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Monday, 31 March 2014

Pláticas sobre contingencia en Xalapa

Last week I presented two talks in the Philosophy Department, UV, Xalapa. In the first one, I discussed contingency and facticity in Meillassoux:


In the second one I presented a sketch of the book I'm writing:


Thanks to the audience, great attention, great discussions.

History at the time of ontological turns

Been very enthused with Charles Mann's 1491 and his other stuff this weekend. He does manage to present a convincing story of how the Americas were diverse, far more populated than commonly thought and full of complex ecological strategies. An important part of this total history endeavor is epidemiology - and its links with demography. Small pox and chicken pox were introduced to the Americas together with the habit of living with animals and had devastated effects. The anthropocene is also the layer left by all the microbiota associated with the human modes - with herding cattle, eating domesticated meat etc. These illnesses changed the demography of the continent (in a degree that syphilis never managed to do in Europe or elsewhere). The greatest of these demographic-epidemiological plots he depicts is the one that connects malaria (to which loads of African are immune to a large extent) and slavery in the continent. Societies that depended on slavery were the ones that were infected by the malaria brought in by the whites. The Indian, the bizarre racist legend has, was lazy - because she died of malaria, or was prostrated by it - and whites would die in the infected fields. Africans had to brought in. It is a case of European slave trade making Africa provide the cure after European colonialism had brought the disease. (Incidentally, contrary to what I wrote once in an article, the malaria mosquito is not the best defender of the Amazon rain forest. Or, at least, it was also what dismantled it as an ecological complex of humans and various species that could have been to a great extent forged by Amerindian populations.)

Mann's picture has history made of agents that reinforce, distort and jeopardize human actions. Human goals are clearly just part of this history of biological, demographical, geological and commercial contingencies. White humans appear as political colonizers against a society unknown - inventing the myth of modernity, as Dussel labels it in his 1492 book - but also as part of a predation plot much beyond human control or intent. The Columbus intervention in America set the stage for everything global as it created the ecological set up we live in now. It is flat ontology history - Naturgeschichte at the times of the anthropocene - but it is fully filled with political fuel. Politics is made of alliances of all sorts - and it is not only about how to live, but about the state of affairs.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Latour and Meillassoux

Preparing a talk about Meillassoux tomorrow at the University of Veracruz. Nothing much, just some remarks about his notion of contingency from the thesis of divine inexistence. But I thought of some strategic similarities between him and Latour, whom I've been reading quite a lot recently. First, both believe in the insufficiency of critique. Latour wants to put forward a constructive project (and not only a deconstructive device) to propose something that, while not absolute, would reform what we currently have (something more comfortable than the set-up of the moderns). Meillassoux sees himself as a critical philosopher, but he reckons that critique without speculation - without trying to reach absolutes - give rise to fideism and paves the way for irrational exercises of faith. Both want to reconstruct as deconstruction (or philosophy as criticism) is not enough.

Further, both end up with a kinda messianic project for the world (a fourth World of justice for Meillassoux, and a non-modern new connection to Gaia for Latour). Latour talks about new associations of the humans with Gaia and all its agents - ecologize instead of modernize. The plurality of modes of existence opens the way for a different design of alliances, more comfortable and also more faithful to our notions of truth and falsity. It is as if we could finally liberate ourselves from constraints that are centuries old and consider existence in more serious while more lenient way. This also involve making explicit the associations that have been hidden - especially the ones that have to do with modes of existence that were not privileged in the discourse of modernity. Meillassoux, on the other hand, banks a political project based on the hope for a World of justice that will bring about a different ethics, one of the universal while vindicating something that has been moving us for long and that can not be made explicit - our allegiance to the hope for justice. It is a project for a new community as well, one of universality and justice. It is a more human-based project, but it does involve some non-human elements (or rather ex-human elements): the corpses that will resuscitate with the possible birth of God. Both communities come out of quite dramatic changes that are recommended or hoped for. Both provide a new sense for messianic political action.

And then, there is God. God is an object of attention for both and never appears as a fully independent being. Meillassoux has that He's not yet actual while Latour has that He depends on acts of sponsoring, that He looks at us only if we can look back. He's never a creator, an ancestor. In both cases, God is present but neither as a starting point nor as substantial being. No archés, in Latour because God needs a process of subsistence and in Meillassoux because doesn't exist yet. God is part of their (messianic) political project, not as guarantor, but as a partner.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Anthropology as a method for ontology

Roy Wagner has that anthropology is philosophy with people inside. In a similar vein, Viveiros de Castro talks about compared ontography and Latour wished to provide an inventory of the modes of existence (AIME, conclusion of part 2) for the purpose of compared anthropology and diplomatic negotiations. In my couse on Latour’s AIME we were discussing what was the best way to capture his ontology-anthropology amphibious approach. (Entitling the book An Investigation into Modes of Existence – An anthropology of the moderns” already gives an idea of the juggling he believes to be required to his endeavour.) I guess his take (together with Descola and Viveiros and maybe, to some extent, with Lévi-Strauss when he talks about the importance of native philosophy towards the end of his life) is that anthropology informs ontology. The thoughts and manners of other collectives make us look for ways to carve up the world so that we can make sense of their beliefs in a way that do justice to them instead of creating obnoxious conflicts. This is why naturalism (in Descola’s sense) is called into question and we are forced to re-examine the assumption that what is natural is not multiple – that there is only one nature, mirrored by us or not, accessible to us or not. On the other hand, it is a kind of naturalism (in the sense of naturalizing metaphysics) as it makes use of an empirical science becoming therefore informed by experience. The question then arises as to whether it is a genuine naturalized method in metaphysics – in the sense of making their judgments a posteriori.

Perhaps relevant to this question is that such a Latourian strategy is also somehow akin to the method of truth in metaphysics that was more insinuated than championed by Davidson (see the homonymous paper in his collected papers, vol 2). Davidson's idea was that one should maximize truths. In fact, he saw close connections between truth and interpretation and was concerned with radical situations as described by Quine (with no common language, no etymological similarities etc). But his was a method of using our home ontology (our descriptive metaphysics) to make the most of the languages of other collectives. His making the most was thought in terms of charity and for him other languages were crucially privileged in the act of interpretation because beliefs were conceived as structurally predicative. It was important, for Davidson, that there is no interpretation if there are beliefs that are outside our conceptual scheme for there could be no other. Now, Latour's method is indeed one of maximizing truth but only to the extent that relativity is true. For him, our home conceptual scheme maybe can find no other, but maybe it is only the tip of a large iceberg (where we place our conceptions of nature, of existence - and its modes -, of subjectivity, of our non-human collectives etc.). It is in the larger iceberg beyond the tip that the method of anthropology works in our ontology. It is revisionary metaphysics, indeed, but yet it is done through describing other people's metaphysics. Then again, are the judgments of such a metaphysics a posteriori?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Substances vs instances

In chapter 7 of his AIME, Latour considers the mode of existence of metamorphoses - that he nicknames MET. This is a mode of existence that contrasts sharply with what is substantial. He contrasts MET with what repeats itself, what subsists, what is engaged in its reproduction (REP). He finds MET in what is taken to be elusive, invisible, hard to spot, unmeasurable (by the standards of the mode of existence prêt-à-porter, DC, double click). MET will be the mode of existence of miasmas, animal spirits, possessions, demons, angels and all kind of entities that the moderns prefer to reduce to something internal to their minds - as if they were all in their own psyche. The moderns do that because they associate existence with stability - what is not stable but sparkling is perhaps a second creation, perhaps the transformations that we ourselves promote in the world, but the interior (to the mind) is a mode of inexistence. If we take further the route of Plato's parricide (which is what this research into modes of existence is doing: showing how many modes being can take beyond full-blooded substantiality), we can consider the mode of existence of the unstable, of the sparkling, of the eventual. These are, not substances, but rather (irreducible) instances. Instances are the stuff everything unsubstantial is made of - not a mode of inexistence, but a genre within existence, not among things that subsist, but among those that merely instantiate themselves. Those that unsubsist. Eventually.

Now, the eventual is non-necessary, it is also unstable and, as such, an instance. It is also accidental: it is the casual element in the events - the extent to which they weren't determined, but just happened. Accidents could be an example of instance that is hard to think through from the perspective of stability. Accidents, to be sure, can be understood as something very different from those instances and, more to the point, instances can be thought as not accidental. In fact, many ontographies have placed the elusive and the invisible among apparitions that are not at all accidental, but followed their own necessity. Instance is not the mode of existence of accidents, it is the mode of existence of the one-offs, of what has no substance to carry on. Unstable as they are, they could pave the way for an ontology where things don't have to subsist to exist.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Latour and Rorty

Latour, in AIME, debunks the ontology, semantics and epistemology of what he calls the Res Ratiocinans. It is a mix of Res Cogitans and Res Extensa that makes the world intelligible and pictures knowledge as something free of any construction. It is a ready made material world indifferent to the activity of any actor, human or not. Its language is literal-ese, the privileged vocabulary to mirror the world. Other languages are pure metaphors, nothing but culture. Its epistemology is that of avoiding construction, even the best ones. It is a fanaticism: no construction can replaced revelation. Rorty's criticism of privileged vocabularies makes no appeal to ontology. His point is to distribute respect to all languages by making them all worth of the same blend of pragmatist anti-realism and Davidsonian capacity to convey a great number of truths. Latour's strategy is to respect all languages by taking them seriously ontologically. He can be read as an ontologized Rorty. Instead of hermeneutics, allagmatics. Instead of Lebensformen, modes of existence. Instead of coping languages, instauration and régimes de veridiction. Construction and reconstruction instead of deconstruction. It is interesting to ask about the political effect. Is it the same?

Latour makes an interesting (if Rortyan) critique of analytic philosophy in AIME, p. 144. It believes, he says, that clarification in thought could be done by an analysis based on the language of literality. It believes too much in what Latour calls Double Click - the way to make things magically look amenable to a literal description. Analytic philosophy is hostage to a fear for metaphors, believing that there is a single language tool for analysis, that of literal definitions. There is therefore a starting presupposition: there are no discontinuities to be disclosed by analysis, no discontinuities, at least, of the sort that leaves its marks in language.