“GAIA” IS A CATEGORY MISTAKE: on a misleading operator of re-intensification

If we accept Lyotard’s idea that the breaking up of any Grand Narrative is the anti-platonic lesson of our post-modern world then we are left with the problem that the proliferation of singularities and multiplicities, of fluxes and events, which was first conceived and experienced as a liberation, became fairly rapidly the depressingly banal state of affairs in the neo-liberal way of life. The democratisation and quantification of intensity led to the lowering of intensity. The underlying ontology is flat, and has flattened our everyday lives.

Resisting this depressive nihilistic state, diagnosed by Mehdi Belhaj Kacem in his book L’ALGÈBRE DE LA TRAGÉDIE, implies a process of intensification that is both faithful to the heritage of the philosophies of difference in some form of ontology of singularities and that combines it with an ethical seriousness. In Bruno Latour’s work we see such a flat ontology of singularities resulting in a universal homogeneity of actors and networks. To break up this homogeneity Latour resorts to heterogeneous modes of existence that add a supplementary dimension of singularity to what transits on the networks, yet this merely duplicates the problem. To overcome this impasse Latour adds a concern with “Gaia” as operator of ethical urgency and intensity.

The problem is that Gaia is not just one entity, and its intensive use is based on a set of category mistakes. Gaia is a hypothetical object posited by a particular science, the object of some New Age pagan religions,  and the concern of a new unifying meta-narrative proposed by Latour to give ethical sense and intensity to his modes of existence project. Yet such a mixing of modes is precisely what is forbidden by his ontological system. Gaia the techno-scientific object does not generate  the same sort of problems as Gaia the ethical alterity demanding the utmost respect. For example, the solutions envisaged in one framing of the problem of climate change are not the same as those inspired by another framing in terms of another mode of existence.

Latour’s Gaia-activism is thus both very timely and ethically engaging and yet irrelevant to his ontological system. It is required as an intensive supplement to the flatness of his ontology but is not conceptually integrated into the system. Just as one can easily imagine someone with a completely different perspective, including a scientistic outlook, being concerned with Gaia, one can also imagine someone who adheres to pluralist perspective place their ethical emphasis elsewhere, such as in the struggle against capitalism.

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MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM AND HARMAN: nihilism and intensity

Mehdi Belhaj Kacem argues that the quest for newness which characterises modernity has led to a lowering of intensity, a generalised depression. The solution he proposes is not to replace the quest for the new with something else, which would be a contradictory gesture, still playing the same old game of the new, and yet pretending it was different (something “else” = something “new”, again)! The idea is to live in the drive to newness but change our relation to it, so as to reintensify it.

I think this sort of concern is behind Alexander Galloway’s critique of Harman’s OOP that it is a truncated Badiousian ontology: Being without the event. Any intensity in Harman’s system is uniquely at the unreal “sensual” level. This means that the deep “real” level is not intensive but rather extensive, containing “equally” real objects. Any values we may consider are sensual too, defining OOP as a form of nihilism in which all values are voided of any application to the real.

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Dying To The Alienations


Very interesting post combining the intellectual with the existential.

Originally posted on mouth of the thread:

I am sitting on the thought of what Terence Blake calls “the habitual content of what is called ‘para-academics’”: “sub-cronies”. Terence puts it,

the sub-cronies are the habitual content of what is called “para-academics” and so are on the side of a synchronic alienation or chosen life. The non-academics avoid this alienation by a diachronic “dying” to the alienations and so valorise more plasticity, resilience, and as you say choosing life.

First of all, what’s significant in Terence’s post (highly recommended before proceeding this post any further) is that Terence helps us to escape the standpoint of consciousness-in-general. He shows us acts of “non-academics” so that we can see “the act of willing”.

Why cannot we piece through the standpoint of consciousness-in-general?

As long as we are at the extremity of the world of epistemological objects, we see only the abstract act of getting it or not getting it. This…

View original 470 more words

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MEHDI BELHAJ KACEM AND TRISTAN GARCIA: impressions of an encounter

I just listened to a radio interview with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem and Tristan Garcia on the occasion of the publication of a new book L’ALGÈBRE DE LA TRAGÉDIE, containing the last chapter of Belhaj Kacem’s book L’ESPRIT DU NIHILISME (2009) along with a new postface by Tristan Garcia. L’ESPRIT DU NIHILISME is quite long, 614 pages, and its last chapter (L’Algèbre de la Tragédie), 164 pages, is described by Belhaj Kacem as being the “heart” of that work. The interview is quite interesting in the synoptic vision it gives of contemporary French philosophy.

The context they sketch is that the end of modernity, the end of the great narratives of legitimation, led to a “passion for singularity” as a means of resistance to the temptations of universalism. However, the proliferation of singularities, instead of leading to a new epoch of creativity and intensity has led rather to a generalised lowering of intensity, a fatigue from the labour of negativity that has powered such resistance and deconstruction of the universal. For Mehdi Kacem, this passion for singularity combined with a generalised fatigue are the characteristics of modern nihilism, where the negative has been separated from its energy and become synonymous with exhaustion and depression.

So a sort of paralysis has come over thought, and the temptation is to return to some sort of static universal or to continue in a static dispersion of singularities, in other words return to an All without negativity (reaction) or remain in a negativity without the All (modern nihilism). To regain some measure of health in this “pathological” situation two solutions are indicated

1) a critique from within, a sort of immanent negativity or “Hegelianism of difference” (rather than of unities) – this is Belhaj Kacem’s solution, that he calls “intensive”

2) a pursuit of this nihilistic state to its logical consequences until the pathology heals itself and remission intervenes – this is what he cals the “extensive” solution, indicating that this is what Tristan Garcia’s flat ontology amounts to.

In both cases the post-nihilistic thought is a form of “non-hegemonic” system, acknowleging that it does not furnish the answer to everything, as there is no All that could be captured inside one system. They mention the philosophies of Latour and Meillassoux as examples of this sort of non-hegemonic system, but seem to regard both Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology as still trying to describe the All of being and so still hegemonic type systems.

Belhaj Kacem emphasises that he has a system, but that it is “non-hegemonic” and also non-academic, as he is an “autodidact” and had no intention of elaborating a system. It happened to him and he became a systematic philosopher “by chance”. He predicts that there will be a proliferation of ontologies, and he regards SR and OOO as part of this movement, but that none will succeed in becoming hegemonic, whether that is their intention or not. Nevertheless, Belhaj Kacem insists that his own system is not an “ontology”, and finds the whole idea of ontology questionable and outmoded, even the “minimal” ontology of Garcia, as there is no All and the time of unitary all-englobing systems is over. He still believes that we need to think being, but that an “ontologic” or logic of being is what is needed, and not an ontology or doctrine of being.

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An interesting difference between Wolfendale’s explorations of Harman’s contradictory theory of time and my own analysis can be seen in his desperate attempt to construct a logic that would make sense of Harman’s seeming contradictions. We both agree that there is an unresolved tension here. I argue that Harman’s “method” is one of ungrounded intuition – that is to say a non-method, as no theory of this intuition is given. This allows Harman to advance theses on the basis of descriptions that are systematically ambiguous as to their status, oscillating between metaphysical (or speculative) hypotheses and phenomenological (or empirical) experience or sometimes conflating them. The intuitive acceptance that Harman’s persuasive descriptions aim at relies on the obliviousness to the question of whether this intuition is phenomenological (confined to the sensual realm) or metaphysical (confined to the realm of real objects).

A notable example of this can be seen in the opening pages of THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT where Harman appeals to the perspective of “naiveté”, which perceives a world of objects. This is precisely the world revealed by Harman’s metaphysical intuition, except for one detail that Harman omits to mention. This world of objects revealed to naive experience is a sensual world, and thus illusory in terms of Harman’s metaphysical bifurcation of the world into sensual and real. Yet this naive representation of the world revealed by our perception is treated as somehow confirming the metaphysical theory that it is illusory.

The status of time in Harman’s system is even more paradoxical, if that is possible. Harman constantly criticises “relationist” ontologies, such as those of Deleuze, Whitehead, and Latour, of being incapable of explaining change. At the same time Harman often repeats that time is sensual and thus unreal. Harman’s own metaphysics is incoherent and he is mistaken about relationist metaphysics since he neglects kinetic and dynamic relations (those concerning rates of change and their relations, i.e. differences of speed and acceleration).

No doubt pursuing a charitable reading beyond ordinary hermeneutic limits, Wolfendale feels obliged to posit a concept that is not present in Harman’s system at all: that of “deep time”, or what one could call noumenal time:

The reality of a deep time in which objects can come into being and cease to be provides the phenomenological background against which the intuitions of discreteness and causation emerge. Without this unthematised conception of time, his picture of vacuum-sealed objects that are nevertheless capable of violent interactions makes no sense (Wolfendale, 206).

This conception is certainly “unthematised” as it nowhere appears in Harman’s exposition of his system, and it is in contradiction with his explicit pronouncements about the unreality of time (though required by his apparent insistence on the reality of change). I would not precisely call it the “phenomenological” background, rather the concept of “deep time” is part of the intuitive background for Harman’s system of objects, in the sense i have described of an intuition that is ambiguous between the sensual and the real. If we followed more closely the letter of Harman’s text it would be more appropriate to talk in terms of deep change. I share Wolfendale’s perplexity about how we can have real change without real time.

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CORRELATIONISM, PLURALISM, AND REDUCTIONISM: Kolozova, Brassier, Wolfendale and Harman

I have thanked Katerina Kolozova several times on this blog (for example in this post, here and here) for having provided interesting and useful conceptual content, from a broadly Laruellian perspective, to the term “correlation”. Her usage gives the term the opposite sense to what the OOOxians mean by it. From the beginning I have never seen any serious content for the term, nor for Harman’s related notion of “philosophies of access” and I give no credence to the distorted history sketched out by means of it. I do not usually employ the term “correlationism”, because in its OOO usage it is a bogus-concept, of minimum content but maximum extension, allowing anyone to be called a correlationist, including Harman himself as Wolfendale’s book shows.

I have already discussed critically, on several occasions, the fictitious history sketched out by those making use of the notion of correlationism (as expressed in terms of the fiction of pervasive “correlationism” in Continental philosophy, the overvaluation of the novelty of Meillassoux’s diagnoses, and the supposed “return” to realism effectuated by the thinkers habitually designated by the grab-all term of “Speculative Realism”). A striking, but slightly ambiguous, example can be found in the preface ot Kolozova’s book THE CUT OF THE REAL, which I discuss here.

I also do not usually talk in terms of “Continental philosophy” except when addressing a debate that features such a term. The one major time that I did employ that expression without sufficient precautionary disclaimers earned me a scathing critique from Brian Leiter! I much prefer the expression “French poststructuralist philosophy of the last 70 years”, because that is all I know anything about.

I have committed myself to reviewing Wolfendale’s book, so I have commented Brassier’s postface, not his whole work. I liked Wolfendale’s preface and devoted 3 posts to saying why. I only half-liked Brassier’s postface, which I find verbose, hastily written (Brassier criticises Harman’s metaphoric style, but would Harman ever use such a mixed metaphor as Brassier’s “reignite the breakout”), and badly thought out. Insofar as Brassier valorises Meillassoux and perpetuates this false simplistic history of recent philosophy he shares too much with Harman, and they become Tweedledum and Tweedledee, mimetic variants of the same configuration, one naturalist and the other anti-naturalist.

On the possible conflation of pluralism and correlationism, I think Wolfendale’s position is a little more nuanced than my previous post may lead one to think. However, despite his awareness of the multiple senses of  “pluralism”, Wolfendale principally refers to it as coinciding with some form of postmodernist scepticism and, by implication, of relativism. I have analysed pluralism repeatedly in struggle against that image, arguing that pluralists such as Deleuze, Feyerabend, Lyotard, Serres, Latour, Stiegler, Laruelle are not sceptics but realists.

On the association of correlationism and reductionism, I do not think that accusations of “reductionism” depend necessarily for their validity on a model of scientific explanation. We must distinguish intra-regional reduction (e.g. within the sciences, but equally within politics or psychoanalysis) from inter-regional reduction, where one or more regional ontologies are reduced to another (“regional ontologies” being roughly equivalent to Latourean modes of being, or Badiousian truth-procedures). Brassier could be accused of naturalistic (or even “scientistic”) reductionism if he gives ontological primacy to the natural realm to the point of reducing other proposed forms of existence to that realm. Similarly, Harman could be accused of anti-natural reductionism, in that he reduces all reality to his realm of real objects, declaring the objects of the sciences, the humanities, and common sense to be “utter shams”.

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BRASSIER vs HARMAN: reciprocal correlationism

I did not like Brassier’s postface as much as Wolfendale’s preface, no doubt because he combines his personal anamnesis of an ex-speculative realist with what I regard as a completely false historical narrative about the omnipresence of a correlationist orthodoxy and the attempted “breakout” that SR represented. This breakout was a failure supposedly due to the capture of the movement by Harmanian branding and marketing. As we saw in the last two posts, Wolfendale associates Harman’s OOP with scepticism and pluralism. Brassier tries to associate it with scepticism and “dandyism” posited as hallmarks of poststructuralism.

A strange feature of Brassier’s argument in the postface is that he associates correlationism and its “pervasive epistemological scepticism” (405) with the poststructuralist critique of representation. He even goes so far as to assert the existence of an “anti-representational (or ‘correlationist’) consensus” (417), in agreement with Wolfendale’s notion of “orthodox correlationism” as the “conceptual core” of the “sceptico-critical hegemony” (359). It follows from this conceptually misguided and historically false premise that the critique of correlationism is tied to an escape from scepticism and a return to representation.

We are moving at a very general and abstract level of discussion here, where words may be employed with different acceptions depending on the author’s problematic. But as a historical thesis about the concept of representation as actually used in recent Continental philosophy this is the exact opposite of the situation. The critique of representation, for example in Deleuze’s analysis of the image of thought, is the critique of “correlationism” (if one must use that misleading term). Representation is analysed as constructing the world in its own image and repressing awareness of this constructive activity, it is denounced as unconscious correlationism. That is to say that the critique of correlationism began and was accomplished long before Meillassoux set pen to paper. A return to representation risks being a return to the dogmatic image of thought and to its implicit correlational functioning.

This is why I do not like the term “correlationism”. If one can be an unconscious correlationist, all the while thinking one is a realist, it seems to me that anyone and everyone can be diagnosed as “correlationist” according to a dogmatic stance imported from outside into the debate. Similarly, the concept of representation is equally ambiguous, as both its proscription and its defence could be called correlationist. In its diagnostic use correlationism is not a clear and stable notion capable of serving as a demarcation criterion between “sceptical” and “scientistic” positions (as each calls the other).

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