Politics and Ontology

Given the recent bevy of posts spawned by Nina‘s comments on what she sees as a problem inherent in “certain corners of contemporary continental philosophy”, with regard to the relation between politics and ontology, I feel drawn to say something about the issue. I think straight off I should say that for the most part I agree with Nick’s opinions on the matter (here and here), although I think he made claims for Speculative Realism as a whole that were perhaps more true of his own approach (and that of some others in the loosely defined SR paradigm). Not being a speculative realist, I’m not going to frame anything I say in terms of what a speculative realist approach allows us to do with politics, but rather try to spell out what the relation between politics and ontology is from my own perspective (which I’ve been slowly elaborating on this blog over the past couple months). Also, I’m not going to summarise all of the discussions that have been going on, but I do need to say something about Nina’s brief remarks and the comments Nick made in response to them.

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Dissecting Norms

Levi recently launched a couple new salvo’s in the debate over normativity (here, here, here and a bit earlier here), and although he hasn’t mentioned me, I think his reference to ‘transcendentalists’ who are concerned with guaranteeing normativity is probably aimed in this direction, especially after our earlier exchange over Latour (here and here on deontologistics, which petered out in a comment exchange here on larvalsubjects), and his reference to the ‘howler’ that norms don’t exist.

The major thrust of Levi’s argument still seems to be that concern with transcendental normativity precludes the possibility of first analysing the real social conditions (and their causes) that underlie undesirable political states of affairs, and then acting upon these analyses in strategic ways to undermine these and potentially produce new and better social configurations. This is put in a slightly more inflamatory way in his comparison of philosophers of normativity with the kid in the playground that thinks shouting at the top of his voice that the bully is in the wrong is enough to stop the bully. I’ll try to take this jab in good spirit.

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What is Idealism Anyway?

I’m in the middle of writing a somewhat huge post about normativity in response to some of Levi’s recent (fairly scathing) writings on the matter, and this (along with producing work for my supervisor) has meant I’ve not responded to some of the other (from my perspective) problematic claims he’s been making (e.g., vis a vis transcendental philosophy), but I can’t resist questioning his recent claim (here), which Graham Harman perhaps (?) agrees with (here), that materialism is just a disguised form of idealism. Given the way it’s formulated, it leaves me wondering what exactly Levi thinks idealism is anyway.

There is a certain danger in broadening a term so much, in order to undermine positions you oppose, that it ceases to be useful for that or any other purpose, except insofar as it still invokes some resonance with or connotations from its original and more limited meaning. I’ve often felt that this is a serious danger with the term ‘correlationism’ (which I believe is a genuinely important and interesting concept), but it seems that ‘idealism’ has perhaps gotten there first (and subsumed a whole chunk of correlationism while its at it).

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Praying to the Evil Demon

This is a short thought, but it struck me when reading a post on the Event (a la Badiou) over at Fractal Ontology. As I have mentioned before, I find Badiou’s conception of the Event to be somewhat troubling, precisely insofar as it suspends the principle of sufficient reason, and appeals to the ever present possibility of some occurrence which comes without reason, changing the given state of affairs. It seems that a lot of the appeal of this kind of position is political. This is because it holds out the promise of something, anything, that could change the current political state of affairs of which we are currently sick. Moreover, because this change will come in a way which is unthinkable from within the present situation, we are thereby excused the burden of trying to think how such a change could come about.

As I have stated before (here), this kind of position, in which an Event irrupts literally ex nihilo, i.e., out of ‘the Void’, to be a negative theology. Badiou’s conception of the Void seems to push Levinas’ Absolute Other even further than he was willing, stripping it of all possible predicates, be they divine (e.g., perfection, benevolence, etc.) or otherwise (e.g., hardness, warmth, etc), until we are left with pure nothingness. But nonetheless, we find ourselves hoping, praying to this Nothingness that it will deliver unto us some change, because even though there is no reason for it to do so, there is no reason for it not to.

This negative theology is not really something other than onto-theology, as much as it is the limit-point, or ‘degree zero’ (a popular phrase these days) of onto-theology, wherein everything is grounded in an un-ground, an abyss, but nonetheless something, even if it is distinctly other than beings. This otherness has two dimensions: the denial of any of the determinations of beings to the ground (as indicated above), but also the separation of the ground from beings.

However, what struck me just now is how much this harks back to Descartes. It is as if we have abandoned all hope of proving that whatever it is that has power over the apparent (or presented) world is really benevolent, and yet in our desperation we are praying to the evil demon to bring us change, to overturn the apparent world, because we are so thoroughly sick of it.

Of course, there is some virtue to the Event for Badiou, insofar as it is the irruption of Truth, rather than a mere rejigging of appearances for its own sake. Still, even this just gives the Void a minimum of ‘benevolence’ and it still strikes me as theological, and the corresponding language of fidelity as precisely eschatological.

Maybe I am being too harsh, but I cannot but help see this in appeals to the power of Events to bring us change.

Normativity, Causation and Explanation Revisited

Levi has put down some initial comments on my last post (here and here), and I feel that I really must clear up what appear to me to be some obvious misunderstandings of my claims. Fortunately, I think that the major misunderstanding Levi puts forward allows me to clarify some of the less clear points I made about causation and its problematic status within Levi’s variant of OOO. It also appears that I need to say some more about my own political pretensions in order to stave off the objection that I demand an appeal to ‘transcendent’ norms or that my approach ignores the reality of the political situation. Here we go then.

1. Varieties of Force

The major objection Levi has to my account of Latour is my characterisation of the first of the two moves I identified in his position (although Levi has yet to say much about the second, and I think he’ll find it equally problematic). I described this in two ways:-

1) The collapsing of the distinction between might and right.

2) The reduction of normative force to causal force.

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Explanatory Networks and Political Reason

There has recently been an interesting (and somewhat turbulent) discussion regarding Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and the Object-Oriented Ontologies (OOO) that are influenced  by it, in relation to the kind of politics these theories can support.

There is obviously Nick Srnicek’s very interesting piece from the Militant Dysphoria conference (available here), which tries to show how ANT provides some useful resources for reconsidering the nature of political action, and his recent additional commentary on it (here), which situates this piece in relation to the notion of folk-politics (something I myself have talked about here, but with a slightly different twist).

Then there is the more fiery (though now thankfully cooled) exchange between Reid Kane at Planomenology (here and here) and Levi at Larval Subjects (here, here, here and here) over whether either Latour’s ANT or OOO has neo-liberal political implications. This obviously got out of hand, but it strikes me that the real intuition behind the argument that Reid was making (and that others have also been making), was never made fully explicit. Without wishing to blow on the embers, I feel that it would be helpful for this intuition (as I see it) to be properly formulated. This also gives me an opportunity to work out some other thoughts about Latour’s position which have been haunting me.

The proviso here is that I am neither an expert on Latour or on OOO, although I will admit to having read more of the former than the latter. So, it is possible that my reading, and the implications I draw from it, will be faulty. As ever, I am happy to be corrected. That being said, I will proceed anyway, while the point is fresh in my mind.

Edit: It is of course also important to note that there are different variants of OOO, and not all will endorse or take up the Latourian positions I’m trying to analyze here, at least in the way they are found here.

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The Plane of Immanence

Over at The Naked Void, Nikola recently put up a post about Deleuze’s proximity to idealism (here). Very loosely, his argument ran that any philosophy of presence is essentially idealism, and that Deleuze’s notion of the plane of immanence commits him to such a philosophy of presence. As might be expected, I strongly objected to this characterisation of Deleuze, and I posted quite a long (albeit dense) comment, which tried to undermine the Badiouian assumptions latent in Nikola’s argument. Nikola has since posted a reply to my objections (here), and I feel like it would be more productive to re-present some of my original points and then show what appear to me as the inadequacies of Nikola’s response in light of them.

Insofar as this means that I have to discuss the plane of immanence, this also gives me an opportunity to better formulate some of the issues I have with Levi’s claims about ‘flat ontology’ and immanence (which are linked to here). I do like hitting two birds with one stone, and so I’ll address these after I discuss Nikola’s points.

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