On Realism

In Reason, Truth and History, Hilary Putnam defines metaphysical realism as the belief that ‘the world consists of some fixed totality of mind-independent objects’ and that there is, in principle, one true complete description of that world. His critique of this position is that (a) there is no way for us to climb out of our systems of reference in order to check that they successfully refer to the world; (b) we cannot rule out the possibility that the world could be conceptually divided up by us in a number of incommensurable ways, all consistent with our experience.

Contemporary speculative realism comes in a variety of forms, including object-oriented ontology and the kind of transcendental realism practised by Meillassoux. Without wishing to collapse these together, I think it is fair to say that they share an absolutising of the real, in the etymological sense that reality/objects are absolved (i.e. severed from) any dependence upon epistemological structures. Our access to the world does not determine that world.

It seems that this contemporary realism is not committed to significant aspects of the position which Putnam critiques. It need not entail a conviction that objects in the world are a ‘fixed totality’. Objects can change or join to form new, irreducibly real objects. The lists of objects which are part of the rhetorical style of OOO encompass radically diverse things, including physical assemblages, social groups and fictional works. Each of these ‘objects’ consists of other irreducible objects and so on. There is not simply one stratum of object.

For Meillassoux, the picture is different. In one respect, the absolute consists of the fact that anything can be different for no reason: there is no founding ontological or transcendental necessity for the order of things. And this is what we can know. So his realism also does not entail that there is one fixed totality, or one complete and true description of things.

Is Putnam’s critique therefore no longer relevant? The problem, it seems to me, is that in a laudable attempt to dethrone an anthropocentric epistemology from philosophy, these contemporary versions of realism are still dependent upon theories of access to and translation of the real. For example, to characterise the absolute in terms of hyper-chaos, as Meillassoux does, implies a judgement whereby chaos and order can be distinguished. It further implies that the possibility of order is a legitimate product of chaos. But if this is the case – if order and our ability make sense of things are themselves possibilities produced by the absolute – then we are in no position to judge that the absolute is ‘ultimately’ chaotic. We do not advance beyond Kantianism, in which the absolute provides the supersensible basis for our knowing of the world, whilst remaining unknowable in itself. Attempts to give an ultimate characterisation of that absolute lead to antinomy. It would be interesting to construct such a Kantian contemporary antinomy, in which the absolute could be rationally proved to be both order and chaos.

In OOO, the concept of translation has been explicitly used by Graham Harman. Objects, he claims, relate to each other indirectly, via translation: taking up the sensual images of other objects, whilst remaining inaccessible to relation in their withdrawn interior. However, if such ‘translation’ is to result in new objects (parts fitted together to make a machine, for instance), we have to ask what is it that constitutes the inaccessible interior of the new object? The answer must be: a system of differences, of translations, of mutual interpretations. So, having dethroned human epistemology from philosophy, OOO has arguably displaced questions of access, translation and interpretation into the absolute ‘itself’.

All of which is to suggest that Putnam’s critique is still worth a look. Access to the world, consisting of translation between objects or the translation of the absolute itself into order and sense, constitutes an irreducible part of that world. The world does not offer itself as one mind-independent order of things.

This is not meant as a dismissal of speculative realisms, but an appeal to move beyond their initial self-definition, as simply radically opposed to anything that smacks of deconstruction or phenomenology, for instance. It is simply not the case that deconstruction is about irony and the prison house of language whereas realism is about seriousness and the great outdoors, any more than it is the case that realism is a stupid scientism. Perhaps issues of access and translation could provide the means for the varieties of continental and post-continental philosophy to begin to talk with, rather than at, one another.

So what was the point?

My post on the ontology of academia seems to have been widely misunderstood. Indeed, this was so much the case that it pushed me to the brink of despair about blogging as a pursuit — a dynamic that people’s insistence on reading my descriptive account of the U.S. as a party state as a list of recommendations for reform only exacerbated. While there are external reasons (mainly faculty meetings) that the latter, written over two weeks ago, was my last substantive post for the blog, the sense that anything I wrote was going to be met with incomprehension did not encourage me to make time.

That being said, any misunderstanding is obviously at least partly the author’s own fault, and so I will try to get at what I was doing in the post. My goal was to try to isolate what it is that academics do that no one else does. What is their “product”? It can’t be learning, because everyone is learning all the time and in many ways. In the last analysis, what they produce is grades, which are then agglomerated into degrees. Their activity is fundamentally one of certification. Yes, it’s meant to be certification of knowledge, but we all know that the certification does not always correspond closely with knowledge.

I wanted to suggest that the certification aspect is ineradicable — no employer, no publisher, no one can know in detail all that another person knows and can do. Read the rest of this entry »

Gender & Ontology

Yesterday afternoon – after having read Brandy’s post, as well as Anthony’s recent post on ontology – I followed a link on Facebook to Eigenfactor’s breakdown of the gender balance in scholarly publications between the years of 1665 and 2011. The data apparently comes from JSTOR (I didn’t know that they’d stockpiled publications from the 17th century! Do they really?!) This isn’t necessarily relevant. But I decided to check out the stats in philosophy. In a broad sense, they are – not surprisingly – pretty bad: only 9.4% of the total publications are by women, as opposed to, say, 37.3% in education. But things get a little more interesting when you link to the philosophy publications page where the data breaks down into more nuanced detail. Relevant here: only 3.6% of all publications on ontological arguments are by women. By way of contrast, 19.3% of works on moral philosophy have been published by women.

While I share Anthony’s distaste for the muscular “hard core” discourse on ontology, I have to confess that I am also pretty fixated on ontological claims and issues. I will admit to being a little geeked about the fact that new strains of “speculative thought” proclaimed an interest in ontology.  Read the rest of this entry »

The ontology of Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin characters do not exist in themselves. Their function is to serve as occasions for snappy lines of dialogue. In the last analysis, it does not matter which character delivers which line. All are equally quick-witted, and all speak in two and only two cadences — either sardonic rapid-fire or expansive sermonizing.

Just as lines can land on any character, the cadences can land on any situation. One might think that sardonic rapid-fire is particularly suited for high-stress work situations, but it can work equally well for an elevator ride or a drink after work. Similarly, there is no necessity that expansive sermonizing be reserved for moments that, in our world, would “naturally” lend themselves to leisurely reflection — it can just as easily arrive in the midst of a stressful situation in which every second counts. After all, how will the audience know what’s really at stake in that situation if they are not explicitly told?

The imperative is always: tell, don’t show. Read the rest of this entry »

Peter Gratton and the Critique of OOO

Readers may be interested in Peter Gratton’s sketch of a longer critique he is making of OOO. Gratton is co-authoring a survey of “Speculative Realism” with Michael Austin for Continuum where the longer critique I expect will be found. Since we’ve seen a political critique published here I thought folks would be interested in a more metaphysical one as well.

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A response to Graham Harman’s “Marginalia on Radical Thinking”

First let me say that, while this post will likely come across as confrontational, I do have a respect for Harman, particularly for his intellectual energy and literary output. I’ve never met him and can’t count him a friend, but I have corresponded with him on a few occasions. I must admit that his philosophy and politics (or lack thereof) leave me cold. A bit of context: my dissertation of 2001, which became my first book in 2004, is an analysis of networks as political systems, so I feel I have a lot to say about the topic of objects and networks. I’m also a computer programmer and, similar to someone like Ian Bogost, have actually coded the kind of object-oriented systems that OOO describes. (To his credit Harman rejects this association, claiming that “his” OO has nothing to do with computer science’s OO. But that’s a flimsy argument in my view, particularly when the congruencies are so clear. As Zizek might say, channeling Groucho Marx: if it’s called a duck, and quacks like a duck, don’t let that fool you — it really is a duck!) Read the rest of this entry »

The paradoxes of political ontology

Christian Thorne has a brilliant, challenging post up about the impasses of political ontology. The guiding question is simple: If you’ve figured out how things are, then where does the politics come in? His example is an ontology wherein everything is made of fire — what political program would correspond to this? Are we supposed to make more fire somehow, or…?

Of particular interest is his discussion of Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which as I recall was the subject of a book event around these parts (though I can’t find a link at the moment).

Naturally, I found this challenging since I put forward an ontology in Politics of Redemption that I claim issues in some normative commitments. My way out of the impasse, in retrospect, was to embrace a special role for humanity, which I could hardly fail to do given that my ontology was developed out of the Christian tradition. Yet I’m not getting off scot-free here, as I notice that Thorne’s paradigm renders me suspiciously close to the hierarchical ontology that I’m trying to fight against.

In short, read it. Everyone should find something to ponder in it.

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