War of the Worlds: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse

Notes for an upcoming talk…

What is reality? Seasoned metaphysicians will be quick to point out that the phrasing of this question already assumes too much. The copula “is,” for example, implies that reality is a species of being or existence. Does this mean reality excludes nonbeing, nonexistence? That, in other words, reality includes only what is already actual and nothing of the virtual or the possible, nothing that may be but is not yet actual?

Metaphysical questions are unending. I ask the question, What is reality?, and immediately the question becomes a question to itself. Philosophy, as Aristotle taught, begins in wonder, in ignorance. Whenever we ask metaphysical questions we are striving amidst ignorance not only to know the truth, but to begin the process of knowing it without presuppositions. Ultimately (and here I begin to show my own metaphysical hand), we can only ever pretend to have found a presuppositionless starting point. We must strive for one. But we do not and cannot reach one.  The desire for wisdom is never satisfied. Every solution we devise soon dissolves into further questions. If we can be said to begin at all, it is always in the middle of things, always lost at sea, awash in mystery, surrounded on all sides by infinity. Sure, there are clear, calm days when we  can climb into our speculative crow’s nest to see miles in every direction. But even on these days, the round, shining horizon reminds us of our ultimate situation: though we may feel a breeze at our back,—call it inspiration—there is no land in sight. In our hastiness to carve a path through the Deep toward truth, it is likely that we will become shipwrecked on some hidden reef. It is certain that we can never confidently claim to have stepped off our philosophical ship to walk on steady ground. There are no foundations upon which a philosopher can stand when he thinks about reality, there are no rocks he can kick to prove the solidity of his ideas. There are only these ideas, and the effects they have on reality. And here again, I reveal one of my own metaphysical commitments, that ideas are effectual—they are agents, they are participants in the make up of reality. 

So then, let us begin again: What is reality? The copula also presupposes that reality is simply One, singular. But what if there is not one reality, but many realities? This latter possibility, that reality is pluralistic, is precisely the topic I wish to explore. I will offer an “ontological pluralism” as a pragmatic hypothesis, rather than a final doctrine. I aim only to sketch some of the important implications of pluralism as it relates to cosmology, by which I mean our way of imagining and organizing space-time, and to politics, by which I mean our way of composing a common world together. I hope also to convince you of the vital necessity for an interfusion of cosmology and politics, for a cosmopolitics, that is, a political theory and activism that re-situates human life within the wider universe, or pluriverse, of which we are but a part.

One of the more radical aspects of an ontological pluralism, at least when heard by modern ears, is its protest against what Whitehead called “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike most modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of experience and reality, mind and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it. But to speak more precisely, nature or the universe is not or at least not yet a unified totality—for now it is better described as an evolving ecology of organisms. Better to speak of a network of naturing natures than an already complete all-encompassing Nature. As Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Indeed, humans, as participants in this cosmic community, are new here, just now (we hope) growing beyond the childhood phase, struggling through adolescence and maybe, maturing into adulthood. We are learning that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We are waking up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of the earth community. We are fashioning a new cosmology to express our newly expanded politics, recognizing that order is not imposed on the cosmos from beyond it—by us or by some God imagined to be like us—but is brought forth out of an aboriginal chaos by the collective activity of its human and non-human inhabitants.

My teachers in the development of this ontological pluralism include Whitehead and James, but also the contemporary French philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

My presentation will introduce a few of the consequences that follow from a genuinely pluralistic understanding of reality. I will offer a metaphysical thesis about multiple worlds, multiple natures. Not a multiculturalism, but a multinaturalism. I want to argue that reality itself is made of perspectives, that there is no underlying unity to reality, no hidden identity to which all apparent differences in perspective ultimately refer. Instead of a monistic or dualistic substance ontology, I will put forward a pluralistic and panpsychic process ontology.

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Multiculturalism, as Latour points out in a 2002 essay (the title of which I’ve borrowed for my talk), is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, we are also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Our Science and our Reason, so the story goes, granted us access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath cultural projections.  Buried, that is, until we came along. We sent our anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same physical laws belonging to the same universe must be governing their behaviors. Yes, we Westerners also have our subjective quirks, our psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only we had the good fortune to discover a way to uncover Nature, to put aside our cultural idiosyncrasies so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became our sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Later describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Back in the 1990s, it still seemed as though some sort of global multicultural society had a chance to take hold. Communism had failed, and only one way forward remained. Peace on Earth was believed to be possible, if only we could learn to tolerate one another’s differences by treating culture like any other commodity bought and sold in the global marketplace, treating it like a matter of taste or preference: some of us prefer to buy presents to give to our loved ones on Christmas, others on Hanukah, still others on Kwanza.

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 marked the end of this earlier era of optimism. Today, tolerance no longer seems possible. We Westerners can no longer take seriously our attempts to force feed our enlightened free market democracy to the Muslim world. We no longer believe that, if only they would grow up and accept cosmological nihilism and cultural relativism like we have, then together we might live side by side in peace, respecting one another’s mutual (and meaningless) differences. We no longer take seriously the idea that all that is necessary for peace is that each of us get a proportionate representation of our type of faces on TV, our own aisle in the grocery store, our own holidays off from work. Instead, it is gradually dawning on us not only that our differences are irreconcilable, but that our “modernity,” our “secularity,” our “capitalism” and “democracy,” our “Nature” and the “Reason” that was supposed to know it—all these special activities which were supposed to make us superior by giving us access to a higher truth—we know now that they are no less constructed than what the non-modern Islamic world believes in—their “Allah,” their “Caliphate,” etc. And so we live in a permanent State of Emergency. The question is, what is emerging?

Latour again: “Nobody can constitute the unity of the world for anybody else, as used to be the case (in the times of modernism and later post-modernism), that is, by generously offering to let the others in, on condition that they leave at the door all that is dear to them: their gods, their souls, their objects, their times and their spaces, in short, their ontology. Metaphysics no longer comes after physics but now precedes it as well, and attempts must be made to develop a protophysics—an indescribable horror for the modernizing peoples, but the only hope for those fighting against both globalization and fragmentation at the same time. Compared to the light shiver that cultural relativism might have provoked, this mess, this pandemonium can only evoke at first repulsion and dismay. It was precisely to steer clear of all of this horror that modernism was invented somewhere in the seventeenth century. It was in order to avoid having to put up with so many worlds, so many contradictory ontologies and so many conflicting metaphysics, that they were wisely set up as (in)different entities on the background of an indisputable (and, alas, meaningless) nature full of matters of fact. But nothing proves that this ‘bifurcation of nature,’ as A. N. Whitehead calls this catastrophic solution, is the final state of history” (30-31)

What is emerging is the possibility of a new kind of politics, a politics based not on the toleration of different identities, but the welcoming of difference as such. The old politics of multiculturalism had it that, so long as you stayed in your neighborhood, and me in mine, we could get along well enough just by acknowledging one another’s all too abstract human right to exist—an acknowledgement made always from a distance, of course. Identity politics is based on an ontology of substance, where to be an individual—whether white, black, gay, straight, or whatever—means to be independent of all relationship, by right. A politics of difference, on the contrary, requires accepting the plain psychological truth that our identities are always at risk of being interrupted, challenged, and re-constructed. To truly make possible the composition of a common world with others, we need not tolerance of identity, but tolerance of the mutual transformation that genuine relationship requires. Such a politics is built not on ethical individualism, but on what Simon Critchley has called “ethical dividualism.” Such an ethic involves the realization that I do not belong to myself, that I am constitutively relational, my very identity as a self constructed in community. My sense of individuality, in other words, is contingently constructed, not possessed “by right.” On a collective level, it follows that, as Latour puts it, our “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.” This is true whether we are talking about a people, a political body, or about “nature.”

Along with this new politics of difference, where others are not kept at a distance but welcomed as opportunities to transform ourselves, comes a new cosmology and understanding of science. Twentieth century physics has taught us that we inhabit multiple more or less overlapping space-times. Science itself is not unified, nor is the Nature it was supposed to be explaining. There are as many sciences as there are natures. There is a cosmos, yes, but it is bathed in chaos, and like us, always at risk of losing its identity. The order of the universe is not a given, does not come pre-packaged from eternity; rather, it is continually and contingently constructed by the ecological network of beings which compose it. The pluralist accepts that we live in an unfinished universe, unlike the Idealistic monist, for whom, as James puts it, the “world is certain to be saved, yes, is saved already, unconditionally and from eternity, in spite of all the phenomenal appearances of risk.” For the pluralist, James continues, “the world…may be saved, on condition that its parts do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.” The world may fail to hold together as a whole. Its peace and harmony is always an achievement and cannot be taken for granted as a “natural” state of affairs.

Science is a messy and even an unnatural process, its methods always being forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Its facts are constructed, yes, but making facts is not the same as making them up. Scientific materialism, that sort of capital S Science that sought to polemically dismiss common sense opinion with expert knowledge, does too much violence to experience to be considered valid by radical empiricists like James, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers. Rather than marshaling supposedly pure facts in an effort to silence all controversy or to explain away false consciousness by replacing common sense appearances with true essences unveiled only through some elitist method of purification, we can engage the sciences democratically as an effort to construct our facts so that they elucidate our concrete experience, rather than confound it. Whitehead, like William James, protests against the absolute materialist and idealist alike in their attack on our common sense experience of the world. As a radical empiricist, he seeks to describe the process of cosmogenesis rather than explain it. Nature is defined by Whitehead as simply what we are aware of in perception.

Ontological pluralism is not simply a preference of the Many over the One. It is rather the replacement of any notion of an Over lord of anything, of an All-form (as James calls it) that would unify all things in some finished eternal absolute whole, with the more democratic notion of reality as creative and social through and through. Reality is then better approached through the each-form, more as a multiform creality than a reality, a creative pluriverse only ever tentatively weaving itself into a coherent collective.

Towards an abstract for my presentation at the International Whitehead Conference, “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism”

My track at this year’s International Whitehead Conference is titled “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism” and is situated within the umbrella section called “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose.” Other participants in my track include Elizabeth Allison, Sean Kelly, Richard Tarnas, and Brian Swimme. I hope to have the schedule and abstracts for everyone’s contributions posted by the end of the month.

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For my part, I want to articulate an alternative to modernization. Following Bruno Latour, I’ll call it ecologization. The tentative title for my talk is:

Panexperientialist Pluralism or Eliminativist Monism?: Towards the Ecologization of Philosophy

A brief summary of what I’d like to cover:

“A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” It is the assumption of this paper, and this entire conference, that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (MoT, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of such a philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die.

Thanks to Darwin and 160 years of the evolution of Evolutionary theory, it has been made abundantly clear that human beings were not dropped onto this planet from heaven, but instead share a genetic origin with every other species of organism on earth. We also share a destiny: Humans, like many other megafauna, are faced with imminent extinction. We are not, in fact, alienated from Nature. Our fortunes rise and fall with Hers (and She is not at all the unified, ahistorical, steady-state machine we have for several hundred years suspected). Given the severity of our situation, the Whiteheadian philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour has provided us with an ultimatum: either continue the disastrous path of modernization, or change the course of civilization entirely by ecologizing the human endeavor.

Now that dualism has been largely discredited, many proponents of modernization are seeking philosophical justification by defending eliminativist or reductionist forms of materialistic monism. My paper will attempt to bring the ecologically oriented Whiteheadian alternative of panexperientialist pluralism into distinct relief by contrasting it with late modern eliminativist monism. Reductive monism is the confused result of the incoherent Modern Constitution that Latour so thoroughly critiqued and re-constructed in We Have Never Been Modern (1993). In their rush to reductively naturalize everything in theory, eliminativists have neglected the extent to which the techno-scientific practices they worship have in fact only ever succeeded in multiplying the number of nature-society hybrids. The more they claim to have acquired pure knowledge of the human brain (cleansed of any contamination by culture or the dreaded psychology of common folks), the more these hybrids proliferate. This eliminativist attempt at (what Whitehead would call) a heroic feat of “explaining away” is itself little more than a form of political posturing, an attempt to crown oneself the victor of the progressive march toward a finally, truly Modern world. If anyone is confused, it is the eliminativists, since at least all the poor common people with their unscientific and pre-theoretical folk psychology escape the embarrassment of the blatant contradictions between theory and practice that plague the former. If our civilization is to have a future, it cannot be achieved by such polemical grandstanding. We need a more diplomatic method, which is precisely what an ecological and pluralistic ontology makes way for.

We can begin to ecologize our civilization by first ecologizing our philosophy. Ancient and modern philosophies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological philosophy acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to interpenetrate. An ecological philosophy is a pluralistic and historical philosophy. Historical because there is nothing—no creature and no relationship—that did not come to be in the course of evolutionary time. Historical becoming is not reserved for human society alone. Humanity is itself just the most recent chapter in a multi-billion year geostorical cascade of complex and compounding effects. Pluralistic because our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarms of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged organisms enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. In Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science. Value-experience replaces valueless matter as the most basic ontological category.

Much of what I want to say about Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative to eliminativist materialism will be filtered through Bruno Latour’s ontological pluralism, as spelled out in We Have Never Been Modern and more recently in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2012). I reviewed a chapter from this book (the chapter on materialism) as part of a co-investigation with other scholars here: https://aimegroup.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/chapter-4-learning-to-make-room-introducing-the-beings-of-reproduction-instituting-a-whole-new-diplomacy/ For those of you new to Latour, some of the jargon may be difficult to follow. Grant Maxwell and I exchanged a few blog posts comparing Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind with Latour’s earlier book We Have Never Been Modern. The exchange might provide a helpful introduction to Latour’s ideas if you want to dig deeper: http://footnotes2plato.com/2013/03/10/reflections-on-latour-tarnas-and-the-misenchantment-of-the-world/ 

Bruno Latour and Rowan Williams on Religion and Ecology

A very wide-ranging and far-reaching conversation. Economics, the “ownership theory” made and sold to students at the London School of Economics and many other Universities around the neoliberal globe, is put on trial by both Latour and Williams. Latour goes so far as to stick a poison label on it.

About 10 minutes in, Williams’ discussion of the two kinds of knowledge reminded me of Whitehead’s line from The Concept of Nature about the bifurcation of nature (the line Latour is always quoting):

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.

The Religion of Reason (with Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein)

Hard to disagree with too much of what Pinker and Goldstein say about Reason. Yay Reason, right?! They also make a very persuasive case for (neo)liberal capitalism. Pinker’s bit about empathy was a nice reprieve, but Goldstein shut him up fast by recounting Reason’s historical march toward the Good. In the end, I prefer Schelling’s, Hegel’s, or Marx’s mythologies of Reason to P. and G’s. Then there is Whitehead’s stab at a history of Reason, which I’m still trying to make sense of.

Contra P. and G., I think we really need to think again about the legacy of liberalism (and by proxy our looming neoliberal future, should we choose not to think otherwise). I think our civilization is faced with a crossroads: either continue to modernize, or avert planetary collapse by ecologizing (to borrow Bruno Latour’s way of phrasing it). One direction leads straight into extinction, for our species and for most of the other megafauna on earth. The other direction leads to what the Whiteheadian philosopher John Cobb is calling an ecological civilization (Cobb has a big conference coming up on this in June: http://www.ctr4process.org/whitehead2015). Thomas Berry called it the Ecozoic Era. Latour calls it a Gaian Religion (http://footnotes2plato.com/2013/03/12/discussing-bruno-latours-gaian-political-theology/).

But do we really still need to bash religion, as they do at the end? What is P. and G.’s video really preaching (and every TED video, really) but that Reason (which all too often is reduced to science and technology) must become our new religion? Fine. Let’s praise Reason! But what is Reason? Let’s not pretend it is simply logic and objectivity that drives us to be reasonable. If Reason is to drive us anywhere, it must call upon our feelings and our desires. Reason without desire is aimless, impotent; without feeling, it is dumb and blind. Our rational and emotional natures must work in concert for life to be possible. When P. and G. joke about getting rid of religion, they pretend that we could be rational (i.e., have mastered our thinking) without also having come into right relationship with our feelings and our desires. Religion is an activity primarily concerned with finding viable ways of relating to the pain and to the love of life, and also to the pain of love, and yes, to the love of pain. In some Christian traditions this whole complex perichoresis of life, love, and pain is nicely summed up in the word (and story of Christ’s) Passion. Modern societies have always needed religious practices and discourses in order for Reason to continue to believe in itself as the new God. Today we still need religious practices and discourses to remind us that Reason itself is a work of love freely carried out. Religion is what allows us to relate to love and to pain in public, communally. It is only modern Enlightenment liberalism that has privatized religion, where it festers still today in parts of America. We don’t need more “private” religion based on personal dreams and wish-fulfillment. We need collective rituals and planetary liturgies that form cross-cultural church communities–that is, that form planetary political bodies–to help us convince each other to decommission our nuclear arsenals and stop treating the animals we happen to think are tasty like soulless machines. Reason needs religion to put its ideas into heartfelt action.

The Ecology of Ideas: Enacting Worlds Worth Living In

“Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.”

-Alfred North Whitehead

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Over at Knowledge-Ecology, Adam Robbert has thrown a few fantastic posts up unpacking his vision of the ecology of ideas. Concepts are capacities skillfully enacted in ecological contexts. There is no self or mental substance that “has” concepts–this is not the sort of “capacity” Adam is talking about. Rather, when “I” learn or unlearn a particular species of concept, “I” become other than I was. “No thinker thinks twice,” as Whitehead put it in Process and Reality. Concepts are everywhere swarming through our environments, infecting us like viruses, altering not only the content but the structure of our embodied minds.

In the comments beneath his post, a fascinating exchange continues to unfold between Adam and a few proponents of eliminativism, including the inventor of “Blind Brain Theory” R. Scott Bakker. As I posted there, the eliminativist’s attempt to erase 1st person experience is self-refuting–a performative contradiction!–since the scientific epistemology that is supposed to grant knowledge of 3rd person Nature out there already presupposes a Mind capable of knowing it.

Bakker responded by dismissing Mind and intentionality and experience, etc., as transcendental a prioris because ultimately their existence depends entirely on our willingness to believe in them. In other words, Bakker argues that my defense of 1st person experience amounts to just another religious faith, while his eliminativism is the result of “hard” scientific empiricism. Bakker’s way of demarcating science from religion is a telling one, since it highlights what is perhaps our core point of philosophical divergence. Like Adam, I see meaning as an intrinsic feature of our evolutionary context. All organisms enact worlds and are always already structurally coupled with their environments. They survive, when they do, because they have managed to communicate with their environments in a more or less coherent way. (As will become clearer below, it is important to remember here that “environment” means “other organisms”). The human organism is just one species of meaning-maker among many here on earth. Our form of meaning-making often goes under the name of “religion.” I’m not sure if Adam totally follows me here, but I’d argue that religious fabulation is in this sense inescapable. Adam prefers to speak in the secular terms of “cosmopolitics” instead of religion, but in the context of Bruno Latour’s Gaian natural theology, I think it becomes more clear that the “secular” is already a highly charged religious concept (and it becomes a fetish if we’re not careful). Adam writes that “philosophy must aim for self-care and not just self-knowledge; we must create a livable system of ideas in addition to pursuing critical denouncements of dogmatism.” Human beings have a biological need to create such a livable system of ideas. So, in this sense, religion (or cosmopolitics) has as much ontological significance as science; each is always already implicated in the other’s attempt to justify itself (as Whitney Bauman argues in his new book Religion and Ecology). This, to my mind, is the only way to meet the real challenge of post-Darwinian epistemology: to think truth in an evolutionary context is to give up our belief in the “true world” and to accept the apparent world as the real world (=aesthetics as first philosophy). This was Nietzsche’s challenge to the traditional consensus of Enlightenment philosophers.

I actually agree with Bakker that the transcendental and phenomenological approaches to defending experience are misguided. As I’ve discussed with Evan Thompson in the past, I think his enactivist extension of phenomenology to biology goes a long way toward the sort of experiential realism I’m after. But in the end, it still falls short and remains ontologically underdetermined in my opinion. Taking cues from Whitehead and Schelling, I think life (or a radically deanthropocized “experience” if you prefer) is the more general category than matter. (To be fair, Thompson also draws approvingly on Robert Rosen, who makes a similar argument regarding the generality of life.) Another way of putting this would be to say that ecology should replace physics as the most foundational science. Physical space and time would then not only be relativized, but pluralized: brought forth as various scales by enduring relations between organisms. The universal “space-time” known to physicists is not the pre-given, eternally imposed geometrical background within which the energetic transactions of actual entities takes place, but is itself brought forth by the energetic transactions of the most encompassing society actual entities (the electromagnetic and gravitronic societies?).  Space-time is enacted ecologically, brought forth by the creative intra-action of a cosmic community of actual occasions. (I go into this Whiteheadian conception of space-time in more depth in my essay Physics of the World-Soul).

In sum, I think it is important in a conversation like this to acknowledge off the bat that we are doing speculative metaphysics either way (whether we are eliminativists or panexperientialists). Bakker’s blind brain theory is science fiction, not science fact. But it is no less compelling for this! I appreciate the challenge he is raising, since it is clear to me that the only viable ontological options at this point in the history of philosophy are eliminativism or panexperientialism (as Steven Shaviro continues to argue).

Our philosophical options here are not simply the Scientific Facts of neuroscience versus the deluded fairy tales of metaphysics. Neuroscientific findings can and should inform our speculative grasp of the universe and its processes, but to my mind it is a regressive and forgetful maneuver to pretend neuroscience somehow “purifies” human understanding of metaphysics. This notion that positive science might somehow secure epistemological freedom from speculative imagination so as to deal only with the self-evident facts of physical reality, or whatever, is the worst kind of metaphysics because it is unconscious metaphysics.

 

 

Distilling my dissertation topic—>Etheric Imagination in an Ontology of Organism: Towards a Planetary Philosophy

First, a few orientating quotations from the thinkers I will be boiling together in the alchemical vessel of my dissertation.

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“…if we had the choice between empiricism and the all-oppressing necessity of thought of a rationalism which had been driven to the highest point, no free spirit would be able to object to deciding in favor of empiricism. Empiricism itself, then, allows a higher way of looking at things, or can be grasped from a higher perspective than the received, or, at least since Kant, the usual concept grasps it, which expels everything intelligible not only beyond the concepts of the understanding, but originally and first of all beyond all experience. Hence the now usual explanation that empiricism denies everything supernatural, but this is not the case. Because it is empiricism, it does not necessarily for that reason deny the supernatural, neither does it assume the legal and moral laws and the content of religion as something merely contingent, namely in the sense that it reduces everything to mere feelings, which themselves would only be the product of education and habit, as Hume admittedly did, who, by the way, asserted the same thing in relation to the sort of necessity with which we link cause and effect in our thoughts. There is even a higher and a lower concept of empiricism. For if the highest goal, which philosophy can, by general consent even of those who up to now think differently, certainly reach, is precisely to grasp the world as freely produced and created, then philosophy, with regard to the main thing it can achieve, or precisely by reaching its highest goal, would be a science of experience; I do not mean in the formal sense, but I do mean in the material sense, that what is highest for it would itself be something experiential in nature. If up to now, then, that national difference with regard to philosophy really exists, then this rift initially only shows that the philosophy in which humankind could recognize itself, the truly universal philosophy, does not yet exist. The truly universal philosophy cannot possibly be the property of a single nation, and as long as any philosophy does not go beyond the borders of a single people one can be safe in assuming that it is not yet the true philosophy, even if it is perhaps on the way to it…It would be wrong, really wrong, then, to want to call back those other [French and English speaking] nations from the doctrine of empiricism which they pursue to such great advantage in other areas; for them this would indeed be a retrograde movement. It is not up to them, it is up to us Germans, who, since the existence of Naturphilosophie, have emerged from the sad alternative of a metaphysics which floats in the air, lacking any foundation (that they rightly make fun of) and an infertile, arid psychology–it is up to us, I say, to develop the system, which we may hope to grasp and to reach, the positive system whose principle, precisely because of its absolute positivity cannot itself be knowable a priori any more, but only a posteriori, to the point where it will flow together with that empiricism which has been expanded and purified to the same extent” -F. W. J. Schelling, last lines from On the History of Modern Philosophy (~1833).

 

whitehead“A self-satisfied rationalism is in effect a form of anti-rationalism. It means an arbitrary halt at a particular set of abstractions.” –A. N. Whitehead, from Science and the Modern World, p. 201. 

 

“Our bodily  experience is the basis of existence. How is it to be characterized? In the first place, it is not primarily an experience of sense data, in the clear and distinct sense of that term. The internal functioning of a healthy body provides singularly few sense data, primarily associated with itself. When such sense data appear, we send fro a doctor. They are mostly aches and pains. And yet our feeling of bodily unity is a primary experience. It is an experience so habitual and so completely a matter of course that we rarely mention it. No one ever says, Here am I, and I have brought my body with me. In what does this intimacy of relationship consist? The body is the basis of our emotional and purposive experience. It determines the way in which we react to the clear sensa. It determines the fact that we enjoy sensa. But the eye strain in sight is not the eye sight. We see with our eyes; we do not see our eyes. The body is that portion of nature with which each moment of human experience cooperates. There is an inflow and outflow of factors between the bodily actuality and the human experience, so that each shares in the existence of the other. The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…So long as nature was conceived in terms of the passive, instantaneous existence of bits of matter, according to Newton or Democritus, a difficulty arises. For there is an essential distinction between matter at an instant and the agitations of experience. But this conception of matter has not been swept away. Analogous notions of activity, and of forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience. This conclusion must not be distorted. The fallacious notion of passive matter has by a reaction led to a distorted account of human experience. Human nature has been described in terms of its vivid accidents, and not its existential essence. The description of its essence must apply to the unborn child, to the baby in its cradle, to the state of sleep, and to that vast background of feeling hardly touched by consciousness. Clear, conscious discrimination is an accident of human existence. It makes us human. But it does not make us exist. It is of the essence of our humanity. But it is an accident of our existence. What is our primary experience which lies below and gives its meaning to our conscious analysis of qualitative detail? In our analysis of detail we are presupposing a background which supplies a meaning. These vivid accidents accentuate something which is already there. We require to describe that factor in our experience which, being a matter of course, does not enter prominently into conversation. There is no need to mention it. For this reason language is very ineffective for the exposition of metaphysics. Our enjoyment of actuality is a realization of worth, good or bad. It is a value experience. Its basic expression is–Have a care, here is something that matters! Yes–that is the best phrase–the primary glimmering of consciousness reveals, something that matters. This experience provokes attention, dim and, all but, subconscious. Attention yields a three-fold character in the “Something that matters.” “Totality,” “Externality,” and “Internality” are the primary characterizations of “that which matters.” They are not to be conceived as clear, analytic concepts. Experience awakes with these dim presuppositions to guide its rising clarity of detailed analysis. They are presuppositions in the sense of expressing the sort of obviousness which experience exhibits. There is the totality of actual fact; there is the externality of many facts; there is the internality of this experiencing which lies within the totality. These three divisions are on a level. No one in any sense precedes the other. There is the whole fact containing within itself my fact and the other facts. Also the dim meaning of fact–or actuality–is intrinsic importance for itself, for the others, and for the whole. Of course all our terms of speech are too special, and refer too explicitly to higher stages of experience. For this reason, philosophy is analogous to imaginative art. It suggests meaning beyond its mere statements. On the whole, elaborate phrases enshrine the more primitive meanings.” -A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 114-118

 

“What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.

Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions,

namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. The meeting point of these two natures is the mind, the causal nature being influent and the apparent nature being effluent.” -A. N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, ch. 2.

 

Rudolf-Steiner4“Our earth today has a quite particular configuration and form. Let us go back in the evolution of the earth. It once had a completely different form. Let us immerse ourselves…still further back: we come there to ever higher temperatures, in which metals were able to flow all around as water runs along today. All the metals have become these veins in the earth because they first flowed along in streams. Just as lead is hard today and quicksilver is fluid, so lead was at one time fluid and quicksilver will one day become a solid metal. Thus the earth is changeable, but man has always participated in these various evolutions. In the ages of which we have spoken, physical man as yet was not in existence. But the etheric body and astral body were there; they could live in the higher temperatures of that time. The sheaths gradually began to form with the cooling process, enveloping man. While something new was always being formed in man during the earth’s evolution, something correspondingly new had also been formed outside in nature. The rudiments of the human eye had first arisen in the Sun evolution. First the etheric body formed itself and this again formed the human physical eye. As a piece of ice freezes out of water, so are the physical organs formed out of the finer etheric body. The physical organs were formed within man while outside the earth became solid. In every age the formation of a human organ took place parallel with the formation of a particular configuration outside in nature…One only understands man when one can recognize the connections between the human being and the forces of nature. ” -Rudolf Steiner

 

My aim in this dissertation is to draw indications from each of these thinkers in an attempt to articulate an alternative ontology unhampered by the bifurcation of nature plaguing modern thought. Modernity need not be rejected; rather, an alternative form of modernity is possible, rooted not in Kantian skepticism or Hegelian idealism, but in Schellingian naturalism and Whiteheadian radical empiricism. Drawing on Steiner and the Western esoteric tradition, I will argue that the Kantian limits placed on human understanding and experience can be overcome through the cultivation of new organs of perception. The ontological insights of a process-relational ontology of organism are achieved through the higher speculative empiricism of the etheric imagination. Etheric imagination grants the process philosopher perceptual access to the formative forces unfolding organized beings from the inside out. Etheric imagination is in this sense not in the business of fantasy or make believe, but is an organ of genuine conceptual and perceptual import in tune with natural processes that unfold below the level of ordinary rational waking consciousness. The mechanical ontology underlying scientific materialism stems from misplaced concreteness, whereby abstract models of physical activity are made to fill in for the experienced reality of said activity. Such a scientific materialism, though it claims to be empirical, is really a confused idealism, in that it dismisses experiential reality as a mere dream, replacing it with an explanation based on the conjectured mechanical processes lying beneath experience that somehow cause it.

Along with Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead, I plan to draw on several other thinkers, including Gilles Deleuze , John Sallis, Bruno Latour, and Michael Marder.

Rough breakdown of dissertation

1. Historical Outline on emergence of bifurcated image of nature in modern philosophy beginning with Descartes (through Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, Kant, Fichte, Hegel). Argue for alternative modernity building on Bruno, Cusa, and other esoteric thinkers discussed by Steiner in Mystics After Modernism.

2. Epistemology of etheric imagination as an esoteric organ of perception. Build on phenomenology, enactivism, and participatory theory as epistemic first steps toward an ecological ontology, or ontology of organism.

3. Ontology of organism reveals the plant-like (or etheric) texture of experiential reality. Build on Marder’s vegetal metaphysics, Whitehead’s panexperientialism, and Sallis’ elemental phenomenology of earth and sky.

4. Cosmological significance of etheric forces underlying physical phenomena. Unpack Schelling’s, Steiner’s, and Whitehead’s ether theories.

 

The Pluralism Wars Return: Towards a Diplomatic Ontology of Organism

I was wondering how long the cease fire would last… The pluralism wars flared up again this afternoon over on FaceBook (this link may not work for everyone). Misunderstandings abound, or so it seems to me. My position–which is greatly indebted to thinkers like James and Whitehead, and more recently, Bruno Latour–is that of ontological pluralism. What is finally real in such an ontology has nothing to do with a mind-independent objective nature; rather, what is real are the value-experiences of a multiscaled and creatively evolving ecology of organisms.

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Ontological pluralism is not equivalent to the rather banal thesis that human individuals and collectives have different world views. Of course they do. Call this “world view pluralism” or “multiculturalism.” Many of us don’t like it, but it doesn’t matter: it’s still a plain fact about the sociopolitical environs modern people inhabit. The idea here is that human subjectivity provides for a whole multitude of cultural, psychological, and/or symbolic ways of relating to the world. The Modern constitution has it that each way of relating to reality should be tolerated, even respected, but on the other hand we are also all obliged to agree that there is finally just one pre-existent true reality out there somewhere. This is the incoherence of Modernity’s bifurcation of nature. Depending on whether we’re dealing with a theistic or scientistic fundamentalist, this “one true reality” could be a natural world made of matter that Science/Reason is the only objective, culture-free way of accessing, or a supernatural world made of spirit that Religion/Revelation is the only objective, culture-free way of accessing. This all too Modern settlement is rooted in the bifurcation of nature that Whitehead spent the last 25 years of his life protesting against:

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream. –The Concept of Nature, p. 31

 

Scientific materialism, in other words, has come to oppose our subjective experience of nature (the dream) to an abstract model of nature theorized to be the objective cause of that experience (the conjecture). Latour recently delivered a lecture to an audience of anthropologists that continued Whitehead’s protestation against bifurcation: “What Is the Recommended Dose of Ontological Pluralism for a Safe Anthropological Diplomacy?” It is worth a listen… 

Latour and Whitehead both protest against scientific materialism, but they don’t do so as beautiful souls trying to defend the subjective meanings of consciousness from reduction to the materiality of the nature known to science. As Latour makes clear in the lecture above, his project is an attempt to account for the variety of materials known to the sciences more adequately. Similarly, Whitehead was driven into metaphysics precisely because of his deep appreciation for and desire to defend the scientific process. He was as shocked as everyone else who lived through the demolition of classical physics in the early part of the 20th century. He realized that a quantum, relativistic physics, to continue being rational and offering elucidating descriptions of reality, was going to need new metaphysical justification. His process-relational ontology (aka, ontology of organism) takes materiality very seriously, but it no longer considers “matter” to be the objective half of a bifurcated universe. Rather, enduring materials are understood to be always already hybrid subject-objects. Everything physical is understood to be mixed up with everything conceptual and affective. The universe is awash in flows of feeling, flows composed not just of actualized histories and present appreciations, but of anticipated future trajectories. Energy carries physical as well as emotional force.

All that said, what, then, is ontological pluralism? Unlike the banal form of pluralist multiculturalism that everyone already accepts, ontological pluralism is the more radical thesis that no unified underlying material reality exists that might referee the plurality of organismic (human and nonhuman) value-experiences that contest, cooperate, or metamorphose with one another in order to secure their continued existence. The universe is an evolving ecosystem of organisms. It is eros and eris all the way down, equal parts symbiogenic orgy and struggle for existence from top to bottom. Whitehead (Science and the Modern World) offers a concrete example of how this plays out in the physical world:

“Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.”

In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history.

The sciences are generally quite good at producing objectivity, but they do so by forging robust alliances with a multitude of still evolving agencies, not by laying bare the supposed material substratum of all things. As a result, their knowledges and their truths, are always in-the-making (just as the cosmic ecology itself is always in-the-making). Science is a process of inquiry, not a storehouse of produced knowledge.

Latour’s ontological diplomacy is an effort to avoid marshaling “Scientific Facts” as though they might bring a final end to all contestation. Such facts will remain as important as ever even in a non-modern ecological epoch. They deserve to be defended. But the question is, just how is the scientific process best defended from its relativist critics? By claiming that it somehow transcends culture, politics, society, practice, embodiment, subjectivity, etc., and speaks unambiguously on behalf of an objective and pre-existent “Nature”? No, I don’t think this does the reality of the often anarchic and surprising scientific process justice. Latour shows how if such a defense of science via purification were successful, it would only succeed in rendering science entirely unequipped to produce any of the knowledge we’ve come to expect of it.

I’m no relativist, though I am a relationalist. We have plenty of tools to determine which facts are more secure and which more fragile. The clearest evidence we can produce of a well-constructed fact is to trace the network of relationships it has been able to forge between the agencies constituting it. The more tightly and widely networked, the more serious we ought to take it as a fact. So for example, when it comes to the issue of climate change, I’m way more inclined to trust the worldwide scientific community of climatologists–with their well-funded labs, peer-reviewed journals, satellites, thermometers, weather balloons, etc.–than I am a PR rep from the oil industry or the Heritage Foundation. Unfortunately, the PR industry has its own way of forging networks that work tirelessly to undermine the public’s trust in the scientific process. Here, we can and should distinguish between the political and the scientific mode of existence: the Heritage Foundation thinks it is doing climatology, but really it is doing politics. Its networks are not productive of experts, but rather of ideologues. Not that there is anything wrong with politics! The point is just that a more diplomatic effort to sort out these ontological confusions might help us do politics and science more effectively amid the plurality of fragile things composing this open-ended universe.

Ontological pluralism, then, is the thesis that reality is multiple and open-ended (not just that humans have a multitude of world views). It’s not just that our scientific knowledge of the universe is incomplete, its that the universe itself is incomplete. Ontological pluralism does not entail that we ought not to disagree with human collectives whose values differ from our own. We can and must enter into such disagreements! We cannot rely on some transcendent Scientific God’s eye view to settle our scruples for us. Instead, we should weigh the merits of different human values and world views on less otherworldly (ethical and aesthetic) grounds.

For the pluralism of an ontology of organism like that I’ve tried to articulate, the question about whose subjective symbolic or cultural or psychological world view is true and whose is mistaken just doesn’t arise. It is a dumb question once you’ve accepted the conceptual consequences of this path for thinking. If what is finally real are the value-experiences of a multiscaled and creatively evolving ecology of organisms, then the question isn’t “whose view is correct?” (“correct” in the scientific sense of objectively true regarding an external material world), but whose view is more powerful? Being is power, as Whitehead said, following Plato in The Sophist. 

Ontological pluralism is not a thesis about the relativity or objectivity of truth. It concerns the truth of relativity–the truth suggested by post-classical physics, systems biology, and post-colonial anthropology–that the universe is full of agencies at all levels (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, …) and is ontologically incomplete/open-ended/processual. 

The “…” is important for process-oriented pluralists. It signifies that which cannot finally be signified. Call it “Creativity” if you think that’s less cagey.

 

“Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic” by Whitney Bauman

“From a planetary perspective, truth is seen as the coconstruction of truth regimes. Our understandings of the world and the technologies of those understandings begin to create those worlds that we are persuaded most toward. In other words, one of the reasons modern science became so pervasive is that its truth regime–including the medical, communication, and transportation technologies derived from its way of understanding–is quite persuasive. It gives us results; it gives us things. However, at no small cost: atomic bombs, environmental ills, species extinction, global climate change, and gross economic inequities are just a few…Every truth regime, and its corresponding habits for becoming in the world, has benefits and costs, and this is what it means to understand truth from a pragmatic perspective. From a planetary perspective, the question is not which truth regime is really real, but rather toward which truth regimes do we want to live? Given the costs of the contemporary truth regime of the globalization of free-market capitalism and its modern scientific technologies, I would argue we need ways of becoming into the future that respect the multiperspectival reality of the becoming planetary community” -Whitney Bauman (p. 61)

I’ve been enjoying Whitney Bauman‘s new book (Colombia University Press, 2014). By developing the ideas of thinkers like Michelle Foucault, Tim Morton, Judith Butler, Catherine Keller, Deleuze and Guattari, Bruno Latour, Carolyn Merchant, Donna Haraway, Zygmunt Bauman, Karen Barad, Terry Deacon, Jane Bennett, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Gayatri Spivak, he has succeeded in furthering the case for a robust ontological pluralism.

Bauman spends much of the book overcoming the various materialist and idealist reifications of human and nonhuman identity that prevent the world’s sciences and religions from having meaningful dialogue with one another.

In an effort to overcome the colonialist pretenses of Scientific Materialism, Bauman re-interprets Western science as itself a form of “traditional ecological knowledge.” He remains a “naturalist,” however, where nature, as his “all-inclusive term,” includes

“humans, cultures, religions, ideas, imagination, atoms, ecosystems, the earth, the universe, and all other levels of reality. Nature is multiscalar [it consists of multiple levels, none of which can be reduced to the other] and emergent [nature is a process by which ‘new’ levels emerge in the course of planetary and cosmic evolution]. Thus nature is a multiperspectival emergent process…” (25).

Bauman’s goal is to re-politicize both science and religion with the help of a new posthuman planetary ethic. Rather than a search for scientific or religious forms of transcendence, a planetary ethic is satisfied with “an open and becoming immanence” (33):

“This understanding of an immanent and ongoing nature provides a viable option for redefining nature as a transformative political space-time of planetary possibilities rather than a transcendent source for foundational claims” (38).

Rather than going along with the standard Weberian reading of modernity ushering in an age of disenchantment (recounted most recently by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age), Bauman follows Latour by arguing that, in effect, we have never been modern. Similar to my reading of modernity (also building on Latour) as a form of “misenchantment,” Bauman writes:

“the enchantment of making the world dead matter is found in the marvels of modern technologies that such a mechanistic truth regime ushers in: the wonder and marvels of skyscrapers, space travel, air travel, the Internet, and the very sciences that emerge out of the mechanistic model of science (even if those sciences contain the ultimate demise of mechanism) are all quite enchanting” (41).

Rather than lionizing the standard heroes of modernization, like Galileo and Descartes, Bauman offers the panpsychic philosophers of immanence Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and Baruch Spinoza as visionaries of an alternative form of modernity. (Along these lines, I also recommend Arran Gare’s essay “Reviving the Radical Enlightenment: Process Philosophy and the Struggle for Democracy“).

The one bone I’d pick with Bauman concerns his desire to entertain the idea that nature is all naturans and no naturata (44-47). Obviously, I’m on board with the idea that nature is creative process, but natural process gives rise to natural products whose relative individuality should be respected. This individuality is always in-the-making and becoming-with others, and so never an “identifiable essence” or reified substantiality. I think some sense of nature natured must be preserved in order not to overlook the particularities brought forth in the course of the creative advance of nature naturing.

Another exciting aspect of Bauman’s thought is the way he explodes substantialist notions of a linear pre-existent/objective space-time by drawing on Barad’s work (Meeting the Universe Halfway). Barad’s “agential realism” construes spaces and times as “intra-actively produced” by a network of human and nonhuman agents, rather than determinately given once and for all (55). Similarly, the so-called “laws” of nature are re-read as tendencies or “pathways, scripts, or habits that get performed” (58).

Bauman preserves a role for polydox theologies after the death of God by reconstructing theology along poetico-imaginative lines. Theopoetic projections are part of what it means to be human, the meaning-making species par excellence. Further, our theopoems are as much introjected as they are projected: we may be the inventors of our gods, but what creator has ever been left untransformed by his or her creation?

Bauman comes down hard on liberal notions of identity and monogamous family structure. To overcome capitalism, we will need to realize that “identities are all messy assemblages”; we will need to become multiple, hybrid, queer:

“Our subjectivities are multiple in that we are made up of many human and earth others: histories, societies, actions, earth, air, water, fire, other molecules, other plants and animals. We are quite literally not the creators ex nihilo of our own identities, but we are created by multiple earth others. In a very real sense, we cannot cut off our understandings of the self from the whole 13.8-billion-year process of cosmic expansion and 4.5-billion-year process of geoevolution…From this perspective, perhaps planetary technologies of becoming will encourage us to think with earth others–and think with the in-between rather than as isolated thinking things” (120)

“It is not just that we are made of histories and biologies of evolving plants, animals, and minerals, nor that we will become part of future plants, animals, and minerals. Rather, it is that these companions literally make up our multiple, evolving, and open subjectivities. Just as queer theory recognizes our subjectivities as always already multiple, so from a radical materialist perspective we can say that our embodiments are always already multiple. As such, our agency is not just the agency of the Cartesian skin-encapsulated ego, nor are our thoughts and emotions our own. Our actions, thoughts, and emotions are always multiple. They involve multiple histories of planetary becomings or communities of plants, animals, and minerals, all of which are evolving beyond their own boundaries and diffracting into proliferations of subject-objects” (155).

Bauman’s prescriptions are not easy pills to swallow for middle class white people who belong to the elite 1/5th of the world (or really for any of the “global mobiles,” those of us in “the West” who live in a bubble floating atop the rest of the human population, the “immobile locals”). But perhaps our times call for strong medicine.

Notes for a Sunday Evening Cosmology Salon

If you’re a San Francisco local, I’ll be speaking with a few friends at Cyprian’s Episcopal Church on Turk and Lyon this Sunday (4/27) at 7pm about community-building and the cosmopolitical importance of play in the aftermath of capitalism. Our salon-style panel discussion is part of a larger community festival in the Panhandle neighborhood.

Here is the blurb:

Cosmologies of Work and Play: Community in the Making  

Slavoj Zizek has recently suggested that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. For those aware of the seriousness of the ecological and social crises of our time, imagining the end of the world may not seem all that difficult anymore. But perhaps it is not the world, but a world that is ending. For perhaps the first time in the modern age, the anti-cosmology of global capitalism is losing its ideological grip on the collective imagination. Exploitation of the human and nonhuman earth community for the private profit of a few has now become so intense, that apologists for capitalism can no longer divert our attention from the injustices it requires. Though the crises of our time are indeed serious, re-creating a more viable world will require at least as much play as it will work. Join us for a conversation building on anarchist anthropologist David Graeber’s recently proposed “principle of ludic freedom,” which not only, as he suggests, “gives us ground to unthink the world around us,” but also provides a means of composing a more cosmologically grounded community from out of the compost of capitalism. 

And some of my notes: 

Why is cosmology relevant to community-building? Because cosmologizing is the most fundamental form of political action.

Nowadays, in our scientific age, when we think of cosmology what comes to mind are things like energy, matter, space-time, and so on. But for former pre-modern and contemporary non-modern thinkers, cosmology had/has also to do with more concrete realities, like the place of human values in the scope of the wider community of living beings on earth and in the sky. In the modern age, scientific cosmology became separated from its own ecological and political ground here on earth beneath the sky. The enchanted geocentric cosmology of the ancients was replaced by the abstract heliocentrism of mathematical physicists. This sort of modern conception of a static sun-centered universe obeying eternal laws is of course more than a century behind the discoveries of today’s scientific cosmology, with its evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories. The problem nowadays is that physics has become so overwhelmingly mathematical that the average person has no hope of actually understanding what it is supposed to have revealed about the cosmos. Like with the medieval Church that only gave mass in Latin, contemporary science has grown too esoteric for the common person to consciously participate in. Science has come to treat the universe as though it had no fundamental connection with the presupposed values of civilized life. Science treats the universe as if the shape of the Milky Way galaxy and the rhythmic orbits of the planets overhead were entirely irrelevant to our individual and collective human experience. Though physicists have devised several stunning mathematical models that bear some resemblance to our measurements of the physical world, they have provided no functional cosmology to the human species. If we have a popular cosmology today, it is “market cosmology.” And if, as Thomas Berry suggested, a functional cosmology is synonymous with an adequate ecology (i.e., a theoretical and practical sense for how we are best to inhabit our habitat), then clearly market cosmology is dysfunctional. 

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Cosmopolitics! — Let us be done with the Modern constitution that bifurcates Nature from Society, Science from Politics, Facts from Values.

Cosmologizing is an integral activity, as much artistic, as religious, as scientific (I, We, It). 

Cosmology is always in the making, a fragile process of collective world-creation; always an ongoing activity, an ever-contested endeavor whose completion is only ever intimated and never finally assured. Cosmology is fiction crafted in public, political poetry (as Shelley said, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”). 

“The creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead (Aims of Education). 

To cosmologize is to re-imagine how space and time are experientially distributed. To cosmologize is to hack the social imaginary, to reshape the imaginative background or unconscious speculative ground upon which the conscious values of a civilization are based. In the capitalist world, under “market cosmology,” space is property and time is on loan. That is to say, for most of us, time and space are made to seem scarce commodities. Our society’s cosmology divides up space into real estate and measures time as though human beings were perpetually “on the clock.” “Time is money,” as Ben Franklin put it. 

Are there any non-modern cosmological alternatives to market cosmology? Yes. Whitehead for one. 

“We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe. Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value intensity.” -Whitehead (Modes of Thought)

For Whitehead, philosophy begins in wonder. Wonder is the vague feeling we all have all the time that hovers just beyond the horizon of workaday consciousness—the intuition of being embedded within the grand adventure of a larger universe. Wonder is the all-pervasive (and so largely taken for granted) sense we have of the wholeness and the totality of things which embraces us. Wonder is the sublime feeling of being awash in the value-experience of other living creatures, astonished by the insistence of their existence, the way they press in upon us and demand our care and attention. Philosophy is the attempt to respond to this equal parts erotic and eristic experience of the values of the universe streaming in to us from every direction. Philosophy is the attempt to become faithful to the earth and to the sky, to become responsible for the way our humanity joins in their ancient cosmic procession.

How are we going to re-imagine lived space and lived time after the spatiotemporal matrix of global capitalism dissolves? We must run experiments >> 

Latour’s Space-Time Experiment: Thinking with Whitehead

Watch Olafur Eliasson and Bruno Latour re-enact the debate between Einstein and Bergson about space-time and the polarity between art and science. 

Though I first heard about Latour’s re-enactment of the Einstein-Bergson debate several years ago, I only uncovered the videos of this conversation while engaging in a FaceBook thread yesterday about Einstein’s bloc universe. Einstein famously claimed that time as we experience it is a mere psychological illusion. If we want the fact of the matter regarding real time, we must accept the verdict of the positive sciences. Einstein didn’t fess up to the covert metaphysic of bifurcation he was employing, and although Bergson wasn’t able to get through to him on this point during their debate in 1922, other philosophers were listening.

Alfred North Whitehead agreed with Bergson’s critique of Einstein, though not with Bergson’s philosophical reconstruction of relativity. Whitehead developed his own alternative (philosophical and geometrical) formulation of relativity in a 1922 book The Principle of Relativity:

It follows from my refusal to bifurcate nature into individual experience and external cause that we must reject the distinction between psychological time which is personal and impersonal time as it is in nature (66).

Whitehead’s reformed principle of relativity is based on the metaphysical priority of actual facts, or occasions of experience, from which the geometrical order of spatiotemporal extension is derived (Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 5). Through an abstractive process of logical construction rooted in the coordination of the somewhat fragmentary nature of individual occasions of experience, the general character of space-time holding true for our cosmic epoch can be produced (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” in The Aims of Education, 162-163). While Einstein’s proposal of a universal and a priori space-time implies a taut, already fully woven fabric whose spatial curvature is modified by the material bodies situated within it, Whitehead’s alternative theory of a coordinated plurality of space-times implies a fraying fabric always in the process of being repaired by the dipolar physical-mental concrescences of organismic occasions of experience. In this sense, contrary to Levi Bryant’s dismissal of Whitehead as an armchair philosopher who concocted “just so” stories with no empirical grounding (see the FaceBook thread), Whitehead’s innovation was to translate many of the properties that Einstein’s general relativity defines a priori into empirical, or a posteriori facts (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 168). Instead of privileging the misplaced concreteness of an abstract space-time that would “[separate] an organism from its environment” such that “the endurance of the former and the patience of the latter [is defined] in terms of right [or “law”], not of fact,” Whitehead emphasizes the contingency of the evolved habits currently holding sway over the ecology of organisms shaping our cosmic epoch, no matter how general or universal they may appear at this time (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 169).

Whitehead terms the general character of space-time “the uniformity of the texture of experience” (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 163). “The physical world [i.e., the extensive continuum of space-time],” he goes on, is,

in some general sense of the term, a deduced concept. Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world (Whitehead, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” 165).

Here, Whitehead directly contradicts Einstein’s famous statement that our immediate experience of temporality, while perhaps necessary for civilized life (or for biotic existence in general, for that matter), is in reality nothing but a persistent illusion no longer to be believed in by professional physicists. Whitehead’s reconstruction of relativity theory so as to avoid the social and ecological perils of the bifurcation of nature is not based on a denial of Einstein’s physical formulations, but a denial of the unconscious imaginative background shaping Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of these formulations. Following Stengers, it can be said that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism aims not to belittle or deny the abstractions of the scientific intellect, as Bergson seems to, but rather to articulate an

ecology of abstraction…that creates the possibility of a mutual aesthetic appreciation between specialists of precision and adventurers of generalization (Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 141).

10th International Whitehead Conference – “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization”

After speaking at the 9th International Whitehead Conference last fall in Krakow, Poland, I was invited to help organize a track for the 2015 IWC in Claremont, CA next summer (June 4-7). The 2015 conference is called “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization” and is largely the brain child of process theologian and environmental philosopher John Cobb, Jr. Plenary speakers include Cobb, Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, Brian Swimme, Catherine Keller, Herman Daly, and David Ray Griffin. The conference will be divided into 12 topical sections, with each section including 4 or 5 tracks. My track is in section 3, “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose,” and is called “Late Modernity and Its Reductive Monism.” For a brief description of the proposed focus of this section and its sub-tracks written by Cobb, click HERE.

In his proposal for my track, Cobb writes:

Rene Descartes, who developed the Enlightenment vision most profoundly and influentially, is known especially for his radical dualism of the human soul, on one side, and mere matter in motion on the other.  Although this carried the alienation from nature to its extreme, it gave dignity to human beings.  It supported the ideas of human rights and even of a fundamental equality of all.  However, in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin showed that human beings are a product of evolution, so that they are fully part of nature.  This opened the door to re-thinking nature as having some of the properties Descartes attributed to the human soul.  But the commitment of the sciences to methods associated with nature’s purely objective existence was very strong.  Instead of changing the approach to the rest of the natural world, scientists chose to study humans in the way they had previously studied the objects of human experience.  Enlightenment dualism was replaced in late modernity by reductionist monism.  The Enlightenment led people to understand themselves as responsible citizens.  The new reductionistic monism represents us as laborers in the service of the economic system.

To re-phrase, my track will focus on the way that the classical Enlightenment dualism between morally responsible human souls and a morally neutral mechanical nature has, in the late modern period, been replaced by a pseudo-materialistic monism. Descartes was the first to articulate this dualism in its modern form. His attempt at a clean break from traditional dogmas by re-grounding human rationality on our own self-evident powers of reflective self-consciousness was an essential factor in the Western world’s later revolutionary struggles for individual political freedom. Without Descartes and those who followed in his wake (especially Locke and Kant) there would be no Modern philosophy, obviously, but nor would there have been a French or American Revolution. The dualistic ontology of spiritual human vs. mechanical matter, though unsuited for (and in some sense the cause of) our present ecological nightmare, was for an earlier epoch a catalyst for democratic liberation from the oppressive theocratic monarchies of the medieval world. Nowadays, since the dominant ontology has devolved into a confused monist materialism (which Latour deconstructs and re-assembles in AIME), the democratic political ideals of the Enlightenment are increasingly being called into question by neoliberal economists and reductive neurobiologists, among others. If there is no such thing as a soul, there is no such thing as freedom, no such thing as moral responsibility to other human souls, and so no real justification for democratic self-governance. If we are really just selfish desire-machines blindly designed by the Darwinian struggle for consumption and reproduction called Natural Selection (nature’s “invisible hand”), then, following the neoliberal capitalist approach, the best form of governance is that orchestrated by well-trained technocrats and social engineers, those who know how best to keep the civilizational machine running smoothly.

The discoveries of deep time and biological evolution that emerged during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries dealt the death blow to substance dualism, forcing humanity to make a fateful ontological decision: either, as Cobb puts it, (1) re-imagine nature as in some way ensouled, or (2) re-think the human soul as somehow mechanical. In the 20th century, Western techno-science committed itself to the second project: human society and the earth itself were to be re-made in the image of the machine (if ancient cosmologies suffered from anthropomorphism, modern cosmologies suffer from mechanomorphism). Our early 21st century world, with its exploding economic inequality and ecological unraveling, is the near ruin lying in the wake of that decision.

alfred-north-whitehead-1

Whitehead stands out among 20th century philosophers, not for his revolt against techno-scientific reductionism (certainly, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty were just as dedicated to resisting it), but for his decision to have a go at project #1. As I describe in my essay on Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary cosmology Physics of the World-Soul (2013), Whitehead’s response, not only to 19th century evolutionary theory, but to 20th century quantum and relativity theories, was to re-imagine, in process-relational terms, the relationship between the interior psychical and exterior physical worlds. That conscious human experience is continuous with the rest of an evolved nature is clear enough; but Whitehead argues that we cannot think coherently of this continuum in an eliminatively materialist way, as though consciousness could be explained by reduction to something entirely dumb and numb, unintelligent and unfeeling. If we are to remain civilized, we must take knowledge and love seriously as having a real effects on the course of human history. To take human knowledge and love seriously requires that we root these powers ontologically, that we ground them in the energies of cosmogenesis itself. Otherwise they are mere passing fantasies, cultural figments to be reduced to the neurotic mechanics of our brains and controlled by techno-scientific specialists.

The results of the modern world deciding in favor of project #2 are detailed by Whitehead toward the end of Science and the Modern World (1925):

[All] thought concerned with social organization expressed itself in terms of material things and of capital. Ultimate values were excluded. They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved…entirely devoid of consideration for the value of…life. The workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labor. To God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain– “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and they incurred Cain’s guilt (181).

 

Participants in my track will have an opportunity to draw on Whitehead, as well as other congenial thinkers, in an effort to both critique late modernity’s reductive monism and to re-construct a more viable ontology for a future ecological civilization. I’ll continue to post updates about the shape of the track as the conference date approaches.

Building Shared Environments: Towards a Pluriversal Theory and Practice

The videos below are philosophical dialogues, first with the artist and YouTuber Mike Vahl and second with Professor Corey Anton. Both a relevant preface for the third video on pluralism and process-relational cosmology, which is largely a response to the recent blogosphere pluralism wars:

Knowledge-Ecology on Three Pluralisms

Adam Robbert of Knowledge-Ecology has summarized some of the distinctions that emerged these past few weeks in the ongoing discussion on pluralism. Adam warns against collapsing the three sorts of pluralism (worldview pluralism, epistemological pluralism, and ontological pluralism), as to do so would result in the nastiest sort of relativism (“reality is whatever you make it”).

Adam succeeded in luring Isabelle Stengers to intervene in the cross-blog discussion. Go check it out.

-Pluralism as the Choreography of Coexistence

Life in the Pluriverse

Life in the Pluriverse: Towards a Realistic Pluralism

Levi Bryant recently called for a cross-blog discussion concerning what he perceives to be the problematic relationship between ethnographic pluralism and ontological realism. His call was instigated by Jeremy Trombley’s post on the so-called “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology and ethnography. Trombley articulated what might be described as an ontology of the concept, wherein concepts are not representational frames that mirror (or fail to mirror) the world, but participatory interventions that dis- and/or re-assemble our thoughts and practices. Trombley writes:

“a concept or conceptual assemblage – ontology, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, etc. – enables us to understand differently, and in understanding differently, it enables us to also be differently… What the ontological turn does is…[allow] us to reflect not only on the way we represent, but on the way that we exist and the kinds of relations we compose through our practices.”

Before I get into what such an anti-representationalist ontology of concepts does to our understanding of Truth (hint: Truth is not pre-given but enacted), I should mention a few other bloggers who have already jumped into the conversation. Phillip of the blog Circling Squares (which I need to explore more!) responded to Bryant’s original post by pointing out that thinkers like Latour and Stengers (and Whitehead before them) have been articulating a rather robust form of pluralistic realism for some time now (i.e., cosmopolitics). Terence Blake of Agent Swarm also chimed in, arguing that Bryant’s “realism” seems to be no more than old-school scientism, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is so difficult to square with pluralism.

Bryant believes that the social constructionist turn of the 90s was politically valuable in that it improved the social standing of many oppressed minorities. But he rejects what he perceives to be the extension of such constructionism beyond politics into ontology. Bryant writes:

“In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth. Everything becomes an optional narrative or story about the world, an optional picture of reality, where we are free to choose among the various options that most suit our taste.  It’s not a surprise that so much of the philosophy during the 90s in both phenomenology and post-structuralism culminated in a theological turn.  For where everything, including science, is just a narrative or story about what being is, why not just go ahead and take a leap of faith?”

I’m not sure if Bryant intends to include cosmopolitical thinkers like Latour and Stengers in his punching bag category “social constructionist.” I don’t understand how he could. If he does insist on labeling them as such (which seems to me to just obscure their true positions–but if he insists…), then, building on Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, I’d retort that “society” for these cosmopolitical thinkers has to be understood in the most general sense as an ontological category, not simply a human “construct.” The human organism is already a society of cells, each of which is itself a society of organelles, each of which is a society of molecules, each of which is a society of atoms, each of which is a society of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and so on… Realities are decomposed and recomposed by associations between and among actual occasions–occasions which are never simple unities but are always multiple and so always “in the making.” Which brings me to the concept of “construction”: if we are working within a process ontology, construction also needs to be ontologized. Biological evolution is a gradual process of construction wherein what begins as psychological desire later becomes physiological reality (to take the example of evolution by sexual selection). The physical world is itself continually constructed by what physicists are now calling “geometrogenesis.” This is not to say that the physical world is a human construct, mind you. The picture that is beginning to become clear as a result of contemporary physical cosmology is that space and time are the co-emergent products of the real activity of pure energy, something both non-human and pre-physical/pre-extended (Whitehead called it Creativity; physicists call it the quantum vacuum). If the physical world (as described by contemporary physics) is a network of relations always “in the making,” and not some collection of pre-given particles obeying eternal laws, then a “true” understanding of it must also always remain open-ended. There is no Science or Universal Reason that might once and for all pronounce upon the nature of the Real. There are many sciences, many methods, many rationalities. Science as it is actually practiced now and in the past has always already been a pluralistic enterprise. As Latour showed in Science in Action, what ends up being called “Nature” is always a consequence of some more or less temporary settlement of controversies. Every new generation of scientists stirs up new controversies about what the aging generation thought was settled.

The cosmopolitical perspective that I’d want to defend certainly does not “undermine the possibility of public deliberation about truth”–it is (once we accept an enactivist account of truth) the condition of its possibility! It is Bryant’s position that rules out such public deliberation by insisting on declaring war on all those human societies that reject materialism. Latour has plenty to say about the vacuity of the notion of “matter,” which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t get into here.  Accepting a cosmopolitical form of ontological pluralism doesn’t at all require that we think of all beliefs and belief-systems as created equal. Nor does it imply that social groups “freely choose” their beliefs simply as a matter of “taste.” The ontological commitments of any given society typically emerge out of long multi-generational processes of historical development. They aren’t just made-up on a whim by individual members. Further, the world view of a social group is as integral to their their livelihood and well-being as their food, shelter, and water, not simply an optional aesthetic veneer. As Trombley suggested, belief-systems enact ways of being and are not just representations.

Ontological pluralism is a commitment to multiple realities, many of which overlap, but some of which remain (at least for now) irreconcilable. It is not a commitment to tolerance of multiple perspectives on a single reality. This latter option, as Bryant points out, would be a rather trivial form of pluralism. It is also a rather colonialist and scientistic take on the Real. Anyone trying to argue that contemporary science has somehow provided us with a unified account of an objective reality that holds true for all people in all places and times has their work cut out for them. Several hundred years of “modern” science has only succeeded in making the world stranger, more dangerous, and more multifarious than it was for ancient and medieval peoples.

Am I saying that a ayahuasca shaman’s encounter with the spirit of the jaguar is just as real as the particle physicist’s encounter with the Higgs boson? Yes, most definitely. In fact, the shaman’s encounter is way more concrete and direct than the physicist’s, since the latter has to wait for a world-wide network of supercomputers to process the information for him, which only after many repeated trials, journal publications, and so on becomes what most (but not every!) physicist will agree is something like a Higgs boson. Even after all this painstakingly detailed mediation (“science in the making”), the Higgs boson remains now and forever a theoretical construct. The ayahuasqueros’ encounter with the jaguar spirit is anything but. Sure, a cognitive neuroscientist might claim to be able to explain the shaman’s experience as a “brain malfunction” brought on by the ingestion of a psychedelic plant brew. But this remains a reductive etic description and not a complete explanation. The neuroscientist should participate in an ayahuasca ceremony for himself before he goes declaring war on the shaman. At least, this is what a pluralist ethics would entail. Such shamanic practices have functioned quite well in their own tribal context for thousands of years. Instead of assuming from the get go that anyone who doesn’t describe the world in your favored language is deluded, try to get to know them, to understand not only what their world is like, but how their world is brought forth. Follow the injunctions through which they enact their world. Then, once you’ve explored it from the inside, by all means judge their enactment, contest it, translate its features into other terms to show why it is unethical, dangerous, or misguided.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from an essay of mine on the ethical implications of enactivism and the need for a pluralistic planetary mythos (Logos of a Living Earth):

One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular cognitive domain made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed, its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.

As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance. As Latour put it, “we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).