Diversity and Difference

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)

Animal intelligence and the emergency of being

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)

Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations

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 “Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations”

Coexistentialism: the reviews, the description, the ride

Coexistentialism and the Unbearable
Intimacy of Ecological Emergency

Ecocritical Theory and Practice Series, Lexington Books, 2016

Coexistentialism cover

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.

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“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

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“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

 

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Affects, Bodies, Religions

Some people use affect theory to challenge the notion that religion is inextricably linked to belief and language, proposing instead that body and affect are more primary. It’s good to affirm bodies, feeling, emotions, affects, but that isn’t the way to do it. It’s a red herring, challenging a notion about belief that nobody really believes (i.e., the notion that religion is inextricably linked to language and belief).Continue reading “Affects, Bodies, Religions”

The Aesthetics of Publishing

There are a lot of reasons to dislike academic publishing if you are trying to write philosophy or any kind of theoretical or scholarly work. Nonetheless, it’s still the best way to disseminate work with high standards of rigorous research, intellectual accountability, and meaningful communication. A couple of the usual reasons people give for disliking the publishing industry in general are that it is too slow and, more to the point, too elitist, whereas self-publishing platforms work more efficiently and give the author more creative control. That’s far from the whole story. It fails to mention the aesthetics…and the lunchmeat.Continue reading “The Aesthetics of Publishing”

What is Phenomenology?

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 “What is Phenomenology?”

Freedom and Thymotic Politics in Sloterdijk

Peter Sloterdijk has written extensively about the political function of thymós (the spirited part of the soul in Plato’s three-fold schema of intellect-spirit-appetite). Here his reflections on that term open onto a discussion of freedom (libertatem). It turns out the liberals and neo-liberals are getting it wrong.

This term [thymós] referred to an inner affective centre that motivates people to reveal themselves to their social surroundings as owners of giving virtues. Yes: thymós, as a liberal mentality of the giving life, offers the only declaration of freedom that has nothing to fear from any naturalistic reduction to exogenous causes and neurological conditions. People have usually searched for freedom in places where one cannot possible find it—in the will, in the act of choice or in the brain—and overlooked its origin in the noble disposition, in uplift, in generosity. In reality, freedom is simply another word for nobleness, by which I mean the mindset which takes the better and more difficult as its point of reference under any circumstances, precisely because it is free enough for the less possible, the less vulgar, the less all-too-human. In this sense, freedom is availability for the improbable. Freedom still remains true to its essential negativity in the turn towards practical action, because everything it does expresses its rejection of the tyranny of the most probable. Whoever acts out of freedom revolts against the meanness they can no longer bear to see. This freedom is the opposite of everything envisaged by those who see it as a licence to let themselves go into the ordinary, all-too-ordinary.

[…]

Never before have such terms as ‘liberal’ or even ‘neo-liberal’ taken on as nefarious a connotation as in the last few years. Never before has liberal thought, especially in our country, been so far from the noble pole of human possibilities. Never before has freedom been so narrowly and fatally associated with the possession of humans by the stress of greed. But what does that prove? One thing alone: that the cause of liberality is too important to be left to the liberals. This restriction does not apply only to a single political party; the cause of the real and its reform is too important to be left to parties. Caring for cultural tradition is thus too comprehensive a task to be entrusted merely to conservatives. The question of preserving the environment is too significant to be considered only a matter for the green parties. The search for social balance is too demanding for social democrats and leftists to be given sole responsibility for it. Yet each of these elemental motifs requires one main party voice.

Peter Sloterdijk, Stress and Freedom, trans. Wieland Hoban (Polity Press, 2016), 54-56.

Whitehead as Existentialist

I recently stumbled upon this 2007 Philosophy Now article by Colin Wilson, “Whitehead as Existentialist,” thanks to a retweet from Matt Segall—a Whitehead expert and the brilliant blogger (and soon-to-be PhD!) behind Footnotes to Plato. There’s never been any secure border separating who is in and out of existentialism, so why not? If someone wants to include Alfred North Whitehead, it’s fine with me. In our time of radical uncertainty and uncanniness, existentialist ways of thinking and being are perhaps more relevant than ever, so I don’t see any reason to close the door on Whitehead’s participation in any movement related to existentialism. In some sense, all you need to do to be an existentialist is exist, so including Whitehead seems pretty easy. Right? Not really. Although I appreciate Whiteheadian alliances and solidarities, it is more accurate to say that Whitehead is not an existentialist. Whitehead is in fact not an existentialist, not a representative, exemplar, or example of existentialism.Continue reading “Whitehead as Existentialist”

Philosophy on the Edge

I’ll attend the Pacific division meeting of the American Philosophical Association later this week in San Francisco. Even though it’s only a division meeting (not national), it’s a massive event nonetheless. There are a few panels I’m very excited about, including one with Al Lingis and Tony Steinbock, focusing on Steinbock’s recent book, Moral Emotions, which is something like a sequel to his Phenomenology and Mysticism.

I’ll be presenting Friday evening in a panel about philosophy on the edge. Preview: I’ll say something about how coexistence in the Anthropocene is without center or edge. With the ongoing and inevitable erosion of anthropocentric subjectivity, countless beings are crowding into center stage. Everything is a center, being centered amidst multiplicities of centers with a circumference that is nowhere; but this could also be formulated by saying that everything is not a center, being on edge in a world whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere. In some sense everything is both a center and an edge, but in another sense, everything is neither a center nor an edge. What this means it that coexistence in the planetary era is fundamentally ironic, ambiguous, and uncertain. My main point will be that this situation does not just call for humans to give up anthropocentrism. It calls for philosophers to give up philosophy, to give up the power of philosophy so that philosophy might become possible again, and still for the first time. Giving up power is about becoming vulnerable to intimate encounters outside of philosophy and outside of the occidental context of philosophy.

I’m thinking with Foucault here, specifically this remark he made in an interview during a stay at a Zen temple in Japan in 1978. “The crisis of Western thought is identical to the end of imperialism,” which is also “the end of the era of Western philoso­phy. Thus, if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts be­tween Europe and non-Europe.” Adding some specificity to his comments, I want to make a couple of small incisions to open up some possibilities for a philosophy of the future. The incisions use the cutting edges of deconstruction and Buddhism, that is, the blades of the mohel and manjushri. There are a few different lines of thought to bring together here, at least three, including Keiji Nishitani’s work on the encounter between nihilism and emptiness (shunyata), the work of Robert Magliola, Jin Park, and others facilitating an encounter between Derrida and Nagarjuna, and Tim Morton’s invocations of Derrida and Nagarjuna in his dark ecology. The point is not to help solve any problems with some Buddhodeconstructive tag team. The point is to become vulnerable, weak and powerless. The point of the blades of the mohel and manjushri is this: surrender.