As 2016 comes to a close, I’d like to rant about people who say “Happy Gregorian New Year,” but I’ve written about that elsewhere. For now, I’m getting ready for a busy 2017 for publications and conferences. Continue reading
Category Archives: philosophy
Kant, like many philosophers, is notoriously difficult to read. Some people blame his proclivity for pedantic exuberance. That’s not totally inaccurate, but for me, the specific cause of the difficulty in my reading of Kant is that he is so wrong, more specifically, so incapable and comprised. It reminds me that, in British English, Kant and “Can’t” are homophones. Continue reading
One of many important contributions of poststructuralist and postcolonial philosophies is the recognition that there are severe limitations to theoretical-political uses of the category of “diversity.” While some might naively ask how philosophies can undergo revision to be more tolerant and inclusive of diversity, the real question is how the category of diversity can be opened up to make room for something less philosophically ignorant. Discourses on diversity are espoused by philodoxers, lovers of opinions who fail to question their own presuppositions and fail to understand the grounds of what is given as diversity.
Poststructuralist and postcolonial concepts of difference provide means for thinking deeper than the category of diversity allows. Deleuze’s philosophy is a good example: “Diversity is given, but difference is that by which the given is given, that by which the given is given as diverse. Difference is not phenomenon but the noumenon closest to the phenomenon. […] Every diversity and every change refers to a difference which is its sufficient reason” (Difference and Repetition).
Homi Bhabha’s shift from cultural diversity to cultural difference is another good example. Kwok Pui-Lan gives a cogent summary.
The debate on multiculturalism in the United States has pointed to its inadequacy in dealing with diversity, because it fails to confront the dominant white culture’s power to define, appropriate, and assimilate minority cultures, in other words, its power to set the rules of the game. Following Homi Bhabha, I have come to see the limitations of cultural diversity when articulated within a liberal paradigm, which treats different cultures as mutually interacting and competing on the same footing in the public square. Such an approach often assumes the stance of cultural relativity, which calls for cultural exchange, the tolerance of diversity, and the management of conflicts through democratic means. Instead, Bhabha uses the term “cultural difference” to underscore that the interaction of cultures in the postcolonial world is always imbued with power and authority. Difference arises not because there are many preconstituted cultures existing side by side, but is manufactured through particular discourses at critical moments when the status quo is questioned. […] Furthermore, the tension and anxieties elicited by cultural difference are always overlaid and heightened by the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. (Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology)
Whereas the category of diversity makes issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality look like matters of identity politics, the category of difference trades identity politics for a politics of difference, for which race, class, gender, and sexuality are not given identities but are differential relations constituted through the tensions, ruptures, and resistance of asymmetrical powers. This is a rather old point, finding its explicit expression beginning in the late 1960s. However, the persistence of liberal discourses on diversity and identity politics indicates that this point has yet to be understood outside of the rare achievements of poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, and difference feminism. Along those lines, it’s apparent that liberalism has failed. Like McKenzie Wark said recently, “not only the old socialism but also the old liberalism is dead.” This death needs to sink in before proceeding to articulate a politics of difference. Mourning is important, otherwise melancholy will pull us back into the same old discourses on diversity and identity. “So mourn good and long. And then we’ll organize, but differently.”
“Tomorrow we shall have to invent, once more, the reality of this world.” (Octavio Paz)
In keeping with the evolutionary varieties of animal and early human intelligence, present danger is assessed in emergency-ontological terms: one interprets the situation as an interruption of prolonged calm by a now acute threat. The deep biological rootedness of the major stress reaction proves that the utmost is evolutionarily commonplace. Though the state of emergency is inscribed in the human body like an innate expectation, it is triggered by the emergency assessment of the decision center. In this sense, even animals are ontologists. It is the leader that decides on the emergence: if it flees, it flips the “cognitive energy switch” in the other animals, as previously in itself, before gesturally declaring the case of application for the categorical imperative of the adrenal gland: from now on, throw everything to the front! Faced with these circumstances, the most real is given in real presence. You stand facing your danger, the potential bringer of your death, your god and stressor. Anyone who is unfamiliar with this has no idea what it means to act at the limit.
Peter Sloterdijk, Foams: Plural Spherology: Spheres, Volume III (p. 390-91)
Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you. Continue reading
Coexistentialism and the Unbearable
Intimacy of Ecological Emergency
Ecocritical Theory and Practice Series, Lexington Books, 2016
The philosophy of existentialism is undergoing an ecological renewal, as global warming, mass extinction, and other signs of the planetary scale of human actions are making it glaringly apparent that existence is always ecological coexistence. One of the most urgent problems in the current ecological emergency is that humans cannot bear to face the emergency. Its earth-shattering implications are ignored in favor of more solutions, fixes, and sustainability transitions. Solutions cannot solve much when they cannot face what it means to be human amidst unprecedented uncertainty and intimate interconnectedness. Attention to such uncertainty and interconnectedness is what “ecological existentialism” (Deborah Bird Rose) or “coexistentialism” (Timothy Morton) is all about.
This book follows Rose, Morton, and many others (e.g., Jean-Luc Nancy, Peter Sloterdijk, and Luce Irigaray) who are currently taking up the styles of thinking conveyed in existentialism, renewing existentialist affirmations of experience, paradox, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and extending existentialism beyond humans to include attention to the uniqueness and strangeness of all beings—all humans and nonhumans woven into ecological coexistence. Along the way, coexistentialism finds productive alliances and tensions amidst many areas of inquiry, including ecocriticism, ecological humanities, object-oriented ontology, feminism, phenomenology, deconstruction, new materialism, and more. This is a book for anyone who seeks to refute cynicism and loneliness and affirm coexistence.
“With refreshing style and intellectual forcefulness, Sam Mickey widens the scope of existentialism and shows how it offers important resources to address our urgent ecological situation. Here existentialism becomes coexistentialism, and through it we glimpse a chance to strengthen our existence together on a fragile planet. Make this book part of your coexistence!”
— Clayton Crockett, author of Deleuze Beyond Badiou and Radical Political Theology
“Is there an ecological style of engaging with things that aren’t me, yet share and even overlap with my being in some sense? The paradoxes and absurdities of existence have only become heightened as we have entered an ecological age, and it’s about time a writer committed to existentialism took up the challenge of working with those paradoxes. This book is up to speed with the ethical implications of our growing understanding of the symbiotic real and with what the author, quoting Björk, calls its necessary sense of ’emergency.’ In trenchant and engaging prose, not to mention deep engagements with philosophy, Sam Mickey lays it out for you.”
— Timothy Morton, author of Dark Ecology and Hyperobjects
The opening of Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) still rings true today. “What is phenomenology? It may seem strange that this question has still to be asked half a century after the first works of Husserl. The fact remains that it has by no means been answered.” The only different today is the “half a century”; it has now been well over a century since the first works of Husserl and over seventy years since Merleau-Ponty wrote those words. The fact remains that the question has by no means been answered. Merleau-Ponty gave a response, but that response is not a final answer. It is itself open to interpretation, as indicated by the different ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s own thought changed over time and the different ways his thought has been received in contexts like neurophenomenology and ecophenomenology.
What is phenomenology? On one hand, it seems like everybody has their own idiosyncratic definition of phenomenology, which does whatever work you want it to do, like Humpty Dumpty saying that he pays words extra to do what he wants. In that sense, it means almost anything. On the other hand, insofar as there is agreement about what phenomenology is, it is subjected to a rather crude leveling that turns it into a synonym for “study of experience,” thus equivocating between a wide variety of theories and methods in empiricism, pragmatism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and philosophy of mind. Between Humpty Dumpty phenomenology and crudely leveled phenomenology, the practice of phenomenology is exceptionally loose. Some looseness can be good, facilitating openness to the mystery of what shows itself. However, too much looseness and phenomenology loses its perspicacity. You could blame the excessive looseness on some of the popular (mis)interpreters of figures like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (pace Evan Thompson and David Abram). The issue is deeper than that though. Part of the problem is that phenomenology has had conflicting meanings throughout its entire history. Because people do not know this history, they are doomed to repeatedly dilute phenomenology in a sea of equivocations. What, then, is phenomenology? Continue reading