THE HAUNTING QUESTION OF THE ONTOLOGICAL STATUS OF GHOSTS: Latour’s deconstruction of psychoanalysis

Levi Bryant asks at Critical Animal blog post on The Pluralism Wars: “Does ontological pluralism commit one to claiming spirits and demonic possession exist?” This is my answer:

1) The question is too general, asking about an abstraction “ontological pluralism” when there are many differing versions; In your discussions you shift between the college student who thinks all opinions are equal and Latour, who thinks that opinions have nothing to do with the constitution of different modes of existence. Mixing it all together can only create confusion, this is why I have chosen to talk about just one pluralist, Latour.

2) There is no necessity for all ontological pluralists to be committed to the existence of supernatural entities. In Latour’s case, he does believe in their existence, for empirical reasons, in the sense of his ontological investigation. Further, he concludes that we all believe in such things. This is not an anti-materialist point. For Latour all existence is anchored in material networks. It is however a non-reductionist point: material networks are constructed with qualitatively different relations, even though all relations are material too.

3) Latour thinks that these spirits are what is talked about in psychoanalysis. His objection to psychoanalysis is that its vocabulary is too narrow, and that it is systematically ontologically ambiguous. Noone knows the ontological status of the unconscious, so the explanation of spirits as unconscious complexes is the worst form of reductionism, explaining the unknown by the even more unknown. It is no help to add that the unconscious is material, there is no difference with Latour, who agrees on this point.

4) Latour would reformulate the above question in his own terms as

a) “Do psychogenic material networks exist?” His answer is obviously yes, the psyche is not pre-given, it is produced and constantly in production.

b) “Is the ontological status of the beings that transit these networks (emotions, affects, spirits, gods and demons) only referential, or is it also metamorphic?” Latour does believe that these entities can be studied by referential science, as for him everything can. But in the case of these beings, something very important would be missed if we stuck to just that mode of relation to them.

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3 Responses to THE HAUNTING QUESTION OF THE ONTOLOGICAL STATUS OF GHOSTS: Latour’s deconstruction of psychoanalysis

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    Here’s a post in which I wonder about how the “construction” of a spirit from very specific musical and psychological materials:

    http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2011/10/instrument-matter-in-musicians-mind.html

    What’s important is the method of construction or composition. This is not an “anything goes” kind of business, though I certainly don’t know what the parameters or “felicity conditions” are. It’s very preliminary. It’s also about the psychology of ontology.

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  2. Chen says:

    Apologies in advance. This is a bit convoluted and repetitive as I’m cobbling together a post that was erased when I went to sleep….

    While I approach things from a diametrically opposed end I think it is legit question, Terence. Until we can be pluralist about discussing different ontologies ( not just different Materialisms), anything that suggests that, yes, something more than matter/physical/nature exists will be met with suspicion and always be put though this type of tribunal. This is what fosters Bryant’s questions: he has a materialist stance and while there is a need to be diplomatic, should this diplomacy commit him to taking spirits and demons seriously? To someone who’s already made up there mind this is unpalatable. For my part, why not just affirm that we can talk about these things without prejudicing discussions by a provincial adoption of Materialism as a sine qua non of rational debate?

    Now, to more specifically answer point (1). I agree that that the question is too general because of the many variants of Pluralism. But the general informs the particular here. Since there are Realist positions that postulate different heterogeneous things exists, for example, mind and matter, someone like Levi is going to want to know how a particular Pluralism distinguishes itself from these other ‘bad’ or false ontologies. How does an Ontological Pluralism not legislate the existence of things postulated by either a Dualism or Idealism? I see you’re going some way to answering but in doing so raises the question: Are their purely functional ontological pluralisms?

    This, I think, is perhaps what makes Bryant and others of his stripe nervous: when we’re are talking about different modes of existence and different ontologies, are we simply talking about the way people form worlds? Now, one can be a pluralist while still maintaining some sort of monism: Yes, we all have different elements in our worldviews but only one view is true. Or two or three. Whatever view eliminates Gods and Spirits. The tension, I believe, is between the tendency to phrase ontological pluralisms realistically while the implicit understanding is functionally or heuristically. There is an almost imperceptible and constant shift between these aspects. The “functional” reading it seems is in affirming that Ghosts and Spirits do play a role in people’s lives while the Realist understanding is denying that they have actual efficacy. But then this can be interpreted slightly differently where it is affirmed that Ghosts/Spirits ‘exist’ ( and thus a seeming ‘realist’ interpretation) for those that believe then but then still interpret this sense of ‘exists’ functionally – it is part of a network of ‘beliefs’ that have significance for those people yet those beliefs do not actually pick out anything ‘real.’ So we have a Realism not of Spirits but a realism of belief in Spirits, or a Realism of the effect of beliefs since at a further stage of analysis Spirits as non-material beings will be eradicated metaphysically.

    (2) “There is no necessity for all ontological pluralists to be committed to the existence of supernatural entities. In Latour’s case, he does believe in their existence, for empirical reasons, in the sense of his ontological investigation. Further, he concludes that we all believe in such things.”

    This is a perfect example of what I mean. Does Latour literally believe in the existence of supernatural entities? If he does, that’s one point. But to further say that “we all believe in such things,” is something that would be vociferously denied by someone like Bryant. He would deny forthright that he believes in any supernatural entity so the point here can only be functional. We believe many things that are analogous to supernatural entities whether we want to admit so or not. ” We have never been modern.” But this won’t do – here, we’re arguing that a belief in supernatural entities is analogous not an actual affirmation that these entities exist. If, for example, Levi denies the merits of this analogy or claim, we’re right back to where we started. Furthermore, if he found out that insofar as his belief in a particular idea is in principle no different than belief in Spirits he may then reject this particular idea precisely because it has been shown to be no different.

    “This is not an anti-materialist point. For Latour all existence is anchored in material networks. It is however a non-reductionist point: material networks are constructed with qualitatively different relations, even though all relations are material too.”

    I will get to this at the bottom but this really is the crux, isn’t it? One has to declare their allegiance to Materialism. Because it could very well be an anti-materialist point could it not?

    (3) “His objection to psychoanalysis is that its vocabulary is too narrow…explaining the unknown by the even more unknown.”

    I like this objection! But again, the tension manifests. “No one knows the ontological status of the unconscious…the unconscious is material, there is no difference with Latour, who agrees on this point.” If “No one knows the ontological status of the unconscious,” how can we affirm that it is material? This can only mean that we don’t know the material status of the unconscious. In other words, we’re currently epistemically unable to state how the unconscious is materially realized. Thus, again, a sort of functional pluralism or statement. It is the implicit agreement that the unconscious is material even though we don’t know it’s exact material status. Thus, whatever ‘ontological’ reading we give to the statement, “No one knows the ontological status of the unconscious” it is an ontology that assumes Materialism and the only difference is that it might expand the notion of different ‘material’ levels or some such. This, then, rejects Ghosts and Spirits again insofar as those things are thought to be non-material.

    4a.” “Do psychogenic material networks exist?” His answer is obviously yes, the psyche is not pre-given, it is produced and constantly in production.”

    I think the phrase “psychogenic material networks” imposes a materialist meaning unnecessarily. The status of the “psychogenic” could be debated. But this, again, is an illustration of what I’m talking about. Insofar as we affirm the existence of “psychogenic material networks” what are we affirming? After all, it could be argued that the “psychogenic” insofar as it is not susceptible to purely material or organic explanation does not exist or is merely not yet known by cognitive Science or some such. It will be reduced – just not yet. This, then, is a functional understanding. It ‘exists’ but not in the sense of a robust reality contra Materialism. I suppose the counter is to affirm the full material reality of the “psychogenic” but then this invites the question of how heterogeneous levels of material reality can exist. The term ‘material’ must carry over between these levels so what would be common between these different levels to deem them ‘material.’?

    4b. ” “Is the ontological status of the beings that transit these networks (emotions, affects, spirits, gods and demons) only referential, or is it also metamorphic?” Latour does believe that these entities can be studied by referential science, as for him everything can. But in the case of these beings, something very important would be missed if we stuck to just that mode of relation to them.”

    What would be missed? Or better, what would be missed that is real? If we say the “effects” insofar as what they mean for people, we have not really answered the realist objection or query. They just want know, regardless of how it impacts their lives, if its real or not. Now, when we speak of being studied by referential Science we can mean the neurosciences and cognitive Sciences. Here, again, this can be interpreted in a realist though functionalist sense. If we study these things referentially, we are studying say the part of the brain where the notions of Spirits, Gods, etc. are ‘located.’ Here, we could affirm a ‘realism’ insofar as we say “Notions of the Spirit originate here’ but then immediately cancel this Realism by saying that the brain as a material entity, the brain as such , is what is real and not the notions generated. Now, this is what you may mean by something important would be missed. Insofar as we simply reduce this to referential Science, we are not really talking about these notions and how they are ‘lived’ in the world. But let’s say we grant that point: when we maintain an Ontological Pluralism that is implicitly materialist, have we really moved beyond a mere functional understanding of these things? Is this ontological pluralism or just a better materialist vocabulary?

    Let me conclude with this: To double back on myself: I think the real question that is being asked here is “How is a Materialist Ontological Pluralism possible?” This is to be distinguished from the meta-question “What is ontological Pluralism?” Since Ontological Pluralism, for example, can legislate a dualist position: matter and mind really exists as different ‘things.’ Because this more general question opens up the waters to positions other than materialism, the more precise question is ” How does a Materialist Ontological Pluralism not grant full existence to immaterial entities”? ( and thereby contradict itself) In other words, how does it remain coherent since as a materialism it cannot grant actual existence to the immaterial. The answer it seems is that this Materialist Ontological Pluralism is non-reductive. It does not ‘reduce’ the immaterial to the terms of “referential Science.” It tries to develop a more robust vocabulary sufficient to dealing with the metamorphic. Thus, I suppose, one could argue for different levels of material reality and the notion of ‘Pluralism’ allows their exploration without reduction. Material reality as ’reality’ is not reducible to Physics?

    But my sticking point is this: Is this better vocabulary an example of an ontological Pluralism insofar as it still commits to Materialism? For what is happening here is that Spirits will now be given a functional, material explanation – so are we pluralist, material or otherwise? To illustrate exactly my meaning: If Latour is allowed to say that the fundamentalist gets reality wrong then the fundamentalist can equally maintain that Latour gets reality wrong. What is the difference? It seems that Latour will say ” Yes, those immaterial things exist but not the way you think.” Whereas the fundamentalist will maintain the exact opposite. If so, then Latour has to be offering a functional/heuristic explanation of Spirits, Ghosts, etc. and not a Realist Pluralism explanation of them . The difficulty here then, is explaining, just what the ‘Pluralism’ entails ontologically, what it picks out – because if it does not affirm the existence of say, Spirits, the way fundamentalists do then in order to explain it with a better vocabulary aren’t we just giving a functional explanation? Isn’t this pluralism then non-ontological insofar as it commits only to one specific ontology and explains varying phenomena as different levels of it?

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  3. Pingback: Some Barfieldian themes in Bruno Latour? | Off-Kilter

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