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, February 12, 2011

We have still never been modern, and now it's too late

Tim Morton pulls on his big-ideas boots with a post that is going to make certain naysayers roll their eyes.

He lines up colonialism, correlationism, and capitalism, with its ecological mayhem as fallout. These "three C's," I'm tempted to call them, he construes as symptoms of a single meta-phenomenon (though he doesn't put it quite like this). Then to each of these, he opposes some very recent occurrence:

1) Revolutions in the name of universal human values from which the orientalist West excluded the other for two centuries, thus making those places such as Egypt suddenly emerge in front of the West
2) The rise of anti-correlationist forms of speculative realism
3) Global warming and the emerging reaction to it as a genuine nonhuman entity

He argues, too, that these three fly in the face of what we might have expected. Arab countries weren't supposed to have any democratic tradition on which to draw. It was deconstruction and post-colonial theory that should have spelled the end of correlationism. And ecological inter-connectedness (relationalism) should have unified the world into a single system of feedback. To Morton, these three phenomena spell the end of modernity, understood as the era in which his three C's were ascendant.

I would rather put it in Latourian, by saying that the last excuses we had for thinking we ever had been modern are falling away. This is actually my single biggest objection to Morton's post, and though I make some more minor quibbles below, it's the one I really care about. In the same way as 9/11 did not "change the world" more than it showed us what world we really lived in, these events Morton lists reveal that modernity is characterized almost solely by the insistence that "we are modern." It's a tautological era. There is a before-and-after in history, but that's not it. (Hint: see remarks on dialectic in the last paragraph below.)

To the minor quibbles, then. Of course, it's as dangerous to hang your philosophy on today's headlines as on today's science. Can this be viewed as opportunist? Yes. Can it be seen as over-confidently assuming that philosophy (and not just any philosophy but this new philosophy) somehow has the privileged lens through which to see current affairs-- or even assuming that current affairs give a kind of empirical proof of said philosophy? Yes.

Well, I say, go for it. Make me believe it. Get ready (of course) for the doubters (to say nothing of the mockers), but do it-- marshal your arguments, deploy your analogies, and ready your rhetoric to persuade. What philosophy worth reading was not audacious? I actually think Morton makes a good prima facie case; I just would love to see it spelled out and made a place one can live, so to speak, instead of just a store-front.

I do want to push back a little. First, on what Morton is calling "congruence". I'm not saying one needs to prove that imperialism and idealism are "the same," but their rough chronological coincidence, or even their having been made to support each other, is not quite enough. One can be an idealist or a correlationist without being a colonialist; one can even be a capitalist without being a nationalist. Or-- can one? (I mean, without paying the price of incoherence?) Do ontology and politics implicate each other (or not), and if so how? (Some preliminary work on this is done in this post by Morton, and in some very good comments especially from Slatted Light, as well as another post on Dark Chemistry.

Second: Morton's three reasons for seeing his counter-phenomena as "paradoxical" are uneven. His political counterfactual is negative ("suposedly Arab states have no position X from which to do this job, but it turns out what they have is fine") whereas his philosophical and economic/ecological counterfactuals are positive ("supposedly positions Y & Z were going to do these job, but it turns out it was insufficient"). This somewhat hobbles his presentation, and I am not sure whether or how it affects his case.

The other push-back is: no, deconstruction didn't propel us out of "modernity," and ecological relationalism did not solve the eco crisis. But they are (one could argue) essential moments in the dialectic. And make no mistake, if you are going to argue that these three C's and their transformations are all of a piece, you are standing on the shoulders of Hegel. And this means (among other things) taking a very long view. Which, I hasten to add, is what Morton's critics will need to do, rather than focusing--as will certainly be tempting--on the immediate (e.g., "we don't know what sort of regime will emerge in Egypt yet,", or even "God! what a topical, fly-by-night desperate play for of object-oriented relevance.") That is, if we are doing philosophy here.


  1. Big ideas boots! Usually I wear the open toed sandals of doubt.

  2. By the way--putting it in Latourian is just right I think. Yet we "were" modern to the extent that the era had very real effects on very real beings.

  3. Right, Tim. I take it that when Latour makes his WHNBM claim, he's saying we have been wrong on our self-description, but not that that self-description has had no effects. Quite the contrary-- among other things, we have been upping our dose of alienation every year.

    As to footwear, philosophers need more than one pair.

  4. PLease don't think I'm pulling either of your legs here (with either the open toed sandal of doubt or the big idea pair on) but I found that exchange one of the funniest yet. I sincerely hope it reaches as much fame as the lava lamp did. Massively funny. ANd seriously good. I DO actually have a pair of big idea boots, (a solid steel-toe variety from Doc MArtin which I like to wear if I am going to nightcllubs or anywhere north of where my comfort zone happens to be at the time) and so with pleasure I will credit Skoliast with the idea if confirmed that it originated in his mind. Likewise, the open toed sandal of doubt ( apair of which I also own, in the shape of a very fine grey, velcro modeled Helly Hansen pair I found in Cornwall on sale for forty quid, the shopping center in Penzance has a open window that out to bay and environs one can have coffee and looka t Mont st Michel) i highly enjoyed that day. (the purchase of my big ideas boots was somewhat less picturesquel they wern't 'on sale' and I somehow regret buying the option without laces; mine slip on and I'm not sure if i can qualify in that sense as someone who has a pair to pull on, which I suggest is the knee high boot, and although I have been known to ride a horse...) but I digress. To the point tho. I'm actually surprised to see that Tim's sandels are of doubt, not something more squishy, or something not cynical but, like, i think somewhere he says, I'd prefer to be called hypocritical than take the pill of cynicism (although I concede doubt is neither of these). Interesting! (read on ... (yes I;ve stolen that phrase)...Currently standing in socks on a carpet (typing standing up) introduces my third pair of feet-objects and ideas, as Rilke did talk highly of writing while standing up, tho he had little to say about what shoes one ought to wear while doing so. What's also interesting is that there are contemporary metaphors of barefoot thinking, highly extolled and practiced by myself several times throughout the year. I may sound like Ficino here (man must rub legs vigourously in bath every day for good health) to sugest the barefoot walking approach is far superior to either the big idea boots or the open sandels. (From my own visits to the "east" i contend it is more rather than less likely that in that very famous park in what has come to be known as Athens, most were barefoot. I digress.... however as with all these matters, one has to try out each method and perhaps not choose one over the other. But, as the reader will notice that I have no big pull-on pair of my own I had better get a pair soonish rather than laterish. A difficult shopping expedition therefore awaits (I have squat legs and a long torso, these riding boots won't look good on me!). Until that happens I'll pull on my own steel toe capped pair as and when i can, but do please remember that in the "north" spring is imminent, a season in which I am more inclined to go barefoot. "Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contain multitudes" as Whitman said, ringing in my ears as I go... an abiding image of my other shoes, available and to hand--(!) would I think be too descriptive for this post. But with cursory reflection I can see that I lean toward pulling off shoes, rather than pulling any particular pair on "to wit" for "thinking barefoot" is preferable to me. Thankyou both so much for providing me the opportunity to clarify some relevant issues about myself, and please forgive me for not including in this short commentary anything intelligent about what else the two of you are saying. I'd like to sign this "a peasant" but I think, in the interests of sincerity, I'll just say "Cheers." You've both made my day.

  5. ps: i can't resist this. saying : "That was a p(l)easant-post 'on shoes'

  6. Daz,

    I think Heidegger on Van Gogh does it better, but maybe that's not quite fair. His are big shoes to fill!