“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

Monday, February 21, 2011

Clunk Causality or, Cynical Reasons for Humanist Disbelief

When humanists talk about causation within their specialist fields, they talk about all kinds of phenomena. Literary scholars and music and art historians talk about influence. Sociologists talk about the determining powers of various kinds of structure, for example Bourdieu's habitus. Psychology talks about mirror neurons and psychoanaysis talks about induction and transference. Marxists talk about economic relations ideological interpellation or determination in the last instance by the base, and any number of other theories of causation.

Actually this last one is a good example of early emergentism. In the famous chapter “Machines” in Capital volume 1, Marx says that when you have enough machines, in particular machines operated by other machines and making machines, you get a jump from a quantitative increase in machinery into the realm of the qualitative, into fully fledged industrial capitalism. Some kind of jump occurs.

So we have any number of a panoply of ways of talking about causation. We seem, however, to hold these views at a cynical distance, because when push comes to shove (pun accidentally intended), or “when the rubber meets the road” to use the current nauseating bureauspeak, we “don't really believe all that is how causation really works.” No, what we have at the back of our heads is, as Graham Harman has pointed out many times in his publications and on his blog, some notion of a billiard ball slapping another billiard ball. Atomism plus mechanism, or, as I shall call it from here on out, clunk causality.

Let's sum up basic clunk causality: atoms are more real than pop music, and they are little balls that clunk each other. And the clunking is more real than transference or overdetermination or habitus. We seem to believe this, even when we act as if we don't. Against this, even old-school-seeming phenomena such as influence appear positively whacky.

It would be interesting to figure out, along with seriously thinking about other ways of imagining causation, why we “really” believe in clunk causality, given that we spend most of our scholarly lives doing without it, and then some—all kinds of theories, including Marx's emergentism and psychoanalytic transference, have nothing to do with machine parts hitting one another in Cartesian space.

Marx's “Machines” is exemplary here. Marx explicitly argues that when enough of these machinic clunkings take place in a concentrated space such as nineteenth-century England, an entirely new regime of production and economic relations appears, a kind of quantum jump from a commercial age to an industrial one. He uses machines to demonstrate a non-mechanical causality.

Marxists should now be flocking to new materialisms and speculative realisms that explore emergence and nonlocality and hosts of strange causalities. With the notable exception of Levi Bryant, however, I mostly still hear the sound of crickets (to use another nauseating phrase). Why?

Is it because of their founder's injunction against metaphysical materialism, an injunction that unfortunately traps Marxism within the correlationist circle?

Or is it because of some wider cynical reason, which causes us to “know very well” that what humanists talk about is secondary to little balls hitting one another? And isn't this cynical reason also part of the correlationist circle?

Have humanists in general, despite their extraordinarily creative ways of thinking about causes at work, decided that the default clunk causality, a causality that no explanation of quantum scale phenomena supports? It's rather like the anecdote of the quantum theorist who acts one way in the lab, and another way in the pub.

Consider the Bohm-Aharonov effect: when you pass electrons close to a magnetic field, but not close enough for them to be clunked, the electrons are still affected by the field. Bohm plumped for a physical but nonlocal quantum field potential to explain the effect. You don't have to. But you can forget about clunk causality.

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