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

Monday, May 3, 2010

An Answer to the Replies to the Answer of the Real: Introducing the Smoked Glass Box




Because there have been three very intelligent comments on the post below (thank you!), I thought I'd talk some more about the volcanic cloud emitted from Iceland as an augury—some kind of message, even if we're unsure of the content.

The logic of the comments (the authors are in sync with one another I feel) has been very well taken. On reflection, I think it's best to agree, at least with the part I'm about to explain. I may have been inhibited from seeing how I agree for the rather trivial reason that I assumed that nothing good could come from the stables of Rupert Murdoch (the original piece was in the London Times online).

It seems that what Robin Mackay and Feed Me I'm Cranky are both saying is that it would be better to act as if the volcanic cloud were a message, even if we were unsure of the sender or of its content. In this sense, there does indeed appear to be a gap in (contemporary attitudes towards the scope of) reason.

This gap is part of how the nonhuman is habitually constituted as totally opaque, a-signifying—and on reflection, Zizek volunteers frequently as a spokesman for this gap. Indeed, the Lacanian Real is an opaque, meaningless distortion that can't be symbolized. Anyone who thinks the Real directly means something is written off as a psycho.

As we shall see, the taboo on ontological interpretations of the Real contains an implicit ontology.

The taboo looks suspiciously like the injunction not to account for the equations of quantum theory by positing something real that they are about—the Copenhagen Interpretation, to which Zizek appears to subscribe (see here for a discussion): “quantum physics, where we are dealing with the rules/laws which function, although they cannot ever be retranslated into our experience of representable reality” (“Inside the Matrix”).

Luckily this taboo is being broken, both in quantum theory and in contemporary materialist philosophy. Luckily for our purposes, because the taboo only reinforces by default a certain state of affairs—mind–body dualism and nihilistically shaded empiricism—that may be at least in part responsible for the ecological mess we're trying to understand and transcend.

The commandment, Thou Shalt Not Wander Too Far Off the Reservation of Little Ping Pong Balls I Saw in the Chemistry Lab at High School Moving Mechanically in a Rigid Box of Absolute Space-Time, affects even the contemporary Heideggerian view of objects as black boxes. The Real remains the stone against which Doctor Johnson's boot smacks firmly, his own “answer of the Real” to Berkeley's idealism (“Thus I refute him sir!”).

The commandment has the disadvantage of having been based on a view that has been shown to be merely a good-enough approximation, relying on assumptions derived from false immediacy. The two major schools of physics for the last 100 years, relativity and quantum theory, both make it impossible to think matter this way—the Newton way.

Of course, we can build spacecraft based on Newtonian approximations, just like we can refer to “sunrise” based on “common sense” (dreaded new term of the Palinistas) and a bit of Ptolemy. The trouble is, philosophers and other humanists (I used a bad word!) and even quantum theorists go around talking about particles moving in empty space—and not just when those theorists are ordering a pint in their local pub. A gap in reason indeed.

Instead of simply accepting this commandment, turning thinking off and settling down into Newton's sleep, we should to develop at least one more category of significant matter. We could call this category the Smoked Glass Box: it's kind of black-ish, but we can see inside it (and through it).

Now for the sake of argument, forget figuring out who or what the sender is, or what the message is saying. I think this was one of my stumbling blocks. As soon as I dropped my teleological urge to see where the message was coming from and where it was going to, things got easier.

The other prejudice I needed to drop was that if no definite sender or message can be specified, it's not a message. But as we shall see, this lack of specification happens all the time—it may even be an intrinsic feature of language as such. Read on...

Perhaps the black-box syndrome described above is the real problem with Latour's argument, come to think of it. It's not so much the nonhuman phenomena, but the idea of scientific instruments as (more or less accurate) mouthpieces for these phenomena—how can we tell what they are when all we have are tracks in a cloud chamber?

Latour's picture of black boxes and information-relaying machines is a nice image but it's pretending to be a lot more. What if the point were precisely that there was indeed some kind of communication—but rather like Woodstock's speech, we can't tell exactly what it says. AND that this doesn't matter in quite the way Latour seems to think it matters.

Remember how Woodstock's words look like little blades of grass—indeed, the proverbial sticks or tea leaves of augury. We can only tell the little scratches are speech because they're in a speech bubble.


Working backwards from this point, isn't it the case that human–human communication is already this augury + projection/inference? We detect clouds of sound coming from a cloud of flesh in our vicinity and, before we ascribe meanings, we assume there is a meaning.

So in a sense Latour has it wrong, not because he's not precise enough about what counts as a nonhuman entity, but because he ignores the crucial contingent, “superficial”—material—quality of language-ness as such, which is always this physical-yet-significant cloud.

Language as such is already the proximity to humans of nonhuman material processes (fluctuations of air, sound waves, squiggling ink and stone). It's completely arbitrary to exclude the volcanic cloud from such processes.

Thus we can rigorously account for the gap in reason as specified in Mackay's reading of the opinion piece, and for the danger of hermetically sealing human meaning from nonhuman reality as specified by Feed Me I'm Cranky.

Related issue: Just as we don't care very much that we can't draw a rigid boundary between say French and English (without getting involved in paradoxes), we shouldn't be too worried about where to draw a boundary between weather and global warming phenomena. This reduces one of my anxieties about the Smoked Glass Box approach to the cloud (see the previous post).

Thank you again to my commenters who brought me to this place of headslapping clarity.

Have at it my friends!

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