Tuesday, January 16, 2024

The non-distinction of ethics and morals

 I am about to teach a chapter on Ethics in Public Speaking in my public speaking class. The chapter is fine for what I want it to do (mostly cover research and citational practices for public speaking), but there is brief aside where the chapter distinguishes between ethics and morality, and it drives me nuts. Often when I complain about this to others, I get some version of this seems like special pleading from a philosopher. Which, sure, point well taken. But I want to spend a little time here explaining why I think this distinction is not incoherent, but actively harmful. 

Ethics, as you know, comes from the Greek ethos, meaning custom, character, habit, habitat. It's what you do in the place you live. Cicero, seeking to translate ethos, coins moralis, taken from the Latin mos. So, when I used to teaching a lot of moral philosophy and ethics courses, if students asked me the difference between ethics and morality, I would say for the purpose of my course, ethics comes from the Greek, and morality from the Latin. Now, thinkers have created distinctions between morality and ethics for a long time, and if clearly explained, I in principle do not object to those distinctions. But something happens in a lot of professional ethics that seek a distinction. Here, let's look at a pretty typical distinction from NASBA Center for the Public Trust (which is what google highlights for me if I search "ethics vs. morality"). 

Both ethics and morals refer to “right” and “wrong” behaviors and conduct. While they are sometimes used interchangeably, these words are different: ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, such as a code of conduct in the workplace. Morals refer to an individual’s principles regarding right and wrong.

From the standpoint of wanting to quickly teach professional "ethics," I can understand the appeal of this distinction. Students come with a variety of beliefs about right and wrong, and you want them to shelf them. You don't want to get into fundamental questions that invite discussions of religion, culture, etc. So, you call all of these things morals, basically gesture to a kind of relativism about them. But you also need your students to adhere to certain rules, behaviors, and norms. You call these ethics, and say they don't have anything to do with your morality. Now you can say that it doesn't matter about what you morally feel is important about what is right and wrong, a lawyer has an ethical duty not the pierce confidentiality. It doesn't matter if you ethically disagree with the lifestyle or health decisions of your patient, a nurse has an ethical duty to provide the best treatment possible. We could go on, but you get the drift. This makes the life of the professional "ethics" instructor easier. Especially if they understand their job as teaching you how to not get sued, or bother HR. Essentially, the solution of the public and private sphere has been imported into the realm of ethics and moral philosophy. 

But there are serious problems with this stance. The first is that it essentially affirms some sort of principle of moral relativism. While I am a moral pluralist (as I am a pluralist in most things), it is not a moral relativism. Indeed, most of the thinkers that create the schools of ethics and morality are not relativists. But this might not even be the worse. The real problem is the way this version of professional ethics dodges the real issues of ethical reasoning. You have private morals, and you have public ethical standards. By asking the students, or really future and current practitioners, to simply follow pre-given rules, behaviors, and norms, we are asking them not to think, not to reason, not struggle. The part about ethics that is compelling is how it addresses us existentially. Life demands of us to make decisions that are fundamentally undecidable, and yet we must still make decisions. Ethics and morality are not, therefore, principally concerned with "the good," but asking questions about what sort of being do you need to be to care about the good, to do the good, to even understand the good. To engage with ethical reasoning is resist turning ourselves into some sort of calculator (this is even true of the calculative ethical systems such as utilitarianism). It requires us to think and act, as Arendt might say, without bannisters. One cannot simply memorize a bunch of rules and norms and be ethical. To be ethical often requires of us to know exactly what rules and norms need to be challenged or broken. The idea of a private morals and a public ethics brings us into an Orwellian reversal of language, in which people are told to be ethical is to follow this or that code of conduct, to make sure you follow the law, etc. And this is against the very reality of the ethical, which demands us to be able to think when rules, laws, and norms breakdown. Actual professional ethics are essential and important. Ethical philosophy confronts us with profound questions of what it means to be, think, and act. And so often we fail to be ethical by going along with what we have been told, by following our received standards.   

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Why Metaphysics? Some Thoughts on Weird Empiricism and Animal Studies

 Those who know me, or even just looking at my recent blog posts, know I have been doing a lot of work on metaphysics. Particularly on the work of William James, and the trajectory of thinkers that could be called radical empiricists (Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze, Stengers, Massumi, etc.). I often get some sort of question from people who know my work on animal studies why I have started studying metaphysics so seriously. The point of this post is to briefly explain some of my metaphysical commitments, and why I think they matter (especially for animal scholars all who are concerned with the more than human world). 


I have been working on what I call weird empiricism. Weird empiricism is a subset of radical empiricism. Radical empiricism, for James, differed from the classical empiricists (you know, Bacon, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, & co.) in a few ways. First, the classical empiricists saw empiricism as essentially passive (one received experiences), whereas for James empiricism is both passive and active (one wills the world and self). Second, the classical empiricists separated the objects we experienced from our own experiences. That is, they jettisoned the relationship of experience as not real. Radical empiricism affirms the realness of relations. 
Weird empiricism sees how these principles opens up a strange, bizarre, yes weird, pluriverse. One that can bring in the more than human world. Weird empiricism both sees the reality of our relationship to the more than human world (our relationship to other animals, but also ghosts, the sacred, imagined geographies, the dead and the undying). But also weird empiricism takes seriously the experience of the more than human world. That is, we can understand that other animals have a stake in claims of the truth because they can experience just as well as human. Though their truths may be alter than ours--weird truths from weird worlds.
Okay, so weird empiricism has something to do with the more than human world. Cool. But that doesn't answer why I think animal studies needs a metaphysics. And I do think it needs a metaphysics. I'm going to give three main reasons. 


To the degree that animal studies has an avowed metaphysics, it is a rejection of anthropocentrism. That is, of course, simply a negative commitment. We know what we are against, but it doesn't produce the kind of answers I think we have assumed that it will. First, any number of people have tried to critique animal activism, and the commitments of many animal scholars, as being insufficiently anti-anthropocentric. As if the point of what we are engaged in is trying to simply reduce anthropocentrism, rather than trying to create a more just and livable world. And there is no guarantee that only overcoming anthropocentrism will lead to that more just and livable world. As Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa argues in his recent book The Celluloid Specimen, B. F. Skinner and other behaviorists were dedicated to overcoming anthropocentrism, and not for any sort of liberation. 

Crucially, this shift did not lead to any programmatic improvement in the lives of animals. As Haraway and, more recently, the animal studies scholar Nicole Shukin have argued, one of the strongest catalysts for a posthuman worldview has been global capitalism, which often actively encourages the blurring of boundaries between human and animal. Yet animals are still cruelly tortured, killed, and driven to extinction at rates far exceeding any previous historical period. More than the centuries-old philosophies of Cartesian dualism, this late twentieth-century social formation remains far-and-away the largest threat to both animal and human life in our current milieu. (pp. 14-15). 
So, while I think it is still important to resist anthropocentrism (see Fiona Probyn-Rapsey's chapter in Critical Terms for Animal Studies, and Matthew Calarco's Beyond the Anthropological Difference) , it is far from sufficient as a ground for our metaphysical commitments. Weird empiricism's emphasis on relationships allows it to honor the specific forms of entanglements that we are involved with in the more than human world. As Lori Gruen points out in Entangled Empathy, "recognize life and its various entangled processes doesn't necessarily help us to respond to differences among kinds of fellow creatues" (p. 69). It is not enough to avow we are entangled, we must pay attention to the specific needs and relationships of those beings we are entangled with (see also my chapter on "Matter," also in Critical Terms for Animal Studies). Such a move allows us to have different conversations, such as engaging Eva Haifa Giraud's claim that we need an ethics of exclusion, and not one of entanglement


So, we need an weird empiricism because we need more than simply a negative metaphysic against anthropocentrism. But we also need weird empiricism to help explore one of the central tensions in animal studies. Are animals fundamentally similar to humans, just another creature on evolutionary distribution that refuses any kind of human exceptionalism, or are other animals fundamentally other, alter, different? The answer seems to be yes, and rather than either/or. Matthew Calarco provides an excellent overview of this tension, as well as his own third term, indistinction, in Thinking Through Animals. Weird empiricism's emphasis on experience as the unit of truth, and the plurality of worlds, allow us to gesture to way to keep the relationship we have to other animals, while also demanding that attention be paid to the radical alterity of the worlds of other animals. 


Lastly, for me at least, I have turned toward radical empiricism as a way of answering questions about how novelty and change come about. There are those who can only imagine our relationship towards other animals as fundamentally broken and in need of repair and restoration. They understand the factory farm and many invasive experiments are wrong, but they fundamentally cannot imagine a world of co-existing in a just way. Some wish to return to a model of dominion, and they simply reject the cruel excesses of the current order. Others, including many who see themselves of animal abolitionists, still do not see a possible world of co-existence. The problem for them is that all human relationship with other animals would be exploitive, and the goal is to create a human world for humans, and a non-human world for the non-humans. And on this, I can at least agree with both groups, what I dream of has not yet existed. What I want is something different, something new. And weird empiricism grants us the possibility of demanding the new, of having a metaphysics that depends upon novelty, change, creativity. I have tried to get at that here, here, and here.  As Alexis Dianda argues in Varieties of Experience

We must organize if we are to survive; yet, James cautions that we must not forget the subjective character of the world we take for granted. Such forgetfulness would likely increase the danger that we will not take responsibility for re-creating the world in new and better ways. This forgetfulness comes hand in hand with blindness to the ways in which other people value and make their world, and blindness to the power held to the power held by those in a position to enforce their views of reality under the auspices of objective, preexistent state of affairs. (p. 113)

In other words, we have made the world as it is. Our empiricism is not just passive, but  also active. Our wills and desires and actions make and remake the world. But we also often depend upon a metaphysics that tells us to forget the ways we have made the world--a metaphysics that limits our creative forces. Instead, we need a metaphysics that understands the productive power of belief, will, and action. 


In a 1903 letter to the philosopher Francois Pillon, William James described his "humble view of the world" as "pluralistic, tychistic, empiricist, pragmatic, and ultra gothic, i.e. non classic in form." The weird empiricist would say yes to all of this. And simply add, "and more than human." 

Monday, September 4, 2023

A Pedagogy of Festina Lente

I have started including the below in my class syllabuses.

The Latin Motto Festina Lente means to make haste, slowly. Perhaps you remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Despite the seeming speed of the rabbit, it was the tortoise that wins the race. We must develop within ourselves the ability to make haste, slowly. We must learn to focus, and to grind away at the problems around us. Our word school comes from the classical Greek skholē, which means literally leisure or free time. When you leave school, and enter the so-called real world, some of you might discover that school was the last time that people wanted you to think deeply and believed you might have some important insight into how the world should be. This is the kind of free time we cultivate in this class. Not the free time to do less, but the free time to do more. Here we still can think, read, argue, plan, and strive for a different tomorrow. Here we still think we have a chance to become someone else before we become some more efficient cog in some ever more efficient workplace. I hope this sense of school stays with long after you graduate. 

 This class is housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Well, science comes from the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge, understanding, or study. So, we have not just the natural and physical sciences, but also the social and human sciences. But what about the liberal arts? Liberal here comes from the word for freedom (think liberty), and art here means simply practice. The Liberal Arts are the practices and techniques of freedom. They are the things a free people should know, they are the practices a citizen should develop. We study the liberal arts and sciences to not become better workers (though we surely will gain that too), but to become better citizens—to become freer within our responsibilities to each other. 

 My training is not in the social sciences or the physical sciences, but the human sciences, also known as the humanities. We study what it means to be human. Our techniques for doing that are text based. We will read difficult, often strange texts in this class. We will learn to slow down when we read them. To make haste, slowly. And in so doing, we will carefully rebuild and understand the arguments of the books, articles, stories, and other texts in this class. And we will learn to build our own arguments through our careful understanding of the arguments of others. The first skill that all the others are based on is careful reading. We must learn to read with minimum distraction, to make friends with the frustrations of difficult prose, and to seek after the excellence of finding what is front of us. Few tasks are harder than seeing what is front of you. So, festina lente everyone.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Empiricism and the Lines of Flight

On Friday I taught Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" again. This is probably the piece I have taught the most in my career. Inevitably my students make the same objection: why are they walking away? Aren't they just quitting? Shouldn't they, as the title of Jemisin's story goes, stay and fight? As I then try to get my students to understand, the students are transforming the kinds of questions that Le Guin's story is asking of us. She wants us to wonder what we are willing to give up, how we are willing to change, what we are willing to remove of our lives, in order to no longer be complicit of the suffering of the child. Political change is not outside of the questions, but rather deeply connected to them. The story implies that for change to happen, people need to transform through the outside. 

The same is true for Deleuze. As you point out, these are questions here of subjectivity and subjectification. Who are we? Who are we becoming? What do we want? What are all the ways we have learned to hate our bodies and desires? And what are all the ways we've learned to turn that hate on others as much as on ourselves? These questions are not ancillary to questions of the political, they are bound up with each other. Strangely, we need to turn to Deleuze's empiricism to understand the political questions of subjectivity here. 

In the preface to the English edition of Dialogues, Deleuze starts by saying, "I have always felt that I am an empiricist, that is, a pluralist. But what does this equivalence between empiricism and pluralism mean? It derives from the two characteristics by which Whitehead defined empiricism: the abstract does not explain, but must itself be explained; and the aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced (creativeness)." This is a very strange claim at first, that empiricism is fundamentally about a commitment to pluralism. In my empiricism primer I tried to explain some of the connection of empiricism and pluralism, but what is key here is that for Deleuze, empiricism--that is, a focus on experience--provides what he calls in his book on Foucault a "thought of the outside." This is what I was trying to get at in my posts on "Belief in this World" and in this post on Jamesian pure experience. There needs to be something outside of interpretation (however fleeting, however absurd, however unthinkable) in order to undue the images of thought. For James this is pure experience, for Deleuze it is the chaos of the plane of immanence. For Deleuze, it is the outside that gives us someway to contest not just the answers that are produced in the present order, but to contest the very questions that we ask. (While there are plenty of reasons that it might be hard to include Ranciere with this discussion, there certainly is something that rhymes here. For Ranciere, the part that has no part disrupts the counting logic of post-political consensual order. The post-political consensual order, what Ranciere often just calls the police, is used to fights about how to recount society. That is, they are used to arguments about how to cut up the pie. But the part that has no part challenges the very logic of counting and pie cutting. And that is why it is so unhearable and unseeable, so unthinkable. This is why Ranciere tells us in Disagreement that "politics is not made up of power relationships; it is made up of relationships between worlds" (p. 42). )

Just as Deleuze's metaphysics depends upon a transcendental empiricism to provide an outside to the problems of doxa and stupidity, the issue of lines of flight, nomadism, becoming-molecular, etc. are ways thinking the outside of subjectivity. And that is why they are always paired with other political questions. The nomads come with war machines. The witch's flight calls forth a new people and a new earth. The line of flight is articulated with George Jackson's imperative that as one runs, one should be looking for a weapon (and again, from the essay "On Societies of Control," "There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons"). So Deleuze does not bring up lines of flight, nomadism, etc. as some sort of quietism, but rather as an outside that can create new forms of politics. Just as his empiricism is his answers to how we have novelty and creativity in thought, the lines of flight are his answer to how we have novelty and creativity in politics and subjectivity. 

Think of that Deleuzian movie: Mad Max: Fury Road. They flee down fury road, but eventually the War Rig is turned around, and the Outside comes back to destroy the realities of Immortan Joe and his brothers and sons.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

The Future Is Coming On: An Hauntological Murder Mystery (or, haunted meliorism against left pessimism)

I ain't happy, I'm feeling glad

I got sunshine in a bag

I'm useless but not for long

The future is coming on


The future, as an aesthetic, is dead. It was murdered, slowly. It has been replaced by formal nostalgia. We are detectives trying to solve the mystery of who, or what, killed the future. But, as we look for clues and interview witnesses, we keep hearing things that aren't there, seeing things that cannot still be. Deja vu keeps slipping into jamais vu. Are the ghosts we keep hearing from the past or the future? Are they the murders or the victim? Reality keeps glitching. Haven't we done this before? Haven't we been here before? I know we've been here, I would swear this was our home and we grew up here, but it feels like the very first time. 
Shhhh the ghosts are speaking again. If we strain our ears, I think we can hear them. 
Time is out of joint 
Anything you say, Lloyd. Anything you say.


This is how I introduced teaching Mark Fisher's Ghosts of my Life to my students in our class on ghosts, haunting, and mourning. For those who haven't read the book, Mark Fisher explores what he calls "the slow disappearance of the future," a phrase he gets from Bifo.  As Fisher puts it, "time keeps moving, but somehow the future never comes." The future, at least as an aesthetic category, is no more. As Fisher points out, could you imagine a band like Kraftwerk now? Not a band that sounds like Kraftwerk, as my students pointed out, we have all heard Daftpunk. No, can we imagine a band trying to sound as if it was from the future (and not some sort of retrofuture)? Now, I wasn't sure I bought this argument from Fisher. My students certainly didn't buy it. But in their objections, I became more and more convinced. In Fisher's intro, he explains that ghosts are virtual (engaging in a Deleuzian reading of Derrida's Specters of Marx):
we can provisionally distinguish two directions in hauntology. The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which remains effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘compulsion to repeat’, a fatal pattern). The second sense of hauntology refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour). The ‘spectre of communism’ that Marx and Engels had warned of in the first lines of the Communist Manifesto was just this kind of ghost: a virtuality whose threatened coming was already playing a part in undermining the present state of things.
The example a student gave about how a future can be virtually real is the present was to imagine there is a report that a massive storm is coming (in the deep South in the US, we can imagine any storm that is supposed to snow). You know if you go the store it will be sold out of batteries, bottle water, milk, etc. It does not matter if the storm comes, the forecast is enough. Likewise, I suggested thinking about the recent bank runs. It did not matter if the banks were actually insolvent--the threat they were caused them to become so.
So then I said, "Okay, we know that fear of certain futures can create actions now. What about the possibility of a good future?"
The students didn't understand. 
"Like, do you mean a hopeful night?" 
"Sure. But I mean something more. What would it mean if we could believe in some sort of better future." 
Another student spoke up, "Well, we know how we get promised things, but they don't happen. So we need to ask a better future for who?" 
"Sure," I responded, "Every dystopia is someone's utopia and all that. But can you take seriously the idea of a better tomorrow for all us earthlings? What would it mean if we could believe, really believe, in the possibility of a real, true, better tomorrow? What sort of actions would we engage in today, if we thought a better tomorrow was possible?" 
A student, who seldom speaks, sitting way in the back, yells out, "No one would believe you!" 
Students laugh. Heads nod.
A student up front adds, contemplatively, "I'm not sure I can imagine the future as being really different from the present. Or if I can, it's only dystopias." 


I think I can still hear the future, softly. I think I can still see it, sometimes. Out of the corner of my eye. It's standing near you. Even now. 


In the 90s, when the seers came and chortled that it was the end of history, we knew it was a conservative doctrine. We knew it was despair, disguised as triumph. After all, was this as good as it gets? 
Fisher tells us that pop music in the Aughts became melancholic party music. We are demanded to party as if it was our job. The biggest example is the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling." Despite the narrative claims of anticipation of the future, everything about the song is a longing for something lost. Something you know that will not be found tonight. Indeed, the feeling that one has is a desire that tonight can finally fill whatever has been lost, with knowledge of that impossibility. The song is a dirge of mournful loss. In the same way the 90s conservative triumph about the end of politics, the end of history, was just so much melancholic pop. But since then, something has shifted. 


During a discussion of Tuck and Ree's "A Glossary of Haunting," one of my students pointed out that ghosts don't want rights, they want vengeance. I keep thinking about that. I wonder, for the ghosts of the future, what would vengeance look like? And who would they want vengeance against? 


Something has shifted (haven't I said that already?). Now, anything that rejects a pessimistic affect is perceived as insufficiently radical.   It is as if one believes in a better tomorrow is seen as rejecting the suffering around you. It is also seen as fundamentally unserious. As if the desire to find a better future  makes one panglossian or polyannish. Perhaps worse is the reaction to finding anything good or improving today. If one ever disagrees that this is the darkest timeline, one is taken to be defending the status quo. Of course, the exact opposite is often the case. If everything is shit today, then you are absolutely right in assuming tomorrow will be shit too. Maybe you, too, can only see dystopias. If, on the the other hand, one wishes to build an alternative to the status quo, one has to find the elements that exist today that are not total immiseration. It is from these elements that we nurture, intensify, and coalesce around to create something different. 

Fredric Jameson famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. The strange corollary is that for many leftists, they have come to believe that it is only by the world ending will we be forced to end capitalism. In a way they are like ecological Posadists. Not with the cool alien stuff, but rather a belief that, like the Posadists desire for a nuclear war to destroy capitalism, now we earn after ecological doomsday. This is why so many of my fellow travelers on the left react so differently to any kind of optimistic news. Time and again I have seen reactions to positive news stories about the economy, the pandemic, or the environment as if they are propaganda for capitalist industries. If they assume that it is is only by facing the end of the world that we will get mass revolutionary action against the capitalist status quo, then yes, any stories that are about things not being terrible become counter-revolutionary. Affectively this is a doubly whammy. First, of course, you are committed to the world being terrible, Second, good news becomes a kind of bad news--because it signals that the world is further away from ending than you had hoped. 

Of course, there is no reason to believe the old slogan, often attributed to Lenin, the worse things are, the better. Fascists and strongmen do not seem to arise so easily when things are going well. It is not usually in times of plenty and hope that we seek scapegoats and leaders promising a return to a golden age. There is a reason that so many of the white supremacist terrorists have started explicitly identifying as eco-fascists. The future, the future as something different than a return to an imaginary past, has always been a weapon against reactionary forces. As the future as a power on the present recedes, I cannot imagine that liberatory alternatives to the present will expand. 


And thus we return to end with that paradoxical feature of haunting. Haunting always harbors the violence, the witchcraft and denial that made it, and the exile of our longing, the Utopian. When I am a spooky phantom you want to avoid, when there is nothing but the shadow of a public civic life, when bedrooms and boardrooms are clamorous ghost chambers, deep "wounds in civilization" are in haunting evidence. But it is also the case that some part of me in abeyance of the injury and some part of the missing better life and its potentialities are in haunting evidence too. The ghost always registers the actual "degraded present" (Eagleton) in which we are inextricably and historically entangled and the longing for the arrival of a future, entangled certainly, but ripe in the plenitude of nonsacrificial freedoms and exuberant unforeseen pleasures. The ghost registers and it incites, and that is why we have to talk to it graciously, why we have to learn how it speaks, why we have to grasp the fullness of its life world, its desires and its standpoint. When a ghost appears, it is making contact with you; all its forceful if perplexing enunciations are for you. Offer it a hospitable reception we must, but the victorious reckoning with the ghost always requires a partiality to the living. Because ultimately haunting is about how to transform a shadow of a life into an undiminished life whose shadows touch softly in the spirit of a peaceful reconciliation. In this necessarily collective undertaking, the end, which is not an ending at all, belongs to everyone. (Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters, pp. 207-208)


The desire for hope, for Blockean concrete utopias, for listening to the ghostly mutterings of the the future, is not a demand for blind optimism. William James, who knew a thing or two about ghosts and the struggle to find hope and meaning in life, rejected the simplistic binary of pessimism and optimism. Instead, for James, the point was meliorism. As James points out, "meliorism treats salvation neither as inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a possibility the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become." The concept of meliorism sounds almost trite. Isn't it, after all, just saying we need to work to make the world we want? 

I think any triteness here underscores my point. How can meliorism be both trite and unthinkable? For surely the idea that we can work to build the collective conditions of the salvation of the world is exactly that which we seem to no longer believe possible. It is why every response to global warming has the same double-bind. Either the action/policy is too small and therefore what even is the point. Or the action/policy is too big, and thus too demanding or controversial to actually be taken seriously. The idea that we can affect local conditions, the idea we can make more numerous the conditions for salvation, has washed away in a sea of systematic complaints. Simultaneously our actions are not enough and how dare you ask so much of us. More and more, people seem to think that only an apocalypse can save us now. 


My students are obsessed with authenticity. I get it. While I have come to agree with Adorno about the fundamentally reactionary language of authenticity, I certainly cared about authenticity when I was a teenager. But as teenagers in the 90s, we didn't use the language of authenticity, exactly. We talked about poseurs and sell-outs. Authenticity, therefore, had something to do with keeping some sort of distance to crass commercialism, even if that distance was all a fiction. I still remember when Lars Urlich was responding to criticisms that Metallica had sold out, and he said, "Yes we sold out, selling out whole stadiums."  Yeah, that didn't help. 

I tried to explain this concept of selling out to my students--that authenticity had something to do with being orthogonal to capitalism, or at least commercialism, and my students didn't really understand. To be authentic, they explained, meant expressing one's own inner truth, and had nothing to do with capitalism. Indeed, authenticity was the key to making it as an influencer. It felt like that old joke (often attributed to Groucho Marx) "honesty and sincerity are the key to success. Once you can fake those, you have it made." For my students, the inability to take seriously claims about selling out follows from an intensification from a point made by Mark Fisher, who points to David Guetta's hit, "Play Hard," whose chorus demands of the audience to "keep partying like it's your job" (when I was a teenager I taught I had to fight for my right to party, now the party is work). Fisher then discusses the unpaid content creation we do for websites like Facebook,  where we often post our images of partying. But as my students pointed out, they do know people who party as their job. Or they go on vacations as their job. Many students were envious. And who knows, they may be right. But my immediate reaction is that such influencers are perfect examples of real subsumption. You can never have a vacation from work, your night outs become just another task. Like Duffman from The Simpsons or Slurms MacKenzie from Futurama, their life is not just alienated from labor, but also from the very possibility of leisure. How, in such a world, is selling out even possible? 

The future represented some sort of possible outside of capitalism. But if all we have are variations of dystopians, sold to us (would you like yours more Handmaiden's Tale or more Brave New World?) then there is no outside. Everything's a hustle, and  "a hustler's work is never through."



In Avery Gordon's Ghostly Matters, she discusses Argentina's Dirty War and the mass disappearances. The disappearances, of course, are a kind of haunting. The goal of such a haunting is to make civic life disapper, to make the possibility of anything else impossible. "To live under the mantle of the omnipresent dread disappearance produces, a fear that 'exterminates all social life in the public realm,' a fear that eats away at you bite by bite, is to live not 'in the light of cold reason, of realistic calculation, of party traditions' (Perelli) but in the vestiges of your own shadow, in the gray shades of an everyday life charged with a phantom reality" (p. 124). The authoritarian state does this because they were first haunted by ghosts--ghosts of the will of the people, ghosts of a future they cannot control:
What has the state tried to repress? What looming and forbidden desire is this system of repression designed to inhibit and censor? Subversion, opposition, political consciousness, the struggle for social justice, the capacity to imagine otherwise than through the language of the state, the ability to see "what is going on below: hunger, pettiness, misery" and to act on it (V 12.3). It has many names that I will call simply, and despite the reputation it has acquired of evasive naïveté, the Utopian: the apperception of the fundamental difference between the world we have now and the world we could have instead; the desire and drive to create a just and equitable world. The Utopian, the most general object of the state's repression, makes its appearance too, lingering among the smoldering remains of a dirty war. (p. 127)


I can hear it now. So loud in this moment. Not whispering, but thundering. No. No, not thundering after all, but the whispers of thousands, millions, billions. So many, so loud. Can you hear it? 


William James, writing about moral thinking, wrote, "If we follow the ideal which is conventionally highest, the others which we butcher either die or do not return to haunt us; or if they come back and accuse us of murder, every one applauds us for turning to them a deaf ear." Isabelle Stengers, commenting on this passage, put it this way, "For James, this first means to accept that the question is tragic. Philosophers should be able to resist the temptation to justify the sacrifice, the exclusion of other ideals. They should accept that the victims haunt the interstices of their adher­ence to an ideal. They should accept to let their experience throb with the complaint of those who were sacrificed in the name of what they define as moral" (Thinking with Whitehead, p. 334). 

The claim I wish to end here is that the future is haunted. Or, rather, the future haunts. If we are going to restore the future, we must learn to listen to ghosts. The future is a force capable of undoing the present. But the only way of summoning the future is by finding elements in the present that are sympathetic to the future. Against apocalyptic fantasies and pervasive pessimism all I can offer is a haunted meliorism. The future must be made. 


Don't close your eyes. Shhhh....   

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Deleuze and Belief in this World

"We need an ethic or a faith, which makes fools laugh; it is not a need to believe in something else, but a need to believe in this world, of which fools are a part." Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 173. (French publication is 1985).

"What we most lack is a belief in the world, we’ve quite lost the world, it’s been taken from us. If you believe in the world you precipitate events, however inconspicuous, that elude control, you engender new space-times, however small their surface or volume. It’s what you call pietas. Our ability to resist control, or our submission to it, has to be assessed at the level of our every move. We need both creativity and a people." Deleuze, in conversation with Negri, in "Control and Becoming." (Original publication is 1990)
"But, on the new plane, it is possible that the problem now concerns the one who believes in the world, and not even in the existence of the world but in its possibilities of movements and intensities, so as once again to give birth to new modes of existence, closer to animals and rocks. it may be that believing in this world, in this life, becomes our most difficult task, or the task of a mode of existence still to be discovered on our plane of immanence today. This is the empiricist conversion (we have so many reasons not to believe in the human world; we have lost the world, worse than a fiancee or a god)." - Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, pp. 74-75 (Original French publication 1991). "[W]e understand the novelty of American thought when we see pragmatism as an attempt to transform the world, to think a new world or new man insofar as they create themselves. [...] It is first of all the affirmation of a world in process, an archipelago. Not even a puzzle, whose pieces when fitted together would constitute a whole, but rather a wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has a value in itself but also in relation to others: isolated and floating relations, islands and straits, immobile points and sinuous lines––for Truth always has “jagged edges.” [...] the American invention par excellence, for the Americans invented patchwork, just as the Swiss are said to have invented the cuckoo clock. But to reach this point, it was also necessary for the knowing subject, the sole proprietor, to give way to a community of explorers, the brothers of the archipelago, who replace knowledge with belief, or rather with “confidence”––not belief in another world, but confidence in this one, and in man as much as in God [...]. Pragmatism is this double principle of archipelago and hope. And what must the community of men consist of in order for truth to be possible? Truth and trust. Like Melville before it, pragmatism will fight ceaselessly on two fronts: against the particularities that pit man against man and nourish an irremediable mistrust; but also against the Universal or the Whole, the fusion of souls in the name of great love or charity." --Deleuze, "Bartleby, or the Formula" in Essays Critical and Clinical, pp. 86-87. (Original French publication 1993)


Okay, so we have four quotations, in order of publication as best as I am able. (The one from Cinema 2 is particularly short, and the whole section is worth a close read). I have not been able to find this kind of language, the belief in the world, earlier in Deleuze's career. At the same time that it is a reoccurring theme, but one that is not particularly explained.  (If you know of other instances, let me know! I also found this article from Kathrin Thiele, which is a nice addition). 

It seems clear, with the references to pragmatism and to empiricism (and there are deeper references to a radical empiricism in What is Philosophy?, for example), that what is at stake is Deleuze's own project of empiricism (which he often called transcendental empiricism). Again and again Deleuze comes to the same problems that animated Plato and so much of the history of Western philosophy: How do we resist doxa? how do we stop thought terminating cliches? how do we harm stupidity? But Deleuze's answers, indeed his very understanding of the problem, is so different from Plato's (and later thinkers who take up these questions, such as Heidegger). For Deleuze this is what is at stake with empiricism, it provides an affirmation of experience, an outside to doxa and cliche. The term gas-lighting was not around in Deleuze's time, but we can imagine it becoming a metaphysical concept for Deleuze. As he writes in Cinema 2, "The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film" (p. 171). Empiricism, in it's radical, transcendental, and frankly weird register, resists gas-lighting and doxa. It grounds us in our experience, refusing the tendency to find our own world as a bad movie. Our experience pushes against the attempts to make us trapped in other people's narratives, other people's stories, other people's thoughts. If Deleuze is concerned about empiricism, it is not out a desire to just get the metaphysics right, but instead we find another counter-intuitive claim. For Deleuze, it is only by believing in this world that we can make another one. 

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Critique of Pure Experience: Some thoughts on R.A. Judy, Du Bois, and William James

In this post I engage R.A. Judy's Sentient Flesh, in particular his critique of ontology and para-ontology. He critiques William James' notion of pure experience, and argues instead for a generalized para-semiotics. I do my best to lay out his argument, and then briefly at the end argue why I think James' pure experience is an important concept to keep. 


Recently we began discussing what our departmental summer reading should be on (we are leaning towards Armond Towns' On Black Media Philosophy). Last summer we read R.A. Judy's 624 page book Sentient Flesh (Duke UP 2020), and talked about the parts of that book that have stayed with us. I realized there was an important intervention in American Pragmatism that Judy makes in that book I've wanted to address, but have not gotten around to. Here is my quick overview. 

A significant part of the book deals with readings of W.E.B. Du Bois. Among the discussion concerns Du Bois' famous discussion of double consciousness, and it's relationship to Du Bois' teacher, William James. Now in a long footnote to a 1994 article on Du Bois, Judy defends that Du Bois' notion of double consciousness is indeed inspired by James, arguing against the position taken by David Lewis in his biography of Du Bois. In the intervening years, Judy returns to relationship between James and Du Bois, but this time, he understands Du Bois as making an important corrective to James' work. First, let us turn to the summary of James' work from Judy: 

This account of the constituent elements of empirical self-consciousness sets James well on the course to what will become his radical empiricism and his postulating consciousness has no existence as an entity, as a primary substance of being in contrast to material things, out of which our thoughts of them are made. The point is not that thoughts don’t exist; undoubtedly they do, but there is “a function in experience that thoughts perform and for the performance of which ‘consciousness’ as a quality of being is invoked. The function is knowing, and ‘consciousness’ is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known.” James is alluding to Kant’s Transcendental Deduction of the Critique of Pure Reason, which, pursuant to its agenda of discovering the requisite faculties thinking beings need to have cognizance of the world, distinguishes between thinking something and having even phenomenal knowledge of it. And by his account, if the fruit of Kant’s endeavor, “the transcendental ego,” undermined the soul and put the Cartesian body/soul bipolarity off balance, it then established as fact that experience is indefeasibly dualistic in structure, so that the fundamental Kantian proposition is epistemic dualism. [...]Contra the Kantian thesis of epistemic dualism, James’s radical empiricist thesis is that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world that constitutes everything, which he called “pure experience.” On this thesis—which aligns with the neutral monism James came to expose, holding that both conscious mental properties and physical properties are derived from a primal reality that is itself neither mental nor physical—knowing as a function of mind can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation toward one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its terms becoming the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known. A key task of Principles of Psychology is to demonstrate that there is no need for any knower other than the stream of thought itself, identified with continuous self-consciousness. As for the individualized self, it is part of the content of the world experienced, which James also called the “field of consciousness,” maintaining that it “comes at all times with our body as its centre, centre of vision, centre of action, centre of interest.” There lies in the body a systematization of things, of everything with reference to focused action and interest. As for the activity of thoughts and feelings, these also terminate in the activity of the body, “only through first arousing its activities can they begin to change those of the rest of the world.”  On this basis, James then offers the formulation that will be so crucial for Edmund Husserl in his own phenomenology and subsequently for Maurice Merleau-Ponty as well: “The body is the storm centre, the origin of co-ordinates, the constant place of stress in all that experience-train.” This means that “I” is primarily a noun of position, just like “this” and “here,” but not in the Kantian sense of merely a necessary logical, purely propositional and hence conceptual correlate for knowledge. The positioning of the self indexes a complexity—James’s term is “plurality”—of relations in experience that articulate the field of consciousness in their dynamic interactivity. (pp. 36-37).

This is a very generous read, and I think that Judy gets a lot of fundamental stakes correct. James' radical empiricism takes standard epistemological questions and transforms them into ontological questions, undermining dualities of subject and object, mind and body, self and other. Those dualisms become ways we divided up, ways we verify and validate, the pulsations of pure experience. But this experience is more than our understanding. A basic point here for James is that chaos created by the plenum of existence is norm to our ability to grasp truth. Pure experience always exceeds our understanding in it's too-muchness. The James of the Psychology famously tells us that the world is "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." In his Essays in Radical Empiricism, he tells us that only the newborn, people who have been punched too hard, people who've done drugs, or people with certain mystical practices can briefly capture pure experience. But for the rest of us, it is closed off. (One can't help but be reminded of the discussion of Deleuze and Guattari about how you can find your Body without Organs, ATP chapter 6, perhaps particularly the lists on p. 151). So pure experience is a force from outside that structures our perceptions of the world and undoes those structures. 


Now, Judy then makes a strange shift. Like many critics of James, Judy fundamentally does not buy the undermining of the subject/object and mind/body dichotomy, and ends up deciding which side James actually is a partisan of. So we are told, emphasis in original:

We can state this summarily as the proposition governing all James’s theorizing about consciousness: Access to phenomena lies in experience and the basis of the phenomena lies in the body. [...] When it comes to the foundations of the social self, James’s psychology falls into methodological individualism [...] which explains social phenomena as resulting from individual actions determined by the motivating intentional states of individual actors. (p. 38). 

Ah, we find, James is fundamentally committed to the body! Then he immediately contrasts this with Du Bois. "Du Bois avoids such entanglement, not by disregarding or trivializing the physiological, but by recognizing the experience of the body centering the “field of consciousness” is itself gained in accord with the symbolic order of the social." (p. 38). Thus: 
Du Bois’s usage of the phrase “double consciousness” describes a socially extended consciousness [...] While even the most minimal form of pre-reflective self- consciousness—as a constant feature, whether structural or functional, of conscious experience—may be present, whenever I am living through an experience, whenever I am consciously perceiving the world, it is never an event alone, never a moment reduced in isolation and fully disengaged from, or unaware of other perceiving minds. [...] Of course there is subjective experience, but it is always already social—social, not intersubjective, because none of these subjects, not even at the pre-reflective level, have come into being alone. (p. 40).


Part of the pay off, here, comes much later in the book, when Judy argues for a para-semiosis as opposed to a paraontology. The term paraontology comes from Nahum Chandler, and is further explored in the work of Fred Moten (pp. 319-320). But Judy finds the origins of paraontology not just with Chandler and Moten, but traces it to the work of Lacan, as well as the Nazi philosopher Heidegger, and the Nazi mathematician Becker. This section of Sentient Flesh, as throughout, is filled with long steelmanning of thinkers that Judy fundamentally disagrees with. It really is this intellectual generosity I find so compelling throughout his work. And I wish I could do the same here. However, I will say I am not sure I buy that the concept of paraontology has to be associated with Becker and Heidegger. I never fully understood that internal link of how their use of that term comes along with Chandler's and Moten's term. And more fundamentally, I just don't buy that the ontological analysis has to be Heidegger's ontological analysis. However, for Judy the disjunction here is key. As he goes on to explain: 

As a sign-instrument in the existential analysis of fundamental ontology, the primitive is not merely conspicuous, it is opaque. And it is not a passive opacity; that is to say, it is not merely a function of the limit of the ontological analytic in the way Heidegger casts it. Rather, the opacity is an effect of the primitive semiosis at work with the fetish. That semiosis presents to the ontological analytic as a sign indicating something is happening, is occurring, which the analytic can only glimpse at by way of the fetish but cannot grasp or comprehend into its ambit. We can say that the fetish-semiotics, in its workings, defies ontological analysis. This is not to suggest that it offers no ontological resistance, which seems to be how Heidegger construes its conspicuousness, as an ontic phenomenon that cannot be comprehended ontologically. Nor is it to suggest that fetish-semiosis resists ontological analysis. Rather, it is to say that it simply defies, or better put, “flies far away from” ontology. (p. 361, emphasis in the original). 

As we can see here, for Judy, the way out of the colonizing ontological analysis is not some sort of paraontological move, but rather, the key is to be found with the working of "fetish-semiosis" whose opacity flies far away from ontology. And while Glissant is not mentioned here with regards to opacity, we are told earlier that Glissant's process of creolization "instigates a semiosis" (p. 236), and that para-semiosis approximates Glissant's créolisation (p. 416). And in his confirmation of this semiotic opacity, we see Judy's doubling the same criticism he charged William James with. Paraontology has, for Judy, the same weakness of James' philosophy.
Native semiosis [...is] dismiss[ed...] either as utterly incomprehensible or, to the extent it is comprehensible, as an archaic and inferior mode of knowing and talking about the world. In this respect, the paraontological is inextricably bound to the ontological. And that project flounders before the fluid plasticity of the flesh, needing to fix it in a homeostasis of body taxonomics, in which different bodily types express different modalities of knowledge, arranged in a hierarchical line of civilization. Paraontology is all about the body because it is still invested in somehow adjusting the ontological project. And the ontological project is about the body because it cannot think with the flesh. (p. 375)

The paraontological, like the ontological, remains caught up with the body. And as long as the body is the site of understanding, as long we believe different bodies produce different "modalities of knowledge," there will be an on-going project of hierarchy. There will always be some bodies that are more legitimate than others, and some understandings that are more real than others. Against this, Judy wants to pursue a para-semiosis, which is connected to the flesh instead of the body. While the body is individualizing (such individualizing is really the entire point of the existential analytic of Heidegger), the flesh for Judy is always already social. Because it is always and only ever social, it is question not of ontology, but rather of semiosis, even para-semiosis. As Judy explains: 
being-in-flight-with-one-another apart from, which is what is meant by para-semiosis. [...] The para-semiosis of being-with- one-another in-flight means leaving-off ontology altogether, without much more thought. The hyphenated para-, the “beside,” does not merely denote parallel movement alongside of ontology. It is a dynamic constitutive besidedness; that is, being-in-besidedness, not as a bijective function; not being as the break- in, but in the break, à la Moten. Para-semiosis denotes the dynamic of differentiation operating in multiple multiplicities of semiosis that converge without synthesis. (p. 391, emphasis still in the original). 

Now, obviously, I want to return to William James. I am going to leave aside the discussion here between Judy, Chandler, and Moten (though it seems important). And I am no Du Bois scholar, like Judy and Chandler, so I am also going to bracket for now any interpretative disagreements about Du Bois. But there is still this issue about James. 


The charge that James is an individualist, that his philosophy remains tied too much to the individual, is a common charge, and I don't think an absurd one. Creating the common is never presupposed in the work of James, nor is it presumed that the common once made will stay. How we are to make the common in the chaos of pluralism is very much the challenge of William James, and I think even more so for those of us who are communication scholars (remembering always the etymology of communication from communicare, that is literally, to make common). But already we begin to see some of the differences of the ontological analysis of James from Heidegger. Heidegger is very much interested in how we individualize, and the enemy is Das Mann, the they. There is just nothing like that in James, whose ontology is filled, to steal the phrase from Judy, of multiple multiplicities (as we know, the unfinished work of James' academic philosophy was to be called The Many and the One, flipping the common phrase backwards). Furthermore, I think that Judy is right to flag the disagreement at the point of pure experience. It might seem strange to focus on something that James himself admits we have almost no direct connection to, why would it be so important? While I disagree strongly with the reading that conflates the pure experience with the body, I think he is right about the importance. Pure experience comes to answer questions about where novelty and creativity come from in the Jamesian pluriverse. It is again a force from the outside that exceeds any symbolic order. While the social matters for James, if everything is always already social, then we need an understanding of where newness comes from. If we cannot breath the experience of the outside, how do we keep a plurality? How do we not suffocate? Something exceeds the social, and from our "workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making" as James tells us in Pragmatism, it is possible to make the world otherwise. This is the promise of James' forerunners, as he explains in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Like the single drops which sparkle in the sun as they are flung far ahead of the advancing edge of a wave-crest or a flood, they show the way and are forerunners. The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world’s affairs to be preposterous. Yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animators of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant.

Or as Octavia Butler put it in her epigraph of her unfinished novel The Parable of the Trickster, "There is nothing new under the sun. But there are new suns."