11 March 2011

Artificial Tears

Filed under: Fiction, Language — ktismatics @ 4:13 pm

Sometimes it’s tough being a fiction writer. Today at staff meeting I had to tell my characters that, as of this morning, they are no longer real. They are in denial, refusing to return to work until their full ontological status has been restored. Also, they have renounced Levi Bryant as a vampire.



  1. Now that really is like Flann O’Brien!

    After reading that bewildering post, I think the key problem plaguing OOO is its key assertion: everything is an object. Why? How does this help anything? How does it illuminate Jim’s predicament any more than before? That is, he is even physically impaired, if one suspends one’s disbelief to enjoy the novel, by the abstractions of law?

    Perhaps it comes down to a denial of Russell’s paradox. Even if we call the set of all things (which doesn’t exist, by the way) an object, it is not an object in the way all things are. For example, the set of all things called a chair is not also a thing called a chair. Or even an I/idea of a chair.

    The barber illustration from wiki:

    “Suppose there is a town with just one male barber; and that every man in the town keeps himself clean-shaven: some by shaving themselves, some by attending the barber. It seems reasonable to imagine that the barber obeys the following rule: He shaves all and only those men in town who do not shave themselves.

    Under this scenario, we can ask the following question: Does the barber shave himself?

    Asking this, however, we discover that the situation presented is in fact impossible:

    If the barber does not shave himself, he must abide by the rule and shave himself.
    If he does shave himself, according to the rule he will not shave himself.”

    The answer to this paradox is: the barber lives in another town. He may organise the set, but is not a member of it. This is why there is no such thing as the set of all things. It really is a God-like abstraction.

    Not everthing has the same ontological status, as the good doctor admits in his post, so why call everything an object? I reckon Jim would have objected (a-ha!). Different things really are different. Can they only have effects – say, being plagued by one’s characters and their development while concentrating on cooking dinner – if we give them object status? I don’t think so.


    Comment by NB — 15 March 2011 @ 4:59 am

  2. True that about O’Brien. Someone recently told me about the novel Textermination by Christine Brooke-Rose, in which a bunch of fictional characters gather at a convention in San Francisco to explore how to assure their survival when people stop reading novels. I might give it a try, but it sounds too precious to sustain my interest.

    Like a true dilettante, I waffle back and forth on these ontological issues. This week I’m thinking that human-made artifacts like screwdrivers and multi-lane highways and fictional characters and existential despair are just as real as nature-made forces and objects. If, after humanity goes extinct, some other civilization were to show up on earth, most of the ruins they’d find could be understandable in terms not just of raw physicality but also of symbol systems and meaning and intent and so on. The meaning of human artifacts isn’t eternal and immutable, but meaning is surely one of the material forces that humans impose on the world to transform it. Fictional characters make sense only in the context of language and the larger idea of fiction, but physical humans make sense only in the context of language and other humans. Objects + forces + interactions.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 March 2011 @ 5:54 am

  3. That’s right. Screwdrivers and multi-lane highways are just as real as the rest of nature. But, as objects, they do not possess the same ontology as natural objects. I guess the OOO guys would agree. Hence, Levi’s defence of Harman in the face of unicorn criticisms.

    Someone feeling existential despair may feel that it’s real. And it may indeed be real, objectively. But if only one person existed on a planet, could he be said to be able to suffer existential despair? Maybe… Why not? We could certainly diagnose it as such, despite Satre’s “Hell is other people”. But, without his embeddeness in human society and language, he would not recognise what we meant. It would have no OBJECTIVE effect upon him, apart from confusion.

    I just don’t get the idea of making everything an object. First of all, as above, I think this is impossible and secondarily I think it is poor philosophy because I think philosophy is a practice, not a theory. It’s like asking someone who is suffering from existential despair: “Now then, where exactly does your soul hurt?” What is the point of suffixing “object” on to other ideas, such as forces or Jim: Jim-object etc? What extra work does it do? The sanctity and incorrigibility of Jim’s life is not secured by seemingly securing his noumenal existence, whatever we might believe.

    When we consider all things, life, the universe and everything we have already left the objective realm in order to make it our object of study. There is no purely objective speculation.

    Fiction pre-eminently deals in meaning (viz. Finnegans Wake). These meanings can have real effects for us in the real world. For example, we might look at a screwdriver differently after watching “The Toolbox Murders”. This is what I take Heidegger to have been banging on about. Is science different? Only in the fact – and it’s a crucial one – that the meaning is eventually tied to physical measurement and testing that should produce consistent results. This means that any scientific meaning is always localised: Newton’s laws fall about on the cosmic scale. But that doesn’t make them any less true here.

    As for the objective nihilism (and that IS an oxymoron!) that is behind all meaning, I find that pretty childish and I do not understand how it is pre-eminent to meaning (it may be a precursor to any sort of meaning as we understand it because there was a time when the world didn’t exist and the time when it will cease to exist – but important, more truthful?). It reminds me of me and my school friends trying to seem wise by saying, “You start dying from the day you’re born.” I certainly cannot see that it has any practical consequences, unless someone who holds this idea is willing to go to Libya and say to each side: “Don’t you understand that fighting is pointless because meaning is a stupid, weasely human construction?”

    “I am a nihilist because I still believe in Truth.” I haven’t read the interview but I did read his Concepts and Objects paper, which I’m afraid I thought was impressive only in its nihilistic rage. No one could accuse Brassier of not living the dream! The quote above seems like a hilarious caricature of a kind of hard existentialism, with the Roquentinian (narcissistic) heroism turned up to 11.


    Comment by NB — 15 March 2011 @ 7:01 am

  4. I’m with you about the objects. It seems like some sort of intellectual exercise, to see if it’s possible to describe everything in terms of objects. Another exercise would be to describe everything in terms of flows; another, in terms of energy; another, interactions. Why not let all these kinds of things operate in the world?

    I believe that I’m more sanguine than you, nb, about science and truth. While science is a product of human minds and cultures, I think that scientific constructs do represent or correspond to the world they attempt to describe. A scientific theory is made of symbols — words, numbers, equations — but those symbols and their interrelationships map onto aspects of the world. Even natural language works this way: at an abstract information-theoretic level the sentence “The black cat chased the squirrel up the tree” maps onto the things and features and forces and spatial relationships in the world that the sentence is describing. While these symbolic formulations of reality may never achieve Truth with a capital T, they can be moved incrementally from less accurate to more accurate representations/correspondences. Scientific representation doesn’t have to stick with naturally-occurring categories in making its representations. A scientific description of a multi-lane highway or of Popeye would have to include variables and forces unique to humans. I don’t know why that’s so different from scientifically describing a liquid saline solution in terms of variables and forces unique to salt and water and temperature.

    As I said before, I liked Brassier’s interview. At least it’s accessible intellectually to dilettantes like me, whereas his earlier long works veer sharply into the abstruse and perhaps even the mystical/gnostic. The hard-ass attitude? I don’t know — before my blogging career began Brassier was one of those cranky but funny British theory bloggers, so the “online orgy of stupidity” might be construed as a comic one-liner.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 March 2011 @ 10:19 am

  5. OOO does feel like another philosophical parlour game. I guess this is why Brassier is irritated with it.

    Erm, I don’t think I said that “scientific representation [has] to stick with naturally-occurring categories in making its representations.” (Did I…?) Just that natural objects are certainly ontologically different from man-made ones. In any case, like you, I do think that language, scientific or not, can map more or less accurately on to the world. I just feel that that is a bad picture, as ol’ Witt would say, like throwing a net over the world. The net does not constitute our understanding, but how it captures the world, how it interacts with it, including how we threw it in the first place. Against the SRists and OOOists, I still think that it is a major job of philosophy to understand this interaction better.

    “A scientific description of a multi-lane highway or of Popeye would have to include variables and forces unique to humans.”

    What are these variables and forces unique to humans in these examples? Unique in the first case because only we (as far as we know) can understand something like Pythagoras’s Theroem? Unique in the second case because of human psychology? What would a scientific explanation of Popeye be? What would consitute such an explanation as scientific?

    I think there is a difference between science and mathematics despite their inexorable bonds. The former must EVENTUALLY be submitted to empirical tests, and is most often grounded by maths. This is because it always talks about the world, natural and man-made. The latter may describe the world, but needs no other proof than its logic is consistent. I’d lay money that if you asked a scientist what science was attempting to describe, the answer would be “nature”. Someone like BF Skinner, whom I consider to have been a poor scientist, might have replied “human nature”. I think science has a slightly a different purview from mathematics, art or philosophy precisely because it does not countenance any idea of non-real. No one has empircally proved that quarks exist, but everything in the maths and the background of current scientific knowledge speaks in favour of their EXISTING.

    Re Brassier: I certainly found his essay painfully hard-ass. There are many things one can easily sympathise with in it, as you wrote on this blog, but there are also many faults with it. I don’t know whether any scientist would even understand him when he talks about “hard-won dualities”. A polemic is fine as long as it comes with at least some semblance of a philosophy. And I agree with Nietzsche (whom he slags off along with just about everyone else in the history of philosophy): nihilism is not a philosophy. I agreed with what Zizek had to say about it in his interview at the end of the book (they were the only two articles I read). I will read the Brassier interview though. I never read his blog. Concepts and Objects is pretty much my first encounter with his thoughts.


    Comment by NB — 15 March 2011 @ 11:15 am

  6. Regarding naturally-occurring categories, I was referring to the “eliminativist” perspective that might be implicit in Brassier’s nihilistic rejection of meaning. E.g., it’s not possible adequately to describe a screwdriver in strictly physical terms without mentioning its purpose or intended use for humans. So too with Popeye: he has 2-D physical dimensions that can be measured, but an adequate description must also include his representational properties vis-a-vis a real sailor man as well as his status as a fictional character within the larger context of fictions as invented representations of imaginary things/places/people/forces/etc. that do not correspond to material things etc. in the world being represented. I think that you and I agree on this score.

    Science’s picture of the world is better than it used to be, and it will continue getting better. This normative distinction between good/bad is intrinsic to scientific practice, which typically focuses on improving the resolution of a picture of some little corner of the world. As you say, science always tests itself against the world, comparing its picture of the world with the world itself based on explicit criteria of goodness-of-fit. What would a “good” picture of the world look like, if not science? Like metaphysics? Like art?

    A “picture” and a “net” share the same limitation: they deal only with surfaces. Clearly science digs around on the insides of the things. Maybe we only get pictures of atoms and quantum mechanics and so on as well — that science deals only with surfaces even of the insides. This is Graham Harman’s position: real things always withdraw from all interactions, not just with scientists and their instruments but from all other objects. In contrast, someone like Latour (and, I think, Levi Bryant) would say that the atom and the scientific instrument and the scientist’s mind merge into some new hybrid object. By implication, quantum mechanics is just different from Newtonian mechanics, not better. And also by implication, subatomic quanta didn’t come into existence in the universe until Max Planck and the boys invented them. I think that science does a better job of describing the world than that.

    Anecdote… As a grad student I once attended the Eastern Psychological Association annual meeting. Walking by the main auditorium I saw a sign announcing that BF Skinner would be giving a plenary address. “BF! BF! BF!” I chanted enthusiastically. I saw some old guy looking at me with only a hint of scorn — it was BF himself!


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 March 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  7. I don’t think that science can every fully describe or represent or correspond to reality. A complete scientific model of the universe wouldn’t be the map that covers the territory an identical simulacrum of the territory. I also don’t think that science will ever attain an ideal stance of objective truth with respect to reality. I do think that the practice of science systematically recognizes and compensates for biases and limitations in human awareness of reality. Complete self-transcendence is impossible, and there is no vantage point for viewing the universe from outside the universe. A telescope or a microscope enhances human vision, enabling its user to see aspects of reality that otherwise would remain invisible to humans. There may be aspects of reality that empirical science can never touch, but science offers the best available method for identifying what is real as distinct from what humans perceive to be real.

    The same methods can be applied to investigating the reality of humans. Any engagement with other or use of language or self-recognition in a mirror involves at least some degree of self-objectification, of stepping out of a completely solipsistic view of humans and moving incrementally toward a more neutral stance. So, e.g., it became possible for humans to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics even though for millennia there had been no living humans who understood them. The decipherment must have felt something like finally receiving and decoding a return transmission from SETI.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 March 2011 @ 5:09 am

  8. I bet he was secretly pleased! Do know what the late, great Sidney Morgenbesser said to BF?

    “Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize PEOPLE?”

    There’s only so much one can understand of humans by studying other animals, I think. And the localisation of the terms of experimentation that achieved such results should be stressed. Intention and behaviour, conscious or otherwise, is also revealed by speech. The question is, for science, metaphysics, art or cartography, what are we trying to find out? This question does not preclude surprising answers that may throw our predictions into disarray. As the behaviourists knew well, humans are doing beings.

    I didn’t mean that science is a bad picture, or necessarily a good picture, but that “map” or “net” (or “picture”) may be a bad picture(!). I think maybe the idea of science, or metaphysics, mapping on to the world with greater or lesser correspondence may be a bad picture. I’m a bit geeky about maps myself. I could stare at them for hours. However, we rely on maps for a particular use at a particular time, and the history of maps also shows historical intentions.

    “it’s not possible adequately to describe a screwdriver in strictly physical terms without mentioning its purpose or intended use for humans.”

    I agree. If I needed to describe a screwdriver to a child, say, I wouldn’t bang on endlessly about its shape or what it’s made of, I would talk primarily about its use in screwing in screws. However, I think my idea of “use for humans” is intentionally pretty wide. If you wanted to describe a screwdriver simply as another object in the world, you could possibly stick just describing its shape and colour etc. Okay, we’ve removed the PRACTICAL human use of a screwdriver here. It’s another object among others. But have we entirely removed the “human use”? By that, I mean who is the description meant for? The universe? I don’t think so.

    I don’t know who would benefit from describing a screwdriver without describing its practical use apart from an OOOist. And even then, I’m not sure what he or she could do with that information. However, contra Brassier (caveat: based on that paper alone), we can differentiate between meaning and truth but can we eliminate meaning from inquiry? I don’t think so. This is why I suspect that most scientists would not understand him when he talks about things like “hard-won dualisms”. The scientist does not often think of himself in his experimentations, Dualism does not come into it much if at all because he has already, rightly, assumed his existence to concentrate on the existence of other things: this is the “degree of self-objectification”. I also suspect that eliminative nihilism is not philosophy in that it literally says nothing. Morgenbesser again (from wiki): Asked to prove a questioner’s existence, Morgenbesser shot back, “Who’s asking?” Berkleyian idealism does not follow from this.

    While I think that the creation of new mind-objects is ridiculous and that quarks certainly existed before the 20th century I may, in some circumstances, agree with Levi and co that “quantum mechanics is just different from Newtonian mechanics, not better”. It depends what purpose it is serving, to whom it is addressed. This does not mean that I think all discourses have equal validity and equal claims to truth. Scientific naturalistic claims cannot be verified by appeals to God, even if He doesn’t play dice. Theological claims to truth serve a (social) purpose – as to their scientific truth, the evidence doesn’t stack up. It is the role of the philosopher to examine exactly what these purposes, scientific and theological, serve. And I don’t mean the rather capitalistic, “progress”, idea that the LHC may eventually help develop quantum computers.

    “I do think that the practice of science systematically recognizes and compensates for biases and limitations in human awareness of reality.”

    I agree. But I’m not sure that either Harman and Bryant’s phantastical objects or Brassier’s eliminations add anything to rigorous – good – scientific systematisation.

    “science offers the best available method for identifying what is real as distinct from what humans perceive to be real.”

    Generally, I agree. But again I would stress the idea of what purpose the description is serving. Art and “good” metaphysics may strike us as truthful because it is a particularly good illustration of a certain aspect of life, moreover they tend to foreground their artifice – in Brassierian terms perhaps, their telos – even and especially if they appear obscure. But obscurity is absurd if the work that the description is doing is completely unclear. Scientific and mathematical communities desire the “shock of recognition” just as much as artistic ones. Hence their admirable stress on simplifying problems to elegant formulae.


    Comment by NB — 16 March 2011 @ 7:15 am

  9. I can’t remember if I actually went to Skinner’s talk. If I did, evidently it didn’t make much impact.

    Many of the truths about humans are truths about meanings. Skinner attempted to do away with meaning, and in a new era Daniel Dennett makes a similar move; i.e., meaning is something humans invoke after fact to explain their behaviors. Then guys like Chomsky came along to insist on the reality of cognition underlying and motivating behavior, crafting clever empirical investigations to back up the theory. Chomsky was so insistent on the distinctiveness of humans vis-a-vis other animals that he invoked a universal human language-cognition module that seemed to have little connection with other primates, constituting a radical disjuncture in the usual incremental process of evolution. So now there’s more effort to identify with greater precision the cognitive-behavioral links and gaps between apes to humans.

    Certainly I’m not “scientistic” either by practice or by inclination. I value art, though I’m a bit wary of ascribing truth value to it. Meaning yes, but truth? That’s where I get back to more old-fashioned notions of correspondence and representation. Paintings and fictions can point to truths in an instrumental or metaphorical sense even if what they’re representing is entirely imaginary, corresponding to nothing material outside of themselves. I’m not hard-assed about these distinctions though. Part of what appeals to me about writing fiction is that I can let the ambiguities play themselves out by having them embodied and voiced in different characters without necessarily resolving them in some grand epiphany.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 March 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  10. I haven’t read any Dennett but if he doesn’t see the paradox in the idea that meaning is something [only] humans invoke after fact to explain their behaviors [which does happen as well] then I’m already going to read him slightly sceptically. As meaning-making beings, it’s already a part of our behaviours, including especially Skinner’s and Dennett’s experiements and conclusions.

    My idea of the unconscious in psychoanalysis (as opposed to the scientifically measurable unconscious or subconscious) is that it is a socio-theoretical structure, or “machine”, created between analyst and analysand examining unconscious meaning through speech and biography, synchroncically and diachronically. Truth does not have to enter into it necessarily. Including the truth of “the unconscious” as formulated in psychoanalysis (all of stripes). The truth here is in the work perhaps… As it is often for art and philosophy. Moreover, honesty (which is not the same thing as truth, I know) is a necessary condition for any proper artistic or scientific endeavour, if not a sufficient one.

    I do think, unlike Brassier possibly, that truth and meaning coincide, in science as well as art – just not all the time (why would it?).

    “There are no ghosts in the paintings of van Gogh, no visions, no hallucinations. This is the torrid truth of the sun at two o’clock in the afternoon. A slow generative nightmare gradually becoming clear. Without nightmare and without result. But the suffering of the prenatal is there. It is the wet gleam of a meadow, of the stalk of a slip of wheat which is there to be extradited.”

    Why does Artaud’s rather extreme estimation of van Gogh’s paintings seem right to (many of) us or – more controversially – truthful to us, even perhaps to most scientists?

    I’ve never been convinced by Chomsky’s deep structures much either. I was interested in your recent posts on Tomasello, who was much more up my street.

    “Chomsky was so insistent on the distinctiveness of humans vis-a-vis other animals that he invoked a universal human language-cognition module that seemed to have little connection with other primates, constituting a radical disjuncture in the usual incremental process of evolution. So now there’s more effort to identify with greater precision the cognitive-behavioral links and gaps between apes to humans.”

    I think that there is nothing special about language-using per sé on an evolutionary scale. It seems to me perfectly possible that artificial intelligence, such as the ability to use and understand metaphors, may happen one day. But I’m not sure what measuring the cognitive-behavioural gaps between apes and humans will inform us of, other than, having a common ancestor, we are more – or less – like each other. Hence the incredibly boring to-ing and fro-ing between the “we’re-nothing-special-ists” and the “if-that’s-the-case-explain-metaphor-and-civilisation-ists” in the media. Both sides often claim to be the more scientific – short-hand for rigorously truth-supplying.

    “Paintings and fictions can point to truths in an instrumental or metaphorical sense even if what they’re representing is entirely imaginary, corresponding to nothing material outside of themselves.”

    This, to me, suggests that there may indeed be may experiences (which, if they are not part of life, even if hallucinatory, I don’t know what they are) that contain a strictly philosophical content (possibly phenomenological) that could not be explained by scientific measurement alone. This is why Dawkins doesn’t get the power of religion. I agree with him that it has no scientific basis at all. It may have psycho-sociological one though. And what is “society” if not a metaphor for a degree of self-objectification? I also happen to believe in the exsitence of society! I suspect Dawkins does too.

    I can imagine a neurologist setting up an experiment that showed pleasure centres in the brain light up in religious people when they prayed etc. This would not invalidate religious belief on its own, just validate claims that “God is great”! Although, in this sense, God is great would mean that same as taking ecstasy is fun.

    I never thought you were scientistic, John. I wonder if someone who was extremely scientistically oriented could write a novel, or whether it would even cross their mind to do so! But I do think that claims that, for example, phsyics is the most truthful picture of reality we have are misbegotten. Many philosophers have said as much! If they really thought that, why don’t they change jobs? Pace Brassier, it depends what you mean, what you are trying to find out. This is why Newtonian physics is perfectly truthful – yes, truthful – as a scientific picture of the world. It is also why it is not truthful to say that God created heaven and earth. However, creation myths may illustrate something truthful about ourselves – the human species – that cannot be expressed purely scientifically. Quantum theory and relativity could be said to be even more truthful Newtonian science. Do they completely invalidate Newton? I don’t think so.

    I’m sure we agree about the major issues, but this has been bugging me because scientism has been on the rise in the UK and the UK media recently. First, in misconceived philosophical projects that are desperate to validate philosophy in the face of apparent relativism in postmodernism (who really did label themselves as such – Lyotard, Latour???) and in the face of apparent circularity (and possible consequent relativism) in the 20C philosophical emphasis on language. SR and OOO are the latest, politically coruscating attempts to overcome these two bugbears. So far, they fail miserably – and make philosophy look even more ridiculous to, say, scientists of a non-philosophical bent. Second, scientism is on the rise to – seemingly – combat the rise of religion. This is particularly true in the UK media, where religious fundamentalism is seen as the preserve of idiotic foreigners such as those silly Americans. In the meantime, there is an even greater scientistic emphasis generally. Only as I left the flat for work today did I hear yet another discussion on the radio in which some berk was saying the philosophy was irrelevant because science has all the answers to life, the universe and everything. I think Russell’s mathematics say otherwise! To argue against this case, the programme wheeled on Mary Midgely, who is very likeable but in her nineties and sadly a bit senile. Her first answer was the most effective: the scientist’s argument was a philosophical view, not a scientific statement.

    I guess my point is pretty simple: it is the philosopher’s task to see how truth may function in our operations in the world, both linguistic and otherwise. Allowing for my brief acquaintance with both streams of thought, I don’t think this can be done either by calling everything objects or eliminating human meanings from philosophical investigation. This is also where philosophy overlaps with science, art and psychoanalysis etc. This is why it can be as truthful to say, “A car is coming down the road” as “A car, which is essentially vibrating strings of energy along with everything else, is coming down the road.” Sociologically, psychologically and philosophically, I would feel very distant from someone who came up to me and said the second statement. In fact, the distance would be similar to the one felt by the scientist examining apes. You can decide who is whom!

    PS: I haven’t seen Heimat 2 or 3. The second series deals with a particular stretch of time in one of the character’s lives from the first series.


    Comment by NB — 17 March 2011 @ 7:23 am

  11. At the beginning, I meant “meaning is something humans invoke [only] after fact to explain their behaviors”, not “only humans invoke meaning after their behaviours”. God, meaning is so damn slippery! Whereas TRUTH IS ETERNAL.


    Comment by NB — 17 March 2011 @ 7:25 am

  12. Contra Dennett, one last time!, the meaning and meaninglessness is in our behaviour. It is how we go about as human beings on the planet earth in the universe. If we accept that our very existence is real (and EVERYTHING scientifically and otherwise, speaks in favour of it), the fact of meaning (and meaninglessness) is as true as the fact of cars or the chemical constitution of water. The meaning is before you, both in a strictly behaviourist sense and in the sense that it’s as plain as the nose on Dennett’s face – only he can’t see it for himself!


    Comment by NB — 17 March 2011 @ 7:41 am

  13. I’ve heard Dennett interviewed and he doesn’t seem like too much of a dickhead, though his scheme of referring to atheists as “brights” is insufferably pompous. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is a terrific book, a real tour de force. Breaking the Spell, part of the New Atheists canon, I skimmed at the bookstore: it seemed a pretty light treatment of religion as a bad meme. Maybe someday I’ll read one of his more psychologically-inflected books. Briefly though, cognitive mediation of behavior, e.g. acting intentionally rather than just by instinct, as well as being able to read others’ intentions, would seem to offer the organism greater adaptive flexibility in its environment. The lower-level biological mechanisms that support intentionality aren’t selected directly; they persist in the gene pool to the extent that they enable the whole organism and species to thrive. I really liked Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, but he’s got the same problem as Dennett I think: the genes are the building blocks from which organisms are built, but genes survive only if their host organisms survive.

    One of the great psychoanalytic contributions is the importance of the unconscious, and it is related to Dennett’s contentions quite directly. It’s plausible to regard brain activity as an intricate network of vectors, with any particular decision or action being a kind of summation across those vectors at any given moment. And so the vector sum stimulates you to do something, which in retrospect you decide was based on conscious rational decision-making, ignoring the possibility that a whole array of other options could have been activated instead with just a slight tweak of the synapses. Those other unacknowledged vectors that didn’t quite make it to the decision-action launchpad: they’re the unconscious, yes? If they bubble into consciousness I can repress them as a sort of dissonance reduction move, to avoid constantly second-guessing myself. Or, maybe more likely, these un-acted-upon vectors never reach consciousness. Analysis would be useful in helping the analysand acknowledge these other synaptic pathways by bringing them into conscious awareness and formulating them verbally. This is more or less the premise behind Donnel Stern’s excellent book Unformulated Experience, on which I’ve posted previously. It’s not particularly cluttered up with Freudian or Lacanian metaphysics, which from my point of view is a good thing.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 March 2011 @ 10:49 am

  14. “the fact of meaning (and meaninglessness) is as true as the fact of cars or the chemical constitution of water”

    As I said, this week I’m in agreement with this position. There may be no transcendent meaning TO the universe, but meanings do function IN the universe, at least for one species of creature that inhabits one planet in the universe. Water doesn’t appear everywhere in the universe either, but it’s still real in its local manifestations. Does meaning = truth? No, but truth applies only to meaningful statements, doesn’t it? So truth presupposes meaning, at least for this amateur’s understanding of the situation.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 March 2011 @ 12:03 pm

  15. Yes, I’ve heard Darwin’s Dangerous Idea is really good. I should read it.

    “No, but truth applies only to meaningful statements, doesn’t it? So truth presupposes meaning, at least for this amateur’s understanding of the situation.”

    I really think so too. One has to ask oneself, what would a non-meaningful truth be? One could suppose a truth that had meaning for another species, I suppose. But I think that is another philosophical parlour game.

    “Briefly though, cognitive mediation of behavior, e.g. acting intentionally rather than just by instinct, as well as being able to read others’ intentions, would seem to offer the organism greater adaptive flexibility in its environment.”

    Absolutely. That is why conscious mediation is just as important, just as real I would say, as unconscious mediation. It seems that in neuroscience and genetics, perhaps in some lines of psychoanalysis and philosophy too, the conscious baby gets thrown out along with the egocentric bathwater. The scientistic impulse seems to want to annul free will: look it was (all) already decided unconsciously. Hm. The mere fact that we can reflect on our decisions, even if maybe we can’t do anything about it a lot of the time, suggests the existence of free will to me. That reminds me of an amusing comment by John Searle: one of his students asked if it were proved that free will was an illusion, would he AGREE that there was no free will. Interestingly, psychoanalysis presupposes free will despite all the emphasis on the unconscious. Precisely, I think, because it operates at the interchange between meaning and truth.

    Those other unacknowledged vectors that didn’t quite make it to the decision-action launchpad: they’re the unconscious, yes?”

    Maybe in neuroscience – but not in MY idea of the unconscious in the psychoanalyic clinic. Here, unlike quarks, the unacknowledged vectors are created by their conscious positing. Or rather, we have no right, logically, to say that they were really existent beforehand in psychoanalysis (or philosophy for that matter). The psychoanalytic unconscious is a turning over over experience in a rather hermeneutic manner, with the added idea of the play of speech. Speech, like life in the the Harrison song, “flows within you and without you”. Is this what Donnell Stern is on about? I’ll have to read your previous posts about him again and probably buy Unformulated Experience (although I think $35 on amazon is a bit steep – but my beer vs books priorities probably need reorganising).

    The problem with the scientistic bent displayed by Dawkins and Dennett is that it can quickly lead to positivism, which is theological and unscientific. I would say that guy I heard on the radio was positivistic – although more like Comte than Carnap. Also: one of my friends from school, who did chemistry at university and was not at all interested in philosophy or the arts really, and who was extremely fond of The Selfish Gene, suffered greatly from depression. I began to suspect after a while that the Dawkins book – for all its great merit – had had an deleterious effect on him. Perhaps this was the problem:

    “the genes are the building blocks from which organisms are built, but genes survive only if their host organisms survive”.

    The set of all genes that make humans, the set of all humans, is not humanity. It is not the truth of the human species in the universe.

    Regarding dillettantism, yours and mine: philosophy is dillentantism – that’s its great merit. I would say that, wouldn’t I! This is no doubt why many scientists either regard it suspiciously or as being without true informational merit. Children are natural philosophers even more than artists. All children ask questions such as: where do I come from, where am I going to, what does “being dead” mean, what does “male” “female” mean etc? These are not purely scientific questions because they involve subjective elements as well as the all-important degree of self-objectification. The degree of self-objectification – or subjectivity – is also not a question that can be put scientifically, I think. Those who argue that because it cannot be posited scientifically, it is not a real question and does not concern knowledge are being positivistic. They believe they understand all that can be known, even if they do not know everything yet. Philosophy is a practice, not a (one) theory. All that we ask of philosophy, as we should any other explanations (including dramatic characterisation in novels) is that “an inner process stands in need of outward criteria” – that it is sensible to us, not matter how seemingly stupid the question. Contra the scientistic man on the radio, was it Einstein who said that there were no stupid questions, only stupid answers.


    Comment by NB — 18 March 2011 @ 11:02 am

  16. I glossed over your “socio-theoretic” interpretation of the unconscious, nb, so I’m glad you brought it back. I probably even agree: there’s no reason why the unconscious should be limited to intracranial space. Stern probably agrees too, though the details have receded from my consciousness. I’ve pulled it from the shelf and will report on my findings either later today or sometime tomorrow.

    Free will? You self-deluded fool — mwahaha!


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2011 @ 1:48 pm

  17. Two prior posts on Donnel Stern: older one here and newer one here. I see you even made a comment on the more recent one, nb, to wit: “I must read Stern’s book.” Stern would support your interactive, hermeneutical understanding of the unconscious. So, e.g., from pp. 5-6:

    “Hermeneutics and constructivism are very closely related. The term ‘constructivism’ has been used in psychoanalysis to designate a perspective with a hermeneutic agenda, but one that originates less in philosophy than in the clinical recognition that experience is at least partially indeterminate and is created in interaction… [A]n individual’s experience has no natural or intrinsic organization. It does not come prefigured. Until it is organized, which is accomplished by interpreting it, or taking a perspective on it, experience is fundamentally ambiguous. Psychoanalytic constructivists understand experience as the joint creation of interacting influences from within and without — from the ephemera of social life and the more enduring structures of one’s inner world… But just as constructivism teaches us to see the inner and the outer as a dialectic in continuous flux, it sensitizes us to the dialectic of time: the past is as much a creation of the present as the present is of the past.

    This perspective can be reconciled with Dennett’s if unformulated experiences affect one’s behavior even without being consciously aware of it, which I think is surely true. So what does the interpretation of the unformulated, unconscious material achieve? Three possibilities come to mind. (1) Framing it consciously, in language, is to construct a representation that corresponds directly to truths that already resided in the unconscious — that’s arguably the old-school psychoanalytic interpretation of interpretation; it might also be the philosopher Brandom’s position in “making it explicit.” (2) Conscious interpretation is an after-the-fact invention meant to give the subject an illusory sense of control over the deterministic cause-effect apparatus that actually makes us do stuff — this is Dennett. (3) Interpretation interacts with unformulated, unconscious experience in a dynamic process that constructs meaning. Or, as Stern says on p. 26: “Conscious, reflective meaning is an interpretation, cocreated by verbal language and pre-existing meaning, both verbal and nonverbal.” — This is roughly your position, nb, isn’t it? So the “true” analysis isn’t necessarily the underlying “truth” of the unconscious, but the one that, at least here and now, affords the most valuable meaning to the analysand.

    “Psychoanalysts and analysands do judge the goodness of their interpretations, of course. They do that continuously. But the accuracy of our portrayals of unconscious meaning is virtually irrelevant as a truth criterion. ‘Accuracy’ is not really even a meaningful term in discussing the interpretation of unformulated experience, because the term cannot be defined by reference to an observable relation between itself and its object. We know the object (to repeat the essential point) only by means of our interpretation of it. That means clinical interpretation is not objective or scientific, as Ricoeur and his colleagues claim, but subjective and phenomenological. And it spells the end of correspondence theory in psychoanalysis. We can no longer hold that the nonverbal unconscious meaning is the ‘real’ one that our words simply clothe or represent, or to which they correspond.” (p. 165)


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 March 2011 @ 4:50 pm

  18. Damn! I just wrote a reply and somehow went off your blog without posting it. It was brilliant, naturally.

    Thanks for the links. Some very interesting stuff there. I’m not sure I read the older one before. I’m going to buy his book.

    “Conscious, reflective meaning is an interpretation, cocreated by verbal language and pre-existing meaning, both verbal and nonverbal.”

    Yes, this is roughly my position. Though there maybe a difference, I think. Meaning is the result of understanding through language. I believe that there is no meaning that is pre-verbal. My idea of language is very wide here, including pattern recognition, rebuses, the language of “interpretative” dance (!) etc etc. Basically, there is no pre-existing meaning before language, although there is definitely truth. Language here is any systematic semantic form of understanding. It must have a correspondent (which does not HAVE to be things in reality per sé. One can easily talk about Pegasus). Someone who was locked away from birth, a la Kaspar Hauser, may have created their own language to name things and get a sense of their surrounding without being traditionally inducted into language via societal contact. When they finally meet other people, their language will be full of private meanings – at first. Eventually, their words (or regular sounds) for things and themselves will be adaptable to translation if they could be said to deriving any meaning from their regular sounds at all. What could not be said to have meaning would be someone using a word that had no fixed correspondent at any point in time. For example, Humpty Dumpty would order “fish” in a restaurant and when the fish came they say, “Oh, did I say ‘fish’. I meant, meat.” And the meat would be brought, and they would say “Oh, did I say ‘meat’? I meant, woman.” And when a woman was brought, he might say “Did I say ‘woman’? I meant house.” And so on. Perhaps these are the unformulated experiences… But even free association is intended for the conscious detection of pattern. There’s a very funny show on BBC Radio called I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue, which is now a “national institution” really, and which calls itself the “antidote to parlour games”. One game has the comedian contestants calling out random words with the intention that there is no meaningful link between their word and the one preceeding it. Other contestants buzz in with their own, usually absurd, explanations of the links between one word and the one that preceededing it. (It sounds awful, but it really is funny!) You can always construct a meaningful link, if you really want to. Whether it stands up to scrutiny is another thing.

    This is why I think it is not even necessary to posit the unconscious as really existing scientifically in psychoanalysis (I notice that Levi was very keen to emphasise otherwise in one of his comments beneath the later Stern post) and why, according to Stern: “the effect of clinical interpretation does not depend on objective accuracy and cannot be judged on that basis.” Any clinical interpretation does need to be held up to peer review and supervision, however. It has to make sense as an approach to someone’s “singularity”.

    We certainly have non-verbal experiences. Hence, psychoanalysis’ emphasis on the “truth” of the body. These have meaningful and real effects – including frustration especially if one can’t seem to put the truth of one’s experience into words. Science ignores the phenomenological (I mean this in terms of a subjective but also physical experience) completely. That’s its strength, but also shows its limit. If someone said that they had had an “out of body experience”, whether on the operating or because they had experimented with drugs. I would not take “out of body experience” as their “soul literally escaping the body”. Not because I’m aggressively atheist or scientistic, but because “soul escaping the body” does not help me understand what had happened to that person any more than “out of body experience”. However, I would take their experience of being out of the body as a serious and phenomenologically realistic report of what what it felt like to them at the time. And that report may also even be of some scientific interest.

    Psychoanalysis has some pretty definite ideas as to what is meaningful about the phrase “out of body experience”. Some of which seem plausible to me, while others seem like a rubber stamping of the validity of the theory’s own concepts. E.g: the construction of a “workable” symptom in analysis, and the consequent symptomatising of the world, is a symptom of talking in Lacanese. This is the downside of foregrounding the unconscious. It is a precept of psychoanalysis of nearly all stripes that the unconscious is real (more Real actually than anything else) and that its formation occurs with the institution of incest prohibition or derivatives thereof (and consequent castration. One does not own language, including Humpty Dumpty) in a subject. I remain unconvinced of the reality of these concepts, particularly in constituting us as human beings, although they certainly have their real effects (not Real effects, which is pious). In the same way that the markets do, or that societies pictured life differently if they thought the world was flat, cube-shaped or whatever. And why wouldn’t they? Meaning is a solid fact (but not an object!). Even if it has no relation to physical truth. It must, however, correspond to truth sometimes for us to agree, or disagree, at all. There must be a modicum of reliability.

    “Interpetation [meaning] has an organising function,” argues Stern. I absolutely agree. That is what the psychoanalyical precepts are attempting to do, to find out how we are ontologically organised. But we keep forgetting that language is synchronous and syncretic and that the organising is continous, shuffling and reshuffling. Eventually, the cards are laid on the table, explanations come to an end somewhere. But it doesn’t have to end there.


    Comment by NB — 22 March 2011 @ 9:00 am

  19. We could come up with a few rounds of meaningful links from your comment, NB. E.g., what do these things have in common: rebus, Kaspar Hauser, Pegasus, meat, parlour games, and cube-shaped? Or, how about these: roughly, very wide, woman, soul escaping the body, and rubber stamping?

    Would Kaspar Hauser have developed a private language had he been raised in total isolation? Doubtful, since language acquisition in humans seems to depend on social interaction. Speaking of legendary and probably fraudulent European celebrity weirdos, though, I once saw Anastasia. She married a history professor who taught at the U. of Virginia. Anastasia’s husband was a diabetic and a tippler, and when I went to school at Virginia he had been reduced to a shambling drunkard. One of my fellow students rented an apartment in the professor’s house, and one day when I went to visit there was the professor, passed out on the hood of his station wagon, with Anastasia sitting motionless and silent in the back seat. Apparently this was a fairly common spectacle in the neighborhood. Eventually a DNA test was conducted on Anastasia and she proved to be unrelated to the czar’s family.

    I have never undergone psychoanalysis, but my sense is that it’s more interesting in the abstract than in actual practice. Regarding private languages, during my pentecostal phase I used to speak in tongues. I could still do it now, even as an atheist — sort of like riding a bicycle I suppose. This too was a social learning experience, since everyone I ever heard speak in tongues seemed to use a similar cadence and accent, vaguely Latinate. The complementary gift, interpretation of tongues, was less prevalent among the pentecostals, perhaps because the tongue-speaking messages, which were purportedly communications from God, always seemed so mundane when interpreted: “My children, I love you, etc. etc.” I’ve been to healing services where the same girl was healed once of a shortened left leg, then maybe a month later of a shortened right leg. If she kept attending those services she might have wound up seven feet tall. Casting out of demons was always the highlight of these gatherings though. The leader would discern that someone in the audience was possessed by, say, the demon of jealousy or bitterness or some such thing. Then there would be laying on of hands, tongues, ravings, twitchings, and all manner of carryings-on. Talk about opening up a channel to the unconscious.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2011 @ 12:58 am

  20. “We could come up with a few rounds of meaningful links from your comment, NB. E.g., what do these things have in common: rebus, Kaspar Hauser, Pegasus, meat, parlour games, and cube-shaped? Or, how about these: roughly, very wide, woman, soul escaping the body, and rubber stamping?”

    Heh, heh. Yeah, if you want to, you can find pathologies everywhere. I was using Hauser as a kind of extreme example: what looks like a private language isn’t if it is eventually available to some kind of translation (because I’m not sure that a language that couldn’t be translated at all could be called language). I think I’ve said before that I find Wittgenstein’s (anti)private language argument unassailable (it’s also useful for considering meaning, truth and free will!). Have you seen Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser? It’s very good. My other half didn’t like it though. She thought it was like Forrest Gump!

    I probably told you already about the time I met this gay American couple on holiday some years ago. One of them had grown up in a pretty strict Christian community where they also regularly cast out demons and spoke in tongues. It was kind of required for everybody in the community to have some kind of demon cast out or ailment (symptom!) healed. Eventually, this guy went up for healing or casting. He was embarassed because he couldn’t really think of anything solid to be cast out. Eventually, he plumped for his sinus problem. The pastor put his hands on his head and cried, “Out, ye devils of sinuses!”. It was at that very moment when cracks appeared in the guy’s faith. I think he was still believed in God when I met him but he’d come a long way from the belief of his youth.

    re: the mundanity of pentecostal translation. This reminds me of a bit in Ulysses where the recently deceased Paddy Dignam is contacted via a séance: “Before departing [Paddy Dignam’s spirit] requested that it should be told to his dear son Patsy that the other boot which he had been looking for was at present under the commode in the return room, and that the pair should be sent to Cullen’s to be soled only, as the heels were still good. He stated that this had greatly perturbed his peace of mind in the other region and earnestly requested that his desires should be made known. Assurances were given that this matter would be attended to and it was intimated that this had given satisfaction.”


    Comment by NB — 25 March 2011 @ 2:56 am

  21. I like the Ulysses quote. People who have been abducted by aliens also seem to carry boring messages from their captors back to earth: Be at peace with one another; do not destroy your precious natural resources; etc.

    “ailment (symptom!) healed”

    In pentecostal healings, and I believe in Christian Science as well, it’s the disease that gets healed. So, e.g., your acquaintance could have had the devil of sinuses cast out yet continue to suffer from symptoms of sinusitis. Symptoms are mere fleshly manifestations produced by the underlying spiritual condition; the flesh passes away, but only gradually, whereas the demon is cast out in a twinkling of an eye. It’s like being born again: your sinful nature might be destroyed or renewed in an instant, but you’ll probably continue sinning in the flesh for the rest of your earthly life. The symptoms persist even after the original source of those symptoms has been removed.

    Graham Harman presents a variant of this scheme with his radical distinction between the “sensual” object (which presents as “symptoms”) and the “real” object (the born-again spirit or the devil of sinuses). Per Harman, objects interact with each other only on the sensual plane; the real is always withdrawn from interactions. In Christian mysticism it’s possible for spirit beings (God and devils, channeled by their human agents) to interact directly with the withdrawn real while bypassing the sensual manifestations altogether.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 March 2011 @ 8:55 am

  22. Is this Harman’s occasionalism? I wonder what the connection between sensual and real objects can be? I mean, at least psychoanalysis posits a direct connection between the Real and reality: the symptom is of the Real, if not the Real per se.

    The American guy’s sinus problem got better as he grew older and he wasn’t too bothered about it when I met him. Perhaps the flesh had been slowing ridding itself of the demon’s tarnish. Perhaps, after leaving the strictures of that particular community and becoming openly gay, he could breathe more easily…

    I’m actually pretty fond of the idea that the world can be stubbornly inscrutable, but I think the limits to our knowledge can only be formulated via metaphor: God, angels and demons, the void, the unconscious, the undiscovered country etc etc. “Real” objects too are a metaphor just the same. This can also be done logically – but beware! I agree with Bierce’s definition: Logic – The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding. (I don’t think this definition does logic a disservice at all) The problem with occasionalism is that attempts to logically describe what, by definition, is unavailable to positive description.


    Comment by NB — 26 March 2011 @ 5:35 am

  23. Occasionalism? Now you’re getting beyond my amateurish grasp of the field. As I understand Harman’s system, two objects never interact directly. The mediator isn’t God but a third object, formed from the molten plasm of the first two objects, in which their sensual properties come unstuck and are thus able to form hybrid composites. So, e.g., my mouth encounters the chocolate covered peanut only inside the merged mouth-chocolate peanut object. However, my mouth never encounters the real essence of the chocolate peanut, which withdraws from all interactions, including being chewed up and swallowed by my mouth-object. Or something.

    I don’t doubt that there are limits to our knowledge, even in some imagined utopian scientific future. Even scientists, equipped with intricate mathematical formulae and counterintuitive conceptual models, can’t get beyond metaphorical understandings of certain things. E.g., in superstring theory, I suspect that the “string” is a metaphor; or “spin” and “color” and so on of subatomic “particles.” Having just eaten the chocolate-covered peanut (plus a few of his friends), I believe that my mouth has only limited engagement in the chocolate peanut, being largely indifferent to its pH or its price. However, once my mouth finished its work, the peanut’s real essence must have withdrawn entirely from its sensual properties, which my mouth dealt with drastically and thoroughly.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 March 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    • The subtext of OOO is clearly that there is only pain and utter abjectness, leading to an incredibly unsatisfying death, of course. At least that is abstractly speaking. In the meantime, they no more pay attention to it having any real significance at all, and don’t want to think about it. After all, there still pop up all these practical matters all the time, in which they have to suspend the hard logic of how the ‘withdrawnness must occur’.

      This is a repulsive dogma, because it is predicated on the idea that you should ‘care’ that you don’t get to participate with the peanut essence. It doesn’t ever seem to have occurred to them that if the essence exists at all, it might be enough that it went off by itself, and that we aren’t that concerned if we somehow ‘missed out’. I think OOO may be just a sissy version of the usual ‘darkening tones’ that everybody fashionable and career-oriented uses, esp. given that many of them do have all this jelly-beans attitude about their daily doings, which they violently separate from the preciosity-world of the highly-refined and illumined OOO. They probably do know not to wear high-priest robes for these rituals, or they’d have done it before their little intrusion privileges began to get pale and thin.


      Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 26 March 2011 @ 6:44 pm

  24. It does seem quite monastic and ascetic to insist that the sensual properties of an object — including a human object — are not real. That the chocolate peanut’s essence should withdraw from me even as I’m eating it, that my enjoyment of the peanut is merely sensual and not real, that my interaction with it is only indirect — well it’s possible to see how the monks could have gotten quite a following if they promised real enjoyment. But the OOO monks don’t even offer the transcendent nourishment of the real essence of the chocolate peanut if you join their church. I must say that I found satisfaction eating the merely sensual chocolate peanuts, and if the peanuts’ souls fled their bodies and now live in eternal incorporeal bliss I’m happy for them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 March 2011 @ 9:36 pm

  25. “Occasionalism? Now you’re getting beyond my amateurish grasp of the field”

    And mine: As for OOO generally, most of my info has come from your blog! I first saw SR/000 linked with occasionalism on kerplunk’s blog a couple of years ago. I guess this might be because SR/OOO is anti-causal – causal in the usual scientific sense because of this withdrawn mystery object. And there are not just three objects in an interaction, there seems to be five. But two are always inert. So many objects! And so many of them busy doin’ nothing.

    Maybe “it’s possible for spirit beings, God and devils, channeled by their human agents [- such as OOOists!], to interact directly with the withdrawn real while bypassing the sensual manifestations altogether.” That is, so they can say anything about the withdrawn object at all.

    I agree with you, idnyc, that OOO “is predicated on the idea that you should ‘care’ that you don’t get to participate with the peanut essence” and also that it is quite monastic. How IS one supposed to engage seriously and sympathetically with it? I love chocolate peanuts though.

    “However, once my mouth finished its work, the peanut’s real essence must have withdrawn entirely from its sensual properties, which my mouth dealt with drastically and thoroughly.”

    Exactly. Where does that essence go? Where did it come from? How did it arise in the first place? Was it there before the object’s sensuous existence? How are the sensual and withdrawn properties related to the same object if the latter is radically withdrawn?


    Comment by NB — 27 March 2011 @ 3:17 pm

    • Have they yet declared that air is an object? If not, what is its status. I have begun to wonder if air, in particular, does not upset this magicians terribly. Because it’s a larger object than all the separated objects on the surface of the earth, but the breathable, oxygenated atmosphere is far smaller than the whole globe underneath; it just goes up a few miles, doesn’t it? whereas the road to hell is very distant and may not be molten.

      It’s like the fact that the skin is an organ just like the heart, lungs, stomach, etc. but we are often in biology class and surprised to hear that the skin is an organ. It’s not perceived automatically as something to be called an ‘organ’.

      The attitude about ‘not caring too much’ about ‘what’s not available under any circumstances’ seems to betray a failure to cultivate laissez-faire in an even rudimentary way, and you’re both right to choose ‘monk’ over ‘priest’, as the latter are often too urban and have been caught misbehaving much more than the former in recent years. Alhough Pasolini and Chaucer and Boccaccio were aware of nuns who found some ‘good peasant’ in the fields from time to time. But this fact that John and I agree on, that the ‘essence certainly ought to be able to just mind its own business and have its privacy rights respected’ reminded me of one of the few things I remember of Adorno that I’ve always liked, as I’ve rejected most of his art preachings: He said one ought to be able to offer some mutt a biscuit and expect no thanks for it. Shortly after reading this, a friend told me I had liked our waiter at a Mex restaurant because he hadn’t bothered to thank us, and that that had seemed attractively nonchalant. Although there are variants on this, because the waiter was just a good waiter, and knew we didn’t require lavish thanks or praise, and allowed us to enjoy ourselves.


      Comment by idnyc — 27 March 2011 @ 4:14 pm

  26. Yes, that’s a lovely quote from Adorno. Why shouldn’t the dog just withdraw and enjoy his biscuit in doggy peace?


    Comment by NB — 28 March 2011 @ 2:20 am

  27. With respect to OOO’s ascetic monasticism, one thing I do like about OOO, especially Harman’s variant, is its medievalism. That’s one reason I was so tickled to discover that Harman had translated from German that book about flagellation: a medievally-tinged merger of the incorporeal and the sensual, of objects and flows, if ever there was one. When Harman invokes the “weird” he seems to regard Lovecraft as the archetype, what with his always-already withdrawn civilizations that leave only ruins behind as mute sensual testimony to their uspeakable and terrible magnificence and so on. But that’s the sort of sense an American like Lovecraft would have gotten walking around in Europe or Asia, where large fragments of civilizations hundreds or even thousands of years old peek up uncannily from among the post-war tenements and fast-food joints. It’s the unspeakably weird allure of the medieval to the postmodern.

    Speaking of which, and alluding back to the original context of this post, Levi Bryant put up a link to this “Manifesto”, written by a literary medievalist, Part III of which is entitled, in part, “A Text as a Sentient Object.” The fictional character, seeming alive yet “utterly inhuman,” exerts an uncanny allure on the reader, creating together with the reader a sentient merged object, and so on. Fictional character as zombie, as hauntological trace of the human, as uncanny simulacrum of the real. That’s, like. so weird, man.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 March 2011 @ 8:43 am

  28. I should point out that I like OOO’s medievalism not as metaphysical Truth but as imaginative potential. This I think is why literary and artistic bloggers are drawn to the OOO, whereas so many of the purportedly serious philosophers are disgusted by it. Bryant tries to establish the philosophy on rational grounds, but Harman’s is the more evocative writing and thinking for those who fancy themselves creators.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 March 2011 @ 8:58 am

  29. 27.With respect to OOO’s ascetic monasticism, one thing I do like about OOO, especially Harman’s variant, is its medievalism.

    And this is precisely why I find her boring, Eloise. It’s not just that Lovecraft has been done to death, it’s also that whole conjuring up of Gothicism and Harry Potter which is so de rigeur and mainstream, while pretending to be daring. It also shows you that OOO has no heart.


    Comment by parody center — 30 March 2011 @ 7:27 am

    • Europeans live in a world built on top of the medieval; Americans don’t. I mean yesterday there was an article in the Denver newspaper about a suburb moving its oldest schoolhouse to a new location. And how old is this school? It was built in 1928. And it’s the fourth time the building has been moved. Now it’s on the grounds of the Delaney Farm, which is a re-creation of an old-style family farm. Here’s Jennifer Kuehner, acting director of the Aurora History Museum and Historic Sites and Preservation, cited in the article:

      Kuehner said the schoolhouse, located on the northern side of the lot, will fit perfectly with the farm’s historic feel. “A lot of farmers in the era would have donated part of their land to build a school,” Kuehner said. “This will give us a good opportunity to tell the story of rural farm life in Colorado between 1870 to the 1930s.” The museum plans to hold programs where 5th and 6th grade students can spend an entire day of class inside the schoolhouse. “This tells the story in a much more effective way,” Kuehner said. “To be in the building, see and touch the building, smell it, is much more effective than reading about it or seeing it in a picture.”

      If all those rural types in Porno Gang could just move their farms from Serbia to Colorado they could make a living as Disney caricatures of themselves.

      Harman’s ontology seems especially appealing to Americans, for many of whom, including me, medievalism is exotic. Harman wrote his Tool-Being opus while still in America, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he got so self-consciously Lovecraftian and “weird” only after he’d moved to Egypt, where he could feel the allure of all those remnants of ancient civilizations, so present-at-hand yet so withdrawn under the shifting sands and the subsequent layers of human objects.


      Comment by ktismatics — 30 March 2011 @ 7:58 am

  30. … so present-at-hand yet so withdrawn under the shifting sands and the subsequent layers of human objects.

    Eloise I always knew that you, too, were a great parodist, but because you have that White Swan problem, it doesn’t always surface, as in the brilliant passage above.

    The truth is what the Temptress’s project accomplishes secondarily and perhaps unintentionally, is that the slutted-out European Objects such as the Eiffel tower, get reinvested with the magic they have completely lost together with the moral and economic credibility of the New Roman Empire – a process started around 1999 with the bombing of Serbia. They can indeed only impress American hicks from rural Colorado who have never even seen a proper train in their lives, let alone ”history”. In this way, though she shops for Egyptian mellons and reports dutifully on the revolution in Cairo, the Temptress is a white suprematist of the new school, a bigot cosmopolitain. This is the type of a crowd that gathers at Amsterdam’s Atheneum, shopping for smart books in strictly the most bourgeois kitsch environments you can imagine, which are invariably in Amsterdam – the city of Hans Christian Andersen facades. She is that annoying type of a world traveller who goes to the pyramids and then philosophizes about their influence on the design of the tetrapak, and even blawgs about it as if she were some kind of a sophisticated interactive Ripley’s Believe it Or Not.

    I was quite entertained and impressed by Rango, which you should show to Kenzie because it’s an example of a smart and informed use of sceno- and costumography that remains in the commercial context but is nevertheless rebellious and anti-system, proving that independent artistry is still within the realms of the possible despite the dire developments on the Market. However there is a paradox which I will only confide in you, Eloise: all the strong points of this design, such as e.g. the dirty surfaces, and the spent look of the animals, are in fact merely extensions of the principles George Lucas discovered in STAR WARS, which also appealed to a kind of a SF realism with the dust and dirt on its spacecrafts and the ugliness of its supporting character designs. (Lucas’s ILM is behind this project) So while Marxists will certainly celebrate RANGO for being so anti-capitalism, the film is more-or-less the brainchild of one of the most reviled corporate villains, Mr George Lucas.


    Comment by parody center — 30 March 2011 @ 8:30 am

  31. PC, I left your personal critiques in place even though they violate my Civility Code because you’re referring to Harman’s particular way of writing about the world, which is subject to the critique you present. Interestingly, Brassier explicitly justifies critiquing OOO as neoliberal from a position within OOO. If (as Latour contends and as OOO endorses) writings are a composite of ideas and the objects to which they refer and the specific minds who think them; and if Latour is himself neoliberal politically (which he avowedly is); then Latourian neoliberalism built into the composite philosophy of OOO. In my Civility Code I’ve consistently tried to separate the writings from the writers; e.g., it’s okay to say that the idea is stupid, but not to say that the person thinking it is stupid. But OOO minimizes this distinction via Latour. For Harman, rhetoric and style are integral to philosophical writing, and arguably rhetoric and style flow from the personality and character of the writer. So shouldn’t critiquing the philosopher personally be an acceptable tactic in OOO circles? Except, of course, that critique per se is suspect per Harman. And he has been perfectly willing to conflate the critique with the critiquer, personally dehumanizing those who engage in critique as trolls and vampires. Me, I’m more prone to honoring the old distinctions.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 March 2011 @ 9:00 am

  32. Yes I would endorse all that Eloise, and suspend my revilement of the Civility Code in order to partake of the always-pleasant brunch at your place.

    From a psychoanalytic perspective, the question of WHO IS SPEAKING already doesn’t matter because you are being ”spoken by language”, or at least the Unconscious (other forces) speaks through ”you”. In this sense one should probably always distinguish between the text and its creator. But on ther hand, with the question of ”you” being as arbitrary as it is, the one who takes personal offense at blog criticism or parody, is perpetrating exactly THAT crime – pretending that there’s a real ”person” behind the critique, or parody.

    It sounds more that Dr. Harman and Posse call persons to the stand only when their work is being questioned. In all other instances, it doesn’t matter one bit who’s speaking. That’s just called ”double standards”, and as the UN ambassador of the objects for Egypt, Dr. Harman knows this very well.


    Comment by parody center — 30 March 2011 @ 9:26 am

  33. I didn’t even see that Madeleine nailed it, while using the pseudonim ”Illegal Dances” (more like ”Immoral Dances”):

    The subtext of OOO is clearly that there is only pain and utter abjectness, leading to an incredibly unsatisfying death, of course.

    Because this is exactly the basic message of Lovecraft, i.e. the reason his horror is so powerful – at least the stuff I did read, or see in good movies made out of him (most of them by Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon). In most of these narratives, the human is dethroned in the end to make way for the hero’s horrific realization that he is just one of the slugs, or hydrae, or objects. Which from Chuthulu’s point, is exactly true. But Eloise asks the proper question, what’s the point – of this knowledge – for the human? What is its transformative value?

    And here the objectal necrophiliacs always seem to have nothing to say. The Narcissistic Cat dreams up scenarios about some objectal communism in which the human’s realization of its insignificance leads to a kind of a disciplining of greed and the humans are then taught not to exploit nature. But these musings sound no better than Greenpeace or the United Nations for that matter. The Egyptian Temptress I guess dreams of perpetual globe trotting for everyone as the ”good and rational” way of living, which sounds no better than cognitive-behavioral and rational-emotional therapy. The other geezers talk about AVATAR as a profoundly ecological movie and emphasize some kind of an OOO ecology… shortly, I don’t see any single way in which this theory is transformative.


    Comment by parody center — 30 March 2011 @ 9:59 am

  34. You’re so congenial today, PC: I’m a great parodist; Illegal Dances nailed it. Maybe I should go see Rango, if it generates this kind of good mood. I see that the story takes place in the American Southwest, so I should be able to relate. And it deals with water as commodity, which invokes one of my all-time favorite movies, Chinatown. Maybe Wile E. Coyote makes a cameo?

    “with the question of ”you” being as arbitrary as it is, the one who takes personal offense at blog criticism or parody, is perpetrating exactly THAT crime – pretending that there’s a real ”person” behind the critique, or parody.”

    I think there are real persons who speak the language, and if people didn’t at least sometimes feel offense or exhilaration at what people say to them then I’d worry that they were already reduced to objects, to undead zombies. But I am interested, especially in a fictional aesthetic sense, in praxes wherein the language speaks you and where subjects are reduced to being avatars of the God Who Is Unconscious.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 March 2011 @ 10:27 am

  35. Maybe Wile E. Coyote makes a cameo?

    The whole thing reminds one of those Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons where the character ponders his position within the frame as a drawn figure (it’s a Warner Bros movie). It begins with a Lacanian-existential crisis, where the lizard doesn’t know who he is, and then has to learn that a man is defined by his acts, not his thoughts. Etc we can discuss this to death once you see the movie. But I don’t want to spoil Madeleine’s jouissance of the Didion discussion.


    Comment by parody center — 30 March 2011 @ 12:31 pm

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