Monthly Archives: May 2012

Lingis on 6 Problems in Levinas

There is a new issue of the journal PhaenEx: Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture.  It’s a free online journal that’s been around for roughly six years, with two issues per year.  I highly recommend checking it out.  The current issue has an article by Alphonso Lingis, “Six Problems in Levinas’s Philosophy.”  I’ll give a tiny overview here.

The first problem is Levinas’s constitutive phenomenology, which Lingis claims is too idealist (i.e., “The sense of things is constituted by the subject that appropriates them”).  In contrast, Lingis promotes a more realist vision:

Our existence as conscious organisms appears to us to depend on the prior and independent existence of the earth and its geological composition, climate, and ecosystems. A sequoia, an Oryx, a starfish appear to exist with their own internal and external forms prior to and independent of my consciousness of them. We see that other species perceive what we perceive, that our sensibility and perception are similar to the sensibility and perception of other species, who perceive the things of their environments as exterior, independent of them, and as real as they are.

The second problem is that, for Levinas, recognizing the demands of the Other happens by recognizing the Other’s “vulnerability and mortality” instead recognizing “the positive plentitude of an organism.” 

When someone faces us, we see someone in whom nature has achieved something: we see hale and hearty physical heath and vigor, vibrant sensibility, beauty. We see someone who has done something with his or her life, protected and nourished, built, repaired, restored, rescued. We see someone who has cared for a sick relative, maintained a farm, been a devoted teacher, is a loyal friend. We see someone who has not achieved anything materially, but who knows that he or she is a good person, steadfast, open-minded, with a good head and a good heart, has dared to break the rules and make mistakes, has a sense of his or her worth. We see facing us someone who has suffered the worst oppressions of the social system and the worst destructions wrought by disease or nature and who has been able to endure suffering and awaits death with lucidity and courage. We see someone who has the vitality to laugh over absurdities and his or her own failures, has the strength to weep over the loss of a lover and over the death of a child in another land.

The third problem has to do with the unendingness or infinition of human needs and wants.  “Levinas had acknowledged that the needs of a living organism are finite; they end in terrestrial goods and nourishments.”  But Levinas thought humans were different from other species, such that humans have a relationship of perpetual dependency on me (the ethical subject).  Lingis disagrees, “we think that a human organism, like that of other species, is a locus of production of excess energies. Human needs and wants are intermittent and superficial (not the core reality), and satisfiable.”

The fourth problem is Levinas’s appeal to God as the alterity constitutive of the otherness of every Other.  A practical response to the Other enlists determinate resources in me and my environment, but Lingis claims that, with Levinas’s God, the demand that the Other puts on me “loses its location in the midst of the common world and its determinateness.”

The fifth problem is that Levinas considers his ethics of responding to alterity is primarily Jewish.  However, anthropological research suggests that it pervades every human community…and it’s not limited to humans.

Indeed practical response to the needs of others of one’s species is widespread across nature. Spiders, birds, and mammals risk their own lives to protect their young from predators. Bees, penguins, vultures, and antelopes share food found with others of their species. Numerous cases of individuals giving sustenance and assistance to members of other species have been documented.

The sixth problem is the political implications of Levinas’s ethics.  Lingis is concerned that, when in power, proponents of an “unrealizable ethics of absolute responsibility” end up producing “irresponsible and disproportionate state violence, and the ethics of absolute responsibility functions as ideology.”

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Alien Phenomenology: Quotable Quotes

About a month ago, I finished reading Ian Bogost’s wonderful new book, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  It’s a fun book and an excellent contribution to phenomenology, object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, posthumanities, and more.  At some point, I’ll post some more comments on alien phenomenology (previous posts are here and here), but for now, I just want to catalog some quotations from the book (all emphases are in the text itself, and all brackets are mine).  To the quotes themselves:

Just as eating oysters becomes gastronomically monotonous, so talking only about human behavior becomes intellectually monotonous. (132)

The philosophical subject must cease to be limited to humans and things that influence humans.  Instead it must become everything, full stop.  (10)

Everything whatsoever is like people on a subway, crunched together into uncomfortably intimate contact with strangers. (31)

In short, all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. (11)

Theories of being tend to be grandiose, but they need not be, because being is simple.  Simple enough that it could be rendered via screen print on a trucker’s cap.  I call it tiny ontology, precisely because it ought not demands a treatise or a tome.  I don’t mean that the domain of being is small—quite the opposite, as I’ll soon explain.  Rather, the basic ontological apparatus needed to describe existence ought to be as compact and unornamented as possible.
      An alternative metaphor to the two-dimensional plane of flat ontology is that of spacelessness, of one-dimensionality.  If any one being exists no less than any other, then instead of scattering such being all across the two-dimensional surface of flat ontology, we might also collapse them into the infinite density of a dot.  Instead of the plane of flat ontology, I suggest the point of tiny ontology.  It’s a dense mass of everything contained entirely—even as it’s spread about haphazardly like a mess or organized logically like a network. (21-22)

The density of being makes it promiscuous, always touching everything else, unconcerned with differentiation.  Anything is thing enough to party. (24)

Within the black hole-like density of being, things undergo an expansion.  The ontological equivalent of the Big Bang rests within every object.  Being expands. (26)

The true alien recedes interminably even as it surrounds us completely.  It is not hidden in the darkness of the outer cosmos or in the deep-sea shelf but in plain sight, everywhere, in everything.  Mountain summits and gypsum beds, chile roasters and buckshot, micro-processors and ROM chips can no more communicate with us and one another than can Rescher’s extraterrestrial.  It is an instructive and humbling sign.  Speculative realism really does require speculation: benighted meandering in an exotic world of utterly incomprehensible objects.  As philosophers, our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways.  Our job is to write the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations.  Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum.  Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger.
      I call this practice alien phenomenology. (34)

Instead of removing elements to achieve the elegance of simplicity, ontography adds (or simply leaves) elements to accomplish the realism of multitude.  It is a practice of exploding the innards of things—be they words, intersections, shopping malls, or creatures.  This “explosion” can be as figurative or as literal as you like, but it must above all reveal the hidden density of a unit. (58)

An ontograph is a landfill, not a Japanese garden.  It shows how much rather than how little exists simultaneously, suspended in the dense meanwhile of being. (59)

[T]hings render one another in infinite chains of weaker and weaker correlation, each altering and distorting the last such that its sense is rendered nonsense.  It’s not turtles all the way down, but metaphors. (84)

Like mechanics, philosophers ought to get their hands dirty. […] dirty with grease and panko bread crumbs and formaldehyde.  I give the name carpentry to this practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice. (92)

Like a space probe sent out to record, process, and report information, the alien phenomenologist’s carpentry seeks to capture and characterize an experience it can never fully understand, offering a rendering satisfactory enough to allow the artifact’s operator to gain some insight into an alien thing’s experience. (100)

For too long, philosophers have spun waste like a goldfish’s sphincter, rather than spinning yarn like a charka. (110)

Each thing remains alien to every other, operationally as well as physically.  To wonder is to respect things as things in themselves. (131)

The act of wonder invites a detachment from ordinary logics, of which human logics are but one example.  This is a necessary act in the method of alien phenomenology. […] Wonder is a way objects orient. (124)

Idealisms amount to undead ontologies, metaphysics in which nothing escapes the horrific rift from being, leaving behind a slug’s trail of identity politics. […] The return to realism in metaphysics is also a return to wonder, wonder unburdened by pretense or deception.  (133) 

Anything will do, so long as it reminds us of the awesome plentitude of the alien everyday. (134)


Multicentrism

A lot of teaching and writing in environmental ethics adopts a geometrical image: the center.  The field of environmental ethics began with numerous and varied critiques of anthropocentric values and practices. Here’s how the story often goes: to center on the human is to marginalize the non-human, and developing an ethic that accounts for the moral considerability of non-humans requires an extension of the center from humans to life (biocentrism) or to ecosystems (ecocentrism).

One problem here is that this moral extensionism still starts from the human.  It radiates out to include organisms and ecosystems, but it radiates out from the human.  An extended anthropocentrism still subordinates nonhumans to humans.  How can we develop ethics that account for non-human centers on their own terms?

Some have argued that centrism as such leads to domination and oppression, whereby the center gains superiority over the periphery (e.g., humans exploiting nature or, conversely, misanthropic environmentalisms marginalizing human social issues).  Val Plumwood’s critique of hegemonic centrisms is an exemplary case in point.  However, privileging acentric systems over against centric  systems is an “uncritical reversal” (as Plumwood would say): the acentric is the new center.

The challenge, then, is this: how to think of nonhuman centers on their own terms while subverting any tendencies for centers to become hegemonic centrisms.  Anthony Weston provides an excellent articulation of this challenge in “Multicentrism: A Manifesto.”  Weston proposes:

a multicentered vision according to which more-than-human others enter the moral realm on their own terms, rather than by expansion from a single center—a vision according to which there are diverse centers, shifting and overlapping but still each with its own irreducible and distinctive starting-point. For a multicentered ethic, then, the growth of moral sensitivity and consideration does not proceed through an expanding series of concentric realms, each neatly assimilating or incorporating the previous stage within a larger and more inclusive whole. No; instead we discover a world of separate though mutually implicated centers. Moral growth consists in experiencing more and more deeply the texture of multiplicity in the world, not in tracing the wider and wider circles set off from one single center.

Weston adds that this approach to environmental ethics is pluralistic.  Most environmental ethics debates about pluralism vs. monism are debates about whether we should have many or one theories.  Multicentrism is a realist pluralism, implying a “much more radical and polymorphous pluralism,” for which multiplicity is a feature belonging to the real world, “to things themselves.”

Biocentrism and ecocentrism are too big (“mega-centrisms”), totalizing and assimilating the things themselves.  Weston is clear that his vision of pluralistic realism is against environmental holism.

Contra holism, though, multicentrism does not assert a single ecological “whole” that is somehow the single, prior ethical center. The multiverse is more mixed and complexly textured, including both ecological “wholes” and individuals of various sorts and levels—species, organisms, biotic communities—all in flux and flow, and none always or necessarily prior.

What does multicentrism look like in practice?

Multicentrism asks us to “take care” with respect to everything, and the sort of mindfulness thus implied can only be called polymorphous too. […]  Imperative is to move from the familiar one-species monologue to a truly multi-polar dialogue. […]  What multicentrism adds is the wider and wilder vision: a sustainable, participatory, multivocal philosophical practice—a way back into the Multiverse.

Multicentrism is a kind of centrism to end all centrisms.  Given the dangers of centric metaphors, Weston considers a couple alternative names for his position.  The first is “multiversalism.”  The second is my favorite.  It’s a term Weston adopts from Irene Klaver: “ex-centric.”


An Ethical Person

I’ve just started a summer semester, and I’m teaching environmental ethics.  What continues to strike me is how difficult it is to get people to recognize that they need to study ethics.  In terms of the Socratic axiom, it’s difficult to get people to realize that their ethical life needs examining.  So many people think that they already act ethically and that their current understanding of ethical relatedness is sufficient. 

If we think or feel that we’re already ethical enough, not only are we difficult students to teach, we are profoundly irresponsible.  I would simply say that the difference between an ethical and unethical person is that the ethical person knows that it’s impossible to be ethical.  This reminds me of Avital Ronell’s comments on ethics in the film Examined Life.

This is something that Derrida has taught.  If you feel that you’ve acquitted yourself honorably, then you’re not so ethical.  If you have a good conscience, then you’re kind of worthless.  […] The responsible being is one who thinks they’ve never been responsible enough, they’ve never taken care enough of the Other. 

This is “ethics under erasure,” as the new book on Derrida puts it.  The responsible person is responsible without responsibility, cultivating ethics without ethics (or ethics “against ethics,” as Jack Caputo might say).


South Park and Religious Environmental Ethics

The “Jewpacabra” episode of South Park (S16, E4) contains some good Passover jokes.  One joke is a comment made by Cartman.  In a dream where he is an Egyptian boy (the Pharaoh’s son, to be specific) experiencing the Biblical Plagues (e.g., locusts, raining frogs, etc.), Cartman asks Kyle what’s happening, and in response, Cartman offers a critique of God’s concern for nonhuman organisms.

The following dialogue between the boys occurs with the sound of frog-rain in the background and the sight of dead frogs on the ground around them.

Cartman: It’s raining frogs!  Kyle, Kyle my Hebrew friend.  Did you see that it’s raining frogs?

Kyle: Yes.  It’s because the Pharaoh won’t give the Hebrews what we want.  God is angry.

Cartman: So God makes it rain frogs? That just seems kind of mean to frogs, Kyle.

Kyle: That’s how God is. […]


Writing on Elemental Imagination

The process of publishing academic books tends to be a very slow process.  I just heard that a book I became involved with four or five years ago finally has a contract from a publisher, and at this point, I completely forgot what my chapter was supposed to be about.  Luckily, the editors have done a great job keeping up with all of the old abstracts. 

I’ll be writing about the ethical implications of elemental imagination, particularly by following a deconstructive phenomenology of imagination.  The book is currently titled, Ecopsychology, Phenomenology, and the Environment, edited by Doug Vakoch and Fernando Castrillon.  There are a lot of great contributors in this volume.  It will include pieces from Ed Casey, Ted Toadvine, and Charles Brown, among many others.  I’m happy to be part of it.  Now I just need to write my chapter.

Derrida’s and Deleuze’s concepts of imagination and image are prominent in my thinking about elemental imagination.  On that note, perhaps the phrase poststructuralist phenomenology is more appropriate than deconstructive phenomenology, or maybe post-phenomenology is best (although I generally don’t like the postal prefix).  I’ve also played around with monstrous phenomenology and anthropocosmic phenomenology.  The terms aren’t the point.  My aim is simply to develop a non-anthropocentric phenomenology of imagination and consider how it facilitates ethical engagements with “the environment” (whatever that is).  I’m sure that Ian Bogost’s writings on alien phenomenology and object-oriented ethics will become important actors in this chapter.  More on that later…


A Manifesto for a Reborn America

If someone asked me who the most sensible environmental advocate is in the world today, I would say James Gustave (“Gus”) Speth.  He faces the abyss of our planetary situation with a hopeful and pragmatic vision.  Speth recently wrote a two-part piece focusing on the decline of the United States and its potential rebirth, “American the Possible: A Manifesto.” 

He lists some disturbing facts.  America has the following:

• the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
• the greatest inequality of incomes;
• the lowest social mobility;
• the lowest score on the UN’s index of “material well-being of children”;
• the worst score on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index;
• the highest expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP, yet all this money accompanied by the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest percentage of people going without health care due to cost, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, and the shortest life expectancy at birth;
• the next-to-lowest score for student performance in math and middling performance in science and reading;
• the highest homicide rate;
• the largest prison population in absolute terms and per capita;
• the highest carbon dioxide emissions and the highest water consumption per capita;
• the lowest score on Yale’s Environmental Performance Index (except for Belgium) and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Denmark);
• the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of national income (except for Japan and Italy);
• the highest military spending both in total and as a percentage of GDP; and
• the largest international arms sales.

Speth provides a diagnosis of the values that support this sad state. “Dominant American values today are strongly materialistic, anthropocentric, and contempocentric.”  But like Wallace Stevens saying that a “yes” comes after the final “no,” Speth is hopeful and affirmative: 

 In the end it all comes down to the American people and the strong possibility that we still have it in us to use our freedom and our democracy in powerful ways to create something fine, a reborn America, for our children and grandchildren. We can realize a new American Dream if enough of us join together in the fight for it. This new dream envisions an America where the pursuit of happiness is sought not in more getting and spending, but in the growth of human solidarity, real democracy, and devotion to the public good; where the average American is empowered to achieve his or her human potential; where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; and where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate. These American traditions may not prevail today, but they are not dead. They await us, and indeed they are today being awakened across this great land. New ways of living and working, sharing and caring are emerging across America. They beckon us with a new American Dream, one rebuilt from the best of the old, drawing on the best of who we were and are and can be.  

 Speth is calling for a new politics driven by a new dream.  The second part of the article goes into more detail about this vision of a new American Dream.  “Our best hope for real change is a movement created by a fusion of people concerned about environment, social justice, true democracy, and peace into one powerful progressive force. We have to recognize that we are all communities of a shared fate.”