Words and Things

Larval Subjects has a great response to the ongoing discussion between Harman and Shaviro here. (Note to self: definitely part of the SR class I’m teaching in the Spring will have to take up the form of argumentation used, in particular the use of blogs, which means finding a way to make LS‘s stuff part of the course without wholly taking it out if its ongoing, experimental space.)


Let me dip my finger in here somewhere...

Let me dip my finger in here somewhere...

Now, if I can use of one of the terrible analogies that bring my classes to screeching halts, if the people doing SR are potters dutifully working away at their clay wheels on certain problems spinning past them, then I’m more like the person who comes by, tastes the mud, and offers a non-sequitur about the taste. But let me say that though I agree with about all that LS has written in his post, though I won’t step into the subject of Whitehead (what matters more, anyway, is less the reading of Whitehead than what LS and Harman are trying to argue through him). But let me cite a passage where I would take a pause:

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. …All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues…

As I noted here, I think LS is right about access, since once one asks about the being of that access itself (this is the move of Meillassoux) then the epistemological question “how do you know the real?” moves to the background. There is a conflation of the epistemological and the ontological in the name of an idealism that goes by another name (I think that Hallward is right that there is a slight of hand move in Meillassoux on this, but that’s something I discuss quickly in my Pli article). But the linguistic turn was not wholly concerned with access, and where it was it ended up being a neo-Kantian schematism. In fact, it’s not an accident that the same people getting vapors over SR and the non-human are also likely to be heard railing against discursive systems, linguistic structures, and other marks of the end of what Foucault called “man” (the doublet of thinking being and being). One need not take on Foucault’s account—I don’t—to say that (a) linguistic questions do abound when we talk about questions of power, about articulations of onto-theology, and so on. Nietzsche, to cite one figure mentioned by SR, was clear, since this desire that SR discusses manifested itself in the oppositions of metaphysical language, (b) beyond this political question, this view of language as a wholly human artifact appears rather unsubtle. This, at least, I think is behind some of the work I’ve read at Fractal Ontologies.


This is why I tend to read back through SR in terms of Nancy’s work since I think it’s not enough to give a non-human account of the real, but what is truly interesting about work in OOO or OOP is a non-human account of the sense or meaning of being. This is not to say that language is our access to being. Let me repeat that: this is not the new linguistic schematism. (This is why codeFoucault, for those interested, took time out in two lecture courses to argue against “social constructivism.”) But one doesn’t need to believe that universe is one large mechanism for the transfer of information (variations of string theory and even evolutionary biology have this idea), which only shows how we tend to transfer the later technologies to our metaphors for the universe, be it the watch of modern philosophy or the computers of today, to think that language is not a wholly human province. (Which is Heidegger’s argument and Agamben’s in the Open.

So, ok, you might say with that last point: critiquing Agamben and Heidegger, you can expand language to animals, but that still leaves us with philosophy as explaining the being of beings as it is to the living. But if language is an object among others (I mean this not as an artifact, but in the larval sense), then why not think the sense that passes between each object and the object that is language? Why think language as a mere human artifact? It’s not a question of access. But it is a question about the non-human dimension of language, which is one I’ll come back to, filling this out better with quotes from LS and OOP that show this isn’t a lazy insertion of the human back into SR.

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?

Agamben, correcting and extending Foucault…

agamben4I pulled this from a footnote that I’m about to delete, but this connects to something I was saying (half-jokingly) about Agamben in a recent post: Agamben argues that Foucault’s analysis needs to be “corrected” and “clarified,” since, despite Foucault’s extended analysis of pastoral power back to many of the theological figures mentioned by Agamben in Security, Territory, Population and The Birth of Biopolitics, “he appears to ignore the theological implications of the term oikonomia” (Il regno e la gloria, 128). Two pages later, he follows up on this dubious claim to point out a lesson: “when one undertakes an archaeological research, one must take into consideration the possibility that the genealogy of a concept” will lead to a “different sphere than one originally envisaged.” Thus, Foucault’s references to a number of the same, but not all figures, means that he concentrated on “medieval political treatises,” since “he was not attentive enough” to look for cconcepts in “different milieux” (RG, 129-30).

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.

Has anyone tried it?

I’m working on two different things at the moment, both of which ended in procrastination. First, I was playing the intrepid reporter that I once thought I would be, but am not, and used the magic google machine to pull up most egregious blogposts on woman by senior faculty in positions to hire (potentially–not literally in the sense of having jobs listed in the JFP). Wow, that left me even more sad. Not surprisingly, if you see the word “gender” or “feminism” on a site devoted to anything like phil of logic of phil of math, it’s generally not headed anywhere good. I’ll post my favorites (worsts?) later.

But second, I found this “how to write like Agamben site,” since I happened to be trying to get a pdf of an article on his latest book. It’s been online for a while. I wonder if it works. It was strange to see this right after a way-too-glowing review of Il regno e la gloria that I found. I won’t quote it here, not least because a book review is there to send you to read a book, and so it may not necessarily hold that what an author thinks is important is what she thinks is right. So quoting it to critique it is unfair.

Anyway, I was wondering if anyone produced some actual prose off of this. I wouldn’t pick the Old Testament, though. Too eastern. It has to be Roman. Also, one must say it “was the first time” x happened (though you can think of other examples can be thought of well predating it); it must say “it was the hidden juncture” of the whole Western paradigm, which itself has remained hidden (until this book appeared); and it must contradict exactly what you’ve either just said, or said in a previous book. And bonus points if you don’t ever mention your change in views: how, say, your claim that sovereignty in the West in Il regno is theological at its base completely contradicts the political case made in Homo Sacer. Oh and double bonus points if Foucault discussed it and you can say you now are “completing” his project by accusing him of neglecting the very point he first raised.

Response to Negri on Italian philosophy

Pier Rovati has a response to Negri’s pamphlet on Italian philosophy…

In spite of appearances, Antonio Negri’s obscure pamphlet ‘The Italian Difference’ does not really lend itself to a polemical discussion. It must be taken for what it is, a coup de théâtre dictated—as the author himself confesses—by a rather ingenuous moment of hubris. At the end of the day, it is a sparata, as we say in Italian. Such a blast would intend to strike at the entirety of Italian contemporary thought (and with particular violence against so-called ‘weak thought’) in its capacity as a philosophy of the master; at the same time, it positively exempts from this treatment three names—the old Gramsci, and the new Mario Tronti, the workerist, and Luisa Muraro, the feminist—in their capacity as, it would seem, philosophies that creatively resists the master by means of difference. Everything else is a desert.

True. But the next part (in itals) is best. One often seems a similar rhetoric in Agamben, which might explain why he and Negri are often writing at each other:

If there are no doubts about Gramsci, the two other names are—even for an Italian—quite unexpected. I wonder what those concerned by this bizarre ordering think about it (and then I ask myself: What status does he who arranges them arrogate to himself? Is he like the fourth man officiating at a football match?). …

This is a good point for anyone writing: the presumption to name the first, best, etc., of philosophy often comes with the notion (implicit or explicit) about how wonderful you are for being the first to recognize the first or the best. Not that one should always avoid this kind of rhetoric or can (obviously, we all have thoughts on various “firsts” and “bests”), but when it comes to infect one’s writing, then in the end you’re only writing your self-glorification as philosophy’s sovereign, always passing final judgement on the first and best, even though that presumption carries with it the idea that somehow you’ve read all of the archive of philosophy to say without a doubt that you haven’t missed some other writing that indeed would have been first or better on a particular topic. But I digress….

The next important point, though, turns to Vattimo’s so-called “weak thinking.” Now, I am not at all a Vattimo apologist and his work never had much influence on me. But every once in a while you’ll read an article from someone like Negri who thinks they’re making a brilliant suggestion that “weak thought” is just weakness or something. Why, that’s brilliant! As if Vattimo didn’t purposely take up the term with a certain irony, to oppose it to various philosophies that were too masterful, too hubristic. In fact, he wrote a lot on just this topic. Why, it’s even in the archive….

As for Negri’s intended targets, they revolve around the old motif, often used in reactionary terms, of the ‘poverty’ of Italian philosophy. I just want to say something about weak thought (‘the vilest point’ of the twentieth-century decline, as Negri delicately describes it), considering the fact that, at the beginning of the 1980s, I was its promoter together with Gianni Vattimo. Weak thought was an episode in the Italian philosophical debate that aroused considerable alarm in academia and whose effects (which also had significant international echoes) have yet to die out. These effects, which in part intersected with those of deconstruction, should induce some caution even in the worst-disposed of critics. I mean that, were he to exercise such caution, Negri would realize that what is at stake here is an issue of power [potere] that concerns the so-called metaphysical violence of philosophy, its administration of truth, and the elements of micro-government that follow from it, beginning with the real privileges that exist in the institutional circles of research.

I think Negri is well aware that there is a front of struggle within philosophy, related to the very way in which the scientificity of concepts is understood and knowledge as power [potere] is used. Negri’s sharp mind cannot overlook this Foucauldian inspiration of weak thought, unless he does so deliberately. As a matter of fact, his very strong thought could obviously fall into the critical horizon of weak thought itself.

I’m sorry to say this to a friend like Negri, but his pamphlet on the Italian difference is full of superficialities, that is, hurried verdicts which, as if wielding a machete, take the place of the reflection required by critical discourse. 

Humans and Other Objects

Larval Subjects has a great post up responding to Paul Ennis’s thought experiment on the future of speculative realism, namely that there will be the eventual reactionary insight that somehow humans have been forgotten, thus offering a desolation akin to the one on offer in ecological catastrophe:

Setting that aside, I think an additional point worth making is that today we simply cannot talk about the human without talking about objects. As Latour tirelessly argues, the great sin of modernity was to try and produce a schism between the world of nature entirely independent of humans and the world of the cultural entirely independent of nature. The problem is that the world in which we live is a world in which we’re constantly enmeshed in imbroglios with objects of all sorts. To understand ourselves is, in part, to understand these imbroglios with objects. Yet what do we in fact find in so much cultural and critical theory? We find a bracketing of objects so as to get at that which is specifically human– norms, cultural significations, ethics, politics, and so on. 

Agreed. Writing as someone whose work at times has been deeply embedded in those “bracketers,” I can say that killing off the beast of humanism hasn’t worked out all that well. Surely there is someone dusting off their old attacks on the anti-humanism of Derrida, et al., and simply finding and replacing “Derrida, Foucault,…” with “Meillassoux, Harman…” I would only add that Meillassoux’s notion of the subject, for example, is rather classical (a point I make with a bit more subtlety in my recent Pli article). But more importantly, what SR offers  is a thinking that would call on us to avert the very catastrophes that would make up the moral blackmail no doubt coming soon.

Call it the argument from catastrophe, in which you cite the real possibility of global environmental devastation (in a previous era it would have been the nuclear holocaust) and then accuse X figure of basically wanting that through some theoretical apparatus. In any event, what is exciting about the work in SR is how it meets up with work in environmental studies and animal ethics, to name but two areas, which have long argued for getting out of the human as a part of a larger normative project, part of which would be finding means for averting the very catastrophe in question. This is where, in a sense, I see SR going, namely connecting up with these other movements in such a way as to bolder SR’s normative accounts (such as they are). Or at least, I see these connections whenever I’m at an environmental philosophy conference.

Stiegler and the Art of Syllabi

Taking note of the Heidegger conference posted below makes me return to a problem I had putting together my syllabus this semester for a general continental philosophy course. I try to teach a completely different syllabus each year (a rule that I apply for all of my courses). I had to put in my book order before I could do my syllabus, which means I ordered too many books for what I could cover. In the end, it came down to whether I would work through Stiegler’s Time and Technics II or Foucault’s Birth of Bio-Politics. Yeah, those are sometimes the weird choices of syllabus writing. I like Foucault’s book since it allows me to teach him without spending forever on disciplinary power, which while important, is not the most interesting to teach. I also like this course since he talks quite a bit about his method and he’s also working through contemporary problems directly. Of course, the lacuna in the work is that he is describing what we could just call the ideology of a period (using that in the Enlightenment sense given Foucault’s critique of Marxian ideology analysis) and thus what may or may not be productive of given subjectivities in the neo-liberal period. Of course, this leads one easily to take up the entire problem of all of his genealogies, since it’s not always to consider the difference between those works productive of ideas (and thus not indicative of operative techniques of power) and those that are; the seeming test often in Foucault is that its simply a work that’s older. I imagine that if these neo-liberal texts were not modern but more dated, Foucault would be much more likely to identify them with a given technique of power, rather than hesitate as he does, which of course, points out a problem of his choice of any of his sources, however helpful his work often is. 

In any event, sourcing is also a problem in Stiegler’s work. First, I think the second volume of TT is better in the sense that it begins with a nice introduction of the first volume, Stephen Barker has really done a really flowing translation, and he takes up what I think would be issues more “relevant” to students. But I also worry that he relies on really outdated scientific ideas on biology and evolution, though ultimately if one is thinking of a “deconstructive materialism” or somesuch, as I often am, it’s a bit less than helpful than, say, Jean-Luc Nancy’s work, which while less interested in technology as such, offers better general discussions on differance and the real and the excess of sense of each thing. But if you have different ideas on this, let me know since there’s still time to switch things on the syllabus…