Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Fundamentalism and Scientism

The Enlightenment Underground was started because we wanted to have a room of our own to play with ideas. Here I want to continue that spirit by calling to task the various manifestations of "the spirit of gravity" -- that ideas are not to be played with, together with a very specific picture of what it makes to take an idea seriously. I want to contest that spirit, and I want to do so by taking ideas seriously by playing with them.

Today, I want to play with "fundamentalism" and "scientism."

The contemporary culture wars are taking shape between the 30% of the American people who hold the Bible to be literally true, and the much smaller and opposite extreme who hold that science gives us the truth about the world. This is a clash between "fundamentalism" and "scientism." In between are the majority, who want to hold onto both traditional Abrahamic piety and the latest in medical breakthroughs. We've seen such fads as "intelligent design" vie for the attention of the majority, and although the street cred of ID diminished after Dover, it'll certainly have a comeback tour.

"Fundamentalism" holds that every jot and tittle of the Bible is absolutely and unerringly true. In maintaing this view, it is convenient to ignore such salient facts as (a) it is philologically difficult to even determine what the jots and tittles of the Bible are and (b) the Bible is silent on most matters that are important to the religious right. (Nowhere in the Scriptures is a clear and consistent position taken on abortion, for example, nor is gay marriage an issue. And despite the clarity of Leviticus 18:22, some scholars have suggested that David and Jonathan were more than just friends. Enough said . . . )

"Scientism" is the mirror-opposite, in that it holds that the totality of contemporary scientific methods and theories are the best (if not the only) way of discovering the Truth About the World.

In debates over the ethics of abortion, the teaching of evolution, and the looming threat of ecocide, the debate is increasingly polarized between scientism and fundamentalism.

But it's a serious mistake to see fundamentalism and scientisim as imerely implacably opposed. Rather, they are implacably opposed because they are different sides of the same coin: the coin of metaphysical dogmatism

Metaphysical dogmatism holds that the world has some real and essential structure which is fully knowable by human beings (even if they need assistance from divine revelation). There is a single and correct Way that the World Is. The only debate between scientism and fundamentalism is over how the Structure of the World is to be discovered: through systematic experimentation and quantification, or through authoritarian interpretation of divine revelation.

Against both, I want to hold out a plea for what Putnam (following Goodman) could call "internal realism", or for what Hakim Bey -- working out of entirely different styles, techniques, and traditions, calls "ontological anarchy": there is no single and correct way that the world is.
There are only many different ways. Scientific theories are, indeed, one way that the world is. Poetry and art are another. Music and literature are a way the world is. And so too are religion and philosophy.

Ontological anarchy refuses to look for a single over-arching principle that can unify all world-ways. It refuses to let any world-way be a Procrustean bed for all the others. It asks only that we cultivate as many different ways of being-in-the-world as we can, in order to further cultivate and expand our capacities for thinking, feeling, and living.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Freedom and Agency after Deleuze and Foucault

In a comment on Illusion and Critique, Orla Schantz raises a very serious problem for transcendental materialism

On an intellectual level I get this, as well as his idea of "immanence" as the pure flow of life and perception without any distinct perceiver.

But I find it hard on a personal level to accept this way of thinking. Wouldn't this mean the impossibility of the individual as an active agent?

The worry raised here is the big stumbling block for everyone who wants to do something with Deleuze and Guattari (and Foucault).

It is an ethical problem and also a political problem.

I don't think that Deleuze or Foucault can completely answer it. But I do think that we can move in a direction that is complemetary with their work.

Towards the end of his life, Maurice Merleau-Ponty was working up a notion of the subject as a "fold" in being. (This is in, I believe, his unfinished The Visible and the Invisible.) This is very different from the dominant tradition (Descartes, Kant, Husserl, Sartre) in which the subject is a hole or puncture in being.

The subject-as-fold means that the subject is a certain way in which being gets turned in on itself and twisted around -- in such a way as to be able to appropriate being as being.

If you like: the mind is the world's way of discovering itself.

Foucault and Deleuze are helpful here because they force us to think about the subject as a form -- I would want to say, as a form of folding.

So whereas Merleau-Ponty, like all the phenomenologists, only thinks about the actuality of the embodied (enfolded) subject as it is, and in this way posit a false foundation, Foucault and Deleuze recognize that there are many different ways in which bodies can be folded up into subjects. There are multiple forms of subjectivization.

This is: Merleau-Ponty + Nietzsche + Freud.

But to speak of bodies getting folded into subjects still seems to suggest a passivity. And this is what we want in a social theory, precisely because part of what we want to explain is why so many people are passive with respect to their social conditions.

On the other hand, there is still room for a Nietzschean notion of freedom even here, which I would construe as participation in one's own on-going subjectivization, and this includes the exploration and experimentation with various other ways of folding oneself into a subject.

In other to explore other forms of folding, one must know how to "unfold" oneself. This is what Deleuze and Guattari call "making yourself into a Body without Organs."

Still, at the end of the day, the question remains as to how one evaluates different forms of subjectivity.

At a minimum, I would endorse something like Nussbaum and Sen's capabilities approach: a form of subjectivity is 'better' if it leads to the expansion or intensification of human capabilities.

This won't solve all theoretical or practical problems, because

(a) the capabilities approach is itself tied into a specific form of subjectivity (liberal democratic, with a tinge of Aristotle);

(b) there's no standpoint outside of all forms of subjectivity from which one could evaluate them.

(a) and (b) are inter-related, but I'm not overly concerned about this. As we develop and evolve new forms of subjectivity -- and experiment with new ways of being-embodied-in-the-world -- our understanding of human capabilities will also increase.

Perhaps what looks like freedom to us now will look like intolerable oppression to our descendents -- and I say, let us hope so!

(And as Yusef Asabiyah said to me many years ago, people who believe in fixed forms aren't democrats. Deleuze and Foucault aren't liberal democrats, but they have an enormous gift to give to liberal democrats.)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Illusion and Critique

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant introduces what he calls a "transcendental illusion": a concept of reason which seems to provide us with transcendent knowledge (knowledge which transcends any possible experience). A transcendental illusion arises in the following way: reason seeks the condition for the totality of conditions. It seeks the ultimate ground or foundation. In doing so, reason constructs a series of concepts: the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the freedom of the will. And these concepts really do seem to provide us with transcendent knowledge. But the analytic of cognition shows that they cannot, because nothing could even count as knowledge if it lacks sensible content, as these ideas do. Thus, Kant shows that the very idea of "transcendent knowledge" is a mirage.

The ideas of reason -- the transcendental illusions -- are illusions because they seem to provide us knowledge, but in fact don't. Yet they are transcendental illusions -- illusions that are somehow built into the very structure of the human mind. (Or of any mind that is recognizably like ours.)

(It should, of course, be noted that Kant goes on to argue that the concepts do have a necessary role in human life -- for although they provide us with no knowledge, they are required for morality, and more precisely, they are required in order for a being like ourselves to have a motive to be moral, and not merely a reason.)

The main limitation on Kant's theory of transcendental illusion is that it is too restrictive. On his analysis, transcendental illusion only arises through the work of reason's desire for totality.

Adorno and Deleuze, on the other hand, are transcendental philosophers who push the envelope of critique. It is not merely the desire for totality which is a source of transcendental illusion, they argue, but even the desire for identity, in the very stability of judgments, is illusory. This is what drives Adorno in Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory, and it is also what Deleuze is driving at in Difference and Repetition, The Logic of Sense, and his work with Guattari.

Adorno and Deleuze (together with Wittgenstein) belong to the Third Enlightenment because they follow in Kant's footsteps in holding that even if the illusion is necessary, the critique of that illusion is no less necessary.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Axel Honneth, the most well-known member of the "third generation" of critical theory outside of Germany, has written a new book, Verdinglichung ("Reification"). There's a very interesting review of it here. In particular:

Honneth argues that, properly reconceived, reification continues to be a significant phenomenon in the contemporary world and, so, a worthy object of philosophical study. In doing so he distinguishes three broad types of reification -- in a subject's relations to the objective world, to other subjects, and to himself -- and argues that all can be understood as manifestations of a single, underlying deficiency.

But how is this deficiency to be understood? It is to be understood as a social pathology in which one's own comportment towards praxis is systematically miunderstood, and distorted because it is misunderstood:

One of the intriguing features of Honneth's theory is his account of what makes reification objectionable. The problem, as both Marx and Lukács would agree, is not that reification is unjust or that it violates a moral principle. It is, instead, a social pathology, though here again Honneth's reasons for regarding it as such diverge fundamentally from Lukács's (or at least from what Honneth calls the "official version" of his position). For Honneth, reification is pathological not because it falls short of an ideal standard of "true" or genuinely human activity, whether of the sort supplied by Marx's philosophical anthropology (free, conscious, social production) or by the metaphysics of German Idealism (the identity of spirit and world, where objects are but the results of a subject's autonomous activity). Reification is pathological, rather, because it represents the "atrophy or distortion of an original praxis in which the human being takes up a practically involved relation to himself and his world" (27). In other words, reification rests on a failure to acknowledge -- a forgetting of -- some more primary relation to the world and to oneself that, as Heidegger famously put it, is "always already" present in or presupposed by a distanced, contemplative stance to the world.

In other words, Honneth is using central features of Heidegger's analytic of being-in-the-world to explicate what is wrong with reification. This looks like the sort of thing that Adorno and esp. Marcuse tried to do. Both of them eventually gave up and turned to Hegel and to Freud. It looks as though Honneth wants to succeed where they failed by interpreting Heidegger in a way influenced by contemporary neo-pragmatists -- as a sort of brooding and Teutonic pragmatist, a German Dewey or Wittgenstein. Perhaps.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Myth of Interiorty, Take One

I've been busy -- too busy to give the Underground the attention the needs and deserves.

Elsewhere in cyberspace, I've been developing the thought that there is a "myth of interiority" which stands in need of critique. (In fact, I think that this myth is the founding myth of the second Enlightenment, and that the critique of this myth is one of the key organizing ideas of the third Enlightenment.)

The Myth of Interiority is the thought that the mind of the conscious subject can be thought of as a sort of 'container' in which one discovers one's own thoughts, and that communication consists of translating these "inner representations" into an external medium for the express purpose of transmitting representations from one interiority to another.

Interiority becomes a myth when it becomes dogmatic: when it puts a choke-hold on what is thinkable, and prevents us from thinking differently, feeling differently, and living differently.

The myth of interiority receives its initial formulation in Descartes. In the Meditations, the myth of interiority is used to safeguard the Christian (more specifically, Augustinian) doctrine of the soul from Galilean physics. But in Locke, the myth of interiority is coupled together with "possessive individualism": bourgeois revolution in social relations. (One might say that Locke synthesized Descartes' epistemology with Hobbes' political theory. Thus, bourgeois philosophy was born.)

The myth of interiority has had a long and distinguished career. It took a few bad hits here and there, but it proved to be so crucial to the bourgeois self-understanding that even sophisticated and powerful critiques of it had little effect. (There is, however, one important exception, which I'll return to below.)

Twentieth-century philosophy began with the resurgence of the Myth of Interiority in two of its most effulgent versions, with Husserl and Russell. As I see it, the third Enlightenment takes, as one of it main points of departure, the critique of these most recent versions of the myth, as worked out by Merleau-Ponty, Adorno, and Deleuze in "Continental" philosophy, and as worked out by Sellars, Davidson, and McDowell in "analytic" philosophy.

Yusef asked if the critique of the myth of interiority commits me to the affirmation of exteriority. It does. Yusef then asked if the affirmation of exteriority will be Marxist.

Marx and Marxism put into motion a political critique of bourgeois society, and this critique took shape as a radicalization of the critique of the myth of interiority that began with Kant and then Hegel. So the critique of interiority took on a political configuration as it was worked out, from Kant to Hegel to Marx and beyond.

So, to answer the question whether the affirmation of exteriority will be Marxist: yes, but it will not only be Marxist. It will be Marxist, and Freudian, and Spinozist, and Nietzschean, and Deweyan, and Deleuzean. It will be the joy of the outside, the multiple, and the material, but also the sadness brought about by the forms of subtle tyranny that prevent us from thinking, feeling, and living to the n-th degree.

Is there a worry that the Nietzschean/Deleuzian rhetoric of affect will distact us from taking seriously issues of political economy? This is serious concern. I hope not. And this is one of the reasons why Marx remains indispensable to the affirmation of exteriority; without Marx, critique cannot become a political force.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Critique as Lack/Critique as Judgment

I think that the aim of the "third enlightenment" is to create a power of thinking which is a radical criticism but one not relying on or requiring a sense or basis in lack; which is not a judgment, and especially not a judgment of the adequacy or inadequacy of forms. This would be a critique which would be revolutionary and not reformist; a critique in action as much as in words.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Stick Death to Love & Ideals

"Out on the road today, I saw a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac
A little voice inside my head said, "Don't look back. You can neverlook back."
I thought I knew what love was
What did I know
Those days are gone foreverI should just let 'em go but

I can see you-Your brown skin shinin' in the sun
You got that top pulled down and that radio on, baby
I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone"

-Don Henley, Boys of Summer

I guess you'll have to pardon me - I am fascinated by the theme of betrayal.

Here, Henley laments the loss of ideals, but vows to remain true to his "brown skin shinin" lover.

(Or does he? How sincerely can either his lament or his affirmationof love be ? The "deadhead line," the best one in the song, is followed by Henley saying that those days are gone forever, and that you can never look back, which effectively lets everyone off thehook, while what he affirms in his lover are her evanescent beautyand youthful qualities... When those are gone, won't Henley be saying, " those days are gone forever," about her, too?)

I think that we know that to perpetuate opinion isn't to think,and that to live passively or in acceptance of slavery and abjection is not to live. Rock music, which is extremely important to most people under a certain age, ( and that certain age gets closer and closer to average life expectancy with every passing year,) because it represents what is left for us of some sort ofsubjectivisational mode, cannot abandon its rebellious pretence without finally collapsing whatever remnants of subjectivisation it is keeping alive. But it cannot be what it is, in the kind of society that this is,without making rebelliousness into lifelong adolescence, and something, for as seriously as it continues to be taken, remarkably silly.

Even if we are unable to find the means to formulate a notion of thetranscendental for our times, or a criticism of what's standing in for the transcendental in our times, you'd think that we would be able to find the means to criticize the kinds of betrayal of bonds,hopes, and promises which are to us and are ours directly. We can't.

Monday, March 06, 2006

It Ain't Desire/It Ain't Affect/It Ain't Enlightened

I want to combat the idea that consumer behavior in markets is free-flowing, desirous, subjectival, and subjectivizing. I want to say that it is the very opposite of these things.

How could I make such a claim? People buying hamburgers at McDonald's don't have a gun held to their head - how could their choice to shop for food there be said to be coerced, unfree, not of their own choice?

Well, that's true - there's no gun being held to the head of a McDonald's shopper, but that still doesn't mean that an autonomous decision has been made when one bites into a Big Mac - huge effort and planning and control and coordination of the unconscious has been utilized to condition that decision, and this should be obvious. It has started in early childhood, with the happy image of Ronald McDonald and his friends - an insidious and nefarious software installation of the association of happiness and heart disease has been made before we would be capable of any critical examination and dissociation at all.

Is this not so? And if it is so, how can eating at McDonald's be defended as being a matter of personal choice, an exercise of personal freedom? A lot of money has been spent to direct our feet towards McDonalds - we've been set up, in a sense. The process isn't invisible - why do we act as if it is?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

An Announcement

What I want to do here is start thinking much more carefully and responsibly about what it is that I'm doing when I say of someone that he is desiring his own oppression.

I Want My MTV . . .

If someone says, "I like my Muzak and my McDonald's and my comfortable life, and what's wrong with that, and why are you so hateful and cynical, and why can't you just leave me alone?", a critical theorist should be able to say something more persuasive and less patronizing than "well, you're obviously a victim of false consciousness."

For the first generation of critical theorists -- the Frankfurt School of Social Research -- the badness or wrongness of late capitalism was so evident that it needn't even need any argument. They were interested primarily in the precise mechanisms whereby capitalist society is reproduced in everyday affect and cognition.

Later critical theorists, such as Habermas, developed the epistemological foundations of critical theory, but by reformulating critical theory in linguistic terms, the problematic of embodiment and affect and desire is left out of the framework.

So today critical theory remains in a serious muddle, and while there's some very interesting and useful work being done on it -- esp. by analytically trained philosophers who are now looking at Adorno and Marcuse -- a lot more work remains to be done.

The critical-theoretic question is: why do people desire their own oppression?

How do we show people that what they desire is oppressing them? Can this be shown? What epistemic perspective is presupposed in the very move of saying this to someone -- isn't it tantamount to saying, "I know you better than you know yourself." How is that possible? What are the implications of this for the problems of first-person authority?

In order to make good on this sort of claim, would critical theory have to be scientific? What sort of science would it be? Could there even be a science of human happiness, of flourishing, and of autonomy?

All of the problems that Adorno raised as he attempted to situate himself against both Heidegger on the one hand and against Popper on the other remain problems for any critical theory worth the name.