Being, Background and Pluripolitics: Notes Towards a Theory of Ecologistics

b “We start from the One, rather than arriving at it. We start from the One, which is to say that if we go anywhere, it will be toward the World, toward Being” (François Laruelle, as quoted in Mackay 2005).

The immanent force and non-human agencies of reality are never truly absent within our clamorous conscious experience. The Real cuts and collides in perceptions and our actions, saturating our thoughts with varying affective intensity. In other words, in my slightly convoluted terminology, I agree with Laruelle’s statement (above) that there is a plane of ontological consistency running through our experience as an ontic tangibility which discloses the intensive-affective materiality of life.

Moreover, this pre-thetic and non-symbolic background immanence affords and occasions all consequential action. It is, in the parlance of a certain strain of intellectualization, the very condition of possibility for existence, action and communication. To exist is to affect and be affected, to be assailed and to assail, and no amount of intellectual gerrymandering can eliminate the raw phenomenal and corporeal presence of self and others.

Every action, every utterance and every gesture arises from an ontologically undeniable ‘commons’, or plane of consistency, or background conditionality we all share. This point was made in several ways be writers such as Laruelle, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze and others.

More directly, any concerted phenomenological analysis can confirm such a background context via the ‘dark’ but relentlessly creeping presence of radical alterity (non-symbolic agencies) within the clearing/openess of the general field of possibility and experience which existence itself (Being) demands.

“Phenomenology, then, is an essential cognitive task of confronting the threat that things pose in their very being. … After phenomenology, we can only conclude that a great deal of philosophizing is not an abstract description or dispassionate accounting, but only an intellectual defense against the threatening intimacy of things” (Tim Morton, Realist Magic).

The threats and ontological intimacy of things is ever-present and demands our response in every moment and with every movement. We are fundamentally in and of the world; or, as a famous Nazi once claimed, our very natures are that of ‘being-in-the-world’. And to claim otherwise is both perceptually irresponsible and intellectually dishonest.

So let us grant the presence of a pre-linguistic background context where contact and communication is possible or let is give up entirely the game of talking about consequence and causality, and stop thinking together altogether.

Yet I shy away from labeling this untamed corporeal context as “the One” as Laruelle does, and instead advocate a radically strategic (axiomatic )negation of doxic symbolic codings of background immanence as means of shifting certain cognitive habits and priorities away from decisional closure (dogma) towards enhanced perceptual sophistication and pragmatic concerns capable of registering agental materiality on its own terms. I have suggested before that such a shift in cognitive and perceptual attention might be considered as a type zero-point realism – which methodologically suspends intellectual decisionism in favor of an conceptual and tactical open engagement with real worlds.

The Mahayana Buddhists make a similar move with the notion of sunyata (emptiness) when attempting to help seekers attend closer to raw, propositionless reality as opposed to continuing to be mystified but his/her own reified beliefs.

All of this is to say that there is always already a common world where interaction is rendered possible and in which all politics necessarily partake. This common world is the corporeal ecology of things – a structural plane of possibility. And all materialisms and materialist politics gesture towards this (see for example Manuel DeLanda on non-linear material dynamics, Jane Bennett on vibrant materiality, or John Protevi on political affects). By appealing to the contributions of nonhumans (and non-conceptuality generally) both without and within we attempt acknowledge, cope-with, and engage the background corporeal ecologicality as the medium for any politics of conflict or solidarity.

Reality is a bewilderingly complex and wild field of operations (wilderness). There exists intricately composed, networked and hyper-relational entities, assemblages and flows at various scales relative to the human emerging from the background (or ‘dark’ wilderness of being) to impinge and impose their agental force upon us. If the background is where we all meet and subsist then we as corporeal-vulnerable-coping-beings become more or less capable of navigating and negotiating (more or less consciously) depending on our ability to locate and relate to that which transcends us within that field. As such, I think it is crucial that we remain sensitive to and locate any possible or actual sites of antagonism and solidarity within this general ecology as shared multi-leveled political context.

As Levi Bryant has pointed out (here) in his appeal to pluripolitics (geological, thermodynamics, etc.), any realist ontology and politics worthy of its claims would be attuned to the different strata, assemblages and flows at work in any given situation, at the same time as attending to the ideological and narratological activities of human discourse.

I believe this type of widening of political sense-ability and imagination is certainly possible given the tools and sophisticated speculative theories currently available. In fact, there is historical precedent when modifications in our technical abilities combined with altered perspectives and deliberations of the natural world resulted in changes in political and intellectual possibilities. The culminating political, institutional and economic upheavals generated out of the European Enlightenment was part of an outgrowth of humans gradually becoming more and more aware of non-discursive (material/ecological) realities and then increasingly referencing them in our semiotic codes and communicative habits.

Returning to the immediate point, however, what I am trying to suggest is that any discourse, tradition, or intellectual fashion advocating a strict form of cultural relativism or social constructionist view that resists reference to the autonomous operations/life of non-discursive realities FAILS to sufficiently account for what is going on in our experiences within the wider field (‘Background’) of action and consequence. At the same time, any discourse circulating without reference to hermeneutics and the limitations inherent to communicative action FAILS to sufficiently account for the very real semiotic constructions impacting any given human situation. No level of reality or affective complex should be left out of the mix. Which is to say there is a decidedly ontographic dimension to politics. This is why many of us believe that after decades of an overemphasis of politicized opinions and discursive politics operating at the level of ideology that a reckoning of the autonomous life of matter-energy at the registers of the existential-symbolic is THE political issue of our time. ‘Intervention’ requires an adequate sensitivity and ontographic accounting of the general ecology (or background context) of political activity (political ontography?).

Human politics are always already ecological practices deeply implicated in infrastructural processes. Here I think of infrastructure as the intra-active context for subsistence and social relations. The forces, modes and means of ecosocial (re)generation are determining. Infrastructure is the ‘weave’ that supports our worlds and organizes all consequential flows. Infrastructures are where we begin not only imagining alternative modes of existing but actually enacting them. Infrastructure is the intra-active plane on which the foam of political ideology forms. Beneath or before human phantasy and ideology there are basic ways that humans assemble themselves – the affording ‘soil’ within which the weeds of justification and ideology grow.

Marx knew this, Foucault knew this, so many great thinkers knew it, even if they didn’t quite articulate it strongly enough. What truly matters is the weave that forms our worlds and its consequential flows, not the stories we tell about its strands. And so engaging the social field at the multiple levels and strata that form infrastructure means augmenting political ideologies with the power of praxis and its results. We need a whole new set of references and action potentials that allow a type of “infra-politics”, as Angela Mitropoulos has suggested:

Infrastructure is the answer given to the question of movement and relation. As an answer to the question of movement and relation, infrastructure is the “promiscuous infrastructures” that have sustained the occupations and encampments of Tahrir Square, Wall Street, and Oakland. The infra-political builds toilets in homeless encampments in Sacramento; by-passes pre-paid water meters, trickler systems and privatised water piping in Durban; formulates vocabularies of reconfiguration rather than foreclosure and standardisation; delivers health care to noborder protests and undocumented migrants; creates phone apps for evading kettling by police in London; digs tunnels under national boundaries; and more – the infra-political, in other words, revisions activism not as representation but as the provisioning of infrastructure for movement, generating nomadic inventiveness rather than a royal expertise…

To think politics as infrastructural is to set aside questions of subjectivity, identity, demands, promises, rights and contracts, and instead to render visible the presumptions that the knots of attachment, adherence, care or fondness and have already been tied by nature or supposedly incontestable forms of connection (by kinship, race, money, sexuality, nation, and so on). The materialities of infrastructure render it the most pertinent political question there is. Everything else is distraction. Infrastructure is the undercommons – neither the skilled virtuousity of the artisan, nor regal damask, nor the Jacquard loom that replaced, reproduced and democratised them, but the weave.

Politics will always be about adjustment and coordinating lifeways/modes of existence in context. And so no level of materiality or affective exchange should escape our consideration. For example, we can argue that any communalistic revolutionary political act would do well, as Marx argued, to remain sensitive and interested in disrupting established material-ecological orders. The re-coordination and transformation of the multitude of human and nonhuman (and material and expressive) elements is what generates differential possibilities for functioning, development and production – possibilities that might lead to increases in nonzero sums.

Significant questions remain however: how might we go about negotiating issues around antagonism when discussing, coding and attending to the differentially interpreted background context of human action? We can acknowledge that there is an intensive material (corporeal) and consequential ecology or mesh of things within which we emerge and are constantly entangled in, but how are we going to establish enough consensus regarding the specific details following from these conditioning background realities (the Real)? What kinds of cross-interest and collective interpretations can be synthetically composed or adapted which might lead to widely supported and more equitable, efficient, adaptable and eudemonic political assemblages and infrastructure?

I certainly have no ready-made or formulaic answers to such questions. And we know from experience that most political, existential and technical solutions require working out at various local and trans-local levels according to the devilish details of real life situations. But I think we could assist the process of enacting solutions by continuing to explore the possibility of forming a realist and politically charged consensus around certain methodological and verification standards.

In other words, there is some work to be done around 1) what counts as legitimate and adequate knowledge at various scales of complexity viz. methodological appropriateness and verificational rigor, and 2) cross-referencing and prioritizing different and sometimes competing functional and pragmatic imperatives (or necessities) along the lines of thoroughly politicized ecological-infrastructural projects.

Negotiating the complexities inherent to both these tasks will be difficult, but we have to ask ourselves, for example, in what ways and under what conditions might the information and insights into the complexity of food-chains, carbon cycles, climate, hydrologic processes, etc., coming from ecologists (as well local knowledge and indigenous ‘experts’ – see the ethnographic literature on Balinese water temples for example) be given adequate attention and ultimately higher priority over the “needs” or agendas of corporate entities and capitalist producers, at least as it pertains to specific issues of ecosystem maintenance, sustainability and resource use? Is there a somewhat discernable functional/machinic-ecological and relatively autonomy ‘hierarchy of needs’ and imperatives emerging from the material/corporeal background conditions of existence? And, if so, how can we align human imperatives and adjust our social priorities to align with the imperative and ‘needs’ of all those nonhumans both without and within?

Politics must be oriented towards adjusting and adapting to different nonhuman levels of complexity. So can ontological (‘natural’) and cognitive (‘cultural’) diversity be negotiated within this shared context? Is a thoroughgoing realism compatible with reflexive pluralism? I believe it is and must be: the ever-present autonomy and force of things requires a robust realism at the same time as the complexity of the world demands a type of pluralism. I think pluralism generally can be made consistent with a realist and naturalist ontology by being deployed as a project fashioned to the necessity of coping with onto-diversity. And there is a definitive need to ‘pick sides’ on certain issues in this regard.

Overall there is a growing need to collectively differentiate and coordinate human priorities in ways which align with more general nonhuman imperatives. Deep ecological imperatives can trump many of our all too human interests in the sense that primary production (planetary regeneration processes) is the foundation for secondary production (capitalist production). The adequacy of human politics as ecological practice will ultimately rise or fall on the simultaneous negotiation of differences at multiple levels (including the existential and discursive registers) within the context of infrastructural praxis itself informed by a realist appreciation of and attenuation to that which is indifferent to any ideology: the background conditionality/corporeality of existence.

28 responses to “Being, Background and Pluripolitics: Notes Towards a Theory of Ecologistics

  1. Fascinating piece, Michael.

    “Returning to the immediate point, however, what I am trying to suggest is that any discourse, tradition, or intellectual fashion advocating an strict form of cultural relativism or social constructionist view that resists reference to the autonomous operations/life of non-discursive realities FAILS to sufficiently account for what is going on in our experiences within the wider field (‘background’) of action and consequence”

    This claim is becoming very hard to argue against, almost – and here’s the thing – as hard as it is to argue FOR!

    How, for instance, does one take a naturalistic, ecological vantage to intentional issues and conceptual domains without simply transforming ‘ecology’ into a shill for ‘context,’ or ‘nature’ into a blind for ‘instrumentality’? Short of some principled and compelling way of moving from the natural to the political, from the mechanical to the meaningful, it’s all going to amount to ersatz rationalization.

    You realize this, I think, which is why you begin by positing a common ‘background immanence.’ You metaphorically characterize your approach as a ‘stripping away’ of symbolic accretion to reveal a ‘type zero-point realism’ as means to motivate a ‘common world’ of moral action anchored in the possibility of human experience. But actually, symbolic accretions seem to be all you have from the outset. Your ‘ground zero’ remains trapped in the communicative loop the same as everyone else’s. And thus the claim that one’s political discourse allows materiality to speak THROUGH it begins to seem very religious very quickly.

    Ted Bundy famously claimed that he was expressing the natural, that he had slipped the social control mechanisms of morality. Death is natural. Suffering is natural. Think of the millions of atrocities that sculpted your DNA. If anything, this is the ‘ground zero’ of the real, the place from which we all begin in fact, as ecologically embedded organisms. Our discriminations deviate from nature’s at every turn. This is the discrepancy, the ‘Moral Difference,’ that needs to be overcome. The trick – the hard one that no one in the history of philosophy has been able to pull off – is to understand how our discriminations, our morally constrained selections, arise out of a far less discriminate nature.

    So long as the connection between the natural (indiscriminate) and the meaningful (discriminate) remains occult, any claim to ground the meaningful on the natural will likewise be occult, a matter of rationalizing the ambiguities falling out of the complexity of the natural, will it not?

    • I think that as long as we are trying to exceed what Heidegger sneered at as “mere” anthropology (and what Richard Rorty rightly championed as our always-already-manipulating our environs) than we are surfing (if not just flinging) what Freud diagnosed as the “black tide of mud of occultism”.
      I do think that part of the task for those who are willing/able is to come to terms with what I think you are calling “the ambiguities falling out of the complexity of the natural” but I would welcome more details/fleshing-out, thanks.

      • Our brains are pattern detectors skewed to false positives for a number of evolutionary reasons. When it comes to moral determinations, for instance, the research indicates that we see what we need to see to promote our agendas. So short of any bona fide theoretical knowledge of the relation between the natural and the normative, it seems reasonable to suppose that the complexity of the former will provide a near bottomless fund for rationalization, that philosopher after philosopher will present pattern after pattern without any definitive means of arbitrating between them.

    • yes good making patterns is one of our many ways of manipulating/making-use, tho in general my sense is that we don’t need definitive (in the neo-pragmatist sense for me) means of arbitration for things/patterns/assemblages to eventually prove useful, I think this is part of what Donald Davidson was after in his work on ‘metaphor’ (might help in the long run to throw ‘intuitions’ in the mix). Can you give us a working definition of (what counts as) “bona fide” theoretical knowledge?

      • My flat-footed definition would be anything that allows us to predict and manipulate (and this is just to say, that it need not be anything any single human can ‘understand’) well enough to stymy interpretative regress.

      • I’ll take flat-footed thanks, but what do we do day to day in cases of subjects/doings that exceed such grasping (even if they may someday be in reach)?

      • In my own view this everyday level is simply the mire where we all have to muddle on, if only because wallowing pays no bills. If you’re underscoring the lack of any clear boundary between what counts as ‘theoretical,’ you’re entirely right to do so. We can scarce talk without ‘theorizing’ in some sense. Just look at folk-psychology. ‘Theoreticality’ versus ‘theorishness’ is something I find very interesting, primarily because I think it’s obvious that our limited capacity for the former arises out of our almost miraculous capacity for the latter. All the same, the distinction between speculating on a lover’s motives and speculating about the nature of God and Reality remains a stark one. For all our remarkable genuis when it comes to the first, we’re still cutting throats and blowing up cafes over the latter.

  2. Scott,

    My answer to your final question is an unqualified YES. “Rationalizing the ambiguities falling out of the complexity of the natural” is basically what we are doing, precisely because we are blind-brained and kludged entities attempting to cope and make our way in the world. Ontology, politics, and science are all human practices (with more or less efficacy in particular domains) geared towards increasing intimation within the world. Actual bodies, tools, communications and assemblages of various sizes and complexity mash, flow and mangle together to create possibility spaces (ecological niches) which humans necessarily adapt within. Our theories and discourses are simply expressions of an associative and recursive central nervous systems using symbols to cope and manipulate their way in these wild mangles and meshes.

    The nuance here in the current discussion is that I am attempting a double movement of cognition and pragmatic action:

    First I’m calling for a stripping away, deflating or zeroing down of the usual conceptual pretentions which lead us to an attitude of certainty. We need to see cognition (and linguistic signification) for what it is and is not and then operationalize that awareness to think and communicate differently – more tentatively and experimentally. Thinkers as celebrated as Nietzsche, Derrida and Rorty have argued this very point. And now we have the cognitive sciences to provide clarity on the limits of conceptual awareness. Your own BBT theory (and the so-called ‘semantic apocalypse’) is instructive in this regard.

    My appeals to the non-conceptual background materiality of existence is a lateral move attempting to temper and ultimately ‘mutate’ our communicative actions and resulting synthetic products (i.e., theories, narratives, discourses) via a perpetual indexing and acknowledgement of the autonomous/non-linguistic forces, flows and assemblages at work outside of any of our semantic appropriations. Attempts to orient our experiments and communicative actions against the ‘background’ are meant to affect a temporary and strategic negation of all intentional content. This ongoing (recursive?) indexing of the non-conceptual texture of affective life (in the Spinozian pre-mentalistic sense) can be rendered axiomatic as a perpetual negation, or what I refer to as ‘axiomatic zero’. The trope of ZERO is emblematic for me of the raw, primary and indiscriminate nature of reality as it exists of itself outside of our secondary synthetic conceptions. There is nothing (‘zero’) we can say or think that can explain away the traumatic presence of the Real.

    In short, then, I believe we can reorient human cognition towards more adaptive sense-abilities: becoming more viscerally attuned and pragmatically concerned. The outcome of such developments might at least include the following:

    1. An increase in shared interests regarding the ‘common world’ of material-energetic existence. If our semantic codes/habits of cognition are continuously prioritizing sensory integrations and adjusting to intensive modifications and extensive contacts then we can eliminate some of our tendencies towards adopting and operationalizing misleading and confused habits of thought and behavior. When the natural world becomes our default frame of reference (‘zero-point realism’) would we be less inclined to hold faulty and destructive beliefs? At base, this is what motivates me to obsessively talk about an immanence without transcendence.

    2. A greater capacity for reflexive and transversal thinking. If we can reconcile the total ‘collapse’ of meaning brought on by insights into the limits of rationality, the influence of unconscious processes, the existence of cognitive bias, the potency of primitive emotional flooding, etc., (which I maintain is at the core of a strain of nihilistic intelligence) with a perpetual sensory/visceral (pre-lingusitic) indexing of the material-energetic (or what some philosophers refer to as ‘machinic’) plane of immanence we can disrupt conventional cognitive habits and encourage more flexible and thus less dogmatic deliberation processes and schema formation, and subsequent evaluations and communications among different cognizers. When we limit our reifications (and less adaptive rationalizations) and hominid meaning-making is understood as just another means for coping we can’t help but act more and more from a sense of humility and playful exploration/experimentation.

    And so what are we to make of all this in moment? Well if we grant most of what I have written about the limits of cognition the ever-presence and consequential nature of the material-energetic field then we might start defending some modified version of pragmatism, but with a materialist/corporealist slant.

    Arran and I have called our strain of pragmatism ‘post-nihilist’ as a way to link the deflated view of human signification described above (an insight at the core nihilism) to the necessity of coping via corporeal existence beyond (post) said collapse of meaning. It is the contention of the authors of this website that individuals and groups must make our way in the material and consequential world despite and in acknowledgement of the fact that language and meaning will never grant access to absolute truth and knowledge.

    You ask, “How does one take a naturalistic, ecological vantage to intentional issues and conceptual domains without simply transforming ‘ecology’ into a shill for ‘context,’ or ‘nature’ into a blind for ‘instrumentality’?”

    I argue we don’t even attempt to avoid such transformations, we allow and even encourage them. My reference to the primacy of infrastructure (above) is an attempt to coordinate the different resonances and similarities between the terms ‘ecology’, ‘context’, ‘nature, and ‘instrumentality’ into something manageable and practical. I’m not overly interested in what terms or ‘maps’ we decide to use in this regard because I’m seeking to operate from the ‘background’ up, so to speak, and develop proto-types and vocabularies oriented towards pragmatic engagements of actual territories/problematics. Post-nihilist praxis seeks out effective tools and practices for pragmatic and communicative action.

    You write:

    “[S]ymbolic accretions seem to be all you have from the outset. Your ‘ground zero’ remains trapped in the communicative loop the same as everyone else’s. And thus the claim that one’s political discourse allows materiality to speak THROUGH it begins to seem very religious very quickly.”

    In a sense I agree. When taken conceptually appeals to the background conditions of huaman action and communication remain trapped in semantics. But here is the rub: I don’t want what I argue about immanence to be taken conceptually. I encourage the suspension of our tendencies to fashion metaphysical truth-claims in an attempt to achieve a type of raw confirmation of the structurally consequential and wild (autonomous) existence of the background through sheer viscerally engagement. By proposing an ‘axiomatic zero’ I am suggesting the bracketing of intentionality itself affecting a radical attenuation to pre-thetic intensive experience. Again, all resulting “symbolic accretions” following from such experiences are synthetic achievements of a coping body/brain making its way in particular eco-social matrices gained after the brute ‘fact’ of corporeal embeddedness. How directly confronting this ‘fact’ transforms our cognitive styles remains to be seen.

    • One of the things that fascinated me back in my Branch Derridean days was ways of thinking the linguistic transparency/performativity dichotomy beyond Derrida’s two-dimensional logic, the facile way, for instance, anyone can accuse a materialism of being an idealism simply by focussing on the discursive performance of representing that materialism. So I appreciate what you’re attempting to do via the ‘axiomatic zero’ as a gesture to the raw meat outside ovens of conceptualization. In other words, the operator “When taken conceptually…” does carry water for me even though an inferentialist would have you for dinner, cooked or uncooked!

      But despite this sympathy, I still think you face what seem to be two insuperable difficulties. The first is that of convincing anyone your spade has struck something other than conceptual stone. Foot-stomping won’t do. And arguing as much simply reinscribes you insofar as it so obviously requires the deployment of concepts. If *gesturing* to the raw is the most you can do, then what’s the point?

      The second difficulty is the one that I alluded to above: explaining how something outside the inferential order period (let alone the moral inferential order) can possibly have moral inferential consequences of any type, let alone emancipatory (as opposed to, say, facistic) ones. An axiom without discriminate inferential consequences is a poor axiom indeed.

      • ” If *gesturing* to the raw is the most you can do, then what’s the point?”
        I get yer point in this context but I find such gestures sometimes to be helpful in terms of underlining (if not foregrounding) the limits of our grasp (without turning those all-too-human limits into meta-physical principles).

  3. I appreciate the feedback Scott, and my quick and dirty answer is that the whole point of a radically negational axiom without inferential consequences is to short-circuit the impulse (and it truly is a symbolic-referential based desire) to inferential association in the first place. An axiomatic zero can operate within the semantic field to disrupt the automatic coding of our experience of the raw and thick of things viz. any pet doxa.

    Why might we attempt to temporarily undermine the will to meaning at all? Because in doing so we might shock the cognitive system into reorganizing perceptual ratios towards more immediate bodily and practical/instrumental concerns. In other words, is it possible to design a discourse that self-destructs on the way to a heightened pre-representational sensual awareness? (a return to the ‘flesh’?)

    My hope is that it might be possible to enact modes of cognition and being-in-the-world which operate via a kind of default (non-schematic) realist orientation. This embodied sense-ability and resultant reflexivity would utilize language practices capable of rendering arguments like the one you suggest above re: idealism vs. materialism – or even pluralism vs. realism – superfluous to actually coping, exploring and doing ‘science’ in the world. If we want to change how thought is deployed and alter our propositional attitudes towards the world we need to reorganize our sensorial and cognitive-emotional capacities. The aim is to change the way we think not the content per se.

    What I am suggesting, then, is to install some type of self-effacing logical operators capable of pushing the limits of perceptual-cognitive processing and activating heightened sensory acuity. What this “reorganization” might do is place limits on our tendencies to duped by the magic show of symbolic consciousness and affect more unmediated naturalist attitudes towards the world. The consequences of enacting this type of ‘operating system’ would not only be a deeper sensitivity to the materiality and ecologicality of things but also a greater appreciation of the enactive character of all human practices.

    The question of moral sentiment and deliberation is more complex. I don’t think we can make moral inferences based on gestures towards the great outdoors. I think moral sentiments and more importantly actions have to do with evolved capacities for empathy and animal altruism within social groups. Issues of alleviating suffering are simultaneously technical (infrastructural) and existential (psychological) issues. If the presence of suffering makes humans feel bad we can collectively or individually decide to change the circumstances that lead to that suffering, or we can attempt to manage it at the level of personal choice, attitude, or emotional adjustment. Again, these are secondary issues to what I am gesturing at. Developing an adequate enough cognitive and practical stance in the world is where politics and pragmatics begin. What we collectively manage in terms of ethical precepts or laws, and the kinds of infrastructural/societal arrangements we seek to enact, is, again, an issue of coping-with and within a wild and complex world. Beyond good and evil is the challenge (and opportunity?) of bare existence.

  4. “my quick and dirty answer is that the whole point of a radically negational axiom without inferential consequences is to short-circuit the impulse (and it truly is a symbolic-referential based desire) to inferential association in the first place. An axiomatic zero can operate within the semantic field to disrupt the automatic coding of our experience of the raw and thick of things viz. any pet doxa.”

    But now you’re drifting back toward negative dialectics, are you not? and Adorno’s (self-acknowledged (which makes him a rarity)) trap of being only able to gesture to some Messianic beyond of instrumental rationality. I appreciate the following as a theoretical goal:

    “What I am suggesting, then, is to install some type of self-effacing logical operators capable of pushing the limits of perceptual-cognitive processing and activating heightened sensory acuity. What this “reorganization” might do is place limits on our tendencies to duped by the magic show of symbolic consciousness and affect more unmediated naturalist attitudes towards the world. The consequences of enacting this type of ‘operating system’ would not only be a deeper sensitivity to the materiality and ecologicality of things but also a greater appreciation of the enactive character of all human practices.”

    but the question is one of having a position that can actually achieve such a thing on a collective scale. The way general culture imports memes from hyper-specialized speculative discourses is almost entirely aleatory, and when the ideas do manage to spread, like ‘deconstruction’ or ‘rhizome’ for instance, they’ve typically morphed into tools for the very kinds of intellectual labour they were designed to problematize.

    As the case of Adorno shows, theoretical reconceptualization is not enough. You need to find some way into the scientific kitchen if you’re going to have a say in our social dinner. And this, I think, is a problem that dogs all ontology-first approaches: unless you can show how your characterization makes a genuine *cognitive difference,* those in the business of making such differences simply won’t listen. This is why I always tell people that ‘scientism’ names our collective dilemma, not some kind of epistemological shortcoming.

    I dunno. These are some of the reasons I abandoned the ontological angle of approach years ago. I just couldn’t find any way around them.

    • “The way general culture imports memes from hyper-specialized speculative discourses is almost entirely aleatory, and when the ideas do manage to spread, like ‘deconstruction’ or ‘rhizome’ for instance, they’ve typically morphed into tools for the very kinds of intellectual labour they were designed to problematize”
      yep whole lot of bad renderings of différance into difference out there in the ether and don’t get me started on “dialectics”, that reminds me that I have to go back and reread Wittgenstein on showing vs saying.
      just say non à ontology …

      • BTW the negation is “axiomatic” simply to avoid the performative contradiction of a ‘pure’ negation. If the only axiom is to negate the possibility of absolutely grounded our language games then there is our only recourse is to the background non-discursivity of embodied and experiential life.

    • Scott,

      I do think it would be fair to say that what I am suggesting is close to Adorno’s formulation of ‘negative dialectics’, except for I would never argue for such a movement via Hegel (or even a critique of Hegel as Adorno does). I would try to argue for axiomatic negation based on scientific research on cognitive-linguistics in the context of ontogenetic and phylogenetic evolutionary/ecological dynamics rather than a metaphysics of ‘dialectics’. Which is to say, the dynamics and causal layers involved in how embodied cognitive-agents interact and form consciousness habits are more animalian and complex than the Frankfurters supposed. Like you say we need scientific methodology and interpretive tools to effectively theorize such things.

      I advocate an ontographic practice deeply informed by but never strictly derivative of (over-determined by) scientific methods and data. ‘Ontology-first’ truly is a fools game but ‘science-only’ is methodologically autistic in its inability to take Kuhnesque historicity seriously. Certainty is equally blinding for both ontography (opposed to metaphysics in my view) and the local sciences if fail to recognize the limits of theory in both domains. I think the STS folks demonstrated this with much force.

      The post-nihilistic impulse, then, is to render both science and philosophy as conceptually reflexive human practices with PARTICULAR methodological advantages and specific discursive potentials, with the aim being better and better maps for communicative and practical action/adaptation/coping.

      • my only quibble with this as it is written M, is that I don’t think there is such A thing/method as either Science or Philosophy, even my hero Annemarie Mol’s ‘local/multiple’ ontologies are too strong/reified if taken as much more than perspicuous-re-minders of familial resemblances of practices/assemblages, so ever more particularity/specificity would be good I think.
        We cannot of course help but to make things simpler/handier if they are to be useful (and because of course we cannot duplicate/grasp the actual emerging complexities of things/environs) but should never lose sight (easier said than done I realize, not sure how possible it is) of the limits of such project-ions. The tyranny of the means is a real beast…

  5. This is a very interesting discussion. I’d like to say something about pragmatic post-nihilism, as I understand it. The idea, I take it, is that naturalism should humble us. If our discourse becomes fact-based rather than truthy, to use Stephen Colbert’s amusing distinction, we have a common ground and that should make us more egalitarian; at least, we can then “disrupt conventional cognitive habits and encourage more flexible and thus less dogmatic deliberation processes” and “act more and more from a sense of humility and playful exploration/experimentation.”

    As I recall from Rorty, he embraced, rather, a kind of relativism. There’s no truth or objectivity that’s deeper than solidarity, for him. We liberal Westerners do things our way and then there are other tribes across the pond that do things their way. The worldviews are reified and incommensurable, and the naturalistic perspective allows us only to understand those cognitive processes, not to avoid them. The naturalist understands that the common ground isn’t something unified like Being or the One. That’s theology, a metaphysical fairytale. Natural reality isn’t one thing such that all who attend to the facts should be agreeing with respect to their values, just as they do on the scientific issues. This is a kind of scientism, which I think liberals are wont to fall into. We assume that because scientists reach consensus on the facts of how nature works, we should likewise be able to think rationally until we agree on how we ought to live or on how society ought to be organized. This assumes that broadly scientific methods work in the humanities just as they do in the sciences.

    But that’s not how we come to embrace our values. Our values don’t fall out of our understanding of the natural facts. On the contrary, naturalism tells us to expect tribalism, reification, and political power struggles. This is why I think conservatives are actually more naturalistic than liberals. Conservatives tell themselves noble lies about God and so on, but the elite (rich) conservatives see through that and embrace social Darwinism. That’s their attempt to be naturalistic–and why not? Who says it’s more natural to ensure all your beliefs are aligned with the facts, as opposed to taking a leap of faith in a myth or deceiving the masses with noble lies to benefit a cabal of plutocrats (alpha males or sociopathic predators)? As far as nature is concerned, these are just natural processes, having to do with dominance hierarchies, the organizational law of oligarchy, and the tendency for power to corrupt the leaders. Nature is undead, as I like to put it, so if anything, it “speaks” the scientific language of mathematics, not our tribal language games. Conservative politics are monstrous to me, but doesn’t that monstrosity nicely reflect the impersonality and indifference of the underlying facts of nature?

    I would encourage naturalistic liberals to go more Nietzschean on these matters. I know Nietzsche himself wasn’t a liberal, but that’s irrelevant. We should see normative issues in existential and even in religious terms, not try to reduce them to matters of quasi-fact. Scientism and the naturalistic fallacy stand in the way there. Truly naturalistic actions are nothing more than animal behaviours, as understood by clever mammals like us at the sociobiological level. But normative actions are as supernatural as anything gets. We take a leap of faith in some narrative that makes our worldview coherent, grounding it in an ideal or in a vision of an alternative world. And that’s a leap away from our common ground. We leap away from our animalistic instincts, renouncing our heritage and creating an artificial world, one limited not just by universal natural law, but regulated by relatively anomalous prescriptions.

    There are many such myths in the offing, and here’s where Nietzsche becomes more relevant: we should judge those values and ideals in aesthetic terms, because they’re just blueprints for human creations. The world creates us and instead of playing the same old cliched animalistic roles, namely the ones preferred by conservatives, we became hyper-aware and so took upon ourselves a more godlike role. We imitate nature’s creativity, by creating worlds within the common world. We create our inner worlds, by thinking a lot and by caring about how our web of ideas hangs together. And we create social worlds as well. They’re all just more creations, but they’re artificial (supernatural, as it were) rather than just natural. The discontinuity is the relatively free leap of faith in the existentialist’s sense. There’s no more justification of values than the aesthetic appreciation of what can artistically be done with them.

    At least, that’s how I’m working on reconciling naturalism with the normative. And I see here some common ground with the talk of flexibility and playful experimentation. It comes down to seeing us all as artists in all we do, and how our art can be emotionally powerful and otherwise tragically heroic or how it can be merely insipid. But pragmatism won’t help here, since when we focus on something’s utility we lose sight of its artistic worth. We see it anthropocentrically rather than as being complete in itself. Pragmatism gives us values that depend on self-interest, but that doesn’t do justice to the extent of our freedom to be artificial rather than natural, to stand apart from the universe as alienated, objective, and angst-ridden outsiders. Naturalism should horrify us since it presents us with the impersonal facts, and the angst we feel then is just the objectivity of the aesthetic point of view. So instead of nihilism we have the universe as an enormous art gallery! We can even get some pantheism out of that naturalism, without the need of Spinoza’s heavy-handed monism.

    • so Michael’s more M-Pontyish take on some fleshy-common-ground (he can do this better justice but just to get us going) is not mine, I think that we are kluged together admixtures of systems and even many kinds of symbionts/parasites and so always composed of many/competing ‘influences’ inside and out,
      and I’m with Rorty that we are always-already manipulating our environs (that is our brute natures not some fall or rise) so there is no natural/artificial divide in how we make our ways of/in the world,
      but as Stanley Fish pointed out (and cog-bias research is fleshing out) Rorty was wrong to think that we could get some critical-distance from (loosen our grip on) our biases just by learning that they are contingent,
      this is as Fish diagnosed theory-hope and a pipedream of the enlightenment, and likewise learning the functions/mechanisms (to the degree that we can I have much less faith in science/engineering than many) at work ‘behind the scenes’ if you will does not in and of itself change our phenomenological experiences of say seeing things as having colors or being in love.
      Also no Oughts to be found in an Is, no Necessity to be horrified or any other reaction to any phenomena/event and not in any Logic that say that if you believe A than B follows, as in if you believe that our True home is in Heaven than you must not be an environmentalist.
      Are the tools of artists not instruments and are they not trying to achieve something in their activities, do these doings not serve some aspect of that human-being and if so no problem with pragmatism that I can see. Michael may be able to give something closer to what you were looking for so hopefully he will pipe-in soon. thanks for giving us some food for thought, dirk

  6. I *really liked this post. I want to just give you a list of a few books and authors that came to mind while reading it:

    1) Deleuze in Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Especially on the term ‘common notions’: the split between the mode of body/affects and the mode of mind/ideas. Substance (God) works in Spinoza as a purely positive “real background” for its various modes. To have a common reality as idea (that’s what our types have got to work with) one must have a common notion (with assembled bodies *paralleling* with the idea). I’m sure there are varients of this term, but it seems to me we cannot have a common anything without sharing a space with our bodies.

    2) Cornelius Castoriadis in ‘Modern Science and Philosophical Interrogation in Crossroads’ in the Labyrinth. The figure/ground distinction is well put here. It might be breaking down and getting all tangled up in ecological confusion, but we are still left with a distinction that makes sense.

    3) Morton’s stuff in hyperobjects about the end of the world as “container”. He wants to keep objects in their realness, but in a strange “near and far, close but uncanny” sort of way. I mostly get into this via audio: It makes more sense to me to say a fullness in substance is gone and become void. God is dead (the Spinozist God, not just Nietzsche’s socially cohesive God), and along with Him, the “real world”. I’ve never been committed to the project of speculative realism anyways. I tend to just unproblematize other culture’s realities and highlight the differences. An indigenous friend of mine likes to say: “We don’t need science to tell us that Mother Earth is dying, we’ve known that all along since you all got here!” And I’m just like, “alright, but I want to learn the science *as well”.

    4) On the wildness of being: Andrew De Acosta is an anarchist thinker acquainted with “poststructuralism” and this article was a fun read: Seeing as we’re a bunch of anarchists philosophers over here.

  7. Nice work Bill. Thank you for the resources and your thoughts.

    In a sense I agree with you re: ‘realism’ in that I believe we are all realists to some extent: the world (with its jagged-edges and various dangers) does not let us off the hook when paying bills or dealing with armed militias. The Wilderness is full of all sorts of autonomous ‘agencies’ making their presence (partially but directly) known. This much should not be up for dispute at this stage in the interpretative game.

    However I still believe that hammering out some type of synthetic appreciation (philosophical interpretation) of the Real – what exists in the mix and how we come to know it and talk about it – can have serious practical (political and technical) implications. We need a story about what the fuck is going on out/in here..

    I think Realism as a discourse/language game helps us deploy rhetoric in ways which help us acknowledging and communicate about nonhumanity, and therefore expands the possibilities for sensitive collaboration among entities and expressions. Realism attempts to address what I call above ‘the background’ of pre-thetic materiality pervading experience.

    Pluralism alone does not seem to help with this. Pluralism at its best is a sophisticated acknowledgement of difference and multiplicity, but at its worse is an affording set of tendencies and word games allowing people be more whimsical and “creative” in their ponderings and communications about key issues.

    We need to acknowledge difference (in perspective and/as ontic assembly) at the same time as tracking and coding ‘consistency’ or uniformity among non-discursive materials. I appreciate how ‘speculative realism’ tries to integrate the potency of realist logic with the insights of the reflexive/linguistic turn, but I would consider myself more within the speculative pragmatist camp (although with a strong post-nihilist slant) and neo-materialist on particularly philosophical issues. I seek out practical/political communicative action rather than ideological fetish.

  8. (Please forgive brevity – on Android device) I find the starting point to this post a tad dogmatic. There are no unassailabe grounds for assuming this prior unity that I know of. Even if there is some ontological gloop that we all start from this has no obvious ethical consequence. Should we – to quote J G Ballard – save the smallpox virus because it comes out of the same gloop? Braidotti also makes an inference from monism to egalitarianism in her Post humanism & it’s as mystifying there as here.

    • hey DR, my own ne(ur)o-pragmatist take is that asserting say a specific kind of materialism is not so much a move to ontologizing, or even really asserting a limit-Concept, but rather a sort of working definition a way of staking out the project at hand if you will,
      certainly won’t suit everyone or even most ones but there is no pleasing everyone and no way that I know of converting folks,
      so we could play out yet again our now all too familiar familial drama of everyone at the table (or off at sidebars) repeating their usual talking/rallying points or we can try and get to experimenting with new projects.
      If you get a chance check out the Pickering post above and let us know what you make of it. I don’t have access to Pickering’s article on the performative idiom but if someone wanted to liberate it for the assembled readers here that would be great:

      • I like this Dirk. I also think certain strains of (neo)materialism act more as a guiding vocabularies leading to important practcial indexical tendencies rather than as strict ontological models. Territories over maps and all that..

        What I would emphasize is that vocabularies (and ‘worldviews’ as cognitive habits) infleunce the kinds of projects we take up and how they are conduced. Without some sort of ontologized manner of indexing and referencing our beliefs remain implicit and unexamined. All semantic systems generate particular assoications and thus motivation and communications.

        I guess what I am saying is that in trying out new assemblages concepts matter. Cognitive styles and linguistical (grammarical and syntactic) contents and habits are in the mix as much as anything else. Such is the ecology of knowing and doing.

      • hey M, I think that most of the attempts to find (or bind, or predict) regularities/predispositions in our embodied-doings to the kinds of answers we might give to what could be characterized as philosophical in/queries (or really any justifications, before or after the fact, we might give for our behaviors) have come up with very little in the way of substantial results,
        and I’m not convinced that anyone has (or could use) any-thing as substantial as a worldview/ideology that rules their many improvisational doings.
        I think most of what we do is non-conscious/conceptual and that while we should consider all of the possibly relevant doings (speech-acts, thinking-acts,etc) at play in any project we might undertake, I think the only way to really know what action/element is relevant/useful or not is really best left something like trial and error (of course we can not, need not start from scratch), more in the midst of experimenting ahead I think. There are many limits to what we can explain that don’t in and of themselves limit much of what we can do, as i may not be able to explain everything that goes into my playing an instrument and yet that doesn’t keep me from performing on it and from others from responding to it.

    • I think you both get the intent and miss the nuance David. The “starting point” is, in an intellectualized sense, dogmatic in that I’m suggesting an axiomatic negation (or temporary suspension) of all inferential and decisional content in order to accentuate the pre-thetic (non-discursive) texture of embodied experience. No matter what we want to make of phenomenology (intentional or carnal or otherwise) we still cannot explain away the affording actuality of the distributed Background of corporeal existence as disclosed through our being-in-the-world. Contrary to what many implicitly believe existence is not primarily cognitive. We are coping-beings enmeshed in a consequential/practical field of operations. The Background is not some “ontological gloop” it the ontological condition which allows for the possibility of gloop – only it is encountered by and in us in a sensorial-material way.

      I could go round in theoretic circles trying to point how this is so but it would all amount to gesturing. If we as inquirers we can’t agree in principle on the basic tangibility and precarious nature of the Real as something beyond or undergirding our very actions – as the very ontological conditions for possibility as such – then I think we fail to account for what is ever-present in awareness; which is to say we are become delusional. Can any of us honestly argue that the world does not hang together in some way?

      Now we can call this strata ‘materiality’ or ‘contexture’ (Harman), or ‘Flesh’ (Merleau-Ponty), or ‘immanence’ (Deleuze), or whatever macaroni, but what we cannot do if we seek to be authentic researchers is ignore what is disclosed through structural-practical (pre-cognitive) relations of self and world. And if taken up strictly conceptually this nonhuman materiality or tangibility – as a plane of consistency but not necessarily a “unity” – is violently misappropriated. Axiomatic zero is an attempt to short-circuit this tendency to shower our most immediate visceral relations in schematic projection and thus allow the vibrancy of matter ‘speak’ for itself. In ways similar to Derrida’s concept of différance my axiomatic negation attempts to disrupt doxic tendencies within language/thought as a way to open the possibility for strains of reflexivity which re-coordinate our understandings and attention to sensory/bodily activity. * Insert a swack of McLuhanesque arguments about sensory ratios, media, everyday perceptual habits, and affect theory HERE.

      But why ‘background’? Because in my view our consciousness/cognition is itself a foregrounding process bringing certain things to ‘light’ or into focus, or as Francisco Varela argued ‘brings forth a world’, while other things outside of the intentional net cast by human cognition remains ‘dark’ or obscure. The Background in neither a monism nor pure difference: it is a wilderness. Which is to say that we bump into ‘wild’ (agentic or autonomous) things, and we come to code them via intentionality and association, but at no point do we become aware of an ontic leveling substance (like quarks or ‘matter’) that unites all things. All temporal stabilities are emergent onto-specific assemblages. As hominids we can only know a thin slice of the depth and breadth of the ontological Background conditions from which all wild things emerge. Granted our intimations with the dark flesh of reality are becoming increasingly thicker via advancements in perceptual tools (including maths) but there will always be limits. And the first step to appreciating those inherent limits – which are, paradoxically I suppose, also affordances – and operating effectively (pragmatically) in accordance is to deintensify our doxic tendencies and intensify our referential and sensory relationship with the primary energetic and elemental/machinic processes of the eaarth.

      So yes, if you think I am trying out some odd ball version of monism it will end up looking a lot like dogmatic metaphysics. But if you take my gestures as a request to drop our pretentions to absolute knowledge and all types of correspondence theories of knowledge and begin adjusting our phantasies to appreciate the affective life of corporeal existence you allow me to go no further than to suggest that engagement with the world is ground zero for all our post-hoc conceptual associations and projections. For me this ‘dark’, or non-intentionally structured Background is not so much a starting point for any particular intellectual justifications so much as it is an “unassailable” feature of existence and experience that needs to be appreciated and indexed in our coping ideations (rationalizations). [note: a lot of this can bounced off of the thesis of the primacy sensation. See Tom Sparrow’s work for more on this]

      But here I am ranting and raving about a pre-thetic Background via linguistic means only to arrive at the conclusion that there is ZERO we can say about it that won’t somehow rely on the non-identity of the signifier and a reference to performative injunctions in the wider field of practical consequences! Madness? Perhaps, but a madness or fever that when broken might just lead to more adaptive cognitions..

      And as I suggested to Scott, the issue of ethics (norms) and morality (human sentiment) is a more complex issue involving reference to emergent/evolved capacities for animal altruism and social convention. I advocate an ontological anarchy capable of giving rise to empathetic animals and their affiliations. And as a post-nihilist I believe moral sentiments are entirely relative to the kinds of animals we are and our phylogenetic history. If humans make the practical/adaptive choice to eliminate small pox (or use it against a certain population, e.g., natives) they do so relative to the forms of life they are. There is nothing in “nature” that is inherently moral. Animals capable of feeling ethically obliged and making conventional use of the advantages of prosocial behavior are emergent events/situations not necessarily prefigured in the autonomous life of less complex forms of matter and energy. I argue for an increased sensitivity to affective-material life based on pragmatic grounds (for coping-with as opposed to denial of) not on ethical grounds. Ethics are design issues not universal laws of nature.

    • On the Primacy of Sensation and the Inadequacy of Conception regarding The Background:

      “Sensing is not ruled by the ‘I think’ which, according to Kant, must accompany all apperception. In sensing, nothing is apperceived. The sensing being, the animal, does not confront its world as a thinking being, but is, rather, related to it simply in uniting and separating.” (Erwin Straus, The Primary World of Senses: A Vindication of Sensory Experience, trans. Jacob Needleman, 1963: 197)

      “Language scatters the totality of all that touches us most closely even while it arranges it in order. Through language, we can never grasp what matters to us for it eludes us in the form of interdependent propositions, and no central whole to which each of these can be referred ever appears” (Bataille, Eroticism, 1986: 274).

      “You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” (Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes, 2007: 1)

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