Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Spaces in Between

I read several philosophy blogs, but I often have a hard time understanding the significance of some of issues that get discussed. The differences between realisms. The status of objects in the world. Things like that. I have no trouble accepting that the problem is mine—or, my inexperience with reading philosophy anyway. The conversations are often in that private language of philosophy, where some familiarity with certain philosophers is required. On the other hand, there are a few blogs that are written in a way so that the issues become intelligible even to a novice like me, whereby I can begin to understand the relevance of the problem at hand. Skholiast's is one; Graham Harman's is another. The latter posted something helpful recently in the context of one of these cross-blog debates:
...the fact that farms exist only for humans does not entail that farms have no ontological independence from humans. Sure, if all humans were exterminated by some calamity, farms would no longer exist, because they are a composite entity. But this does not mean that farms are upwardly reducible to the sum total of their effects in any given instant.

A marriage would be another good example. Obviously, the marriage immediately ends (both legally and otherwise) as soon as one partner dies. The marriage is a composite entity, just like gold or anything else. But this does not mean that a marriage is nothing other than its current effects on both partners and on the rest of the world. See what I mean?

These sorts of theories ignore what in Dundee I called the "mezzanine" level of the world, which is wedged between the ground floor and the first floor (or first floor and second floor in the U.S. system of naming). The gold, the marriage, the knife and the farm all have components of which they are built. They all have effects on their environment, too. But that's not the whole story. The real action is wedged in between the two floors. An object is a mezzanine or at least a crawl space between its pieces and its effects.
It is precisely the debate some of these philosophers have been having lately about objects that has seemed beyond my grasp, yet this point about the irreducibility of an object to its apparent effects (or properties) makes sense to me (and fits in nicely with what I usually write when discussing literary matters; I'm convinced it's not coincidental), and I can begin to see why it matters.

In part, it resonates politically. When I read Harman's post, I was immediately reminded of a marvelous essay by David Graeber called "There Never Was a West". The essay is subtitled "or, democracy emerges from the spaces in between"; perhaps you have a sense of where I'm going with this. At any rate, Graeber opens his essay with a thoroughgoing and entertaining demolition of Samuel Huntington's much-derided "Clash of Civilizations" essay. Now, it's very easy to destroy an essay as sloppy as this one, and Graeber admits that he's essentially shooting fish in a barrel. So why bother? Well, he also observes that other critiques of Huntington's essay, while accurate enough in their way, nevertheless uncritically accept the notion of "the West" that Huntington starts with, though they may modify it to suit their own needs. Graeber says that "it's almost impossible to find a political, or philosophical, or social thinker on the left or the right who doubts one can say meaningful things about 'the Western tradition' at all". There is much in Graeber's essay to think about, and I don't want to spend too much time on it here. Briefly, he touches on the "slipperiness of the Western eye" of the "Western individual", a "pure abstraction" who
is more than anything else, precisely that featureless, rational observer, a disembodied eye, carefully scrubbed of any individual or social content, that we are supposed to pretend to be when writing in certain genres of prose.
A prose which is used to "describe alien societies as puzzles to be deciphered by [just such] a rational observer". Graeber's main subject here is the way in which "democracy" as an ideal supposedly handed down as part of an illusory "Western tradition", conflicts with "democracy" as an ideal held by actual people, as practiced by actual people throughout history, throughout the world. The notion of the abstract Western individual fits in perfectly with the fiction of individuals as perfectly rational actors making always rational choices in the market (to sell my labor or not to sell my labor?), which dovetails nicely with our debased conception of democracy as "a kind of market that actors enter with little more than a set of economic interests to pursue." But, of course, we have other interests. And the idea of democracy means much more than this to most people. It means having real say in those non-trivial decisions affecting our daily lives, some of which decisions are economic. Let me turn it over to Graeber to summarize the broader points:
democratic practice, whether defined as procedures of egalitarian decision-making, or government by political discussion, tends to emerge from situations in which communities of one sort or another manage their own affairs outside the purview of the state. The absence of state power means the absence of any systematic mechanism of coercion to enforce decisions; this tends to result either in some form of consensus process, or, in the case of essentially military formations like Greek hoplites or pirate ships, sometimes a system of majority voting (since, in such cases, the results, if it did come down to a contest of force, are readily apparent). Democratic innovation, and the emergence of what might be called democratic values, has a tendency to spring from what I've called zones of cultural improvisation, usually also outside of the control of states, in which diverse sorts of people with different traditions and experiences are obliged to figure out some way to deal with one another. [...]

All of this has very little to do with the great literary-philosophical traditions that tend to be seen as the pillars of great civilizations: indeed, with few exceptions, those traditions are overall explicitly hostile to democratic procedures and the sort of people that employ them. Governing elites, in turn, have tended either to ignore these forms, or to try to stomp them out.
The point is that democracy is something that happens between and among us. It is a relation. It cannot be reduced to what we find in a textual tradition. Too many of us have forgotten this, if we ever knew it, because we are told that democracy is an ideal that we inherited from the Greeks, by way of the Enlightenment, when in reality the texts in question evince very little patience for democratic practice. A variety of factors, including social movements agitating in the direction of democratic practice, lead to our bloated representative "democracies", or Republics, which, along with the holy texts, have determined the ways we think about democracy itself. We think about it in terms of the state, an entity that is necessarily hostile to it.

I started to come around to the idea of anarchism when I read a short description to the effect that "anarchism is how we go about our daily lives", in a constantly renewing relationship of decision-making and trust. Democracy is similar. I am also reminded of Blanchot's idea of communism (or my limited understanding of it), as an immanent relation, an always renewing set of relationships that cannot be nailed down, as a political possibility, as against the liberal notion of the atomized rational observer, against the reduction of the political into rational management of economic or other affairs. Our lives and our social relationships, which I imagine might each qualify as objects, in this philosophical sense, cannot be reduced to what we or anyone else says or writes about them.


BenoƮt said...

Despite possessing enough reading in philosophy to have wrested a bachelor's in the subject from a university, I too find the discussion between the neo-realists opaque. This is likely due to my vague familiarity with the question of the whatness of things, and rather we can know them truly. Or if I am familiar it's because I've been a reader of writers in objection to the very question. At any rate, I'm aloft towards their work and can only liken it to map-making. Owing to the postmodern context, they can't actually say they're making a map, with all that a map provides one, and so the map is always somehow incomplete (i.e. for Levi Bryant of Larval Subjects, objects never fully display all their relations at any one time, but are otherwise little gears in the universe worthy of eseteem), but the desire is abundantly clear.

A further coincidence: the idea of equality is, according to my studies (I hate that term, but it possesses a useful pretension of credence), one which posseses a particularly solvent nature in the face of a tradition that has made a pretence to its esteem but practically runs in the other direction. I see this solvent nature arising from more sources that just the Greeks or anyone else in that subsequent sucession (and here I'd like to point our mutual suspicion of this Greek origin: it was, and likely remains, vogue in certain circles to point out that American democracy is modeled on Roman jurisprudence, what with its elitism and what not, hence representative democracy, and that the Greek notion thus shares in the pure realm of absolute democracy - they owned slaves, and women weren't members of the polity. They owed their democracy to the conditions of living in a polis, with all that connoted for them, than some higher sentiment).

So it's heartening to find someone with semblant sentiments. I look forward to what will come of your blog in the future.

J.R. Boyd said...

How I would love to communicate this post to my coworkers in a sentence!

Timothy Morton said...

Thanks to a comment by drone module on my blog, I'm just getting to this--hopefully not too late. Good thinking, I'm happy to read it, and I'm going to prepare a post that thinks about it some more. I came to the same conclusion just last week on my ownsome...