A while ago I commented on a post of Chris Vitale's over at Networkologies, to the effect that he's right to argue that a philosophy ought to engage ethics and politics not just in the abstract but in concretely, in order to be worthy of the name. While I don't know that I share Vitale's politics in every respect, this argument that one needs to ask oneself about one's own privilege is such a given for me that I was surprised when Levi Bryant launched off from Chris's post and Archive Fire's concurring one, in a spirit of, well, mild cantankerousness. Bryant wasn't disputing their aim, but he argued that OOO is well ahead of the game as far as political engagement is concerned; in particular he was angry at what he took to be Michael's "suggesting that SR is an ivory tower discourse because it’s been developed by, well, philosophers." I cannot but agree with Levi that the embrace of online discussion by Speculative Realism is a potentially populist or meritocratic move. Such interaction as I get here is a clear sign that anyone with internet access and an ability to spell can potentially get taken seriously by people "inside the academy," and while this may not last forever, no one can deny how refreshing it is.
In the further response Ian Bogost made to Bryant (and Bryant's response back), there's a couple of moments I found very engaging and that spurred some further thoughts for me.
To start at the end: Bryant makes a distinction between what he calls "rote theory" and "theoretical practice." The latter term might smack of oxymoron, but this is a superficial reaction; it's actually a distinction well worth making. Bryant puts it in terms of psychoanalysis:
the psychoanalytic clinic is radically anti-normative and begins with each new analysand or patient on the premise that all of psychoanalysis will have to be recreated....ideally the analyst does not begin with a set of criteria or rules as to what is good for the analysand or what the outcome of analysis should be. ...the analyst aims for nothing more than that the analysand avow their (repressed) desire, even if that means ultimately rejecting that desire. The question of whether to embrace the desire or structure one’s life around the exclusion of that desire is ultimately up to the analysand.What this means is that the symptom is simply a site of interest; it's where the action is, so to speak. Bryant then goes on to speak of a sort of ideal Marxism:
if engagement with an empirical material is simply subsuming that material under existing diagnostic categories and concepts there’s little point in writing about this material.I have said that philosophy has to engage the question of norms, but I don't believe that philosophy must be normative. In fact, I rather suspect that norms are a kind of shorthand for what is our practice in any case: that is, norms are descriptive rather than prescriptive. What philosophy must direct us to is what we in fact do. What in fact does motivate us. Only from here can the move to the next question--how then will we live?--be anything other than a groundless thought-experiment.
The critique of bad or rote psychoanalysis is similar to the critique of bad or rote Marxism. At its best, Marxism is less a theory of how the social field is structured, than a theory of how to discover how the social field is structured.... [It] does not begin with a theory of how to change the social field (a proletarian revolution, for example), but instead looks for those lines of flight within the social field where change is taking place. Finally, good Marxism does not begin with a set of predefined normative criteria as to what is good for the social field, but like the Lacanian analyst that is an advocate for the analysand’s desire, instead looks for those new sets of values and ideals that are emerging within the social field as it “thinks” through what is good for it.
The distinction between the rote and the practical helps me to articulate a reaction I had, while reading both Bryant's earlier post and Ian Bogost's exchange in comments with David Rylance. I am quite struck by what Rylance said there:
intellectual arrogance arises ...from a refusal, first and foremost, to read for the other thinker's full intelligence, to read, that is, generously, to read a philosophy, even a political philosophy that thinks politics as ontology, for the broadest edifice of acuityI take this to mean that in disputes about other positions' relevance, or complicity, or whatever, it really does very little good to start from the assumption that a given position cannot be relevant, cannot but be complicit, apathetic, faux-radical. That is, I take Rylance's championing of generosity to be the suggestion that we just owe it to each other to assume the best. This is a position I am largely in sympathy with. And yet.
And yet, I really do get what Bogost says when he (as I take it) expresses exasperation with a sort of assumption of radicality in the academy. Caveat lector: I speak as an outsider here; I am recalling my own undergrad days and drawing conclusions from having talked this over long and hard with many close friends who are still in universities, at different levels, but I am not myself anymore "on the inside." But really, this doesn't just apply to academics anyway; I am addressing myself in all my halfhearted middleclass leftism. What I see is not Ivory-Tower syndrome (this has always struck me as a caricature), that is, not too much thinking; it's rather a kind of substitution for thought, a shorthand for thinking which misses practice. This is what I thought of when Bogost cited colleagues saying, "well, as a Marxist, I...." and "incanting Foucault and Zizek to each other." I honestly don't know what such name-dropping means in any given instance, but I have definitely experienced moments when it struck me as posturing, as pretend radicalism-- not transparent hypocrisy mind you, but a too-easy expression of radicalism that, if it were really taken seriously, would require a serious change of one's life. Nobody's being stared down by any Archaic Torso of Apollo here, because if they were, they wouldn't be able to go and collect their paycheck with a straight face.
At worst, these sorts of moves are a kind of intellectual kitsch, the "idle talk" Heidegger denounced. "One should speak only when one must not be silent... everything else is chatter," says Nietzsche (Human, all too human, preface, Book 2). Good advice for the philosopher, advice that can't but recall for us Wittgenstein, whether early or late ("Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent," Tractatus 7; "Explanations come to an end," Investigations 1). Philosophy, I hold, has the right to speak of anything; but it can only do so by relating it to everything. (This is, among other things, my take on Latour's triple injunction: "Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else." ["Irreductions", Interlude 1].) This raises the spectre of philosophy terminable and interminable, of course. To navigate among discourses (which is what it is to describe a Latourian hybrid) is is to hold to none of them. When the philosopher trails off in an implicit ellipsis (since no one can relate anything to everything explicitly), this is both an instruction or rule (Wittgenstein: "go on in the same way...") and a challenge--"find the exceptions." Both of these, as well as a kind of double ne plus ultra: one of weakness (this is as far as asking for explanations gets you), and one of danger (conform to the rule, or be ready for the consequences that befall the exception). So there is, as Voegelin saw, an irreducible political dimension. When one is
hemmed in, if not oppressed, from all sides by a flood of ideological language--meaning thereby language symbols that pretend to be concepts but are in fact unanalyzed topoi...he cannot deal with the users of ideological language as partners in a discussion, but has to make them the objects of investigation. (Autobiographical reflections ch 22.)This is putting the matter far more baldly than I am prepared to; I hold that one can indeed engage in discussion, as Socrates does with Callicles or with his accusers in Athens. In such discussions, of course, each party will accuse the other of changing their story, of equivocation, even of trickery; but Socrates has the advantage of "knowing he knows nothing," and so of having nothing to prove. He is in effect following Wittgenstein's advice:
Don't for heaven's sake be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense. (Culture and Value p 53e.)This is simply, I take it, the auto-analysis that philosophy is, in precisely the same sense as Bryant describes psychoanalytic practice. But it goes without saying, alas, that one notices more quickly the nonsense of the other person. Voegelin's reference above, to the replacement of concepts by "unanalyzed topics," is a case in point. These set-pieces, as it were: ready-made arguments that can act as surrogates for thought. These are not unlike ideological formulae, the equivalent of "fleet-footed Achilles", as for instance sketched in Flaubert's Dictionary of Platitudes. It's like a simulation of oral culture, but grievously alienated. And these are far easier to detect as the mote in your brother's eye than as the beam in one's own.
In the face of this impression that there's some mis-match between someone's ostensible radicalism and their practice, it can be hard to muster the generosity David Rylance was referring to. Over on Jon Cogburn's blog, I said a bit ago in a comment (linked to above) about norms that "that hurts my feelings" should not be something we are ashamed to say in philosophical engagement. Well, neither should "that pisses me off royally." It is here that I find Bryant's distinction between practice and "rote" helpful. The term "rote theory" gives me a name for what I'm impatient with, and having this name helps me to distinguish it from some kind of swamping mauvais foi that I need to make sure I'm outside of and untainted by. At one and the same time, I want to (1) hold myself to a practice of generosity (Davidsonian charity) that reminds me that I just don't know that anyone in any given instance is being as rote as I think they are; (2) recognize that my recoil is a recoil from my own alienation mirrored back to me; (3) feel the recoil, and act on it: that is, call the rote what it is; and (4) re-orient myself all over again to practice: pay attention to the nonsense that I say and do.
What I mean is that having a name for what bothers me, helps me to distinguish between my impression, and the person who may or may not be really glossing over the practical. I'm reminded of an apocryphal comment sometimes attributed to Plato (though it isn't his): Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. And, one might add, this means you too.