There seems to have been an explosion around the question of a realist pluralism, it’s possibility and desirability, with a variety of the post-SR crowd weighing in. The debate seems to have been triggered by Levi Bryant’s reply to Jeremy’s post on the value of the ontological turn in anthropology. In that post, Levi wrote that
I want to be pluralist and recognize that different groups of people have/propose different ontologies or different “theories of the world”. I think it’s deeply important to recognize this for a variety of reasons. However, as a realist and advocate of some version of the Enlightenment, I can’t, of course, believe that all of these ontologies are true depictions of being.
In this way the question of ontological pluralism is already presented as caught in or evidence of some prior dissonance in the semiological register that it is deployed within. When we talk about ontology, are we talking about the real or about modes of accessing the real or, that is, semiocognitive encodings of the real. In the first instance we are on the grounds of an epistemologico-ontological discussion about beliefs, or perhaps the symbolic scaffolding of those beliefs- how they are made to hold together, how that holding together is always a more or less formalistic enterprise, a series of heuristic coping-mechanisms aiming at the production of refrains that “buttress existence” (Guattari). In the second instance we’re talking about claims about the real, about what constitutes a part of the real, what can be said to exist or to subsist and thereby to be itself a organ of reality. Part of this dissonance in the metasemiology of “the ontological” is thus the movement, really a blurring, from talking-about-talking-about the real to the real itself. There is an anxiety at the heart of Levi’s comments above, an anxiety that goes hand in hand with his desire: I want to be a pluralist but I am afraid to be a pluralist. And I think this anxiety is pretty sensible given that the elision in question, generative of the anxiety, is effectively the undoing of a particular kind of coping-with-being.
Our coping mechanisms, of which our philosophies are no small component, are attempts to make manageable the chaos of what my friend Michael- calls wild being. Whether or not it is the case that we are poor information processors, our brains and bodies being relatively highly gated sensorimotor terminals, it is nonetheless the case that the limited amount of information that we work on and through, and as the expression of (DNA, for instance), is still enough to induce profound “psychic”- for want of a better word- distress. The transcorporeal abundance that we’re presented with is dizzying, and the rate of it’s vertiginous growth accelerates at every passing moment when we consider that we inhabit an increasingly dense and diffuse stereo-reality, symptomatically expressed in the dis-integration of media and the rapid expansion of the semiospaces and immaterial temporalities of the internet.
The desire to be a pluralist under these conditions is the desire to be able to grant a right to existence to all semiological machineries, all symbolic systems: let a thousand symbolic orders bloom! The problem though is the reduplication of the originary wilderness that our coping systems sought to tame. Semioproduction- sense-making, or meaning-production- is always about the crafting of manageable worlds with scales of intimacy and at least the hint of a cartographic limit. So what happens when their are as many of these spheres of signification as their are agents of significance? My coping style, my corporeal hermeneutics, is rendered once again just a particle in the storm. This is symptomatic of the anxiety of (we could say Oedipal) desire: what if I get what I want? Only punishment and castration can follow.
But my point isn’t to sit in the position of Levi’s analyst. I’m not the most sympathetic person to psychoanalysis- whether of the Freudian, Lacanian or some emancipated variety. My point is more to show that there is some kind of linguistic eruption from one register into another and to suggest that there is a very good reason for that eruptive force. If our corporeal existence can be spoken of as a materio-energetic metabolism then our cognitive hermeneutics should be described as an epistemic-discursive antimetabolism. It is in this epistemo-discursivity that the problem of depictions of the real takes place, but, if we are to avoid being idealists, this domain must be seen as an expression of the former material one, even as it seeks to put the brakes on, to slow down, and to otherwise domesticate; it is anti-metabolic not because it inaugurates some fatal metabolic syndrome but because it is an attempt to exercise control over the processes and events of the corporeal real such that they be rendered as static, contained, safe. To risk a pun, the process and event of our articulations in the linguistic sense really are articulations in the physio-anatomical sense, but they are closer to the formation of a blood-brain barrier than they are to the opening up of ion-channels.
To explain a bit more, we can shrink this debate down a bit: theories of world can be seen as the large scale stand-in for the smaller scale notion that we each carry around a “theory of mind” (ToM). The idea with ToM, and it is an idea, is that we are inducted into a world where we are capable of making attributions of intentional states to ourselves and to others. In the two primary competing version of ToM this induction either goes via social interaction and the development of a folk-psychology based on that, or via the simulation theory that bases itself on the speculation that mirror neurons are triggered in us that provide an approximation in us of the intentional orientation of the actions of others. At any rate, ToM declares that in some form of other we all of us run some kind of representation-attribution machine that let’s us “get” that other people, and animals, are like us.
Scaling up to ontologies as theories of worlds (ToW) isn’t a simple process that provides 1:1 fidelity with the ToM model, but nonetheless it provides a precisely what is required here from a model- that it provide a skeletal schematisation of some ability to recognise that others have a ontologies like but different to our own. The ToM is clearly an idealist theory in its theory-theory formate, the folk-psychology one, insofar as it thinks that we each walk around operating various theatres or cinematographic images of what it is like to have a mind and how it is with other minds. This kind of hypercognitivist picture leans heavily on the epistemo-discursive side of things, imagining minds as metacognising engineers that weld together this picture of mind to that picture of “other person”, and that this cognitive effort is going on all the time, at multiple levels, targeted at multiple objects. The most popular variants of this ToM are actually modelled on a specifically literary, or at least syntactical mode. Popular theorists of this kind, like Baron-Cohen, figure ToM operation on the basis of a strictly syntax-symbolic system of sentence-like representations: the theory of mind is structured like a language. On the other side, leaving out the questionable turn to mirror neurons (which remain a kind of “explains it all” device), other’s picture the process as occurring via some naive-scientist manner whereby the child stumbles into and plays around with folk-psychology. Similar methods seems to be at work in some variants of talking about ToW: the ontologies of others are depictions of the real that follow a similar syntactical modality. Hence Levi goes on:
We need a pluralistic– a pluralism that also recognizes different animal worlds as phenomenologically described by Uexkull –to cultivate compassion and proper ethical regard for others; a big part of which involves recognizing the limitations of ones own conceptual schemes, attempting to understand others, or at least recognize that they might inhabit worlds of meaning (in Heidegger’s sense) that differ substantially from our own.
In his reply to this Phillip at Circling Squares points to Latour’s diplomacy and Stenger’s cosmopolitics as variants of a species that
grant, first, that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says. They thus shunt onto-political discourse off of the terrain of knowledge/belief in the sense of existence/non-existence. Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them.
Without wanting to sound belittling to thinkers of more power and clarity than myself, I can’t help but think that if this is what is going on in Latour and Stengers then this “granting” of the existence of entities, whether or not it is done out of respect for otherness, is a kind of imperialism. How can I mean this? Well, just as the ToM indicates that the child “grants” that others have minds and intentional states, that they are, like itself, capable of interiority, so to does this attitude of granting existence come as a sort of sovereign decree. Like the child (there is no creature closest to the sovereign than a child) that has to learn that it is not the centre of the universe, this project resembles the child who begrudging comes to accept that, well, yes, there are other people in the world…and I suppose I will grant them their existence! To grant an entity it’s existence? What power is it that can assume this right?
This shunting from epistemology to the metapolitical is also no less an idealistic move than the disembodied syntatical model of representation found in the ToM. Just as ToM has to locate the experience and recognition of phenomenality in a representation-attribution cognitivism, so to does the ToW position operate from a position of a disembodied, fleshless ontology. In neither image do we get at the idea that all of this is occurring with bodies- it is all talk of minds and depictions as if what was at stake were solely an aesthetic disagreement.
All this is important to the original point because it follows from the attempt to keep competing ontologies at bay. The realist can’t believe that the other’s ontologies are true because they are depictions, they are representations, and as such can’t be true. Or at least, they can’t be the whole truth. They can’t be true because the real is a singularity- whether you call this a One or a Many- as a plane of the wilderness of immanence.
Still, a wilderness is a wildness and not a lawn. Here there are dense thickets forming a patchy threshold to a forest; a dense forest that is dark at it’s heart but where, at the top of the trees where the canopy breaks, some light can pierce, and it is full with life; animal, plant, mineral, and that life is distributed unevenly across the forest’s wild and irregular growth; and here is a swamp with it’s own flora and fauna, and- because people exist in so many places- there is evidence of tools, or, why not, the rusting and faded corpse of a coke bottle (is it still a wilderness? why not?); and the sun and the moon rise and set and everything is different according to which is in the sky; the quality of colour, of the lines, of the surfaces, all giving up different sensible affordances, calling up such varied ecological niches, each one populated by a diverse set of creatures, themselves populated by how many microorganisms, parasites, viruses, and so on…and over here, at the forest’s edge, the wilderness is open, a great expanse of desolation, but at the right scale still to be seen seething, furious with inorganic activity, as a cliff face is eroded by the unshielded blast of ice-winds, and the rain tramples down the wild flowers before the clouds clear and the sun blazes. Which is the wilderness proper? How to fix it in it’s place? Who is granting it’s right to exist? Who is able to say whether a biologist or a physicist would provide the correct ontology? Who can say on what day, in what conditions?
But this isn’t just about the partiality of knowledges. This is about realisation, as William James has it, that
Pragmatically interpreted, pluralism or the doctrine that it is many means only that the sundry parts of reality may be externally related. Everything you can think of, however vast or inclusive, has on the pluralistic view a genuinely “external” environment of some sort or amount. Things are “with” one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word “and” trails along after every sentence. Something always escapes. “Ever not quite” has to be said of the best attempts made anywhere in the universe at attaining all-inclusiveness. The pluralistic world is thus more like a federal republic than like an empire or a kingdom. However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.
A federal republic, or beyond that an anarchism. Prodhoun once wrote that whoever is a partisan of immanence is a true anarchist, and that anarchism involves a refusal of the ‘system of transcendence’. In the Jamesian perspective above we find precisely this kind of anarchism, an anarchy that doesn’t coincide precisely with revolutionary anarchism but which nonetheless goes beyond the various forms of liberalism that today masquerade as political anarchism (cf. Simon Critchley). What we also see here is a precusor to the Deleuzo-Guattarian insistence on the “and…”, and Eugene Gendlin’s “…”. What is going on in James’s metaphysical republic is a commitment to a “pluriverse” that is thoroughly metabolic: everything is a matter of the exchange and transformation of everything else. Things exist by way of their being connected to other things, and nothing can be understood or made contact with outside of a relating and a being related within and without itself. So what of the ToW? In the same essay as above James also points out that:
Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.
An ontology, any ontology, is an instrument or a tool, a hand-hold for grasping the real, for making contact with the real. But there should be no mistaking the hand that grabs and the thing that is grabbed. Not even phenomenological ideas of reversibility allow for a complete coincidence of the touched and the toucher, and this proximity can only be more aggravated by the presence of the instrument that allows it; but an instrument mustn’t be reduced to a tool, to an extension of the human body, because an instrument is by itself also a kind of agency. In other words, our coping-mechanisms are already devices with their own capacities, materio-discusivities that set things in motion that we didn’t intend, that operate almost autonomously of the subjectivations or institutions that deploy them; for an example one need only think of the material effects that psychiatric diagnoses set in place. So ontologies aren’t depictions but ways of grasping the real that runaway from us, that interact with the world around us and that return to us, forcing us to remodel ourselves in their light. In this respect they are like Ian Hacking’s interactive kinds, looping back on us in unpredictable ways. This shouldn’t surprise us: how many seemingly straight forward coping-actions take on a life of their own? Deliberate self-harm, eating disorders and addictions all seem to begin as ways of coping with the existential register of the ecology of corporeal being.
Among the chief questions around pluralism and realism is that of the common world, and here we find that there is already a commons of being that each onto-specificity inhabits without lack. So when the debate turns to questions of constructing a common world, this can’t be read on the ontological register. This type of common is specifically a political common: a shared world in which all beings a coping-with one another in the dual sense that term implies: first, they are coping with being in a shared matrix, and second they are doing so in collaboration with one another. My own initial problem with problem with talk of pluralism is that it would fall back into the kind of theory of democratic agonism that was put forward by Laclau and Mouffe, a theory that was rightly critiqued as mirroring perfectly the bourgeois neutering of antagonism that rendered conflicts into negotiable disputes among a plurality of equal voices. Such an idealism of management is what is still presented to us as the image of democracy today, and while I wouldn’t call this an ideological image (mystification is a redundant concept), I would say that it is itself an interactive kind that attempts to model a pliant citizenry and a bureaucratised labour force. Negotiation might well mean finding passage, making one’s way in difficult terrain, but it can also mean making deals with capital and power. The problem is that pluralism can only exist in the attempts to autonomise from these processes. I’m tempted to suggest that pluralism can only work if it avoids the twin pitfalls of ghettoisation and what Marcuse’s thesis of intolerant tolerance sought to avoid.
Here is where I think the question of pluralism requires us to be careful. One must be a partisan of immanence to be a pluralist; the capitalist and the one who take up the position of sovereign aren’t such partisans; they are on the side of transcendence. Where antagonism exists in a class society, a sexist society, a racist and transphobic society, it isn’t for those who are oppressed to relinquish their right to accelerating that antagonism. Anarcho-communist politics is certainly centred on the construction of a common world (from the shell of the old), and for the overcoming of all the separations and segregations that enforce problematic and oppressive partitions in the sensible order, but it does so from the sober realisation that such a common world can’t be negotiated with one’s class enemies, and all those other enemies. My point is that sometimes, for the vast majority of us, war has already been declared. The ontological commons already exists but it has been carved up, not just by philosophy but by capital and power too.
Does God exist? Do demons exist? Or, alternatively, are they just delusions? But this question can be asked of any of our attempts to grapple with the transcorporeality of the real. How are we to figure existence? Are we the police of the real, granting reality to that but withholding it from this? From what position can we do this, in the last instance? I prefer to ask the questions I can answer. Does God exist? I don’t know. Does the idea of God interact with people, groups, institutions, histories? If so, in what ways? These are questions I can answer, and they are questions that make a difference. So does God as a materio-discursive machine, or a semiological world exist…yes. I feel Levi might feel that is an evasion, but I don’t know. As to the existence of supernatural entities as such…I can simply say there is no evidence for them and that I have an opinion on the matter. But then, as Foucault once put it, having a position of authority doesn’t permit me to express every opinion I have. I am a pragmatist, and as such proceed tactically and in a piece-meal fashion. The point of talking about a realist pluralism, as far as I can see, is to point towards the idea that no isolated theoretical discourse, no one system of cognitive biasing or neural heuristics, will be able to act as the Master discourse that finally unlocks or decides on the real, or on how the ecological field should be organised. In the end this kind of pluralism remains fundamentally pragmatic because it points toward the need for a multiplicity of tactically deployed ways of coping that include deploying different models of those ways of coping.
Such a realist pluralism isn’t about providing a singular model of the real that would shape it ahead of time, or as a means to producing a finished theory of everything. Still less is such a pluralism a new mode of accessing the real. Instead it might be about moving between models as one goes, picking up and putting down instruments, and so being able to grasp this or that aspect of the flesh. Perhaps, to take up the language of onto-cartography, this would be less about the mapping of existent realities and more the production of prototypes for new ways of assembling the world; less about depiction, and more about enactment.