“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.

Reflections on Latour, Tarnas, and the Misenchantment of the World

Before you read this post, go watch Bruno Latour’s recent Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, titled “Facing Gaia: A New Enquiry into Natural Religion” (or read the PDF version). I’ve written a few short commentaries on these lectures that may help bring you up to speed if you don’t have the 7 or 8 hours to watch them all just yet: here are my reflections on lectures onetwothreefour, and six).

Next, read my friend Grant Maxwell’s post comparing Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern to Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind, both published in 1991. Grant is an editor of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, an academic journal that is continuing to develop the perspective of Tarnas’ last book, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (2007).

I applaud Grant’s diplomatic effort to bring these two thinkers into dialogue–thinkers who, on the face of it, seem to be engaged in incommensurable projects. While Latour’s Modern aims primarily at the problematization of any simple story about the rise and fall of “Modern Western Man,” Tarnas’ Passion would seem to aim precisely to tell such a story. The story Tarnas tells, of course, is hardly “simple.” He succeeds in brilliantly tracing the grand multi-millennial narrative of Western philosophical history through each of its dramatic dialectical twists: from the strange and unsteady but powerfully dynamic Christian synthesis of Greek philosophy and Hebrew prophecy; through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution; on to the progress of the Enlightenment and the reaction of Romanticism; finally culminating in the hermeneutical sensitivity of our post-modern condition, a sensitivity that entails both the peril of groundless relativism and deconstructive suspicion as well as the soul-healing and world-enchanting promise of post-Jungian depth, archetypal, and psychedelic psychologies (Tarnas develops this “promise/peril” theme in his preface to Cosmos and Psyche, “The Two Suitors”). I believe Tarnas’ motivation for telling his epic history of the evolution of consciousness in the West is not only to argue for the over-all nobility of the Western project, but to prophesy its imminent self-inflicted dialectical sublation by the “otherness” it has for so long been projecting onto “Nature,” “God,” and most especially, “the Feminine” (Passion, 444).  In the final lines of Passion, Tarnas’ writes:

[W]hy has the pervasive masculinity of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition suddenly become so apparent to us today, while it remained so invisible to almost every previous generation? I believe this is occurring only now because, as Hegel suggested, a civilization cannot become conscious of itself, cannot recognize its own significance, until it is so mature that it is approaching its own death.

Today we are experiencing something that looks very much like the death of modern man, indeed that looks very much like the death of Western man. Perhaps the end of “man” himself is at hand. But man is not a goal. Man is something that must be overcome–and fulfilled, in the embrace of the feminine. (445)

Latour, while he may be somewhat more suspicious of Hegel’s totalizing dialectical philosophy of history, is, in a unique but comparable way, also prophesying the inevitable overcoming of “man” as a result of his terrible embrace by the long-forgotten goddess of earth, Gaia.

From Grant’s perspective, having studied Tarnas’ work deeply but admittedly having just begun his study of Latour’s by reading Modern,

the cores of both works partially intersect and express the archetypal quality of that moment near the height of postmodernism, which has a lot to do with seeing through seemingly airtight modern constructs to a novel vision of reality.

I agree that it is just this potential for creatively seeing through the postmodern condition that makes both mens’ work so relevant to anyone involved in what we could call the “re-enchantment project.” However, whether Latour is indeed involved in such a project or not remains a matter of contention. Grant isn’t at all satisfied with Latour’s seeming dismissal of the need to mourn the loss of an enchanted world (Modern, 114cf.). I suppose I read Latour’s ironic statements about modern science and technology bringing about the disenchantment of the world somewhat differently than Grant. Latour may be a bit flippant at times, but his point is certainly not to “do everything he can to deny enchantment,” as Grant argues. Latour’s point, as I understand him, is precisely the opposite. Drawing in no small part upon the work of his Whiteheadian friends, Isabelle Stengers (see Capitalist Sorcery) and Donna Haraway (see Latour’s review of Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature), Latour argues that we have never been disenchanted, that in fact, modernity has been far more a wayward adventure in mis-enchantment than outright dis-enchantment.

Moderns may have lost their ability to magically participate in the animate powers of the earth and larger cosmos (a loss worth mourning), but the modern world is hardly lacking its own forms of consumer-capitalist misenchantment. Moderns have devised their own, no less enchanted technoscientific magic. This modern magic, with its hybrid factishes and cyborg machines, has allowed for the construction of an immense networked technoösphere whose all-encompassing mediation of human life (by satellite-linked touch screens and the like) has by now all but severed our conscious connection to earth and cosmos. Even the stars are now out-shined by the numinous glow of our gadgetry.

I’d argue, then, that Latour, like Tarnas, is involved in the re-enchantment project. This is especially evident after Latour’s Gifford Lectures on Gaia, as we’ll see below. He sees, like Stengers and Haraway, that the technocapitalist-entertainment complex has been providing humanity with a sort of surrogate enchantment for much of the last century. This makes the task of re-enchantment all the more perilous, since it involves not simply bringing a bit of magic back into a mechanized universe, but rather represents a true sorcerers’ battle pitting light and dark magics against one another. Who will win: Big Oil propaganda, or the world’s indigenous peoples and their reverence for Mother Earth? Or someone else? “Would it be possible,” asks Latour as part of an effort to summon “the people of Gaia,”

to accept the candidacy of those people who claim to be assembled, for instance, by Pachamama, the Earth goddess? May be, if only we could be sure that what passes for a respect for the Earth is not due to their small numbers and to the relative weakness of their technology. None of those so called ‘traditional’ people, the wisdom of which we often admire, is being prepared to scale up their ways of life to the size of the giant technical metropolises in which are now corralled more than half of the human race. (lecture 6)

Grant is put off by the difficult and anxiety-producing academic style of Latour’s Modern, preferring the “classical narrative clarity” of Tarnas’ Passion. There is no question that Tarnas’ book can and has reached a larger sector of the educated general public. But Latour didn’t write Modern for the general public. He wrote it for the modern philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists who mistakenly enforce the nature/society dichotomy he so detests. We might say that Modern was an attempt to transform the modern Zeitgeist from the top down, while Passion attempted to do the same from the middle up.

As for the anxiety one may feel upon reading Modern, or listening to the Gifford Lectures, Latour might respond by asking if hope might not be our biggest enemy. Hope allows us to wait until tomorrow to face the climate crisis, because maybe our situation isn’t so bad, after all. Like most of the world’s climate scientists, he has recognized the direness of our planetary position, the fact that we are already committed to at least 2 degrees centigrade of global warming, and that in all likelihood, we will be committed to far more before any meaningful action is taken. The changing climate that results from this warming will produce tens of millions of refugees, food shortages, and resource wars. Latour depicts climatologists as the most tragic figures of our time, in that despite their knowledge of the coming threat, they cannot mobilize the political will to do anything about it. They are the first scientists to be accused by other scientists of being a lobby. Latour’s project is an attempt to empower their knowledge, not by pretending to purify it of the vagaries of politics (as modern scientists normally do), but by re-positioning scientists from their disincarnate perspective beyond earth to an incarnate perspective bound to earth. This means admitting one’s local concerns and grounded norms, even and especially when one’s profession is the production of scientific facts. The climatologists are the closest the planet has to a people of Gaia, according to Latour. They are the people who speak on behalf of earth’s health.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Latour was barking up the wrong tree in Modern–that, on the contrary, we have been modern and science once could be purified of politics. In his recent Gifford Lectures, he sets out to prove that, in the age of the Anthropocene, we can no longer be modern because the natural fact of climate change is inseparable from the economic and political values of society. The reason ours’ is such an anxiety-producing time, according to Latour, is because Whitehead’s bifurcation, rather than being brought to its end by the revenge of Gaia, has, in fact, been reversed:

Incredibly enough, the question has become whether humans may retrieve a sense of history that has been ripped away from them by what they had taken until now to be a mere frame devoid of any agency. The Bifurcation of Nature, so criticized by Whitehead, has not come to a close: it has reversed itself in the most unexpected way, the ‘primary qualities’ being now marked by sensitivity, agency, reaction, uncertainty; the ‘secondary qualities’ by indifference, insensibility, numbness. (lecture 6)

In other words, “nature,” for so long merely the raw material out of which the progress of human history was made to take shape, is now, due to the unpredictable nonlinear effects of climate change, beginning to seem far more agential and sensitive than we human beings, our political paralysis and complete lack of serious response to the looming threat of ecological disaster making us seem more like inert and insensitive consumerist robots.

Since the Scientific Revolution, moderns have pretended to possess a “view from nowhere.” This objective view was predicated upon Galileo’s erasure of the primordial dichotomy between the earthly and heavenly spheres of the cosmos. In the beginning of his 3rd Gifford Lecture, Latour offers his non-modern take on the “reverse symmetry” displayed in Galileo’s theory of universal nature and Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Both men, Latour points out, “[turned] cheap instruments to the skies to make radically opposite discoveries.” In a way similar to Tarnas’ astrologically-informed (and so geocentric) participatory perspective, Latour argues that the living earth really does inhabit a special sub-lunary realm. One wonders if Latour’s attempt to return earth to its pre-Galileo status might be of any assistance to those hoping to re-assert the “metaphysical and psychological premises” of archetypal cosmology (see Passion, p. 296). I’ll quote Latour’s 3rd lecture at length:

While Galileo, by looking up beyond the horizon to the sky, was expanding the similarity between this Earth and all the other falling bodies, Lovelock, by looking down on us from one of those heavenly bodies, is actually decreasing the similarity among all the planets and this highly peculiar Earth of ours. From his tiny office in Pasadena, like someone slowly sliding the roof of a convertible car tightly shut, Lovelock brings his reader back to what should be taken, once again, as a sublunary world. Not because the Earth lacks perfection, quite the opposite; not because it hides in its interior the dark site of Hell; but because it has—and it alone has—the privilege of being alive in a certain fashion—which also means, in a certain fashion, being corruptible—that is, animated and also, thus, simultaneously in equilibrium yet brittle. In a word: actively maintaining a difference between inside and outside. Even stranger, the Blue Planet suddenly stands out as what is made of a long concatenation of historical, local, hazardous, specific and contingent events as if it were the temporary outcome of a ‘geohistory’ as attached to specific places and dates as the Biblical narrative, that is, exactly what was not to be taken into account when considered simply as a falling body among all the others.

Is not the reverse symmetry really admirable? Take the cliché of three ‘narcissistic wounds’ celebrated by Freud: first Copernicus, then Darwin and then — somewhat narcissistically — Freud himself? Human arrogance was supposed to have been deeply hurt by the Copernican revolution that had chased the human out of the centre of the cosmos (and hurt deeper still by the discovery, secondly of Darwin, and, thirdly, of the Unconscious that had kicked the human subject out of its privileged position). But in order to invent such a series of wounds, Freud had to forget the enthusiasm with which the so-called ‘Copernican revolution’ had been embraced by all those who had suffered so much for being stuck in the dark centre of a cosmos out of which they had no other escape but the super lunar regions, the only place where incorruptible truths could be found. Out of the hole at last! 

Those familiar with Tarnas’ argument concerning the fundamental ambiguity of the Copernican revolution (representing both a blow to human centrality as well as a boon to human autonomy) will recognize its similarity to Latour’s treatment.

In closing, Latour may not be as optimistic about human history as Hegel, for whom all of natural and human history is “spirit disporting with itself” (as he wrote in the Phenomenology). Latour sees just as much contingency as he does dialectical inevitability in the course of evolution. On the other hand, he is a practicing Catholic, though I’m as yet unable to determine how the doctrine of providence survives his seemingly heretical, almost pagan, natural theology.

“Even Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit,” said Latour during his 5th lecture,

did not envision that the advent of the Anthropocene would so radically reverse the direction of the historical project–that humans would be dialectically merged with the geostorical adventure of carbon, oxygen, and metal. Think of that! The whole breath of Spirit now sublated, aufheben, overcome, intoxicated by carbon dioxide

Tarnas, not unlike Hegel, would seem to have a greater degree of trust in the dialectical plot underlying our human adventure, that no matter how dark our plight may become, “it is always darkest just before the dawn.” Personally, I experience equal doses of hope and anxiety when faced by earth’s future prospects. I deeply appreciate the work of both Tarnas and Latour for providing us (those of us engaged in the “re-enchantment project”) with some essential weapons in our ongoing battle for the soul of the world.

SR/OOO and Nihilism: a response to Harman and Bryant

I’ve already posted a short response to Harman, but I wanted to re-visit the issues explored in that post concerning the difference between Homo Sapiens, as an object among objects, and the Anthropos, as an ideal toward which every object tends. I will also try to disentangle my own “cosmotheandric” position from the generic anti-nihilism Levi Bryant has rightfully critiqued.

I should preface this by saying that Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology excites me a great deal. I think it puts philosophical heat on many of the right places in contemporary phenomenology and naturalism, where the residue of dualism and anthropocentrism is still too thick for my post-secular taste. When I suggested in an earlier post that SR/OOO needs to unpack its theological and anthropological implications, I did so with the hopeful expectation that, were an object-oriented theology, psychology, or anthropology developed, it might provide a viable alternative to the philosophical exaggerations of Creationism and Nihilism alike.

When I refer to nihilism in the context of SR/OOO, I am thinking in particular of Ray Brassier‘s eliminative materialism. As far as Brassier is concerned, the “manifest image” of the human as an ensouled organism participating in an intrinsically meaningful world should be replaced by the “scientific image” of the human as a biological machine competing for survival in an uncaring material universe. Brassier’s nihilism has several main characteristics: 1) it denies the cognitive role of myth, imagination, and intuition in human consciousness, since 2) it asserts that truth is available to scientific rationality alone, and 3) it asserts the contingency of thought for matter, and matter’s priority to thought.

I’ve written on the relation between Mythos and Logos, or story and science, before. I agree with Donna Haraway, when she writes in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. (1997), that “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44). Myth provides the cognitive and imaginal condition necessary for the emergence of logic and empiricism. You cannot think about ideas until after you’ve contemplated the gods; this is true in terms of both the collective history of our species and the development of an individual. Haraway makes the case that, without the Christian mythos as its cultural background, the Scientific Revolution never would have happened. The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser makes a similar case in his magnum opus The Ever-Present Origin. Gebser offers an archeology of human consciousness, depicting the emergence of de-mythologized rationality (beginning with Plato, and ending, perhaps, with Hegel) as a necessary, but not sufficient phase in the evolution of consciousness. Somehow, consciousness must find a way to integrate each phase of its own evolution (Gebser distinguishes 4: archaic, magic, mythic, and mental), or face annihilation.

Bryant says he is unable to understand why one might assume SR/OOO has anything to do with nihilism, since an flat ontology doesn’t mean humans can’t still relate ethically and meaningfully with one another.

Despite the fact that humans are on equal ontological footing with other beings, this in no way leads to the disappearance of values and goals for human beings. We still value things. We still set goals for ourselves. We still evaluate things about ourselves, the world around us, society, and other people in terms of these goals, and so on. Why would all of this suddenly disappear?

I don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology, but it all depends on how we do the flattening. Alan Watts wasn’t exactly a systematic philosopher (he usually preferred to refer to himself as a spiritual entertainer), but he did articulate his own flavor of a flat ontology, wherein every object is essentially God in disguise:

God is not the maker and architect of the universe but the actor of it, and is playing all the parts at once, and this connects up with the idea of each one of us as persons, because a person is a mask, from the Latin persona, the mask worn by the actors in Greco-Roman drama… And, so, imagine a situation in which you have the best of all possible actors, namely God, and the best of all possible audiences ready to be taken in and convinced that it’s real, namely God, and that you are all many, many masks which the basic consciousness, the basic mind of the universe, is assuming. To use a verse from G. K. Chesterton:

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

 It is like the mask of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, a multiple mask which illustrates the fact that the one who looks out of my eyes and out of everyone’s eyes is the same center.
I think Watts’ sense that everything is God pretending not to be God is similar to what I want to say about the Anthropos, which is not to be simply identified with Homo sapiens, but is rather a cosmic principle at work to shape the becoming of every actual entity. I take the speculative risk of suggesting that the evolution of the Cosmos is influenced by divine lures, the Anthropos being among the most pre-eminent of all such lures, or archetypes, with a taste for actualization. I’ve been influenced  here both by Carl Jung’s modern interpretation of Alchemy and Hermeticism, and Whitehead’s process theology.

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

I think Whitehead was struggling to secularize theology, such that science and religion–the study of nature and the worship of divinity–could mutually enhance one another, rather than being placed in irremediable conflict on either side of a universe bifurcated between Nature and Spirit. Bryant questions whether any good evidence exists for believing in God, but it seems that he is imagining a God who issues decrees and determines the future course of the universe in advance. Whitehead’s God has no such power, but rather is alike in kind to all other actual entities. God is with the world, not above it. God does not guarantee anything but the possibility of relevant and meaningful experience to every actual occasion. It is up to each actual occasion to decide upon its future based on its own subjective ends. There is little scientific evidence for the existence of a transcendent, law imposing God like the one Bryant is critiquing (I say “little” evidence only because of the way some physicists remain rutted in a non-historical paradigm that conceives of physical laws as arbitrarily imposed upon nature from beyond nature); but from Whitehead’s panentheistic perspective, the evidence for God is aesthetic and moral, not just scientific. That there is a Cosmos at all, rather than chaos, is evidence of Beauty’s participation in bringing the cosmic democracy of objects into (a still evolutionary and open-ended!) harmonization. That human beings are capable of struggling for Justice (even if it remains largely an ideal imperfectly realized) is evidence that God’s infinite love for each and every entity is ingredient in our more limited experience of entities. And finally, that human beings are capable of doing metaphysics and philosophy so as to reveal the inner workings of reality is evidence that a deeper Intelligence is involved in bringing forth both the knower and the known.

Last month, Bryant articulated what he calls a “wilderness ontology.” I’m very sympathetic to the idea that humans not be given special status, and would like to extend it into new terrain. I can’t fully unpack its implications at the moment, but what of the possibility of a “wilderness theology,” wherein God is considered as a metaphysical scheme’s chief exemplar, rather than its ultimate explanation or unique exception? Whitehead’s God, immanent and responsive to the creative decisions of each and every other actual entity, is a good starting place for the development of such a wilderness theology. Theology doesn’t necessarily require inserting some vertical scale of values into the universe, such that humans rank higher than animals and animals rank higher than plants in some Great Chain of Being. From the perspective of a panentheism (or cosmotheandrism) like Whitehead’s, values are neither horizontally constructed by human society nor vertically imposed by divine will; his theology is an attempt to upset this neat dichotomy between nihilism and deism so that the Being of God’s mind manifests itself here and now in the twists and turns of the forest path of Becoming.

“Here Comes Everything” Speculative Realism Panel summary (via Knowledge-Ecology)

Adam Robbert has written a nice summary of the panel discussion last week (4/8) on Speculative Realism. I’ve pasted it below. For the audio from the event, click HERE.

Here are a few reflections on last Fridays event “Here Comes Everything: An Introduction to Speculative Realism.” Video of the event will be posted later today (hopefully!).

The evening was split roughly into two halves with three presentations on each side of a short break. The first three, as you shall see, focused heavily on the Latour-OOO branch of Speculative Realism, with the second half focusing on Buddhist dialogues with Speculative Realism as well as excellent treatments of the work of Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux.

The evening started off with Sam Mickey and myself (Adam Robbert) recounting our own version of “The History of Access” a little piece riffing on the many facets of the post-Kantian scene in philosophy. Fortunately for everyone, Sam is one of those people who can summarize a book in three words, an auspicious asset considering that we gave ourselves only 25 minutes to explain the major philosophical insights gained since the late 18th century.

Correlationism is of course the centerpiece of any attempt to introduce Speculative Realism to those unfamiliar with the disparate and divergent movement. Charting the history of philosophy, Sam took us through the multiple adumbrations of correlationism including German idealism, phenomenology, deconstruction, analytic philosophy and their assorted subgenres, showing how correlationist thinking has left anti-realist and anti-metaphysical philosophies in its wake.

My own task in this introduction was somewhat easier and focused on the relevant strands of philosophy that, in their own way, had continued a tradition of speculation, ontology and metaphysics despite their increasing unpopularity throughout 20th century philosophy.

Where Sam articulated post-Kantian prohibitions against speculation, I focused on those figures that I felt had admirably maintained an avid love of speculation. William James seemed an obvious choice, as it was he who had such an impact on both Whitehead and Latour. There is something about James’ phrase “everything is ever not quite” that I felt captured so well both the desire to articulate an ontological position, and the inevitable failure of any attempt at complete metaphysical description. James in this way anticipates central figures to speculative realism.

Where Whitehead sought to systematize James’ ontological pluralism, and Latour so adequately applied both the Jamesian notion of radical empiricism and the Whiteheadian metaphysical love of process, one could also read into James’ “ever not quite” a hint of what Heidegger would later articulate as the withdrawn nature of the tool- a position that, as anyone familiar with OOO knows, would become a cornerstone of Harman’s articulation of the ontology of objects.

Though the connection between James and Heidegger is perhaps not canonical in any recognized philosophical sense, the tie between the “withdrawn” and the “ever not quite” seems to situate both thinkers in a way that makes both the phenomenological background of Heidegger and the psychology of James as important precursors to at least the OOO branch of Speculative Realism. Of course, “ever not quite” and “totally withdrawn,” are phrases from different traditions with notable distinctions; nevertheless an evasive ontological quality is present in both.

Whether or not Speculative Realism is still a term that can be used to describe the work of people as diverse as Ray Brassier and Graham Harman is a matter of contention. Our own group seemed ambivalent about the distinction, but it seemed clear that OOO and Speculative Realism, though historically related, are growing further apart.

Our introduction rounded out with further reflections on the use of speculative philosophy in connection with other movements in thought that occurred during the 20thcentury. In addition to the psychology of James and the cosmology of Whitehead, we also noted the contributions of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stenger’s with regards to the “Parliament of Things” and the “Cosmopolitics,” respectively. Donna Haraway’s work in feminism, science studies and her work on companion species were also noted. Haraway seems to be the figure most rooted in both the 20th century critical continental scene drawing on the likes of Foucault, as well as exhibiting a strong connection to Whitehead’s own speculative philosophy (on a side note, her capacity to hold these distinct positions is one of the reasons she is such a hero of mine).

That Stengers and Haraway were both central to the Claremont conference “Metaphysics and Things,” which was attended by three of the six panel members at our event was noteworthy as well. Haraway and Stengers are not, strictly speaking, members of the original four speculative realists (which most now know consisted of Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman and Ian Hamilton Grant), nevertheless their ongoing contributions to philosophy, anthropology and science studies make them central figures in the ongoing need to articulate not only new ontologies, but also new political and ethical systems of practice in relation to the work of metaphysics. One of the recurring themes and questions at our Friday event centralized ethics, the problem of evil and practice. There seemed to be an air of question as to whether the potency with which Speculative Realism has approached ontology has left it vulnerable, at least at this stage in the game, to political, ethical and moral criticisms (are we forsaking crucial considerations vis-à-vis praxis in the rush return to metaphysics?) Important questions abound here.

Our brief introduction was followed by the work of doctoral student Elizabeth McAnally, whose recent return from India gave her presentation a concrete and direct feel for us all to engage with the value of speculative realism in general, and with the philosophy of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman in particular. Having written her MA thesis on Latour, her ability to describe the value of actor-network theory with confidence and ease was apparent. The Ganges River in India, her particular site of study, afforded everyone with the opportunity to explore just what an object-oriented philosophy could perform in terms of on the ground research. The Ganges is a goddess, a river, a sewage canal and much more. That religion, politics and ecology are intertwined with the river goes without saying, the problem lies in allying these disparate perspectives into a kind of “water democracy” that adequately situates each perspective. Latour’s notion of “irreduction” was particularly prescient here as it becomes easy to see that any mode of abstraction (be it religious, scientific or political) has the capacity to reduce the Ganges to a particular set of relations, something that both Latour and Harman provide robust grounds for arguing against. Elizabeth’s presentation highlighted the value of Latour’s work in terms of religious, ecological and political praxis.

Next, Sam Mickey was given the floor once again to explore “The Astonishing Depths of Things,” a philosophical exegesis that opened us into the philosophical roots of Graham Harman’s philosophy. Mickey, once a devout Heideggerian, explained how through reading Latour he was able to break the Heideggerian circle and return to “the things themselves” through both Latour’s critique of Heidegger in We Have Never Been Modernand Latour’s political musings in The Politics of Nature. Anyone familiar with Harman will note Sam’s historical kinship with him. As a student of the works of Heidegger, and then of Latour, Sam was uniquely positioned to understand Harman’s position perhaps better than any of us. A simple synthesis of Heidegger and Latour was not, however, Sam’s highlight. In my opinion, Sam was at his strongest when articulating a “philosophy of touch” as both an integral philosophy (from the etymology of “integral” meaning “untouched”) and an object-oriented philosophy following, for example, Whitehead scholar Roland Faber’s comments at the Claremont conference that Harman’s is also a “philosophy of touch.” Drawing on Harman’s concepts of vicarious causation and allure, Sam argued that all objects are both always already touching every other object in the universe and are always withdrawn from all relations, planting him firmly in Harmanian grounds. I am definitely looking forward to see how the project of touch unfolds in both integral and object-oriented philosophical modes.

I will abstain from producing an account of my own talk for the panel as I have already posted the paper I delivered for the event HERE. My own notions of an ecological realism and a fourfold research method are nascent, but suffice to say that they at least seemed well received.

Shifting gears in the second half (after food and some wine), Aaron Weiss, doctoral student in the Asian Comparative Studies department regaled us with an account of both Buddhist cosmology and Harman’s chapter in Circus Philosophicus entitled “The Ferris Wheel.” Aaron is another one of those rare scholars that is as funny as he is deep. Starting with a description of the god-king Indra’s jeweled net –in which each faceted gem is connected to an infinite amount of other gems strung together through an n-dimensional array of threads- Aaron invited questions that could be considered alongside of Harman’s own accounts of objects as they rotate above and below ground, traveling as they do upon a gigantic Ferris wheel. Praxis was also a central theme of Aaron’s talk. We had heard about touch, we had heard about actors, objects and networks, but what are the practices associated with these ontological musings, asked Aaron. As a practitioner and scholar of Buddhism, practices are central to both Aaron’s studies in general and to his reading of integral philosophy in particular. The “Latourian Litanies” –those lists of cheetahs, leprechauns and patriot missiles for which Latour is so famous (and from which Harman seems to have learned so much) are for Aaron, modes of mindfulness where one can consider the interconnections of disparate things. Aaron’s talk seemed to me a call not just philosophize, but also to consider philosophy alongside non-philosophical modes of practice, to which philosophy (being that it cannot be its own self-contained island) must remain in relation to.

Thus far in the evening a disproportionate amount of attention had been paid to the likes of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman, so much so that I had a creeping feeling of anxiety that we should have named this event “Introduction to Object-Oriented Philosophies” rather than the more general title “Introduction to Speculative Realism.” It was true that we had centered Quentin Meillassoux’s work and his term “correlationism” in the introduction (and again in a brief recap after the break for those folks who had arrived late). Sam had also on more than one occasion invited us to explore and try out not just nihilism, but Ray Brassier’s more sophisticated  “transcendental nihilism.” Nevertheless with four out of six presentations complete, the original speculative realist crew seemed ill represented. Our final two presenters, however, would serve to help remedy this imbalance as both Dr. Jacob Sherman and philosophy doctoral student Matt Segall would take us through the works of both Quentin Meillassoux and Iain Hamilton Grant, respectively.

Matt Segall’s ambitious presentation sought to argue the well taken point that, although speculative realism may be new in name, the mode of philosophizing advocated by speculative realists is as old is Plato (Segall’s blog, named FOOTNOTES2PLATO after Whitehead’s famous comments about the history of philosophy being “footnotes to Plato” gives you a sense that returning to Plato is a common practice for this young philosopher). Working through three central texts: Kant’s Critique of Judgment,Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, and Plato’s Timaeus, Segall sought to justify and explore the insight of Iain Hamilton Grant’s own contributions to Speculative Realism in Nature after Schelling. Aside from all the heavy philosophizing, Segall has a background in cognitive science and biology, which gives him the unique power to move between philosophical and scientific discourse in a manner unfair for someone of his age. Alongside of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, one finds Segall’s talks peppered with references to geology, evolutionary theory and in particular, a love of the work of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson. “There will never be a Newton of the grass blade,” remarked Segall, echoing Kant’s famous phrase. For Segall, following in Grant’s footsteps, correlationism is overcome by a reversal of the Kantian position that ‘all of existence must be grounded in the mind.’ No such thing is necessary, argues Segall. Rather, the earth itself is the transcendental ground that anchors consciousness and not the reverse. Segall’s tagline could have been “no earth, no geology” a quick phrase that demonstrates the thesis that were there no earth prior to mind, no experience as such would be possible by any human. In this way Segall persuasively argued for Grant’s “geocentric realism,” and that questions of the “thing in itself” need also consider that “the thing itself thinks!” In other words, for Segall and for Grant, there is more to the phenomenal realm which renders it immune to any simple distinction from the noumenal, as the two can be seen to act concordantly in all living things, with our without human mediation.

After repeated criticisms of correlationism from the prior presentations, our keynote speaker Dr. Jacob Sherman’s presentation returned our attention to the origin of the problem of correlationism in modern philosophy, including insightful overviews of the philosophies that led up to Kant’s Copernican turn (including Locke, Berkeley, and Hume).  Focusing on After Finitude, Sherman introduced the penetrating arguments and refreshing style that have helped Meillassoux gain a wide readership.  Honoring the elements of “participatory realism” in Meillassoux’s response to the problem of correlationism, Sherman called for “two cheers for Meillassoux.”  Instead of offering a third cheer, Sherman raised some critical concerns about Meillassoux’s mathematical understanding of real (primary) qualities.

In an odd turn of events, Sherman opened his talk with the verse of Wordsworth, but perhaps this was not so strange when considering some of Meillassoux’s choice words inAfter Finitude. Meillassoux’s “great outdoors,” or “absolute outside,” that aspect of the world to which no human correlate need correspond, is for Sherman a central component of the original Romantic project. Sherman traced the original coinage of the phrase “the great outdoors” to Keats in 1819. The Romantics, Sherman noted, were not concerned with producing mathematical descriptions of primary qualities “outside” of human experience, but rather sought explicitly to explore the sensible qualities that pervaded, with a strange uncannyness, not just the great outdoors, but also, to quote Sherman’s phrase “the great indoors.” For Sherman, Meillassoux has offered just critiques of correlationism in general and of Romanticism in particular, critiques that should and must be heeded by the continuation of any Romantic project.

It is better to watch Sherman so carefully take us through his arguments than it is for me to try and reproduce them here as I can do them no justice, however, Sherman’s final remarks are noteworthy. Meillassoux, who is so eager to a think a world apart from the mind, to consider the arche-fossil as a serious challenge to any honest correlationist position, and who wants, and may have succeeded, in producing a mathematical proof of existence before manifestation, still leaves Sherman wanting. If we are thinking qualities, and not maths, does this not imply that we are also thinking interiority, asked Sherman. And if so, are not the sensual relations, qualities and stories what we want to break free from the correlation? Sherman ended with a challenge for us to thinkqualities non-anthropocentrically.

During the Q&A that followed, it was mentioned that Harman’s metaphysics provides ways of discussing real qualities without mathematicizing them.  The rest of the brief Q&A touched on a variety of big topics for speculative realism, including beauty, time, and the future of philosophy.

The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method: newyorker.com

The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method: newyorker.com.

This is a big blow to big science. Apparently, the scientific method, with all its supposed statistical objectivity, is not as good at proving facts as you think. Is this just some sort of confirmation bias inherent to the process of publishing research findings, or is there some deeper Sheldrakian effect which results from creating new morphic fields around experimental procedures, such that the decline in statistically relevant data as the experiment is repeated is a result of a natural movement toward informational entropy? In other words, maybe nature responds to the novelty producing perturbations of experimental conditions by seeking equilibrium.

Or.

Though it is not a matter of opinion but of fact that “nature” is predictable enough for a man-made device like my phone to send information across the world instantaneously at the tap of my finger on a glass screen with better resolution than my retina, knowing HOW and WHERE is not the same as knowing WHAT or WHY. Technology (which includes not just all instrumental, but all predictive and experimental science) is a kind of knowledge based upon the simplification of living complexity into a formal mechanism/algorithm, so that, at least to some degree, “nature” can be predicted and so controlled. Donna Haraway calls this technoscience, and I think it is the supreme authority of this highly industrialized and monetized form of knowledge production that has been called into question by the decline effect. Technoscience knows nothing of What “nature” is or “Why,” and so after a few hundred years of this form of science “for profit” the earth’s species and ecosystems have been pushed into a mass extinction and a new geological era has been initiated. Anyone who doubts the power of the “objectivity” of science need only consider what has taken place on the surface of this planet, and on other planets, in the past centuy alone.

When it comes to theoretical science, or what I’d call speculative philosophy, which deals with the What and the Why, we are in much more open waters. Metaphysics (in the specific sense, like in Whitehead’s Process and Reality or Bergson’s Creative Evolution, not in Barnes and Noble) is concerned with truth, technoscience is concerned with power.

The Copernican Revolution is a theoretical advancement that has had real technological application, but to say that there is no next step that completely re-orients the relation of the observer to the surrounding universe ignores what the relativistic and quantum revolutions have revealed to us about space-time and matter-energy. Its not that heliocentrism is “wrong,” nor even that geocentrism is “wrong.” Both are true enough when considered within the framework they were meant to describe. But what makes science so exciting for me is that our consciousness still hasn’t caught up with the 20th century revelations about the fundamentally non-mechanical nature of “nature.”

No, not the scientific method but the worship of technoscience (disinterested science co-opted by the profit motives of industry) is largely responsible for the ecological crisis. I was saying that the scientific method is obviously effective since it has allowed human civilization to almost entirely encompass the biosphere within a technosphere. And the other planets I was referring to were those upon which scientists have landed probes. Science is “objective” in some important sense, or these technologies would not be possible. I put “objective” in parantheses because the knowledge which has allowed us to do all this is more practical than theoretical. We are still struggling to adapt our practices to the theoretical knowledge that the universe is essentially a complex living whole and not a collection of mechanical parts.

As regards geocentrism, what say you about the omnicentric universe that observation and theory both suggest we live within? No, the earth is not the center of the solar system, but since space-time appears to be unbounded, it is meaningless to say any planet exists “on the periphery” of the universe. If the circumference is nowhere, the center is everywhere. This idea, in part, is what got Bruno burnt at the stake in 1600 (not his heliocentrism).

The Whitehead Research Project to feature Isabelle Stengers

I’m going to listen to Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway speak at Claremont Graduate University tomorrow! For more information, I’ve posted a link to a new collaborative blog called “The New Knowledge Ecology” that I’m contributing to:

http://thenewknowledgecology.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/the-whitehead-research-project-features-isabelle-stengers-cgu/