Treating People Like Individuals

It’s not uncommon to hear someone propose the ethical injunction to “treat people like individuals.” It’s mostly used in reference to the complicated ethico-political problem of negotiating intersecting group dynamics: ages, genders, sexes, races, classes, ethnicities, religions, abilities, capabilities. What does it actually mean? Continue reading

Weird Realism: Harman and Lovecraft

I’ve been reading and enjoying Graham Harman’s new book, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Zero Books, 2012).  This is a great book, regardless of whether you already know the general outline of Harman’s philosophy and/or have any interest in Lovecraft. 

At the very least, I would recommend the book for Harman’s fun and illuminating uses of “ruination,” whereby he shows what is most effective in a sentence or phrase by juxtaposing the original version with alternative (ruined) versions of the passage. 

Harman’s proclivity for sincerity comes through in the style and the content of the work, as does his humor.  Consider the comment he makes when reflecting on Hume, “the patron saint of the philosophical debunker”: “though debunking has its uses, the clearing away of rubbish is a secondary chore best done once per week” (57-58). 

A guiding analogy for the book: As Hölderlin is to Heidegger and subsequent continental thought, Lovecraft is to Harman and weird realisms, e.g., object-oriented philosophy.  Whether Lovecraft will or should become a philosophical staple, I don’t know.  In any case, I very much like the idea that what might seem to be merely pulp fiction is here brought to a philosophical plane with sincerity and humor.  Even more than that, it’s fascinating (and horrifying) to get a sense of the strange realities that Lovecraft has in store for philosophy. 

Reality itself is weird because reality itself is incommensurable with any attempt to represent or measure it.  Lovecraft is aware of this difficulty to an exemplary degree, and through his assistance we may be able to learn about how to say something without saying it — or in philosophical terms, how to love wisdom without having it.  When it comes to grasping reality, illusion and innuendo are the best we can do. (51)

More Fear and Loathing

Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.  To relax, as it were, in the womb of the desert sun.  Just roll the roof back and screw it on, grease the face with white tanning butter and move out with the music at top volume, and at least a pint of ether. (H. S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, p.12)

But our trip was different.  It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character.  It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit.  And we were chock full of that. (18)

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.…
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings [….] You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.…
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. (66-68, brackets added)

The wave broke and rolled back, and we’re left in the desert.  Our experience of the tremendous power of the sacred (mysterium tremendum) has become empty, and we’re left trembling with fear and loathing in the desert.  All forms of transcendence have become empty: God, the American Dream, and counterculture idealism and utopianism.  The counterculture was the last hope for the emergence of a community based on love, but like other movements before, the counterculture became “a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel” (179).  And now we’re left in the desert, facing “grim meat-hook realities” (178).  If abandoning the old-mystic fallacy sounds bad, wait…there’s good news here…

Left in the Vegas desert, we are left with the real, not in the sense of an original reality that grounds everything that follows from it.  Such an origin is precisely what we’ve lost.  Thank God.  For Baudrillard, existence in the “desert of the real” is existence amidst a groundless play of images and signs, where the real is itself an effect, a copy, a hallucination or image.  The sign is the thing in itself.  Furthermore, this hyperrealism of the Vegas desert is basically a realized eschatology.  The wave broke and rolled back, and now God (Love, Freedom, America, Counterculture, etc.) is deserted and dead, and thus deserted, the divine has passed fully into immanence, into the desert.   In About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, Mark C. Taylor is explicit on this point: “Las Vegas is, in effect, the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth” (5).  With true grit, we can start at the edge of the desert, find our way to the main nerve of the American Dream, and relax in the womb of the desert sun.  If we have eyes to see it.  Real healing–the real cure–is at hand, amidst the Kingdom of Fear.


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.”

Fear and Loathing in the Desert of the Real

Psychedelic drugs have been a widespread part of popular culture since the middle of the twentieth century, influencing artists, musicians, celebrities, environmentalists, surfers, ravers, scholars, etc.  It is fairly well-documented that psychedelics have shaped the development of various spiritualities, including nature spiritualities oriented toward experimentation with intense, boundary-dissolving, sensory experiences, wherein the self and the natural world converge, such that nature is felt to be a source of belonging as well as a strange and uncanny other.  Deep ecology would be a case in point, as would the aquatic nature spirituality of surfers. 

A particularly unique example of psychedelic nature spirituality is implicit in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the novel of the same name by the “gonzo” journalist and pop culture icon Hunter S. Thompson.  Fear and Loathing portrays a wild and drug-fueled trip in which a fictionalized Thompson (played by Johnny Depp) goes to Las Vegas with his legally dubious lawyer (played by Benicio Del Torro) to find and cover the story of “the American dream.”  Nearly all of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the book, making a close reading of the book a helpful tool in analyzing the film. 

What I’m interested in doing is looking closely at the film to consider two things: 1) How  does the film affirm psychedelic experiences of the sacred (wholly other) power of natural phenomena (e.g., bats, reptiles, plants, water, the desert, as well as varieties of genders, classes, and races of humans)? 2) How does the film criticize various spiritualities, including Christian, New Age, Satanic, and even psychedelic. 

My initial thought it that the film affirms the experimental and experiential wildness of psychedelic nature spirituality while also harboring a critique of its tendencies toward utopianism, idealism, and anti-modernism.  Through that affirmation and critique, the film promotes a more realist sense of psychedelic nature spirituality.  Accordingly, the film celebrates Las Vegas in all of its deserted reality, that is, the groundless artificiality and errant depravity that characterizes the hyperreality of Baudrillard’s “desert of the real.”  This resonates with Mark C. Taylor’s realized eschatology, in which the hyperreal desert of Las Vegas is the site of the realization of the Kingdom of God on Earth. 

The deserted realism of Fear and Loathing makes it unique among psychedelic nature spiritualities, and, perhaps paradoxically, it also makes it the most viable for becoming integrated into contemporary society.  I don’t romanticize Thompson or his drugs, guns, or suicide.  What makes him relevant is not his authenticity or originality or his subversion of the system.  He is so relevant precisely because his passion for the real is thoroughly ungrounded and ethically questionable, abyssal and abysmal, deserted like the realized Kingdom in which we all participate.