“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Meta

“I am smarter than you to the extent that I can see around mere objects.”

I'm growing more and more impressed one of Graham Harman's observations, one that he argues many times (just take a look at his blog, Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics, for instance). This is his case that for about two hundred years, the game of being right in philosophy has most often been one of going meta.

What does going meta mean? Let Monty Python explain:

If you've ever been in this kind of argument, you'll know how intense it can get. Going meta is a great way to sneer at someone. You remove the rug from underneath the other's feet. Their mere immediacy is always false. It's the deep structure, the numinous background, the possibility of the possibility of the horizon of the event of being, that is more real, or better, or just more rhetorically effective, than anything else. In this mode, the egg of potentiality comes before the chicken of the actual.

(Interestingly, this mode is exactly what Monty Python exploit, in particular in the skit above. For a contrary mode, have a read of Aristotle. For sure he thinks that chickens come before eggs. It's one deep reason why he's so invigorating.)

The syndrome of going meta is repeated in countless different philosophical modes. It makes Marxism more similar to deconstruction than it is to OOO, for instance. It makes Heidegger more similar to Adorno than to Ian Bogost. A fact that Adorno would have found disturbing.

I'm not sure which part came first, the thinking or the acting out, but this meta syndrome seems strangely parallel with the basic ontology of modern life.

For instance, it's deeply responsible for the beautiful soul condition from which we mock anyone who dares to actually do something—the condition Lacan noted when he claimed “Les non-dupes errent.” Those who sit up high on the mountain sneering at us poor saps beneath, because they think they can see through everything, are the most deluded of all.

Modern life presents us with a choice:

1) The essence of things is elsewhere (in the deep structure of capital, the unconscious, Being)
2) There is no essence

At present I believe that the restriction of rightness and coolness to this choice is one reason why planet Earth is in big trouble right now. And I believe that the choice resembles a choice between grayish brown and brownish gray.

That's why I believe in option 3):

3) There is an essence, and it's right here, in the object resplendent with its sensual qualities yet withdrawn

And that's why I believe we are entering a new era of academic work, where the point will not be to one-up each other by appealing to the trace of the givenness of the openness of the clearing of the lighting of the being of the pencil.

What will that look like? Not sure, but I know it'll be an immense relief.


Anonymous said...

I'm a bit late commenting on this, but I thoroughly agree. 'Going meta' is an attitude, more than an actual position, isn't it. The eye-opener for me was reading Sloterdijk's 'Critique of Cynical Reason' and his depiction of the (post)modern, cynical attitude as 'enlightened false consciousness' - not that I really agree with his conclusions - but the effect of ideology critique is corrosive and paralysing. It's like crack or crystal meth - gives you a wonderful feeling of luminous clarity for a few moments, then you need more to keep yourself from despair ... until all you end up with is the void, irony, endless anxiety and a bleak, wiser-than-thou smile.

The book shocked me, because it was like looking in the mirror - this was my default mode of thinking about things. Not to say that ideology does not frame one's thoughts, or that it's not worthwhile unpicking it - just that it's so easy for what should be mere intellectual hygiene to become a philosophical raison d'etre and end point.

Anonymous said...

WHOA, Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold your horses. I think "going meta" is a dangerous phrase to toss around so cavalierly. As soon as I read it, without qualification, I experienced a storm of possible interpretations and frankly, that just gives me a fracking headache. If someone makes a claim that you see as patently false because it goes against the whole datum of experience (for which you've presumably found some underpinning kernels), then you're damn right I'm going to say "Sir, your claim, or solution, is inconsistent with the data of experience available to you". Now, I have to clarify here, honest conversation between equals or pupil and teacher, cannot be fueled by one upmanship. But, when an absurdity is claimed, as I see it anyway, you're damned right I'm going to demand some explanation!

I have a feeling this critique is leveled by those too wimpy to actually give arguments that have weight, and then whine when someone discredits them or rains on their naval gazing by locating their claims in context. Sort of an 'intellectualize' way of saying "Be nice!". I' not dismissing proper social behavior, but putting the primacy of social 'unity' or some bland socialized relativism is nonsense.

On the other hand, I loathe that "englightened" false consciousness, and this is precisely where a a kind of "meta" can be useful. Like say "Ha! Ha! Ha! We don't need God! I can't be good without that pile of steaming crap!" to which one might respond in a compassionate meta voice "Why do you say that? Neither do I, but how do you justify morality as anything more than some arbitrary nonsense coded into our brains? Without an absolute that is tantamount to some kind of god, what substance is there to moral convictions?" Or when someone says "There is no truth", and you ask "Is that a true statement?" They're a bit meta. Philosophy is a bit meta in some cases (especially in the positive sense, although in a very neutered way). I think an effective meta is to think it through to the end. Meaning, there's the annoying "meta for wimps" in which someone "oh yeah, kicks it up a notch!" but is too stupid to keep it up and smiles smugly, thinking he's "won" (truth isn't important really here). Then there's "meta qua meta" in which we actually see it for what it is.