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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Tomboy's Jeanne vs the adults (or, on decrepitude)

Under the spell of beautiful Tomboy by Céline Sciamma. The kids, specially Jeanne, the sister, negotiate sexual identities in a thoroughly simple way – it is mostly about how you present yourself. Gradually, this realm of appearances is conquered by the world of adults and their registered identities. Identities compose the basic layer of a regime of truth – a framework whereby predications (say, judgments about people and their emotional states) can be grasped because they are capable of being true or false. The regime of appearances – or make belief – is replaced by a hidden order that commands them (je suis obligée, says Jeane and Mikael (Laure)'s mother to explain her making Mikael dress like a girl to see his girlfriend). The empire of adulthood is the empire of a rule who transcends all standing rulers – ultimately, the transcendence of truth, which is, if truth transcends all possible truth-maker, the rule of determination over determiners. In any case, Mikael is stopped by his mother.

Adulthood comes out clearly as a bad idea. Which somehow makes me think that it is always curable, at least through extinction and degeneration. I have sketched an ontology of decrepitude where I claim that things are older than we think, and getting older, older beyond limits. Aging is a nihilism machine – it undoes all the solidity and with it all the integrity and individuality with their cogs and bobs. Degeneration, and further degeneration – to no end, as in a fountain of eternal oldness to be found everywhere, as I suggested somewhere – is more aimed to the target of clean nothingness than extinction or elimination. Let things age and they will become unrecognizable. Surely, different things have different age speeds. But let them carry on occupying their space while changing what they do to the space they occupy. Degeneration is what makes nature an accumulation of sui generis parts.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Naturphilosophie, logic and Quine

Cesar Schirmer took the end of my post as suggesting that universal logic could evolve in a direction that would make it into a general study of contingency that sort of pre-empts any effort towards a renewed Naturphilosophie. I'm convinced by Hamilton Grant that some kind of Naturphilosophie is in order. The issue is: what makes contingency possible. There are two kinds of answer, one that says things are just contingent and necessity is rather what needs to be explained and another that has that contingency is to be explained (and maybe necessity too). Among the second kind of answer, there is the thesis that contingency is ignorance. Typically, our ignorance. I take a Naturphilosophie à la Hamilton Grant is not far from this thesis. But it makes ignorance less ours. (Or not only ours.) Contingency is intrinsically natural, but this, contrary to the first kind of answer, is not an unexplainable fact but rather something that calls for philosophy, it calls for Naturphilosophie (that amounts to a Contingenzphilosophie).

What would it look like? I don't know, but I was thinking of Quine's sphere in the end of the Two Dogmas as an inspiration. It is a product of our sovereignty. for Quine, that places some things as less revisable. If we can make sense of the idea that the sovereignty is not only ours, we can say that nature itself places things either in the centre or in the periphery of the sphere and does that by a series of decisions where each one depends on earlier ones. Now, maybe then a Naturphilosophie should ask what (natural) sovereignty is like. Contingency is a natural phenomenon and makes us rethink the split between formal and material (as in logic and physics) in the same way that Quine's sphere does. Contingency and necessity, and whatever else follows from them and much does especially logic, are not indifferent to nature, nor is the carving up of events (or states of affairs) as contingent and necessary. Surely, the notion of contingency comes before we find laws of nature. But then again, nature, for Naturphilosophie, is not the realm of laws.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Logic: the study of nature



Hamilton Grant has that to say that actual things (actual objects, actual events etc) are contingent - that they could be otherwise - is to say that they are natural. Contingency is not the mark of our ignorance nor is it a limit to the principle of sufficient reason but rather it is the mark of nature. The idea would amount simply to take seriously the idea that the a posteriori is (typically) contingent while the necessary a posteriori happens in special cases where we need pegs between us and nature - typically when the issue of measurement is at stake (the metre in Sèvres, Paris etc). To take the idea seriously by understanding that nature itself is the house of contingency, because it is the house of possibilities or virtualities - of potentia. The empirical - the a posteriori - is the natural. What grounds a natural event is the fire of possibilities in nature - a vulcanism about grounding, as nature is the underlying tectonics of the actual. Contingency is grounded in nature - every natural thing has a sufficient reason, that is, the contingent tectonics behind it.

Now, how do we study this vulcanism, this tectonics? Well, in a sense through Naturwissenchaft (and Naturphilosophie). But in another sense, not quite. How do we study what is possible (therefore grounded in nature) and what is not - how do we study, in other words, the structure of contingency? I take this is what logic does. Not only modal logic, but logic in general. A logic draws a line between the possible and the impossible worlds. A classical logic makes it impossible for contradictions to appear. In an anticlassical logic, what is contingent in the classical logic (neither a contradiction - impossible - nor a tautology - necessary) becomes necessary and vice-versa. In paraconsistent logics some contradictions are acceptable. Universal logic tries to consider the relation between the different logics. It seems to me that nature, if we understand it in the way Hamilton Grant has in mind, would not pick a single logic against others. Its stand would rather be one of combination of logics. In any case, maybe logic should consider geological metaphors, as much as it tends to consider (Leibnizian and Kripkean) astrological ones.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Material re-enchantment of nature

Consider a mountain: the thinking of
this mountain entails (a) that there is already a mountain to be thought, whatever its
nature; and (b) that the causes of the existence of the mountain must also be involved
in the thinking of the mountain.

Hamilton Grant, Does Nature Stay What-it-is?: Dynamics and the Antecendence Criterion, p. 82

Interesting spelling out and proposed solution to the problem of ground in (one of) Hamilton Grant's contribution to The Speculative Turn. The problem is that ground seems to point both at logical connections (or, broadly, moves within the space of reasons) and material connections (something typically like causes and effects). But, as Kit Fine says (in his Some puzzles of ground, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 51 (1):97-118, 2010), ground is a notion that seems logically faulty but is invaluable enough to be nevertheless embraced and not discarded. The Fichtean solution, as Hamilton Grant presents, is to locate ground in action and action solely within the space of reasons. Such solutions (he mentions few others that would amount to the same limitation of ground to reason) miss the bite of the principle of sufficient reason: it has to rule over natural contingencies otherwise it leaves everything beyond reason out of its scope. Grant's own solution is to claim that because nature is itself potentia, it is the sufficient reason for all contingencies. Physical particulars are always ungrounded and yet all of them find an antecedent in the (sort of) pool of possibilities which is matter (what constitutes nature).

The solution points at a continuity between grounding relations in the space of reasons (thinking, making inferences, making judgements) on the one hand and causes in nature in the other. Hence, as in Davidson's own solution to us being possibly wrong in all of our particular beliefs about the world, he holds that a thought of the mountain is caused by the mountain. In Davidson, sceptical objections, such as the possibility of us being brains in a vat or Davidson's own swampman example (he imagines a swamp replica of himself having his usual thoughts after his death and asks whether these thoughts were caused by the things they are about), arise. But Grant has a way to dismiss them. My thinking of the mountain is caused by the mountain, but could have been caused by anything else - particular events are accordingly ungrounded. The ground for them is nature. But then again, this is the nature of contingencies in the world and has nothing specifically to do with the border between the realm of nature and the space of reasons. Things always could have gone differently in nature, as it is potentia - a pool of uncountable possibilities. The border between the realm of nature and the space of reasons is subject to contingencies in the same way as a geological movement could have given rise to different surfaces.

His solutions illuminates other aspects of the border between the realm of law and space of reasons and some other varieties of sceptical anxiety. McDowell's own (somehow Fichetean) way of conceiving the space of reasons as something that is not spinning frictionless in the void was to make it unbounded. That amounts to say that it had no borders with the realm of law but rather encompassed it. Nature becomes rational, in his case, thoroughly subject to concepts - made of thinkables. It is his partial re-enchantment of nature as a response to the idea that the realm of nature is no more than a realm of laws. This idea is hostage to the notion that nature is determinate, actual and composed of necessary (universal) regularities. McDowell's re-enchantment has that nature is fully thinkable. Grant's re-enchantment has that thinking itself is natural - doubting is brought about by contingency, which is itself natural. Matter, as potentia, holds together the realm of nature - itself active, vibrant, animated and not lawlike - and the space of reasons.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Holistic contact

Been writing a bit for my paper with Manuel on Holistic Knowledge. We are trying to defend the idea that knowledge ought to be holistic, and maybe any claim of knowledge about anything specific is bound to be no more than contrastive. Here is the bit on our take on Davidson's argument:


We believe Davidson has pointed towards an account of intelligibility according to which it is a necessary condition for a sufficiently large class of thoughts to be intelligible that it responds to the world.1 His argument arises from considerations concerning the holistic character of thoughts: they are intelligible only in critical masses. This amounts to say that only within a critical mass of thoughts we can say that a thought becomes interpretable and testable – it is in a critical mass that it acquires meaning and turns into something that can be true or false. Thoughts are only not self-standing units like atoms, but rather they depend on the whole where they belong – that is, they depend on the critical mass of thoughts where they are placed. Thoughts, and therefore also thinking, deal in critical masses. Davidson's holism – which finds its point of departure in Quine's rejection of the two dogmas that asserted an independence between meaning and empirical import – ties together thoughts that make other thoughts intelligible and those that result from an empirical engagement with the world: they are all part of a critical mass where no thought responds to the world in isolation.

We can begin to come to grip with Davidson's holistic account of thought and its connection to the world by considering some skeptical challenges and some usual ways to overcome them. The usual structure for a skeptical argument (but by no means the only one) is to sever the connection between thoughts and the rest of world. So, for instance, the skeptic suspects each of my beliefs and concludes that all (or most of) my beliefs could be false. The skeptical strategy is to assume that each of my beliefs are self-standing and can be doubted on independent grounds. Such skeptical challenge can be summarized in terms of an argument of illusion (AI)2 that can be presented as follows:
(P) (It is intelligible that) I can be wrong about each of my beliefs.
(C) Therefore, (it is intelligible that) I can be wrong about all of my beliefs.3
Now, on the face of it, there are two ways to counter AI. One can accept the inference and attempt to show that premise P is false. And one can question the validity of the inference. The first option has been the effort of most epistemological endeavors and often this is done by arguing that not anything can be wrong – which often amounts to seeking foundations that cannot be wrong. Most (if not all) foundationalist projects rely on the bottleneck picture; even though bottlenecks are not always foundations. In any case, it is clear that once accepted the inference, the conditions are present for taking intelligibility and responsiveness to the world to be independent and all is set for the bottleneck picture to look compulsory. If we can understand our beliefs while considering that all of them can be false, we will feel compelled to either accept a skeptical conclusion or to look for a way to ensure us that, for some reason, not all of our beliefs can be false and therefore P is false.

The second option to counter AI is to accept P and resist conclusion C by showing that the inference is not a valid one. If each of my beliefs can be wrong but not all of them, then not every belief can stand (or fall) on its own. At least some beliefs require other beliefs both to saddle them with content and to promote a contrast between them and the world. The line of argument to the effect that AI is invalid has to take beliefs as items that cannot be understood or individuated away from the critical mass of thoughts where they belong. Beliefs cannot considered in an isolation because each belief depends on others – no belief is an island. Each belief stands in the shoulders of their fellow beliefs. We shall refer to this rejection of AI as an invalid argument as the master claim of holism: the claim that my doubting each of my beliefs in isolation doesn't affect the critical mass of my beliefs because my doubts cannot get off the ground without the support of other beliefs within the critical mass. In general, we can formulate the master claim of holism as follows: severing the contact between each thought in isolation and the world doesn't affect the critical mass of thoughts because one cannot sever the contact between a thought and the world but by relying on the support of other thoughts within the critical mass.

Davidson makes use of the master claim to argue that we cannot be completely wrong about the world. We can get the gist of his arguments in this passage:
It does not follow, from the fact that any one of the bills in my pocket may have the highest serial number, that all the bills in my pocket may have the highest serial number, or from the fact that anyone may be elected president that everyone may be elected president. Nor could it happen that all our beliefs about the world might be false. Suppose I think I see a mouse disappear behind a chair. Clearly this belief could be mistaken. But would this belief be wrong if I did not truly believe a mouse was a small, four-footed mammal, or a chair an object made for sitting? Perhaps. There may be no saying exactly what other true beliefs I must have in order to have a particular false belief. But it seems clear that a belief of any kind, true or false, relies for its identification on a background of true beliefs; for a concept, like that of mouse or chair, cannot remain the same concept no matter what beliefs it features in. [...] Because of the holistic character of empirical belief, then, it is impossible that all our beliefs about the world are false. (1990, p. 194-5)
The interdependence of beliefs gives rise to an impossibility to hold that all beliefs within a critical mass is false. It is therefore unconceivable that all beliefs in such a critical mass were false because they are semantically tied one to the other. Those critical masses can be called semantically interdependent belief sets (sibs, for short). A sib, a convenient singular for sibs, is the unit of interpretation and empirical import. Davidson's argument can then be presented in three steps:
(1)A belief can only be interpreted within a sib.
(2)A belief can only face a verdict from the world within a sib.
(3)It is unintelligible that a sib that is not a proper subset of any other sib is false (that all beliefs in it are false)
One could interpret a single belief but this can be done only by placing it within a sib, either a sib composed by the beliefs of the interpreter of one composed by other beliefs held by who is being interpreted. Similarly, to make sense of a verdict, we need a set of accompanying beliefs. As for the conclusion (3), clearly a sib could be deemed false (a set of beliefs could be deemed false) with respect to other beliefs that make it (them) intelligible. But if the sib is large enough not to be a proper subset of any other, it cannot be taken to be false.

At least two pressing issues remain. First, the issue of whether the argument provides thought with any contact with the world at all. One can concede that a large enough sib cannot be (intelligibly) false but that yields nothing concerning its truth (or approximate truth if one manages to define an approximately true sib in terms of the truth of most of its members). The sib could be something short of truth – something like a set of beliefs that we are compelled to accept in order to doubt anything or in order to interpret other believers and make sense of language. Intesubjective, in one word, could comes short of objective. We can then reiterate the argument once again: consider the confrontation between the intersubjective beliefs (the intersubjective sib) and the objective ones – or between the intelligible beliefs and those that are true. The confrontation would only make sense if some beliefs within the intersubjective sib (or the intelligible sib) are also objective (or true). Without a critical mass of truths inside a critical mass of beliefs claims concerning local or global falsehood are nonsensical. It is only within critical masses that we can talk about interpretation and empirical testability and, as a consequence, it is only within critical masses that we can confront the beliefs that we cannot take to be false and any others. The master claim introduced critical masses and made room for sibs. Davidson's argument then made it clear that a critical mass of truths is to be present within each (large enough) sib.

A second issue is that of the size of those sibs. As conclusion (3) points at a sib that is not a proper subset of any other and therefore hints at the direction of a sib composed by all (or most) beliefs one holds. We assume sibs are consistent and therefore the beliefs one holds are not in a subset of a sib formed by the beliefs everyone holds. Davidson seems to assume that my or our beliefs about the world are suitable sibs for the argument. We shall not deal in detail with the question of what would be a suitable sib for the argument to work in order to establish a holistic contact with the world. But, leaving aside what is the most suitable sib for the purpose of Davidson's argument, it is interesting to ask whether a similar argument could work for sibs that are in fact proper subsets of other sibs.

We would like to briefly point at an interesting candidate sib that would enable contact with the future to be possible. Consider the sib composed by all beliefs concerning the future. This sib has elements like the following beliefs:
a. The sun will rise tomorrow.
b. The rooster will crow tomorrow.
c. The clock will carry on working tomorrow (as it did today).
One could then argue that each belief in this sib can only be understood in terms of the others. A generalized skeptical argument against beliefs about the future would then be blocked because one could not doubt all the beliefs in the sib at the same time (as any confrontation of any belief with the world would have to be supported by others beliefs in the sib). Analougously, a general skeptical argument against inductions would be blocked if we consider a sib with all of our beliefs acquired by induction. This is an interesting and somehow surprising holistic use of the master claim as it shows that maybe we can doubt some inductive conclusions on the ground of other inductive conclusions, but we cannot afford to doubt all inductive conclusions at once.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

This paper is looking for a home

Beyond bedrock hauntology,
or politics and ontology meet on fire

it depends whether our passions reach fever heat and influence our whole life or not.  No one knows to what he may be driven by circumstances, pity, or indignation; he does not know the degree of his own inflammability

Nietzsche, Human All Too Human, 72


Abstract: A prevalent image of ontology takes it to be the ground for politics. A tradition of criticisms of this image has developed a taste for politics with minimal ontological commitments. The current revival of interest in ontology invite for a more thorough consideration of the possible relations between ontology and politics. This essay departs from the rejection of a bedrock model – where ontology provides a firm ground for politics – to develop an alternative image, one based on fire. Inspired by Heraclitus ontology of the polemos, where fire has a crucial role, I consider different ways in which ontology and politics can meet on fire based on contemporary images of ontology. I develop the fire image in terms of process philosophy (mainly of Souriau and Latour), of recent materialisms (mainly of Hamilton Grant and Bennett) and of an ontology of absolute facticity (that of Meillassoux). I claim that, although very different in many aspects, these ontologies provide elements to elaborate the image of fire – and not that of a bedrock – connecting together politics and what there is.

Keywords: Ontology, politics, ontological turn, speculative ontologies, process philosophy, materialisms, facticity

1.Introduction: ontology, politics and priority
Ontology has been often presented as ground. It is taken to be first philosophy, or a class of basic assumption, or as laying out the furniture for politics. Throughout the 20th century, this image of ontology has been occasionally challenged on the basis that decisions concerning ontology are themselves guided by ethical and political decisions. Lévinas (1961) claimed ontology was an exercise in reducing the other to the same and criticized any metaphysics – any treatment of the relation between the other and the same – that fails to posit ethics as a first philosophy. Lukács and Adorno, in different ways, suspected that ontological postulates were shaped by the existing political structure – and philosophers like Butler (1993) extended the suspicion to the existing sexual norms. In all those cases, ontology was not the main focus, the issue was not how to conceive of ontology as something other than the ground for ethics and politics. The issue was rather to free other philosophical endeavors from the upper hand of ontological assumptions.

In recent years, ontology has moved back to the center of the philosophical stage. An ontological turn (in the phrase of Heil and Martin (1999)) has taken over different traditions in the analytical side of philosophy while the continental side has experienced a renewed interest for such questions mostly in what has been dubbed a speculative turn (see Bryant, Snricek and Harman (2011)). Many reasons can be presented for this current renaissance – including post-humanist takes on politics, exhaustion with the linguistic turn and its variations, enthusiasm for modalities and failures to demarcate metaphysics out of science and philosophy. In any case, the question concerning what ontology is supposed to look like and how it relates to politics becomes particularly relevant. It is the issue of whether ontology can be anything other than prior to politics that this essay addresses.

2. Ontology: bedrock and fire
This is the common image concerning ontology and politics: ontology grounds, politics comes after. Politics is what is up for grabs, what can be affected by alliances, negotiations, governments, resistance movements, change of rule, revolutions and the balance of forces. It takes place on a ground, it moves on how things are independently of any political act. Where politics ends, we find a bedrock, something that is often predicated as natural, as beyond all npolitical swing. This is where ontology is. It appears in a “prior to the political” arena where things have been laid out once and for all – the realm of what is not up for grabs. A bedrock that is never at stake – it is simply present, as a given, or as an underlying structure that is a fixed stage ready for all sorts of different plays but who has to provide them with a ground. A bedrock is always alien to political fire. Surely, one can claim that any ontology ought to present bedrocks – which is akin to insist on placing rocks underneath any fire. I refer to such a position as that of a taste for (bed)rocks. Not for rolling stones but for fixed rocks. It holds that any ontology is to lie underneath all politics.

Now, arguably, adopting a taste for bedrocks is clearly a political stance. To be sure, it depends on an architectural decision: here lies ontology, there lies whatever comes on top of it. This architectural plan provides a landscape for orientation and as such it guides political decisions. If it is so, granting the plan, and the correlate taste for bedrocks, is either something avoidable – like a political decision – or something compulsory – like part of the ontological ground itself. In any case, the taste for bedrocks has an image of ontology as something that grounds, that is stable and fixed once and for all. It is the domain of what is structural, or of what it is internally related to reality. Ontology could be no more than the rules of the game of reality – and, surely, of all the political games. Such a position – and the political outlooks that it encourages – leaves us with two options: either there is something like an ontology that precedes all politics or there is no ontology at all.

The first option entails that politics has an outer boundary – the border where things are already determined, where there is a ready-made order or a set of rules for all games. This grounding ontological bedrock can be solid and dense like a set of structural furnitures for the universe or made of quicksand like some general logical principles (say, that the world satisfies classical logic), but it is a realm of its own, under no jurisdiction of any political agent and subject to its own laws. It means that ontology is safe from any political fire – that it is made of non-inflammable things. Whatever happens above it cannot affect it – it is rock, this is the sense of the image. A law-like realm of nature, stable and structural, is a common candidate to give flesh to the idea of a bedrock ontology. It is an example of a domain that is beyond any political incendiary. Bedrock ontology can be an attractive idea for those who want an end to politics – even if it is to be found deep down inside a neutrino.

The second option provided no such closure for politics – it is all pervasive. However, it allows for the ghost of a bedrock to haunt politics – there is a lack of ontology. This lack is the lack of bedrock – no fire can replace the solid, well-shaped, enduring and clear-edged stone. In this case we are left with a void of ontology, a hauntology, to borrow a word from Derrida, where nothing can be said about what there is because to be is to be a bedrock. Often, but not always, such a bedrock hauntology ends up placing politics in people's head and makes most of it depend on human election. Further, it looks incapable to quench the renewed cravings for ontological responses concerning what there is – for instance, there is politics – as nothing can be like a bedrock. Given such a position it is interesting to consider variations of the move to make politics precede ontology – inspired, for example, by some reading of Lévinas. At least in the context of bedrock hauntology, the move would make it impossible to consider what ontology could follow from politics – as ontology is attached like Sisyphus to a rock. The unavailing effort is that no politics will ever ground (what ought to be) a bedrock.

If the taste for bedrocks is replaced by another image, the bedrock dilemma – bedrock ontology versus bedrock hauntology – fades away. The common assumption behind both horns of the dilemma is that ontology is some sort of ground, prior to anything else and, in particular, alien to all political dispute. Ontology, if there is any, is a bedrock underneath anything political. If this assumption is put aside, ontology needs no longer to be placed as something stable under the political busts; the quest for what exists is placed rather somehow amid political endeavors and not under their feet. A different image would then reject the idea of a ground and therefore the friction between politics and ontology would no longer be a matter of priorities. A first possible alternative image is to take ontology and politics to be the same. If this is so, they can either have merely an identity of processes and mechanisms or also an identity of scope. So, for instance, when we talk about a politics of nature – or a natural contract (Serres, 1990), or democracy of objects (Bryant 2011) – we can understand it as describing a natural ontology or we can take it as being both ontology and politics. If we take them to have different scopes, the bedrock image can still find itself vindicated: the politics of nature could be taken as a ground for all other politics.

Instead of an image of ontology and politics being the same, I would like to propose and explore one where they interconnect heavily while being somehow still different. The image is that of a fire where the difference between what is in flames and what is inflammable is not a matter of substance but rather a matter of position. It ithe position of the woods that determine where the flames will catch. Inflammability is everywhere but it admits of degrees and it cannot be measured independently of any circumstances. The inspiration can be found in Heraclitus doctrine of the polemos (more about it below) and its connection with fire. Heraclitus has that “[f]ire in its advance will judge and convict all things” (2009, fr. 66). But fire mingles with spices, he adds, and takes the flavor of them. It is as if political fire can inflame anything but there are things that set the stage for the fire – and yet they are made of combustible material.

In the fire image, ontology and politics dwell rather in pyrotechnics. The friction between them is no longer a matter of grounding, not even of reversed grounding. But rather one of common undergrounds, one that concerns how the inflammable is ignited. It is also no longer an issue of territories – whether politics has an outer boundary. It is not that ontology reigns over things (or objects, or events or intensities) while politics rules elsewhere. There is a politics of things (and of objects, events, intensities). There is an ontology of these things too. They are combustible. Ontology and politics intertwine as fire knows no borders, no scope separations. Whatever there is makes a political stance – it has a measure of inflammability and therefore is political fuel. There is no realm for ontology separated from the realm of politics and yet they are contingently distinct one from another. Ontology is made of combustible materials, it is not alien to fire – not being the flames themselves. As a consequence, nothing is immune to politics and not political outcome ceases to be up for grabs. Fire can take it all.

When we consider fire – and not bedrocks – we escape the issue of grounding. And the subsidiary issues of layers, realms, priorities, mon- or pan- archy. Fire spreads by catching from one thing to the next. It is about contact, not about established orders. It burns in a plan de consistance (cf. Deleuze & Guattari 1980, chap. 10). The non-reckoned inflammability of things lie in their capacity for politics. No order is alien to its surroundings. So, no movement of the planets or constitution of the particles is tested once and for all. It depends on what comes along. And it would be no good to appeal to a general ontology that maps what is possible and what is not. Or rather to postulate all-encompassing laws ruling over what is possible. This would be again to crave for a bedrock. Once ontology is placed within pyrology, there is no appeal to an ultimate layer. Unless this ultimate layer can itself be burned.

3. Ontology and politics meet on fire 1: process philosophy
The taste for fire can be expressed in many ways as there are several different ways to conceive of a friction and combustion relation between ontology and politics. I will consider three possibilities in order to explore further the fire image.

A first alternative to understand the connection between ontology and politics in terms of fire comes from process philosophy. The original idea came from Whitehead's ontology of processes and prehensions, of his conception of things as dependent on each other. Whitehead's guiding metaphysical idea is that reality has no ready-made item but rather processes that sustain and are sustained. In the absence of a ready-made furniture of the world that exists independently of anything else, the existence of anything depends on something else. Nothing exists by itself. Etienne Souriau (2009) introduced the vocabulary of instauration: something exists if and only if it has been constantly brought about by something else. Existing things are in a network or a crossroad of sponsors. Whatever sponsors can also blow up things – supporting alliances can be unmade, standing lifelines could be disrupted, current networks can be dismantled. Existence is not independent from whatever else exists. Everything is at risk while anything could affect the support for existence of anything else: the existence of something depends on what else happens to exist. Like with combustible materials, flames could come from anywhere. Souriau's conception of existence as instauration appeals to an act of sponsoring – the act of making something exist. There is no existence tout court. Existence is somehow spread from somewhere, it never stands alone. Therefore, existence is not independent of anything else. One way of understanding the lesson of process philosophy is to think that everything is a creation of something else –everything ends up being implicated on everything else. It is about an interrelatedness of all things, a holism albeit an actualist one that relies not on capacities and tendencies but on actual alliances and networks of sponsors. It relies on contingent, external relations that happen to support whatever exists.

Process philosophy makes the vocabulary of ontology very close to that of politics – the processes (negotiations, alliances, tests etc.) are common to both. Ontology is somehow about the political processes among whatever exists – not only human groups but living beings, objects, materials and forces. Latour (1988, Part Two, Irreductions), drawing mainly on Souriau's conception of existence, puts forward an ontology of testing procedures. He starts out with a principle of irreduction – which is like a prince who doesn't reign – stating that nothing is in itself reducible or irreducible to anything else.1 The follow-up from this is about test procedures: there are no more than tests (of strength or of weaknesses). For him, it follows that reality is what resists to the tests (or rather what has resisted this far). Reality doesn't get certificates. Further, nothing on its own resists the different test procedures on its own – they rely on the supporting alliances. We rely on the matter of our body, we rely on our tools, they rely on energy transmission, energy transmission rely on pressure and temperature. Importantly, it is a chain that knows no privileged ex-nihilo starting point. There is no reality further than the processes of negotiation, of crafting alliances and of relying on support. There is no reality beyond what is combustible by the trails of fire – no reality is politics-proof.

The image of ontology promoted by process philosophy is one where there is no transcendent principles or forces (or laws or fixed ingredients) that shape reality. In other words, there is no ontological bedrock. Further, there is no bedrock hauntology as there is no lack of ontology – existence is immanent to what exists. This lack of transcendence is akin to many ways of thinking popular in the twentieth century – including those championed by Heidegger and Deleuze. In contrast with the first2, process philosophy promotes a robust ontology guided by the idea that all things are thrown in the world with no prior purpose or definite transcendent role – a generalized Geworfenheit. In contrast with Deleuze, there are no intrinsic nature of the forces, no virtuality, no potencies beyond actual relations and alliances. There is no transcendent element that guides, grounds or gives flesh to what there is. Similarly, there is nothing supporting politics like a bedrock – ontology and politics meet on fire, the difference between them lying in what is burnt now and what is the inflammable layout. We can take politics to be the former and ontology to be the latter but there is no constitutional difference between them, It's like fire, inflammability is to be tested by the force of combustion (and the power of the protective alliances) and the differences in combustion is what guides the flames.

4.Ontology and politics meet on fire 2: the adventures of matter
A second way to understand the image of fire connecting ontology and politics is to appeal to some variety of materialism. Materialism appeals to matter as a common support for both politics and ontology. It could look like matter is an element of ontology and therefore acts like a bedrock, but for some materialisms, matter is a vibrant repository of potentialities with a history of folds and layers. Among the several kinds of materialisms that could go in this direction, I will limit myself to mention contemporary versions of speculative materialism, specially that of Iain Hamilton Grant (2006) and Jane Bennett (2010). In both cases, there is a common ground that is not substantial as objects are – materialism attempts to focus on what is beyond the specific boundaries of bodies, forces or laws and postulates matter as a constitutional element that is required everywhere.

Contemporary speculative materialism opposes matter to objects. Objects appear always as already constituted while matter is constitutive. Then, process philosophy is engaged by Harman (2009) as part of his object-oriented war machine against materialism. Iain Hamilton Grant (2006) opposes materialism to the many sorts of somatism that hold that there is nothing beyond bodies – for instance, nothing that undermines objects as Harman sees them, as they are ultimate furniture of the world (see their debate in Bryant, Snircek and Harman 2011). Grant draws on Schelling to seek a philosophy of nature capable of providing a continuation to a tradition of physics that goes back to Plato where the main focus is ontogenesis – not a physics of all things (objects, already formed structures like bodies or governments or mobs or ideas) as Aristotle would understand it in his Physics, but rather a layer where things get constituted. Matter provides this layer of folds where the embryos of everything is gestated – matter is the underlying element behind all, and as such it is both behind politics and ontology. Grant also finds in Schelling the idea of a natural history that underlies both what exists and what is politically at stake. Natural history is a geology of folds and layers that makes what is possible conditioned on what has taken place in the past – whereas matter is itself unconditioned, das Unbedingte, also translated as unthinged. It belongs in a transcendental level, in the sense of Schelling's nature as transcendental, as the condition of possibility for everything. Matter here is inflammable, it is about what can be done with a material that is saddened with potentialities. In contrast with process philosophy, the meeting on fire of ontology and politics here depends on a common non-actualist underground that holds both political moves and ontological conditions. There is a material element undermining the core of anything – politics is always possible because matter itself has no nature, nature is nothing but history. There is no outer limit to the political as matter means no more than a difference in degrees of inflammability and it holds no ontological order. It is as if there is no more than combustion underlying both politics and ontology, there is no realm of law that supervenes on sheer materiality as there is no political struggle that takes place where the natural law is silent. There is no bedrock, matter appears as no more than a source of (relative) inflammability. Because of matter, different bodies host inflammability in different degrees. It is matter that carries the political within the bodies. It is no ontological component but rather a political fuel.

Jane Bennett's (2010) vital materialism provides a framework for an political ecology of things. She believes our time and our political concerns are taking us towards matter and objects. The appeal to ecology is itself an interesting element of a taste for fire. Guattari's (1989) seminal concern with how politics emerges from a confluence of an ecology of the socius – the practices, the institutions, etc. - an ecology of subjectivity – desires, fears and management of drives – and an ecology of fauna and flora and objects. The three ecologies interfere in each other, each one of them support what takes place in the others. Whatever takes place in one ecology is echoed and spread through contagion. There is no fixed structure in any of the three scopes, neither is there a hierarchical order between them. Change can come from each of the three realms and spread throughout. Bennett conceives of matter as a repository of capacities for composition that cannot be exhausted by its deployment in any particular configuration of things. It has a measure of inflammability that hides behind any shape it takes. It is no bedrock, no ground, but fuel. Objects are not shaped out of a raw material but rather carry the seed of something else within its constitution. Matter is the opposite of a grounding stock, it is more like a repository of disruptions, more like an explosive material. It is vital, animated, full of its own plots and whatever is made out of it has to juggle in a landscape of pyrotechnics.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that politics meets ontology on fire at least in some sense in the ontology of plastic put forward by Catherine Malabou (2009). She also holds that there is a common component to everything and holds that this then has a high degree of plasticity; which she contrasts with elasticity: plastic has no archaic shape to which it tends back to, its form just shrift endlessly. Malabou's ontology of plastic is not presented as a variety of materialism, but it shares with it the idea of a common component that is not in itself determining of anything but, like fuel, carries potentiality. In general, the appeal to matter can be something different than the appeal to a bedrock, it could be the basis of a universe with no determinate form. Even though in important senses contemporary materialisms differ from process philosophy, in both cases we can find elements to see ontology and politics meeting on fire. They in fact meet on matter – which is at once ontological and political – but matter is intrinsically combustible. It is fuel lent to the what there is, no passive constituent.

5.Ontology and politics meet on fire 3: facticity and unreason
A third way to see how politics can be related to ontology in a way that appeals to no landscape of bedrock is to look at absolute facticity and the absence of all necessity. While Grant's materialism takes matter as a repository of folds and layers and process philosophy sees a state of affairs in terms of alliances and resistances actually in place, the thesis of absolute facticity holds that nothing prevents nothing from turning into something entirely other – the ruling principle is the principle of unreason. Quentin Meillassoux (2006) champions the idea that it should follow from Hume not a thesis about the limit of our capacity to access the world – a correlationist thesis according to which we cannot know (or even think) of anything beyond the correlation between us and the world – but rather a thesis that there is no sufficient reason for anything. It should follow that everything is contingent, nothing is held the way it is based on needs of any sort, things are the way they are out of no necessity. He argues that instead of embracing a humility from Hume's attacks on how reason (aided or unaided by experience) can reach the world, we should rather proceed to find in the facticity of all things an absolute that reason can attain. All things are factual – this is the only absolute that there is and reason can defend it against those who turn to other sources to seek something beyond contingency. The ontology espoused by Meillassoux is one where no necessity of any kind reigns. Nothing is held by anything and, as a consequence, nothing is impossible either. In a world of facticity, there is no room for any relation of support or ground – there is nothing but actual matters of fact.

The absence of grounding precludes the possibility of a bedrock of any kind holding and framing political action. Politics and ontology meet on facticity. Meillassoux aims at exorcising all impression that there is a non-casual regularity in human or non-human affairs that is not a product of habit. Laws, for instance, he argues, carry no projection into the future and their supposed predictive success is no more than a result of a misuse of the idea of the set of all alternatives (2006, chapter 4). Pervasive facticity provides a flat ontology where no item is shattered by no other as nothing prevents or ensures the existence of anything. Politics appears in this open field of unreason – there is no outer limit to what is politically up for grabs. Unconditioned facticity also means unrestricted combustion power coming from anywhere. There are no network of objects nor sheer matter conditioning politics – there is no bedrocks and no ontological jurisdiction alien to all political fire. There are, in an ontology of facticity, no matter of fact about inflammability of anything – whatever exists can catch some contingent matter of political fire from anywhere.

6.Conclusion: Polemos and an ontology of inflammability
The idea of an ontology and a politics of inflammability contrasts with that of a bedrock where politics is built on a something that is ontological because it is firmer. If ontology and politics meet on fire, the borders between them are less clear and any no relation of priority between them is postulated. Maybe ontology and politics meet on fire because they are the same albeit described in different ways. We can take ontology and politics to be exactly the same and insist that they are no more than apparently distinct. Or maybe ontology and politics are two modes of existence of the same, in the sense of Souriau's (2009) existential pluralism: things exist in politics at the same time as they exist naturally (or ontologically, or just exist tout court). In any case, the fire image contrasts with that of the bedrock and can be spelled out at least in the three contemporary versions I sketched above. In the three cases, we can also see pyrotechnics as related to the ontology of the polemos put forward by Heraclitus.

Heraclitus developed a resolute taste for fire. Whatever there is, is inherently flowing. His ontology was one of interactions, of contrasts, of perspectives and within that context lies the polemos. Fragments of Heraclitus are often translated with struggle or conflict – sometimes war – figuring in the place of the polemos. Fragment 53 talks about it as what made some slaves while making some masters. It is like the burning of the fire. But the polemos is not presented as a ex-nihilo creator – but rather also what made some gods while making some mortals. Ontology, but also politics. Further, slavery, but also mortality, is driven by the polemos. It is about the vulnerability of all alliances. Either because they are dependent on ongoing processes or because they rely on vibrant matter (or the absolute facticity). In any case, the polemos points at vulnerability. All things come to being through polemos, says fragment 80. I take the polemos to be an overall centrifugal force that ignites what it finds. It could be the force of dispute, the engine of all polemics. The force of polemos is that of disruption that can come from anywhere. It is no fixed arché but rather an element of displacement and disturbance that acts as an insurance against any ontology (or politics) of fixed ingredients. It is a force of friction that has no fixed ontological status, no fixed place in any chart of beings. Heidegger (ch Heidgger & Fink 1979) translates polemos as Auseinandersetzung – what moves out to another position. Polemos is dissolution. It belongs to a realm of displacements, negotiations, disputes and frictions that stops nowhere short of ontology itself.3 It also belongs with the contingency of things, with the relative position of everything, with the combustible properties of what, by existing, is ready to ignite.

Bosteels (2011) and others have asked, within the framework of the so-called ontological turn (see, for instance, Heil & Martin 1999) in several areas of thought, whether there could be a leftist ontology. Heraclitus could be a candidate. His gesture towards ontology shows how to think about the world in terms of fire. He picks categories – such as polemos – that are crafted to be unable to ground anything, let alone produce an order of its own. A polemos cannot give rise to no order but an order of rioters. Hence, it is not an ontology of bringing the Other to the Same, nor is it an ontology of subjection. It has scarce place for subjects at least in the sense that it is no humanist view of things – forces, as the physis, go through humans and rarely around them – while it views identity as a transient fragment – an assemblage of pirates. The Obscure avoids presenting a chart of beings, being rather moved by the politics of insurgence to craft an ontology of what conspires.

I would like to conclude with a note concerning the image of fire. Fire is not like earth. It spreads, it doesn't ground. A fire ontology is one where contagion matters more than support and subjection. It is also an ontology of contact: nothing catches fire at a distance. Fire has to go and spread itself – it doesn't do it by proxy, by drafting an army or by commanding subordinates. Fire is what brings things together; it is always the intermediary. Fire is also unveils unsuspected distances between things. And it is about reliance. Not a reliance on a single, stable bedrock but rather interacted, mutual and factual reliances between what there is. Whenever anything factually relies on anything else, there is an inflammability among them. There, ontology and politics meet on fire.


References:

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. London: Duke UP.
Bensusan, H. (2011). “The cubist object”, in: Austin, M., P. Ennis, F. Gironi, Th. Gokey (eds.), Speculations II, The Speculation Journal,www.speculationjournal.org, pp. 169-186.
Bensusan, H, L. Antunes & L. Ferreira (2012). Heráclito – Exercicios de Anarqueologia. São Paulo: Idéias e Letras. forthcoming.
Bohn, E. (2009). “Must there be a top level?”, Ph. Quart., 59, 235, p. 193-201.
Bosteels, B. (2011). The Actuality of Communism. London: Verso.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter, London: Routledge.
Bryant, L. (2011). The Democracy of Objects, New Metaphysics Series, Ann Arbour: Open University Press.
Bryant, L., N. Snricek and G. Harman (eds.) (2011). The Speculative Turn, Melbourne: Re: Press.
Deleuze, G. & F. Guattari (1980). Mille Plateaux, Paris: Minuit.
Guattari, F. (1989). Les Trois Écologies. Paris: Galilée.
Grant, I. H. (2006) Philosophies of nature after Schelling, London: Continuum.
Harman, G. (2009) The Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Melbourne: Re:Press.
Heidegger, M. & E. Fink (1979). Heraclitus Seminar, translated by. Ch. Seibert. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Heil, J. & C. B. Martin (1999). “The ontological turn”. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 23, p. 34-60
Heraclitus (2009). Fragments. London: Penguin
Latour, B. (1988). The Pasteurization of France, translated by A Sheridan and J. Law. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Lévinas, E. (1961). Totalité et infini. Essai sur l’extériorité. La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff.
Malabou, C. (2009). Ontologie de l'accident: Essai sur la plasticité destructrice, Paris: Scheer.
Meillassoux, Q. (2006). Après la finitude, Paris: Seuil.
Schaffer, J. (2010). “Monism: the priority of the whole”, Ph. Rev., 119, 1, p. 31-76.
Serres, M. (1990). Le contrat naturel, Paris: Bourin.
Souriau, E. (2009). Les différents modes d'existence”, Paris: PUF.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Matter and actants

Jane Bennett talks quite precisely about actants in a federation. It contrasts with the image of a hierarchy of command and obedience where there is a final layer of items capable of nothing beyond following orders (normally laws). As a consequence, there is no emperor of action capable to overcome in its power all and each of the actants that contribute to the outcome. No decision is sovereign like that - it has to negotiate with whatever is available to implement it. Bennett then refers to the surprise in outcome associated to each action, as remarked by Latour. There is always a messy interplay between the human and the non-human, otherwise there is no action. Intention is never more than one actant among many and it can itself be cracked into many.

Of course the usual reply is that some items in the world simply obey laws. Often meaning that (non-human) actants are somehow lawlike while (human) agents are autonomous. This can be said because we choose some margins of error excluding the scope where the actants can go astray. The laws are taken to have this margin of error and therefore when electricity spreads in a clinamen, say, we can still present its overall trajectory as lawlike. A similar approach could be taken with human agents: their overall trajectories (considering a sufficiently large group of agents in a long period of time) is quite lawlike, it is only when we look at the small events, when we focus on the small picture, that we find the clinamens. Maybe it is an issue of focus, of which view is taken: the grand view is lawlike, swerves appear in the small picture, in the details. Usually, agents are viewed in a close-up while actants are viewed from afar in medium or long shot.

But what worries me about Bennett's mixed approach (actant theory, that is process philosophy, associated with vital materialism) is that when it comes to ontogenesis, matter can be seen itself as an actant. Harman notices that process philosophy is not itself enough to fully exorcise materialism - as he thinks one should do. Maybe. But it is a strange form of materialism this one championed by Bennett. If action is always a product of an unpredictable federation of actants, matter is either one among several others and therefore no special role can be ascribed to it or its role is fully dispensible. It seems to me that if one appeal both to vital matter and to a critical mass of actants to explain (animate) action, one offers an explanation too many. It seems then that matter itself is not the source of animation (or of vitality).

Thursday, 2 February 2012

185 and anarcheology

Been in a blitz visit to Granada featuring a participation in Manuel and Neftali's course on rule-following and the politics of the emergence of normativity. They were discussing, at the point of my visit, how acceptable is the reading made by Kripke of sections 185 to 242 of Wittgenstein’s Investigations. A recurrent issue in the conversation over lunch under the beautiful winter sun was whether one could have content without normativity – without genuine rule-following. I insisted that behavior (or natural expression of sensation, to use Wittgenstein's vocabulary later in 257) is geared towards a specific content. In fact, it ought to be so in order for it to fulfill its role in the acquisition of public language that surely could not take off without screaming and groaming being, in a given context, taken to be a natural expression of, say, a toothache. Normativity ought to be embedded in those natural expressions.

Surely, however, that is not enough to ground normativity or rule-following in facts. The example in 185 is enough to show how distant we still are. I somehow regret that only after the class I mentioned that my take on rule following and politics would start with making the pupil in 185 into a political contender. What would happen if the pupil just bites the bullet and insists that 1004 is rather the correct answer. The pupil then is not in the realm of sheer mistake – eventual or systematic – but rather in that of confrontation. The pupil creates a version that challenges the alleged fact. The interesting point for me is that in the very kernel of reason there is a plurality of versions (reason is composed by acts of thinking, contents are never just kept as there is no memory that is faithfully museum-like as I put in Excesses and Exceptions). So, whenever there is anything to be taken in, there is room for more than a version. Then, there is room for anarcheology.