“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Philosophy, society, politics and the decline of America

Jason/Immanence Transcendence brought my attention to this critique of Graham Harman‘s Object-Oriented Ontology. The critique, written by Alexander Galloway, complains that OOO’s lack of a political dimension makes it a nonstarter as a groundwork for philosophizing in public. In today’s global context, where neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have collided (and colluded) to bring Starbucks to Baghdad, I’d agree with Galloway that “a philosophy without a political theory is no philosophy at all.” Other thinkers associated with OOO, like Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects, have written about political questions far more extensively than Harman (which Galloway mentions), but I remain unconvinced that either Bryant’s politics or his ethical theory necessarily follow from his ontology. Bryant and I have discussed this underdetermination in the past in relation to his appropriation of Brassier’s ontology of extinction.

A rather boisterous discussion erupted among commenters beneath Galloway’s critique. Some were upset by Harman’s dismissive responses (HERE, HERE, and HERE), and took the opportunity to vent their frustration with how some in the OOO blogosphere seem unable to play nice with others. Jason made several substantive comments about moral nominalism in response to Bryant. His comments reminded me of a post made late last year on the same issue. Both are worth reading.

On a more personal note, since Tuesday I’ve been visiting my mother’s side of the family in Cincinnati, OH. I live in a bit of an political bubble in San Francisco surrounded by an eclectic mix of eco-Marxist radicals and psychedelic shamans. My trip to the post-industrial wasteland that is the tri-state area (Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky) has given me an opportunity to reflect on the sad state of American society. I visited my cousin and her two young daughters Tuesday evening and ended up talking politics and religion with her husband until 3AM. He served in Iraq with the Army for almost a year back in 2004-5. Despite his desire to continue to serve in some capacity, a knee injury prevented him from being redeployed to Iraq. His commanding officer gave him an ultimatum: suffer through the pain in combat or get the hell out of the Army. He was discharged, but not before being diagnosed by military doctors with “axis-2 PTSD.” Axis-2 is APA-speak for a form of PTSD compounded with a personality disorder of some type, which in my cousin-in-law’s case involves “sociopathic tendencies.” These tendencies were less noticeable to me this visit than they were 3 years ago (my last visit), but clearly he still hasn’t adequately re-adjusted to civilian life upon returning from war. One clue was the way he checked to see if a few Hot Pockets were cooked all the way through: pulling them out of the oven, he found the largest knife in the kitchen and preceded to forcefully disembowel them. Another clue is the room-sized armory he keeps behind lock and key upstairs.

He is certainly not an anomaly. At least 20% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with PTSD. Particularly disturbing is the fact that, among female soldiers, more than 70% develop PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted by other soldiers. I suggested to my cousin-in-law that the prevalence of PTSD is no surprise, since even before stepping foot in a war zone, basic training is in large part designed to prepare recruits for a sociopathic situation. He preceded to describe the rules of engagement issued to every soldier on a small laminated card. Basically, no one is to be trusted: even innocent looking women and children could have bombs strapped to them or have been instructed to shield shooters in public areas. Soldiers must be ready to kill anyone at any moment.

Our conversation drifted to domestic politics by way of my outrage over defense spending (if you include the “police actions” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, defense accounts for more than half of all government spending). My cousin-in-law is rather conservative, though I have a feeling his political opinions come straight out of the mouth of a hand full of AM radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. For the most part, he is against anything and everything the big bad “government” wants to do, aside from build bombs and wage wars. I brought up the ecological crisis as something states, corporations, and individuals cannot respond to adequately without some sort of top-down influence from government. He was willing to admit that the EPA should regulate some forms of pollution, but he doesn’t think human beings are capable of changing the climate of the whole planet or driving other species into extinction. That scientific consensus considers climate change and mass extinction to be plain as day facts verified by empirical data hardly matters, since such scientists are just part of a vast liberal conspiracy to destroy the American dream and take over the world.

Needless to say, I was frustrated by the content of our conversation, even though the form was cordial enough. It’s made me realize that political discourse is way messier than most ontologies let on. I think the panexperiential process ontology I’ve been trying to develop on this blog with help from Schelling and Whitehead certainly has political implications [see Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s recent post on panpsychism and politics], but how am I to justify these implications to someone who could care less about the abstract forms of reasoning characteristic of metaphysics? What do the negative determinations of the understanding or the constitutive relationality of finite actual occasions have to do with securing a job and raising a family? Blue collar Americans are more skeptical of the intellectual classes than ever before. I think Rick Santorum was basically correct when he said that a college education leads to liberalism. Unfortunately, college is too expensive for most blue collar students, and anyways, liberalism rests upon some Enlightenment assumptions about Reason and its relationship to Nature that make absolutely no sense to me philosophically. Indeed, these assumptions seem to be causally related to the social and ecological ills of our civilization. I just don’t know if we have another 300 years to wait for today’s subversive ontologies to trickle down into our legal and political discourse.

I think the philosophically-inclined political activist’s best bet is something like what Bruno Latour is doing with “political art.” As Schelling argued long ago, art is the eternal organon of philosophy, since only it is capable of making reason sensuous and mythology rational.


12 responses to “Philosophy, society, politics and the decline of America”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills

    Thanks for the kind words, Matt.

    I never grew up in an “enclave” of any sort, and I am always fascinated by those who have spent most if not all of their lives in a “liberal enclave,” since they seem like exotic animals to me. I used to tease my colleagues from coastal Oregon that they were from “Planet Oregonia.”

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I grew up in a very liberal area in South Florida populated mostly by upper middle class Jews transplanted from Long Island (like my dad).

      Something far stranger than liberalism is emerging in San Francisco, though of course there are still plenty of bougie greens trying to put a smile on capitalism. In the subcultures I hang around with, some kind of hybridization between shamanism, Marxism, anarchism, and eco-spirituality is attempting to articulate itself. It remains to be seen if any enduring political movement will emerge out of this New Age mess, but strangeness is a sign of hope, so far as I’m concerned. I don’t think the solutions to our world’s geo-political problems will be easily recognizable to our current mindset.

      1. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        Being from a military family, I grew up in three places: Izmir, Turkey; Fayetteville, NC, and Solon, ME, all of which are three very different places. I have never lived in a liberal mecca, and the closest I’ve come is going to college in Rochester, NY. Otherwise, I’ve been surrounded by either neutral or fervent right-wingers and conservatives of all sorts. This has distinguished me from most of my colleagues, who are almost always “born” liberals, some of whom have spent their entire lives cloistered. Honestly, some of them make it too easy for someone like me, first-generation graduate from the lower-middle class, to pick them apart in all their little hypocrisies and well-intentioned platitudes. There’s something to being a fence-jumper that gives someone perspective, but at the same time, travelling roots are not quite roots in the same sense.

  2. John Avatar

    (elephant leaves room)

  3. mary Avatar

    Matthew, one must be careful of one’s language; the War department of the United states changed the name to Department of Defense in 1948. This was to change a tired populace’s perception and usher in the military industial complex with the deceptively benign and comforting …and false….image of the military as a defensive complex, obscuring the aggression that followed and continues, with unwitting casualties such as your relatives, many of whom are suffering from the negredo of PTSD, and what I would characterize as a reaction formation of which the politics is a symptom. …of fear, of guilt, of genuine confusion covered in a hostile bravado. While against big government, there is little insight into the machinations of the big government that set them up in the first place. Why one would be vulnerable to the mindset behind the military as the sole avenue of a rite of passage does indeed raise concerns about the offerings of mainstream society, all of which Latour tackles, … and Zizek….and CIIS….Harmon, Shaviro, Hills, Robberts, Leon, ….and on and on…
    However, out of a seemingly arid exhaustive hardened ground, which you characterize temporal/spacially…geographically, more complexity generates itself, and while these people make efforts that do not make the mainstream news, for every shell-shocked veteran, there is someone beginning to meditate, or travel to a city council meeting to be a witness against mountain top removal, or to advocate for the moratorium of forclosures.
    In Kentucky for example:









    ….and her family is from Bardstown, Ky …and France….;


    so don’t lose heart,…folks are embodying the art of a changing consciousness in the every wheres.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks, Mary. This is reassuring.


    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I was over-generalizing based on my own relatives and their friends, etc. From this vantage point, I see too many unwanted, or at least unplanned pregnancies, a lot of drug addiction, and increasing poverty and joblessness. Driving around the city, I see the drastic class divisions externalized in the condition of neighborhoods. In three years, these divisions have widened rather shockingly. Politicslly, I see either apathy or self-congratulatory conservatism. This may or may not be a fair sampling of Cincinnati.

      I hope you are right about the unseen (from my admitedly narrow perspective) transformation taking place in these parts.

  4. motleycow Avatar

    Leo Strauss was a German-American political philosopher and classicist who specialized in classical political philosophy. Originally trained in the Neo-Kantian tradition with Ernst Cassirer and immersed in the work of the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Strauss later focused his research on the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle, retracing their interpretation through medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy, and encouraged application of their ideas to contemporary political theory.

    In 1952 Strauss published Persecution and the Art of Writing, commonly understood to advance the argument that some philosophers write in such a way as to avoid persecution by political or religious authorities (Plato’s public vs. private philosophy) Some of Strauss’s students have read their teacher as interested in philosophical “esotericism” aimed primarily at protecting philosophy from politics– the reasoning of which might negatively affect opinions undergirding the political order.

    Some critics of Strauss have accused him of being elitist, illiberalist and anti-democratic.Shadia Drury, in Leo Strauss and the American Right (1999), claimed that Strauss inculcated an elitist strain in American political leaders linked to imperialist militarism and neoconservatism. Smith , a student of Strauss, refutes the link between Strauss and neoconservative thought (a link that some commentators have controversially made), arguing that Strauss was never personally active in politics, never endorsed imperialism, and questioned the utility of political philosophy for the practice of politics. In particular, Strauss argued that Plato’s myth of the Philosopher king should be read as a reductio ad absurdum, and that philosophers should understand politics, not in order to influence policy but to ensure philosophy’s autonomy from politics.

    Finally, responding to charges that Strauss’s teachings fostered the neoconservative foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration, such as “unrealistic hopes for the spread of liberal democracy through military conquest,” Professor Nathan Tarcov, Director of the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago, in an article published in The American Interest asserts that Strauss as a political philosopher was essentially non-political. After an exegesis of the very limited practical political views to be gleaned from Strauss’s writings, Tarcov concludes that “Strauss can remind us of the permanent problems, but we have only ourselves to blame for our faulty solutions to the problems of today.”[

  5. motleycow Avatar

    For some example of the exoteric/esoteric distinction in Plato we need to turn to Thycidides, who tells us that the events described by the members of Plato’s Sympsium didn’t really take place. i.e Plato deliberately mislead. Also so the statement in his seventh letter “…I have never written a work of philosophy”. The date hinted at in the beginning of ‘The Symposium’ also gives a clue as to it’s mysterious nature. It’s a recollection of an event (being the symposium) that happened 2 years around the same time that Agathocles won first prize for his poetry. What happened around that time? the profonatrion of the mysteries, that scandal that implemented Socrates….

    Last but not least is the general problem regarding the socratic discourse in general. Plato was not the only one to write disources involving his master, of course. the problem is that all of the Socratic discourses present him differently. The Platonic Socrates is not the Xenophonic Socrates or the Aristophanic Socrates. Which one is real? A common denominator in all of them is that Socrates was initally a ‘natural philosopher’, and only ‘turned’ to the subject matter of politics through Plato.

    What happened? Why did Socrates turn from, say, intellectual preoccupations to problems regarding the order of the city?

  6. motleycow Avatar

    Another important point is that Socrates never left the city. All of the Socratic dialogues take place in the city and never in the domestic sphere or out in nature. Reading between the lines I’d say that you can never ‘get an insight’ from nature. For Socrates all philosophical enlightenment happens in the city.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Yes, though in Phaedrus he does actually leave the city, Socrates mentions that he usually has no interest in the countryside and only cares about the affairs of men.

  7. Poetics of Resistance: Radical Politics in the Waning Years of Capitalism « Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] Philosophy, society, politics and the decline of America (footnotes2plato.com) […]

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