Strange Materialism and Cosmopolitics
by Adam Robbert
Adam at Knowledge-Ecology has posted some reflections on the issues at stake in the confrontation between philosophical realism and philosophical materialism. Levi Bryant (Larval Subjects) and Michael (Archive-Fire) place their bets on materialism, while Graham Harman (Object-Oriented Philosophy) and Steven Shaviro (Pinocchio Theory) prefer realism. This isn’t the whole story, however. When we shift to the issue of withdrawal (i.e., the accessibility of things), Shaviro, Bryant, and Michael all line up in opposition to Harman by arguing for the contingent, rather than absolute untouchability of things.
It seems that my phrasing of the difference between absolute and contingent withdrawal has stuck in the conversation, we’ll see if others find the distinction useful in the future. Of course “absolute withdrawal” means more “absolute and contingent withdrawal” than “absolute opposed to contingent withdrawal” being that we are not discussing absolutes in the sense that all objects relate to one another in identical ways in all situations. Absolute just means that no contingent set of circumstances approaches the alterity of objects more than any other.
I think Matt’s description is mostly representative and accurate except that I would add that object-oriented materialism “OOM” (as Bryant has cleverly termed it) is for Bryant a form of realism. Additionally, Michael is also suggesting that his appeal to onto-specific assemblages is also a kind of realism. I was the one to suggest, independently, that a) materialism is not a realist enough realism and b) That Michael’s position could best be classified as a kind of materialism alongside of Bryant’s (though there positions will differ on other issues). I’ll unpack my thoughts on materialism more clearly as we move along, and then I want to transition and make a comment about my (cosmopolitical) views on philosophy in general, which are not side issues in this debate.
First, a note on materialism itself. I don’t use materialism in a pejorative way, I’m just not convinced that materialist descriptions are deep enough to capture the insights of the three primary philosophies in my orbit: (1) radical empiricism, (2) process philosophy, and (3) object-oriented ontology. In the case of (1) and (2) materialism is insufficient insofar as we are also trying to account for the qualitative and phenomenological elements (i.e., first-person perspectives) of the cosmos; and here “person” can refer to the perspective of any thing whatsoever. In this sense I think materialism is only a partial realism.
In the case of (3) I was drawn to OOO primarily because it was a realism that could be taken seriously by materialists (i.e., it has empirical weight) but could not be collapsed into materialism. Harman’s OOO posits a Levinasian infinite (i.e., a metaphysical infinite) at the heart of all entities that is not collapsable into the phrasings of materialist language. By making OOO a kind of materialism it loses some of its punch. This is of course just my reading, however, and for others the move to materialism will be welcome; particularly insofar as a rejection of the Levinasian/Hedeiggerian elements of Harman’s thoughts make an OOM much more tenable, I just so happen to disagree with this reading of the issues and so continue to affirm realism over materialism.
Second, the materialism/realism issue is still nascent insofar as OOO theorists themselves are changing positions and refining arguments. In his most recent post, Bryant argues:
Just some quick remarks on materialism as I’m in the midst of completing paperwork today. One of the fault lines among the OOO theorists is the divide between the materialists and the realists. Harman describes his position as a realism, while I describe mine as a materialism. I take it that materialism is necessarily a realism insofar as it begins from the premise of human-independent entities that are not dependent on thought. In certain respects, materialism is ontologically a more restrictive position than the sort of realism that Harman advocates. On the one hand, Harman’s object-oriented philosophy wishes to hold open the possibility that while there are material entities, it’s possible that other non-material objects exist such as, for example, numbers.
This is clearly an evolution in his thinking, contrasted to his older post “Realism is Not a Synonym for Materialism” where Bryant writes (I’ve shortened the passage for brevity):
There is a reason that realists such as myself, Harman, Latour, Stengers, and Bogost refer to ourselves as realists rather than materialists. While it is indeed the case that all materialists are realists, as anyone who has taken an elementary course in categorical logic knows, the reciprocal proposition “all realists are materialist” does not follow from this first proposition…Where the materialist holds that only material beings are, the realist tends to be pluralist, allowing for a wide variety of different types of entities that are equally real…
In this connection, I think Harman provides the proper argument against materialist realisms. Harman’s argument is basically that philosophical materialisms (I won’t impugn the good scientists that frequent my blog) are idealisms. If they are idealisms then this is because they begin with an idea of the real, of what being is, and then set about translating all beings into this model…To begin with an idea of what is real is to begin within the framework of an idealism that allows the concept to dictate being. By contrast, object-oriented ontologies, paradoxically, do not begin with a thesis of what is real, they do not allow an idea to dictate being, but rather hold that we do not know what the real is, only that the real is.
I think Bryant’s older position (following Harman’s), in addition to the points I highlight above, is a good argument for maintaining the realist/materialist distinction. And while we certainly shouldn’t begrudge any philosopher the right to refine and change their views, in this case I remain unconvinced and find the Latour/Harman/Stengers view more compelling (though I’m not convinced that Latour would be in love with the label “realist” either, but perhaps for slightly different reasons)
Matt then wants to know if my own position could be considered a kind of “strange materialism” that stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Bryant’s materialism. This is where I would like to make a few comments about cosmopolitics and philosophy in general. Insofar as I am not interested in the tribalism associated with philosophical agreements between factions, it matters little to me whether or not my interlocutors positions are the same, different, or incommensurable to my own. To some philosophers such a position may signal the death of “real” of philosophy, but I take this as the essential starting point of cosmopolitics.
If I am permitted a slight turn into unexpected territory, I am informed here by Foucault’s discussion of the philosophical approach of Epictetus. Recall in this reading that Epictetus viewed his school as a hospital; a clinic for the soul (psyche) where the philosopher is to the mind what the doctor is to the body. In this sense the purpose of philosophical practice is extended outward towards the collective insofar as the philosopher’s role is to aid the psyche of individuals and societies (an inherently political responsibility). Further, the purpose of philosophical practice is directed inward insofar as the philosopher is also accountable to her own health inasmuch as the philosopher’s health (physical, psychic, and spiritual) is central to the philosopher’s ability to attune to the needs of society.
What is the point of my digression here? I take cosmopolitics (and radical empiricism/pragmatism) to be based around the composition of new public collectives around which problems (social ailments and symptoms) can be cured or relieved. In this capacity cosmopolitics is about becoming adequate to the composition of a political art wherein the goal is aesthetic insofar as there are better and worse ways to compose new collectives. Here we are, as Latour says, attentive to “matters of concern” instead of simply “matters of fact.” The concern comes from the public, the collective, and in this sense the philosopher again emerges as a kind of doctor of the soul of society. In this sense philosophy is for me closer to a pharmacopeia than a list truths. This does not entail that all is relative; the symptoms and ailments philosophers are attentive to are independently real and concern real lives and bodies apart from our perspectives of them, but the medicine of the moment will vary greatly depending on circumstance.
Thus cosmopolitics is a kind of pragmatism, but a kind of pragmatism that is capable of making ontological statements about the real without collapsing into any singular point of view. This is the kind of pragmatism that James argues for in A Pluralistic Universe; a book which I believe argues for an ontological pluralism far stranger and more elusive than any one philosophical position can capture. All of this is to say that philosophy, from the cosmopolitical view, will require a diversity of (incommensurable) perspectives in order to collect large enough publics around the goals and needs of our increasingly planetary culture. For this reason I celebrate the diversity of perspectives available in speculative philosophy even as I maintain my own particular philosophical view point.