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Objects, knowledge and ethics

Author: joe

Monday, 06 December, 2010 - 22:08

It's been a fascinating few days watching the SR / OOO and the Metaphysics and Things conferences unfold online in the last few days - Bogost, Bryant, Morton, Harman, Haraway, Stengers, Shaviro and others on objects and units, processes and procedures, rhetoric and semiotics. It's very stimulating to see ideas open up and develop nuance as they get pulled in different directions by new combinations of cast members. I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into the detail soon - particularly what strikes me as a very Latourian atmosphere clinging to some of the outcomes, (by which I mean, a healthy and indiscriminate abundance of agents together translating and transforming the world). In the meantime, I want to return to the stubborn subject of withdrawn objects.

A few days ago Graham Harman called out a certain approach to making philosophical arguments, naming it trumpery - "the triumphalistic one-upping of positions that are defined as naive/traditionalistic" - particularly with reference to arguments which want to "denounce hidden unities behind the plurality of surface-effects . . . It's time to recover these bemoaned hidden unities lying behind appearance, rather than trumping them with easy avant garde positions that are now much too banal to be avant garde."

I don't know whether this was specifically in reference to a post of mine Graham linked to earlier; in that post I said, "I just want to dispel hidden realities which betray their appearances, or illusory facades which belie some more authentic realm" - which is pretty close to the position Graham dislikes.

I should point out that I think my position is more a form of specious dilettantism than avant garde trumpery. I'm an autodidact when it comes to philosophy, and have no real interest in making deep ontological commitments one way or the other; I am deeply interested, though, in how philosophies make me feel - their affect and the aesthetic experiences they evoke. So far as I am a professional academic / researcher (which is not very far), I'd say I'm in the phenomenological camp which denies that we can speak of things lying outside our experience without chasing ghosts and hallucinations. One of the things I love most about engaging with philosophy is the sense that I'm entering a world of abysses, ghouls, hauntings and the supernatural...

This position is often written off as a sort of postmodern cop-out: it flies in the face of common sense (because spades are spades and arche-fossils are arche-fossils); it insults scientific progress whose methods, its proponents constantly remind us, are the only valid means of investigating the world; it always escapes affirmation and, cowardly, never risks itself in defence of a particular worldview or outlook; it disappears (often accompanied by obscurantism) into surfaces, play, simulacra, language, representation - or, inevitably, up its own arse.

However, there is something about this position (which I prefer to call anti-foundationalist than postmodern), which seems to me to be crucial. Rorty describes it in Consequences of Pragmatism:

Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognise it when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form "There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you." This thought is hard to live with, as is Sartre's remark:
 
"Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are."
 
This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together - the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.
 
Consequences of Pragmatism by Richard Rorty

If there is no universal truth to which we can appeal when the secret police come to the door, then all we can do is decide what we want to defend, and defend it as best we can. If there is no fallback position, no 'criterion' outside of human dealings to appeal to, no God, or universal morality, or even genetic imperative, all that is open to us is to make our case - the last thing we can be is complacent. It is, no doubt, undergraduate philosophy 101, but I see no way to go about epistemology, ontology, metaphysics or practical philosophy of any sort, without first taking up an ethical position.

Attendant to this position, for me, there must also be two further consequences: a suspicion of anything that might claim to be a more "authentic" or "foundational" realm than the surfaces amongst which we live our effervescent, sensual lives; and also a recognition that a world without foundations is one where the irresistible force can be resisted, the unstoppable object can be stopped, the impassable obstacle can be passed, and the hard kernel of things can be cracked.

That was all a long, round-about way of saying that I'm not so much a trumper as a dilettante, and not so much a dilettante as a double agent. I also don't want to imply that objects that withdraw are the harbingers of enslavement. Just that I want to understand the meaning of hidden realities. What is it that is hiding? Does it hide from everything? And why is it hiding from me?

Categories: Graham Harman, objects, withdrawal, Richard Rorty, pragmatism, ethics,
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