Monthly Archives: August 2013

Planetary Survival: Transforming Environment, Society, and Psyche

Our survival on this planet is not only threatened by environmental damage but by a degeneration in the fabric of social solidarity and in the modes of psychical life, which must literally be reinvented. The refoundation of politics will have to pass through the aesthetic and analytical dimensions implied in the three ecologies—the environment, the socius and the psyche. We cannot conceive of solutions to the poisoning of the atmosphere and to global warming due to the greenhouse effect, or to the problem of population control, without a mutation of mentality, without promoting a new art of living in society. We cannot conceive of international discipline in this domain without solving the problem of hunger and hyperinflation in the Third World. We cannot conceive of a collective recomposition of the socius, correlative to a resingularisation of subjectivity, without a new way of conceiving political and economic democracies that respect cultural differences—without multiple molecular revolutions. We cannot hope for an amelioration in the living conditions of the human species without a considerable effort to improve the feminine condition. The entire division of labor, its modes of valorization and finalities need to be rethought. Production for the sake of production—the obsession with the rate of growth, whether in the capitalist market or in planned economies—leads to monstrous absurdities. The only acceptable finality of human activity is the production of a subjectivity that is auto-enriching its relation to the world in a continuous fashion. (Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis, p. 20-21)



The Anaxagoras Problem

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates gives an account of what can be called the Anaxagoras problem.  Here’s the problem: Anaxagoras claimed that mind is the origin of all things; however, when describing the way things are, he leaves mind behind and ends up resorting to physical or mechanistic explanations, thereby failing to instantiate his guiding principle.

This isn’t quite the same as hypocrisy.  It’s not a matter of believing one thing yet doing something opposed to that belief.  It’s not a problem of not walking your talk or not practicing what you preach.  It’s a problem of a self-contradictory performance (not walking like you walk, not practicing what you practice, not talking like you talk, etc.).

If you look for it, you’ll probably notice that this problem comes up a lot.  People claim that the arguments they are about to make are not mechanistic, and then they’ll proceed to give mechanistic arguments.  Somebody will claim that they are overcoming the dualism between realism and idealism, and guess what follows: an idealistic argument.

I notice the Anaxagoras problem frequently among practitioners of astrology (which are relatively numerous where I live, the SF Bay Area, a hub for self-important spiritual dilettantes).  They often say that they are not making deterministic arguments, and then they proceed to speak in a way that is full of deterministic framing.  Of course, deterministic astrology is easy to refute.  As Augustine knew, you can refute astrology by finding two people with different psychological dispositions who were born at the same place and time.  So everybody knows that deterministic astrology is false.  If you’re going to talk about astrology, you have to start by disavowing determinism.  That sounds great to me.  Let’s transform our hermeneutics of human-planet relationships to avoid determinism and affirm a more participatory, co-constitutive, open-ended encounter between human existence and planetary alignments.  But then the Anaxagoras problem comes up.  The disavowal of determinism is often followed with a lot of deterministic framing, for instance, dubious uses of the words “cause” and “because,” lazy stock phrases like “that’s because of your Moon-Neptune conjunction” (instead of “that’s one way you’re activating your Moon-Neptune conjunction”), and deterministic reductions of ought to is (e.g., “since your Saturn will be in a certain alignment in October, you should wait until then to apply for that promotion”).

We all fall into the Anaxagoras problem occasionally.  Nobody is completely immune to it, and in any case, I’m not moralizing about it.  I’m just making the point that when we affirm things that we’re committed to and disavow things we consider false, it does not entail that we have sufficient skills to carry out that affirmation and disavowal.  You might think and say that you are against determinism, or mechanistic reductionism, or dualism, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve fully extricated those paradigms from your thinking and speaking.  In fact, if you disavow something enough, the repetition of the disavowal starts to sound like a secret affirmation.  If I call my friend every day and tell him, “Your wife isn’t cheating on you,” it’s eventually going to sound like I suspect that his wife is cheating on him.  If I’m giving a philosophical argument and I keep repeating the claim, “This isn’t social constructionism,” then it’s probably full of social constructionism or at least social constructionist tendencies.  Say what you mean, and while you’re at it, try meaning what you say.

Latour, Rejoicing: A Critical Review

The recent work by Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME, for short), deals with the various felicity conditions of different modes of existence, including religious modes of existence.  Along these lines, AIME extends his previous works on religion, including his writings on factishes, iconoclash, and the freeze-frames that convolute science-religion dialogue.  It is appropriate, then, that the release of the English edition of AIME was accompanied by the release of the English edition of his 2002 work on the felicity conditions of religious speech, Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity, 2013).  With these works as well as his recent Gifford Lectures, Latour is making important contributions to theology and religious studies, opening up nice points of contact with science studies, ecology, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology.

There are a lot of good points coming from Latour’s Rejoicing, which he articulates elsewhere as well.  Religions and sciences are not amenable to worn-out oppositions such as transcendence and immanence, subjective and objective, spirit and matter, fetishes and facts, iconography and iconoclasm, traditional and modern.  Instead of separating religions and sciences into two different realms of being or knowing, Latour recognizes that there is only one world, “no other world, just this one here” (174), and there is no truth we can discern about this world without constructing that truth.  Neither religion nor science has a monopoly on truth about existence, and neither one lays claim to knowledge of another world (since there is no other world).  Religions and sciences involve two different kinds of speech acts which thus have two different sets of felicity conditions, and when those felicity conditions are met, different things happen.  Scientific speech acts bring us knowledge of distant things (atoms, the Big Bang, the climate, etc.), whereas religious speech acts bring us closer to one another (family, friends, loved ones).  Sciences enact references and information about the distant and far away, whereas religions enact translations and transformations of what is close by, the everyday.  Nonetheless, I have a few problems with Rejoicing (which are, more or less, also problems with his other writings on religion).

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One Earth: Sloterdijk and Monogeism

Affirming the transition of humanity toward a global or planetary civilization, Peter Sloterdijk proposes what he calls “monogeism,” a term which Bruno Latour adopts in his recent works.  From monotheism to monogeism…from God to Globe….

Here’s a couple of excerpts on monogeism from Sloterdijk’s In the World Interior of Capital (Polity, 2013).

[…] the historical object, the terrestrial globe, is a thing full of metaphysical quirks that like to hide beneath the veneer of the ordinary.   It constitutes a geographical philosophical bastard whose logical and physical peculiarities are not so simple to comprehend.  On the one hand, the printed blue orb with the savannah-coloured patches initially seems no more than one thing among many things, a small body among many bodies, that statesmen and schoolchildren set in rotation with a single hand movement; at the same time, it is supposed to represent the singular totality or the geological monad that serves as the foundation for all life, though and invention.  It is this terrestrial question of location that becomes ever more binding the in the course of modernization: while the ancient conception of the cosmos paradoxically made the earth the marginal centre of a universe that humans could only observe from within, the moderns perceived it as an eccentric orb whose roundness we could verify ourselves through external viewing.  This would have unforeseeable consequences for the generations after Mercator.  For us, monogeism—the conviction that this planet is unique—transpires as a fact that is rejuvenated daily, while monotheism can never again be more than an age-worn religious thesis that cannot really be brought up to date, not even with the aid of pious bombs from the Near East.  The proofs of God’s existence must bear the blemish of their failure, while those of the globe’s existence have an unstoppable influx of evidence on their side. (5-6)

[F]or half of millennium, the notion of the round earth settled in the consciousnesses of Western people and their media like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It drew a very small, active minority of these into an unprecedented departure—a pragmatic mixture of a conquering expedition, apostolic history and research process.  But the idea of the earth’s spherical shape did not remain merely a symbolic figure; monogeism was more than a postulation of beautiful physics.  The carriers of this true, as yet unproved idea—tough seafarers, patient cartographers, metal-addicted monarchs and noble-minded spice merchants—piled proof upon proof until the last deniers, ignoramuses and indifferents had to yield before the advancing evidence.  […]  Possible doubters of monogeism must tolerate being labeled revisionists.  The faith of the seafarers changed into knowledge, and that knowledge became trivial and specialized; the earth-believers of the sixteenth century are now postmodern geoscientists—eleven thousand of them gathered in Nice in April 2003 for a Euro-American working conference.  On the flight, most of them would only have cast a brief glance from the air at the strange object of their theoretical desire. (161)

The Thing, Withdrawn, Asleep

Jean-Luc Nancy’s tiny book The Fall of Sleep (Fordham, 2009) is simply a pleasure to read.  When I read it, I just read it, no note-taking, no intentions.  But one passage stuck out so much that I feel compelled to make a note about it.  Here’s the passage:

The thing in itself is nothing other than the thing itself, but withdrawn from any relation with a subject of its perception or with an agent of its manipulation.  The thing, isolated from all manifestation, from all phenomenality, the sleeping thing at rest, sheltered from knowledge, techniques, and arts of all kinds, exempt from judgments and prospects.  The thing not measured, not measurable, the thing concentrated in its indeterminate and non-appearing thingness. (p. 14)

By describing the thing in itself in terms of withdrawal from relations, Nancy’s remarks resemble a key feature of Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy: that real objects are non-relational.  Nancy’s sleeping thing and Harman’s dormant objects have a lot in common.  Nancy and Harman are both Heideggerian, so these connections are not particularly surprising.  What really interests me about this passage is that it shows the similarity between Nancy and Harman while also exemplifying an important difference between them: Nancy considers withdrawal indeterminate, whereas Harman’s objects are still determinate even in their withdrawal.  For Harman, a chair in itself is still a chair, not merely a non-appearing whatever.  Furthermore, Harman is clearly a pluralist about objects, whereas Nancy’s reference to “the thing” in the singular indicates that he is more ambiguous about the singular/plural difference (as his Being Singular Plural indicates).  I’m not sure whose side I take.  They’re like my children: I love them both equally.