Month: January 2010

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: realismcourse.wordpress.com/

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:

Bill Martin Blogging…

One of my favorite people in academia is Bill Martin from DePaul University. I talked to him last summer about the fact that there doesn’t always seem to be the biggest pick-up on his work. Surely it can’t be because he has a sense of humor and quotes Mao and goes on tangents. (It’s not hurting Zizek.) But often I’ll see his name pop up elsewhere, such as being deported from some Latin American country for political protests. Anyway, he has quite a following with the Texas Board of Education:

The Texas Board of Education, worried that a scholar’s book about Marxism might infiltrate a portion of the state’s third grade curriculum, accidentally has removed from an approved list work by the author of the popular children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, The Dallas Morning News reported. The intended target was Bill Martin, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University, who offended some Texas board members with his book Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation. But the board accidentally removed work by Bill Martin Jr., author of Brown Bear. (Earlier language in this item incorrectly used the word “banned” to describe the Texas board’s action.)

I should say this is what makes it hard to find Bill’s books on amazon.com. I shudder to think what they would have done if it was “Unethical Marxism”…. And were they really worried that his books would infiltrate the 3rd grade set? As usual, I’m sure Bill has a better quip about this than I do…

You Can Work for Free! (A Call for SR Help)

By helping me with my Realism syllabus. Class begins monday (!) and I have to wrap it up in the next day or so. I ordered the books for the course already (of course), but I was banking on the SR collection to finish it off. Since that’s not coming down the pike in time, here’s what I have in something of the order that we’re reading. Thus, if you yourself have something great that you think would supplement the course well, then let me know, or just simply send it along. Keep in mind this is an upper level undergrad course. I expect a lot of my students, but I try not to have readings that necessitate too much prior reading in other philosophers. (If you are not on this list, it may be because I’m not finished. Or it may be that I was waiting for you to send me that cool essay that explains it all, so please do so.) I’ll just cut and paste from the readings:

Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, pp. 1-23
Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, pp. 23-98.

  • Start with Kant in order to set up the emphasis of the course: the problem of access and pivoting beyond the human/object correlation to another thinking of relations.

Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 3-30.
Whitehead, Process and Reality, pp. 61-82, pp. 208-235, pp. 283-302.

Mesle, selections from Process-Relational Philosophy

  • This sets up (1) a major response to Kant, sets up the notion of “speculation,” and the “relation” as a key metaphysical concept. (If you have Whitehead and you think other page numbers are more key, let me know–but I have to cut somewhere.)

Meillassoux, After Finitude.

Meillassoux, AF continued.

Meillassoux, AF continued.

  • Fairly obvious how this fits. I’ll probably cut down some of the reading in AF since it’s probably better to supplement it with one or two of the book reviews of it (along with my own writings on it).

See Gratton and Harman’s essays on Meillassoux, available on the website.
Brassier, Nihil Unbound, ch. 1.

  • More on the question of realism.

Harman, Prince of Networks, pp. t/b/a.

  • That’s how I have it on the syllabus. I’m torn about whether or not to spend a lot of time on Latour. If I start going through the early parts of the book, then I’ll have to do a lot of Latour. If I use some of it to set up Harman’s later discussion, then that obviates a long Latour detour. (I think there’s a rhyme somewhere in there…)

Harman’s audio lecture: http://anthem-group.net/2009/04/18/recording-of-graham-harman-in-dublin/

Harman, Prince of Networks, pp. t/b/a.

  • I thought I would break out with Harman’s audio lecture on substance before moving back into the later parts of the book, not least because I like trying to find other formats for learning in the course. (I was having a discussion with Mark Woods, a colleague, tonight about how quickly the Iphone is drastically changing our students—perhaps the biggest change in habits since the first introduction of PCs twenty years ago, perhaps even more.)

Meillassoux, Spectral Dilemma.

  • Could place this earlier—but this essay gets at a lot of the problems and questions his approach opens up, which is great for a course such as this.

From here, I have it somewhat open. I have orderd Delanda’s A New Philosophy of Society, but without spending a lot of time on Latour, this doesn’t make a lot of sense to use. It also would become a course on networks, and thus get away from the post-Kant thread I’m trying to develop.

I was going to cut and paste a number of articles I plan to use, or list those such as Zizek’s post-face to Adrian Johnston’s recent book (and an essay Johnston sent to me a couple of months ago for class use), but I’ll just stop here. Thanks in advance for any suggestions. Links, suggestions for videos and other links, age-old links to long discussions buried in Levi’s blog…whatever. I’ll love it.

Copyright this…

I think Scu is onto something here. The time has come where it’s disingenuous of established scholars critiquing the propertied system using that system when a viable alternative—various publishers, such as Re:Press—that provide free and online alternatives would do just as well. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have: how much do we uphold the values in the writings we produce. And in a lot of ways, this is of course a basic fallacy—the “you, too” fallacy that allows one to ignore the argument in the first place by crying about how the authors are hypocrites or something. On the other hand, I wonder about the cognitive dissonance of hearing a paper on the ethics owed to animals and then going to dinner with the writer of this paper only to see him (true story!) order chicken. When I said something like, “Oh, I thought you would be vegetarian” in a genuinely inquisitive way (I was actually surprised and it popped out of my mouth) he grew sheepish and simply said “I know, I know.”

We’re not all Platonists in believing that to know the truth is going to carry over to our ethical praxis. But there’s a pretense of a certain radicalism that is anything but….

(I’m not saying this opens up the lives of philosophers to nitpickers who simply want to scream “hypocrite” in order to keep the status quo. It’s not about saintliness or neo-stoic asceticism. And this isn’t aimed at those who recognize that we all are going to get “dirty hands” or have to live with our bad consciences. But it means that we should think of the praxis of our very position in society and ways for any supposed radicalism not simply to be a pose. And I also am not aiming this at Hardt and Negri in particular. Maybe it’s a good periodic reminder to myself, too.)

The Materials Library

With all the talk of book libraries going the way of Commodore 64s, there’s been an increase in material libraries. For those doing OOO, this offers fascinating examples. If there was a metal I could check out of this library (alas, not possible), it would be the memory alloy.

And when not on the iPhone

Living in San Diego means I get my New Yorker and New York Review of Books later than anyone else, after everyone else has commented on them. I hear Fresh Air on NPR about some Sy Hershman piece and I get it in the mail 10 days later. That said, the new NYRB is good this week. In particular, Tony Judt, an eminent historian of 20th century Europe, has a piece on his suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (surely my favorite baseball player of all time—I guess I like the strong silent type—next to Satchell Paige and deserving of a less horrifying disease named after him). There are a number of passages worth citing, and i don’t mean this simply for the pathos of engaging via the text the utter catastrophe of the later stages of his condition.

Much of the piece is taken up discussing his “cockroach like existence” (he makes an analogy to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and I may use this piece when I teach that work later this semester), in particular the dread he feels as his time to be alone each night comes. He can’t move and his piece—it feels exploitive to write this, but I will—would serve as a small work to put next to a discussion of embodiment vs. the Cartesian notions of the self. In other words, we pay too little attention to how much we physically move including when we are simply reading or sleeping. His muscle memory is still fully active and thus, in a passage that strikes at the heart of a lot of Western philosophical presumptions, he can’t begin to account or communicate for the loss his bodily movements have meant to him. Not in the sense of being able to run or simply save oneself from the worst if the case arises. Surely that, too. But more is simply the pleasure of movement itself. I’ll type in much of the last paragraphs:


Having something to do, in my case something purely celebral and verbal is a salutary diversion…. [I]t’s true that this disease has its enabling dimension: thanks to my inability to take notes or prepare them, my memory—already quite good—has improved considerably, with the help of techniques adapted from the ‘memory palace’ so intriguingly depicted by Jonathan Spence. But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated, inevitably–as it now appears to me–by those not exclusively dependent upon them. Much the same can be said of well-meaning encouragements to find nonphysical compensations for physical inadequacy. That way lies futility. Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name.
And so he concludes: “My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.” And so much is told and contained in the pithy “as it now appears to me.”