Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ 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.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Fine post from Amod concerning Speculative Realism, Ayn Rand (of all people), and the permutations of philosophy in China and India. He points out that Rand positions herself as a strong critic of Kant for some of the same reasons that the Meillassoux-inspired critique does: its too-strong separation between the human mind and the world of objects. Rand felt that in conceding that the mind could not grasp "the things themselves," Kant had surrendered to the forces of irrationalism; from here, it was spitting distance to the psychologism that Frege diagnosed in Husserl's first work, for instance. Now Levi Bryant has rejoined (rightly, I think) that what Rand rejected in Kant is to a large extent what both Harman and he, in their various ways, accept: namely, that there is a rift between objects, which Kant mistook for a local phenomenon between the human mind and other objects, but which Harman has rightly universalized, restoring to all things their lonely alienation. Whereas, what Rand wants to champion against Kant is a kind of anthropocentric grandeur--just the sort of thing that Harman's Object-Oriented take wants to jettison.
These points are, as I say, fair enough. Just because you're anti-Kant, it doesn't mean you're a Speculative Realist. Rand is probably more one example of what Harman might call a naive realist. Likewise, Bernard-Henri Lévy's recent work, De la Guerre en Philosophie, made a lot of headlines lately when it was noted that he'd cited The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant by Jean-Baptiste Botul as part of a broadside against the Sage of Konigsberg, failing to note that Botul is a nom de plume for French journalist Frédéric Pages, whose two works (there's one on Nietzsche too) under the moniker are clearly spoofs (as you might guess if you coin the correlate of, say, "Marxism" or "Darwinism" with Botul's name instead). But Lévy, while comparable to Rand in some ways, is not very close to S.R., and scoring points against him, while fun, isn't the same as making an argument against Harman or Meillassoux. (Parenthetically: What are these sorts of Sokal-farce dramas are supposed to prove, anyway? I've read quite a few reports now of Lévy's gaffe--he seems to be taking it with fairly good grace, so far--but I've found no, zero, nada, reviews of the substance of his anti-Kantian polemic [if anyone knows of one please comment]; it's as though his citation of a false name somehow invalidated his whole argument).
Back to Amod's post: the more interesting of his comparisons are with Indian and Chinese philosophy. Now I admit, I get very suspicious when great big terms like this, potentially encompassing centuries, get put on the table. "Greek" philosophy presents a very different visage if you look at Aristotle than if you look at Plotinus or at Maximus Confessor, and the same is true in reading "Chinese" thinking via Mencius or Moh Tzu or Hui Neng. As for "Indian," classical sources list various schools that are strongly divergent in premises, arguments, and conclusions. This divergence continues well into modern times (just compare Aurobindo with, say, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), and one has to back up quite far before these differences blur into a generic "subcontinental" philosophy. Amod is not making these sorts of mistakes (he clearly knows the material far better than I); I just have a nervous tic that makes me specify this when the subject is first introduced. And Amod skirts the question of differences in doctrine in a way I generally approve of: by reference to aesthetics. The typical piece of Indian art, in no matter what style, from a period of many centuries, features a human (or humanoid--it can be a divine or animal figure) in the center as an actor; the typical Chinese artwork, within the same parameters, is a landscape or some incidental scene. Amod's lesson: Indian thought, all due caveats made, tends towards subjectivism, the valorizing of the human agent, even if the ultimate version of this subjectivism is the emptying it of all specific content; on the other hand, Chinese thought tends towards a preoccupation with objects, the mountain or the grass or the cat or the snow.
This suggests to Amod that Speculative Realism's tendency is more "Chinese" than "Indian." Bryant reads this analogy as something of a misunderstanding, and Amod, to his credit, acknowledges that he's just starting to read S.R.-ists, but I think he's closer to the mark than Bryant gives him credit for (if I'm reading Bryant rightly). Of course, Bryant is (expressly) speaking not for all in the big S.R. tent, and some of Amod's points pertain more to Brassier (in his amenability to the Churchlands' eliminativism, for instance) than to Harman. Bryant responds to Amod:
Yes and no. Remember that for OOO there’s only one species of being: objects. The consequence that follows from this is that humans are objects too. As a result, humans can’t be excluded from ontological questions. They are every bit as interesting to the object-oriented ontologist as the relationship between, to use Harman’s favorite example, the relation between cotton and a flame.
Well, as Bryant says, "yes and no." Humans don't have anything to do with the cotton-flame relation, on Harman's account (unless they happen to witness a particular instance); this is what being an anti-correlationist means. I don't say that accepting this means we go all the way with eliminative materialism (and clearly Harman doesn't say so either), but I think it does mean that we are far more in tune with the spirit of a Chinese landscape that doesn't seem to require a viewer, than to an Indian scene turning about the center of a dancing god or warrior or princess. Bryant seems to read Amod's post as bespeaking a kind of entrenched obstacle, indeed even a correlationist obstacle, to getting where OO-thought is coming from; a tendency to always read "object" as the corollary to "subject" (= "Chinese" and "Indian," respectively):
I think Amod’s post reflects the connotations of the term “object-oriented”. Upon hearing this term the hasty reader might immediately conclude that “object-oriented” signifies the opposition of being “subject-oriented”, such that we are to be “objective” or “scientific”, as opposed to examining the human element....I believe Amod’s post is a testament to how deeply the connotations of words (like “object”) and certain oppositions (subject-object) are embedded in our metaphysical unconscious.
I read Amod quite differently, and stepping far away from the immediate context of S.R.-related debates--away from Kant and "realism" and so on--to the very different context of Asia, has helpfully reframed some of the questions for me, even if at the risk of orientalism (mine, not Amod's). By itself, Amod's post suggests to me that the indifference to the special status of the subject is more an attitude than a doctrine, and indeed--it occurs to me--might not even be capable of completely coherent formulation as doctrine. The emphasis on subjectivity or on object is, precisely, a matter of emphasis. In conjunction with Bryant's response, it suggests that OO-thought might be too glib in assuming it can shed just this dualism.