With my old machine dead and the data not yet transferred to my new machine, I’ve been having to make do without my files. So I can’t yet produce the promised PDF of the main argument in my pluralist series. Since I want to get that out there I’ve decided to post the introduction to the blog, as I normally do, and simply link the component posts at the end. I’ll produce the PDF when I can.
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From Literary Criticism to Pluralist Metaphysics, an Introduction
To the extent that I’ve got a home discipline, it is literary criticism. Consequently, though I DO know better, I tend to think of philosophy as a hand-maiden to literary criticism. That’s where this introduction begins, with literary criticism, which has provided the problems that, once again, led me to philosophy. After indicating how philosophy has pointed a way out of those problems I turn to philosophy itself. I conclude by discussing the order of posts in this document as a whole.
The Road to Xanadu, as it were
The posts I’ve collected at the end of this post resulted from a decision I made some time in the first half of 2011: Let’s look into this object-oriented ontology business. But why had I made THAT wacky decision? After all, as I’ve explained in a series of posts about Lévi-Strauss, I’d abandoned that intellectual tradition early in my career when I’d decided that this new-fangled cognitive science seemed more promising for my particular critical interests. Why return to Continental philosophy, the tradition I’d abandoned?
It certainly WASN’T because I’d decided that I’d made a mistake. Oh careerwise, yes, a mistake. Intellectually, not at all.
The problem I was tracking was a rhetorical one. My work on literature, and now film, differed from 1) traditional humanist work, 2) post-structuralist, new historical, and various identity theories, all of which rolls up into capital-Tee Theory, and 3) from the work that more recent literary scholars, working independently of me, have done in cognitive criticism. That’s a lot of difference!
The chief differences are two: 1) to practice what I now call naturalist criticism one must abandon, or at least bracket, the search for textual meaning, and 2) while naturalist criticism aspires to, well, everything! the single most important task on the critical horizon is description, we’ve got to get much better descriptive control of our texts. Given that the post-philological discipline of academic criticism is built on the search for textual meaning that first difference would seem to be something of a showstopper, no? But in truth, my goal was not so much to convince literary critics to follow me, but simply to assure them that I am not the enemy. Still even for that more limited purpose, that I’m willing to forgo meaning seems a bit, well, dangerous. Who knows what craziness might follow from that?
As for description, no one objects to it, everyone does it, but it’s not glamorous. There’s an old formula that says aesthetic criticism begins with description, and then moves to analysis, interpretation, and, finally, evaluation. Academic critics have tossed evaluation out the door, though we have smuggled it in through the basement in the guise of ideological and political critique, while concentrating our attention on interpretation. Description is simply taken for granted. How could I possibly be doing anything at all worthwhile if I regard description as something that is rigorous, demanding, and deserving of our most serious attention.
So, in bracketing meaning I mark myself as an enemy, more or less. And in championing description I mark myself as simple-minded and unimaginative. Those are rather considerable rhetorical hurdles to jump.
Now I suppose that in some vague way I was hoping that I could cloak the appearance of being a simple-minded wolf with the razzle-dazzle of an object-oriented sheepskin. But there’s no direct way one can pursue such a disguise. Directly, what I was after was 1) an ethical and aesthetic complement to my work and 2) a somewhat different way of rationalizing that work.
By the time the great ethics scandal broke in the middle of 2012 I’d pretty much decided that object-oriented ontology (OOO) was a bust on both counts. On the second matter, rationalization, object-oriented ontology fails me because it’s not about objects in a sense useful to me, which is akin to what Franco Moretti is pursuing in distant reading. The purpose of “distance” is to allow the critic to treat the text as an object, “out there.” That’s what I do. And I do it because such objectification allows one to see fascinating and, yes, even beautiful and elegant patterns that are rendered invisible through the pursuit of meaning. Describing those patterns is a task worthy of any serious intellectual. Latour understands the importance of description, but these, his fellow-traveling disciples seem oblivious to that side of his work.
On the first matter, ethics and aesthetics, I decided that OOO was neither fish nor foul, tree nor grass, here nor there. Yes, Morton and Bogost were pursing aesthetic and ethical matters, and, yes, Bryant is against capitalism and in favor of emancipation, but so what? That doesn’t help me clarify the relationship between naturalist criticism and ethics and aesthetics.
In the wake of that first blog-storm about OOO and ethics I decided I had little choice but to take a little of this and that from OOO and sketch out my own metaphysics, a pluralist one. Why pluralism? For one thing Latour often talked of the “pluriverse”—I’m thinking particularly of Politics of Nature—and referenced William James. While I’m certainly not a Jamesian, I’ve read a bit—big chunks of Varieties of Religious Experience and Principles of Psychology—and so Latour’s references resonated with talks I’d had with David Hays about Realms of Being and with thoughts I’d had in the wake of Charles Tart’s speculations on the epistemological implications of psychedelic experience. And soon after I started down this path Terrence Blake jumped in with observations about Feyerabend and his notion of abundance, an idea Hays and I had picked up some years ago from John Horgan’s The End of Science, and which Hays had termed fecundity. The universe is fecund, it is abundant.
So, I replaced Harmanian withdrawal with Feyerabendian abundance and sketched out my own system: objects, Realms of Being, Life Ways, and Arenas of Abundance. I hit pay dirt in a post on Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism. While the phrase “unity of being” is an old and venerated one it hadn’t entered my discourse until I wrote that post. Ethical criticism—I have that from Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Booth’s an old school critic best-known for The Rhetoric of Fiction, which I’ve owned, but never read cover-to-cover. But I have read, and quite enjoyed, For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals, a personal book he wrote about the joys of amateur music-making.
I learned about The Company We Keep from Rohan Maitzen (of Novel Readings), one of my colleagues at the now-defunct literary blog, The Valve. Rohan’s main concern was reaching a non-academic audience. She had a blog of her own, which, I presume, is where one of the other Valvsters found her, where she had been writing about her teaching and about literary matters that interested her, including 19th Century literary criticism, which was ethnical in nature. At The Valve she initiated a group reading of Adam Bede in the summer of 2009. She published a weekly schedule of readings and, at the beginning of the week, post comments on that week’s reading. Then other members of the group—which were mostly readers of The Valve rather than authors—would comment on her post.
I thought it was an interesting and successful event, just the sort of thing literary academics could and should be doing on the web. During these conversations she mentioned Wayne Booth’s concept of coduction, which was, roughly, that as various people read and discuss a text, they participate in one another’s experience of the text so that their judgments about the text are collective ones and not merely individual. That resonated with me as I had had some email correspondence with the late Mary Douglas about the shareability of cultural objects, such as literary texts, songs, dances, and so forth. I asked Rohan where Booth discusses that idea and she told me.
So I bought the book, read around in it, and set it aside for possible later use. And it came roaring out as I discussed literary criticism within the context of a pluralist metaphysics. By this time I had imported an argument that the nervous system forces experience into various neurochemically-coded behavioral modes, an idea David Hays and I had found in Warren McCulloch, and that story-telling was a way of securing subjective continuity across those different bodies of experience. That is, stories help us attain Unity of Being.
As there is more than one way to skin that particular cat, one must choose what stories to affirm and one ordinarily makes such choices in concert with one’s fellows. That choice is an ethical one in the largest sense of ethos, a way of life. I now had what I’d been searching for, a common framework in which I see the relationship between my own work in naturalist criticism and ethnical criticism. The naturalist critic is concerned only with what’s there in the text such that people can construct meanings. The ethical critic constructs meanings and gauges them in the context of a particular way of life.
Thus put, the idea seems rather banal, rather obvious. The devil, they say, is in the details. And you will find some of those in subsequent posts. As for description, I don’t discuss that at all, as that’s deep in the interior of literary criticism and thus of no direct concern to philosophy. The crucial notion, though, is that the naturalist and the ethical critic can work from the same descriptive base.
At THIS point in my metaphysical blogging I’d gotten what I’d set out to get when I started nosing around Tim Morton’s posts about object-oriented ontology at Arcade and then at his own blog, Ecology Without Nature. But, having started out to sketch a system, I had to complete the sketch, which I did. The problem was to deal with the fact that we humans have multiple cultures dictating often quite different ways of handling such matters and marriage and family. What do we do about THAT? We negotiate, in the manner Latour describes in the final chapter of Politics of Nature, which I recast within my own framework.
Let’s return to object-oriented ontology.
Philosophy More Generally
When I first began explicitly developing a pluralist metaphysics, in From Objects to Pluralism, I began by raising the question of philosophy’s relationship to other disciplines by quoting from Graham Harman’s interview in ASK/TELL. When I set out to summarize and conclude the series with Review: The Eightfold Way, I chose to start with the same passage. I want to round out this introductory exposition by once again taking up the relationship between philosophy and the other disciplines, though I’ll dispense with the passage from Harman, as you will twice find it in the main discussion.
I have concluded two things:
- Philosophy cannot provide the foundations for the naturalist study of literature or of anything else.
- Philosophy can and indeed ought to provide the foundations for ethical discussions.
As you will not find those assertions anywhere in the main argument, it is perhaps strange to include them in an introduction. But where else could I put them?
Concerning naturalist inquiry, I note that, historically, inquiry of all kinds has preceded the philosophical examination of such inquiry and that, practically, investigators do with their work without attending to what philosophers have to say about their practice. Though Harman claims for philosophy a kind of knowledge of objects that the specialized disciplines lack, he does not claim that their work would improve if they knew what they philosopher knows.
This is certainly true of the sciences, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, which have gone their own ways unhindered by what philosophers have had to say about them. If you want to understand how something works, you need to have a deep and intimate feel for the phenomena, often, but not always, obtained through the mediation of complex instrumentation. The philosopher of science must necessarily be at one or more removes from such phenomenal engagement.
One might object that this is not the case for literary criticism and similar disciplines in recent decades, which have sought, and found, philosophical grounding. That is not, in my view, an objection at all. Rather literary criticism falls under the scope of my second statement. It is an ethnical discipline and so properly seeks philosophical foundations. As Booth argued in The Company We Keep, most literary criticism IS ethnical, broadly considered. While the profession has explicitly denied the evaluative activity required by ethical deliberation, the political concerns that have been so much an aspect of literary criticism ARE evaluative and ethnical. Such critics are using texts as a way of making statements about how life should be lived.
Harman, of course, is not an ethicist nor an aesthetician, he is a metaphysician. Whatever claim he is making on behalf of philosophy vis-à-vis the other disciplines, he is not claiming that philosophers know something about quarks and gravity that physicists don’t, or that they know something about co-valent bonds that chemists don’t, or that they know something about mitosis and meiosis and that biologists don’t, and so forth, though he seems to talk that way. What Harman knows is that objects are always and always withdrawing. You can’t know everything about any one thing. Thus crudely put the often puzzling idea of withdrawal hardly seems controversial.
What, then, is it that metaphysicians can know that others don’t? Levi Bryant is tracking that down under the aegis of onto-cartography, the mapping of being. I’ve got severe criticisms of his enterprise, which I’ve voiced in a series of posts. Briefly and colloquially put, he fails to see the forest for the threes. He cruises through dozens of disciplines by concocting summaries of key ideas that are often simply wrong, as in the case of entropy, complexity theory or networks, or are simply banal. His whole enterprise has the feel of an inept Theory of Everything, not a map of being, which is necessarily more abstract.
Such a map, in effect, is what I have been sketching out in these posts on pluralism. I start with Harman’s conception of metaphysics as being about objects. But, as I’ve already indicated, I performed a gestalt switch on his concept of withdrawal.
I talk, instead, of abundance. Objects are wells of abundance. As such they organize themselves into Realms of Being and Realms organize into Arenas of Abundance. That, in a nutshell, or, if you will, a grain of sand, is my argument. I leave you to judge its merits as you work your way through the rest of this posts.
Mapping those Realms and Arenas, that is necessarily the task of scholars who busy themselves, not with the affairs of one, two, or even three or four specialized disciplines, but of investigators who are interested in the Whole Shebang. Such investigators must necessarily negotiate the ongoing mapping with specialists in all the other disciplines. And we might as well call such scholars ontologists, metaphysicians, or even philosophers.
Order of things
The main line of argument consists of a more or less copulative argument beginning with From Objects to Pluralism and ending with Pluralism in Review: The Eightfold Way. One might profitably read Unity of Being and Ethnical Criticism without the foregoing, provided ABC, but the last segments are likely to prove opaque without the preceding. I present these pieces as I originally posted them and have made no attempt to edit away gaps and inconsistencies. This is philosophy in the raw, take it or leave it.
This main argument is bounded by a Prelude: The Living Cosmos, and a Coda: The Abundance Principle and the Fourth Arena. The prelude evokes the sense of the whole, that it is the cosmos itself that must be regarded as the seat of life (and of mind and culture) and so it must be considered to be a living being. The coda does the same, but from the perspective of one who has been through the whole argument as the Abundance Principle it discusses would be unintelligible without the preceding. If and when I revise and reconstruct the whole argument, that principle is likely to find its way into the main argument.
The coda is followed by four supplementary posts. The first one, Something Big Thing This Way Comes, is the post in which I expressed doubts about object oriented ontology being the Next Big Thing, suggesting, instead, that it pluralism, though not in fact new, is a more likely candidate. Having said that, I had little choice but to elaborate.
The second supplement, For the Historical Record: Cog Sci to Lit Crit, makes no argument at all. Rather, it supplements that first supplement, in which I had invoked recent intellectual history about Big Things that Failed, namely, the so-called cognitive revolution and Theory. While these movements have both been intellectually productive, neither has been able to deliver the new and deeper understanding that they had originally promised. This second supplement thus charts the parallel courses of these two movements by listing major publications in each running from the 1950s into the mid 1980s.
The third supplement, Eco-Psych, Pluralism, Schrödinger’s Cat quotes some passages of pluralist thinking from the psychologist Robert Shaw, who has followed in the footsteps of J. J. Gibson, whose work influenced me a great deal. In particular, Gibson articulated an epistemology principle that tracks Harman’s notion of withdrawal fairly closely, but preceded it by several decades.
The fourth supplement, Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence, deals with Latour’s concept of a mode of existence, a concept that is similar to my concept of Realms of Being. Where Latour imagines a small fixed number of modes, fourteen, however, I imagine the Realms of Being already number in the 1000s, if not more, and may well multiply beyond that.
Major Pluralist Posts
4. Literature, Criticism, and Pluralism 3: The Reality of Fictional Objects
5. Harman’s Ontology on a Single Level and Objects as Wells of Abundance
8. Matter, Life, and Culture (so far)
9. Unity of Being: Conflict and the Self
10. Unity of Being: Choosing Life Ways
11. Facing up to Relativism: Negotiating the Commons
12. Pluralism in Review: The Eightfold Way
Coda: The Abundance Principle and the Fourth Arena
Appendix 1: Something Big This Way Comes—Do We Live in a Pluriverse?
Appendix 2: For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology
The Eightfold Way
Here are the eight propositions as set out in the main article, but without surrounding discussion.
1. Objects: Individual entities of many different scales are the ultimate stuff of the cosmos.
2. Abundance: These entities enter into relations with other entities but are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations.
3. Realms of Being: In the large objects exist in patterns of relatively stable interactions among multiple objects. These are relations of indirect or vicarious causality. Analytically, we need to separate the roles from the entities that assume them. This is the core of what will become a distinction between culture and society.
4. Unity of Being: Humans desire the ability to access and reflect on memories of events in one’s life. The extent that that is achieved is called Unity of Being.
5. Life Way: A Latourian collective, with human and non-human members, is considered to participate in all the Realms in which any member of the collective plays a role. The ‘envelope’ of those Realms is called a Life Way.
6. Latourian Negotiation: Collectives having different Life Ways have been interacting through a process of negotiation in which differences among Life Ways are resolved and commonalities created or not depending on the desire to extend the boundaries of the larger more inclusive collective. The outcome cannot be predicted or foreseen.
7. Realms of Abundance: Realms of Being are organized into Realms of Abundance, of which three have appeared to far: Matter, Life, and Culture.
8. The Fourth Arena: The current global Latourian negotiation brings us to the edge of a fourth Arena of Abundance. If it goes well, that’s where our successors will dwell.