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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Animism for the Anthropocene: A Hyperobject-Oriented Analysis

[The following is a proposal for a paper in a panel on new materialism and its significance for religion, affect, and emotion in the Anthropocene.]

Articulating multifarious ways that agency is distributed across all things—human and nonhuman—various theoretical schools are emerging that move beyond the anthropocentrism for which affective agency is solely or most fully embodied in humans.  Including (but not limited to) new materialism, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology (OOO), and actor-network theory (ANT), each of these schools affirms the vibrant dynamics and unique capacities of nonhumans.  They are particularly timely insofar as they address the challenges of the emerging geological epoch, the Anthropocene—a time when human actions, magnified by technoscientific media, are so pervasively intertwined with Earth’s systems that it is becoming increasingly superfluous to attempt to neatly separate humans from nonhumans. Among these new schools, object-oriented approaches stand out for their provocative claim that adequate theories must focus on objects—things.  That contrasts starkly with more common theoretical orientations toward relations, processes, events, networks, biopower, and material conditions.

This paper provides an object-oriented account of affect in the Anthropocene, drawing specifically on Timothy Morton’s (hyper)object-oriented ontology and his claims that the Anthropocene is the age of ecology without nature and the age of animism without animism, that is, animism “under erasure” (sous rature).  To facilitate an exploratory engagement with animistic affects in the Anthropocene, this paper presents Morton’s conception of objects, elucidating his relationship with new materialism, speculative realism, and ANT, and indicating how one can develop an intimate feeling for a hyperobject like global climate change by attending to the lameness, weakness, and hypocrisy of coexistence in the Anthropocene.

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Contra Deleuze: Latour’s Disputes

While I have read everything of Deleuze, I am not always convinced he is so useful in my empirical enquiries. I am impatient in this otherwise beautiful book, What Is Philosophy?, with the way philosophy’s role is exaggerated beyond any recognition, and also by the fact that on religion he has nothing much to say.  Deleuze is not my all-purpose philosopher.  Also, and that’s a disagreement I have with Isabelle [Stengers], I don’t see him as a good writer, and for me the writing is very important, the crafting of books with very specific literary strategies that embody very specific theories.
Bruno Latour, “Interview with Bruno Latour,” in Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality, eds. Don Ihde and Evan Selinger (Indiana University Press, 2003), p. 24.

I agree with Latour’s assessment of Deleuze’s writings, and more than that, I agree with his problems regarding Deleuze’s lack of attention to religion.  Although much has been written lately appropriating Deleuze into theological and religious discourses, Deleuze himself did an extremely poor job of accounting for religious truth.  Accordingly, it’s easy to say almost anything about Deleuze’s religion.  Is it a this-worldly Hermeticism (Joshua Ramey), a helpful source for Christian liberation theology (Kristien Justaert), or a Gnosticism that is neither this-worldly nor helpful for concrete emancipatory practices (Christopher Simpson)?   

I couldn’t agree more when Latour says, “I consider that philosophies that don’t deal with the truth production of religion are as incapable of dealing with real thought as those who can’t deal with the truth production of science or the truth production of techniques.  This is why the whole current of anti-religious thinking, which is very strong in much French critical thought, I find unhelpful” (ibid.).

That Latour said those words over a decade ago is an indication that he has been concerned with religion long before the “new enquiry into natural religion” that he is presenting in the current Gifford Lectures…even long before his work on Iconoclash or his articulations of “factish gods.”  Indeed, as he says in the interview I’m quoting here, “I started with religion and was a theologian first, exegesis more exactly” (ibid.).  I’m sure a book of Latourian theology is forthcoming.

Objects: Between Whitehead and Heidegger

One of the exciting things happening in object-oriented philosophy is a synthesis of Whiteheadian and Heideggerian insights, namely, 1) Whitehead’s pan-experientialist concept of feeling or prehension, which deals a severe blow to human exceptionalism, and 2) Heidegger’s concept of the retreat or withdrawal (Entzug) of things.

It’s a mutually beneficial synthesis: Whitehead helps avoid the anthropocentrism of Heidegger’s philosophy, for which nonhumans are either poor in world or worldless; and Heidegger helps avoid the relationalism of Whitehead’s philosophy, for which individual entities do not harbor any actuality withdrawn from experience.

Heideggerians and Whiteheadians push back.  Heideggerians might argue that Heidegger isn’t entirely anthropocentric (maybe anthropocosmic instead), and Whiteheadians can claim that Whitehead honors the non-relational (i.e., non-experiential) dimension of actuality.  Those claims are not without their merit, as indicated by a recent post by Matt Segall in defense Whitehead’s objects (contra Graham Harman and OOO).  However, at the end of the day, it seems pretty clear to me: Heidegger’s thought is anthropocentric, and Whitehead’s is relationalist.

Regarding Whitehead, it’s important to clarify that he is indeed an object-oriented thinker.  He posits discrete individual entities (actual occasions) as the basic units of existence (see his “ontological principle”).  In this sense, Whitehead is similar to Latour, but he is unlike Bergson and Deleuze, who tend to think of individual entities as products of an underlying continuity.

Is Whitehead object-oriented?  Yes.  Does a Whiteheadian object have a non-relational dimension?  No.  Whitehead’s individuals are experiential through and through, experiencing and experienced, private and public, making actual while decisively cutting away (and negatively prehending, which is a kind of relating).

If there’s a non-relational dimension in Whitehead’s objects, it is the sundering of all relationality that takes place in the creativity of pure becoming, but such a fountain of creativity would amount to a monistic undermining of the plurality of objects.  Even aside from the pluralism/monism problem, a non-relational dimension of objects would be a dimension that is “void of subjective experience,” a “vacuous actuality” that Whitehead denounces (Process and Reality, 167).

I first read Whitehead a little more than 11 years ago (thanks, Pete Gunter!), and I liked his philosophy from the start.  Aside from the specifics of the debate regarding the new Heidegger-Whitehead synthesis, I’m just happy to see that Whitehead’s name is making its way into more and more philosophical discussions.

We Have Never Been Disenchanted

There are some great essays in The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age, edited by Josh Landy and Michael Saler (Stanford UP, 2009).  Overall, these essays are better than most of the usual fare on the topic of enchantment. 

Typically, in most accounts, discussions of enchantment end up positing a very simplistic account of modernization.  This comes from Max Weber’s famous description of “the disenchantment of the world” (die Entzauberung der Welt), which adopts Friedrich Schiller’s term “disenchantment.”  Weber argued that processes of modern rationalization increasingly devalue and secularize the world, thus taking away all of its “magic” (Zauber).  Here’s the narrative: having lost our premodern enchantment to modern disenchantment, our task now is to re-enchant the world.  That’s simply not true!    

Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern was the first book I read that showed that we have never been disenchanted.  Then Lee Bailey’s The Enchantments of Technology, then Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life.  Latour, Bailey, and Bennett all argue that the supposed disenchantment of the world was always accompanied by a proliferation of enchantments.  If we were ever disenchanted, we were simultaneously undergoing re-enchantment.  This is the theme of the anthology edited by Landy and Saler.  We’ve always been re-enchanted!

My favorite part of the question of enchantment is the musical metaphor.  “Enchant” derives from the Latin incantare, which comes from cantare (“to sing”).  Whereas the German word “Entzauberung” suggests a loss of “magic” (Zauber), its translation in English as “disenchantment” suggests that chanting or singing is somehow involved, as if the disenchantment of the world occurred when there was no longer any singing in the world or, more likely, when the singing could no longer be heard.

I was pleased to find out that Michel Serres has an essay in Landy’s and Saler’s book, and he addresses the aural dimension of enchantment in his chapter, “Epilogue: What Hearing Knows.”  Basically, Serres invites us to experience the enchantment of the world by listening to “the world’s song”: “A keen ear and silence give us over to its enchantment.  Listen” (259). 

Serres remarks that some people don’t notice that enchantment.  Some, “never hearing the song of the world with their hardened ears, devoted to the human sciences and thus deafened by the noises of the collectivity, even believe that the universe is disenchanted” (272).  For Serres, this is just a failure of listening.  What if we listen better?  “Do we reach the song of enchantment of the things themselves?  Yes” (268).

If vibrations exist in every domain, a sort of universal acoustics, then music and language, both universal in some way, should be able to construct an epistemology founded on hearing at least as easily as the one that, beginning with Plato, we have founded on sight.  The universal acoustics would allow us, finally, to hear the world’s song and its enchantment. (271)