we can know things as they are; why one may ask is there anything but a prejudice in that assurance? There is an answer to this perhaps in the pre-reflective cogito as Sartre terms it in Being and Nothingness. Much more to be said on this but I await your treatment.

MICHAEL: For me, it's more about the fact that we only ever know things as we-humans know them; and our knowing things reveals BOTH how things are 'for us' (relative) AND only somewhat - within certain limits (in a very neo-Kantian sense) - how they are 'in-themselves' (actual). I'll post more on all this later.

Thanks for your thoughts!

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