Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Something Big this Way Comes—Do We Live in a Pluriverse?

In the course of the recent discursive eruption over the relationship between speculative realism and objected-oriented ontology on the one hand, and ethics on the other, Ian Bogost posted a plea for “less blogging, and more working.” He worked his way around to this:
Sometimes I regret having gotten back into the "traditional humanities" after spending the last ten years in a weird hybrid of liberal arts and engineering at a technical institute. For it deals with the greatest irony of conservatism: a conservatism whose hallowed tradition is a purported progressive radicalism. Things are changing in philosophy, and that change is terrifying to some and liberating to others—perhaps it should be both. This conflict, if that's really what it is, is evidence of something big.
“Something big”—yes, that’s what got me interested in object-oriented ontology last year, the scent of something big. Perhaps it was OOO itself, or a close conceptual kin, or perhaps they were/are but a symptom of something else. In some sense, surely the latter.

That is, to the extent that SR/OOO are types of academic philosophy, and they are that, an eruption in academic philosophy that is confined to academic philosophy, that doesn’t interest me. But if these forms of academic philosophy are symptoms of something larger than that philosophy, well then, I’m curious.

And these philosophical movements do seem to resonate outside philosophy departments. So I’ve been curious.

But, though my knowledge of SR/OOO is sketchy, I’ve seen enough that I must gather my thoughts, if only as a way of plotting out my next moves. This post sets out the terms in which I’m thinking these matters through. First, by way of calibrating bigness, I introduce some metaphors of geographical exploration. Then I look back at two movements that launched in the 1960s and 1970s as points of comparison. I conclude by taking a WAG on The Next Big Thing.

Explorers, Miners, Merchants, and Astronauts

In a recent post Levi Bryant likened himself and his colleagues to Lewis and Clark, who crossed North America from what is now Illinois to what is now Oregon in the early 18th Century. They were not, of course, the first people of European descent to lead an ambitious exploratory mission in the (so-called) New World. There had been others. But their expedition is a useful one for purposes of conceptual calibration.

As another case I suggest Christopher Columbus’s first voyage two centuries before. We can argue about which was the more daring expedition, but there can be no doubt that the Lewis and Clark expedition would not have been possible without the discoveries Columbus made. If Columbus hadn’t shown the Europeans that there was a new continent to the West, the Europeans wouldn’t have undertaken the program of colonization that put Lewis and Clark in a position to walk from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

What is at least as interesting as the question of magnitude, of bigness, is the fact that Columbus didn’t know what he was doing. He set out to discover a Western route to the Indies, not to discover a new continent. How do we factor THAT into our calibration?

As a third case, consider the California Gold Rush that kicked off with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. That brought 300,000 people to California from the United States and elsewhere, a human stampede of considerable magnitude. Money was made hand over fist, though likely more reliably by the merchants who supplied the miners than by the prospectors and miners themselves. Lots of people combed the hills looking for gold. But it’s hard to think of this as an event of exploration and discovery. It was something more mundane.

Where do we place SR/OOO? To which of these cases is it most comparable? As between Columbus and Lewis and Clark, the interesting point of comparison is Columbus’s mistaken sense of what was out there. Do these SR/OOO folks know where they’re going? And if they do know, are they looking for a water route to the Pacific and hence to Asia (where Columbus had been headed) or are they only looking for gold, a scarce and hard-to find substance of considerable, if peculiar, value?

I’ll end with a fourth case: the Apollo program. Between 1969 and December 1972 six huge rockets landed twelve men on the moon. And then, nothing more. No colonies on the moon, no trips to Mars, much less to Alpha Centauri and other stars. Enormous resources where expended, intricate and often useful technology was created, political points were scored by the United States against the Soviet Union, and dreams, what of the dreams?

What does it mean the real live human beings walked on the Moon, a quarter million miles from Earth? I’d say it’s bigger than all of that other Apollo stuff. Calibrating THAT bigness against the California Gold Rush is, of course, easy. Way bigger. Bigger than Lewis and Clark? Sure, why not? Than Columbus? Hmmmm.

How big, then, is SR/OOO? Of course we don’t know, not yet. But when? That cannot be predicted.

Big Things Past

The present moment is not, of course, the first time thinkers have sensed the coming of something big. It happens all the time. Well, not ALL the time, but it’s a recurring apprehension in intellectual history.

I was an undergraduate at The Johns Hopkins University when the French landed in 1966 for the structuralism conference, aka “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” I didn’t attend any of the sessions, but I quickly fell into the orbit of one of the organizers, Richard A. Macksey.

THAT clearly was the Big Thing in the “sciences of man”—a French phrase that cuts across the division between the humanities and social sciences. And it WAS the big thing for several decades, though I note that, when J. Hillis Miller—one of the Hopkins pioneers—gave his 1985 Presidential Address before the MLA, he lamented the demise of interest in deconstruction. Miller’s favored mode was on the wane. But other modes were coming into view. These events, of course, were American, but parallel if somewhat different developments were taking place in Europe.
[For a brief all too selective chronology and setting developments in Theory in parallel with developments in cognitive science, see For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Literary Theory, A Chronology.]
At roughly the same time, the cognitive sciences came of age. Artificial intelligence and transformational generative grammar were born in the mid-late 1950s and began intersecting with psychology and philosophy in the 1960s. Christopher Longuet-Higgins coined the term “cognitive science” in 1973. By the mid-1980s AI was in eclipse and generative grammar had splintered and become surrounded by rivals. Cognitive science had formed its conferences, journals, and interdisciplinary degree programs, but few university departments.

I took my Ph.D. at the State University of New York at Buffalo where I did a dissertation on “Cognitive Science and Literary Theory.” The degree was awarded in 1978 by the English Department, but my work was effectively under the supervision of David Hays, a computational linguist in the Linguistics Department. Thus I started my education under the aegis of one big thing and completed it under the aegis of another.

How would I calibrate these two big things against the ventures I mentioned in the previous section? I’d say that, at inception, both appeared to be Lewis and Clark or even Columbus class adventures, but, in retrospect they appear more like the California Gold Rush.

The Next Big Thing

I do not, of course, know where Bogost’s big thing will go. I do note that I’ve been through this drill before. And, with that experience under my belt, I nonetheless decided to take a look at Triple-O.

Given that I really really thought cognitive science was going to be THE big one, however, my power of prophesy is much to be doubted.

But, if you were to put a gun to my head and insist that I take a WAG (wild-ass guess) on The Next Big Thing, I’d wag for pluralism, for something to be born out of the late thoughts of Paul Feyerabend on abundance, out of recent Latour (e.g. Politics of Nature, Reassembling the Social) and his forthcoming An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, and, of course, other things. No doubt, many other things.

Are all objects to be considred on an equal ontological footing? Sure, why not? We can start from there. But only start. We objects have many and various ways of living among one another. THAT’s what we must begin sorting out: modes of existence, realms of being, abundance, pluralism.

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