Month: January 2010

Non-Human Value (Part II)

I just noticed that I didn’t click “read on” for the rest of Larval Subject’s post. He writes:

If ontologically we cannot presuppose the formal identity of agents across diversity– indeed, if we cannot even presuppose our own identity by virtue of the fact that we become new agencies when we enter into new relations –rule-based ethical systems are out the window. Or perhaps, less dramatically, rules, criteria of judgment, are effects or results, not grounds. Yet if the domain of the ethical is not the domain of rules that would allow us to evaluate particular circumstances according to universal rules, then what is it? Perhaps, rather than judgment, the domain of the ethico-politico field is the domain not of judgment, but of problematizations. In other words, it would be the domain wherein problems of the coordination of networks or assemblages are formed. What we previously referred to as norms or rules would instead become attractors, tendencies, paths towards actualization of collective-bodies (groups, assemblages, or ecologies, all of which are objects at higher orders of scale and complexity).

I was going to write that in fact the speculative realism class, by doing Latour for example, is already doing work on value and normative theory. Another way to look at what Larval is talking about is what is eventually going to upend all notions of responsibility and duties, but just hasn’t taken, since philosophers are about three hundreds years behind the brain materialists. Here I’ll name Derrida here and just say he begins crucial work by undercutting the human/animal distinction (and therefore human/machine difference) as between “responding” and “reacting” in The Animal that Therefore I am. For an era of certain philosophers, the main complaint they had about the social sciences (see Arendt’s On Violence essay) is that they treated human beings as objects. We see that even more now. But we can’t wish this away, just as we wouldn’t wish away the knowledge that a certain cranial defect in a defendant mitigates his/her responsibility for a crime. The question has long been, though, how far we go: do synapses firing off not offer a mitigation? Why not the fact that “choice” is but an a posteriori fiction moments are the brain has fired off its commands? We’ll leave aside the whole question of freedom here, but at the least sometimes the more just result is not treating humans as objects too much, but too little, since see the human being as a reactive body (in this case of a “defect” of some sort) would lead us to acknowledge our problematic conceptions of blameworthiness.

Put otherwise, our jurisprudence, it’s not original to say, is founded on a woefully out of date conception of free will. But in recent years you have this conception sutured to base materialist conceptions of the brain, thus leading to judgments based upon taking 6th century conceptions of free will and marrying them to 21st century science. (Oh, it’s not a defect, then it’s perfectly free will—an either/or.) I’m sorry if, by the way, I’m not properly problematizing my language along the way: if it helps, just put rabbit ears around every word you want to contest.

The point is that this calls for more, not less, conceptions of ethics and objects. A lot is jumbled in here above, but to be clear, I think Larval is on to the right question: not whether or not ethics are simply human, but why we ever circumscribed them to the so-called human in the first place.

Non-Human Value

Larval Subjects is up with a post tonight on non-human values. Putting to the side the question of meaning, which is heavily discussed in the semantics of Anglo-American realism, I think a lot of this work is already done in environmental studies. Why not piggy back on them? (Note to self: find a less “use pigs as mules” metaphor) Basically I’ve left the latter part of the Realism class I’m teaching now under the heading of “to be announced.” (That’s a first for any syllabus I’ve ever had.) I want to see how the class does with the first set of readings before making a final decision in the next couple of weeks on the precise readings. Basically, I had an idea of what I wanted to cover if the Re:Press volume on speculative realism would have come out. But I’ve already gotten Mark Woods, who teaches in my department, to share part of his book-in-progress on wilderness studies. They are working with many of the same programs, speculatively speaking, of how to pivot to non-anthropocentric conceptions of “nature” (not in the old sense of the other side of the culture/nature binary), which means not using utilitarian notions (good environment = happier people as an end) to ground the work they are doing. Woods in particular, I think, speaks to this in a way that matches up well with this, and I think it will make a nice capper to the course, after so much other work on Latour, Meillassoux, Harman, Bryant, etc. In other words, some might be doing an object oriented philosophy, but that doesn’t mean this philosophy may not help human beings rethink conception that found intra-human ethical conceptions. Or at least, that’s a good question to raise in a realism class.

Toscano on Sloterdijk

I slogged through a bunch of Sloterdijk this past year (the Spheres volumes are some 3000 pages, so I’m not even going to pretend that I got through even two-thirds of it) and as I wended my way through Sloterdijk’s use of a certain metaphor (bubbles?) that managed to explain too much and too little at the same time, I was left with the same conclusion as Toscano: “the underlying project remains profoundly unpersuasive.”I didn’t even end up taking a whole lot that I would use for a paper or some such… which surprised me.

SR Course–First Readings

The Problem of Access:
Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics
Jill Vance Buroke, Introductory Overview of Kant’s Project

Michael Dummett, “Realism and Anti-Realism”
“Realism” from Blackwell’s A Companion to Metaphysics

The Speculative Move from Kant:
Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude
Meillassoux, “Spectral Dilemma”
Peter Gratton, “Meillassoux’s Ontology of What May Be”
Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound, Chapter 3: “The Enigma of Realism”

Course Blog

I’ll be sending students online to comment on the various texts. Feel free to pass by and comment as well! (For would-be trolls and other miscreants: these are students. I know many of them already and they are lovely, inquisitive people. Just like you might have been. So, nice comments only. You can certainly ask tough questions—but keep the abuse to the people who are forced to interact with you already. I can’t believe I have to type this…) And course, if you’re an author of a text they’re reading (fingers crossed on Kant!), you are warmly invited to attend this semester long event. Here’s the blog url:

Yeah, that’s a tough one to remember.

Realism Course Description (from the syllabus)

I typed this up a bit quickly this morning, but it will do:

Course Description:
The topic of this course is realism. Nothing makes philosophy appear both so silly and strangely important as when it comes to ultimate metaphysical speculation: what is real? This gives rise to the classic pseudo-puzzles (“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”) that make for good nerd discussions late night in the dorm room, but not much else. Yet, there is no denying that there is a general anxiety about the nature of reality; movies such as The Matrix trade off worries that what we take to be “real” may be simply an illusion of our minds, or worse, the ideas put into us to keep us, as Morpheus says, the equivalent of batteries.

The Continental philosophical tradition in which I work has largely left this question aside. There certainly has been a long discussion of the nature of reality, along with critiques of the classical, Platonic notion of substances and identities. But it has recently been argued that with its attention to language systems (all we can know is what is in language), Continental philosophy has largely given up the most classical philosophical question: to think about what there is in the world when no one is there to think it. We will begin the course with Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, along with some portions of his larger Critique of Pure Reason. Kant’s work would take a course to cover. But we begin with him to think through the problems that Kant raises about what he calls the “in-itself,” that is, what is “out there” in the world outside of the filter of human understanding. The problem that Kant raises is that of access: if reality is always filtered in some way, how can we know what it is outside of these human filters. The argument in recent years by such philosophers as Quentin Meillassoux is that the “linguistic turn” in philosophy has meant not a critique of Kant, but a reinforcement of his view that reality as such cannot be known (but can be thought—we’ll leave that aside for now). In other words, where Kant proposed one type of “filter,” later thinkers say that language itself is a prison from which we cannot break free.

After reviewing Kant, we will turn to the writings of Martin Heidegger. Our detour to Heidegger will be brief but important. We will ask of his work if he continues to think of reality in “anthropocentric” terms: is the universe but an extension of human meaning? Is anything outside our gaze meaningless? Is it any less “real”? We will also turn to the now classic essay of Michael Dummett, an Anglo-American philosopher, on realism and anti-realism. Dummett argues, rightly in my view, that arguments over “realism” are often over semantics. To put it in my own way, Plato in a certain sense was no less a “realist” because he thought Ideas were more real than bodies. And Kant certainly argues for his own form of realism, even if both Plato and Kant are considered idealists.

The main view of the past two centuries is that reality as such is to be found in how we think about the fundamental relation between humans and the world (or in John McDowell’s formulation, “mind and world”). Quentin Meillassoux critiques this view in his 2006 After Finitude. We will read several commentators on Meillassoux’s work, which is important if flawed in crucial ways. After Meillassoux, we are forced to ask about whether the relation between and among beings other than simply humans and the world (the “and” is the place of this relation) is of equal import in thinking about objects and reality. We will turn to Bruno Latour’s recent work, along with his able commentator, Graham Harman, to think about the nature of objects not simply “natural” (meteors, space dust, etc.) but “social” and how they could be thought to be real.

After Latour, we will read from Harman’s work on speculative realism and what he calls “object oriented philosophy.” Other commenters such as Iain Bogost and L. Paul Bryant will be brought to bear on this area of philosophy. From here, we will turn to Adrian Johnston and Slavoj Zizek’s critique of Meillassoux and other forms of speculative realism. The question that will come to the fore is whether or not there is something lost in focusing on the nature of reality.

As you can see from the syllabus below, this brief summary has left out some of the readings we will take up. Importantly, this is an area of contemporary philosophy and, as such, is one that is still in the making. Adjustments will no doubt be made to the syllabus along the way and the reading, especially in the beginning, will be difficult. And just as importantly, I will be bringing in other forms of readings and materials than simply the books on order: blog posts, wiki discussions of the materials, audio and video lectures, etc. The content of the course is realism, but also in my mind is how this very contemporary work is being done through online media. Is there a way that this is changing the nature of philosophy, not just in terms of critiquing some of its classic concepts, but in terms of how it is done?

The tasks of this course are reducible to one: to enable you to produce a rigorous, interesting, and well argued 15-20 page paper on a topic chosen from the course readings. This will mean that you will have to prepare by coming to the class having done the readings, having commented, when possible, on the course blog, and commenting to others through class participation. Finally, this is a senior level class. I will teach it in the same manner as a first year seminar in graduate school. There will be no hand holding (perhaps some gentle scolding). But just as important, this is an areas that I am now researching and thus I will value your ideas on the readings. Make your arguments, find room to agree or disagree with claims that I and the authors make. Don’t just write down notes; respond. Here are the course requirements: