Tag Archives: alterity

Nine Theses on Fire Politics

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx includes eleven statements expanding on the materialist philosophy of Ludwig  Feuerbach. Marx does not mention the material burning within the German name Feuerbach: the elemental materiality of fire (Feuer). More than 150 years later, Jacques Rancière’s Ten Theses on Politics proposed an aesthetic definition of politics as dissensus (not consensus), a distancing of the aesthetic from itself: a partition, distribution, or sharing of the sensible (partage du sensible). Between these materialist and aesthetic political philosophies, there are cinders, remnants of another politics: sharing fire (partage du feu). Theses are burning down, from Marx’s eleven theses, down to Rancière’s ten theses, down to the following nine theses on Feuerpolitik.
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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


Place in Whitehead, Deleuze, Derrida

Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each discuss place by engaging, among other things, the discourse on chora (“place”) in Plato’s Timaeus, where chora is described as a “third thing” that is neither sensible (matter) nor intelligible (form), but a generative relational matrix that organizes and disturbs form/matter interactions.  The recoveries of chora at work in these thinkers draw on their related concepts of creativity (Whitehead), difference-in-itself (Deleuze), and différance (Derrida).  As a locus of creative differences, chora supports their respective efforts to transform or overcome Platonism and its form/matter hierarchy, thereby making room for understandings of place as exceeding the limits of dualistic hierarchies.

This fall, I’ll be presenting papers on this topic on a couple different  occasions, including the 5th annual meeting of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT) in San Francisco and the 17th annual meeting of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy (IAEP, pronounced like “yep”) in Eugene, Oregon.  I’ll discuss the specific ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each interprets chora and how those interpretations are indicative of complementary yet antagonistic possibilities for understanding and responding to actual places.  Instead of taking sides, I claim that those possibilities are at their most relevant and compelling when they are brought into a complex contrast with one another.

For Whitehead and Deleuze, chora is described in terms of a positive becoming, whereas Derrida writes about chora as an excluded or marginalized alterity.  Those different accounts reflect different conceptions of transcendence and immanence.  While Derrida maintains a Levinasian tendency to privilege the transcendence of alterity, Deleuze is committed to immanence, notwithstanding their respective attempts to deconstruct transcendental signifieds and liberate events from transcendence/immanence binaries.  Whitehead resolves the opposition by conceiving of a mutually implicative relationship between transcendence and immanence (in theological terms, panentheism).

Although each of these thinkers intends to affirm an ethical commitment to place, that does not necessarily translate into a commitment to some actual place(s).  For instance, Derrida affirms the ethically compelling alterity of place, including human and nonhuman others associated with place, and he does so with much attention to language and ontology but relatively little engagement in natural sciences, thus compromising his ability to account for some specificities of actual places.  That contrasts with the evolutionary and cosmological repetitions of chora given by the more scientifically inclined Whitehead and Deleuze, for whom the task of understanding and responding to places requires an integration of speculative metaphysics with empirical inquiry.  A crucial contrast between Whitehead and Deleuze is that the latter tends to undermine the specificity of actual places by explaining actual entities in terms of an underlying field of virtual multiplicities.  More pluralistically, Whitehead’s ontological principle affirms that actual entities are irreducibly real, such that a place is a field of becoming not in the sense of an underlying virtual field but in the sense of a dynamic network of actual entities in mutually constitutive relations.

This is not to say that Whitehead’s recovery of chora is better than Derrida’s or Deleuze’s.  Whitehead is more attentive to the specificities of actual places.  However, his “God” and “eternal objects” might unnecessarily complicate empirical inquiries, in contrast to Deleuze’s immanent experiments with chora, which are more affirmative of the non-teleological and self-organizing capacities of places.  Among these three thinkers, Derrida is perhaps most well-suited for discerning ways in which different (undecidable) determinations of place involve exclusions and negations, which constitute and disturb the boundaries of language, reason, gender, and species.  In sum, I hope to convey some ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida contribute to knowledge of and ethical responses to actual places, with the unique benefits and limitations of those contributions becoming apparent amid the creative differences between them.


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.”