Nostalgia overflows me as I write this post. I’m remembering the frenetic exchanges of half-baked ideas and potent attitudes that animated the theory-blogging that emerged from the early days of what was initially and only tentatively regarded as speculative realism. The blogging and dialogues between Levi, Graham, Tim, Adrian, Adam, Jeremy, and many other critics and supporters, haunted 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 excitement responding to a few new posts by my old nemesis/friend Levi Bryant.
First, Bryant posted a rough cut of his recent talk “Domestic Objects/Wild Things”, that I find quite stimulating. I’ve been talking about the wilderness of being for a decade (see here), but never really doing much with the notion. In his talk Bryant opens the door to revisit the possibilities.
Here is one of many tantalizing passages from the 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 there is this:
“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.”
How many different ways has this already been said? Reification, ideology, mythic givens, etc. Yet, Levi says it again beautifully – and in a way that highlights the vibrant potency of material things.
To be sure, there is nothing we can say ABOUT things that doesn’t already move us towards domestication (and what I would term ‘colonization’) by some symbolic order. In the most banal sense: things are more than what we think about them. Any assemblage organized sufficiently to enact what Bennett has called ‘thing-power’ does so via its onto-specific layered complexities and depth of properties. Noumena are indeed fanged.
What is of greater consequence, however, is how embodied agents adapt themselves and their projects WITH things in their negotiations with real orders and situations – within any (non)given ecology of force, flow and assembly. Instead of continuing the habit of relying too heavily on symbolic orders it is often more pragmatically advantageous to understand our everyday encounters as some sort of conceptual/interpretive ‘dance’ with the real.
“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.” — Katerina Kolozova
From this stance, intellection and communication become less and less about mobilizing Truth claims via normative structures, and more and more about the pragmatic eliciting of various thoughts, moods, and behaviors for performative negotiations with nonhuman forces and extra-linguistic concerns. The re-wilding of conceptuality as post-nihilist turn can be understood as a perpetual uncivilizing and decolonization of thought-habits (and standard repertoires of enclosinvg conceptual attractors and frames), which then affords more flexible and embodied deployments of manifest thought-images viz. practical projects. More on this below.
“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?” — Andrew Pickering
The second post (here) that interests me has Levi addressing a student’s concern with the aforementioned text. 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 answer speaks for itself. Go read that.
Presumptuously, however, and with a nod to Laruelle’s distinction between standard and non-standard philosophy, I will suggest my own conception of what might be possible on the other side (outside?) of theory proper: feral philosophy. That is, philosophical thinking in the traditionally broad sense as a passion for wisdom, only now with a mutant inclination for perpetually de-domesticated, decolonizing, and re-wilded as such. It is an auto-deconstructive mode of philosophizing animated by deeply pragmatic concerns.
Our attempts to capture, quicken , and ‘domesticate’ things is, as Levi clearly states, “necessarily doomed to failure.” But that’s simply not the more consequential game being played here. Failed attempts to absolutize the objects of our conception is called ontology, whereas coping and negotiating in the wild is an issue for ontography. Ontography is an open game of perpetual and shifting dis-closure, whereas ontology is a colonization of the real via conceptual closure. The difference matters.
What I’m proposing here is a type of axiomatic negation, or auto-destructive gaming of the game of language gaming. Oh so meta (and pretentious), but not in a way that seeks to reestablish any particular symbolic kingdom or set of signifiers. No, not even meta escapes the corrosive effects of positive nihilism and decolonization.
Instead, what occurs is a shift in registers: a re-prioritization of thingness and encounters over objects and conceptions. No less than an axiomatic and ongoing unsettling of the privilege and dominion that language (logos, culture) has been granted, or violently taken, over things and thingness (matter-energy, nature). This shift in registers allows would-be philosophers, as well as the rest of us, to think and talk about things in a new manner and tone, and with different discursive concerns.
Put another way, when we accept the non-symbolic excess and primal depth of things beyond our conceptions we can forge, in Lacan-speak, new relationships between the Real and the Symbolic (language) that can render potentially more adaptive formations of the Imaginal (cognition). The accompanying re-distribution of priorities for thought and perception can change the way we regard things (no longer as mere objects) ‘in the wild’, and might afford new behaviors and projects. Such shifts might just be key features to ecological thinking adequate to the ecologies in which we think?
Ultimately, our conversions of wild things (the Real) into thought-things (the Symbolic) is about hominid coping. Our neurocognitive-semiotic renderings are negotiations and more or less (interdependent on context) adaptive measures within a teeming wilderness of nonhuman flows and assemblages. Humans are awkward and often delusional agents trying get by on the earth and in the world while assaulted by forces well below and above our control.
I find the work of Alphonso Lingis very much doing philosophy in this mode. But, of course, thinkers such as Najarjuna, Wittgenstein, Derrida and Laruelle, and others, have, one way or another, pioneered and eluded to similar approaches.
Here Bryant says it all much better:
It is for this reason that, in our theorizing, I believe we need to create shelter for encounters with that which is anterior to and other than the concept. 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. And then do theory-as-praxis in more ecologically sane and productive ways.
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’.