The Aesthetics of Authority

This post grows so directly out of my daily Google Chat conversations with Brad that it is essentially co-authored.

Yesterday, Brad was telling me about a David Graeber lecture that he attended and suggested that the reason so many academics tend to favor the Marxist left over the anarchist left is our desire to have the right answer, which I generalized to a latent (and sometimes not so latent) authoritarianism of academics. Read the rest of this entry »

What is Creaturely Theology?

First, just a “thanks” to aufs for hosting the livestream of our divinanimality conference at Drew this past weekend. While the event is still fresh, I also thought I might pose a couple of questions that began to gestate over the course of this four day conference. My ears are selectively attentive. So whatever I report will (naturally) be told a bit slant. But, nonetheless, I’m interested in broad questions, about how religious studies and theology might infect/intersect with the ever-expanding storehouse of scholarship in animal studies.

Of course there were theological questions, calling attention to the sticky relations between creatures, creators, creations. But I think one of the most fruitful conversations—one that kept coming up over the course of the weekend—was the ontological distinction between the “animal” and the “creaturely.” While the conference intended to foreground the challenges that animals and divinities pose to humanist orthodoxies, many pointed to the “creaturely” as a plane of engagement that seems to do something different. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question (and have a forthcoming piece about it, in the volume resulting from the “Metaphysics & Things” conference at the Claremont Graduate University last December). But it was interesting to hear this conversation broadening. Kate Rigby suggested that the creaturely is a more “democratic” conceptual space—inclusive of both humans and animals, as well as plants, monsters. Perhaps even machines. This space isn’t unlike that given to “actors” in Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, Alfred North Whitehead’s “actual entities” or even OOO’s objects. But, of course, the creaturely has a theological genealogy. Which makes it easier to explore this concept in the field of religious ideas. In spite of the generic, egalitarian potential of the creaturely, however, Read the rest of this entry »

Further Thoughts on Ontology

I have commented here before on what one might call my “methodological” objection to the Radical Orthodox ontology — namely, the fact that the Radox authors baldly assert their Neoplatonic ontology of hierarchical participation because of its supposedly benificent moral effects. I suggested that perhaps ontology, which at least etymologically is supposed to have some relation to how things “are,” should take science seriously. At the same time, I don’t think that ontology has to be the slave of science, which in practice would mean embracing the ontology of mechanical determinism.

I maintain that the trick the Radox authors attempt to pull would never have been able to succeed if the dominant strains of postwar philosophy had not fallen asleep at the ontological wheel. Analytic philosophy’s prohibition of ontological or metaphysical reflection system-building is well-known, and the dominance of Heidegger and his successors in continental philosophy (in its various institutional incarnations) led to a similar suspicion of metaphysical claims — most often quasi-moral objections to metaphysics as a “totalizing discourse” that is somehow directly oppressive (“Hegel caused the Holocaust,” etc.). Jean-Luc Nancy has undertaken to do a kind of post-Heideggerian ontology over the past couple decades, though I’m not sure he’s really “taking off” among Americans; there may also be someone in the analytic camp pursuing something along these lines, though I’ve not heard of it.

The shame here, though, is that during the prewar period, there was a real flowering of ontologies of the exact kind that I advocate — perhaps the biggest names there are Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and William James. In each case, there is a recognition that the mechanical determinism (largely unconsciously) assumed by scientists is not adequately accounting to experience, and so the attempt is made to develop a more inclusive and realistic ontology.

Then in the postwar period, the whole thing apparently just shuts down in America, in both the analytic and continental traditions — the latter of which also spread to many other disciplines in the humanities where ontological reflection may have found a place. Certain contemporary developments — the rediscovery of Deleuze as a “real philospher,” the surprising prominence of Badiou in certain American circles, the aforementioned work of Nancy, Zizek’s more recent work — point toward the potential for a renewed interest in a truly contemporary ontology. The shame, however, is that in so many ways we in America at least have to reinvent the wheel because the prewar developments wound up getting prematurely cut off in our context.

Observations on Early Moderns

Leibniz and Berkeley both seem to me to be absolutely right in most of their critiques of Locke, taken simply as critiques. Even Berkeley’s bold claim that matter doesn’t exist, if we limit “matter” to what Locke and his contemporaries thought “matter” was, now seems to be basically true. Their alternative systems, however, contain significant crackpot elements. The sheer amount of work “God” has to do in each should have tipped them off that they were cheating.

Looking at the index of Process and Reality, I see that Whitehead makes copious references to Locke and Hume, but only a few to Leibniz and Berkeley — despite the fact that his system seems to bear more resemblance to the latter. In fact, for all Whitehead’s love of Locke, it is difficult for me to discern the relationship between the two. So why the insistence on Locke and Hume? Is it a “political” move, to try to convince his logical positivist friends that he’s working out of the modern tradition? If so, it didn’t work.

Spinoza seems to me to be miles ahead of any of these guys. I’m not ready to sign on and become a Spinozan, but he’s clearly the true radical.

Free Agents: Some Initial Reflections

To get genuine “free will” or agency, you need to combine quantum physics with cognitive science. Implicitly, Zizek shows us how to do this.

From quantum physics, you need two things. First, you need there to be some minimal “free play” in matter — no saturated mechanical causality. But as everyone knows, the mere existence of non-determined phenomenon is not enough to get us real free agency, because agency is not simply a lack of determination, but implies purposefulness. Thus, the second thing you need (and here I’m “clarifying” some of Zizek’s remarks along lines suggested by Whitehead in Process and Reality) is the causal power of perception. In quantum mechanics, one is constrained to say that phenomena “notice” each other (with certain phenomena appearing “virtually” before anything else “notices”) if one is to “schematize” what is happening; and as is well known, measuring quantum phenomena directly affects those phenomena. (I’m thinking here of the third part of Indivisible Remainder, though the whole book is implied in his argument there.)

From cognitive science, you need Metzinger’s “transparent self-modeling” concept of the self. Consciousness is a “mental map” of the world; true self-consciousness arises when the map grows in complexity to the point where it contains a spot representing the self. The organism can then envision various possible chains of events and choose one (based on emotional inclination, or later, “reason”) — or as Zizek puts it, free agency is a second-order causality that allows us to choose which causal chain will determine us. Once the decision is made, of course, there is no guarantee that the organism’s design will be successful. Thus, brain size, etc., is still important to be able to accurately map the world and predict phenomena; but the shift from consciousness to self-consciousness is necessarily a qualitative, not quantitative one. The addition of this reflexive element is purely formal and virtual, adding what appears to be only a quantitative improvement to the mapping faculty, but once it is introduced, it reorganizes the “same” raw materials into a new kind of structure whereby the organism can consciously make itself do stuff, or at least try to, by means of its ability to “perceive” itself. (This obviously comes from the second part, and especially the fourth chapter, of Parallax View.)

To make this work, you need to be open to the general Schellingian idea that humanity “repeats” the primordial freedom (potentiality) at a “higher [mathematical] power.” But given that our perception is able to directly affect quantum phenomena, there seems to be some prima facie possibility of an affinity there. I would also note that nothing in this scheme requires that humans be the only ones to have made this qualitative shift; only that at least humans have done it.


A recent post over at Larval Subjects calls for a more fully developed account of agency. This is something that is frequently called for — indeed, one could have a successful career as a participant in academic seminars if one criticized literally every author for not “leaving enough room for agency” or, if they try to “leave room,” for not giving a good enough account of it. Absolutely no one does agency right, which leads me to wonder if there is something about the concept of agency that leaves it, as it were, intrinsically “underdeveloped.”

Let’s think about what we associate with the concept of agency (or free will, or subjectivity, or whatever else we call this). If we reduce it to choosing between options or weighing “reasons,” it somehow seems impoverished, but we don’t want it to be sheer arbitrarity. I think that Jean-Luc Nancy heads in the right direction in The Experience of Freedom by introducing the concept of surprise. Free agency is that which takes us by surprise. If we developed a robust account of it, it would no longer be surprising. That also seems to me to be what’s at stake in Butler’s attempt to show how interpellation misfires, etc. — that subjects, once formed, and even in the process of their formation, can do surprising things.

Sinthome, in his post and in the comment thread, seems to have a very specific idea of “materialism” in mind — he says that many accounts of agency seem to fall back on a kind of creatio ex nihilo, which true materialism cannot countenance. I wonder if this particular idea of “materialism,” however, might be front-loading things and artificially generating the problem of “where” we can locate agency. Even though modern science does not present us with a universe where such is the case, I think that when many of us think “materialism,” they think of a universe fully saturated by mechanical laws of causation. In such a universe, there simply doesn’t seem to be “room” for agency — and so we’re caught between the impossible poles of either giving a “mechanical” account of agency (which is intrinsically contradictory) or renouncing one of the most fundamental experiences of human existence (i.e., that we are not “robots”).

Here again, Nancy’s idea of freedom as going all the way down seems to me to be a great way of getting past this impasse. In many ways, Nancy’s thought here is very similar to Whitehead’s, which of course was attempting to respond philosophically to the advent of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. If we reject the idea that the universe is saturated by mechanical laws of causation (or say that “Being is freedom,” that is, Being is surprising), the presenting problem disappears. “Agency” then becomes the particular surprising ways in which a being of a high level of complexity and self-reflexivity can and does act.

Zizek’s appropriation of the Lacanian “non-all” also heads in this direction, and he engages directly with science, such as his analysis of quantum mechanics in The Indivisible Remainder (recently reissued) and of cognitive science in Parallax View — the latter giving an impressive account of how human agency arises in the course of the evolution of consciousness.

Of course, none of these accounts can give a positive grounding for surprise or for the openness/non-saturation of the laws of causation — they all make an end run around this problem precisely by placing surprise at the foundation (this is perhaps less true in the case of Butler). It is a paradigm shift whose time has come, and seems to me to be consistently materialist — perhaps more consistently materialist, in that it does not impose the dogmatic frame of fully saturated causality on the data.

It is admittedly difficult to call Whitehead a materialist — I would be interested, however, to see how his system works if we cut away what he (unfortunately) named “God” — but both Nancy and Zizek at least profess to be materialists. There seem to be no a priori grounds for excluding them, unless the secret handshake to get into the materialist club is to implicitly believe in an outmoded model of the universe as a gigantic billiards table.


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