Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How widespread Polanyi’s influence is today

A short history of economic anthropology
from The Memory Bank by keith

In The Great Transformation (1944), Polanyi brought a radical critique of modern capitalism to bear on his moment in history. We too must start from the world we live in, if we are to apply the vast, but inchoate intellectual resources of anthropology to a subject that is of vital concern to everyone. Ours is a very different world from when Polanyi so confidently predicted the demise of the market model of economy. Yet the revival of market capitalism and dismantling of state provision since the 1980s furnishes plentiful material for Polanyi’s thesis that the neglect of social interests must eventually generate a political backlash and a retreat from market fundamentalism. In our Introduction, we suggested that the world may now be emerging from the period of neo-liberal hegemony, with obvious potential consequences for the project known as ‘economic anthropology’. The ongoing globalization of capital – its spread to Japan, China, India, Brazil, Russia and elsewhere after centuries of western monopoly – is also bound to affect our understanding of economy. The absolute dominance of market logic, at least in the form devised by neo-liberal economists, may be coming to an end. Then, not only will Polanyi’s ideas receive more favourable attention, as they already have in some quarters, but the urgent need to review the institutional basis of economy may stimulate anthropologists to renewed efforts. [...]

We now recognize Marcel Mauss’s Essai sur le don (1925) as the main source of opposition to Malinowski’s fusion of individualist traditions from Britain and Central Europe. Mauss was greatly enthused by Malinowski’s confirmation that the potlatch of America’s Northwest Coast flourished in Melanesia, but he insisted that money and markets were human universals: only the impersonal variant found in capitalist societies was distinctive. Following Durkheim’s lead in The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Mauss’s attack on economic individualism emphasized the personal, social and spiritual dimensions of exchange in all societies, including ours. His anthropology was wedded to a quite explicit socialist programme; but the essay has given rise to quite divergent interpretations since (Hart 2007). Only much later was The Gift widely acknowledged as Mauss’s chef d’oeuvre; it took two translations and a secondary literature, inspired above all by Lévi-Strauss (1950) and Sahlins (1972), for its radical message to be absorbed into Anglophone economic anthropology (Sigaud 2002). David Graeber’s long chapter on Mauss in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001) is the most complete treatment in English. Mauss’s example never launched a school of economic anthropology as such in France. [...]

French Marxist anthropology enjoyed cult status during the 1970s. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar (1970) produced a reading of Capital that divested it of any residual elements of Hegelian philosophy and brought it into line with both structuralist methodology and the most modern ‘scientific’ approaches emanating from America, notably systems theory. The phenomenology of the human subject, the dialectic and indeed history itself were in effect dropped from their scheme. In their place a deep structure of the ideal mode of production was outlined, having three elements – producers, non-producers and means of production – whose variable combination was realized as concrete modes of production (Balibar 1970). Much attention was paid to the relationship between economic, political and ideological levels of the mode of production and to the question of which was dominant and/or determinant in any given case. Althusser abandoned the ideological notion of ‘society’ in favour of ‘social formations’ in which, it was recognized, more than one mode of production were normally combined.

The key figure in bridging Lévi-Straussian structuralism and Marxism, France and the Anglophone world was Maurice Godelier, whose Rationalité et irrationalité en économie (1966) was translated into English in 1972 with a new Introduction. In this work Godelier borrowed explicitly from the structural-functionalism of Parsons (1937) and Radcliffe-Brown (1952). A long review of the formalist-substantivist debate led him also to endorse Polanyi’s ideas, while the whole book attempted to redeem a universal concept of rationality from its abuse in the hands of liberal economists and their sympathizers. Godelier applied this notion of rationality not only to persons but also to systems, thereby setting up a contradiction between structure and agency that he was unable to resolve. This scheme has never been successfully applied to a moving, historical society; but it paved the way to a greater openness to Marxism in the 1970s.

Claude Meillassoux, Emmanuel Terray and Pierre-Philippe Rey all acknowledged their debt to Althusser, but they sustained a lively debate among themselves over their common ethnographic area, West and Central Africa. All three wrote major field monographs, but Meillassoux’s L’anthropologie économique des Gouro de Côte d’Ivoire (1964) became the locus classicus for discussion. His later synthesis, Femmes, greniers et capitaux (1981), was a more ambitious attempt to compare the means of accumulation in tribal, peasant and capitalist societies. Terray’s (1972) reanalysis of the Gouro ethnography set out a method for classifying the material base of a society in great detail, so that its modes of production may be inferred empirically and concrete particulars incorporated into a materialist analysis. Pierre-Philippe Rey’s monograph on a matrilineal tribe of the French Congo, Colonialisme, néo-colonialisme et transition au capitalisme (1971), was seminal. First, it marked an original contribution to the literature on matriliny, slavery and European penetration of the Congo, whereas many Marxists merely restated what was already known in a new jargon. Second, Rey outlined here his famous idea of a ‘lineage mode of production’ (Rey 1975). Third, he spelled out the issue of ‘articulation of modes of production in a structure of dominance’, showing concretely how colonial capitalism restructured the lineage and petty commodity modes of production for its own ends. [...]

Although the Karl Polanyi Centre for Political Economy continues to flourish as a beacon of trans-disciplinary scholarship that goes against the neo-liberal grain (e.g. McRobbie and Levitt 2000), it is hard to identify a successor to the Polanyi school in economic anthropology. Polanyi’s mantle has passed to historians (Thompson 1991), sociologists (Beckert this volume) and political economists of neo-Keynesian and other persuasions (e.g. Stiglitz 2002; Servet 1999 and this volume) who draw on his work to theorize and critique the ‘Washington consensus’ and globalization in general. The revue du MAUSS school in France (Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste en Sciences Sociales; see Godbout and Caillé 2000) consistently produces excellent critical work in the spirit of the great man himself. Economists such as Bruno Théret (1992, 2007) and Serge Latouche (2004, 2005) enter territory that the English-speaking world tends to reserve to anthropologists and freely draw on their work. The recent publication of a Dictionnaire de l’autre économie (Laville and Cattani 2006) – sixty entries each concerned with an aspect of alternative economics (économie solidaire, micro-credit, social capital, third sector etc) and written by scholars of several disciplines – reveals how widespread Polanyi’s influence is today among those who reject mainstream economic doctrines and policies. [...]

Maurice Godelier, too, has proved that there is life after Marxism by continuing to produce significant work, notably The Enigma of the Gift (1999) and a review of economic anthropology (2000). Since the end of the Cold War, there has been some convergence between the followers of Marx and Polanyi. The convergence between the followers of Marx and Polanyi that he pioneered in the 1960s has gained momentum since the end of the Cold War, particularly in France, where the lines between anthropology and the other social sciences were never drawn firmly, since the time of Durkheim and Mauss (Steiner 2005). Jonathan Friedman has continued to mine world systems theory with fruitful effect (Friedman 1994, Friedman and Chase-Dunn 2005), without locating his work within the trajectory of economic anthropology as such. The same can be said of the Comaroffs’ collection, Millennial Capitalism (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001). [...]

The time is ripe for anthropologists to take the extra step of addressing the world economy as a whole as well as its parts; and engaging with the historical sweep of Polanyi’s great war-time oeuvre might be one means to that end. The issue remains whether or not capitalist economy rests on human principles of universal validity. This argument about sameness and difference plagued post-war economic anthropology, much as it plagued nationalist discourse in 19th century Germany. Anthropologists can be proud of our discipline’s commitment to joining the people where they live in order to find out what they think and do. But fieldwork-based ethnography needs to be integrated once more with the perspective on world history that it overthrew.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Human nature does not change depending on whether a capitalist or socialist/communist economy is in play

from Dr. Sanity by Dr. Sanity ... Instead, it was about this time that Karl's descendents met Sigmund. In searching around for explanations for the sad failures of Marxism, Freud's theories of the unconscious seemed like a lifeline--a potential explanation of why everything had gone wrong. Instead of blaming the theory, they blamed human nature.

As Stephen Hicks notes (pg 167-8):
...Marcuse concluded [that] capitalism's repression of human nature may be socialism's salvation. Capitalism's rational technocracy suppresses human nature to the point that it bursts out in irrationalisms--in violence, criminality, racism, and all of societies other pathologies. But by encouraging those irrationalisms the new revolutionaries can destroy the system. So the first task of the revolutionary is to seek out those idividuals and energies on the margins of society; the outcast, the disorderly, and the forbidden--anyone and anything that capitalism's power structure has not yet succeeded in commodifying and dominating totally. All such marginalized and outcast elements will be "irrational," "immoral," and even "criminal," especially by capitalist definitiion, but that is precisely what the revolutionary needs. Any such outcast element could "break through the false consciousness [and] provide the Archimedian point for a larger emancipation."

As I noted in this post, Freud argued that human instincts are indeed out of sync with modern civilization; and that aggression and other instinctual needs, once absolutely necessary for survival in a dangerous world, are now frequently only archaic impulses that impede our ability to live happily in the present day and age.

He posited that the same aggression that was once directed towards survival, in the modern era is frequently turned inward, to the self, rather than outward toward the environment, and causes the psychological phenomenon of depression. In psychiatry we refer to this as "aggression turned inward".

But the mistake the Marxists made in marrying their theory with Freud was in thinking that somehow this fundmental aspect of human nature was only present under capitalism. If they thought for a moment, they might have realized that violence, racism, criminality and all the other pathologies of society, are actually pathologies of the individual--independent of the society.

Individual human nature must be taken into account when one evaluates the usefulness and consequences of certain economic and political systems that are advocated in the world today. Humans are clearly well-suited to some things and not to others.

But there are some social, economic, and political systems that like to indulge in biological fantasy and place human beings on a Procrustean bed to try to adjust human nature to their theories. The more out of touch with reality are the biological fantasies, the more the society tends toward catastrophy, human misery, and death. The worse of those societies are engaged in constant war/jihad and domination over others. You can identify them by the accumulation of wealth in the leaders as the followers become more and more impoverished.

The left somehow continues to believe that capitalism is what brings these things to pass, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. The truth is that, among social, political and economic systems, democratic capitalism is probably the one and only system that is most compatible with human nature.

Although portrayed as encouraging the "survival of the fittest", capitalism simultaneously encourages cooperation for mutually beneficial trade as well as competition. Instead of encouraging war and dominance; capitalism encourages trust and human cooperation; as well as alliances to maximize productivity and wealth creation. Far from concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, capitalism makes it possible for anyone to accumulate wealth (contrast for example the number of people who earn over $100,000 a year in the U.S., with those do in Cuba. The only really wealthy person there is Fidel Castro and his cronies.

But the Marxists of the mid 20th century were correct in a way, when they started their love affair with Sigmund. Freud's theories do indeed explain why capitalism is successful in the real world and marxist theory is not.

Capitalism allows the basic nature of man to creatively express itself by mastering the physical world. The instinctual energy Freud spoke of is directed away from the destructive pursuit of power over other people and sublimated toward acts of creation, which further both the individual's life and all of civilization.

The Marxist intellectuals' big mistake was in not recognizing the difference between repression and suppression. And in not understanding the way psychological defense mechanisms work (particularly the healthy or 'mature' defense mechanisms such as sublimation, anticipation, humor, altruism and supression).

They correctly noticed that the instinctual energy of the proletariat was being harnessed both for the individual's good as well as the society under capitalism; and yet were unable to appreciate the fact that unless you accept the reality of human nature and give it the freedom to transform all its most negative aspects into something positive for the individual and the culture/society (which is what the mature defenses do so creatively), then you end up crushing all human initiative, creativity, and productivity.

Societies can either encourage the development of these healthy, mature psychological defenses with which to cope with reality; or they can encourage the development and expression of the worse aspects of human nature--i.e., those which result in violence, racism, criminality and all the other pathologies. Either way, social, political and economic systems can only encourage certain human traits that result in civilized behavior; or, they can encourage those that are barbaric and antisocial. Human nature is the same, though, no matter what type of society or political system it finds itself in. [...]

Capitalism always gets blamed for these crises, and indeed, markets have their ups and downs; as well as their cycles and psychology. But, it is always the government interference that makes the normal ups and downs catastrophic; or creates the hysteria that leads to panic and idiocy. It is the under-the-table deals and winks exchanged between dishonest, immoral businessmen and dishonest, immoral legisislators drunk on the power they wield over others that lead to the unwholesome greed and self-destructive deals; and it is underscored by a willingness--no, a desperate need-- to ignore reality and the long-term consequences/destructiveness of their own behavior.

And behind the scapegoating of capitalism for their own immoral behavior lies the unquestioned premise--held by leaders of both the left and the right--that capitalism is just so evil that it needs to be firmly 'controlled' and 'regulated'--as if it were a horrible monster just waiting to escape from its bonds and kill us all.

Instead of holding individuals and companies accountable for their choices and mistakes; instead of encouraging personal responsibility and allowing failure (which results in learning and changed behavior), our economic policy is geared to reinforce irresponsibiity and encourage victimhood. Everyone is a 'victim' of the 'dog eat dog', greedy capitalist system.

But remember, human nature does not change depending on whether a capitalist or socialist/communist economy is in play. Greed, abuse of power, ruthless behavior and any other failing you may attribute to human beings will be in play whenever humans are involved. As I noted in a recent post Hakuna Matata: [...]

Human nature is what it is. This is not tragic, it is simple truth. The biological fantasies of the utopians; and the delusional fantasies of Marxist, communists and socialists and all their heirs, have lead to incalculable levels of human suffering all over the globe, as the proponents of these theories have tried to force humans to some "ideal" state. All these systems have failed the real-world tests in the last century; and all current versions of these ideologies will also eventually fail and fade away.

Sigmund could have taught Karl that simple truth--but Karl was never searching for truth as much as he was searching for power over--not understanding of--the minds of men. - Diagnosed by Dr. Sanity @ 7:08 AM Comment (1)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sartre remains a beautiful soul trapped in the golden cage of abstract bourgeois categories

Bourdieu’s Political Interventions by Alexei

Indeed, these elements inform his intense friendship with Foucault and his dislike of Sartre, the two prominent leitmotifs of Political Interventions. “What I like least about Sartre,” Bourdieu writes,

“is everything that made him not only the ‘total intellectual’ but the very ideal of an intellectual, and in particular his unmatched contribution to the ideology of the free intellectual, which brought him the eternal recognition of all intellectuals” (27).

To put it in lay terms, Sartre’s brand of commitment remained naïve, too ‘catholic’ (universalistic), and hence fundamentally disconnected from the actual social situation he inhabited. According to Bourdieu, for all his overt communist leanings, Sartre’s ‘total intellectual’ remains a beautiful soul trapped in the golden cage of abstract bourgeois categories. Foucault, by contrast,

“sought to substitute for the absolutism of the universal intellectual, specific works drawing on actual sources […] but he did so without abandoning the broadest ambitions of thought” (138).

And, as can be inferred from his interventions, Bourdieu shares with Foucault this mode of committed research, or this model of a “specific intellectual” (ibid.).

The most valuable contribution of the volume remains its presentation of Bourdieu as a committed, specific intellectual. Far from reconstituting the old model of a ‘universal intellectual’ who withdraws into her ivory tower to better – i.e. more ‘objectively’ – survey the social and political battlefields of her day, Bourdieu’s ‘political interventions’ articulate the need for the ‘collectivization’ of social transformation. They call for the constitution of a new ‘Intellectual International’ that can collectively resist, i.e. analyse, the provincialism of identity politics, as well as the depoliticizing rhetoric of the “policy of globalization” (374).

Moreover, Political Interventions offers an immensely interesting point of comparison to the recent return of ‘commitment’ and ‘resistance’ in contemporary critical theory (for instance, in Simon Critchley’s recent book, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance), precisely because it helps debunk the uncritical, though still widely-held notion that commitment and resistance have to be emphatically non-theoretical, in order to be effective. Almost despite the editors’ minimalism, a ‘style of political intervention’ does emerge: rigorous, sociological analyses of specific social phenomena oriented by an internationalist vision.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The ultimate principle or ground to which objects must conform is undecidable

Time was when Critical Philosophy was queen of the philosophical sciences. But in the two hundred years since the inauguration of transcendental thought we have witnessed nothing but endless disputes.
  • One camp announces that the mind conforms to objects rather than objects to mind, thereby declaring mind the ultimate principle of transcendental philosophy.
  • Another camp declares that objects and minds conform to language rather than language to objects.
  • Yet another camp declares that objects and minds conform to history rather than history to objects and minds.
  • Yet another camp declares that objects conform to Dasein, or the body, or power, technology, writing, or language games.

Between all these rival camps we discover that the ultimate principle or ground to which objects must conform is undecidable. For each of these camps is able to declare that it has discovered the nearest of the near and that which must therefore function as the regulative ground for our access to all else.

Given the utter failure of Critical Philosophy as evinced by its endless and irresolvable disputes, let us see whether we do proceed further in the thorny and obscure domain of metaphysics by beginning with the ultimate transcendental principle upon which all of these other principles are necessarily dependent. [...]

What must above all be shown is how the failure of self-reflexivity in the elevation of other critical principles suffering from an objectification that clothes or disguises this most airy of principles to pride of place generates a series of irresolvable paralogisms and antinomies that perpetually haunt reason, preventing the end of all dispute once and all, thereby initiating the march of knowledge and emancipation at last. Not only this, but with oxygen we discover a principle that at last resolves the vexed antinomies of the subject and the object, for air is at once both material and spiritual, as can be discerned in its status as both elemental and breath.
As such, we must first proceed with a deconstruktion of all history hitherto, demonstrating the paradoxically silent functioning of the principle that outstrips all principles, the principle that perpetually evades and precedes all objects and subjects while nonetheless and simultaneously, yet under erasure, only following from objects and subjects, illustrating how air is both the condition of possibility and impossibility for all other beings. Only then will we at last accomplish the End of philosophy and the beginning of thinking, ushering in, if I may put it like this, a breath of fresh air.
The real target of this little satire is not so much Kant as the critical/dogmatic divide. We are told that one approach to philosophy is critical while another is pre-critical dogmatism. The curious thing is that nearly anything can be treated as the ultimate condition or the fundamental condition required for a philosophy to count as critical.
  • Thus you get the Kantians talking about the constitutive role that mind plays, such that any philosophy that does not take this role into account is dogmatic.
  • The Gadamerians and Foucaultians respond by making history the constitutive condition, denouncing the Kantians as dogmatically ignoring our fundamental historicity.
  • The Kantian retorts that history wouldn’t be possible without these constitutive structures of mind.
  • The Marxist Critical Theorist intervenes by showing how the Kantian categories are actually generated from economics.
  • Derrida leaps in showing how all these folks are wrong because the role that Arche-Writing plays has not been taken into account.

Every one of these positions is able to one-up and explain the other position in terms of what it has located as the transcendental, and every position being denounced as dogmatic is able, in its own turn, to respond by showing how the allegedly critique is in fact dogmatic by the lights of its own critical structure.

  • For example, the Husserlian denounces the Marxist for failing to carry out the reduction and engage in a phenomenological analysis of intentionality,
  • while the Marxist turns around and denounces the Husserlian for failing to carry out a historical and economic investigation into the origins of his very conception of the world (i.e., the Marxist denounces the Husserlian for bourgeois individualism).

Everything we think might be mistaken
Great Moments in the Classroom from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

Students shuffling out of the classroom after a discussion of Platonic realism and the possibility of transcendent, objective values independent of culture, history, and individual determination.

  • STUDENT: “This class is impossible.”
  • ME (Alarmed): “Why?”
  • STUDENT: “We come in here thinking we understand the world and now we discover that everything we think might be mistaken.”


Husserl begins with an obvious thesis – “look at the things themselves!” – yet in executing this project he unsettles our assumptions about what it is to experience the world and objects, opening a vast domain that continues to challenge central assumptions in cognitive science, psychology, the social sciences, etc. 5:27 AM 2:25 PM

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Freud never ceases to repeat– and Lacan after him –is that transportation fails

The Scheme of Translation from Larval Subjects Now, those who have kindly been following my recent posts and who know a bit of my background no doubt recognize that I’ve been particularly unkind to Lacan and Žižek. Not only have I been unkind, I’ve been resolutely unfair, misrepresenting their positions in a number of ways.

I have, for example, continuously used Lacan and Žižek as examples of the sort of thought I’m trying to overcome and have accused them of reducing the world to the signifier. As Lacan remarks in Encore, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”. Clearly such a statement is thesis from the standpoint of any object-oriented philosophy insofar as object-oriented philosophy seeks to defend the reality of objects of all sorts, rejecting any metaphysics– and they are metaphysics –that would treat objects as product of the culture, the human, language, texts, power, mind, etc. There is, of course, an important and subtle qualification of this defense of the reality of objects; for, since texts, humans, minds, languages, texts, forms of power and all the rest are objects too, these things too are real. A discourse is real and therefore both is difference and produces difference. But a tree is real as well and exists regardless of whether discourses exist. At any rate, my charges again Lacan and Žižek might be disconcerting given that I have both practiced as a psychoanalyst and have written so much on Lacan and Žižek.

As anyone familiar with Lacan or Žižek knows, while Lacan often makes remarks to the effect that the universe is the flower of rhetoric, while Žižek often portrays reality as an effect of the symbolic or the signifier, both later Lacan and Žižek nonetheless give pride of place to the category of the real. This marks one major difference between the Lacanian position and the position of linguistic idealists.

  • On the one hand, for Lacan, there is the real as a sort of twist in the symbolic, as a distortion of the symbolic where the symbolic simply doesn’t work in the smooth and law-like fashion analyzed so ingeniously by Lévi-Strauss. This is a conception of the real that, while I find it fascinating, is of less interest for the object-oriented ontology I’m trying to develop.
  • On the other hand, there is the Lacanian real as the pre-symbolic or that which is outside the symbolic. In this connection, Lacan’s thought– and psychoanalytic thought more generally –is highly resonant with both Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction.

For what Lacan and Freud both explore so brilliantly throughout their work is the assembly of culture and biology. Freud’s great life’s work– the collected works of which sit handsomely behind me on my bookcase (please be envious!) –unfolds between the dual poles of the Three Essays on Sexuality (biology, though of a highly unusual sense) and The Interpretation of Dreams (the semiotic or the cultural). What Freud never ceases to repeat– and Lacan after him –is that transportation fails. The biological body in the real is never simply transported into the cultural, is never a mere iteration or perfect copy of the cultural that descends upon the biological body, and the individual never ceases to peturb or disrupt the smooth functioning of the social order.

In this regard, Freud and Lacan can both be taken as profound thinkers of both translation and irreduction. On the one hand, we get an account of how the subject perpetually fails to be a perfect copy, a repetition, of the cultural codes; while on the other hand we get a highly nuanced account of how translation between these spheres take place. We get an account of how biological instincts (instinkt) are transformed into drives (trieb). We get an account of how, in striving to integrate this foreign invader– the cultural or the symbolic –the drives perpetually displace various cultural representations giving rise to the formations of the unconscious. As Lacan so beautifully puts it,

“…what the unconscious does is show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with the real” (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 22). [...]

Given that Freud and Lacan are both thinkers of translation and irreduction, it would thus come as no surprise to discover that they have a great deal to teach us about Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction at a more general ontological level of objects in general without any reference to the human at all. In particular, I think Lacan’s theory of discourse has a great deal to teach us about objects and relations between objects when this theory of discourse is translated in the appropriate way. For what is Lacan’s theory of discourse if not a theory of transportation and the failure of transportation, such that we get an account of both translation and irreduction writ large? In discussing the greatness of mathematics, Whitehead remarks that,

“[t]he originality of mathematics consists in the fact that in mathematical science connections between things are exhibited which, apart from the agency of human reason, are extremely unobvious” (Science and the Modern World, 19).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Religion would be recomposed in new forms that meet the new situation

December 23rd, 2008 Akbar Ganji in conversation with Charles Taylor posted by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

Charles Taylor: If the human relation to religion and to God is not as shallow as the mainstream theory thinks, then what would happen in many cases is religion would be recomposed in new forms that meet the new situation. And that is in fact what I would argue has happened in the West. So this is a much more adequate theory to understand this historical and sociological reality, but what it required is a deep understanding of the place of religion in human life.

So I would claim that there’s a single discourse and it’s made up of elements that look as though they are drawn from three disciplines, but in fact they cohere together as a single discourse. The three discourses would be philosophy, history and sociology. You can’t do sociology without history, history without sociology, and you can’t do either without a proper philosophical understanding of human motivation. So the whole thing hangs together from those three sources. [...]

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Experience" is ambiguous and it implies two senses of the term

Da on Talking School from Gaia Community: kelamuni's Blog

The discourses of contemporary Western appropriations of Indian spirituality can be said to be characterized by a series of rhetorical dichotomies. These oppositions or "dualities" (dvandvas) define these "new" expressions of Indian spirituality by rhetorically demarcating appropriate and "authentic" forms of spirituality from inappropriate and "inauthentic" forms. The duality between the "pundit" and the "sage," and between "talking school" and "practising school" are among two of the most important of these dichotomies. Also important in this regard is the rhetoric involving the category of "experience," which in its own way implies whole a series opposing categories. Although these polarities are presented in ways that are supposed to reflect actual Indian pedagogical categories, they can also be understood as, and perhaps more accurately reflect, extensions of modern Western interests.

The polarity between "talking school" and "practising school" in particular can be said to reflect the modern European obsession with the problematic relation between "theory" and "practice." These polarities characterizing the new Indian spirituality, I contend, are for the most part taken over, almost entirely, from the polemical categories of the Neo-Vedanta. This makes the Neo-Vedanta, in itself, worthy of study. That the Neo-Vedanta is an Indian phenomenon does not contradict the thesis that these dichotomies in fact reflect modern Western concerns, since the Neo-Vedanta itself is a kind of fusion of Western interests with Indian forms of thought and spirituality.

While "Neo-Vedanta" as a phenomenon can, in a real sense, be said to be the appearance of something new, and modern expressions of the "new" Indian spirituality can be said to reflect modern interests, both draw upon the classical traditions of India in significant ways that cannot be ignored. Thus, one tack might be to unravel the various interwoven strands that feed into the rhetorical discourse of the Neo-Vedanta and contemporary Western expressions of "Indian" spirituality. But first, it might be of benefit to examine various aspects of the semantic range of the above polarities.

The three are, in their own way, interwoven with each other, and one of the initial tasks here will be to show how the three are inter-related. As already noted, the dichotomy between "talking school" and "practising school" is, in one sense, clearly related to the problem of the relation between theory and practice. One implication that can be drawn from this is that the "talking school" does a lot of "talking," but does not "act" upon its subject of discourse. Thus, there is a potential element of hypocrisy involved in the charge of "talking school."

In other words, it does not practice what it preaches. Also implied is a notion of authenticity, by which I mean being committed to the spiritual life. According to this line of thought, "true" spirituality is not merely a discourse about spirituality; it is the "inner struggle," the dedication to "personal transformation" that the practice of spirituality actually demands. Here another distinction is implied: that between discourse about spirituality and the practice of spirituality itself. And so someone who merely engages in discourse about spirituality is "talking school" whereas someone who is actually engaged in the spiritual life itself, in an existentially committed way, is "practising school."

There is another context to be examined, that in which the related expression "mere talk" may arise. In this case, someone may make the charge of someone else that their "talk" is describing something that they themselves have not "experienced." The implication here is the rhetorical charge that it is "mere talk" to discourse about spirituality when one has not "experienced" it. It is worth noting that this application of the term "experience" is ambiguous and that it implies two senses of the term "experience."

  • In the first case, it implies "experience" in the sense of some form of particular experience (like dreaming or doing LSD, or a mystical experience or "realization").
  • In the second case, it implies "experience" in the sense of the "life experience" of someone who is "spiritual": going on retreats, doing one's "sadhana", interacting with other "spiritual" types" -- the general experience of being a "spiritual" person and living the life of spiritual "practitioner."

In both cases, vis a vis experience, there is an implied charge that only those with "experience" may legitimately "discourse" about "spirituality" (whatever "experience" may mean, and regardless of the fact that someone can live his entire life consumed by "spirituality" without ever actually having undergone a genuine mystical experience).

This kind of charge finds its particular use in the polemical context wherein there is an attempt to authorize only a certain kind of discourse: that of the "qualified" people who are "experienced." This kind of move can be interpreted as an attempt to wrest control of spiritual discourse from those in positions authority, usually, the traditional "pundits." A rather clear application of the "talking school" and "practising school" dichotomy can be found in some of the writings of Adi Da.

In his essay, Ad Da describes "talking school" as represented by those proponents of Advaitism whose, "contact with disciples is primarily one of conversation, and the process in which they engage their listeners is basically a matter of attendance to verbal argumentation." Over against this mere "talking" and "listening," he contrasts, "the real practising ordeal and deep meditative process," the "self- transcending ordeal of sadhana," the "great practice and Great Realization," and "Yogic discipline and deep meditation..." etc.

In an interesting rhetorical gambit, Adi Da associates what he calls the "practising school" (of which, he is, of course, a proponent and principle exponent) with what he calls, "the original tradition of Advaita Vedanta" and "the original tradition." Now, by the "original tradition" he does not necessarily mean the traditional Advaita Vedanta of the Shankaracharya Maths, for he speaks of both "traditional" and "modern" exponents of "talking school." By speaking of "the original tradition" he is clearly invoking the authority of Shankara, and in the process, associating his own position with that of the Acharya. He is, in other words, giving his own position a form of legitimacy, and he is doing so in a very archaic manner.

In his essay, Ad Da then draws three significant differences between "talking school" and "practising school." First, "talking school" does not require the "great preparations and real qualifications" that the "original tradition" requires, qualifications such as renunciation and the indirect means (see my chapter on Shankara at blogspot for a discussion of the "qualifications for enquiry"). Adi Da's characterization here cannot be said to apply to the "traditional" talking school, whoever that may be, as traditional Advaita Vedanta, in all its forms, does indeed make such qualifications necessary for all. As for modern Advaitins, such a lack of qualification is, to a significant degree, quite normal and to be expected, given that many of the traditional qualifications are derivative of brahmanic culture, and by definition, Westerners are not, and cannot be, brahmins.

In other words, the problems that Adi Da describes here are, in general, endemic to Western appropriations of Advaita in general, in so far as such appropriations tend to be abstractions drawn from what is originally a lived process involving the traditional brahmanic movement toward the renunciatory ideal.

As a second charge, Adi Da says that the "talking school" -- and here Adi Da refers to both traditional and modern proponents of "talking school" -- tends to isolate "listening" and make it the "only method" when it is actually only the initial stage of an incremental process involving hearing, enquiry, and meditation. It is not entirely clear who Adi Da has in mind here, though he does mention the names of a few moderns. As applied to traditional Advaitins such as Sureshvara - if, indeed, this is who he has in mind -- such a characterization is but a caricature. Sureshvara no where says that listening is the "only method." At various times, Sureshvara, like his master, says that shravana can be sufficient. This is because for both Shankara and his closest disciple, Sureshvara, shravana, listening, is the most essential and primary means.

Third, and significantly, Adi Da makes a distinction between two forms of "rational enquiry" (manana). The first, he says, is characterized by mere "attendance to verbal argumentation" on the part of those who are "habituated to constantly talk, listen and think," and whose discipline is "superficial... and merely mental (or intellectual)." The second form of manana is characterized as the "profound examination of the Teaching arguments," and "right (and most profound) enquiry into... the Inherent and Transcendental Nature." It is not at all clear here how these two forms of manana differ from each other, besides the flowery language and vague designations like "profound," whatever that means, that apply to the latter. This kind of language, it should be noted, is purely rhetorical. It is also typical of the "new" spirituality in general, wherein we find that the "intellect" becomes a kind of "great satan," and any allusions to "mere thinking" must be either avoided or dressed up with adjectives like "profound enquiry" so as to not sound like "mere thinking."

It is perhaps worth pointing out that the distinction between manana1 and manana2, as suggested by Adi Da, has little to no basis in tradition. Shankara himself says that manana is no more than "attendance to verbal argumentation." The difference for him is that reasoning is not argumentation for the sake of mere argumentation -- sushukta-tarka, or independant (svatantra) argumentation, as the Madhyamika call it. Argumentation always stays close to scriptural revelation, for that is what authenticates it (as opposed to the whimsical personal experience of the "guru"). But any qualification that invokes scripture smacks of dogmatism to the modernist, and dogma tends to subvert the modern interest in so-called "free" enquiry. And so the one who champions the bastard form of enquiry that makes use of "manana2" must do his best to find some other way to dress up this second form of manana -- perhaps through the use of Capital Letters, or perhaps through the use of showy, but ultimately vacuous, adjectives like "profound."

Gould goes to make difference a fundamental ontological principle

Towards a New Transcendental Aesthetic by larvalsubjects

This has actually been a pet project of mine for a long time and is one of the key themes of my book, Difference and Givenness. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze calls for a new transcendental aesthetic that would be capable of overcoming the split between aesthetics as the doctrine of sensibility or what can be sensed and aesthetics as the theory of artistic production. The first form of aesthetics might be traced back to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason where the transcendental aesthetic refers to the a priori forms of sensibility or intuition defining, as it were, the frame within which any object must be encountered or experienced. [...]

When Deleuze declares that we must reunite the two sundered halves of the aesthetic– the aesthetics as a theory of sensibility and the aesthetic as a theory of art –he is declaring that we must see sensibility as the result of a sort of artistic production wherein what can be sensed is the result of a process, a creation, in which a form (the forms of time and space) is not simply being imposed on objects, but rather in which there is a dynamic interplay through which forms of sensibility are produced or generated. This is the secret of the role played by Deleuze’s many forays into painting, music, and literature. What interests Deleuze in art is not so much the interpretation of works of arts, but rather the analysis of how different artists literally created new forms of sensibility. Deleuze attributes Darwin with a third Copernican revolution.

  • With Copernicus we get the first Copernican revolution in which man and the earth are dethroned from being at the center of the universe.
  • With Kant we get a strange second Copernican revolution– a revolution that arguably perverts the core significance and meaning of Copernicus’ revolution –where mind and the human are placed at the center.
  • Finally, with Darwin we get a third Copernican revolution where individual difference makes all the difference.

For Darwin, individual differences are no longer mere accidents with respect to species-difference, such that these individual differences are negligible differences that have no bearing on true knowledge in the form of a knowledge of the species or essence. Rather, the revolution effected by Darwin is one in which individual difference is the engine of speciation. Everything is suddenly turned upside down. For where before it was species-difference that was most important and individual difference that was subordinated to species difference, it is now individual difference that is the real motor of evolution and species-difference is merely a statistical effect or approximation. In the Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Gould actually goes so far as to make difference a fundamental ontological principle, treating variation as a fundamental feature of being. Dennett does something similar in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

The upshot of all this is that the Darwinian revolution is not simply a transformation of the role played by individual and free floating differences, but is also a transformation of any sort of Kantianism. Kant envisions form of sensibility girded in by the pure a priori forms of time and space imposed by mind on beings. However, with Darwin we get a proliferation of forms of sensibility. Sensibility truly becomes artistic and creative, rather than being merely a form of receptivity or the framework of what can be sensed.

We get bat sensibility, aardvark sensibility, dog sensibility, whale sensibility, wasp sensibility, hummingbird sensibility, etc., etc. All of these forms of sensibility encounter very different worlds such that we cannot say what world is the true world. In this respect, there would be a way in which these sensibilities create a world or grasp the world in a particular way. Deleuze thus sees a continuum between the biological production of sensibility in processes of speciation and the artistic production of sensibility carried out by the writer, painter, director, or musician. What we get are the production of different rhythms of time and space through which the agent encounters the world.

However, here’s the rub. The sensibility produced is not the result of the agent as in the case of Kant with mind imposing the forms of sensibility on the world. Readers of Deleuze will be familiar with concepts such as the pre-individual, the transcendental field, the pre-personal, etc. I am not sure how closely Deleuze had read Whitehead. He mentions him a couple of times in Difference and Repetition, and also devotes a chapter to his thought in The Fold. However, it seems to me that Deleuze’s thought here shares close affinities to Whitehead’s arguments against correlationism.

Where Kant argues that mathematics is possible because mind imposes a priori forms of sensibility on the world, Whitehead argues that the subject is not an origin, a ground, that then imposes form on the world, but is rather a superject, product, or result of a dynamic interplay with the world. If something like a mathematics where thought applies to objects in the world is possible, this is not because the mind imposes forms of intuition on the world, but because the “superject” develops within a world. Or at least this seems to be Whitehead’s argument insofar as I understand it.

In Deleuze’s version, what we get is a play of pre-personal singularities, points of density, points of condensation, that preside over the becoming of actualities without the final result being pre-determined. Along these lines, an artistic production wouldn’t be a product of an artists mind then imposed on matter (say oil paints or signifiers) functioning as passive stuff in need of formatting. No, matter is already formatted, matter already contains singularities. Rather, an artistic production would be the product of an assemblage of singularities involving the artist, the material, the world, society, and much else beside. It would then be the navigation or negotiation of these constellations of singularities that would account for the creation of something new in the world. Posted by larvalsubjects under Affect, Assemblages, Constellation, Darwin, Deleuze, Difference, Epistemology, Individuation, Multiplicity, Object-Oriented Philosophy, Ontic, Ontology, Power, Whitehead

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Premodern hermeneutics share a number of continuities with Gadamarian and postmodern emphases

Ken on "Phenomenology"
...for which Gadamer and Ricouer attempt to compensate by recourse to their respective versions of hermeneutics. This naivity of the phenomenological method is caricatured by an example sometimes given in methodology seminars, in which a phenomenologal anthropologist arrives at an island in the pacific, only to discover that the "structures&qu... Gaia Community: kelamuni's Blog - 6:56 PM (48 minutes ago)

Heythrop Journal Article
...Georg Gadamer in an attempt to draw attention to certain hermeneutical continuities shared by premoderns, Gadamarians and postmoderns. After briefly comparing premodern and modern hermeneutical orientations, I conclude that Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts sharply with a (strict) modern grammatico-historical methodology (as institut... Per Caritatem - Jan 15, 2009 (2 days ago)

TOC: International Journal of Philosophical Studies: Volume 16 Issue 5, 2008
...Hermeneutics and Gadamer, Robert Dostal Schutz, Seebohm, and Cultural Science, Lester Embree Seebohm, Husserl, and Dilthey, Thomas Nenon Three Responses, Thomas M. Seebohm Continental Philosophy - Nov 26, 2008 9:32 AM

ruminations towards some thoughts towards some (an) integrating biblical theology
...Gadamer makes this point forcefully in Method and Truth. Namely that legal and exegetical/biblical hermeneutics are both forms of understanding/reading that overcome the modern era mistake of assuming there is some way to get to the real meaning of the text either through divination of the author’s original intention (UL in Quadrants), the orig... Indistinct Union - Nov 17, 2008 2:58 PM

A History of Philosophy in the Twentieth Century
...hermeneutics of Gadamer, who basically claimed we can’t understand art and language in terms of the author’s intentions. Well, a person who utters “we must exterminate the Jew,” unless he is deliberately being metaphorical or sarcastic, has an unambiguous meaning. We can totally understand why guilty Germans may have hangups about the nuances an... Thoughts, Books, and Philosophy - Nov 1, 2008 1:13 AM

Eccentricity, Buoyancy, Flexure
...Hans Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Berekely: University of California Press 1976, p. xxi, cited by Andrew Cashin, A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Study of the Lived Experience of Parenting a Child with Autism, p. 1.) And, "We speak, therefore of having gotten into a discussion, or of being caught in a discussion, and these expressi... Fido the Yak - Oct 25, 2008 10:38 AM

Alienation and Freedom in Marx and McDowell
...achieve what Gadamer calls a ‘free, distanced orientation’ towards their surroundings. Human experience is characterised by its ability to exert rational constraint, whereas animal perceptual responsiveness remains at the level of a causal response that, while purposive, does not allow the animal to respond to reasons that could be taken as such... Grundlegung - Oct 6, 2008 1:12 AM

Friday, January 16, 2009

I have problems with Badiou, Ranciere, and these trends of thought that descended from Kant

Of Assembly from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

While I would be the last person to ignore the importance of signifiers, I do think this form of theory is myopic and functions to cloud the other associations that make up our world. What is ignored in all of this is the role that roads play in sustaining particular social orders, networks among various individuals or among various corporations, technology, relations to “nature” in a variety of ways, political economy, and all the rest. All of these things become invisible when we adopt an approach like Zizek’s because the social world has been hegemonized by the signifier.

The Hegemonic Fallacy thus simply invites us to look at these complex networks, how they’re put together, how they’re engineered, how they’re assembled, and so on. In engaging with this sort of cartography all sorts of other relations become visible that might allow us to strategize more effective means of producing change. I have similar problems with Badiou, Ranciere, and a host of others. The target isn’t so much Kant as these trends of thought that I see as descended from Kant. I want an ontology that allows me to see how things are put together and that doesn’t dominate things with a single principle from which all of them are to flow. [...]

I share this position with both Graham and Shaviro. Just as Graham and Shaviro both argue that the in-itself is not unique to humans, but rather to relations among all objects, I too hold that there is nothing unique or exemplary about the human-object relation and that therefore relations among objects, human or otherwise, is an ontological question rather than an epistemological question. I argued this long ago before I encountered object-oriented philosophy or critiques of correlationism in a post on Hegel. [...]

Quite the contrary, part of the target of the Hegemonic Fallacy is precisely all those orientations of thought that seem so consistently to banish the furniture of the universe. [...]

Here, perhaps, I should develop an account of self-referentiality. Assuming Bryan has been keeping up with my recent posts on these topics, he will recall that in addition to the Ontic Principle I have also formulated Latour’s Principle, the Principle of Reality, the Principle of Act-uality, and the Ontological Principle.

Of particular importance in this connection are Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Reality. The Hegemonic Fallacy doesn’t deny that some differences dominate and overdetermine other differences. Rather, it denies that all differences can be traced back to a single ground or origin that contains them “virtually” as Hegel’s category of Being already contains all the subsequent categorical determinations. The Principle of Reality states that the degree of power or reality possessed by an entity is a ratio of the extensiveness of the differences it makes.

By this principle, some differences have a very low degree of power such that their existence is almost imperceptible to any other entity in the universe. Other entities vastly extend their power, producing differences in countless entities as in the case of the relationship of the sun to the planet earth and all of the creatures that populate the earth. Consequently, this principle allows us to begin developing an account of how a number of entities can be tightly bound up with some other entity or assembly of entities.

Latour’s Principle states that there is no transportation without translation. According to this principle, if we can speak of entities like capitalism or class, then we must be able to discuss how these entities are assembled or put together. How does class come to be an entity? How does capitalism come to be an entity? If this question emerges, then this is because capitalism and class must transport itself to other entities and this requires translation or labor.

That is, the entities cannot simply be subsumed like so many variables in a mathematical function. Moreover, those entities that are enlisted or assembled by these “super-entities” often resist and have other ideas. Capitalism must enlist machines of all sorts, computers, humans coming from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds and biological dispositions, the body of the earth, and so on. Latour’s Principle simply dictates that we account for how these translations take place.

One of the things that I love about Marx– especially the later Marx of Grundrisse and Capital –is that he is attentive to precisely these sorts of questions. Adopting Balibar’s language, we could say that Marx is deeply sensitive to the question of how masses are turned into classes or multitudes into a people. Marx does not begin with capitalism or class as a given, as a primitive notion, but painstakingly shows how certain differences or entities intervene and unfold, generating new entities. Hopefully all of this is a little less boring.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Questions like justice, the good, and even God: we remain within the two world hypothesis, spirit and nature

5 Responses to “The Hegemonic Fallacy” Levi keeps it going « Object-Oriented Philosophy Says: January 13, 2009 at 10:19 pm
[...] 14, 2009 And, Levi with ANOTHER POST THAT CAUGHT MY EYE just before bed, but which I’ll have to leave till [...]

Mikhail Emelianov Says: January 13, 2009 at 11:16 pm
Way to set up some real straw men there! [Alternative opening: C'mmon now! Give the imagined objectors some real objections!] I feel like a Kantian cop here policing the “internets” and fighting the losing battle. I’m not sure where to even begin here, I’m taking this to be a sort of manifesto, so more details and nuanced analyses to follow, right?

larvalsubjects Says: January 13, 2009 at 11:26 pm
Well I do hope to develop better arguments, however I’m not sure how possible it is to do so. It might be that the Ontic Principle is a sort of primitive beginning such that the unassailability of the beginning point is not the issue, but rather the results that follow are the issue. In this respect, the Ontic Principle would be axiomatic in Badiou’s sense of the term, or would be part of something like a “categorical scheme” as in the case of Whitehead. I do think that the Ontic Principle has the virtue of being exceedingly modest in a manner that’s far more modest than, say, a Cartesian starting point with mind, a Derridean/Gadamerian starting point with language and tradition, or a social constructivist starting point with culture or power. All the Ontic Principle states is that there are differences and differences are made. It initially remains agnostic as to what those differences might be. The next move is to ask the innocent question “does x make its own difference or doesn’t it?”

I have, I think, made some more substantial arguments. Especially in my post on Hegel and Existence, though I don’t know how convincing that argument is. Anywhere in particular that you’re discerning straw men? And isn’t the correlationist gotcha question– “but aren’t you thinking these beings?” –a bit of a straw man in its own right, failing to distinguish the epistemic and the ontological, endlessly reducing the latter to the former?

Mikhail Emelianov Says: January 14, 2009 at 4:37 am
If by “correlationist” you mean someone like Kant, then there’s really nothing wrong with thinking (about) objects without having you thinking about them - if by “objects” you mean “things,” then I’m not sure what’s so great about thing-oriented philosophy. But objects in Kantian traditions are not just things, things have a perfectly fine “empirical realist” treatment for Kant - there are also more interesting issues like “justice” or “freedom” or even “God”…

As for “endlessly reducing the ontological to epistemic,” then it’s just not so, not in Kant who has a very elaborate system that includes both, yes in his own “correlationist” way. I suppose I am a bit puzzled by crude generalizations when it comes to the position you are apparently working against, that’s all.

larvalsubjects Says: January 14, 2009 at 4:47 am
I don’t think it’s crude or a generalization at all, of course. Nor am I sure where the simplification is. Kant’s empirical realism still does not do the work I’m calling for as mind and the a priori categories and structures of intuition do all the work in his empirical realism. The matter of intuition still remains a passive matter that contributes no difference of its own beyond dough for the cookie cutter, and which ultimately provides no resistance. Of course Kant himself can’t consistently advocate such a position, which is why in texts like his writings on metaphysics of material nature he has to depart from these thesis in a covert way. Do you find any things in Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard, Zizek, even Badiou, or Foucault? Do the things themselves speak, as Husserl demanded, or are they mere bearers of either power, language, signifiers, history, etc. Is it possible to be surprised in these ontologies? Is there resistance?

Now, of course, there will be simplifications here. A friend of mine told me the other day that Descartes didn’t accomplish anything, that he simply repeated the scholastics and Aristotle, and that his arguments against his predecessors were gross generalizations and simplifications. So be it I suppose. I’m not sure how we get anything done by being good hermeneuts; unless the aim is tantric sex in the domain of philosophy (if you know what I’m alluding to). One has to start somewhere and I’ve chosen to start with a pluralism of differences.

My humble suggestion would also be that we can’t even begin to adequately address questions like justice, the good, and even God unless we address these sorts of questions. Without raising these sorts of questions we remain within the two world hypothesis, spirit and nature, that thoroughly distorts the real assemblages within which these questions arise.

Latour's ontology heroically affirms that nothing can be reduced to anything else

Irreductions from Larval Subjects

It is difficult to describe Irreductions as anything other than a metaphysical treatise. What Latour presents here is an entire ontology that heroically affirms that nothing can be reduced to anything else, nor that anything is irreducible to anything else. Rather, the universe becomes populated by trials of strength where actors, human and inhuman, vie with one another, striving to enlist allies to advance their own aims. Written in a style that simultaneously recalls Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Leibniz’s Monadology, and Epictetus and Epicurus, it unfolds as a series of gnomic propositions ambiguous in their sense, but also ripe with all sorts of realist implications.

As Graham observes in his marvelous Prince of Networks, Latour claims that this short treatise is a sort of master-key or ground of all his subsequent thought. It is also a work that resonates deeply with Whitehead, Stengers, Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari. I have had others tell me that they find “no there there” with Latour and actor-network theory– no doubt grumbling about the descriptivism of actor-network studies –but I simply don’t see how understanding of objects and the social cannot come away transformed after reading these works. I suppose I am doing my part here for Latour’s trial of strength, trying to enlist others to read these amazing works so that I might have someone else to discuss them with.

Owen, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality from Continental Philosophy by Farhang Erfani
David Owen, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality Reviewed by Peter Poellner, University of Warwick

Owen’s valuable book offers a sustained, clear, crisply argued reconstruction of Nietzsche’s central arguments in On the Genealogy of Morality as well as some thoughtful explanatory ideas on Nietzsche’s incendiary style in this text, situating both in the context of the development of his thought on morality following his break with his early ethics of heroic love and self-sacrifice (inspired partly by Schopenhauer and Wagner) in Human, All-Too-Human.

In Owen’s account of this development, Nietzsche’s point of departure since Daybreak is the “death of God”, the loss of belief in the Christian God among the cultured classes dramatized as the urbane atheism of the people in the marketplace in §125 of The Gay Science. The people in the marketplace consider the loss of authority of the metaphysical beliefs associated with Christianity to be a process that need have no implications for their practical orientation in life, an orientation that remains structured by a certain conception of morality continuous with “Christian” morality.

For Nietzsche, by contrast, morality thus understood is rationally dependent on the truth of those now widely abandoned metaphysical beliefs: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (TI, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man”, §5). Nietzsche’s task, as he conceives of it from The Gay Science onwards, is therefore threefold:

  • he needs to provide a broadly naturalistic explanation of the hold that “morality” continues to have — irrationally, by his lights — even on unbelievers;
  • he needs to come up with an adequate evaluative framework permitting him to determine the “value of morality” as a self-standing practice deprived of its metaphysical trappings; and
  • he needs to tell us something about the criteria for assessing evaluative commitments.

The last requirement is particularly challenging for him as he is committed to “perspectivism”, a view which Owen interprets as the epistemological claim that justification is necessarily relative to practical perspectives constituted by specific, contingent interests and purposes — and that the idea of a practical justification valid for all rational beings merely qua rational beings is incoherent.

"Marxism," Trotsky said, "is not an academic science, but a lever of revolutionary action"

Adam Haig responds to Alex Steiner’s burst of outrage 6 January 2009
Adam Haig's essay "
Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component" provoked an angry response from Steiner and Brenner...

Steiner and Brenner's enchantment with Marcuse's libidinal fairy tales in Eros and Civilization prompted me to write "Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component." Steiner, who has no capacity for logical argumentation, brushes off this descriptive title as "pretentious," when it highlights a key figure Steiner and Brenner themselves reveal—through citation and adulation—as a decisive influence in their turn to psychology, sexuality, and Utopia. My paper later addressed Erich Fromm, since Steiner and Brenner also appropriate his ideas. I then touched on the psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek to illustrate the continuity of neo-Marxism and post-Marxism...

There are obvious lines of intellectual descent from neo-Marxism to post-Marxism. "This does not mean neo-Marxism and post-Marxism are synonyms," I said. Fromm, Marcuse, and Zizek represent distinctive but still related experiments by middle-class radical intellectuals to synthesize psychoanalysis and Marxism. Fromm, a practicing psychoanalyst, laid the foundation for Freudo-Marxism at the Frankfurt School. Marcuse, a left-Heideggerian philosopher with no training in psychoanalysis, adopted Freudo-Marxism in opposition to Fromm's rejection of libido/drive theory. Zizek, who has links to Heidegger and Marcuse, is a philosopher in the Freudo-Marxist tradition, specifically, Lacanian-Marxism. What is notable in all three cases is the degeneration of the experiment to synthesize psychoanalysis and Marxism, and its collapse into forms of subjectivism...

Alex Steiner will no doubt be even more outraged when he reads this response. The fact remains that he and Frank Brenner have embraced Herbert Marcuse, Freudo-Marxism, and Utopia. Having done so, it is fairly clear where they will end up. "Marxism," Trotsky said, "is not an academic science, but a lever of revolutionary action." The World Socialist Web Site, the online organ of the world Marxist party, the ICFI, is not the province to entertain the anti-Marxist political views of its bourgeois and petty-bourgeois detractors, but to expose them with the tools of Marxist criticism. That is a necessary task in the socialist political education of workers, intellectuals, students, and youth in the struggle for workers' government and social equality. Adam Haig

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bhaskar’s arguments about causality

January 10, 2009 Brief Remarks on the Ontic Principle Posted by larvalsubjects

This connection might give the impression that the Ontic Principle is epistemological, pertaining to autopoiesis, systems theory, or some similar theory of operational closure where systems constitute their own elements. Certainly I have written often about autopoiesis and systems theory on this blog. However, it is important to note that the Ontic Principle is strictly ontological in nature.

To properly envision the scope of the Ontic Principle we must imagine, after the fashion of Roy Bhaskar (without necessarily sharing his ontology) a world without humans, or, after the fashion of Quentin Meillassoux, a world without thought. This is not because entities independent of the human are the real differences that make a difference– certainly humans fulfill the Ontic Principle and the Principle of Act-uality –but rather because this thought experiment allows us to think ontologically and in terms of beings entirely independent, where the question is not one of whether or not we register a difference but whether a differences is produced in and among entities regardless of whether humans are there to register them. Such is the ruin of Parmenides and his equation of being and thought.

larvalsubjects Says: January 10, 2009 at 5:54 pm
My thesis would be two-fold: On the one hand, any act-uality or entity is a difference, and any act-uality necessarily produces difference in some respect or capacity. The scope of differences can be very small. Here I would completely agree with you in your thesis that an act-uality can simply be ignored by some other act-uality. As Spinoza says in Post. 1 of Book III of the Ethics
A body can be affected in many ways, whereby its power of activity is increased or diminished, and also in other ways which do not render its power of activity either greater or less.

However, the fact that one body does not affect or produce a difference in another body does not entail that no difference is being produced elsewhere in the world. Here my point is thoroughly ontological, not epistemic. I agree with the thesis that another body might not affect me at all, but that’s not the issue with the Ontic Principle. The Ontic Principle is about beings, not about our knowledge of beings. Thus following Bhaskar’s arguments about causality, the thesis is not about events that we register epistemically, but about beings are there whether we know it or not.

I’m still toying around with this, but I suppose that in part my line of thinking here would be Thomist in a sense, in that I am equating being and acting. To be is to act. Here then I would perhaps depart from Bhaskar in rejecting the notion of causal mechanisms that are without acting; but I still need to think about this.

Object-ions from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

On the other hand, I think Roy Bhaskar’s transcendental realism as developed in A Realist Theory of Science provides the resources for moving from the domain of epistemology to ontology.

  • First, Bhaskar argues that the treatment of being according to the requirements of knowledge, or the reduction of being to knowledge of being, constitutes a fallacy that he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. This fallacy is rife throughout both Anglo-American and Continental philosophy, and is visible in social constructivisms that reduce being to discourses about being, forms of phenomenology that reduce being to sense-bestowing intuition or only allow us to talk of being in terms of being-given or donated, and, of course, Kantianism.
  • Consequently, second, Bhaskar argues that our scientific practice can only be rendered intelligible by positing the reality or mind-independence of the objects investigated by science. This argument holds, I think, for many other domains beyond science.
  • As a consequence, third, Bhaskar, in a line of thought exceedingly close to Meillassoux’s argument from the arche-fossil, argues that ontologically we must be able to envision a world independent of humans or where humans do not exist. Incidentally, the point is not that humans do not, according to the Ontic Principle, make a difference. Humans are beings too and as such they contribute a difference. Rather, by the Ontological Principle, the point is far more modest: humans do not make the only or most important difference.

Somewhere or other, if memory serves me correctly, Whitehead remarks that philosophies do not fail by dint of being false but by virtue of hyperbole. That is, they raise one principle to the principle of everything, effectively erasing the rest. Kant gets something right but then shackles all of being to mind.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mysteries of the present will become more transparent if we can trace them to their origins in the very earliest past we can remember/not remember

Psychoanalysis and the "empty place" of psychology within Marxism By Frank Brenner It is my aim in this paper to show that a familiarity with the basic concepts and major discoveries of Freud’s psychoanalysis can be of great value to Marxists...

He also inspires our belief that the mysteries of the present will become more transparent if we can trace them to their origins in the past, perhaps even in the very earliest past we can remember (or, more likely, not remember). And, finally, he has created our heightened sensitivity to the erotic, above all to its presence in arenas, notably the family where previous generations had neglected to look for it."1

In short, Freud effected a sea change in psychology; like Marx, Darwin and Einstein, his achievement forms one of the key intellectual landmarks of our time. And yet there has been virtually no assimilation of that achievement by Marxists. It would be wrong to blame the Freudians for this, though their antipathy to Marxism is well known. After all, Darwin and his leading disciples like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer were no more inclined towards Marxism than the adherents of psychoanalysis; for that matter, genetics was founded by a monk, the great chemist Mendeleyev was a conscious opponent of dialectics, Mach and Einstein were both neo-Kantians. Obviously in all these cases (and dozens more like them), Marxists draw a distinction between the science, which is demonstrably dialectical and materialist in character, and the ideological ‘spin’ given to it by the scientist which expresses his/her social position in the professional middle class.

Why then hasn’t the same approach been taken to Freud? Clearly there is something different about psychoanalysis: at first glance, it looks more like speculation than science, and wildly idealist speculation at that. And what is the object that this science claims to study? By contrast with the palpable, objective kinds of reality studied in such ‘hard’ sciences as biology or physics, the phenomena in psychoanalysis seem much less ‘real.’ As a psychology, it studies the mind, and so let us consider for a moment what that is.

A Marxist would probably begin with some basic postulates of materialism: that thought is a reflection of reality and that the brain is the organ of thought. From this emerges, if only by implication, a conception of the mind which equates it with the process of thinking, i.e. with consciousness. But it isn’t hard to show that such a conception is fundamentally inadequate. We aren’t always conscious; on the contrary, there are huge gaps in the continuity of consciousness, most obviously during sleep but even when we are awake. If the mind equals consciousness, then we are forced to the conclusion that it ceases to exist in these gaps, but evidence that this isn’t the case is everywhere: in the fact that we all dream in our sleep, in the fact that we all say things we consciously don’t want to say or can’t recall things we consciously want to remember. The mind clearly does continue to exist in the gaps of consciousness, but this, in turn, can only mean that there are realms of the mind beyond (or, rather, beneath) consciousness.

Let us take a closer look at this evidence for unconscious mental life: dreams, slips of the tongue or of the pen, misreading a detail in a letter or an article, having a name ‘on the tip of your tongue,’ mislaying an object, bungling an action, forgetting an appointment or birthday or anniversary. These are all highly ephemeral phenomena and a seemingly dubious basis for a science of the mind. Couldn’t it be argued that these phenomena (perhaps with the exception of dreams) are so ephemeral as to be insignificant, that they are simply chance events and nothing more? But all too often chance is necessity inadequately understood. Ephemeral phenomena may have important underlying causes; the investigations of modern physics into subatomic particles certainly attest to that. If we tend to overlook these mental phenomena, if we tend not to give them a second thought, this has less to do with their being transitory than with their being subjective.

In other words, we don’t think of them as ‘real’ because they are only something going on inside our heads. Of course this is true in the sense that the mental image of a thing isn’t the same as the thing itself. But why should this mean that the image - or indeed any other mental phenomenon – is ‘unreal’? To believe this is to fall victim to what Freud once called the "illusion of psychical freedom," i.e. the illusion that our apparently random thoughts arise out of ‘free will,’2 that they lack any objective determinacy, that they are, so to speak, fancy free. But it is not only psychoanalysts but also Marxists who must reject such a view because, according to Marxist philosophy, the subjective is also objective, which means that what goes on inside the mind is no less real - in the sense of being an objective material process – than what goes on outside it. (In passing it should be said that Freud’s insistence on the determinism of psychic phenomena no more excludes the possibility of freedom than does Marxist economic determinism: freedom remains the recognition of necessity which in the realm of mental life means making the unconscious conscious.)3

Mechanical materialism and the mind
The crucial point is this: is it possible to understand subjectivity objectively? If we go back to the 1920s where psychology was the subject of considerable debate inside the Soviet Union, many Marxists would have looked not to Freud but to the famous reflexologist Pavlov for an answer to this question. Pavlov’s work fit the image of a materialist psychology much more than did psychoanalysis: it utilized controlled, repeatable experiments and empirical data, i.e. all the trappings of ‘hard’ science, whereas Freud based his ideas on individual case studies (necessarily uncontrolled and unrepeatable) as well as folklore, mythology, art, anecdotes, jokes and other supposedly unscientific sources. Thus it became commonplace in the Soviet Union to hold up Pavlov as an exemplar of materialist science against Freud’s supposed subjective idealism, with Trotsky as one of the few dissenting voices on this issue. Pavlov’s work undoubtedly did have scientific merit, but it failed in one fundamental respect as a meaningful theory of the mind. Pavlov’s premises were purely physiological: he based his psychology on the stimulus-response model of neurophysiology. Of course without physiology there can be no psychology, since the mind cannot exist apart from the body and in particular the brain. But this did not mean that psychology was reducible to physiology any more than, say, chemistry was to physics. In the essay "Dialectical Materialism and Science," Trotsky pointed out the necessary differences that exist between the sciences: "Each science rests on the laws of other sciences only in the so-called final instance. But at the same time, the separation of the sciences from one another is determined precisely by the fact that each science covers a particular field of phenomena, i.e. a field of complex combinations of elementary phenomena and laws that require a special approach, special research technique, special hypotheses and methods."4

Though psychology certainly was physiology in the "final instance," Pavlov’s approach took no account of what differentiated the two. That differential element is society: though we are born with the potential for a mind, that potential is only realized in and through social life. (When members of our species grow up outside of society, such as the ‘wild child’ cases that occasionally crop up, their mental functioning, like their existence, reverts to an animal state.) Thus what pertains to psychology is the field marked out by the interaction of biology and society. It is the interaction that is crucial and that needs to be studied with its own "special approach"; to lose sight of this is to dissolve psychology into one or another of its constituent elements, an error we will encounter often when we come to consider the history of the disputes and splits within the psychoanalytic movement. Pavlov provides a clear example of physiological reductionism and it is ironic that such a doctrine, ignoring as it did the social component of psychology, should have been so warmly embraced by Marxists. The irony was compounded by the fact that when Pavlov did turn to social matters, he insisted that they could only be understood on the basis of his theory of reflexes. Because this amounted to an idealist attack on the validity of historical materialism, Trotsky was forced to publicly criticize Pavlov on this score.5

What was less apparent at the time – in large measure because of the iconization of Pavlov by the Stalinist bureaucracy – was that Pavlov’s ideas on individual psychology were as problematic as his views on social psychology. It was Wilhelm Reich, the leading figure among the Freudo-Marxists, who brought this out in the late 1920s when he took issue with the prevailing (pro-Pavlov) consensus within the Soviet Union...

1 Paul Robinson Freud and his critics, p. 271. 2 S. Freud Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, p. 76, and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, p. 316. 3 Is every slip of the tongue, misreading, etc. determined by unconscious motives? Certainly some can be explained otherwise, by linguistic analysis for instance, i.e. two words are confused because they sound similar. The present-day campaign to discredit psychoanalysis has made much of this, but Freud never claimed to explain every slip, nor is such a claim necessary to the validity of his theory: all the latter requires is that a large number of such cases can only be explained by unconscious motivation. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud adduced a vast number and variety of cases including ones in which different kinds of slips (or, to use Freud's term, parapraxes) were combined: a man repeatedly forgets to go to a meeting he is supposed to attend on Fridays and finally, when he makes up his mind to go, shows up but on Saturday; a woman having stayed with relatives finds she has accidentally taken home an object she desired and then, having promised to return it, discovers that it has been mislaid and can't be found; a man posts a letter without an address and, when it is returned, posts it again but without a stamp (pp. 290-1). All of us can readily think of similar examples from our own experience. A single error or slip we might chalk up to ‘coincidence’ (as inadequate an explanation as that is) or try to account for it in some other way, but a combination of errors is clearly something more than coincidence and there is simply no other reasonable explanation in such cases except unconscious motivation.
4 L. Trotsky Problems of Everyday Life, p. 214.
5 See "Science in the Task of Socialist Construction" in Problems of Everyday Life, pp. 202-3. Psychoanalysis and the "empty place" of psychology within Marxism