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Saturday, October 27, 2012

A massive reaction formation


I know Levi Bryant has his die-hard detractors and his many fans. I've never belonged squarely in one camp or the other. Bryant has written a lot of posts and I don't read his blog regularly, but from time to time I look in, occasionally I venture to comment, and usually I've learned something. I have also read a good bit of The Democracy of Objects, an undertaking I embarked upon with no agenda at all except, at first, to get a better handle on how Bryant uses the term "translation." From what I read, I genuinely think Bryant's book is a perfectly respectable presentation of an interesting metaphysical (yes, metaphysical) position. I have no axe to grind with his general approach. I am far from being a knee-jerk opponent (or champion) of Object-Oriented philosophy (you know who you are), and am indeed on record not just as admiring Graham Harman, but as seeing him as one of the most interesting and significant contemporary re-interpreters of the phenomenological tradition. Harman's philosophy has obvious affinities with (to say nothing of having inspired) Bryant's work; a fact I mention in hope of dispelling any suspicions of what follows as coming from some kind of unspoken partisan motive.

These caveats really ought to be totally unnecessary. If I feel the need to add them nonetheless, it's because blood gets pretty hot out there sometimes, and Bryant's latest is clearly meant to push those temperatures higher. Credit where it's due: Bryant calls it "Fighting Words," so he clearly knows he's being provocative. Just a little.
The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution.... It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation on the part of the humanities. ...We do everything to evade the truth of our age, to preserve our privilege. The truth of the matter, however– and I won’t even bother to make arguments here –is that naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today. If you find yourself explaining being in terms of the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history, or lived experience, then your thought deserves to be committed to flame.....This does not entail that what you’ve said is entirely useless. Nothing entirely misses the truth, including your secularized theological conception of being. There’s even a bit of truth in Christ, Paul, and Buddha. All you need to do is abandon the notion that humans aren’t an animal, that somehow being is dependent on humans and culture, and that somehow we have ends like knowledge and transcendence. All you have to do is re-interpret the entirety of your claims about lived experience, the signifier, culture, power, etc., in naturalistic terms. Then you might make a real contribution.
That "I won't even bother to make arguments here" is a nice touch, but I especially like the way he concedes generously that everyone -- even the Buddha, even Christ! -- has, you know, "a bit of truth." And so can you!, as Stephen Colbert might put it. Well, then, what must you do? Glad you asked! "All" you need to do is "re-interpret the entirety of your claims" in "naturalistic terms."

This is obviously polemic, and polemic hath its place. The question is, what place?

Myself, I always go back to Socrates. Socrates is no stranger to polemic, but it usually found him, not the other way around, and the Socratic motives for polemic are almost entirely negative, by which I mean, Socrates offers no position of his own. These days if you try that tack, you are liable to get scolded: "Dude, you're so negative! Do you have any actual proposal to put forward?" Well, pace those interpreters who insist that Socrates' professions of ignorance are all sarcastic, I believe he really does mean it when he claims not to know (though this is not all he means), and that this Socratic stance is far from having outlived its pertinence. To tell someone, in the name of honest inquiry, that you don't understand how their theory can work, is plainly different from telling them that your theory works, is, in fact the only realistic contender. Let alone that you also have a theory of why they are presenting such obfuscation and nonsense and daring to call it a theory.

By "It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation", one means -- difficult for whom? Because I don't find it difficult at all. Yes, it's an admissible hypothesis which, on a very, very prima facie basis, "saves the appearances," but there's about a dozen others that can do that too, and that do so without the high cost of pathologizing your interlocutor. Hmmm, say, maybe, you really don't buy the dismissal of "irreducible complexity" to the chance collision of molecules. Could you actually have reasons for this? Well, we'll never know, because you aren't even invited to the table. Or let's see, perhaps like Chalmers or Nagel you just think that the "hard problem" of consciousness is aptly named, that no account "from the outside" is likely to ever render a plausible transition to questions about "what it is like to be... [insert sentient being of choice]," and that this yields insuperable difficulties for naturalism. Or again, perhaps you have concluded that normativity points to a real and irreducible dimension of experience -- that, in short, Is cannot render us an Ought. All of these might be made the matter of interesting debates. But again, we don't really need to find out what those reasons are because we've already explained them in terms of your hurt feelings from being told you weren't the center of the universe anymore.

In short, those who are having difficulty "escap[ing] the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation" are those for whom "naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today." I have to say, this betokens a disappointing failure of imagination, to say nothing of being, well, tautological. You know what else are the only credible positions? I'll mention only a few:

Liberal democracy is the only viable political system, and free market capitalism is its economic counterpart.
Liberal democracy is the ever-thinner mask of a rapacious capitalism whose bankruptcy is apparent for all who have eyes to see.
The crisis of our day is a spiritual crisis that can only be met by re-tapping into the spiritual values of our heritage.
The crisis of our day arises from the mindless repetition of memes that were once functional and have outlived their use.
The gravest threat the West faces is radical Islam, which is waiting, waiting, waiting for us to show a moment of weakness.
The gravest threat the West faces is its own arrogant sense of manifest destiny which renders it incapable of even hearing the grievances of other cultures.

My point is not that these, too, are widely shared tunnel-vision versions of the inescapable horizon of thought in our day, and that Bryant's account leaves them out of consideration. It is that the very notion of an inescapable horizon of thought just leads to this sort of back-and-forth. If there is an inescapable horizon of thought, guess what? You don't need to worry, 'cause it's inescapable.

If we read Bryant's piece of polemic as a kind of manifesto, then I can acknowledge that it does a good job of not pulling punches and of laying out his position in an uncompromising way. He's told us who has a right to be heard and who has a warm and crackly destiny awaiting them in the auto-da-fé; who is going to be listened to and who is not. You stand advised.

There is, as I say, a place for this, and not every blog post needs to (or can) be argued in every detail. In his follow-up post, Bryant does provide some spelling-out of what he does and does not mean by the "naturalism" he endorses. But I'm not concerned with what he wants to defend. I am concerned with the jaw-dropping smugness with which he declares by fiat that his bottom line is the bottom line.

As mentioned, I do not speak here as an opponent of Object-Oriented philosophy -- a camp by whose vehemence I am occasionally taken aback. I also have no need to defend speaking in terms of "the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history," though of course all of these are relevant for certain purposes. I am ready to defend talking about "lived experience," another category Bryant says ought to be "consigned to the flames," but even this one I wouldn't say trumps everything. There is a discourse in which first-person, lived experience talk is inescapable, and it is folly (to say nothing of self-contradictory) to suggest we could do without it, but there are also discourses in which the role of the first person is vestigal and idealized away. What is interesting are the borders between these arenas. I've talked a bit about this here.

But if I call Bryant's post -- let's say, questionable -- it isn't because he's trashed my special discursive toy. I am not an academic and have no vested interest in any discipline's standard operating procedures. What I object to, and what anyone who is a philosopher ought to object to, is his two-easy-steps-procedure by which he stipulates which accounts of the universe will and will not be deemed "credible," and then explains away any dissenters with some hand-waving about trauma -- hand waving which, by the rules he's set up, cannot be disputed without confirming his conclusions. All anyone has to do, once they've bought in to this sort of double-bind, is to nod knowingly and exchange meaningful looks when someone looks flabbergasted at this dismissal, or tries to present an argument against it. In this game, a smug Mmm-hmm counts as a knock-down argument.

This is a very pragmatist, almost Rortyan, stance on Bryant's part (and the one observation I will make about OOO in this context is that it is often more pragmatist than it lets on. Please remember that in my estimation this is not a slur). Rorty was quite clear that argument served other purposes, political, social, and so on, and made no apologies for including among his rhetorical moves mockery, derision, and (feigned, as I see it) incomprehension. He was perfectly happy to say things like "no one can argue this way any more," simply defining those who we were "inclined to listen to" as those who had recourse to certain premises and arguments and not others. As a description, this seems to me to be incontestable -- there are in fact always certain moves that are excluded by the norms of any community. But to stipulate in advance what norms pertain to "today" -- to try to legislate these by fiat -- this is the kind of overreaching it is just hard to imagine Socrates attempting.

Stanley Rosen once remarked, about Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, that it was a polemic work and invited a polemic response -- an invitation, Rosen said, one would do well to resist, lest one find oneself playing on its terms. Obviously, in this case, I haven't done so. (Jon Cogburn makes a more measured -- and shorter! response in the comments to the post in question.) Perhaps I couldn't help it. I leave it to you to diagnose the underlying neurosis.

But I'll add one more thing on a non-polemic note. As complex and multilateral philosophical positions, naturalism and materialism obviously must be wrestled with, even (or rather, especially) by someone like myself who finds (some forms of) them so unsatisfactory. A thinker like Brassier, who obviously is as materialist as the universe is cold, knows enough to not take such views for granted but to establish them with a tremendous armature of justification. Brassier indicates the dimensions (and proportions) of this justificatory work in the interview I cited a while ago. But once one has done this justification (and it will likely always leave some of us -- me for instance, if I know me -- unsatisfied), one can also follow through with building upon these premises in interesting and novel ways. I actually do like a good deal of what Bryant does with naturalism in his own work, and even if I do not buy into his entire project, I find many of his illustrations thought-provoking, and doubtless I will keep reading and occasionally commenting on his blog. But the good news is, he doesn't have to reinterpret the entirety of what he says in non-naturalistic and non-materialist terms in order to salvage the bit of truth. He should just keep doing what he's doing. I just think he's not thinking very clearly when he's throwing fighting words around.

(UPDATE: Fairness compels me to note that in a comment) on his post, Bryant characterizes his psychoanalyzing stance about "narcissistic wounds" as a throwaway remark. This makes a big difference and my reaction is considerably softened by it. I can't retract everything because I simply disagree that what Bryant (I think) means by saying naturalism and materialism are in fact the only admissible positions today (or ever!), but I am glad to see him back off from what I could only see as an unfair tactic.)

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for this response. I read that post as well and tried to sit with what he was saying. All I could come up with was that I would need to wait for some conversion experience to enter into the vision he was promoting. And, again, perhaps that was part of the point. It forced me to look at how I understand and hold fundamental postures.

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  2. Interesting. I would add that you are not precisely identifying "pragmatist," which I bring up precisely because the term is often used in a derogatory way even though its reference-in-use is usually Rortian or neo-analytic and not classical or neo-classical pragmatism. Us classicals and neo-classicals would like to be known for our own merits and not for those of our cousins. All that said, yes, Bryant is very Rortian, especially in his synthesis of philosophy and rhetoric as something integrated rather than at odds as it commonly is.

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  3. p.s. I love Rorty's style, and I accept it because I believe his ends are good and just, and his practical means acceptable. Reading Rorty is one of the reasons why I became a philosopher, even if I do not accept some of his premises. I am not convinced that Bryant shares these ends precisely because of what he uses his rhetorical moves for, how he executes them, and how he treats his interlocutors in the process. As any pragmatist knows, the means are not divorced from the ends, for the means become the ends, and thus the same stated ends by less than gracious means are the same in name only.

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    1. Yes, I could have made a distinction between the pragmatists and the neo-pragmatists, I suppose. Let alone the pragmaticists! In any case, I too enjoyed reading Rorty -- especially Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, which was a very significant book for me once upon a time -- even though I certainly find huge swathes of his project problematic. He tends to shrug for the wrong reasons. (Socrates shrugs too, but cannot rest content with that.) I like very much the spirit of what you say about the way means become ends, though I'd want to think about it before I fully endorsed it. As to Bryant's "ends," I don't think I should speculate, given that I am so clearly out of sympathy with his means (at least in the post in question, which is all I am addressing here.) But I am very intentionally restricting myself to this single rhetorical move of setting up an unwinnable situation for non-naturalists here, and am not addressing things like his general style, which, while I acknowledge it comes off as irascible and defensive in places (I know what Ombhurbhuva is talking about when he mentions the "embattled tone," etc), is precisely not what I get to [psycho]analyze given that I've just written a long critique of scrutinizing motives. Not that I think this cannot be done in a responsible way -- but it would be a whole other post, and I'm not sure i want to put that much energy there.

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  4. I agree with your rhetorical analysis as far as it goes, and that Bryant sets up a double-bind which makes the discussion unwinnable for the non-naturalist who enters into its terms. This is the sort of "heads I win tails you lose" situation that Deleuze analysed as typical of intellectual discussion (in tne first part of DIALOGUES)and that he called the logic of the forced choice. But I think that there is a second double-bind and a second forced choice that I find more worrisome. That is the implication that if you are against anti-naturalism you must be in favour of naturalism as he, Levi Bryant, presents it. Now Levi uses Heidegggerian, and implicitly Tillichian, language to define naturalism: the naturalist is defined as "choosing nature...as the ground of being". This is theological language indeed, in the adulterated sense in which one uses theological as a shorthand for ontotheological. The only alternative he considers is the "obscurantist gesture" of those who recoil from this "naturalist revolution" (and I agree with thedescribe above that where he says "revolution" Bryant means conversion). The list of obscurantists he cites (Hegel, Marx, Merleau-Ponty, structuralism and post-structuralism, Foucault, Gadamer are all naturalists (or at least compatible with naturalism)! Even Hegel can be given a naturalistic interpretation. The difference with Bryant's block naturalism is that they think that nature is itself a concept that needs to be analysed and not just waved around as a flag. Bryant's coup de force is to trick the anti-anti-naturalists into swallowing as a block his naturalism and into seeing rival naturalists as anti-naturalists. This is the anxiety of influence with a vengeance.

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    1. Terence,

      welcome and thank you.

      What you suggest as re. Bryant's rhetoric may or may not be the case. (And from your presentation here I cannot tell where your analysis ends and your suspicions begin.) As I said in response to Jason, it isn't my business to analyze those motives here; but actually I suspect Bryant would be willing to countenance many forms of naturalism (beyond OOO), though of course he'll want to argue for his forms and perhaps also argue that other forms retain vestigial (at least) commitments to non-naturalism. In any case, as a semi-Tillichian myself, I can't very well have objections to theological language per se! Though of course I could object if it isn't owned up to. That would be a further analysis that I expressly did not undertake.

      I must, however, give you that "Block naturalism" is a good phrase.

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  5. Very well put. I'm resisting the urge to respond to Bryant's provocation... we'll see if I succeed or not.

    -Matt

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    1. Matt,

      I was actually wondering what you in particular would make of it.

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  6. I note that we are comforted in the follow up posts after the fashion of Prufrock:

    If one, settling a pillow by her head, 
      Should say, "That is not what I meant at all. 
      That is not it, at all." 

    It seems that naturalism is not what we took it to be but has morphed into ‘something rich and strange’.

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    1. om.,

      in some ways I'm quite sympathetic to this though. The bottom line of L.B.'s naturalism is still a rejection of anything but effective causation and No teleology neither, please, we're materialists. And this is enough for me to reject it. But I don't mind the re-definition, for in fact I might have to embark on the same infinite series of qualifications if someone asked me what I meant by teleology, or indeed "supernaturalism." I don't believe that just because one winds up dialectically saying "not this, not that," that one's commitments must necessarily undergo the death of a thousand cuts. The same things happens with friendship or piety or knowledge in the Platonic dialogues, and yet I don't concede that one comes away from these skeptical as to the existence of friendship or piety or etc.

      Bryant I believe has some grounds for insisting that he is not "reductionist," and in fact one of the things that his more uncompromising critics (e.g. Terrence's comment above, and number of his follow-up posts reproach him for is that he tries to smuggle "his version" of naturalishim into his argument against the non-naturalist, so that any anti- anti-naturalist must willy-nilly subscribe to his (Bryant's) version.

      Having said all that, I would have to read Bryant's several follow-up posts carefully before I concluded one way or the other. But my instinct and preference is always to be charitable and conclude that the problem if any is with presentation and not with mere "incoherence".

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  7. Levi's tendency is often to advance a position by polemical means, deliberately inciting misunderstandings so that he can clarify his position later and say, "Well, I didn't really mean it like that." There's also a density to his arguments that leads with bravado and (contrary to his own intentions, I think) only belatedly follows behind with an explanation of what difference it makes. If what is at issue is the survival of the humanities, then you have to tell the humanities why naturalism is necessary to its survival by putting that theoretical framework into practice. You can't just say that the humanities will become irrelevant without naturalism if you aren't actively enlivening the humanities with said naturalism.

    Second, and more importantly, I find something quite amiss when I'm being sold a position that is inherently ateleological while simultaneously being told that I must adopt this position. I genuinely do not understand how these two can jive. If my worldview or theory is meant to uncover non-necessity in nature (*the world), then my worldview or theory is itself not necessary. Whose innermost despair over insignificance does not confirm this naturally? But when the insignificance of nature is inverted into the necessity to theorized qua a "naturalized" speech, I'm tempted to say that the very core of the supposed insight is being betrayed. And so the same could be said about how "nature" is implicated in general. Of course it is true that there are biological, quantum-physical forces "underneath" everything; but I don't see how going on to talk about these forces necessarily puts them into play any more or less. And isn't that what Levi demands? That we talk about nature more than we have been? (And yet, if nature is implicated in all things and activities...?) In both cases, this naturalism that seems to want to liberate us ends up enslaving us to talking about nature. Ironically, this makes his naturalism slide into semiotics and semantics, despite itself.

    Alas, I've raised similar points for years and never get much of a hearing (somehow I become the linguistic idealist!), so I'll dump my objection here and not directly to Levi (my apologies).

    I'm content to admit the lack of any MUST be and to have my work condemned to fire by the famous philosopher "if need be." Worse fates than irrelevance could be imagined.

    Tim.

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    1. When I wrote that, "You can't just say that the humanities will become irrelevant without naturalism if you aren't actively enlivening the humanities with said naturalism," I think I overstated my case a bit. Of course Levi is trying to do just that, and I think he is succeeding. However, it often seems like we are being told that we must, for example, take neurology, biology, etc. into account-- that we must reread and rewrite Kant, Husserl, etc. in light of the insights of these sciences-- due to the sheer fact that materialism is the only "right" view of things de facto. But it comes back to that age-old distinction between showing and telling. I'd much rather be shown how naturalism can contribute in these ways than told that it can and should. DOING the thing is much better than telling us that we SHOULD do it. And again, I think Levi DOES DO the thing (better than most). It's just that, at times, I wish he wouldn't waste his time telling others that they, also, have to do it.

      Tim.

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    2. Tim,

      I'll leave the question of Bryant's motives and his tactics to one side, though I agree with your follow-up correction that he is trying to practice what he preaches. Your second question, which seems deeper (as you note) also seems to me to possibly involve a mistake. I'm thinking aloud here, and I'm not sticking to Bryant, so bear with me.

      On the supposition of radical contingency a la Meillassoux (which is not necessarily where Bryant is coming from), certainly "no worldview is necessary," in any ontological sense. But there are two senses in which (I think) one may still legitimately use the word. First, given a (ultimately ungrounded) set of laws, such laws can necessitate a worldview. Set up your universe with in such a way that all creatures can only see the red wavelength of light and you can predict certain things about their umwelt. If we say (as Meillassoux does) that everything is up for grabs initially, including the laws that determine "wavelengths" and the structures of organs that are sensitive to light, etc, then this gets more complicated, but the principle remains.

      Secondly, there is a normative or effective kind of "must" that says, If you want end X, you must adopt means A, not means B. This seems fairly close to what Bryant is saying, but I'm talking about the general question, not his project; as long as you have any project, you'll have a certain degree of necessity coming into play. A teleological project can occur as a local phenomenon within an ateleological cosmos. Or at least, this would be (I presume) the rejoinder to your objection. Brassier for instance, will perhaps say that thought can after all think the conditions of its own existence or non-existence, its own contingency, and can even say, if you want to think the truth, then think this!

      The difficulty, I believe, arises in a related but different quarter. It is that, on the radical naturalist's premises, any thought is a thing and no different from any other thing. This is the Laruellean contention, and (insofar as I understand him) Laruelle is notable for following this premise through, though I believe it really is just entailed by naturalism per se (except of course that Laruelle would want to say that "naturalism" is still a function of the "philosophical decision," I suspect). But I do not see what it means to call a thing qua thing "true." That is to say, "flat" ontology cannot support the normativity one needs for truth-claims (let alone for other value-claims). This may have been what you were getting at. But of course here we are moving into deeper waters.

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  8. I am not generally in sympathy with the kind of naturalism Bryant advocates, but I'm generally willing to give it a listen - until it starts becoming the kind of dogma that refuses to give anything else a listen. Then, why bother?

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  9. I talk about "why bother?" here: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/a-one-sided-debate-is-not-a-monologue-charity-towardstouchy-and-edgy-intercesseurs/
    It does contain the grudging compliment that Bryant gets me thinking, even if it is not what he wants me to think.

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