“Sensing is not ruled by the ‘I think’ which, according to Kant, must accompany all apperception. In sensing, nothing is apperceived. The sensing being, the animal, does not confront its world as a thinking being, but is, rather, related to it simply in uniting and separating.” (Erwin Straus, The Primary World of Senses: A Vindication of Sensory Experience, trans. Jacob Needleman, 1963: 197)
“Language scatters the totality of all that touches us most closely even while it arranges it in order. Through language, we can never grasp what matters to us for it eludes us in the form of interdependent propositions, and no central whole to which each of these can be referred ever appears” (Bataille, Eroticism, 1986: 274).
"You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions." (Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes, 2007: 1)Arran James has responded (here) to my last post (here) with a generous exploration of the thesis that ‘absolute withdrawal’ is a feature of epistemic relations (hermeneutics) only and not of structural relations (material affectivity) of objects generally. In short, objects are absolutely autonomous of our conception of them. Objects are never equivalent to our perceptions, interpretations, or stories. Yet, however accurate such a claim may be, it also remains the case that many objects can and do encounter – affect, influence, absorb, activate, dissolve, empower, etc., – each other directly in structurally efficacious ways beyond or at least ‘below’ conceptuality. This is the crux of my divergence with object-oriented ontologies (OOO) [see here for more detail].
Now one might be inclined to wonder if I am setting up a kind of unnecessary dualism here by distinguishing between structural encounters and epistemic encounters? That is a fair question. To be sure, I am supporting a kind of weak version of the classical distinction between "the sensible" and "the intelligible". But I am NOT suggesting that ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are different substances. They are not. What I am suggesting is that there are different kinds of interactions taking place at different levels of complex materiality (strata). Which is to say material affectivity and structural relation occur at different levels and in different ways than epistemic relations that are often independent of processes of apprehension, signification and "translation".
Without a doubt embodied cognition (which in my usage includes both emotion and logical operations, in mingling proportions as per neuro-anatomy) involves recursion and includes projective subjectivity (‘qualia’) – what I refer to as the phastasmic character of experience, and what Lacan refers to as 'the imaginal’ – not present in less complex objects. Not all material assemblages/structures are capable of mental operations (“mind”) because cognitive activities/powers involve distinctly emergent capacities irreducible to less complex physical processes. Such recursive-phantasmic capabilities (powers) are specific to entities with central nervous systems, and are what affords animals an emergent capacaity for iconic/symbolic signification and epistemic memory. And he biological capacities for recursion, memory, signification and synthetic apprehension (or animal coding) are precisely what allows for what I refer to above as epistemic relations. We experience and imagine; we sense and we code. It is the activity of signifying, apprehending and relating to the world via epistemic coding which remains ‘absolutely withdrawn’ from other entities.
So I certainly agree with Heidegger, Harman, Morton and others when they suggest that objects are never equivalent to our animal interpretations and conceptions. The crucial point with regard to my disagreement with OOO is that embodied human thought as an onto-specific capacity is deployed and operates differently in the world than how, say, dynamite works in relation granite. Non-signifying objects (such as dynamite) often interact with other objects (like granite) in ways that make a structural difference to their material composition below the level of explicit cognitive acts. There are different kinds of entities which enfold different levels of organization, activity and relation, and these differences make all the difference. [see here for more detail]
By this I do not suggest some sort of naïve ‘billiard-ball’ causation where pure substances rub up against each other, but rather that certain types of assemblages/objects relate in ways that directly influence the operational character or functional arrangement (structure) of others through the exchange of information and energy. Causality is never simple or unmediated but always complex and precarious. And so the sorts of interactions (events) that take place between entities are entirely contingent upon the kinds of entities involved - relative to their material and onto-specific capacities. ‘Withdrawal’ at a non-cognitive and pre-reflective level of materiality is then an issue of structural access via complexity (or ‘depth’) and material composition as opposed to an issue of epistemic access within representational thought.
I must admit at this point that my awareness of the problematics of epistemic access/relation is precisely why I enjoy Tim Morton’s project as much as I do. Tim is brilliant at pointing out the alienation, epistemic problems and associated existential anxieties generated by the inability of humans to come to grips with the gap between our apprehension/interpretations and the things-in-themselves (cf. Derrida on undecidability). Morton’s “dark ecology” offers a way forward to begin to thematize (rationalize?) this epistemic gap while simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically activating an uncanny appreciation for the structural intimacy of the world, or of what he calls ‘the Mesh’. I will certainly have much more to say in the coming months about the possibilities Tim is setting forth in his recent work, but I just wanted to acknowledge here the profound influence Tim’s work continues to have on me in this regard.
With that said, let me return to some of the wonderful points Arran brings up in his post. Arran writes:
Michael rejects the idea that objects are absolutely withdrawn from one. Instead, Michael suggests that all objects are ontically open to one another in such a way as to establish an ‘intimacy’. This would also be the grounds of possibility for the intelligibility of alterity: how could we speak of alterity if things never encountered one another at all? The point is that if objects were absolutely withdrawn they would recede from any point of access whatsoever. In such a world no thing could ever be touched, held, burnt, used, left, ignored, known etc.I don’t know if I have ever stated it quite that way but Arran is correct, I maintain that some kind of access, namely structural access/relation, is required as “the grounds of possibility for the intelligibility of alterity”. This doesn’t mean that we can come to total knowledge of any particular entities, because, as I argue above, epistemic closure is impossible, but that through the various structural (complex and multi-leveled) relations with things we can at the very least gain some intimacy with them by phantasizing symbolically and communicating with each other about them. Without structural access/relation alterity would be unintelligibility and epistemic coding impossible.
This is precisely where my pragmatic commitments come to the fore. If humans can only have structural access to things-in-themselves, and only ever fashion approximate knowledge of objects and assemblages through signification practices and epistemic phantasies, then what actually matters is how we pragmatically act, react and cope in the world in relation to them. Insert all the references to Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ and ‘family resemblances’, Rorty’s ‘ironism’, and/or any other post-critical concessions you want right here. The bottom-line is that immanent structural – or perhaps infrastructural – relations have traceable consequences via the onto-specific powers or potencies (or what Bryant refers to as ‘pluri-potencies’) of things at a pre-reflective level of direct material-energetic affectivity. And the distal stories (narratives, ontologies, etc.) we tell ourselves about these consequential interactions – however poetic or meaning-full, or instrumental (useful) they may be – are basically coping mechanisms to help us make our way in the wild world as fully enfleshed beings-in-the-world.
In a passionate and radically illustrative passage Arran writes:
Absolute withdrawal is a thesis of absolute autonomy of every substance from every other substance to the point where all and every thing vanishes. But that isn’t the world we live in. We live in a world of violence and suffering, of bullets and bombs, of fast food and big screen TVs, of kissing lovers, and 4 year old boys who refuse to let you write blog posts. We live in a world where we’ve gathered a fair bit of knowledge. Hard knowledge garnered from natural science. In other words, it seems that the claim that objects are absolutely withdrawn is false.There is no way I could provide a better account than Arran has above. I believe ontographic rigor insists that we respect the power and interdependencies of the things-themselves. When we respect the things-in-themselves we give to them what is theirs but not more: we respect their contingent existence and finitude, and we acknowledge their ontic particularity and irreducible complexity, but we also appreciate their dependencies and the affordances they require to exist. So in this context anthropomorphizing the cosmos by projecting cognitive capacities onto pre-cognitive processes is a failure of ontographic imagination. We simply should not insist that every entity operates according to our all too human metaphysical proclivities. Instead, hominid ontography insists that we attempt to code our formal relations with entities in ways most consistent with what each thing or assemblage can do structurally via their powers and capacities, and with the networks or ecologies which support and co-enact them.
As a psychiatric nurse I know that such a claim is false. I use drugs synthesised by psychopharmacologists that, once injected into the flesh, directly do things to the patient’s nervous system. Conversation and phenomenographic accounts of patient experience also relate how this can profoundly alter the way patients couple to their environments. This leads to the enaction of profoundly different worlds. Thinking on such an example is illustrative. I can only do my job because people have had direct if partial access to things. I can only do my job because other things have direct access to still more things. The generation of and radical difference between my experience of an episode of medication administration and my patient’s is only possible because of the specific ways in which we and the things involved in that situation are open to each other. That openness constitutes the kind of intimacy that provides us with experiential evidence of the impossibility of absolute withdrawal. Instead, situations or worlds are produced by the unique ensemble of interoperating operations of uniquely relating substances.
[[ to be continued ]]