November 10, 2015

Luhmann, MacIntyre, and Bataille

Larval Subjects . - Poland: Speculative Realism and Cultural Studies - Above all, I took great care to underline the fact that neither speculative realism, nor object-oriented ontology, are unified terms and to draw attention to the work of the new materialist feminists that have worked on a very similar set of issues and who have gone very far in developing the political and ethical implications of materialist thought. I’ve noticed a disturbing tendency to equate speculative realism with object-oriented ontology as if they’re synonyms, and to treat object-oriented ontology as if it were synonymous with Graham Harman’s object-oriented phenomenology. However, these are genus, not species terms. Speculative realism is a term like “mammal”, not like “bengal tiger”. The same is true of object-oriented ontology. These are positions in dialogue with one another, arguing with one another, and both terms contain a variety of different positions in dispute with one another. For this reason it is perhaps best to abandon these labels altogether, instead always referring to the proper name of the thinker you have in mind with these positions. Equating speculative realism with object-oriented ontology does a great disservice to the thought of Meillassoux, Brassier, and Grant, none of whom are object-oriented ontologists and some of whom even reject the existence of objects. Likewise, my positions are not those of Harman’s, so treating object-oriented ontology as a synonym with his object-oriented philosophy risks attributing claims to others that are not their own. This is always the danger of signifiers. They take on a life of their own and treat as the same that which is different.

I hasten to add, that I share Harman’s critique of “undermining“, but believe this is already the new materialist positions. If the new materialists have taught us anything, it’s that 1) matter has agency (which isn’t equivalent, I think, to defending vitalism), and 2) that under requisite conditions, new forms of pattern or organization emerge within matter that supervene on their parts and are not possible without them, but new powers emerge as a result of these assemblages. Oxygen alone and hydrogen alone are both very combustable and certainly do not have the power to wet, together they generate new powers. Everywhere the new materialists teach us of the liveliness of matter, of its creativity; but they also do this while taking into account situated epistemological conditions of knowledge production (Haraway, Barad), and the role that normative values and political context play in our investigations in the world. Above all, they show how we are always sheathed in the earth, in a world that exceeds us. As Bennett remarks, you can’t truly throw anything away.
I find that in these reflections I’ve lost my original train of thought. These days I find myself thinking of a return to that project on Deleuze. I have a number of projects in the works. One on Foucault as a forerunner to assemblage theory and the new materialists. Another on Luhmann, who I see as an under-appreciated thinker in the Anglo-American world of Continental theory. Yet another on the ontology of the fold and vortices I’ve been developing. Yet I feel the lure of that book on Deleuze: The Speculative Realism of Deleuze and Guattari. I wonder what such a book would look like. It would certainly not be a mere study. It would, above all, begin with univocity and immanence, and a critique of hylomorphism.

Here it’s necessary to note that Luhmann uses the term “environment” equivocally. There is, on the one hand, the environment that exists as such. This environment is what Deleuze and Guattari, in “Of the Refrain”, referred to as chaos or the “milieu of all milieus”. It would be there regardless of whether or not there were any systems to observe it. And that’s just what systems do, according to Luhmann. They observe events that take place or unfold in their environment (other-reference) and within themselves (self-reference). On the other hand, there are the environments constituted by systems. These are the flows or phenomena in other-reference to which a system is open. We can call these two environments Ei and Ec to refer to the “independent environment” and “constituted environment” respectively.
The environment (Ei) is always more complex than the system. Put differently, there is never a one-to-one correspondence between system and the independent environment (Ei). Here I think Luhmann makes a real advance over semiotic and linguistic idealisms because, where these idealisms tend towards a sort of imperialism of the sign and signifier that recognizes no outside, Luhmann’s thought is premised on the existence of a hyper-chaotic outside that can never fully be mastered. If there can never be a one-to-one correspondence between system and Ei, then this is because the environment is hyper-complex and systems need to be capable of engaging in operations and observations in real time (or, at any rate, the time of the system). The system must selectand establish selective relations to its environment. Systems are only ever selectively open to their environment. For this reason, systems are necessarily exposed to risk, for it’s always possible that the channel of openness that a system established did not anticipate or retend something of deep importance. It is this risk, the aleatory, the unexpected (the openness of systems is temporalized complexity), that both plays a key role in how the system evolves, but also opens the system to the possibility of destruction.

Love of All Wisdom - My first encounters with Alasdair MacIntyre - In philosophy as in any other field, one sees further by standing on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to engage in detail with contemporary thinkers whose work seems like it might be helpful in advancing the inquiries that most interest me. The first such was Ken Wilber. I’ve said before that I think he asks the right questions but gets the wrong answers, and I think a key reason for that is that he has an unsustainable method, a perennialist method that refuses to acknowledge genuine diversity. I have learned a lot from my engagement with him, but I cannot take up his approach.
More recently I have turned in detail to the works of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose thought I’ve already juxtaposed against Wilber’s a number of times (often in MacIntyre’s favour). I had expected that I would engage MacIntyre much as I had engaged Wilber: seeing him as a source of important and productive ideas, but ultimately wrong. Now I am not so sure. I don’t agree with the Christian MacIntyre on substantive answers, but I am finding him ever more convincing about the method we should take to reach those substantive answers.
Like Wilber, MacIntyre has been an influence on me for most of my philosophical life. He is in many ways a conservative, known for polemical attacks on liberalism and modernity, which I’ve examined at most length in my series of posts on his provocative critiques of the idea of rights. It is through these attacks that people most often tend to discover his work.
I was one of them, even though at the time I would have recoiled from the mention of anything conservative. For MacIntyre’s critiques of liberal modernity also serve as critiques of analytic philosophy, and it was in that respect that they gave a voice to incoherent ideas I had not yet expressed. While struggling as an undergraduate with a utilitarianism I was still in the process of rejecting, I took a course in ethics with Susan Dwyer, a brilliant professor whom I’m told was a student of John Rawls. Dwyer’s course repelled me from analytic philosophy – ironically, not because Dwyer was bad, but because she was so good. She had solid answers to every question I asked, really helped me understand Mill and especially Kant at a deep level.
Every question, that is, but one. And that question was this: We keep talking about what morality consists of, what the moral thing to do might be in various hard cases (of the trolley problem variety).

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I have noticed my own tendency to waver between a less extreme version of the cosmic pessimism Hickman describes and a more tempered cosmic optimism akin to that of philosophers like Whitehead or the cosmologist Brian Swimme. My wavering largely corresponds to my mood (prediction: I will swing violently to the pessimistic side after watching the GOP debate tonight). In general, I agree with Hickman that nihilism is not something we can undo or escape from. I’ve argued it is a necessary stage in the development of our species (whether developing past this stage will leave us recognizably “human” or not, I don’t know). It is not a destination, it is an existential trial we must confront head on. The old ontologies and traditional theologies no longer capture our imaginations. We are in between stories at the moment. No doubt the very nature of story-telling and myth-making will itself require transformation if we recover. But that we might live without myth all together? I just don’t see that being possible. That said, there is a real chance that we will not make it through this nihilistic cultural phase to tell new stories. Myth is non-negotiable. It is an intrinsic part of the very biology of our social species. Life on the other hand…

I posted the following on Hickman’s blog in response to his reading of the metaphysical implications of neuroscience:
I’ve no doubt neuroscience will continue to increase our medical and military power over consciousness, its pathologies and its potentials. The military power it affords will be doled out rather widely, while the medical power will be reserved for the few who can afford it. As for our *understanding* of consciousness, I’m not sure how much neuroscience can help. The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. There is always the possibility that the 4EA paradigm will win more converts, but so far these related approaches don’t seem as appealing to DARPA, so they will probably remain underfunded in the hands of mere philosophers and neurophenomenologists. Power is more appealing to the powerful than understanding, as I’m sure you’d agree. That said, I don’t believe philosophy should ever try to outdo the sciences; rather, I see its task as that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences (Whitehead). It’s not that neuroscience should drop everything and consult philosophy. I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.

I want to respond in more depth today to say exactly why I agree with the point Jesse is raising. I find it problematic to say that nihilism is a necessary developmental stage for all of humanity when in reality it may be a uniquely European affliction. Wouldn’t it be neat and tidy if all human beings followed the same sort of Hegelian developmental pathway to Absolute Knowledge of their own nothingness? In a post-colonial context, it is clear that this pathway is not universal, that for the most part (outside the Euro-American context, and indeed, even within this context among the less educated) human beings are still entirely mythical and magical in general outlook. Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death is hardly relevant to those for whom no such monotheistic notion of value existed in the first place. 

Whitehead spends more time deconstructing received notions of representational “knowledge about nature” that perhaps any other inherited mode of thought. His reconstructed account of perception in terms of causal efficacy allows him to argue that the values of non-human creatures are directly felt and form the massive basis of our flitting conscious experiences. In short, our human values depend on non-human values as the condition of their actuality. Part of the tragedy of modernity has been the complete divorce of human value from the values of the earth community and wider cosmos. Not that medieval Europe’s worldview was rooted in the earth and synced up with the sky, but if we go back further to pre-axial archaic society and even further back to primal societies, the contrast is stark. And I’m not suggesting that modernity has been entirely tragic; there are many reasons I would definitely not want to turn back the clock.
More recently, even more tragic has been the reduction of all human value to economic exchange value. This divorce and reduction has had catastrophic consequences for the ability of the rest of the life-forms on this planet to continue to (re)produce their values, and indeed, though our human population has benefited from the petroleum interval over the past century, my sense is that the next century will prove just how catastrophic the modern bifurcation is for our species, as well.
And I think “we” should be careful not to universalize the “we” that must move beyond nihilism.

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