From Žižek to Badiou to Benedict XVI…

Saw this sentence in The New Republic’s Review (a bit delayed) of the Pope’s Caritas in Veritate:

According to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, we are in the midst of a “late capitalist . . . countdown to social dissolution and the triumph of infinite exchangeability and timeless, atomized desire.” The only way to interrupt this countdown, he suggests, is for all of us to pattern our actions on divine love. A number of intellectuals–ranging from former Maoists such as Alain Badiou to dialectical materialists such as Slavoj Žižek–have made similar diagnoses, and proposed similar solutions. And to their company must now be added the pope.
 

I suppose I’m used to seeing combination that move ideologically from far right to anarchist left, but if we’re getting down to a range of Badiou to Žižek, maybe that’s an ideological field on which we can play. And FYI, I stand with all those protesting the fact that this is the first papal encyclical not published in Latin. When I was in Rome, though, I did pick up an English copy for my dad, putting the two book marks I got him on particularly “lefty” sentiments. Also, I don’t think Badiou is a “former” Maoist.

 

Goldstone Report, Israel, and the Call for More Debate on Just War Theory

This is I think the longest response of any I’ve seen in the US to the UN Golstone report released last week on the Israeli activities in Gaza. It is, alas, as critical as anything you’ll see in an American newspaper. The whole article follows on from the questions the report doesn’t ask. The mind reels:

When does negligence become recklessness, and when does recklessness slip into wanton callousness, and then into deliberate disregard for innocent human life?

But that is the point — and it should have been the focus of the investigation. Judge Goldstone’s real mandate was, or should have been, to bring Israel to confront this fundamental question, a question inherent in the waging of war by all civilized societies against irregular armed groups. Are widespread civilian casualties inevitable when a modern army pounds terrorist targets in a heavily populated area with purportedly smart ordnance? Are they acceptable? Does the enemy’s deployment in the heart of the civilian area shift the line between right and wrong, in morality and in law?

Goldstone Report: Who knew it was supposed to facilitate just war discussions?

Goldstone Report: Who knew it was supposed to facilitate just war discussions?


These were precisely the questions that Israeli politicians and generals wrestled with in Gaza, as others do today in Afghanistan. It is possible, and certainly arguable, that the Israeli policymakers, or individual Israeli field commanders in isolated instances, pushed the line out too far.

But Judge Goldstone has thwarted any such honest debate — within Israel or concerning Israel. His fundamental premise, that the Israelis went after civilians, shut down the argument before it began.

via Op-Ed Contributor – The Gaza Report’s Wasted Opportunity – NYTimes.com.

None of this is news, of course, but this is ridiculous in the extreme. Should not op-ed writers be made to read the reports they cite? Goldstone’s report is valuable for raising exactly these questions—and answering them. These are not open questions. These are settled aspects of international law. If you want to have that debate, go ahead. If Israelis want to have that debate, let them. In fact, they did not need this report to have this debate and what’s mysterious about the whole conceit of this editorial is to claim that Goldstone’s report “should have been” about producing an internal debate in Israel. Just let that wander around the mind for a minute: the death, starvation, and mass internment of Palestineans is still for this author a matter of internal debate in Israel—a debate, by the way, that is ongoing and far more livelier than in the US.  UN reports are not there to open debate, but to help settle them. And there is no debate in this Op-Ed about these facts, unless suggesting that the report prove the unprovable is really taking issue with it. I mean, no one can prove intentions more than detailing minutely and patiently sets of facts that would result from such supposed intentions.

But according to this Op-Ed, this isn’t what the Goldstone report should do. No, by condemning this activity, by patiently setting out what every NGO that has looked into the same set of facts has agreed, Goldstone has “thwarted …honest debate.” If such a debate can’t begin with the set of facts that he lays out, how pray tell, could it be “honest”? You can deny this report only by deliberately responding to the set of fact it displaying, not by suggesting that it was not supposed to make any factual claims, but merely start a philosophical conversation on just war theory—a debate that outside of this context finds generally agreed answers. Because for the Palestineans, it matters little whether there is “deliberate disregard for innocent human life” or simply “disregard for innocent human life.” And isn’t that enough to condemn it? Or is this really about keeping a debate going on in Israel while the lives it takes in its untenable apartheid structure (one ultimately destructive to the Israeli state) continue to mount? These are great questions for a philosophy class. For a UN report, not so much.

Nostalgia for the 1940s and 50s

 

For David Brooks, 1950s America remains a time of peace and civility and unity. Except it wasn't.

For David Brooks, 1940s America remains a time of peace and civility and unity. Except it wasn't.

I was making this point in class earlier today and I had missed David Brooks’ eulogy for the lost era of unity and common purpose and modesty in today’s New York Times, so it’s good to see a nice post on it. I’ve never understood how anyone can be so lacking in historical knowledge as to make any claims about the by-gone eras of the US. The only way you can make any claims about the greatness of the past is if you literally block out I’m-not-hearing-you style the history of oppression—still ongoing—in this country. (Of course, it was the bad old days of the 90% upper income tax rates, so I’m not sure how Brooks think that so-called unity came about with all that class warfare [for those who can't read snark, like the Randians writing me from yesterday, that's sarcasm].)

 

David Brooks on the decline of the West:

When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.

Now Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing on the Atlantic Monthly site:

Part of this is Brooks critique of the past half-century, or rather half-critique. From Brooks’ perspective, the problem is that Sonia Sotomayor didn’t go to school in 50s or early 60s, not that her chosen school didn’t admit women in the 50s and 60s. …
That’s because the conditions are, themselves, built on American immodesty. I’m thinking of Jack Johnson winning the championship, and modest Americans launching pogroms against their fellow immodest Americans. I’m thinking about Birth of a Nation’s defense of treason, and a sitting president offering his immodest endorsement. I’m thinking about a country, circa 1850, whose politicians lorded over one of the last slave societies in the known world, and immodestly argued that it was a gift from God.

Even Brooks view of the “Greatest Generation” is myopic. In 1948 Strom Thurmond authored the segregationist Dixiecrat charter, while immodestly fathering a daughter with a black women. In 1946, Isaac Woodward, a veteran of World War II, was beaten and blinded–while in uniform–by South Carolina police. The police were prosecuted, but the jury acquitted them, and a court-room full of Americans broke out in immodest applause.

This is history through the veil, again. It’s virtually impossible to be a black person and believe that Americans were somehow more humble in the past. Our very existence springs from an act of immodesty. I can’t even begin to imagine the Native American read on this one.

Adam Kotsko, meet Mark Lilla

Is this man on your syllabus?

Is this man on your syllabus? (Psst. It's Bill Buckley, Jr. He loved McCarthy, Southern segregationists, and Nixon. He should be.)

 

Adam Kotsko has a nice rendering of a widespread logic employed in conservative thinking. It just so happened that I recently heard a rendition of this.

This was in my mind when I read another one of those contrarians in one of those contrarian moods, in this case Mark Lilla , about how the left has thought conservatism as a pathology, not as a tradition,  so I had my own more pathological response. FIrst, I love the observational powers of Mark Lilla, who begins with this bit about the wonders of America’s conservative movement—which is not to be confused with the fascists of Le Pen et al. in Europe:

Our conservatives accept the legitimacy of constitutional self-government, even when they hate the legislation and court decisions resulting from it; they play by the rules. The same cannot be said of the European right, which has always been suspicious of parliamentary politics.

I wonder just where Lilla has been living these past few months, if not the past several decades. Did he not witness the Bush years? And the conservative non-response to it? “They play by the rules”? 

I say this because at the least, if you’re going to argue that idiot members of the left are unfair and ignore the great ideas of the right, you should do so without suggesting that leftists like me can’t or won’t read. Perhaps Lilla himself can’t read, if one were to look just at his examples: Allan Bloom (agreed), Edmund Burke (great stuff there), Whitaker Chambers (really? really?, uh, ok), Irving Kristol (better than his son…a hack, but I can see for pointing out the history of conservative politics), Ayn Rand (well not at all like the others, really heading south quickly), and William Buckley, Jr. (the worst of the bunch–had a great prof who said his trick was just to speak really slow, which is about right).

I’m wondering if Lilla is not practicing a bit of leftist jujitsu here: convince others that these are the conservative tradition in order to carve it up. These are some of the worst writers of recent memory. My bet is that they wouldn’t have been published if not for the fact that they were conservative. Is Rand known for her subtlety with language? And Buckley is exactly one of the Le Pen nationalists that Lilla cites. Maybe I don’t read conservatives as well as he supposes he does, but I did read Buckley on the segregationist South, and all through his later career. And not one, but two of his spy “novels.” His son, Christopher Buckley, can be a great comic writer; the father is simply a joke.

As in this article by Lilla, which pretends that the left doesn’t know—like he does—about the “think tanks” in Washington that have so much influence, while we parse out so many supposed subdivisions of postcolonial feminist critical race theory. Or whatever. But I do know all of those groups (having learned it from some leftist or other), I have read a number of their policy papers, and I dare say anyone paying attention to Washington politics does know them. But at least do the conservatives a favor: read them. As in real decent ones, like everyone I know who takes political theory seriously has: not just Burke, but all those who fit loosely into a better tradition than the apparently ill-read Lilla can: Scruton, Eliot, Heidegger, Strauss, Tocqueville, Arendt, Schmitt, and on and on. I’m not saying these figures fit easily, but you can’t tell me Ayn Rand is a political thinker that we must read and then ignore the fact that her pedantic egoism isn’t covered in most ethics books I see. And then rightly ripped to shreds as self-defeating, with her novels as the worst tripe. No matter how many decided to go carve out their libertarian mountain hideaway (it’s a Rand thing, don’t ask) after last year. But as Lilla says, if only we’d read these figures, we’d be….well, he doesn’t say what would happen. (I realize that reading Lilla after the early 90s Derrida affair at the NYRB on “intellectual diversity” is a hilarious exercise.):

They read selections from Burke, Maistre, Hayek, Buckley, Ayn Rand, Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, and many others, including Lyons’s personal favorite, Peter Viereck. (Now, answer honestly, dear reader of The Chronicle Review: How many of these authors have you yourself read?)

Well, honestly: all of them, but thanks for the presumption. (That list does seem to run out of steam quickly after Hayek, doesn’t it?) And Vierkeck has a couple of great essays on Buckley and Kristol (I’m sure you know this Mark Lilla, since you’ve read him) calling them “pseudo-conservatives” who have no intellectual heft, with the fear result by Viereck that they would come to stand for those truly fighting a battle of ideas, instead of defending McCarthy and others in the name of ideology. And if Lilla would read more on the left, he would note that Burke and Maistre and others he doesn’t mention are oft-cited in political theory. And I’ve taught Burke, Maistre, Bloom, Strauss, Heidegger, Arendt, and others he doesn’t cite, let alone all those who could be said to belong to a longer tradition going back to Plato.

I was going to say, does he think that we keep a censored list of writers? But then, yes, he does say that at the end. I guess that’s why I don’t teach Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas or anyone else who is not a postcolonial, postfeminist theorist. (Please don’t write me for including Arendt or whomever—I include them for the importance to other conservative writers.)

Ok, so what’s the upshot, Mark Lilla?

[David] Horowitz is an annoying man, and what’s most annoying about him is that … he has a point. Though we are no longer in the politically correct sauna of the 1980s and 1990s, and experiences vary from college to college, the picture he paints of the faculty and curriculum in American universities remains embarrassingly accurate, and it is foolish to deny what we all see before us.

It is obvious that Mark Lilla should not be running any curriculum. Horowitz is an annoying man because he has no point. Look at any youtube video of him getting questioned by students. He is a dolt. He is a self-important, egregiously unprincipled man who has students tape recording their professors (even yours truly) to publicize their “radical” agenda, only to find out (as in my case) that I’ve been teaching Homer. And Horowitz has never written anything that would be worthy to print. But Horowitz more that you, dear academic reader, knows better than you what should be taught in a university. David Horowitz. Because he knows what Mark Lilla knows:

Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus (economic diversity worries them less, for some reason). Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem. But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members. That wouldn’t matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries’ books and views, but we know how rarely that happens.

Yes, whenever you read that a dean or a professor is “well paid” (unlike Horowitz, who has grown wealthy for his efforts, and has been accused by some of milking the whole thing for speaker’s fees), you know that something really ground-breaking is about to follow: a description what “we know” (always love that rhetorical trick, the non-evidential “we know”) that “rarely happens.” So let’s try a field trip in the coming week to our local university bookshops. He’s right that we won’t see Buckley, Jr. but I don’t recall his magnum opus—does his hagiography of Nixon count? He’s right we won’t see Irving Kristol—I’ll just have to assign my students his work defending the sovereignty of South Africa during Apartheid (neat trick for a Jew living in Manhattan). And he’s right, you won’t probably find Chamber’s red baiting. Or Rand’s embarrassing work. (Actually, you will—I have a colleague that teaches it.) But you’ll find all the others he mentions and more than all that. Now, I’ll have to get over to Columbia the next time I’m in New York and see what Lilla’s been teaching: maybe some Rancière or Foucault or Levi-Strauss or Judith Butler for “intellectual diversity”? Maybe some good SR stuff?

Or does diversity only count if you’re defending racist Apartheid states?

Foucault on Power

freedomI’m editing something of mine right now on Foucault. It seems suitable for here, since for now I’m leaving it blunt:

As such, in the remainder of this chapter, we take up Foucault’s work just where it operates on macro-physical developments, namely in the rise of nations and races in “Society Must Be Defended. In these lectures, Foucault lays out the macro-micro movements of power first in a society at war with itself and then in a society docile under disciplinary and bio-political regimes—all preceded by what he rightly calls the “administrative monarchy” that then becomes, after the nineteenth century, a more insidious racist sovereignty (G, 219; STP, 100; SD, 255-260). Thus I am quite comfortable with the supposed uncomfortablility of these broad claims, which have the much-feared consequence of showing productions of power everywhere, making any confrontation with power apparently pointless. Foucault’s work is thus said to lead to a political quietism given the inevitability that one is always imprisoned within these power formations.[1] This complaint is as old as Foucault’s first publications on madness. Indeed, critics of Foucault often measure their resistance to his work quasi-aesthetically, a problem not uncommon to Agamben as well. They contend less with his work and methodology than with what they take to be (wrongly) its distasteful consequence, namely that all resistance is futile. It is rather odd, though often the case, that this is what passes for serious rebuttals to Foucault’s work: his descriptions of power might mean that I’m less free than I would like to presuppose, thus I can counter the feared implications of his work with imbrications of age-old views of the sovereign self. As such, I can avoid the quintessential Foucaultian insight that power operates more than through coercion, and thus I can take a view that would return to a classical notion of power, one which has the upshot that it can be more easily resisted. This is theory as catharsis, a declaration of one’s fears while quieting oneself with having an identifiable enemy: a state, a class, a demanding family member. This is a teenage analysis of power that sees power as merely having to with the “problems of law and prohibition,” as finding one’s freedom by taking it on mom and dad (Foucault 2007: 156). Power would be localizable. It would have a position and a center and my freedom would be nothing other than marking myself as outside of that center.[2] This is, of course, the facile thinking behind all versions of negative freedom, where power is denied its productive force.

Women in Philosophy

I guess a day spent reading Beyond Good and Evil is not the best time to post on women and philosophy. But I caught this piece —thanks Infinite Thought!—on the dearth of women in the profession. Brooke Lewis, a freelance journalist, reports two views that she links together but are wholly different claims (by the way, having married a now-free lancer extraordinaire, I’m not dumping on Lewis, since I know this is how the piece could have been edited, or is simply a quick shift from one graf to the next):

Helen Beebee, a University of Birmingham lecturer and director of the British Philosophical Association (BPA) … says her impression is that there are roughly equal numbers of men and women graduating with good bachelor degrees in philosophy and that the numbers of women start to drop off at MA level and then again at PhD level. Beebee says this tapering off of women may be at least partly caused by a culture of aggressive argument that is particular to philosophy and which begins to become more prominent at postgraduate level. “I can remember being a PhD student and giving seminar papers and just being absolutely terrified that I was going to wind up intellectually beaten to a pulp by the audience,” she says. “I can easily imagine someone thinking, ‘this is just ridiculous, why would I want to pursue a career where I open myself up to having my work publicly trashed on a regular basis?’”

Jennifer Saul, a Sheffield University lecturer and president of the UK division of the Society of Women in Philosophy (SWIP), says that relative to post-graduate students, there is a significant drop in the number of women going on to become temporary lecturer….

Lewis also notes something that we, alas, all know if we’ve spent anytime in philosophy: the numbers are bad everywhere–not just the UK. But is this true of every part of philosophy? I see far more of a percentage of women at SPEP than at the APA, and it seems to me that one should not discount that certain types of work speak to people who might want work that speaks to them, given the disadvantages they face. It’s also the case, as we all also know, that if you’re a woman phenomenologist, that means you’re pigeon-holed as a feminist philosopher, whether or not you’ve ever worked in that area or not. I can’t even begin to hypothesize on the reasons for the low numbers of female philosophers now. But it’s also clear that philosophy does much worse at this than, say, other fields in the humanities. (And I should add, of course, that there are great female professors in other fields doing philosophy, which complicates this a bit.)

Two points to add: Helen Beebee, though I’m sure you’re a wonderful director of the BPA, please think of handing over the reigns. Unless you were wildly misquoted (again—freelancers of the world unite!—you probably weren’t) you don’t know the first thing about (a) the fallacious use of anecdotal evidence, (b) the problems of shitty causal inferences that (c) reinforce naturalist assumptions dominant in the culture. And (d) please tell me that you don’t think the problem is that women can’t cut it. Because men like getting their work trashed? 

Or better: maybe if we had more women in place at various universities, you know, getting hired, as Saul suggests, we could find someone to head the BPA (male or female or non-normed gender) who can “easily imagine” ways to work for different modes of philosophizing, say, as head of something like the BPA.

Excuse my tone for this evening, but this is the kind of BS that shouldn’t stand. It’s the same excuse trotted out for why people of color don’t make it through. Now instead of asking—from what you can “easily imagine”—what a PhD student would be thinking, how about asking about a culture that needs to be changed so you can “easily imagine” this?

I was lucky: I graduated from DePaul University, and the year I came in was the year that Tina Chanter was hired there from Memphis. Now here’s what I can “easily imagine”: I took something like five courses from Chanter over a few years and, believe me, Chanter did not tread lightly on anyone and thus I could say that perhaps I could “easily imagine” “just being absolutely terrified that I was going to wind up intellectually beaten to a pulp,” to borrow from Beebee again. I could imagine what she would do with a claim like Beebee’s. (Which was good for me. I did a terrible Kristeva paper for her. She gave me great comments. Later I reworked it based on that and got a publication. And later, just to finish that story, she was a great help to me and others when I was on the job market; that is, she helped me get my job) But I also took classes with Peg Birmingham—quite a different personality from Chanter and doing different work, which means it’s not just about doing feminist philosophy—who served on my committee and has been crucial in my career. And with those two, along with so many others in the DePaul Department, we had a thriving, diverse, and, more crucially, intellectually vibrant grad community. So putting women in power—beyond whatever crying you might hear about identity politics—matters. Just look at the Collegium this year, which Peg headed up. 

Of course, we have to graduate female PhDs to get professors like Birmingham and Chanter and Goswami (thanks for serving on that Gilroy panel of mine this year!) and, what, five other professors at DePaul? If you don’t think it matters, compare this list (DePaul faculty ) with this list (alumni ) and this list (grad students ). Sure, it’s a woolly-headed Continental program. (What is woolly-headed anyway?) But then what needs to be answered is why a continental program can do this and an analytic philosophy program can’t. And yes, it’s one program. But maybe now it’s easier to imagine.

Conclusion from tomorrow’s paper on Speculative Realism

I’m editing my paper to get it down to the time limits for the CRESC objects conference. Since I don’t publish enough philosophy here, here’s my as-yet-unedited conclusion. I suppose it makes better sense in terms of the whole, though to set this up, I take up the problem of what Meillassoux calls “intuition” as the relation between the phenomenal and chaotic noumenal in his work…

Conclusion: Finite Relations Irreducible to Correlationism

            Is, then, “intellectual intuition” the only access to the real? Heidegger famously tells us in his 1929-30 lecture course that the “stone is without world,” that the animals are “poor in world,” and that human Dasein is “world forming.”[1] Nancy begins on territory familiar to Meillassoux’s readers, arguing that there is no sense of the world, as Wittgenstein claimed in the Tractatus, that is given from the outside. This would treat the world as representable, instead of, as Nancy claims, a infinite happening of coming to presence, each time just this once and thus non-representable. But it is also the case, he notes, that the fact that “there is something, there are some things, there is some there—and that itself makes sense,” without a need for a God. But this does not mean that it only makes sense “for, through, or in Dasein”:

[T]he world beyond humanity—animals, plants, and stones, oceans, atmospheres, sidereal spaces and bodies—is quite a bit more than the phenomenal correlative of a human taking-in-hand, taking-into-account, or taking-care-of. … For it is a question of understanding the world not as man’s object or field of action, but as the spatial totality of the sense of existence, a totality that it itself existent, even if it is not in the mode of Dasein. (SW, 55-56).

 

Certainly, Nancy note, one could proffer an exteriority to humanity, but this is not to be thought in terms of the “relation between subject and object” (SW, 56). Nancy is careful, as we’ll see, not to place language simply to one side of this relation. If we take there to be a circulation of sense among things,[2] then there are in a sense (a sense that is not reductive compared to human language) signature and singularities at work, and thus a passing of signs, even if these signatures exscribe their sense elsewhere from us. That is, for Nancy, being a “fragment” of a world means having a signature, having a place and a taking-place that is not simply, on the Heideggerian model, a placing in view of that which has been hidden away (abscondus). And this signature is always underdetermined in the circulation of sense, and thus can be confused with nothing, as the nihil, though in truth it is a “nihil unbound,” to use Ray Brassier’s phrase.

            To take the risk of an anthropomorphism that will quickly recede, this is what we mean when we say that we are touched. Something touches us (and thus is touched by us in turn) and its affectivity passes along the signatures of one and the other with such a gravity—whether the touch is light or not does not matter—that “to be touched” is synonymous with profundity, a depthlessness of meaning being passed along and circulated. And this is why, beyond Meillassoux’s apt discussion of “touching upon the absolute,” each touch (or all touching) is a touch upon the absolute, upon an infinity of sense irreducible to a signification communicated or a bit of information passed along; it is never just a simple touch. Having a sense or sensing of this touch marks a “coming to presence” “just at” (à même) us such it that can never be pinned down as a present thing[3]; it can never be fully felt and thus conceptualized: a touch is always shared, distributed, or it is nothing.

            And yet, we will in turn sovereignly declare human beings as having the touch, as we say in English. The result is that, as Graham Harman puts it in a different context, “One privileged entity is allowed to form links where others cannot. Against this notion, I propose the more democratic solution of a local occasionalism or vicarious causation, in which every entity that exists must somehow be equipped to serve as a medium of contact between two others” (IO, 8). On this matter, as so often, Heidegger takes the less democratic approach:

The stone is lying on the path, for example. We can say that the stone is exerting a certain pressure upon the surface of the Earth. It is “touching” the Earth. But what we call “touching” here is not a form of touching at all in the strongest sense of the word. It is not at all like that relationship which the lizard has to the stone on which it lies basking in the sun. And the touching implied in both cases is above all not the same as that touch which we experience when we our hand upon the head of another human being. …[B]eing a stone it has no possible access to anything else around it, anything that it might … possess as such.(FCM, 196-7; SW, 59)

 

            Before moving further, let me note that everything hinges on how we are inclined towards this passage. If Nancy is right in arguing that the epoch of representation is coming to end (GT, 83) and that “time of modernity is followed by the time of things” (FT, 317), then a “responsible praxis of sense” (FT, 292) must now register for the “test of the real,” even if, on Nancy’s account, “there’s nothing to prove” (FT, 317). This, for Nancy, is the mark of our primordial exposure—an exposure that is not ours alone—to the ruptures of sense in the “movement of a presentation to… which is a rupture of presence itself” (GT, 63). Again, every being-toward is toward another being that is itself toward. Without this circulation and excess of sense, there would be only be signification, that is, “mere indication” and the “denoting of things,” a zero-degree of sense that Heidegger presumes to find in the rocks that do not have a world.[4] And this “test of the real” is not just coming in terms of the “fraying” of things in all their abundance, but also in terms of all of the questions surrounding this notion of “access”—a responsibility of sense practiced in a variety of ecological and movements against the suffering of animals. As is well known, “access” has its root in the Latin accedere, to approach or come near, but nevertheless part of the motto of Roman civic life: accedere ad rem publican, to do one’s civil duty and begin a public life. The responsibility today, the “more democratic approach,” as Harman puts it, is very much about the public things—and how we accede to them, even if acceding to public things means questioning access itself. Nancy writes, responding to Heidegger,

Why, then, is “access” determined [with regard to the stone] a priori as the identification and appropriation of the “other thing”? When I touch another thing, another skin or hide, and when it is a question of this contact or touch and not of an instrumental use, is it a matter of identification and appropriation? … Why does one have to determine “access” a priori as the only way of making-up-a-world and of being-toward-the-world? Why could the world not also a priori consist in being-among, being-between, and being-against? In remoteness and contact without “access”? (SW, 59)

 

As Nancy notes, the scene is all but feudal, if not Platonic, with its hierarchies

of touch as it ascends closer to the sun, wherein “a hieratic and paternal pose fraudulently substitutes a knighting [the placing of the hand on the head] for a touch” (SW, 60). The whole of this antiquated anthropocentrism is “betrayed,” he rightly argues, “by the expression ‘the earth is not given for the stone.” But what, he asks, if this givenness were never “pure”? What if it were preceded by what makes that gift possible in the first place, namely the distribution and sharing out of unassignable gifts “neither to be perceived or received as a ‘gift’”? And what of the networks of stones and animality and—why not?—humanity passing in and through this “contact” of stone, heat, and surfaces of all kinds:

[the stone] is in contact, an absolute difference. … There is not ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ but rather, there are sites and places, distances. … [W]ithout this impalpable reticulation of contiguities and tangential contacts, without the place (interstice, interval, and escape) of a geared down being-toward ….there would be no world. “In itself,” the thing is “toward” the other things that are close, proximate, and also very distant because there are several of them. (SW, 61)

 

In this way, he writes, the stone isn’t simply there as an abstraction, laying in wait for its encounter “by or for a subject” (SW, 62). The stone does not “have,” as Heidegger notes, the world. But are we still naïve enough to think that we things, we res extensae do? The stone, for Nancy, is toward the world or “is the world” as “at least” “areality: extension of the area, spacing…” (SW, 62). The stone has a “liability [passibilité]” to sense, an area of passing through and passing along senses irreducible, Nancy argues, to an “animism” or “panpsychism,” which would figure the sense of the stone, of the things, back through the human. There is in the stone its “concrete” liability, which is also “concrete condition” of its singularity (BSP, 18). This liability is but another word for accede; the stone, too, accedes to the public thing.

            The stone’s “concreteness” is a “real différance” or différance as real and as à mème, circulating materially. The problem has not been, as Meillassoux suggests, too much use of the thinking of relation in modernity, but too little. What is called for is a thinking of a circulation of sense and materiality, that is, a thinking of an excessively real, if I can put it that way, complex of relations. This is the absolute to which we are all, one and other, one as another, liable and acceding, in the public and in common, passing along signs, partes extra partes, in a generalized circulation of exposure and relation. It is this exscription, this real writing of the real in the passage of sense, that is the res ultima. Where speculative realism in Meillassoux begins and then circles back to the correlationist circle by thinking through the absolute contingency of the relation, Nancy offers a generalized and therefore public thing, an ultimate res that refuses to privilege any given relation over any other—a “more democratic solution” of rocks, bodies, fragments, ligaments, and an endless catalogue from there, in touch with and sharing with one another. In this way, the an sich is still, as “à meme and exposure of the “to,” the ultima res. And this means the absolute is not the res abscondus, but rather the abscondus of the res: the secreting and motion away from signification in a way that hopefully makes sense retains a trace of the res along the way. It is time, then, to “learn to think toward the world.”[5] In the last poem of his Collected Poems, “Not Ideas about the Thing, but the Thing Itself,” published a year and half before his death, Stevens writes,

                                                            It was not from the vast ventriloquism

                                                            Of sleep’s faded papier-maché

                                                            The sun was coming from the outside.

                                                            That scrawny cry—It was

                                                            A chorister whose c preceded the choir.

                                                            It was part of the colossal sun,

                                                            Surrounded by its choral rings,

                                                            Still far away. It was like

                                                            A new knowledge of reality…

 


[1] Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concept of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 177. Henceforth cited as FCM.

 

[2] This is the locus of Graham Harman’s “object-oriented” philosophy, to think “a

universally given” as a de-localized givenness “withdraw[n] from all

perceptual and causal relations” (Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the

Carprentry of Things (Chicago, Il: Open Court Press, 2005), p. 20.

[3] This is why Nancy argues that “sense,” as touching, is an “untouchable touch,” since it can never grasp the full significance of the sense, the touch, that is open among things (FT, 110).

[4] The “test of the real” does not necessitate a return to ideologies that presume a hold over all sense, reducing the multiple of existence to singular significations (myths of human nature, God, etc.) less for the sake of realism than Reelpolitik. That is to say, we recognize the danger of those who have presaged an access to the real as a means for buttressing power (e.g., the “real” of a sexual or racial difference), though in turn these ideologies—never soon enough, but inexorably nonetheless—face the test of the real, the excess of sense of beyond any signification, which is another way of saying there is a future worthy of the name, unsignifiable by any tyrant of the present.

[5] SW, 191, n. 112.

Humans and other Animals

Renee at Womanist Musings and Feministe had a post up on the perhaps perverse effect of the animal rights’ movement on the politics of decolonization. Critical Animal, I think, replies a bit hastily but sets up the problem well. The reason I say hastily is because I think politics is always a question of strategy and at moments I think the rhetoric of a certain humanism is useful, as long as at the end we continue to recognize that we have to stop treating animals like animals, too:

So much of the struggles of the colonized and persons of color have come from a commitment to being human, too. 
There always exists a politics when a non-paradigmatic human being claims the title of human. This is as true for when the colonized claim to be humans, as when the Great Ape Projects argue for the personhood of Great Apes. However, in a fine Ranciere-ian fashion (a Ranciere devoid of his anthropocentrism, so therefore a Ranciere beyond Ranciere), while the claim to be human may be political, it does not remain political. For those of us on the critical animal studies side of the process, these political moments of demands for the right to claim humanness or personhood are also moments to continue the political. That is to say, to forward our argument that the human/animal distinction cannot stand. To say, “If you got this one wrong, maybe you very ordering system is wrong.” In this way we hope to not just change the count, but change the very logic of counting through this moment of tort. This is where I don’t know how to make common cause. For me, it is obvious that the wrong done to the non-paradigmatic human beings is based upon the ability to do wrong to animals. If we end the ability draw lines between the human on one side and all animals on the otherside, if we embrace the monstrosity of the human animal, then we end the ability to continue to do harm to people of color by calling them animals. That loses the power of justification. But it seems to me that for many people of color that such a move jeopardizes their lives instead of enriching their lives.
 

I realize I’ve just quoted a bit much of CA’s post. But here Derrida’s work in his lectures The Animal that Therefore I am is quite helpful. His critique of continuinism and so on don’t really advance much in this area, but his crucial point that in the history of philosophy just about every philosopher can be undone based upon where he (and it was a patriarchal he) put the human/animal distinction. Pedagogically, this is far more useful than, say, having to point out the metaphysics of presence or some such. But more to the point: it has the upshot of being right. And once this is destabilized, so does the dichotomy that soon follows in the modern period through to Hegel and beyond between the European and its dark other. Emmanuel Eze made a similar point in his last book on Enlightenment reason. So ultimately, I don’t think either hold, and in fact, pulling the thread on the first unspools the second rather quickly, since as we all too well know, the racialized other is invariably the animal other. All one needs to do is listen to the biopolitical rancor for a few minutes in any discussion of immigration in San Diego and beyond.

But Renee’s point is well taken, since we must recall how certain notions of human dignity are and continue to be crucial in decolonizing movements.