January 16, 2009

Rejecting the philosophy of human access means rejecting Kant’s privileging of epistemology

Object-Oriented Philosophy from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro

On his marvelous new blog, on which he manages to write more in a day than I do here in a month, and with consistent brilliance, Graham Harman makes a concession (or, I should probably rather say, a restatement) that I had been hoping to hear from him for a long time:
It’s not a matter of forgetting Kant’s exclusion from the in-itself. It’s a matter of questioning why he gives humans a monopoly on such exclusion. In a sense, I’m trying to let rocks, stones, armies, and Exxon join in the fun of being excluded from the in-itself. A sort of Kantianism for inanimate objects.

This is pretty close to one of the major theses of my own forthcoming book on Whitehead:
Whitehead rejects correlationism and anthropocentrism precisely by extending Kant’s analysis of conditions of possibility, and of the generative role of time, to all entities in the universe, rather than confining them to the privileged realm of human beings, or of rational minds. (p. 79)

Throughout his books, Harman rightly praises Whitehead for rejecting what Harman calls “the philosophy of human access,” that is to say, the philosophy that gives a privileged position to human subjectivity or to human understanding, as if the world’s very existence depended upon our ability to know it. Rejecting the philosophy of human access means, among other things, rejecting Kant’s privileging of epistemology. As Whitehead puts it, since the 18th century, and especially since Kant, “the question, What do we know?, has been transformed into the question, What can we know?” (PR 74). [...]

Now, when Heidegger (followed by Derrida) attacks metaphysical and scientific thought for its reduction of the reality of things to mere presence, what he misses is the Kantian sense in which any such reduction is also a positive construction: it is a new event, a creation, a transformation or a “translation.” (I am thinking here of what Levi Bryant calls “Latour’s Principle”: “there is no transportation without translation.” Harman’s own book on Latour is coming soon). Heidegger’s critique of presence might be summarized as the idea that translation is always a betrayal of that which is ostensibly being translated.

But Kant’s conception of constructive functioning maintains that translation is the creation of something new: a successful translation (which for Heidegger is impossible) is not a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original, but precisely (to cite the terms of Latour’s Principle in inverse order) an act of transportation, a carrying-across which, in the process, thereby makes something new. From this point of view, both Whitehead and Latour give us a Kantianism without privileging human access, a Kantianism for all entities. And seeing the constructive work of relays and transportations/translations in this manner releases us from the desperate recourse (though, of course, Harman does not see it this way) to positing a universe of occult substances that can only communicate vicariously.

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