Shopping at the black box store

by CarlD

Continuing the topic of the last post on how to write and place an article: Even though Graham’s original post bugged me when I first read it, and I’d been chewing on it in the back of my mind ever since, it still took writing, finishing and posting my response, then having it in mind while I read and wrote some other things, for me to figure out what was bugging me. It’s this: Graham is right about all of it; and I wish he wasn’t.

Graham’s post describes the world of publication in the nth turning of the post-Gutenberg/Martin Luther revolution. Just as the Pope said, easy publication combined with freedom of individual conscience was a recipe for disintegration, a long slide into personal idiosyncracy and facile partisanship. A billion infallible Popes with a billion personal Jesuses. (I’m collapsing a complex and contradictory history. Nor was there a prior golden age of intellectual harmony – see Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms.) And Graham says, jump on in! I’m ventilating my personal take on stuff every chance I get, and so can you!

Well that’s nice, and it certainly makes for a lively variety of intellectual products to choose from. Not that it’s obvious why we would read any of them, since our own opinions are sovereign; but it’s fun to have other kids in the sandbox with us and to pick at our small differences. No surprise that the reading culture consists largely of self-confirmation and superficial rejection. You can write like this all you want: nobody’s going to read you if you don’t serve some purpose of momentary affirmation or strategic demonization. In fact you’ll get read that way whether that’s how you write or not.

Graham’s a very smart man. He understands this all the way, and has drawn the pragmatically right conclusions. He has no illusions that he’s writing for a universal audience — he’s part of a community of like minds, people who have been trained to request his brand by name at the supermarket of ideas; anything beyond that is reception serendipitity, an impulse buy. He doesn’t waste time with unsympathetic readers or ones whose premises are distant enough to require significant labors of translation. He’s selling toasters, if you want lampshades that’s not his department.

In his new book (I’m holding out for the final version, this pre-pub snippet is courtesy of Frames/Sing) Graham calls the object-products of our intellection “black boxes,” as I understand it not just in reference to a culture of thin and idiosyncratic reading but to a more final sealing and receding of objects from each other:

Black boxes face two primary and opposite dangers: too much attention from other actants, or too little. When a black box receives too little attention, it is simply ignored. This is actually the fate of most of the objects in the world. We are surrounded by trillions of actants at any given moment, and overlook the vast majority of useless flies and beetles that swarm amidst our more treasured objects. Most patents are for inventions that never catch on in the marketplace, or are never even built. Most novels and scholarly articles go entirely unread: not criticized, but simply overlooked. Black boxes go nowhere if they fail to become obligatory points of passage for other entities. The second danger for black boxes is the opposite one—that of gaining too much interest in the form of skepticism and scrutiny. (Prince of Networks, unpublished PDF, 45)

This is an interesting metaphor to me, because in my dissertation I used it to characterize marxist approaches to revolutionary consciousness and suggested that its darkness contributed to enabling some pretty serious errors and atrocities. Perhaps a more transparent and reflective sort of thinking (not to mention a more glassy set of metaphors) might have contributed to a more humane revolutionary practice?

There’s nothing like gulags or cultural revolutions at stake in Graham’s work, but he accepts as a fact things about how we think and relate to each other I’d prefer to keep problematic. More to the point here, Graham identifies the central dilemma of highly-enabled personal expression: when everyone gets their say on whatever grounds they happen upon (which are then hidden inside a black box), the market is flooded with product and reception becomes a permanent clearance sale.

Of course we can let the market take care of this. Crap will find its pricepoint. But I can’t help thinking about the anxiety created by the inflation of publication requirements for academic employment in this environment (publish or perish), or the time, money and headspace I’ve wasted reading well-marketed crap pumped into the void of substantive standards described by Graham in his post. Don’t be anxious, he says, you can just pump out some crap! Which responds kindly to the first problem at the expense of the second.

I do think Graham describes a kind of occasional writing that’s much better suited to the blog medium than to formal publication. There should be a place for flapping our gums. But somewhere between that and brutal exclusionary dogmatism there has to be a place for thorough work according to standards; standards with some power to enforce quality even at the expense of quantity, and therefore standards that have some power to compel serious people’s attention, so that their products “become obligatory points of passage for other entities.”

I note in posting that kvond has just now made some similar points in a comment on the last post.

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35 Responses to “Shopping at the black box store”

  1. All thoughts that I concur with. Ultimately what might be at stake when you say, “but he accepts as a fact things about how we think and relate to each other I’d prefer to keep problematic,” is Enlightement values themselves. When one does away with causal explanation, undermining it in a variety of tropes and inventive frameworks, is it not that our very ability to “keep as problematic” is also undermined? The notion of “the problem” as concept seems conditioned by our very idea of what constitutes and answer, or a path to an answer.

    While I actually cheer critiques of the Enlightenment, the notable ways that they clear away ground for thoughts that we just couldn’t see coming, the unexpected creativity of authentic description and framework, the way that we stay critical towards our world is by orienting ourselves to the very notion of problem and solution.

    It seems to me that as we address the pramatic difficulties of our condition, we must simultaneously take the temperature of our values, and in some form of dialetic oscillation continually check the one against the other, like the hand to the eye, and then back. Do we really want to be making “that” (whatever that might be)? It is a question not always answered in the negative. It often becomes the occasion for a great affirmation.

  2. Carl,

    I wonder if you aren’t being a bit unfair here. Graham’s book is on Latour. When Latour evokes the concept of black boxes it isn’t to celebrating this hiddenness of what’s in these black boxes, but precisely to open the black boxes. A class is a black box, for example. The problem with speaking of classes isn’t that they don’t exist, but because all of the other actors upon which the classes are dependent– individual people, technologies, networks of communication, etc. –become invisible and we work with this simplified abstract object, doing all manner of very terrible things to the very actors within the black box. This is why Latour gets on everyone’s nerves. He’s always opening black boxes. Where ideologues suffering from scientism want to treat scientific results in publications as science itself, Latour is always opening these black boxes, going back to the laboratory where it was produced, the intrigues between various scientists, the role that politics and institutions played, the indecision and decisions that took place, etc. The point is not to undermine the scientific results, but to show the complex networks out of which they emerge and where other possibilities might be available. In short, it seems to me that Graham would be very sympathetic to what you say here. Moreover, this is why, in my ontology– very different from Graham’s, but nonetheless sympathetic to his realism –I speak of split-objects. The split in objects is designed to capture this complexity that lies hidden the facade of objects or the manner in which they belong to complex networked relations that are always in interaction with other objects. Or maybe I’ve just entirely misunderstood your post.

  3. I would just add that I see the recent turn towards realism as partially motivated by the defense of critique you seem to support in this post. When everything has been reduced to a construction or representation, critique is no longer possible because, as Kvond points out, we can’t even evoke causes. One discourse is treated as being as good as another. I think we see this in a superior sort of attitude found in many Continentalists (and I say this because in the past I have myself been this way). I can recall in my Heideggerian years, nearly two decades ago now, looking down at science because it hadn’t engaged in the proper ontological analysis to warrant its claims. In my Lacanian days I would look down on all neuroscience, drug treatments, and other forms of therapy as being driven by ideological illusions that don’t know the truth of desire, the signifier, and the subject. What was going on here, I think, was an a priori dismissal of other disciplines as dogmatic, allowing one to occupy a position of immunity with respect to the findings of these disciplines, thereby allowing one to maintain cherished beliefs at all costs. This attitude is rife in Continental thought, where it seems to be assumed that Continentalists have some secret superior knowledge, either of the history of philosophy, textuality, representation, etc., that allows them to exclude and legislate without having to even look at what it is that they’re critiquing.

  4. Levi, I think you’re exaggerating vis-a-vis “Continentalists” – so-called Analytic tradition is full of such claims to superiority in method, hell, any science is full of arrogant my-method-is-the-best jerks, I don’t see why you need to repeatedly claim that this is somehow a uniquely Continental philosophical problem (essentially belonging to a Continental tradition)? One may argue that there are certain tendencies in the so-called Continental tradition, but even then I am not sure how one would go about doing it? A questionnaire? A poll? A collection of personal impressions by former “Continentalists” (Continentalists Anonymous?)

  5. Levi,

    I’m not entirely sure that the purpose of calling black boxes “Black Boxes” is so we can open them. It also, as an ontological position suggests that as philosophers that is all that we can really do, build black boxes, and sell them, with their lids closed. I think the way that Graham speaks of Black Boxes in the quote reveals this, but also in his affirmation of the Ideal sort of Actor, The Politician:

    “Call them legion, for they are many. Imperialism was a chain of
    raggedy forces, in equal parts spiritual, intellectual, and economic. The same kind of motleycolored
    force is unleashed by politicians, and Latour is among the few present-day
    philosophers who admires politicians rather than sneering at their venal compromises: “It
    takes something like courage to admit that we will never do better than a politician….
    [Others] simply have somewhere to hide when they have made their mistakes. They can go
    back and try again. Only the politician is limited to a single shot and has to shoot in public.”21
    And again: “What we despise as political ‘mediocrity’ is simply the collection of
    compromises that we force politicians to make on our behalf.”22 The politician forever
    balances information, funding, threats, kindness, politeness, loyalty, disloyalty, and the
    perpetual search for ways and means. In this respect, the politician is the model for every
    kind of actor. To declare oneself untainted by strife between conflicting forces is to deny,
    impossibly, that one is an actant. (PDF, Prince of Networks, 22).

    When Graham mixes in Bruno to give something of a historic feel (he may meaning something more than this, but this is the way he seems to advise it), we somehow get the sense that the “Politician” in the worst sense of the word is in effect, or…the salesman. I made a similar comparison with Graham proposity to find the “shock value” of an ideal as somehow a sign of its merit. For instance he cannot readily conceive that Heidegger could not possibily have thought that cotton balls have a Dasein of their own, for what would have kept him silent, given how much attention he would have received if he had made the claim. No doubt this comes at a time when “shock value” is a “good thing”, and not for instance when shock value got you hung. The market place of ideas. I nice place to be.

    It seems that we are talking about the difference between Socrates and the Sophists again. But I’m not sure that I want our philosophers aiming at being politicians, building black boxes, and keeping them as black as they can.

    I’ll grant that some of Object-Realism is headed towards concrete stuff like causes, but when Graham proposes that in order to get to such a thing we have to posit objects which recess forever from their qualities and accept an account of causation which is rather vaguely a metaphorization process, are we really going there?

  6. Thanks Levi, I read Latour that way too and I’ll keep my mind open on Graham. I am well aware that the Graham simulacrum I’m working with is barely a caricature. But that’s why we need to have these Erasmian conversations, to get what we think sorted out.

    Mikhail, no doubt. But following Kvond here let’s say ‘Continentalism’ is another of these black boxes we’re talking about. In terms of recruitment it’s not unlike a religion, or a gang, so the ‘allure’ is largely that of a special knowledge or belonging. No doubt tarring the whole motley crew with the same brush misses lots of differences and nuances, but isn’t that invited by whatever solidarity constitutes the group? So then you’re right, every group has its priests / recruiters / marketers.

    Levi, the next question for me is this: have you now finally gotten over joining gangs, or are you just recruiting for a new one?

  7. Hi Mikhail,

    I don’t think the issue here is one of opinions of individual persons, but is rather internal to the history of Continental philosophy from the 19th century on. On the one hand, there was the reaction of the Romantics and the manner in which they downgraded science and mathematics in favor of Spirit. On the other hand, we need only look to Heidegger’s denigration of science and mathematics throughout his work, treating it as a sort of distortion of Dasein’s authentic relationship to being. Further, there is the Frankfurt school critique of instrumental reason. Finally, among the French the assault on identity and the valorization of difference led to a deep suspicion of science and mathematics, suspecting that both areas are metaphysics (in the negative sense) writ large. All of these tendencies are deeply entrenched within Continental thought. However, in addition to all of this, one need only look at the bulletins for the major Continental conferences, the articles published in Continental journals, or the books published by Continental presses. In all of these cases there is almost a complete absence of philosophical discussions revolving around findings in contemporary philosophy and mathematics. Imagine a science fiction scenario where our society collapses and somehow the only remaining texts from our time are phenomenological, postmodern, and Frankfurt school texts. Would archeologists, many centuries from now, be able to infer, from these texts, the massive shifts in our understanding of nature coming from neurology, physics, biology, chemistry, etc? I suspect not. From the vast majority of contemporary Continental texts you get the sense that these things haven’t occurred at all as they’re almost entirely absent from discussion. I think this is a problem.

    Carl, interesting question. I think all entities enlist other entities in order to continue their being. Trees, for example, enlist photons of light, molecules of carbon dioxide, minerals, water, etc. Philosophers are no different in this respect. However, that said, I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a part of a particular group or movement. Philosophically I share little in common with Graham, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, or Meillassoux, beyond a commitment to realism and a hostility towards any form of idealism. Eventually, among the realists, I think we’ll witness strong and bitter debates among rival ontologies. The situation right now is not unlike that at the beginning of the Enlightenment where very different thinkers were loosely aligned against the pedantry of scholasticism and its fetishism for texts and the history of philosophy, and where there was a strong desire to directly discuss the issues and observe the world without first passing through the minutia of Aristotle and the various church fathers. Nonetheless, these thinkers ended up developing distinct positions and schools that were wildly at odds with one another.

  8. Not to be too difficult, but I have to say that at least by my understanding of the Enlightenment philosophies, this does not at all describe either their guiding motivations or their argumentative processes:

    Levi wrote: “The situation right now is not unlike that at the beginning of the Enlightenment where very different thinkers were loosely aligned against the pedantry of scholasticism and its fetishism for texts and the history of philosophy, and where there was a strong desire to directly discuss the issues and observe the world without first passing through the minutia of Aristotle and the various church fathers.”

    If you take Descartes his thinking was not really aligned with many against the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, but rather was focused upon the convincing power of the new mechanistic models of science, while wanting to avoid the very real personal and political problem of the Catholic Inquisition. And Spinoza, the next generation’s great Englightenment philosopher, though committed to non-dogmatic theorizing, provided a synthetic solution to scholastic debates, not renouncing them altogether, employing distinctly Aristotlean principles in the process. He really was not joining up with Descartes and others against a common past enemy, but rather was pushing Descartes’ new philosophy as far as he could take it. If anything Enlightenment philosophy was really in reaction to the rise of experimental sciences, entrenched within a Natural philosophy approach to the world, and the decreased or at least shifting power of various political powers of Church and the transfer of wealth to a non-noble merchant class. Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz were all concerned with matters of optics to varying degrees, so if we are to make a comparison, maybe Dennett’s connection to AI research or Varela’s concern with life modeling make a better match. I think the idea that SR (or the multiply referenced and so called Object-Oriented Philosophy) represents any kind of tectonic Enlightenment movement is more than a bit of a stretch. (Or, if merely the claim, “We are against pendantry, like the Enlightenment thinkers” at bit trite when made in the shadow of Analytic Philosophy). Are we really to believe that Levi and the other four horsemen are our modern day Malebranche, Leibniz, Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza in some significant way?

    If anything, it strikes me that the prediction of infighting within the school is much more in the vein of Medieval Scholasticism, the way that an abstraction within a local intellectual terrain becomes the basis of internal self-justified position taking. As I’ve mentioned before, the idea of the SR folks having a debate between the Eliminativists and Non-Eliminitivist “wings” is not all exciting, and almost sounds like a promotion for a WBC world event. All this talk of getting back to concrete reality and concrete explanation has to turn to one solid thing in my opinion, and that is a powerful and convincing explanation of “cause”. Somehow I don’t really get the sense in these “Object” oriented philosophies that they are concerned with directly “observing” the world (which science does a pretty good job of), but rather more with their categories and distinctions. Is Graham really attempting to “directly observe the world” when he tells us about inner sensous vicars? Is Levi when he tells us about the difference between assemblages and the Hegemonic Fallacy? Is Meillassoux when he tells us about the hyper-chaos? All very interesting things, but the idea that suddenly the pedantic, terminology-laden glasses have been torn off does not seem to apply.

    I’m not saying that there is no room, or even needs for such framework changes or intra-school debates. Of course there are. But I frankly am a little mystified by the claims to great shifts in approach. Of course every movement wants to grant itself importance (is SR or Object Oriented Philosophy really a movement?), and then perhaps there will be many thinkers who want to insert themselves into that very importance, but other than publishing papers and writing (selling) books, what really is the point? I’m missing the point of conviction. I understood the point of Englightenment philosophies. People’s lives were determined by ideological fights over things such as “does the substance of the bread really change into the body of Christ”, or Could the Dutch Republic really govern itself without Royal Stability? The consequences of the world were immediately at stake. It seems that philosophy is at a very different place, perhaps in the same way that poetry is in a very different place than when Milton penned his verses on Heaven and Hell.

  9. Kvond, your criticism of my remark is highly curious. I did not suggest that discontent with the pedantry was the only or main motivating force behind the Enlightenment, only that it was a force operative in the Enlightenment. Disdain for the textualism and pedantry of the scholastics is speckled throughout the works of various Enlightenment thinkers.

  10. Levi: “Kvond, your criticism of my remark is highly curious. I did not suggest that discontent with the pedantry was the only or main motivating force behind the Enlightenment, only that it was a force operative in the Enlightenment. Disdain for the textualism and pedantry of the scholastics is speckled throughout the works of various Enlightenment thinkers.”

    Kvond: Granted, you over-simplified the Enlightenment in order to draw a favorable comparison between yourselves as a group and a tidal Intellectual movement in history, and I over-simplified your simplification to some degree. That being said, I find the comparison, if made to a feature that was not even a “main motivating force” of a movement itself a bit suspect, and almost rhetorical (which isn’t to say it can’t be made).

    But it is more than this, I actually find something rather Scholastic in the framework of the “wing” to “wing” debates that are being prophesied. The supposed connection to the sciences, to real objects, to concrete existence that Object-Oriented philosophy is supposed to embody, I simply don’t see. All in all, it seems to me that, like the Scholastics, these arising positions are actually born of the University and College system of soon-to-be or existing professionals which largely form their audience members, the clergy of post-modern intellectual development. The discourse of Scholastism was conditioned by the institutional needs and circumstances of the Church. I am yet unsure how the discourse of Object-Oriented Philosophy is anything different from the same. Perhaps it is very different, (is limited blogged debate among the clergy a significant difference of process and result? Perhaps.) but I just can’t see it right now.

    I do see that there is a refusal to fetishize the text (Enlightenment thinkers don’t rely citations of the Bible and Realists don’t cite Phenomenology of Spirit), and that makes some point of comparison, but nearly all the ideas presented are not new conceptions, but refigurations of ideas already presented in the said texts, where Graham presents a New and Improved, easier to understand Heidegger-Latour-Husserl mash-up, and perhaps you give us the Deleuze-Bateson-Latour remix. Are these fresh beats really what they say they are, a return to the Real World?

  11. Well again, I did not “simplify” the Enlightenment but drew attention to one aspect of the Enlightenment. It would be absurd to reduce any historical event to such unilateral causality.

    I do see that there is a refusal to fetishize the text (Enlightenment thinkers don’t rely citations of the Bible and Realists don’t cite Phenomenology of Spirit), and that makes some point of comparison, but nearly all the ideas presented are not new conceptions, but refigurations of ideas already presented in the said texts, where Graham presents a New and Improved, easier to understand Heidegger-Latour-Husserl mash-up, and perhaps you give us the Deleuze-Bateson-Latour remix. Are these fresh beats really what they say they are, a return to the Real World?

    First, I don’t know that the aim is to arrive at the “new”. Rather positions are being taken with respect to a set of philosophical questions. However, that said, it looks like we have very different conceptions of just how the new is arrived at. You seem to think of it as something that is unprecedented in the history of thought. That might occur on occasion, but I think more often than not the new is more like Frankenstein. The monster’s body in Frankenstein is composed of nothing new, but rather the parts of other humans. Nonetheless, the creature is new as a result of these combinations. Suggesting that the new must be unprecedented without any lineage would be a bit like suggesting that Van Gogh’s sunflowers are not new because the colors he uses can be found elsewhere in art and in nature.

  12. I suppose I can just say that there is a vast difference between a thinker telling me that their thought is radically “new” or original, and a bunch of other people who have no affiliation with the said thought saying, “Hey, that is really new!”

    So, if Van Gogh kept tugging on my shirt and saying, “You want to see my really new style” as much as I would have been at a loss for it, I probably would have skipped the viewing. And when Graham strains to find ways to “shock” people, admittedly it seems for the attention it gets the theory, forgive me but I am a jaded Late-Capitalist consumer, “new” doesn’t cut it. When someone claims how new their thought is I suspect that their motivations in inventing it are not the same as mine would be in reading it.

    Now once past the advertisements, and you look at a thing straight on, you see right away how startling (or disturbing) Van Gogh’s flowers are, or how frightening or soulful Frankenstein’s monster is. But if it strikes you at none of these, one is left wanting. It one thing to sew a bunch of body parts together, and quite another to have it walk, think and terrorize. Its one thing to use the same pigments as another painter, another to show the world as powerfully, and coherently different.

    Perhaps as you diagnos to your compatriot towards Real Objects, there is a tremendous upheaval going on, a dangerous newness is everywhere, the center does not hold, attacks are thrown from every quarter,

    “I think the reaction you’re getting is a symptom of the fact that you’re hitting something very real and dangerous at the heart of contemporary Continental thought as it’s practiced. The reactions that produces are unpleasant, but nonetheless indicate you’re moving in the right direction.”

    But I simply don’t see it. Could I be the blind one? Sure. Could Continental philosophy be in the process of being remade right before our eyes, sure. And truly you might be one of the harbinger minds to bring this about. I do not deny it, and if it is so I truly wish you the most success, for the non-Scholastic values you seem to be forwarding, albeit in Scholastic ways, are surely of interest to all.

    It all sounds cool.

  13. All I mean when I say Graham is hitting something real in Continental philosophy is that he’s hitting the reigning doxa that realism has been deposed and the other doxa that philosophy can only be done through the history of philosophy or commentary on other texts.

    As for myself, I don’t know that I’ve ever claimed to be doing something new. Rather, what I’m doing right now is the result of no longer being able to stand the sort of cognitive dissonance I was suffering with respect to how I used to do theory. I simply couldn’t reconcile trying to fit everything into the pegs of Lacan, Deleuze, Hegel, or whatever the thinker of the month was for me, and a number of other issues I was trying to think about. As a result, I was led to try to formulate the basic principles that organize how I think about the world. This attempt is, of course, deeply influenced by a variety of thinkers that have influenced me: Lucretius, Spinoza, Leibniz, Badiou, Lacan, Freud, Hegel, Deleuze, Latour, Whitehead, autopoietic theory, systems theory, biology, developmental systems theory, Luhmann, and a whole host of others too numerous to name. When I express frustration with Continental scholasticism, I’m simply expressing frustration with the command that before saying anything about any issue at all we must first engage in some hermeneutic exercise providing lengthy textual commentary on some figure in the history of philosophy or by working through the history of philosophy. The thesis seems to be that questions and problems can only ever be approached indirectly through the history of philosophy.

  14. Levi: “As for myself, I don’t know that I’ve ever claimed to be doing something new. Rather, what I’m doing right now is the result of no longer being able to stand the sort of cognitive dissonance I was suffering with respect to how I used to do theory.”

    Kvond: Very, very cool.

  15. Allow me a bit of self-indulgence. When I read about Levi’s cognitive dissonance, I think about something I just wrote on Anthro-L in an old-fashioned, Samuel Johnson, kick-a-rock vein.

    —–

    On Fri, Mar 6, 2009 at 11:34 PM, .dan. wrote:

    In humans the cultural can in many cases be dominant as to final mix and outcomes. In many ways leslie whites dictum that the proper study of humans is culture not biology still is valid.

    Again I might ask, what does “valid” mean here? A more interesting question might be the one implicit in Clifford Geertz’ criticism of what he calls the onion model of culture, in which there is a biological core, surrounded by layers of individual psychology, society, and culture, the assumption being that you can peel off the layers and examine them separately. What if the onion is just an onion, all the way down?

    Or, from another perspective, what if we step back, review the history of the field and realize that these categories represent attempts to establish distinct domains for academic disciplines that would be called biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, as the modern university system evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries? So that, while there may be something we might call a human reality, the relationship of these disciplines to it is like that of the blind men to the elephant, with us all looking at different pieces of the beast.

    Perhaps it’s time to reconsider and begin by giving up our obsessions with disciplinary boundaries and start with the fact of human behavioral variation which is both extremely diverse and, if we stop to think about it, highly constrained. To be crude about it, given the structure of the human body, there are only so many ways to stand, sit, eat, shit and engage in sexual contact. Two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, one head, ten fingers, ten toes, different types of genitalia, these are given, too, in all undamaged specimens. The colors we see with eyes alone are limited by the way the eyes and brain work, sounds by the way our ears work, tastes and fragrances by the ways our tongues and noses work. All human languages embody the amazing ability to say an infinite number of things; but, at the end of the day, they all work within a limited range of sounds and turn out to be translatable into one another.

    Is language special? Sure it is.
    Is a backbone special? Sure it is.
    Is a spinal chord special? Sure it is.
    Are organisms with more than one cell something special? Sure they are.
    Is DNA special? Sure it is.

    Why can’t you say DNA, therefore multicellular organisms? The range of variation is too wide.
    Why can’t you say multicellular organism, therefore a spinal chord? The range of variation is too wide.
    Why can’t you say spinal chord, therefore, a backbone? The range of variation is too wide.
    Why can’t you say a backbone, therefore language, the variation is too wide.

    Does any of that say that DNA, multicellular organisms, spinal chords, and backbones have nothing to do with what it is to be human? Not all all. These are all part of the total package, as is being human to what it is to be Chinese, Javanese, Nuer, Moroccan or a Brit, or an individual with one or more of these backgrounds.

    Me, I’ll stick with Clyde Kluckhohn.

    In some respects every human is like all other humans.
    In other respects every human is like some other humans.
    In still other respects every human is a unique individual.

    The interesting questions all have to do with how this happens. There are lots of interesting ideas out there. Sticking only with the ones that fit conveniently into boxes called biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology. That is so….. yesterday.

  16. Very cool indeed. I’m really interested in this discussion. Levi, I don’t know a lot of people with this kind of effective self-reflection. I agree about hitting doxa (I think of Brother Jorge’s “sublime recapitulation”); and I agree about creative reconfiguration as the source of what we call ‘originality’. I’m mindful of Wittgenstein’s private language problem, as Kvond and I discussed at his place. I’m enough of a burkean conservative now to think that the thing we try to make from scratch will indeed be a monster, lacking all the effective articulation born of long historical elaboration and refinement.

    Been watching the first several episodes of The Wire, kvond, and liking them, so I’ll need to reread these comments more carefully when I’ve slept and processed.

  17. Carl,

    Glad to know that you are enjoying The Wire. When watching it I had something of the Latourian feeling of Black Boxes, the specific way that there are only specific tunnels into that Black Box, narrow burrowings of a way in. The first Season especially gave me that feeling, how thin and ephemeral, and poorly connected “the other side” was. In this sense, I find the Black Box metaphor somehow of concerning interest. But in other distinct ways, in arguments that grow into the idea that there are ONLY black boxes, or only works in Black Box fasihion, and one must be good at building black boxes to get ahead with your theory, this is not only something I don’t believe, but something I find limiting.

    And yes, I do think that the Private Language Argument has some bearing here.

  18. Brief thoughts on The Wire: yes about black boxes. In a sense it’s reminding me of The X Files in that “the truth is out there” sort of way, but what’s (thankfully) missing is the grand conspiracy theory where someone in particular has the truth. Instead, we’re shown little bits and pieces of a larger picture and each of them makes sense to themselves and us in a very local kind of way; but they’re largely opaque to each other, sort of ballistic objects that orbit in and out of each others’ spaces. I get the sense after four episodes that the characters who seem most likely to have it all figured out (or who think they do) are going to turn out to be the most thoroughly in play of forces beyond their control.

  19. Carl,

    Beautiful description about ballistic objects in orbit, and I would never have thought of the X-files (which I dreaded), but the comparison is quite apt. It is a like a real-world, gritty X-files, where nothing, and no-one is conspiring (or everyone is, Latour’s actors). It fact, the “system” IS, whatever that might mean. But between all these gears, are living men, women and children, whole lives. It is the oddest creation. I look forward to your future comments on your experiences.

    I’ve watched the first season for the second time now (and it played pretty well).

  20. John, I think you’ve expressed nicely the different standard that’s been lurking around my last few posts. As usual I agree with you. The problem is that once we take the discipline out of discipline, and with it the leverage of content closure and methodological convention, in principle only omniscience is adequate and the fallback is a sort of modest handyman ethic where those “lots of interesting ideas” end up being tools for whatever the current project is. That’s where I am.

    Rorty tried to run this line on the philosophers and they wouldn’t have it. There’s no grandeur in it, too much grungy detail. Philosophers are always driven by an omniscience standard but that’s always out of reach. So the game philosophers play is to find ways to abstract from detail such that cognitively manageable universalities simulating omniscience are possible. Latour, the old anthropologist who’s now doing his fieldwork among the philosophers, is trying to show them a way to generalize that allows particularities and their more-or-less contingent assemblages to be the focus. I don’t think he’s going to get far with that; the philosophical worldview, always only one step from theology, is fundamentally at odds with that project.

  21. Carl: “Latour, the old anthropologist who’s now doing his fieldwork among the philosophers, is trying to show them a way to generalize that allows particularities and their more-or-less contingent assemblages to be the focus. I don’t think he’s going to get far with that; the philosophical worldview, always only one step from theology, is fundamentally at odds with that project.”

    Kvond: With this I agree, though in reading Latour’s recent essay on the Facsimile and the Original I could really FEEL how much he loves the particulars, the “objects”, the “actors”. He goes on for about 8 pages on the entire process of digital transfer, a length of description that actually plays into his later philosophical point. When compared with someone like Graham who says he talks about objects, and uses an examaple of something like “When a mosquito hits a semi-truck” you really get a sense of who it is that is REALLY interested in objects.

    But the abstractions of philosophy, and their relative rigor have a very powerful effect. Wittgenstein talks almost about nothing (in content, games, dogs, patches of color), and yet changes the course of Western history (like him or hate him). What philosophy is good at is getting you to see the entire world, all of its connections, differently. When you absorb its metaphors and analogies and find them efficacious, suddenly everything makes different sense. Edges appear where you only thought you saw flat surfaces.

  22. Carl* “The problem is that once we take the discipline out of discipline, and with it the leverage of content closure and methodological convention, in principle only omniscience is adequate and the fallback is a sort of modest handyman ethic where those “lots of interesting ideas” end up being tools for whatever the current project is.”

    Allow me to ask the pragmatist’s question: only omniscience is adequate for what? Can’t a project be a grand one without requiring omniscience? To this long-time science fiction reader and member of the Planetary Society, mining the asteroid belt or sending a ship to Alpha Centauri both sound pretty grand. A cure for cancer or a welfare state with a strong social safety net and opportunities for all combined with enough elbow room to let entrepreneurs do their thing: those sound pretty grand, too. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the omniscience that some philosophers seek is an adolescent fantasy.

    Have I mentioned here before that memorable passage in The Birth of the Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals where Nietzsche compares the scientist and the metaphysician to two men watching Salome perform the dance of the seven veils? The scientist is content to be fascinated as one veil after another is lifted. The metaphysician is the boor who is shouting, “Take it all off, now!”

    Still, I also appreciate the force of Kvond’s appreciation of philosophy: “Edges appear where you only thought you saw flat surfaces.” While after my B.A. I shifted from philosophy to anthropology, I do not for a moment regret my training in philosophy. To be able to step back and see one’s current project in the light of great conversations that have been going on for thousands of years and to be able to see how some ideas pop up over and over again in so many different contexts is a hugely valuable skill in a world where trying to keep up with any particular field is like standing in front of a fire hose and trying to track the trajectory of one particular drop of water.

  23. John M.: “Allow me to ask the pragmatist’s question: only omniscience is adequate for what? Can’t a project be a grand one without requiring omniscience?”

    Kvond: If I might venture my own answer to this, there is something implicit in the philosophical answer, even the philsophical answer that Rorty provides, and it is this: “Even you, in your difference of history and perspective, if you listen to what I say and discuss it with me thoroughly, can see what I see, and will agree with me”. What begins, or comes from this kernel of what it means to communicate about the frameworks for agreements unfortunately when experienced as too powerful, too obvious, too plain (as when Kantians talk to each other, or Hegelians, or Deleuzians, or Spinozists), when the glasses are pressed so closely to our face that we lose track of the frames and lenses, it is then that we get the sense of omniscience in a bad way, we lose the ability to imagine that things might be different than what seems clear. But communicated perspectives and the nature of coherent agreement itself implies this very potential for omniscience I think. The grandeur that is possible in philosophical answer toggles between the magic of a world appearing suddenly anew, and the systematic and pragmatic work of making real connections between real persons and events in the world, under the auspices of our agreements.

  24. Kvond writes, ” But communicated perspectives and the nature of coherent agreement itself implies this very potential for omniscience I think.”

    Sorry, I don’t follow this at all. Partial agreement? Sure. Enough to get on with a common project? Sure. Enough to get on with a project that involves looking at something from a radically new perspective? Sure. But omniscience, knowing all there is to know. Not being God, you know.

    Which reminds me, has anyone here but me read Stanley Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism?

  25. John,

    The potential for omniscience is merely the potentia to be read as omniscientient, not for having omniscience. It is the impression that if projected forward in the very act of agreement, the potential to forget perspective. For the very moment when you ask your friend, “Is it raining outside?” and he says, “Just look at me!” pointing to his soaked clothes, having just come in, in that moment omniscience hovers. You and your friend are not partially agreeing, you are fully coming into contact without shadow. Omniscient to purpose, given depth by another. The pragmatic triangualtion between world, you and he subsumes a fullness of purpose and knowledge…at least that is my opinion.

    There are a hundred different Continental ways to cut at and chop this impressional yet constituted omniscience of immanent action in theoretical views, but all of them in their moments of agreement carry it forwards.

  26. Here I can only say that the choice of words seems unnecessarily misleading or, if there is some technical meaning to “potential for omniscience,” I simply don’t know it. Hate to go all commonsensical on you, but I find it hard to imagine how my recognizing that my friend’s clothes are soaked and that is pointing to them in response to my “Is it raining outside?” suggests anything more than it is, indeed, raining outside. Full agreement on this point does not, to me, indicate omniscience. If it does to you, then we are in the sort of situation parodied by Terry Eagleton.

    “If we are discussing patriarchy, by which you mean a system of social domination in which men are superior to women and I mean a small town in upstate New York, we are not having a political discussion.”

    Here the matter is philosophical instead of political, but the absence of common ground is the same.

  27. John, I should add that words such as “omniscience” involve a complex of ideas, and very often when people argue about or discuss these kinds of things they often find themselves talking past each other.

  28. Ha, it seems I added an addendum what was your very point you were posting. Yes, we mean differnt things. But in order to understand the “grandeur” of philosophy you will have to accept the constitutive and historical “illusion” of omniscience (let’s just say it is an illusion, a bewitchment) which is productively capable of seizing hold of diverse projects, through its very illusion. Hegel’s concept of the movement of the Spirit is able to invade and inform any number of projects, orient any number of real project sciences, because it had the illusion of universiality. It was its engine. Does that mean that Hegel was omniscient, not by a long shot. But his thinking had a kind of constitutive omniscience, the ability to circumscribe and inform all descriptions with either a designation or a categorical prescription. The same goes for Derrida’s notions of trace, or Wittgenstein’s Language Games, etc. etc., etc.

    I think of course the key to the beauty of philosophy is that it often can point to the philosophies we already, if unconsciously subscribe to, and raise in them doubt. But this is done through the power of the illusion of universal application, the illusion of omniscience even when omniscience is being denied, left as a kind of Negative Theology.

  29. John, I’ve not read Cavell but I found him on google books. Looks great – thanks for the reference. What was the specific connection you had in mind? (And thanks too for the awesome Eagleton joke.)

    Kvond, I can’t imagine (limits of intuition) a better explanation and promotion of the philosophical project, although both Levi and Graham have produced pretty good ones in response to this and previous versions of this challenge. To me what you’re talking about is ‘seeing otherwise’, or what I’ve called ‘thinking with/through the Other’ as a way to escape our own limitations. I’m really all for that.

    When I engage with others, though, I believe I’m doing something more concrete and instantly productive than engaging with my own speculative imagination: adding concretely to my capacity to think otherwise. In fact, Mead would say that my imagination (just like all my thinking) is itself the product of internalized relations with others which I then creatively reconfigure. This would be the source of the imagined omniscience you’re talking about, and its real limitations are to be found in the real limitations of our interactive histories. We just cannot think outside of the scope of our relations and their possible reconfigurations. I think of teaching, therefore, as a process of bringing students into relation with as much ‘other’ as possible in the context of giving them tools to think otherwise; while taking from them that many more perspectives to work with in our own thinking.

    You are right that “[t]here are a hundred different Continental ways to cut at and chop this impressional yet constituted omniscience of immanent action in theoretical views.” Each has its advantages as a lens. Those of us who study history, society and culture know that the hundreds of invented tribalisms of this or that branch of philosophy are nothing compared to the manifold of real human ways of engaging with and making sense of the world. I don’t want to get tribal myself, but it just seems to me that the retreat into the imagination can be in a sense a failure of imagination, a rejection of real perspectival complexity in favor of the known and manageable contents of our own noggins.

    To me philosophy works best as a training exercise. Just diving into relational diversity will get you a well-stocked conceptual tool-chest, but if you don’t know how to build anything with all those tools they’ll just sit in the shed. So we start with ‘thought experiments’ to get the muscles we’ve got limbered up (if I was writing this fur ewig I’d clean up these mixed metaphors). The larger pretensions of philosophy, that grandeur it has, come from the larger range of motion these stretching exercises enable, but to stay with stretching without ever getting up, moving around and doing stuff seems to me like a mistake.

  30. Kvond, I’m intrigued by what you call the “potential to forget perspective.” I’m wondering if this is the point on which our seesaw in this discussion is balancing. There’s no sense in which I think forgetting perspective is a good idea. To me, becoming fully aware of all knowledge’s roots in perspective is the gateway to wisdom (leading eventually, I suppose, to the nirvana of complete extinction of selfish perspective in the manifold).

  31. Carl: “To me what you’re talking about is ’seeing otherwise’, or what I’ve called ‘thinking with/through the Other’ as a way to escape our own limitations. I’m really all for that.”

    Kvond: Yes, this is how I see it too, but the “Other” is not the category of abstraction that Continental philosophy would like to make of it (at least I don’t feel that this is the best conceptualization). It is others, other persona and things which reveal how the world constitutively is through our ability to combine with them and affectively share/project experiences.

    I know that you have sympathy for Wittgenstein’s Private Langauge Argument, but I don’t know what kind of threshold you have for Analytical discussion, but you really might appreciate what Donald Davidson does with it in his essay “Three Varieties of Knowledge”, making knowledge historically contingent, but objectively available. I posted a photocopy of the essay which I imagine is the only online access to it if you or your readers are interested. It is a very elegantly written piece with great consequence:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/10/08/davidsons-three-varieties-of-knowledge/

    Carl: “When I engage with others, though, I believe I’m doing something more concrete and instantly productive than engaging with my own speculative imagination: adding concretely to my capacity to think otherwise. In fact, Mead would say that my imagination (just like all my thinking) is itself the product of internalized relations with others which I then creatively reconfigure.”

    Kvond: Completely so. It is really for this reason that I have my greatest love for Spinoza. Instead of talking about objects, he really is talking about bodies, all of which are affectively rich with experience and expression. All of our acts, even the acts of the imagination, are physical acts, and when we combine, project, communicate with other persons (and things) this is a bodily combination, as absolutely concrete as possible. When we combine with others we become more powerful entities, there is real ontological change in us.

    Carl: “We just cannot think outside of the scope of our relations and their possible reconfigurations. I think of teaching, therefore, as a process of bringing students into relation with as much ‘other’ as possible in the context of giving them tools to think otherwise; while taking from them that many more perspectives to work with in our own thinking.”

    Kvond: I like this. What comes to mind for me, not to make this a Spinoza sing-along, is the notion that what we should aim for is an increase in the number of ways we can affect or be affected. There is an odd kind of double-action in such an increase. As one multiplies the number of ways one can and does connect, this center of increase also implies that we are ever less that center itself, but spread through and in what we are connected to.

    Carl: “The larger pretensions of philosophy, that grandeur it has, come from the larger range of motion these stretching exercises enable, but to stay with stretching without ever getting up, moving around and doing stuff seems to me like a mistake.”

    Kvond: I too agree, and it is for this reason that I take up a philosophy (or philosophies) that insist on the actionablity of thought, the materiality of mental configuration, and really the political implicit force in even abstract ideas. What comes with concrete interaction is the creativity that comes with impasses, and the imposed requirement that we extend ourselves into other things. That we manufacture truth.

    Carl: “I’m intrigued by what you call the “potential to forget perspective.” I’m wondering if this is the point on which our seesaw in this discussion is balancing. There’s no sense in which I think forgetting perspective is a good idea. To me, becoming fully aware of all knowledge’s roots in perspective is the gateway to wisdom (leading eventually, I suppose, to the nirvana of complete extinction of selfish perspective in the manifold).”

    Kvond: I don’t know, there are really phases in thought processes rather than one ideal place to stand (I believe). For instance, is there ever a time when a painter should forget the perspective, to simply emerge themselves into their creative actions, to let the material and their techniques and their hand speak? There would be no painting without this “forgetting” of perspective. And philosophy too has its painterly dimension.

    Also, there is regularly a “forgetting of perspective” that occurs when we communicate with others over aspects of the world, the way in which the world powerfully appears clear, like I said, when it is clear to each of us it is raining. That I might have a different historical experience of “rain” than you simply isn’t germane (though it could become so). When a blind man inhabits his cane to sense the world directly, must he always maintain the perspective “I am but a man, and that is but a cane,” or is there a very real and constitutive sense in which the man literally is the cane? The forgetting of perspective is the vanishing of barriers that are presumed fundamental. Unlike for someone like the Heideggerian Graham, for me when the hammer is working in my hand, there is no opacity, but rather a degree of power, a degree of power that comes from a change in perspective due to a kind of perspective.

    I would agree that there is a nirvana-like experience when one realizes that the more one enhances the determinations of one oneself, the more one realizes that one is not the perspective one thought one was, if I can put it that way.

  32. Carl said, “John, I’ve not read Cavell but I found him on google books. Looks great – thanks for the reference. What was the specific connection you had in mind?”

    In one section of Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome Cavell constructs two metaphors for pursuing knowledge. In the first, more usual, one the question for knowledge is likened to climbing a mountain. There may be many possible routes; but there is only one peak, one absolute Truth toward which everyone strives. In the other, we see individuals following tracks across a plain; some run parallel, some intersect, but there is no guarantee that they will converge at a common destination. Cavell then goes on to observe that when the pursuit of knowledge is likened to mountain-climbing teachers are assumed to be higher up the mountain than their students and in a position to tell their students what to do. If, however, the pursuit of knowledge is following tracks across a plain, teacher and student stand on an equal footing. One has been where the other has not; but the same is true vice-versa. In this situation the teacher can only say, “This is me, this is where I’ve been, there may be something you can use here.” The teacher can serve as a model but no longer claim authority from being higher up the mountain.

    P.S. I will shortly leave for the airport en route to San Diego for my second International Network of Social Network Analysts (INSNA) Sunbelt Conference, where I will be presenting some of my research on the networks that connect members of winning teams in a major Tokyo Ad Contest. That will consume the week, after which I have to fly on to Virginia to renew my driver’s license. Renewed it last time on line, so I have to appear in person for this round. Anyway, what this all means is that how much I will be on line for the next ten days is dicey. Bear with me if I don’t respond as quickly as usual.

  33. P.P.S. One of the things I most like about Terry Eagleton is the with which he makes telling points. In another example he is talking about the circumstances in which we understanding a statement as ideologically motivated and contrasts the obviously ideological proposition that Prince Charles is a fine specimen of British manhood with the straightforward, factual claim that Prince Andrew has the brains of a chipmunk.

    Now I am off to the airport.

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