You've got a nasty case of the memes there, I'm afraid.

by CarlD

At Larval Subjects Levi Bryant has just posted a ripping analysis of how memes (cultural units like hairstyles, songs and theories) work, starting with their basic aim to replicate themselves and then focusing on their development of defensive ‘immune systems’ to further that aim.

You kids stay off my lawn!

You kids stay off my lawn!

The target exemplar of memic self-defense in Levi’s post is ‘anti-realism’, roughly, the philosophical tradition holding that things only become real (to us) through our access to them in thought. His analysis of its characteristic defense strategies and their contextual elaboration through the work of trial and error is terrific. I’ve pulled Levi’s leg in the comments by turning the analysis back on his own ‘realist’, ‘object-oriented’ philosophy, reversal being another classic defense strategy that only works in this case if he has correctly identified a universal dynamic. As you know, Bob, claims made about geese apply to both gooses and ganders, which is also a good way to test them.

I know theres an argument around here somewhere.

I know there's an argument around here somewhere.

Before he gets to anti-realism, though, Levi illustrates the principles of memic self-defense by reference to religion, which sent me off on another thought. The afterlife thesis in various religions starts as a faith defense against the inconvenient but otherwise ordinary and irrefutable fact of death and our inability to see past its threshold. This fact need not bother us at all, of course – we could take life and death as they come and make the best of them. It strikes me that our access to the world only through our perceptions is another of these inconvenient but otherwise ordinary and irrefutable facts. Isn’t, then, a philosophical assertion of objects sealed from perception the same sort of defense against inconvenient facts that religious afterlives are? Couldn’t we just take our perceptions and thoughts as they come and make the best of them?

Be sure to get the sasquatch catcher for the front of your car.

Be sure to get the sasquatch catcher for the front of your car.


36 Responses to “You've got a nasty case of the memes there, I'm afraid.”

  1. I’m buried at the moment here Carl – grounded from online discussion until a bit farther along in our term… – but wanted to sneak out my window long enough to say yes :-):

    It strikes me that our access to the world only through our perceptions is another of these inconvenient but otherwise ordinary and irrefutable facts. Isn’t, then, a philosophical assertion of objects sealed from perception the same sort of defense against inconvenient facts that religious afterlives are? Couldn’t we just take our perceptions and thoughts as they come and make the best of them?

  2. Thanks NP, and it’s good to see you.

    Just remembered I had a nice conversation with Duncan at his place a while back about this sort of thing (in relation to his post about Brassier) and added a link.

  3. clutches chest: et tu brutus? of course, i’m not harman, so i’m not sure why he’s cited as a link in an argument against me.

  4. Hi Levi! Shrugs shoulders. Well, for one thing because I’m not arguing against you, I’m arguing with you. For a second, because you were the occasion but not the topic of that part of the post. For a third, because Harman (who I don’t actually cite here so much as invoke) is only the most vividly available target of a point that applies to metaphysical realists back to Plato. And for a fourth, because although you run with his pack I don’t automatically associate you with Harman and think you’re groping after something much more interesting to me than he is.

    But hey, if the shoe fits…. ;-p

  5. I was going to write a post about this, Carl, but after I tore myself away from writing it in order to participate in a (poorly attended and in all likelihood useless) protest march against the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, I found the whole subject so useless and distasteful that I couldn’t bring myself to post it. However, I have done quite a bit of writing and cut-and-pasting already, so rather than letting all that work go for naught I’m going to append it to your worthy post. You are one of the unsung heroes of this saga; now your heroism shall be sung! (Or whatever.) I’ll try putting the whole thing up at one go; if the WordPress spamcatcher thinks I’ve rambled on too long (and it will be accurate in this assessment), I’ll break it up into smaller tranches.

    * * *

    I’d been following Larval Subjects’ Immunology post-and-discussion with only moderate intensity until I got to this phrase written by Levi Bryant, the blog’s host, near the end of the discussion thread:

    “this exchange hasn’t been about the post and has thus been a rather trollish hijacking of the thread.”

    The remark is directed at Jerry the Anthropologist. It’s possible that Levi is saying that, through their joint conversation, the two of them have acted the troll together, or even that the side topic they’ve been discussing has, meme-like, hijacked both of them for its own nefarious purposes. If I were Jerry, though, I’d presume that Sinthome was accusing me of trollish behavior. In light of our recent conversations about trolls and vampires, I’m going back through the thread in more detail –it’s open on another tab in my browser, so I’ll going back and forth as I write this. I expect that this comment will be quite long, as I’m going for a fairly close reading. It’s field research of a sort.

    Levi begins his post by talking about memes. I can see how memes fit into the kind of speculative realism (SR) that Levi and Graham Harman have been putting forward, where agency and intentionality are neither privileged nor denied, but are de-privileged from the specifically human. A gene or a meme might “want” to replicate itself, just as a human advertising agency might want to replicate enthusiasm for a product within the marketplace. The case is debatable — a pop tune might become popular because the record promoters want it to get popular and because it “affords” popularity by appealing to tastes prevalent in large numbers of individuals and in the current cultural standards for the musical genre. Anyhow, in the post Levi talks about how memes immunize themselves by protecting themselves from destruction by the minds they colonize or by other memes competing for attention. His first example: faith-based religion, deployed extensively by both Dawkins and Dennett. Next Levi moves on to philosophy, beginning with solipsism and then heading to antirealism, which is the current dominant position in continental philosophy that Levi and associates are competing against. Says Sinthome:

    “When we look at how anti-realisms actually function in philosophy, the suspicion arises that the success of this particular memetic complex has less to do with the problems it solves– its solutions and arguments aren’t that convincing –than the way this form of thought functions as an antibody against other memes.”

    Levi contends that the antirealism meme successfully propagated itself because it opened up an array of interesting questions and because it protects itself from outside critique by propagating catch phrases that function as antibodies. He contends that antirealism has exhausted most of its interesting questions, and that its adversaries shouldn’t bother trying to refute it by battling its memic antibodies, which are tautological and cannot really be refuted. Levi’s advice:

    “if it is the case that anti-realism is based on a self-referential loop rather than an actual argument, perhaps the move shouldn’t be to refute it, but simply abandon it.”

    He concludes with this tantalizingly vague suggestion:

    “perhaps the time has come to adopt a different self-referential loop that doesn’t require relating everything to the human or access.”

    I.e., maybe it’s time for the SR advocates to adopt some memic strategies to propagate and immunize itself from outside attack by competing memes. Note that this isn’t a proposal to see what SR memes establish themselves as antibodies; rather, it’s a suggestion that human SR advocates consciously and strategically develop/adopt/propagate these antibodies.

    Now on to the discussion thread…

    * * *

    Bryan Klausmeyer begins his comment (#2) on the Larval Subjects’ Immunology thusly:

    “With all the rhetorical subtlety of an axe-murderer, you draw a parallel between religion and anti-realism.”

    Carl too picks up on the post’s propaganda-like undermining of antirealism in comment 4:

    “I can see how object-oriented philosophy has made great progress in fully memeticizing itself, being well along with the demonization of critics and the establishment of a closed-loop faith community that makes virtues of what outsiders see as weaknesses, such as belief in extraordinary things (e.g. inherently inaccessible shrink-wrapped objects) that are at odds with much of what we know about the world around us. As you say, this is quite normal.”

    Carl then writes his own post on the subject, linking it back to Larval Subjects. In response, Levi updates his own post, clarifying and reiterative what he deems his main substantive points. He doesn’t defend his own position from Carl’s accusations; rather, he says that it enables adherents to ask a host of new interesting questions foreclosed by antirealism. Fair enough: let’s assume Levi’s generosity of spirit here, reiterating content and avoiding direct conflict with Carl for the sake of continuing the conversation.

    Immediately following Carl’s comment on the thread is a pingback from Graham Harman’s blog, which I previously noted as comment 46 on my Sole and Sacred Fruit post. Graham commends and links to the Levi’s post, then adds this remark:

    “Note to Levi: trolls and grey vampires aren’t refuted, they’re simply abandoned.”

    By this juxtaposition isn’t Graham implying that the trolls and grey vampires are acting as operatives of the antirealism meme, as antibodies attempting to disrupt the establishment of the competing SR meme? Don’t engage them in conversation because, Zamalek implies, doing so only strengthens the opposition by engaging the fight on grounds that can’t really be refuted and that will do no good in propagating the new SR idea.

    Next Levi responds to Bryan’s “axe murderer” remark. “I can see why this might be cause for alarm,” Levi begins. He then points out that he has previously acknowledged the memic immunological benefit of his tautological “ontic principle” that defines a real thing as a “difference that makes a difference”:

    “So it’s not a point of saying “anti-realism is like religion and realism is not.”

    Very good. Levi then continues this response by elaborating further on meme theory, defending himself against a form of reductionism in which all cultural transmission is memic. Again, fair enough.

    Carl comes back in at position 8 in the thread, asking Levi to clarify a point, which he does in comment 11:

    “What I am providing is a critique of the call to ground one’s position. Rhetorically the call to ground one’s position functions as a way of immunizing against the emergence of any other positions or strategies of investigation.”

    Here Levi reiterates his claim that a good philosophy is one that is useful in opening up new and interesting questions to pose, not in providing definitive and foundational answers. (Again, I’m presuming to understand what “ground” means here.) Levi then contends that questioning the grounds on which someone stakes a theoretical claim is a memic self-protection strategy of a particular kind of philosophy rather than a call for an answer.

    “In other words, the sort of self-referential loops that underlie these questions are based on a sort of rhetorical trick that allows the questioner to always situate the person they’re questioning within their framework. It’s like a move in chess that allows you to win every time.”

    Levi made this contention earlier in the thread, so he must regard it as important: antirealism premises its appeal on claims to the groundedness of its answers; speculative realism, on its ability to ask new questions. If you always lose at chess, start playing a different game. Levi elaborates on the game-playing maneuvers that both sides can play, then points to the desirability of pointing out the gamesmanship in hopes of getting down to business:

    “Hopefully the virtuous result would be that such tricks are abandoned altogether and we proceed philosophically in a way that does not attempt to straight-jacket others within a particular way of posing questions, but instead respects the manner in which self-referential loops allow for the unfolding of a particular strategy of inquiry that might yield valuable and unforeseen insights as it proceeds. You might thus say that the strategy of this post is therapeutic.”

    Again, that seems fair enough. SR is a different game; its participants get to decide its own rules without making them conform to those established in some other game. Antirealism and SR aren’t poles on a dichotomous dialectic; they’re separate undertakings.

    Carl comes back into the scene at comment #8 and #12. In his response at #13Levi reiterates his opinion that the human-centered Correlation of antihumanism isn’t a particularly difficult position to grasp, but that it assumes an aggressively defensive stance in argumentation. Now he says that antirealism’s central meme isn’t actually a winning chess move at all, but that it’s “dressed up” as one, “allowing academics to preserve their crypto-humanism and piety.” Heretofore in discussion Levi has been taking a self-aware, even therapeutic stance relative to the memic battles; now he’s impugning the motives of those who cooperate with the antirealistic meme’s propagation.

    Also in comment 13 Levi asserts that “no one today is a Kantian,” from which the reader is led to infer that Kantianism is passé. In the post itself, noting antirealism’s success in propagating itself, Levi says this:

    “This is especially surprising given that no one outside of philosophy and the social sciences advocates anti-realism, and, indeed, anti-realists themselves do not behave as anti-realists when not engaging in philosophy.

    We get the clear sense here that antirealism ought to be abandoned because its popularity has waned, it’s isolated from the mainstream, and its advocates are self-deluded.

    Now, at position 14 on the thread, Jerry the Anthropologist makes his first appearance with a two-sentence comment:

    If you are looking for a decent notion of cultural selection, may I suggest Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture. I know of no reputable anthropologist who takes this idea of memes seriously.

    I know nothing of Ruth Benedict, but the second sentence sounds aggressive. In the context that Levi has already established, though, it’s not unprecedented on this thread. Levi responds:

    “Thanks for the reference, Jerry. This post isn’t about memes but about the philosophical issues I discuss throughout it. That said, I really don’t get the hostility to the meme thesis. If anthropologists simply reject the idea out of hand, I’m inclined to say so much the worse for anthropology.”

    The post sure seemed to be about memes, at least in part, and the ways in which schools of philosophy deploy memes to promote and protect themselves. “I really don’t get the hostility” — again, the hostility is evident, but it’s also a return of serve, a push-back against the same sort of hostility Levi previously leveled against antirealism. “If anthropologists simply reject the idea out of hand…” — obviousy Jerry said no such thing, any more than Levi said that everyone outside of philosophy and the social sciences rejected antiphilosophy out of hand. This rhetorical move strikes me as the sort of device a shock jock might invoke to make his adversary look foolish, rocking him back on his heels and provoking him into defensive argumentation. Levi continues his response by contending that memes offer certain advantages over the structuralism in which he was trained, then he extends to the antimeme position a criticism he’d leveled earlier against antirealists:

    “All I can figure is that the hostility arises from some sort of residual precious humanism in the humanities and the social sciences…”

    Jerry retorts by contending that memes aren’t of much use ethnographically to anthropologists, contending that structuralism still has a lot of useful life left in it. Then Jerry delivers an ad hominem, guilt-by-association charge of his own:

    “The big proponants of using memes have been evolutionary psychologists. So another problem, largely psuedo-science in that folks too often just postulate evolution and make up shaggy dog stories…”

    Next, occupying position #17 in the comment queue, Frances Maddeson adds fuel to the fire:

    Everyone knows Anthropology as a discipline is in near fatal crisis having been bought lock, stock and barrel by the Pentagon (half a billion appropriated was it?). Memes would totally undermine the “experts’” ability to advise the U.S. military and get paid. Nothing personal, Jerry but Anthropology is defiling in lockstep behind the SERE psychologists with their pockets full and their moral compasses haywire like roosters atop weather vanes dancing the tarantalla. Take it with a huge grain of very un-Kosher salt, Levi.

    Nothing personal? Well, Jerry the Anthropologist replies with what strikes me as a fair degree of self-restraint:

    “Frances, yes some folks have been bought, and in a lot of discip-lines. Otherwise, I find your comment irrelevant, in no small measure because not everybody knows what you are saying to be so.”

    Levi follows up by ignoring Frances’ and Jerry’s conversation, shifting back to advocacy of memes vis-a-vis structuralism and evolutionary psychology. Levi then talks about how ethography is largely praxis-driven, as were the psychoanalysts in the “Lacan Circle” in which Levi used to participate.

    “Finally, and I say this with great respect, but why would we defer to anthropologists in matters of theory? Like any other discipline, anthropologists are busy investigating their object, not reflecting on the tools or concepts that they are using… And, of course, among practioners of disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, and so on, there is often a sort of deep distrust of “theory” for precisely this sort of reason.”

    Great respect? Anthropologists busy doing anthropology don’t reflect on their research tools? Not only are they atheoretical but they deeply distrust theory?

    At this point Carl comes in with another comment:

    “So much the worse for theory then.”

    I didn’t get it at first, but now I think I do: theorists should pay more attention to the practitioners rather than functioning in isolation from the objects under investigation. Levi comes back with a long elaboration that includes this remark:

    “I think there’s a dialectic between theory and practice. I just find it odd for someone to dismiss something based on an argument from authority (”reputable anthropologists”), responding to nothing the actual post has to say… Moreover, I’m every bit as critical of “just so” stories as anyone else, which is why I tend to be so hostile to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.”

    With evident irritation Levi offers a protracted defense of meme theory — after all, he’s already said that this isn’t the topic of his post. Does he feel at this point that he’s been baited into argumentation, playing somebody else’s game?

    * * *

    This is as far as I got before leaving for the protest march — incidentally, my home-made sign said simply GET OUT. I was building toward the stunning denouement and the accusation of trollery, but I simply can’t go on. I have some observations on the data, but I’ll hold off. First let’s see if WordPress will swallow this thing whole…

  6. Not surprisingly, seeing all this crap in print fills me with self-loathing. Also not surprisingly, it stimulates me to GO ON WITH THE PROJECT. I detect a few typos in the prior comment — at one point I spoke of antiphilosophy rather than antirealism, but presumably readers had glazed over by that point anyhow. So where was I…

    * * *

    Levi wraps up his defense of memes in comment #21 thusly:

    “Finally, as any good ethnographer knows, you don’t go into the culture you’re examining dismissing their ideas but let them have their language and ideas and try to find a framework within which to communicate with them.”

    Levi is more or less accusing Gerry, by dismissing the language memes, of being a bad ethnographer, nothing personal and with all due respect etc.

    Frances Madeson fires back: “That’s right, Levi. It’s an empty suit with bulging pockets.” She presses her case that anthropology has sold its soul to the Company store.

    At comment #25 Jerry offers rejoinders to both Levi and Frances. He bristles at Levi’s claim that anthropologists in general aren’t interested in evaluating their own methods: some aren’t, Jerry concedes, but some are. Likewise with Frances’s contention that anthropology as a whole has been corrupted by the Pentagon and the CIA: some have, some haven’t. Fair enough on both counts I’d say. He’s clearly pissed at Frances though:

    “Frances’ attack is ad hominem, a plain case of guilt by association, deeply reductive and hence the sort of intellectually lazy and repellant stuff of conspiracy theorists.”

    Jerry defends structuralism at length, saying that the version he knows is more flexible than the one Levi pilloried. He adds another critique to meme theory:

    “I doubt that a notion of meme as you’ve got it set up is going help much with how folks get entangled with the world; they don’t do that one trait at a time or on a trait by trait basis.”

    Levi responds by saying that Jerry’s characterization of structuralism is “unrecognizable” to him, though he concedes that there are variants. Then he critiques Jerry’s “very thin understanding” of meme theory. Regarding Jerry’s one-trait-at-a-time critique Levi says:

    “Who ever suggested such an absurd thing? I mean really, follow through on the analogy to genes: have you ever heard of a gene being passed on or things being built up by genes one by one? No, they always occur in networks or assemblages.”

    I’ve got Dawkins’s Selfish Gene book sitting here on the shelf — the book in which he first puts forward his theory of memes. It’s pretty clear that Dawkins talks about both genes and memes as one-at-a-time replicators. A single gene or meme may form assemblages, but only if it furthers its own individual “self-interest” — hence the title of the book. It might be an absurd proposition, but there it is. And I’d say it’s a fairly widespread understanding of the meme concept. To his credit, Levi backs off of the absurdity charge, acknowledging that separate memes can be identified within the assemblages. Levi then elaborates his own object-oriented take on memes at some length, which I’d say is significantly different from Dawkins’ view. He concludes this exposition thusly:

    “However, if entanglement is to be possible then it’s necessary to reject the thesis that elements are nothing but their relations.”

    Dawkins would never say that memes are nothing but their relations — au contraire. It’s as if Levi is arguing with a Deleuzian memeticist here; Jerry reductionistic critique was aimed at almost an opposite point of view from pure relations. But Levi is on a roll now:

    “Honestly I just thought your initial post and subsequent remarks were rather obnoxious and entirely unnecessary where productive dialogue is concerned. Especially egregious was the framing in terms of what counts as reputable insofar as this carried the implicit charge of the post being unreputable without even addressing a single substantive point in it. Even more laughable was the evocation of Ruth Benedict as some sort of model of rigor and scientificity– yes I’ve read the book. I mean yes, it’s a great book, but how is using Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysius as a frame any more rigorous than look at how cultural units conspire together, replicate themselves, form networks, change, and so on? We could talk about problems in Meade and Bateson as well, especially the former, but some of us are polite and recognize that it’s the theoretical references and influences that are important in discussion and that little is to be gained from proceeding in that way where the issue isn’t directly a matter of those references.”

    Holy crap. I mean this just seems over the top. The Ruth Benedict was a one-sentence suggestion to which Jerry never returned in subsequent conversation.

    Jerry comes back at position #28 in the thread:

    “Oh please….I was not being obnoxious, at least I did not think so.”

    I’d say some of Jerry’s remarks were borderline obnoxious, but I can see how he didn’t see his own obnoxiousness. In my opinion Levi’s reaction was way more objectionable. Jerry offers a brief elaboration on his Ruth Benedict recommendation, then describes his own structuralist background. He concludes on a defensive/aggressive note, presumably regarding why he feels called upon to justify his recommendations and comments:

    “So why are you acting like the police??”

    Now here’s Levi again:

    “I wasn’t trying to impugn your structuralist bona fides, only pointing out that there are lots of structuralisms.”

    It seemed to me that Levi was questioning Jerry’s grasp of structuralism, regarding it as unrecognizable. If Levi was pointing out the broad coverage of the structuralist umbrella, might he not have previously said to Jerry something like “oh, so you’re referring to THAT branch of structuralism…” But then, in referring back to Jerry’s original structuralist observations, Levi says:

    “Right, this is why I wonder why it’s still referred to as structuralism at all.”

    So he’s questioning not Jerry’s bona fides but his grasp of the concept. Then Levi returns to defending the meme concept. And it’s at the end of this discursus that Levi charges Jerry with the High Crime that precipitated this long and tedious rehash:

    “But we can agree to disagree as this exchange hasn’t been about the post and has thus been a rather trollish hijacking of the thread. I’m not acting like police, I just don’t abide rudeness very well. I suppose that if you simply were making a “descriptive point” you’re only guilty of having a tin ear.”

    And that’s the climax. Carl comes back to defend Anthropology from Frances’s broad-brush indictment, observing that it smacks of “X-file conspiracy theories.” Frances thanks Carl for his “tweak” of her prior remarks, though the reader detects at least a soupcon of sarcasm at this point. Here the thread comes to an end, at least for now.

  7. “Not surprisingly, seeing all this crap in print fills me with self-loathing. Also not surprisingly, it stimulates me to GO ON WITH THE PROJECT.”

    You are wicked charmin’. I read with the same self-loathing and engage you now based on the same stimulation.

    I think you’ve got this all right. It was present as an example when I was writing the ‘generosity’ post, although I think LS is trying very hard to be generous. In particular, I credit that he’s working both to create new ideas and to make useful translations. That said, in every conversation I’ve seen where he gets pressed a bit he reaches a point where he decides his dead vole is not going to be received with relish no matter how he sauces it up, at which point he goes meta and starts calling etiquette fouls, while simultaneously descending to the rhetorical depths himself.

    The way this makes sense to me is that the original offense is always the refusal of the gift he’s offering, a breech of courtesy that justifies everything following. It’s a shame – the vole I and many others have to offer is a different perspective and a different set of translations, but if this is always perceived as an attack there’s not much to be done but withdraw our ambassadors and fortify the borders.

    Btw I took on Frances only because I thought her subplot was usefully distracting, and because she just wouldn’t lay off poor Jerry, who as you say was being quite patient and moderate, all in all.

  8. I agree with your idea that Levi feels rejected, and that he takes revenge on the ungrateful wretch who rejects his offerings. I’ll offer up a few interpretive voles on this transcript.

    1. It seems, based on the end of his original post and his interactions with you, that Levi isn’t just willing to let SR memes replicate themselves; he wants to deploy them intentionally to advance the cause. He acknowledges that his “difference that makes a difference” is one such meme. I now think that trolls and vampires also are being used memetically against those who wish to play chess rather than the SR game. I.e., discussions of grounding or theoretical arguments, moves integral to chess, are whistled as fouls in a game where asking questions is more important than providing answers. The idea of a Project also is deployed memetically, where point-by-point debate is regarded as a distraction. Who can argue that trolls and vampires are good things? Who can argue against the pursuit of projects? No one: they’re tautological antibodies protecting the boundaries of the new game.

    2. If I were Jerry the Anthropologist I’d not engage further with Levi at Larval Subjects. Levi played the intellectual bully in this exchange, pulling out all sorts of tactics to beat his opponent down. As you say, Carl, LS tries hard to be generous. At a certain point, though, he starts losing his cool. It’s not so much that Jerry is pestering him; it’s just that Levi doesn’t want to have this particular conversation. And so he starts throwing out unsupported accusations and eruditional smokescreens with escalating amounts of verbiage, all the while exhibiting his impatience with the time and effort he’s investing. Levi has acknowledged publicly that he has a hard time not beating his opponents down to the ground. It doesn’t appear that he lures and entices the unsuspecting interlocutor into his web in order to entangle and sting him (I can think of at least one other well-known theory bloggeur who does). Levi acts as though Jerry is forcing him into his bully persona. Calling Jerry a troll surely seems like blaming the victim, at least from this outsider’s perspective. Because of Levi’s hot temper he has a hard time coolly and strategically playing the meme game of disseminating the SR innovation.

    3. Regarding SR versus antirealism, I’d say let the SR gang have their head. Let the question-asking proliferate! In my post on Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics I said something about how it was entertaining and stimulating but that I had no idea whether it was true. I regarded it as something akin to a novel heavy on theme but without plot or characters (other than the narrator, who is certainly a character). Fiction ask questions about the human condition that psychological or social sciences don’t permit. I wish something like “fictional psychology” were a subdiscipline in academic psychology, but it ain’t going to happen. “Fictional philosophy” surely won’t find much of a place either. If the SR guys can carve out a new era of truly speculative metaphysics that’s heavy on questions and light on answers, more power to them. It would surely be more fun to read than the usual scholarship, at least for amateurs like me.

  9. Then there’s the possibility that Levi is just smarter than the rest of us. He’s incredibly well-read on a wide variety of subjects. He’s able to spin out interesting implications of all sorts of things, weaving them together with other seemingly unconnected ideas. Maybe he just eventually loses patience with those who can’t keep up. On the other hand, I think about the guys at An Und Fur Sich, who seem to regard abrasive arrogance as emblematic of intelligence (and perhaps sometimes even as a substitute for it). These guys have a longstanding war with Levi, do they not, purportedly based on substantive differences about theology?

  10. Carl: “That said, in every conversation I’ve seen where he gets pressed a bit he reaches a point where he decides his dead vole is not going to be received with relish no matter how he sauces it up, at which point he goes meta and starts calling etiquette fouls, while simultaneously descending to the rhetorical depths himself.”

    Kvond: Carl, this is incredibly insightful, and rather succinctly put. I found this too – or at least I realized it – and for a time I decided I would simply compliment Levi and tell him how good his points are (as a experiment). He was as soft as a dove, and even started up with the “Kvond, the resident expert on Spinoza” or “Over at the sublime Frames /sing…” (sigh). I really couldn’t muster it very long.

    Who doesn’t want their thoughts relished? I suppose everyone does. But this is not ALL one should want, at least to the degree that a cool or critical response is nothing other than an offense or even a personal attack. Sometimes one “relishes” thought by considering it, turning it over, looking for its weaknesses, because it cries out to be taken seriously (and not as a mere piece of interesting fiction, for instance how John takes SR).

  11. John: “Then there’s the possibility that Levi is just smarter than the rest of us.”

    Kvond: I like this. The problem is, Levi’s smarter than himself.

  12. I thought Bryant and Jerry were friends in real life? Wasn’t there a couple of posts about how they are buddies and stuff? I distinctly remember LS refer to Jerry as nothing less than “my bestest friend in the world” – did have a falling out? Or does his anger does not spare even friends?

  13. M.E.: “I distinctly remember LS refer to Jerry as nothing less than “my bestest friend in the world” – did have a falling out? Or does his anger does not spare even friends?”

    Kvond: You see, when Heidi started dating Spenser seriously on The Hills, all relationships, including the one with Lauren had to suffer.

  14. Regarding the egoism and hypocrisy of blogs sans comments, I get an ego boost out of the comments on my blog, knowing that somebody is actually reading and being stimulated by the post. On LS and you guys’ blogs, the posts themselves are a kind of public service, giving others the benefit of the your work for free. In short, I would still read LS if he kept posting according to the current format but, for whatever reason, he shut off the comments.

    Graham’s blog v2.0, conversely, shut off much of his own philosophical content along with the comments. When he does write content, it’s usually stimulated by someone else’s post. Rather than commenting at the other guy’s blog, he responds on his own blog. This move precludes his getting substantively embroiled in others’ comment threads. He does usually provide a link to the original post, which is a good thing since OOP probably gets more traffic than most other blogs. Maybe the main exception is LS, which also happens to be the blog Graham links to most often.

  15. Kvond: “The problem is, Levi’s smarter than himself.” Lol, that’s so right it hurts. And I also take ideas seriously by chewing on them.

    Mikhail: “I thought Bryant and Jerry were friends in real life?” I thought so too. Musta missed a memo. You always hurt the ones you love….

    John: “It seems, based on the end of his original post and his interactions with you, that Levi isn’t just willing to let SR memes replicate themselves; he wants to deploy them intentionally to advance the cause. He acknowledges that his “difference that makes a difference” is one such meme. I now think that trolls and vampires also are being used memetically against those who wish to play chess rather than the SR game. I.e., discussions of grounding or theoretical arguments, moves integral to chess, are whistled as fouls in a game where asking questions is more important than providing answers. The idea of a Project also is deployed memetically, where point-by-point debate is regarded as a distraction. Who can argue that trolls and vampires are good things? Who can argue against the pursuit of projects? No one: they’re tautological antibodies protecting the boundaries of the new game.”

    This is a great answer to my question over at LS about what antibodies SR/OOO would be deploying. Asher Kay gave another (more on that in a sec). I’m tempted to say this describes a process by which Graham’s and Levi’s thought may be memetically sealed….

    I had the same thought about games; I can see a version of the narrative of all this where Levi invents this cool new game, invites his friends over to his house to play it, and rather than get into the spirit of it and have the grand fun he’s offering all they can do is carp about how it’s not musical chairs or pin the tail on the donkey. Who wouldn’t be frustrated by that? But I don’t think our grown-up conceptual games can be compartmentalized quite so easily, and after all he’s the guy who’s trying to teach us how important translation is (just as Graham is the guy who’s trying to teach us how important allure and recruitment is).

    Now back to the substance here, I have a lingering perplexity about why, other than the usual space-wedging moves of any new thang, the epistemological move is being so heatedly rejected. I liked Asher Kay’s sensible observation that “The thing is, the primary reason why Kant’s philosophy has been so successful is that his essential, ‘revolutionary’ insight was correct: We don’t have direct access to the noumenal, world, and the mind actively structures the phenomenological one…. The upshot is that the epistemological bubble into which Kant places us is not only real, but is something that merits a philosophical sticky-note on the front of everything we try to think about.” That sticky note does not seem like much of an impediment to anything else we might want to do, it just deflates our pretensions of godlike mastery a bit. And I like Asher’s thinking that in the long run the new ontologies would be seeable as extensions of Kant, not least because it’s all part of this backing away from metaphysics’ roots in theology. I goofed on this in the original post above, but to be serious for a moment I’m not on board with SR/OOO if it’s just another way to play the god trick.

    About humanism and anti-humanism, can anyone tell me why the SR/OOO types seem to think that ‘correlationism’ is a license for anthrocentric arrogance? I’ve just previewed that I think the epistemology move is a deflationary one; as Asher says it puts us in a bubble of our own unavoidable making. We are the centers of this world obviously but that’s not much to crow about, since there’s never a very good reason to think we aren’t just delusional. The immodesty seems to me to be all on the side of thinking you can bypass the quirks of our cludgy input-output systems and say really true things about the world; even if what you’re saying is that we’re not the only things in it. If all you’re saying is that there’s other stuff than us out there but that it’s withdrawn from any possible perception, I haven’t yet seen the advance on saying that we can’t be absolutely sure there’s other stuff out there (since we always end up with some version of ‘might as well act as if there is’ anyway). It looks like a leap of faith to me either way (and a ‘difference without a difference’, to invoke Levi).

    So on Levi’s impatience with ‘grounding’, I think I get that the epistemologists have a sweet preemption move with the old ‘How do you know that’? I can see how that would rankle, since it turns every game into the knowledge game and puts them permanently one-up. But I also can see how it’s a good way to intercept people just babbling whatever fantasies pop into their heads as though they should be taken seriously.

  16. Perhaps well all make the mistake in thinking about, asking about what SRist believe and why they believe it, since by their own gold standards, its not so much what they all agree upon, but rather what they disagree on. They are organized (apparently) by the “project” (paradigm) they seek to “tear down”:

    Levi: “”as Harman has repeatedly emphasized, that there is no entity floating about called “Speculative Realism”, such that all Speculative Realists share these positions. Between Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, and Quentin Meillassoux there is no discernible shared position to be found. Indeed, there is a great deal of conflict among these positions, such that each of them is making very distinct ontological claims about the nature of the world. If, as Graham argues, there is some unity among the Speculative Realists, this is not to be found among their shared positions but rather in what they are against. That is, the common thread linking the Speculative Realists is a dissatisfaction with correlationist and anti-realist paradigms of thought.”


  17. Fer sher. But now I’m just that much more inclined to think it’s just a bunch of guys fiddling with concept toys.

  18. A quick thought: I always thought that epistemology is about conditions of possibility of knowledge, not knowledge as such, i.e. it’s not the good old “how do you know that?” but “how do you know that you know that?” – if I say my balls are made of steel, and you ask “how do you know that?” it’s not really an epistemological question, is it? Epistemology then is about form, not content and so on – to claim that you have knowledge of anything, you need to have an epistemological position on how it’s possible, it’s like Intro to Philosophy 101. Now you can be all kinds of complex and subtle about it and so on, but you do have an epistemology because you are claiming things, right? The question of “how do you know that?” is not really that deep but its mightily annoying for one simple reason – when you make shit up (and nothing’s wrong with that) but would like to present it as knowledge, it’s frustrating that most people don’t play that game with you. So if we go back to our Sunday afternoon game of chess party – everyone’s over, cans of PBR are making that sweet sweet pssshhhht sound, the host is making its first move and you say – “wait a second, are we playing chess? you can’t go like that” – “yes, I can, it’s my game” – “well, it’s not chess, I’ll tell you” – “it is, why do we have to be oppressed by all these thousand year old rules? i can’t bear this anymore! the hegemonic position of chess rules is so oppressive, plus I met this really cool guy who says we can play whichever way we wanted”…

    Now here’s a problem – no one can explain to me the new rules for chess, therefore when the insiders play, they are all like “sweet move, dude” and “awesome, man” and when I ask questions – “i thought knight could only go this way in your new game” I get “whatever! go join jerry and others on the porch, you are banned from this cool kids club” – but do they really know the rules themselves?

  19. Yes. I agree. I liked your analogy of Levi inventing a cool new game and wanting everyone to come and play. In philosophy though, when you invent a new game (and Levi claims to be nothing more than a bricoleur, combining other games he’s found), it has to be “a cool new game” otherwise the game kinda sucks. Combining musical chairs with the game Clue might be entertaining for about five minutes, but then we all want to say, “Why don’t we just play Clue, and forget the music and moving around”.

    Over at John’s I compared Harman’s thinking to science fiction. It’s not real science, but its scienc-y. That is, its not real philosophy, its philosophy-y. In science fiction novels you aren’t really allowed or supposed to say, “But how does the warp drive work?” (at least for very long). In Harman you aren’t really supposed to say, “How does causation work?”

  20. M.E.,

    It seems that you were thinking along similar lines just as I was writing…

    “Now here’s a problem – no one can explain to me the new rules for chess, therefore when the insiders play, they are all like “sweet move, dude” and “awesome, man” and when I ask questions – “i thought knight could only go this way in your new game” I get “whatever! go join jerry and others on the porch, you are banned from this cool kids club” – but do they really know the rules themselves?”

    This is hilarious. Sweet move dude!

  21. Sorry Mikhail, you’re right. I got too short with my shorthand. And yes, changing the game is a great trick and may even offer exciting new possibilities (those new questions) but it’s a dick move if all you’re doing is hiding the ball and making up the rules as you go. I think Levi at least is trying pretty hard to spell the rules out, in part in response to the general confusion on the new playground, but the learning curve is pretty steep and as Kvond says it’s not clear at all that the new game is enough fun to be worth it.

  22. I agree about your debunking of antirealist arrogance, Carl: it’s an acknowledgment of human limitation. Harman just sort of generalizes the core antirealist tenet doesn’t he, by saying that objects’ real essences withdraw from ALL interactions, not just from human minds. Hell, I’m way more of a realist than that. And The Correlation is just a special case of Harman’s general postulate that ALL interactions between ANY object A and object B take place inside the merged object A*B.

  23. Carl,

    Part of this “new game” is, at least in its internet variety, something of a game of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The very “newness” is part of the discussion. Nice clothes! Beautiful fabric! Such elegant lines! They all say to each other, because this is a public discussion. They are selling the clothes so to speak. This was what was so infuriating with reading Graham closely (and pressing him through questions). There was such hubbub about the designer “name” I just assumed there was something VERY substantive there.

  24. Let’s face it, fellows, we are all just super-jealous of the new fun game that everyone’s playing inside (it’s getting cold on the porch here), they look so excited about it, look at them – we just aren’t smart enough to get it, that’s all. Get back to your projects!

  25. Damn you, Emelianov. I’m going to make a fire out of these porch banisters to keep me warm, and if the whole house goes up so be it, serves ’em right.

  26. John, Graham’s interview at Another Heidegger Blog is illuminating (and shows he knows how to do the acknowledgment narrative just fine). For example, he talks about how Whitehead really moved him along from the heideggerian impasse: “Whitehead explodes the atmospheric Kantian bias still at work in Heidegger, which places the human-world relation on a pedestal above all other relations in the cosmos.” Now that’s an interesting claim, because there’s no prima facie reason to think that noting our species entrapment within the bubble of our own perceptions and conceptualizations puts us on any kind of pedestal; quite the contrary, in the context of the historical unraveling of shadow theology in the metaphysical project it pretty decisively depedestals us. The point is that we are unable to escape the narrow horizons of our humanity, whatever that may mean from time to time, and therefore we are stuck within our perspective. The human-world relation is not privileged, it is inescapably constitutive of our being in the world.

    Graham tells us that until Christmas 1997 he was “still the usual sort of agnostic about the outer world that most people from a phenomenological background tend to be” (this is where we are stuck in this conversation) and that his illumination came when he “extend[ed] the tool-analysis to cover inanimate interactions as well.” As far as I can tell, what this involved was basically an imaginative leap that what Heidegger said about humans (trapped as we are in our own percepts and concepts) must also be true about all other beings as well; motivated, again as far as I can tell, by a fundamental dissatisfaction with the limits Kant drew around our access to the world. Well first, wishing doesn’t make it so, and second, plugging this gap between the arid wastes of blocked metaphysical access and the need to get on with our lives is what pragmatism does so well, so again we have a difference that makes no difference.

  27. The funny thing is that these guys are not even playing the same game. Its not like there are bunch of Deconstructionists all talking in their lingo, or a bunch of Wittgensteinians all mummering about language games. These guys (and really only Harman and Levi is who we are talking about) don’t even agree with each other.

    As to the notion that everything constitutes an object, or that Kantism has to be extended to non-humans, this really isn’t new. Spinoza denies that we can ever have adequate ideas about anything external to us (Kant’s noumenal), all the while making of each and every thing an entity. There is nothing really radicall new about this other than Harman insisting that we all have to be, by force of logic, Quadrists instead of Dualists, that is, Husserian Heideggerians.

  28. Comment #24 on the Immunology thread: Levi apologizes to Jerry. Good job.

  29. @Kevin: Well again, I get less and less interested in philosophy the more it becomes apparently a rabble of kooks pumping out idiosyncratic takes on big unanswerable questions. Or to be more honest, I remain interested but it’s a guilty pleasure I hesitate to be seen indulging in public.

    And I’ve not read the other SR guys because I’m on the periphery of philosophy and Graham/Levi are the ones who are out here recruiting. But it seems to me that if there’s a negative common ground of rejection of ‘correlationist’ antirealism, there must be positive agreement that we can be directly certain of the existence of a really real world (and not just proceed pragmatically as if there is) and, by virtue of whatever device arrives us at that certainty, that we can also know some things about it. But if, as the moniker implies, that device is speculation, I just have to throw up my hands and laugh. As John says @9-3, at that point it’s a matter of letting the thousand flowers bloom, each for their unique aroma. What does ‘getting it right’ even mean at that point? It’s the wrong standard, apparently.

    I mean, let’s think about this. So the Western tradition grinds itself laboriously to Kant, who finally pulls the threads together and says hey, we’re just stuck with percept/concept-filtered access to what may or may not be the real world. We can just stop beating that horse, it’s dead. Let’s move on to other, more productive questions. Whew, thanks dude. And now along comes SR/OOO and we’re going to hit the reset button and go all the way back to Plato, or at best the Scholastics? You note there’s nothing new here and Graham talks openly about the cyclical nature of philosophy. If you’re both right, and I think you are, at some point if you’ve got a ‘project’ you just have to say you’re not going to waste your time with this any more, or pay other people to do so either. Philosophy doesn’t count as a project if it’s just chasing around in circles. Fine for bloggery diversions and as a nice subgenre of science fiction, but otherwise get a life.

  30. I keep saying philosophy when I mean, more narrowly, metaphysics.

  31. Carl,

    I very much like your thoughts about Pragmatic “the difference that makes a difference” wheat/chaff analysis, as well as your Wittgensteinian “Getting it Right” question. Perhaps though there is another view about the measure of metaphysics (I always thought that Wittgenstein got something wrong about Metaphysics, that there is a USE for the kinds of games that can be played with Grammatical statements).

    What do you think of Negri’s…

    “When one says “philosophy”, one means that critical activity which allows one to grasp one’s time and orient oneself within it, creating a common destiny and witnessing the world for that purpose.”

    Opening lines, “The Italian Difference”

    Here we have the compliment to your critique of pure Speculation that does not seem to touch the world. Benjamin found the philosopher to be between the Scientist and the Artist. Like the scientist he had to “get it right”, but like the artist he had to create a depiction, a rendition of the world, what Negri calls a “witnessing”. And this witnessing can’t be a common destiny unless they get it right, so to speak.

    The problems that I have with Harman and Levi are different problems. Harman at least presents “picture” of the world but he doesn’t seem to get it right at all (its incoherent, and doesn’t actually describe what is happening). It is a kind of intraphilosophical game to be played by people who are way to familiar with Husserl and Heidegger and is something like “Fun things you can do with deadend Philosophers”. Additionally, there is no common destiny, no ultimate witnessing of the world.

    With Levi its just hodgepodge – sometimes very articulately rendered and expository hodgepodge, but still hodgepodge. He “get’s it right” largely, from a intra-displinary philosophical reportage perspective, but there is no genuine vision in his connectivity, at least to my ear – each time a press close to find out just what he is talking about he shouts in it. (I would much rather read Latour or Bateson than read about the Fallacy of…) Perhaps though he is attempting to borrow this vision from Harman, and get a little glow to it, without importing his ridiculous four-fold objects (Dualism multiplied).

    That they have this somewhat insecure poker bluffer’s arrogance about them…well…that doesn’t help much.

  32. John,

    He always apologizes. He apologized to me many times. A kind of domestic abuse.

  33. Kevin, I saw that quote when you posted it over at pervegalit and thought it was well targeted there too. Greg also noted earlier in the thread that all of our thinking and writing is ‘philosophy’ in this larger sense of a reflective and critical engagement with the world. I’m not wild about the ‘witnessing’ metaphor because of its evangelical connotations, but I like the situation of philosophy between science and art.

    What I don’t like about philosophy as a discipline is that it’s not well grounded in a matter. I really think you can see this with the kind of feckless flailing with concepts that passes for deep thought around town. There are two basic approaches to this syndrome. The first is the ‘philosophy of x’ approach, gestured at by Levi in one of his remarks to Jerry, in which the assumption is that the practitioners of the material disciplines are bound to their matter and need someone else to do their reflecting for them. This is both pathetic and offensive, and makes philosophy as a whole parasitic on people doing real work, but it’s not completely crazy as a division of labor. The second is to go meta and start inventing matters speculatively. I’ve already said what I think about that.

    I think philosophy as a disposition to step back, reflect and think critically is a good thing, all in all, or at least I’ve got my wagon hitched to it. But I think it’s best done in the context of mattering.

  34. Carl,

    I understand your resistance to “witnessing” (and surely knowing Negri he intends the appropriation). But there is something to the powers of philosophy that once you digest the great interlocking nature of the arguments suddenly the world appears differently. You read Wittgenstein deeply and suddenly you are witnessing language games everywhere. You study Kant and the arguable world becomes a bubble. And it is witnessing because others who have studied see it TOO. It’s witnessing more in the legal sense. Witness to the car accident, to the event (as Badiou would have it).


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