In a recent inter-blog debate about the nature of pluralism Levi Bryant bravely took on and refuted cultural relativism, a position that noone in the discussion in fact holds. This led me to revisit a previous series of encounters roughly a year ago, where Bryant “refuted” pluralism with a similar argumentative strategy, i.e. by pretending that it was cultural relativism.
Cultural relativism is the position that all knowledge claims are of equal value. It is not actually defended by anyone as an explicit thesis. It is an old stereotype concocted by the analytic tradition of the old pre-Popperian pre-Quinean “knowledge is justified true belief” variety, having no application in the real world. However it is easy to refute, which explains why noone ever believes in it, by precisely the kind of stereotyped questioning that Bryant drags up from his undergraduate years.
In fact noone defends this idea, and I have been very clear in my published articles and on my blog that I do not adhere to this position, and I explain in what way I differ. Something else must be at stake in Bryant’s insistence on posting a series of obviously ridiculous and irrelevant arguments, to refute a notoriously incoherent position. There is the nostalgia for the good old days when issues were clear. There is the debater’s habit of posing irrelevant questions in a hectoring tone to play to a supposedly less sophisticated auditorium and to reduce the adversary to a humiliating silence.
In the recent pluralism debate, as in the preceding debate on relativism, Bryant tried as hard as he could to “teach” people who would have none of his condescending “pedagogical” attitude nor of his bogus lessons. Several times he was reduced to complaining that he understood neither what people were saying, nor their objections to his interventions, nor even simple questions.
In this light the nostalgic objections take on a different significance. We are faced with conceptual personae (the exorcist, the voodoo priest,the scientist) and are asked to decide who we believe and to give our criteria. Bryant himself has no coherent criteria: Latour, Luhmann (who is completely incompatible with Latour, but Bryant doesn’t notice or even care), units, machines, objects, withdrawal and not withdrawal, correlationism and not correlationism but anthropocentrism, the epileptic and “Odin’s hammer”, it all goes into a kaleidoscopic cognitive dumping that swamps out any demand for clarity and coherence. My criterion is diachronic ontology, individuation and the pluralism of modes of existence. Bryant has none.
Or does he? The voodoo priest is the image of someone who requires submission and in the face of opposition uses the psychic mechanisms that underly “black magic” to inflict psychic hurt (and somatic damage) on the unlucky victim. The voodoo priest as a figure in the popular imagination (Bryant relies on no empirical knowledge, just ignorant stereotypes. Who needs to do research when one can cow people with formulaic platitudes?) is a force of disindividuation capable of provoking the demolition both psychic and physical of its victim.
This is the sense of Bryant’s obtuse responses and twisted objections, this is the unavowed goal of his questions opposing the voodoo priest who serves the forces of disindividuation and the researcher devoted to the process of individuation. His hectoring questions and invalid arguments reveal his own identification with such figures of disindividuation, as does the rest of his behaviour when faced with interlocutors espousing alternative modes of existence and of thought.