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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, May 3, 2010

Zeno to Mars in seven paragraphs

To philosophy, nothing is foreign. We can thread our way from the dry-as-dust, yawnworthy niceties of textual crit to being good and pissed off or scared or slack-jawed in wonder or love, in less time than it takes to say Bell's theorem. Or even, "Bell's theorem." This despite Zeno's assurance that we can't move at all. Partly this is because in philosophy we are engaged in a shuttling back-&-forth between claims and meta-claims; between assertions, and the ramifications of those assertions. The scientist qua scientist is interested in the fossil record; qua religious disputant, she may be interested in the death-knell this sounds for a literalist reading of Genesis 1-2. The philosopher is interested, however, in the strange moment in which these old rocks are seen as relevant to the question of the meaning of this ancient text; the frisson of emotional, intellectual, spiritual energy that comes to bear, no matter what "position" one takes. Earlier I illustrated my case regarding these "hidden paths that go from world to world" with poetry. In a poem, claims are made that are (within the world of the poem) indisputable and axiomatic. But not every "world" is overtly characterized by such axioms; some--perhaps far more--are characterized by questions. The questions deemed worth asking, or even askable, are the very texture of the projects I undertake, whether consciously or not. Or I might say that a question is a linguistic case of a "project." I am not sure I want to characterize too fully here the relation between "project" and"question"; the issue is complex. But what I have in mind is the sort of thing James means by "living options." It is the sort of thing, too, that I meant by saying that "Who do you trust?" is a philosophical question.

What is it that makes some questions qualify as "live" and others as "dead"? There are those who would say, it's a matter of pre-reflective commitment; it doesn't have much to do with considering evidence or argument, but with where you were born, where your class loyalties or interests lie. Can one ever get out of these entanglements to be able to turn 'round and view one's stance "from outside," dispassionately? Is this an aspiration to a "view from nowhere," or is it in any manner attainable? This is the question that has been asked since Plato described his strange prisoners
, fixed in place by habit and appetite, watching their big flatscreen T.V. Can we get out?

I wrote last post about Harman and Abram and their shared interest in a "more than human" world, in having done with anthropocentrism. While I have some reticence over whether this goal is either attainable or worthwhile for human beings, that's a separate issue. What I'd like to think a little bit on in this post is how this purely philosophical question ("anthropocentrism") opens onto ontological, aesthetic, ethical, ecological, political, and even fringe-scientific questions.

In naming both ontology and aesthetics, I have in mind Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics. Not the least powerful and important aspect of this book is the way Harman slips from shrewd accounts of comedy and metaphor, to an exploration of causality, re-fitting occasionalism to a modern set of questions.

Ethics and ecology seem pretty easy to show here: a great deal of Abram's effort is directed to reminding us about the claims of the nonhuman natural world and to pointing out how we've step-by-step closed ourselves off from even being able to consider these questions by wrapping ourselves in layer after layer of technological mediation. Levi Bryant has devoted more than one post (here are two) to questions of the intersection of ethics and object-oriented ontololgy, as well.

Politics seems a bit of a stretch, though, since politics at first seems to concern precisely human beings, and non-humans only secondarily, e.g. via such ecological concerns as Abram might raise. And what do I mean by "fringe science"?

Why, the time-honored question, Is there life on Mars?, of course. (That's paragraph seven, in case you were counting.)

And if not Mars, well then, somewhere "out there," and in fact Out There and Heading This Way. Over at The Duck of Minerva (which, let me be the first to admit, beats the hell out of Speculo Criticahoo preTentionis as a name for a philosophy blog), we find this reference to a story I missed first time around, regarding a paper, "Sovereignty and the UFO" by Alexander Wendt and Raymond Duvall. Here's the abstract:
Modern sovereignty is anthropocentric, constituted and organized by reference to human beings alone. Although a metaphysical assumption, anthropocentrism is of immense practical import, enabling modern states to command loyalty and resources from their subjects in pursuit of political projects. It has limits, however, which are brought clearly into view by the authoritative taboo on taking UFOs seriously. UFOs have never been systematically investigated by science or the state, because it is assumed to be known that none are extraterrestrial. Yet in fact this is not known, which makes the UFO taboo puzzling given the ET possibility. Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, the puzzle is explained by the functional imperatives of anthropocentric sovereignty, which cannot decide a UFO exception to anthropocentrism while preserving the ability to make such a decision. The UFO can be “known” only by not asking what it is.
Now there are lots of things I like about this. First of all, no one can deny there's a rush you feel, an almost guilty pleasure, in seeing the words "Foucault" and "UFO" in the same paragraph (and not even a review of Umberto Eco). (Jakobson or Levi-Strauss would point out that UFO simply transposes the U in the first syllable of foUcault's last name to the front, showing how the two signifiers always had a kind of magnetic draw to one another).

What Wendt and Duvall are arguing--they make their case again here, in response to some initial critique at The Monkey Cage--that the axiom upon which the secular state's authority rests is one that is implicitly pre-Copernican, and that this comes to view when confronted by the possibility that UFOs are of genuinely extra-terrestrial origin, a hypothesis they claim is excluded a priori by arguments like certain applications of the Fermi paradox ("if they were real, they'd be here by now", which strikes me as just Olber's paradox redux), or chestnuts like Sagan's "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," which are simply substitutes for real intellectual engagement. (The aforementioned Duck notes that Stephen Hawking, for one, has not been scared to talk about UFOs seriously, though he urges us not to talk with them.) Wendt and Duvall argue or imply that every real "scientific" investigation into UFOs covertly or expressly already excludes the possibility of finding a "real answer." (The above links at The Monkey Cage address some back-&-forth over whether this claim is well-founded).

What I find most interesting, of course, is the way the authors make plausible the move between philosophical and fringe-science concerns. Wendt and Duvall are naming (they allege) a taboo, a limit, and this is a limit to more than just the working assumptions of the state, though this is what interests them. It's also a limit of what questions are taken seriously. The world in which UFOs are taken as legitimate objects of interest is a different world from that in which they are pseudo-phenomena that distract gullible fantasists. This is more than a difference of what kinds of interrogative sentences you tend to form with your mouth; more than a question of "beliefs." Belief (in the modern epistemic sense) is a very weak word for this. It's a matter of the very texture of your experience.

There is, the authors urge, a decision that is compelled here, in precisely Carl Schmitt's sense ("Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.") Decision, a notion not too far from the leap of faith, a choice to inhabit--even, as I hope to make plausible, for only a moment--a different world, in which one can ask questions that would have occasioned only incredulity before. (Obviously there is much more nuance that one would have to spell out here in order not to collapse spiritual, scientific, poetic, and other experiences ("worlds") into one another. But let this very rough sketch stand for now).

To be sure, the thinkers Wendt and Duvall are appealing to, Agamben and Derrida and Foucault, are very unlike either Harman or Abram. Harman wants to revitalize metaphysics, to get back to work after the postmodernists' carnival of sliding signifiers; Abram wants to return us to the real lived experience of the senses after decades of textual hermeneutics and centuries of walling ourselves off from the feel of wind and the smell of earth. And yet, even appealing to thinkers of a very different critique of humanism, Wendt and Duvall have managed to argue that the blind spot of anthropocentrism is again precisely to make invisible to us--even when it "leaves radar tracks in F-16 gun sights"--what is, or at least what might be, "more than human."


  1. The sorrowful thing about Harman's more-than-human pursuits, is how incredibly anthropocentric they are, how they take the human experience (and abstract delineation) of consciousness categories(Husserl) and project them onto objects. I think it a worthy thing to pursue the more than human, but one does not start with the human in order to do so.

  2. I guess I feel about this much as I felt about Ombhurbhuva's critique (in his comment to the last post) of Abram as reducing Balinese animism to modern "treehugger"-ism. We are Westerners; we are bound to try to translate other cultures in terms we have. Translations can be nuanced or ham-fisted, but we have to have them. Likewise, I am a human being; "what is it like to be a bat," or an aluminum baking sheet, or an undersea volcanic fissure, are questions forever closed to me except via the most indirect of analogies. So I don't begrudge Harman his starting-point in intentionality; what you call his anthropomorphism I tend to see as his panpsychism, or as he says 'polypsychism'-- a point of both contact with and difference from Abram's project. I am not sure he would agree with me, though.