Saturday, 31 January 2009

Some more thoughts on "carbon chauvinism" & related issues

It feels like time is conspiring against me. I doubt I'll have time to post some stuff I had planned before I take off on Feb 11th; not least clarification of my misgivings about actor network theory (and whether it was possible to draw any inferences from that in regard to speculative realism). All I had time for yesterday was some minor tweaking of the "carbon chauvinism" post. Let's just say for now that the crux of the matter is speculative realism's questioning of the equation: ontology = politics. I am not saying that philosophers such as Harman respond in the same way as actor network theory, but anyone wanting to learn more about ANT's incoherent treatment of these relationships, is advised to read Andrew Feenberg's incisive critique. What I would like to know though, which will require reading his book on Latour, is why Harman was so attracted in the first place to Latour when his shortcomings are so readily apparent? What allowance can be made for these shortcomings without succumbing to the dreaded sin of philosophical cherry picking?

There are a few other things which bother me too. Robert Fine's point in "What's Eating Actor Network Theory?" is well taken (sadly the freely available version has disappeared from the web) when he argues that ANT tends to fluctuate between minute descriptions of the particular and rather abstract generalizations about all networks. So I'm wondering how readily speculative realism equates to the first part (since it in effect renounces networks for the sake of focusing on the "objects themselves") of this description. For example: dust mites, anyone? (if you recall the example used in the link to an article on speculative realism in my "carbon chauvinism" post).

I suppose one possible response to this line of questioning would be remind the sociologist that it is the absence of human mediation that defines the "alien" nature of the entitites falling under the rubric of speculative realism. To be sure, this blog has touched on "alien" modes of theorizing, in posts such as "Some Kind of Monster", which focused on the meeting of deconstruction and systems theory, and in a separate discussion of Kodwo Eshun's More Brilliant Than the Sun. Anyone who spends enough time poking around Harman's blog will soon discover in abundance various links to the likes of Steve Shaviro holding court on H.P. Lovecraft's fiction as providing a touchstone for understanding how the roots of horror can be traced to the "indifference" of "the Ancients" to human endeavours (I'm puzzled though as to why Shaviro would not construct an argument clarifying his position by engaging with other works that touch on comparable concerns, such as, for example, Noel Carroll's Philosophy of Horror). Fascinating to be sure, but how exactly do such fictional works explicate the "realism" of a host of other "objects" more likely to inspire indifference or accusations of triviality on the part of humans, once they garner some inkling of their existence? Once you start to think along these lines, it becomes harder to suppress the feeling that Lovecraft provides a dramatis personae for a field of inquiry where otherwise not a great deal appears to be going on. Moreover, to be logically consistent, no great "discovery" could be permissible, or the philosophy would risk compromising its own "speculative" nature. Such dilemmas remind me of the performative contradiction Adorno was ensnared by when he yearned for the "lost immediacy" of Nature (as chronicled so brilliantly by Steven Vogel in Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory).

Of course, appearances can be deceptive, and my questions are intended to be more exploratory than critical [at this stage]. As per the "carbon chauvinism" post, colonists need have no awareness of xenobiology, from which it would follow that anything they don't already know about, will probably not be considered worthy of space probing and exploration (i.e. it will be treated as trivial, so they will remain indifferent to it). Under such conditions, objects may be able to retain a modicum of autonomy from human intervention. But I was also hinting at how speculative realism could [inadvertently] serve as a sensitising device by which such colonists could develop an awareness of things that may otherwise have escaped their attention. At that point the respective parties would feel obliged to bite the bullet, by making a binding decision about which direction they wanted to go (I regard Robinson's Mars Trilogy as providing a credible template for their available options).

There is a sense therefore in which it seems philosophers could feel justified in accusing me of doing theoretical violence to their work. At best, I might be viewed as arguing at cross purposes with them. Or so it would seem. By contextualising speculative realism via astrosociology, I am actually more interested in reinforcing the social epistemological imperative of epistemic justice. The basic reasoning here is that everyone needs to be held accountable to a higher standard than the intended consequences of their actions/works. I referred to Steve Fuller on previous occasions as his work demonstrates a scepticism about the manner in which the interpretive community of continental philosophers conduct their business in the form of an internal conversation. The implication is that there is something self serving, or at best naive, about the following kinds of statements. Consider then how Alphonso Lingis expounds on the rationales behind philosophical reflection:

"Did not Nietzsche say that philosophy is the most spiritual form of the will to power? ...Philosophy is abstract and universal speech. It is speech that is not clothed, armed, invested with the authority of a particular god, ancestor, or institution, speech that does not program operations and produce results, speech barren and destitute. ...Then what is distinctive about philosophy is not a certain vocabulary and grammar of dead metaphors and empirically unverifiable generalizations. One's own words become philosophy, and not the operative paradigms of a culture of which one is a practitioner, in the measure that the voices of those silenced by one's culture and its practices are heard in them" (Abuses, p. ix, 1994).

A seductive conceit, to be sure, but I remain unconvinced that it has quite succeeded in escaping the problematical aspects of the discipline Lingis mentions in passing (which I've placed in italics.) Adorno, for example, identifies the flip side of the same coin. In Negative Dialectics he is describing the sense in which there can be something fatuous, and even opportunistic, about the reading "method" adopted by those philosophers whose interests wax and wane as if they were a fashion statement:

"No theory escapes the market anymore: each one is offered as a possibility among competing opinions, all are made available, all snapped up. Thought need no more put blinders on itself, in the self-justifying conviction that one's own theory is exempt from this fate, which degenerates into narcissistic self-promotion, than dialectics need fall silent before such a reproach and the one linked to it, concerning its superfluity and randomness as a slapdash method. Its name says to begin with nothing more than that objects do not vanish into their concept, that these end up in contradiction with the received norm of the adaequatio."

These tendencies have only accelerated with the growing bifurcation between so-called Mode One and Mode Two knowledge. Hence the importance placed by Fuller on the university as a social technology for the distribution of knowledge as a public good. Consistent with his call for epistemic justice, Fuller is urging the protection and enhancement of the founding democratic characteristics of the university, which ensure that knowledge can be put to use outside of its institutional context by people [students] who had nothing to do with its original production. This is another salient reminder of why academics need to be mindful of epistemic justice. By extension, philosophy cannot remain a self legislating activity, in the manner prescribed by Lingis.

I would also point toward the theory of articulation: you have to start with where people are before you can move them somewhere else. This is politics as the art of the possible, implying a long march through the institutions. Sadly though, I followed enough of the links through Harman's blog to discover that the continental blogosphere is generally more entranced by theories of total opposition, hence placing great store by new social movements. But I don't see why a "post hegemonic" politics need be the exclusive option. This was reinforced when one man had done commenting on Shaviro's Lovecraft post, and then threw in, on his own blog, almost as a casual aside, that he had no time for consensus conferences!! But why marginalise a social democratic approach that has a proven track record in creating public awareness of "post normal" science? What's wrong with having those affected by a particular form of knowledge sitting on judgement as to its applicability, say, in the communities where they live? And why couldn't consensus conferences be a catalyst for other forms of activism, including social movements?

Suffice to add, it was the random nature of the blogosphere in these instances that led me to revisit Kim Stanley's vision, as this is closer to my preferred form of "speculative realism". For not only does it encompass the cluster of issues I've raised here, but it does them justice in terms of the breadth and depth brought to bear upon each.

It also reminds me of why I need to experiment with another forum in order to test some of these propositions in relation to astrosociology. I'll leave the door open, just in case any philosophers choose to reply as they see fit, but I learned early on, in my encounter on this blog with a philosopher of "ruins", the possible limitations of such exchanges. I also know not to expect too much when "transmitting warning signals from the outermost rim of the information grid." As it happens, I've got a whole bunch of other commitments about to land on me, so while there's time, I'll have to try to commence work on these other writings. I suspect my blogging will probably atrophy as a result. There is still so much other more compelling stuff to follow up on, including arguments about the "speculative" nature of either evolution or Intelligent Design. For here is a public debate with high stakes, a lot of passion, and complexity to burn.....

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