on feral philosophy

Nostalgia overflows me as I write this…

I’m remembering the free exchanges of half-baked ideas and irreverent attitudes that animated the theory “blogosphere” in the late 2000s—during the early days of what was tentatively regarded as “speculative realism.”  The frenetic dialogues and debates among learned scholars, enthusiastic amateurs, and so many other critics and supporters, enriched my evenings with fresh takes on stale topics. It was a time of intellectual orgies and useful stupidities – and I loved every minute of it.

Now, years later, I’m feeling tinges of that old excitement while reading a few new posts by Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects. Levi has posted a rough cut text of his upcoming talk “Domestic Objects/Wild Things,” which includes some themes I find quite thought-provoking, and, perhaps, useful for articulating a few thoughts that have been circulating in my brain for some time now.

Of immediate interest in Levi’s return to the idea of a “wilderness of being”— something he and I discussed nearly a decade ago (see here). At the time not much came of it, but in this new talk Bryant seems ready to open the door to revisit some of the possibilities swirling around and through this notion. 

Here is one of many tantalizing passages from Levi’s text:

We live in a world of entropy. The things about us, whether they be vehicles, roads, homes, computers, or kitchen cabinets, are perpetually threatened by entropy. Driveways and walls crack, grass grows in the seams of sidewalks, coffee cups get chipped, cars get scratched and dented, decorative bushes in yards get overgrown and grow wildly in all sorts of different directions, and the doors of kitchen cabinets come off of their hinges. Everywhere domestic objects harbor anarchistic and insurgent wild things within them, constantly threatening to emancipate themselves so as to become free for their own adventures.

And then these:

The domestic objects that make up our everyday experience in our concernful dealings with the world consist of a unity or synthesis of the symbolic and the material. The symbolic is like a net thrown across the earth, lacerating it and structuring it. It transforms the analog into the digital, the continuous into the discrete, or the smooth into the striated….

What, then, is the wild thing? If I gave an answer to this question, I fear I would undermine the entire point, for then I would transform the thing itself into the thought-thing, and thereby domesticate the wildness of the wild thing. I would involve myself in a performative contradiction.

I wonder how many different ways these kinds of statements have been issued by philosophers over the years? How many scholars have asked us to avoid the traps of reification, ideology, mythic givens, formalizing structure, etc.,—those many dogmatic tendencies in language and articulation that delimit the semantic possibilities generated by wild concepts. As Levi restates it here again so beautifully, far too many intellectuals fail to fully embrace and incorporate into their philosophies the wild independence and vibrant potency of non-linguistic materials and systems. And far too often theorists mistake their ‘thought-thing’ for the reality of things themselves.

In the most banal sense, we can say that things are always more than what we think about them. Any assemblage organized sufficiently to enact a particular presence and causal effect does so via its embodied onto-specific properties, relations, and depth of complex organization, what neo-materialist Jane Bennett has called ‘thing-power’. Which is to say, noumena are indeed fanged—possessed of relatively independent causal affectivity, and capable of acting upon us and the planet in ways unencumbered by what we believe or say about them.

As Katerina Kolosova remind us:

The real is not necessarily a physical exteriority. Rather, it is an exteriority in the sense that it is outside the reach of our linguistic intervention, appropriation and re-invention. The real is an effect that is experienced as violence (as the implacable limit to our signifying automatism), as a linguistically non-negotiable limitation, as that which Lacan would call the tuché that happens to the (signifying) automaton in the form of trauma. 

The other post (found here) that really interested me in this regard has Levi addressing a student’s concern with the aforementioned talk transcript.

Levi paraphrases the student’s concerns this way:

“Professor Bryant”, he said, “throughout your talk you’re very critical of philosophy and how it converts the thing into the thought-thing or replaces the thing with the thought-thing. But isn’t the conversion of the thing into the thought-thing a good thing? Isn’t that how we know things? If we can’t convert the thing into the thought-thing, doesn’t that entail the ruin of philosophy and science?”

Levi’s response is instructive:

This is a very difficult point to articulate because I am essentially trying to indicate or allude to something that is outside of language, even if it is entangled in language all sorts of ways. When I make the claim that the cardinal sin of philosophy (and many other forms of theory besides) consists in converting the thing– in its materiality –into the thought-thing, I am trying to articulate the way in which the thing is replaced by the signifier. Any attempt to explain this is necessarily doomed to failure. It simply cannot be done because I am attempting to point at something that is outside of discourse, outside of language, outside of conceptuality; yet, in the very act of doing this, I bring thing the thing into language, discourse, and conceptuality.

To be sure, there is nothing we can say about such potent materialities that doesn’t already entail a kind of domestication by humans through the very symbolic order we use to make-sense and register their existence. Our interpretations and classifications, our stories and poetics, are meant to bring the wider world of sensory and causal interactions into understanding, and hence partial control. Everything we say or write about autonomous things, assemblages, and flows —and the processes that obtain among them —are more or less a series of useful caricatures and generalizing descriptions for navigating and interacting in the funk of the life.

A real danger arises, however, in how some people and discourses will tend to overdetermine, or colonize, what we encounter with how we interpret it. This ideological overdetermination not only does semantic violence to the objects of our conception, circumscribing and inducting them primarily into the service of human concerns, but, again, is also a form of self-capture— a ‘cage’ build by our use of language that gathers and holds thought into actionable decisions and interpretations.

Yet, as I have suggested, things are always more than they seem, even as they become interpreted, and therefore entangled, in the very circuits of communicative gesturing that animate particular human concerns. The relative autonomy assured in the depths of their material properties and constituent relations always remain somewhat resistant to the pretensions of conceptual domestication and colonization.

Understanding how this so, and what it means for philosophical thinking, can be both enlightening and empowering.

In recent decades, a significant body of research has been accumulating around a cluster of related scientific theories often collectively known as ‘4EA’, which taken together describe cognition as “embodied, embedded, enacted, extended, and affective.” Mark Rowlands (2010) outlines these convergences this way:

  • Embodied involving more than the brain, including a more general involvement of bodily structures and processes.
  • Embedded functioning only in a related external environment.
  • Enacted involving not only neural processes, but also things an organism does [practice and performance].
  • Extended into the organism’s environment.
  • Affective involving emotional attunements that valences stimuli in terms of meaningful salience thresholds e.g. good/bad, inviting/threatening, etc.

These related insights into the nature of perception, cognition and behavior propose an alternative to dualism as a philosophy of mind, in that there is a new emphasis on how the dynamic interactions and expressions between brain, body and ecosystems are inseparably intertwined, and work together to co-create or ‘bring forth’ materially rich, embodied experiential worlds.

As early pioneers of 4EA theory Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1992) write, “the species brings forth and specifies its own domain of problems …this domain does not exist ‘out there’ in an environment that acts as a landing pad for organisms that somehow drop or parachute into the world. Instead, living beings and their environments stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or codetermination” (p. 198).

Here we get a hint of why conceptual overdetermination and colonization might be problematic for humans. If we are in mutually impacting, co-determining relationships with other beings and material systems, then imposing our specific mode of being, relating, or knowing on the others will limit our ability to obtain a fuller awareness of the conditions within which we live and think. Closing ourselves off to the vibrant lives, movements, effects, and depth of other beings and ecological forces hinders our ability to intelligently navigate, adjust, collaborate, or adapt.

Years later, revisiting the status of 4EA theories, Di Paolo, Rhohde, and De Jaegher (2014) write: “Organisms do not passively receive information from their environments, which they then translate into internal representations. Natural cognitive systems…participate in the generation of meaning …engaging in transformational and not merely informational interactions: they enact a world” (p. 33).

Significantly, Shaun Gallagher also has pointed out how being embodied, and entangled in the lives others and other properties, suggests a type of pragmatist orientation to life and thought. Gallagher argues that the philosophical school of pragmatism can even be understood as a forerunner of embodied, enactive and extended approaches to cognition.

For example, John Dewey wrote that “the brain is essentially an organ for effecting the reciprocal adjustment to each other of the stimuli received from the environment and responses directed upon it” (1916, pp. 336–337). And neo-pragmatist Robert Brandom has commented that “a founding idea of pragmatism is that the most fundamental kind of intentionality (in the sense of directedness towards objects) is the practical involvement with objects exhibited by a sentient creature dealing skillfully with its world” (2008, p. 178).

The main thrust of much of 4EA thinking and research lands on an interpretation of intelligent behavior as an emergent property following from the interplay between brain, body and world. And importantly, for us here, that the world is not just a ‘play-ground’ on which the brain is acting or merely constructing. Rather, brain, body and external objects, flows and forces are equally important, relatively autonomous factors in how particular interpretations, and behaviors come about viz. worldly performances/practices.

Through the lens of embodied, embedded, and enactive theories of agency, communication and intellection become less and less about mobilizing ready-made conceptions or transcendental Truth claims, and more and more about pragmatic adaptations through mobilizations of various cognitive and environmental resources in the performative navigation of and with a myriad of nonhuman realities and extra-linguistic concerns. Conceptuality, from this view, is simply one aspect in a much thicker and extensive (and mostly non-linguistic) embodied relational process—a type of evolutionary game, in the sense made famous by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein contended that words acquire meaning by their use, and wanted to see how their use was tied up with the social practices of which they are a part. So he used ‘language-game’ to draw attention not only to language itself, but to the actions into which it is woven. Wittgenstein painstakingly showed how the basis for what we use as language is provided by shifting patterns of communal activity. What we do, we do in a world with others. Wittgenstein was intent on bringing out how “the ‘speaking; of language is part of an activity, or form of life.”

The classic example of a language-game is the so-called “builder’s language” introduced in §2 of the Philosophical Investigations:

The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar” “slab”, “beam”. A calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. Conceive this as a complete primitive language.

Language-games are, for Wittgenstein, concrete social activities that crucially involve the use of specific forms of language. By describing a variety of language-games—the countless ways in which language is actually used in human interaction—Wittgenstein meant to show that “the speaking of a language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” The meaning of a word, then, is not the object to which it corresponds but rather the use that is made of it in “the stream of life.”

Throughout his later investigations Wittgenstein maintained that even rule-governed language-games were not static or bound. Even the most conventional language-games remain open to change, in numerous ways, and continue to evolve as people use and re-use phrases, framings, and arguments in new and sometimes idiosyncratic ways, resulting in what linguistics call ‘semantic drift’, or what I call semiotic mutation — novel inflections or emphases, or combinatory significance, brought about by different iterations or creative uses. This characteristic mutability and social nature of language-games open out to a distributed dynamism of embodied human communicative exchanges that renders philosophical thinking always already provisional to varying degrees.

It is this provisional and open, yet embedded and entangled, nature of language and cognition, and thus to philosophical thinking, that I believe we should lean into as a means of allowing the relatively independent potency, or depth, or thingness of assemblages, systems and flows to have their ‘say’ in the worldly ‘conversations’ and negotiations between the autonomous and entangled agencies that constitute daily life.

What I’m proposing, then, is a rewilding, or feralization of philosophical thinking and intellectual self-sufficiency.

Such a process would require a significant deflation and withdrawal of our semantic domesticating and colonizing attempts to manage reality according to our particular, all-too-human conceptions, models, and sets of concerns. By reorienting cognition this way we can start to deemphasize the many idols and doxic formulas that populate and overdetermine our thoughts and opinions, which ultimately alienating us from each other and the planet, and, instead, begin reemphasizing embodied and earthly experiences and behaviors.

Such a shift in cognitive orientation not only allows us to register our experiences differently, but also can help us to fostering less dogmatic and more flexible understandings and uses of language and conceptuality, and to develop more pragmatic attitudes, dispositions, and ways of worldly encounter. Instead of continuing the habit of over-coding, and generally relying too heavily on semiotic content and symbolic orders anchored in the myth of separation (dualism), we can better understand our everyday encounters as involved, embodied, enactive, and pragmatic dances with-in variable mixed conditions.

To activate this process I suggest making operant use of a type of axiomatic negation: a conceptual protocol for auto-deflating dogmatic tendencies towards closure within thought itself. Axiomatic negation instantiates, within philosophical thinking, a dispositional logic of refusal to be constrained by one’s own dogma, and to be captured by the institutional or idiosyncratic ideologies of others. This axiomatic refusal, I believe, is intellectual reflexivity taken to its logical conclusion; an auto-deconstructive gaming of the very activity of language-games. 

Oh so meta, I know, but not in a way that seeks to reestablish any previous dogmatic modes, symbolic regimes, or kingdoms of reference. Not even ‘meta’ can escape the corrosive effects of axiomatic negation and a thorough feralization and rewilding of philosophical thinking. Instead, what remains is a need to re-prioritize skillful sensation and embodied practical encounters over manifest conceptions and thought-forms, and to cultivate an openness to the relative autonomies, surprises, patterns, and overt materiality of worldly existence. This openness enacts a perpetual unsettling of the privilege and control that language, logos, ideology, and culture has been granted, or violently installed, over more consequential relations within the natural world.

What might evolve from this type of refusal could be a new species of abstraction: a feral philosophy that functions as an auto-destructive mode of thinking animated by deeply pragmatic concerns. Beyond the overdetermination of dogmatic conceptions and ideology can think and talk about things in a new manner and tone, and with different emphases, concerns, and, more importantly, outcomes.

At its core, an acceptance and willingness to operate from the inherent limitations and openness of language and thought, and the games we are thus entangled in, is to also make explicit the productive character of the unknown, or the unknowable, as that which always exceeds capture in our conceptions of it.

As sociologist Andrew Pickering puts it:

What if the unknowable was not simply a blank to be filled or a defect to be rectified, but instead, an inescapable facet of everyday existence, which continually regenerates itself as we attempt to know and interact with the world?

Together, an appreciation for unknown and the undomesticated has the dual advantage of anchoring epistemic humility, and, with this, intensifying and expanding our curiosity. It is with humble curiosity that most of our dazzling creativity or innovations in knowledge and social life are often brought into being. And now, as much as ever, we need to cultivate openness and creativity if humans are to survive this century.

How many of our personal and social problems are the bad result of a dogmatic adherence to some ideology and prior belief? How many of us stunt our learning and ability to achieve insight by interpreting our experiences through default positions and habitual reference? Many.

The feralization of philosophical thought is an opportunity for creative evolution and social innovation, as well as a necessary method of enhancing our ability to prioritize and adapt, and behave in less ideologically determined and programmable ways. Evolving and honing this wilder, more anarchic disposition towards language, ideology, communication, and embodied agency allows for more conscious, curious and flexible deployments of manifest thought-images and theory.

As Bryant suggests:

We cannot dispense with theory and theorization– here I think my student is absolutely right –which strives to grasp the thing in thought, but we must theorize in such a way that our thought perpetually marks the difference between the thing and the thought-thing, that refuses the substitution of the thing with the thought-thing, and that calls on us to place us in a space of encounters that require us to encounter the other of thought and that challenge our conceptual encounters.  Like the psychoanalyst who exposes themselves to the midden pit of the analysand’s speech, we must open ourselves to encounters with materiality of all kinds that challenge the reduction of the thing to thought and the false sense of mastery that the thought-thing brings.

Let’s perpetually mark the difference. Again and again, forever. And then philosophize in a more embodied, relational, and ecologically sane manner.


Feral Philosophy

feral philosophy is real philosophy, only wilder.
feral philosophy is thinking that was domesticated but has gone wild.
feral philosophy began as academic, scholarly, studied, but turned surly, stoic, comedic, poetic. It became wild and unkempt through neglect or lack of care. It ran off, chastised, tail between legs. It was driven off because it was not thought attractive to tidy minds. It escaped captivity, desperate to breathe fresh air.
feral philosophy can be pungent, awkward, stand-alone, weather-proof. It can be skewiff, cantankerous, skittish, even fugitive. It isn’t well-tempered or pragmatic. It sniffs out conventional or received wisdom.
feral philosophy is often unfinished, but it is not untutored. It matters that feral philosophy was domesticated before it went wild.
It shouldn’t be confused with marketing, new age or eastern philosophy. Its roots are in western philosophy, gone wild on the vine. Its pedigree goes back to Heraclitus, not Confucius. It’s a descendent of Aristotle, not Buddha. It is neither resigned nor layback. It is ‘old age’ as opposed to ‘new age’.
feral philosophy is an aspiration.

— Robyn Ferrell

7 responses to “on feral philosophy

  1. Pingback: Feral Philosophy | Larval Subjects .·

    • Great to here from you again, Dirk!!!

      Cut loose? YES. If only because the worlds we know and control are becoming undone anyway. Catastrophic planetary heating is and will be baking and remaking us – our cities, subjectivity, etc. – in ways that we can only vaguely anticipate. Relinquishing forms of domestication and obsolete coping mechanisms will only help us adapt as things get crazy. Adopting feral philosophies is a part of this.

      Any more resources you have on “feral” thinking and decolonization, and such, would be welcome here!

      I finally revised (and by that I mean actually edited) this post, so give it another read maybe? I’d like to hear your thoughts…

  2. “Nihilism is everywhere. The tools we thought we needed in order to fight it — hope, ideals, optimism — only extend its reach. To escape nihilism, it is necessary to escape all temptations to place responsibility elsewhere, to give up all distractions, deferrals and hopes for improvement. The problem of nihilism is immediate and intractable. We are all nihilists, of a kind.”
    — Ansgar Allen

  3. Pingback: Conspiracy Things | Larval Subjects .·

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s