Nostalgia overflows me as I write this post. I’m remembering the frenetic exchanges of half-baked ideas and irreverent attitudes that animated the theory-blogging (“blogosphere”) of 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, Chris, Nick, Mark, and 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 responding to a few new posts by Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects. Levi posted a rough cut text of his upcoming talk “Domestic Objects/Wild Things,” which included some concepts I find quite stimulating. Since we first discussed it nearly a decade ago (see here), I’ve been interested in the notion of the wilderness of being. At the time not much came of it, but in this new talk Bryant opens the door to revisit some of the possibilities swirling around and through this idea.
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 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.”
How many different ways has this already been said over the years, and by so many philosophers? Reification, ideology, mythic givens, etc., – that which delimits the semantic possibilities of open/wild concepts. Yet, Levi says it here again beautifully – and in a way that highlights the non-ideological independence and vibrant potency of material things.
To be sure, there is nothing we can say ABOUT things that doesn’t already move us towards domestication (or what I would term ‘colonization’) by some symbolic order. In the most banal sense: things are more than what we think about them. In all way and always. Full stop. Any assemblage organized sufficiently to enact what Jane Bennett has called ‘thing-power’ does so via its onto-specific complexities and depth of properties. Noumena are indeed fanged. And everything we say about things is more or less useful caricature and gesturing.
What is of greater consequence, however, is how embodied agents adapt themselves and their projects WITH things in their cognitive-semiotic negotiations with things and regimes of things (situations) – within ecologies of force, flow and assembly. Instead of continuing the habit of relying too heavily on symbolic orders and perpetuating the myth of epistemic separation, it is often more advantageous for living bodies to understand our everyday encounters as some sort of conceptual/interpretive ‘dance’ or process of adaptation with-in 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.”
From this stance, communication and intellection become less and less about mobilizing Truth claims via normative structures (although these are still important), and more and more about the pragmatic eliciting of various cognitive resources (thoughts, moods, etc) for performative negotiations with nonhuman forces and extra-linguistic concerns. The re-wilding of conceptuality as post-conventional turn can be understood as a perpetual uncivilizing and decolonization of embodied experience, which then affords more flexible and PROVISIONAL deployments of manifest thought-images for practical projects.
“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?”
The other post (here) that interested me has Levi addressing a student’s concern with the aforementioned transcript of his talk. 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 responds this way:
“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.”
If our efforts to capture, quicken , and ‘domesticate’ things is, as Levi states, “necessarily doomed to failure,” then surely we have to attempt a different philosophical or linguistic game? So permit me suggest my own conception of what might be possible on the other side (the outside?) of this dilemma: feral philosophy. That is, philosophical thinking (in the traditionally broad sense as a passion for wisdom) that embodies and operationalizes an attitude and inclination for perpetually de-domesticating and decolonizing it’s own ‘though-things’. Feral Philosophy, then, is an auto-deconstructive mode of thinking animated by deeply pragmatic or worldly concerns.
To be sure, such a shift in intellectual registers – from philosophy proper to feral philosophy – also entails a shift in mythological approach from ontology (as closed description) to ontography (as open-ended discovery). Failed attempts to absolutize the objects of our conception is ontology, whereas coping and negotiating within “wild” extra-linguistic consequential situations is an issue for ontography. Ontography is a concept-aware pursuit of dis-closure and revisable conceptions, whereas ontology is the colonization of real experience via conceptual closure. The difference matters.
What I’m proposing is that both ontography and feral philosophy begin with a type of axiomatic negation: an auto-deflation the dogmatic tendency of closure within thought itself. Intellectual reflexivity taken to its logical conclusion; an auto-destructive gaming of the very activity of language-games as such.
Oh so meta, I know, but not in a way that seeks to reestablish any particular symbolic kingdom or regime of signifiers. No, not even ‘meta’ escapes the corrosive effects of axiomatic negation and thought decolonization. Instead, what occurs is a shift in registers: a re-prioritization of thingness/materiality and encounters (ecologicality) over manifest conceptions and thought-forms. 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 then 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.
Ultimately, our conversions of wild things (the Real) into thought-things (the Symbolic) is about hominid coping. Humans are awkward and often delusional agents trying get by in the world while assaulted by forces well below and above our control. Our neurocognitive-semiotic renderings are negotiations of worldly situations, and more or less adaptive measures with-in a teeming wilderness of nonhuman flows and assemblages.
In Lacan-speak, when we accept the non-symbolic excess and primal depth of things beyond our conceptions (via axiomatic negation) we become capable of reorienting new relationships between the Real and the Symbolic (language) that can render potentially more adaptive formations of the Imaginal (lived experience). The accompanying re-distribution of priorities for thought and action changes the way we regard things, affording new behaviors and projects. Such reorientations might just be the path to an ecological thinking (as praxis) adequate to the ecologies in which we think.
I read the work of Alphonso Lingis as very much doing philosophy in this mode. But, of course, thinkers such as Najarjuna, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Laruelle, and others, have, in one way or another, pioneered and eluded to similar attitudes and approaches.
Levi frames it this way:
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. Again and again, forever. And then do theory-as-praxis in a more productive and ecologically sane manner.
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’.