Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Questions from De Paul 1


The Q&A session was so scintillating, because the students were so scintillating, and somehow Liam Heneghan and co. had organized such a sparkling conference. So we decided it would be good to post some kind of reconstruction of the Q&A. The talk was somewhat similar to the one I gave at Temple (mp3 below), though I added some extra language about environmentalism, which I'll post at some point, perhaps.

In any case, not in order, here is the first question, from Will Meyrowitz:

do you think global warming is expressive of the class relation constitutive of capitalist production? At any rate, I then tried to rid the question of its polemical form by posing it as an ontological question. More exactly, the question was: do you think the ontological premises – indeed, if in fact they are 'ontological' – of hyper-objects are compatible with the 'ontological' premises of Marxist social theory?

Now, I take it the issue at stake here is twofold, namely (1) what possible meanings, under the ontological premises you are working with, could be attributed to categories like 'class,' 'value,' 'commodity' – even 'revolution' and 'critique' – and (2) whether the meanings that could be attributed to these categories would be in keeping with the meaning Marx attributed to them.

Of course, an answer to such a question implies a reading of Marx and making some interpretive decisions with regard to the with the countless thorny issues internal to Marxist scholarship (Hegelian influences, epistemological breaks, historical materialism vs. dialectical materialism, etc.) and the history of Western Marxism.

In this sense, the question can also be seen in the following light: should the reading of Marx be secondary to purely theoretical decisions about issues in first philosophy, issues pertaining to the metaphysical structure of reality?

Or should the reading of Marx – and so, really, Marx himself – be seen as upsetting the priority of so-called questions of fundamental ontology and pure metaphysics, so-called first philosophy, such that very issue of a decision on the metaphysical structure of reality would be seen to, on the one hand, derive from and be constituted by something else – say, social relations – and, on the other hand, to be historically specific, i.e., a question whose intelligibility requires and presupposes as a hidden (practical) premise capitalist social relations?

The deep worry, I think, tying all these 'ontological' questions together in some way is whether you can explain how global warming is something we have done to ourselves and in such way that we necessarily conceal our own constitutive role here, if hyper-objects presuppose the equality of all entities. I hope these clarifications are somewhat helpful.
Somewhat cheekily, while Will was asking his original question, I interjected something like “I"m a bourgeois shit?” I was happy to be thought of as one, in that moment, somehow. But I think it may have thrown us off a little, and I'm glad Will formulates his question again here.

I sketch what I remember of my response:

It's okay to think of me as a bourgeois shit. It's possible! And I should confess, while we're on the subject, that it is now a few months since I used the phrase “As a recovering Marxist” at a conference. When I used those words I got jumped on by the Spanish Inquisition, about whom I had no idea, having been one of them until a few seconds before I opened my big mouth.

Class could be seen as a hyperobject as Levi Bryant argued at UCLA last year: a massively distributed object independent of who's in it.

But since there's no top or bottom object, in my view, there is an anarchy when it comes to the universe, a not-all set of untotalizable members (HT Levi AGAIN). Objects are free to form any affiliation they please.

Now this anarchy is not the same as individualism. Here we should study a little bit the differences between uniqueness and individualism. As I'm sure you may know, the most stereotypical grad school application is the one that personalizes the narrator. For instance, in English Lit., we constantly get things like: “I was totally blind to the wonders of literature, but when I was eight, the Complete Works of Shakespeare fell on my head and I realized I must devote my life to the sacred art of reading poems.” Funnily enough that statement of individuality is the most stereotyped, mechanical one. Think about front lawns. No psychedelic crucefixes! No hippy lawns with grass longer than 1.75 inches! Or you'll be arrested!

But to return to the question, in fact Marxism could be a form of mechanism, even of idealism, if in my view emergentism always requires one object outside the emergence for which the emergence emerges. For whom or for what is industrialism emerging? And doesn't this mean that there's 1+n entities outside capital to observe/measure this emergence?

Emergentism in general implies emergence-for. Turing machines going chugga chugga chugga emerge as smart people for a human observer outside the room, feeding them questions. Dennett's emergentism, where AI just pops out of enough machines working together. For Marx industrial capitalism emerges when enough machines making other machines work together (Capital 1.11). Then there's a qualitative leap from that quantitative leap.


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