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 cr√©olisation (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 [] 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, √† 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."