Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ethics, Mediation, Relation

There has been a marvelous discussion going on currently between Paul Ennis at anotherheideggerblog, Levi Bryant at Larval Subjects, Adrian Ivakhiv at Immanence, Graham Harman at Object-Oriented Philosophy, James Stanescu at Critical Animal, and elsewhere, regarding the articulation of an ethics within Speculative Realism, what Bryant calls a "flat" ethics because it puts all entities on the same ontological level. A good deal of this hangs upon the way that we construe relations and objects, which of these we consider to be ontologically prior, and so on. The whole debate is fraught with ramifications for ecology and ethics beyond the all-too-human. I hope Alf will have a look--I imagine he might be able to really sink his teeth into some of this.

The commentary online about the status of relations in Harman's ontology, and Bryant's also, is quite extensive. I am a relation-guy myself, quite sympathetic to an ontology that holds that relations go "all the way down," and that it is very difficult to elaborate a coherent account of saying what a thing is without reference to its relations. I count myself among those who have struggled to understand Harman’s account of how relations are even possible. (He seems to get this a lot; but sooner or later he will hit upon the right formulation. I also suspect that some of the resistance to his ideas may be of a less-than-philosophical nature; but then, this suspicion of mine is also less-than-philosophical). The clash tends to be between the readers of Deleuze or Whitehead who see relation as being fundamental (Ivakhiv seems to be holding out for this appraoch), and those like Harman who want to return pride-of-place to objects, which is another way of saying they want to re-establish substance as a central philosophical term. This camp would argue that you can't have relationship without relata, and that if you foreground relations too much, relata just melt into undifferentiation.

I don’t want to reiterate the whole discussion, even the recent one that has transpired over the past two or three days. But the entire debate is pertinent to the discussion we are having about authenticity and media or mediation. In this post I’m mainly going to think through a couple of examples.

Consider a couple dining before a night at the opera. She and he are sitting together at a bar in a noisy restaurant, in a certain upscale neighborhood, before heading to see and hear a performance of a piece of art from the 19th century. There are sex- and gender-roles, socially mediated; they are dressed up in evening clothes (socio-economic playacting); there's a complex dynamic of friendship. There is alcohol being consumed. All of this (and more) does more than impact or shape the encounter between them as they sit talking at the bar. This complex array of social mores and historical contingencies and gustatory processes is what mediates the encounter, is in fact how the encounter happens. To imagine that there could be some encounter without these mediations, an encounter one might abstract from them, or have instead if one could only screen out the noise, is nonsense. There would not be an authentic encounter, but rather no encounter whatsoever, without mediation. There can be other encounters (in other settings, on other occasions, with different menus and different outfits), but no "pure" encounter.

I take it that this is what Alf is getting in at the paper (I discussed & linked to in my last post), in asking about tents and tennis shoes in the desert or mountains; it's not as if running naked through the desert is more "authentic," or will better tell you what the desert is "really like," than hiking along sanely protected from the elements. It will tell you what it's like to run naked through the desert--more specifically, what it's like to run naked on this particular stretch of desert on this particular occasion. But follow this line of thought too far, pile on these qualifiers too deep, and you'll find that in deciding that you can't run naked through the same desert twice, you've bled dry the notion of "what it's like;" there's only what happens, only the experience itself. Sure, every experience is what it is, and not another experience, but how do we talk about experience-- i.e., generate experiences about other experiences? Either abstraction is possible, or thought falls dumb. This is the question of media.

Media are tremendous powers—I want to say that in one sense, they're the only power that is; that "power" or "capacity" is media. It is the power of construal. Any medium allows us to construe experience. But, the catch is, it also forces us to construe experience this way. No such constraint is absolute; the thrill of reading poetry is often the thrill of the frisson generated when language suddenly does something new, something we never thought it could do, and so lets us see—mediates—the world in a way never before open to us. But the question, "Is there a relationship that is not a construal?" seems simply another way of asking: "Is there an unmediated experience?"

To say what an experience "is like," as in our example of walking in the desert, is not to construe it any more than it is construed in the experience "itself." To speak of what it is like to feel the warmth of the sun with the first moments of sunrise may involve all manner of poetic license on my part, or may be scrupulously scientific; both accounts involve construing an uncapturable-in-words experience. But that experience is already a construal. The warmth is to me a pleasant shift from the night chill, and the growing light is welcome, bringing to mind certain half-thought kitschy associations of rebirth and hope in which I take a kind of guilty pleasure. This is already mediation enough; but to the burglar who wanted to finish the job before daybreak, the dawn is a serious glitch; to the lovers in a troubadour's aubade, it is the harbinger of bittersweet parting; to the owl or the bat, it is bedtime; to the ice crystals frosting the grass, it is dispersion.

This is more than mere perspectivism. The claim here is that the experience of shifting light and the temperature is always mediated (by physical process, by nervous systems, by social, cultural and private narratives). And, I would add, this means that Harman is exactly right to insist that construal happens between objects all the time. While we can't say what happens when the sunlight strikes the frost-covered lawn from the lights' or lawn's point of view, if I may riff on Harman's perspective, we can say that in acting on each other they construe each other in a sense, and this construal always gets it wrong, is always scandalously partial.

This may seem to take an unwarranted step. Perhaps one is willing to grant that the owl construes the dawn, and does so differently than do the lovers or the burglar. But one might balk at saying that the frost construes the sunlight, or vice-versa. Harman does not (as far as I recall) use the word "construe," so I may be mis-presenting his approach. But his point, I think, would be that the heat acts upon only a single quality of the ice crystals, and does not reach them "in themselves," and so too vice-versa. My suggestion is that if we take Harman seriously, we are bound to think not just in terms of causality but in terms of mediation. According to Harman, the sunlight’s encounter with the frost (and vice-versa) is just like the human subject’s encounter with the hammer that breaks in the opening sections of Being and Time: the "frost-in-itself" recedes into the vorhanden, from the sunlight’s point of view. The light and the frost each encounter the other in a kind of intentionality that is perfectly isomorphic with the intentionality Husserl describes. Harman calls his account of causality "vicarious causation" because "real objects never touch;" a real object only meets another via (and inside) a phenomenal object. And this means (so I claim): mediation.

I hardly know where to begin in enumerating the ways some of this play out in ethics, but in reading the discussions between Ennis, Bryant, Harman, Stanescu, Ivakhiv and others, I am quite struck by how it dovetails with considerations of media and authenticity, albeit a "problematized" authenticity.

I hope there will be some comments here to keep the conversation going, but in any case I will try in my next post I may to get to some ethical "implications," or rather, to asking in what sense this is the right question. For now I'll end with just two points.

First: the logic above that isolates every experience from every other (such that every instant is unrepeatable, e.g. "there is no running across the same desert twice"), does so by making every instant infinitely qualified. There is a radical over-determination of every entity and every event: nothing can be viewed in isolation. This follows a kind of ecological logic: just as a species cannot exist by itself, but only in an (endlessly ramified) ecological niche, so any entity whatsoever is regarded as endlessly qualified by its relations. The paradox, however, is that this ecology actually cuts off the branch it sits on, because ecology, like every science, depends upon abstraction and being able to marshall organized pronouncements of general statements, not just litanies of specifics. If this were not possible, it would also be impossible to conclude that it was impossible. Hence, abstraction is possible.

Second (and relatedly): I hasten to add that I believe one can meaningfully ask "what is it like to...?" and that it is a very good and profitable question, capable of a great deal of unpacking (as Thomas Nagel demonstrated). It's also the central question of empathy ("What is it like to be...?"); thus so asking it lands us in the heart of ethics. But the question still remains (here), how is it possible for us to ask it? There are some obvious connections to virtuality here, but that may not be the most interesting thing about it.


  1. Beautiful post, Skholiast.

    Yes, we are able to "show" that abstraction is possible--and yes, we do it by *using* abstractions. Any time you use language at all, you make concepts out of a reality that isn't a concept at all (as Nietzsche enjoyed pointing out), but you easily *naturalize* this conception-making and mistake it for the real (a la Heidegger's "Age of the World Picture"). I see this approach as necessary to get along in the world (or indeed, to have any "world" as opposed to undifferentiated flux) at all! But it's a strategic fiction, a useful lie that we tell ourselves to give ourselves the comfort of predictability. We nominalize flows to think we grasp them. Our God is a noun--and I find that suspicious.

  2. I also like your point about the black of the inkwell not being the black of the executioner's hood. But they could appear as such to a scanner. Thus enters the risk of scientific reductionism that thinks it has "the" picture of the world, when it only has an incredibly sharp picture of "a" world.

    Oh, my many relations.

    Yes, I am tempted to think that frost does in fact have an "umwelt" of sorts and that as a result, yes, it "construes" the sunlight. How else can it know how to respond? Orders from without? Given by whom? Obeyed how? Varela and Maturana's structure determinism in the Santiago school is great on such points. We tend to identify all cause with effective causes now, and that reduces the world to external impacts, not heeding the "motivated responses" of those "impacted."