SR and Politics: Response to Levi and Ian
“My conclusion: chronic reflexivity is precisely the state men who take feminism seriously should be in, although this shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. One should act and try an draw those feminist (queer, other etc.) concepts and perspectives into one’s life as fully as possible . . . One must equally worry about the politics of cofee cups, the queerness of quarks and the beauty of bacteria.”
– From Paul Reid Bowen’s comments on my post ‘Queering Speculative Realism’. I couldn’t agree more!
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What a curious situation: a post I wrote nearly a month ago has sparked an odd but potentially useful set of debates with Michael at Archive Fire, Levi at Larval Subjects, and Ian Bogost. I’m not feeling great today, so please excuse if this post isn’t fully as smooth as I’d like.
Perspectivism and Philosophy
My original argument was that philosophers and theorists need to continually think about the ways in which the ideas we put forth are shaped by our privileges. For example, I receive white privilege from people, and I think that gives me a somewhat warped view on the world. I am less likely to see the ways race plays a part in things. And so I have to train myself to continually problematize my own view of things so as to always think of the ways in which in relation to racism I may not yet be thinking. I think that men need to continually question how they may have warped perspectives in regard to misogyny, heteros in regard to homophobia, those with economic or citizenship or linguistic privileges in regard to how these privileges may warp their perspectives in various ways, etc.
I do think its important to keep in mind, as Levi argues, that any notion of identity is itself a product of society. Its important not to reify these categories, but see their relation to power as a continual process of reworking what these terms mean and how they ‘work’ in society. For example, I describe how this relates to myself in a recent post in the following terms:
I describe myself as a gay man in many situations because I feel it is a shorthand, and a useful one. It allows you to be categorized, and as a form of ‘strategic essentialism’, it allows you to easily slot yourself into certain places in discourse, to take up a ‘voice’ which easily aligns with particular political and social projects. The term ‘gay man’ also describes me fairly well, at least from ‘common sense’ usage of the term. I have only dated men for many years, and see that generally being the case for the future.
But if you ask the philosopher/theorist in me, you get a different story. I don’t believe in sexual identity, or any other sort of personal identity, as anything more than useful fictions. Furthermore, I think the very notion of ‘being’ gay, or ‘having’ a ‘sexual identity’ is problematic. People exist in states of continual flux, and notions of identity create a fiction of ‘essence’, some notion that we ‘are’ something pre-existent or true that is then ‘expressed’ in a series of characteristics. Fictions of identity allow for political projects to more easily form, but they also lend blindspots to these projects, blindspots which often exclude those who don’t fit into such neat categories.
Queer studies evolved as a response to all this. Queer critique argues that we’ve got to fight not only against specific norms, but the process of normalization as such. To use terms employed by Deleuze and Guattari, we’ve got to learn, all of us, to not think as ‘subjected groups’ (‘I want rights for myself’), but as ‘subject groups’ (‘How do we make freedom possible for all, and dismantle not only the forms of oppression current today, but work to limit oppression as such?’). Queer studies is a shift in this direction, but fails to incorporate anti-racism, anti-mysogyny, anti-anti-immigrantism, and other forms of anti-oppressive politics within its structure. This is why I think we need something like a ‘discourse of the oppressed’ (a term inspired by the work of Paulo Friere), a form of political speech against oppression as such.
So when pushed, I tend to identify myself as a queer person, or someone who generally dates men, or something like that. But I see identification as shorthand, no matter what.
And so, its not that I think that only white folks or men have warped perspectives on the world. I think that just having an embodiment, you have a warped perspective on the world, as do we all. But I do think that the more privilege one gets in society, the more one is able to exist in a world in which one’s own partiality is invisible to oneself. So, the more privilege you have, the more you have to work to see your own partiality. And those who are in some way marginalized by society have some degree of ‘second sight’, to use W.E.B. DuBois’ words, in that they are able to see things that relate to their own form of social marginalization more easily. I think it is our responsibility, when we get privilege, to work to learn how to obtain some of that second sight, and continually cultivate it, because it will never come to us without effort, because we can always just lapse back into the blindness to our privileges which is the manner in which privilege functions as part of its ability to normativize itself.
This isn’t merely a personal task, though, for I think that as philosophers, we MUST think our own privilege. I also think that we need to think our larger context, how our own personal psychological and social contexts influence and warp our views on the world (and for an entire post on how Hegel/Marx, Freud, Darwin, and Nietzsche introduced this ‘hermeneautics of suspicion in philosophy, see here). That is, if we’re philosophers, we need to attempt to think of all the ways in which our own embodiment and localization within a material, natural, social, historical, and psychological context influence our thought. We can never fully account for these warpages, this is what Levi has been talking about recently in regard to the paradoxes of ‘second-order observation’ in Luhman.
But I do think that as philosophers we need to develop modes of knowing which take into account, in some manner, the manner in which our thought is NEVER pure. It is always a product of our location, and symptomatic of how our culture and context thinks through us.
What happens when we don’t take our own contexts into account? I think Irigaray’s analysis of the masculine metaphors at work in Plato shows precisely how philosophy has, from its start, not only been misogynist, but how misogyny has impacted and altered the epistemology, ontology, and ethics put forth by Plato and all those who have been influenced by him without taking these issues into account. I find Irigaray’s argument convincing. And I think the same can be said in regard to race, sexuality, etc., so long as we do not reify these categories. That’s why I think privilege and oppression are the issue, more than specific identities, which are are particularly instantiations thereof. But even this notion of identity is itself a cultural and historical effect. As is philosophy, a particular, limited, symptomatic discourse.
For after all, why do we even want to spend our time thinking of what is most general, most abstract? Why do we find this bizarre cultural practice interesting, or useful? What does desire does it satisfy? Philosophy I think is like an organism, and we are its living parts. It is an organism, and like the Matrix of Wachowski Bros. fame, we provide this machine with its life. In networkological lingo, this is called a plex, an example of quasi-life. Philosophy is a cultural discourse which is quasi-alive, in that it has many of the traits of living organisms, such as maintenance and evolution, but it is not fully alive because it is only by means of relation to us, living organisms, that a plex such as ‘philosophy’ gains its life-like aspects.
Reply to Levi
But to return to the more central issues here, I think Levi is really onto what’s important here when he argues how this all relates to the psychoanalytic clinic. The problem is reification. Thinking requires that we continually work against reification, and reified ways of thinking and knowing (what Levi calls ‘rote theory’), be this in regard to identity, our own privileges, etc. I think actually that I really agree with much of what Levi’s been writing about recently, particularly his approach to objects as systems, second-order observation in Luhman, using the formulas of sexuation to think about withdrawal, etc. I agree with all of this. I even find his reading of Whitehead great, except I’m a bit baffled in the rather quick manner in which he attempts to differentiate himself from Whitehead at the end of his recent post on this issue. But I’d be curious to hear this clarified a bit, because I’m not sure if I agree or disagree because I just don’t get what he’s trying to say here.
But I am a bit worried when he says that,
let me pointedly note that Vitale knows next to nothing about the sexual preferences or backgrounds of the various figures in the SR movement . . . we have Vitale suggesting that SR is heterosexist, masculinist, classist, and subtly racist because it hasn’t made issues of gender, sex, class, and race the central focus of its work, while on the other hand we have Michael suggesting that SR is an ivory tower discourse because it’s been developed by, well, philosophers . . . On this blog alone there are regular interactions between computer programmers, office workers, poets, environmentalists, novelists, comedians, and a host of others outside the academy. Michael can go fuck himself with his suggestion that somehow we’re trapped within the ivory tower walls of the academy, ignoring anyone who is outside the academy or from another discipline . . . On this blog alone there are regular interactions between computer programmers, office workers, poets, environmentalists, novelists, comedians, and a host of others outside the academy. Michael can go fuck himself with his suggestion that somehow we’re trapped within the ivory tower walls of the academy, ignoring anyone who is outside the academy or from another discipline . . . Now, rephrasing Vitale’s questions somewhat, OOO could be charged with not paying sufficient attention to frogs . . .
Let me reply to these points in list form. Yes, I know nothing about the sexual preferences or backgrounds of the particpants in SR. But I know by the forms our our names that many of us are likely men, and the fact that I’ve seen pictures of many in the SR community does lead me to believe this is a largely white, male movement. And many SR bloggers mention kids. Its possible everyone adopted, but I haven’t heard that mentioned. So, its possible that I’m wrong that this is largely a white, male, heterosexual movement, but I think the data in the public domain leads me to think this is probably correct at least in general. But beyond this, since most of us haven’t spoken about how difficult it is to get food to eat, I assume we all have certain economic privileges. I mean, no-one is writing a blog from the underdeveloped world, aside from Graham, and he’s associated with AUC. So we all have relative degree of economic privilege related to our origins and in many cases continued existence within the overdeveloped world. I think we need to ask – how might this warp our perspectives on the world, and SR in particular? Might our epistemo-ontology be somehow inflected by this?
Don’t get me wrong. I think that ANY perspective implies a warpage and inflection of one’s view of things. But there are differences of degree and specificity.
I fully believe that any epistemology, ontology, ethics, and aesthetics imply each other. They are multiple sides of the same set of commitments to a ‘philosophical’ relation to the world. But there is no epistemology or ontology that does not have an implicit ethics and aesthetics, even if these aren’t necessarily fleshed out.
I also think that philosophy is completely influenced by any relation to institutionalization within the universities and the education industry. I think blogs are great, however, because they do widen the manner in which philosophy has influences from outside professional academia. So oddly enough, I find both Michael’s point and Levi’s critique to have sides I agree with.
I think however, that its a big mistake to compare the need to deal with racism, misogyny, etc., to the need to deal with frogs. Nothing against animals, because we need to think about them too. We need to think about privilege and power and how it impacts our view on the world, philosophically and in regard to the everyday. But there are different degrees of importance here. Not talking about frogs and not talking about racism? I don’t want to get too confrontational, but its kinda insulting to compare these.
Interestingly enough, however, after critiquing my reasoning for calling for more relation between SR and issues like race and gender, Levi then goes on to precisely DO what I’ve asked for, namely, produce a GREAT description of how OOO relates to racism in American History X, and in regard to ‘the subaltern.’ Then Levi says:
I realize that Chris is not, of course, accusing all us speculative realists of being heterosexist, sexist, classist, and white supremacists. My point to Chris is that the resources for thinking these things are already there in OOO if he uses a little imagination and actually puts these concepts to work concretely. Such a work is a collective work, for a variety of people, not for one particular person alone.
I think Levi just produced the first actual use of OOO to talk about race and the subaltern. That’s all I was saying, is that we need to do this work! All of us. And yes, he’s right, much of this IS implicit in OOO and SR. But we need to articulate these implications, develop them, for them to be useful. And I think its important for us to do, for ourselves as well. I think if I can’t relate networkologies to global capital and issues of race, that I’ve done something wrong, for example.
This is why I think Levi’s really on to something by his invocation of the psychoanalytic clinic, and the diagrams of sexuation. Its about fighting normativization, but within a language and world that requires perspectival knowledge and praxis. How do we develop a praxis that is anti-reifying? That fights how reification is often co-opted by privilege, and how privilege and reification link together within systems that Deleuze and Guattari would called paranoid, arboreal, etc?
Reply to Ian
Ian says the following:
I almost always find intellectual appeals to “the world” and “the public” to be disingenuous. For one part, who are we, holed up like we are with our French theory and our espresso, to talk of being “political?” If it means incanting Foucault and Žižek at one another, then that’s not politics. If it means blogging about injustice to a group of twenty friends and acquaintances, then that’s not politics. If it means gasping about injustices at wine bars and gallery openings, than that’s still not politics . . . Just as the proponents of theory accuse purportedly apolitical thinkers of being complicit in global capital or heterosexism or whatever, so those very proponents remain mired in their own blindered worldviews, so disgusted by those who don’t already agree that they resolve simply to ignore them, to pretend that they do not exist. This despite the claims for inclusiveness and justice that supposedly motivate political theory in the first place. Perhaps I have a special purchase on this disgust, since I am not a Marxist, and thus often find myself unknowningly marginalized among my “enlightened” brethren.
In some ways, I agree. Invoking Foucault and Zizek to each other on our blogs does not make us political. And our writings also influence very few. Often calling for greater political engagement is a way of making ourselves feel better about not doing more.
What then does constitute political engagement? Since electoral politics in the US is completely fucked, I think calling for massive campaign finance reform is important. But no-one is really listening.
I do think teaching, however, can be VERY political, and I see my teaching, and teaching undergrads in particular, as the most political thing I can do. Of course it only influences a small group. But I think if I can show my students how what they were taught to believe is full of implicit assumptions, and implicit PRIVILEGES, then I’ve perhaps laid the groundwork for questioning the views they inherited.
Of course, there are also times in which protests are important, as are other sorts of political interventions. I personally hate going to protests, I find them dull, and I think they have limited effectiveness in today’s media saturated world, but there are times in which I think it is one’s duty. But I think what really causes change is organization and education.
When we philosophers speak to each other, I think we only impact the wider world to the extent that we impact how we relate to non-specialists. Undergrads, and those who are not professional philosophers. Blogging luckily does reach a wider audience. But I think its important to not only blog about philosophy, but to work to become a ‘public intellectual’. To me, blogging is a way to develop my voice. I try really hard to write as clearly and accessibly as I teach. And my writing, while sometimes is aimed at specialists, at other points aims at a wider audience. And that is I think when our work can really impact a wider group of folks. This is why I also keep my toe in DailyKos, a political blog community, and post there occasionally, to see to what extent I can find ways to resonate with a wider public that actually does influence politics here in the US. So far, to little avail, but I think its important to keep that channel open, to learn from the interchange.
Either way, wherever I’m posting, attempting to influence wider public discourse requires that we WRITE DIFFERENTLY. I think this is so important, that we not abandon the jargon of philosophy, but also explain it when we write books, so that non-philosophers who are interested and motivated can pick them up too. But there is such pressure within the academy to write only for ourselves. We need to work to change this, from WITHIN the university system. The education factories pressure us to overspecialize so as to make us divorced from the wider world. We need to continually think of ways to work against those aspects of our training, and to try to find ways to work against their perpetuation within the academy. Whether we fragment our voices, writing sometimes for our colleagues and sometimes for non-specialists, or work to write for multiple audiences at once (Stuart Hall is my exemplar here, his ability to write in a way that speaks both to specialists and non-specialists is an inspiration), our goal I think should be to hit more than one audience.
I talk about politics, race, class, and gender to everyone I encounter, from my family to my students to acquaintences as I move through the world. I think as philosophers, we need to continually work to be able to shift between levels of discourse, depending on the situation we find ourselves in.
And I’m not convinced that philosophy and social justice are two separate things. In fact, I believe that any philosophy that is not working to make the world a better place is dead. Call me a Badouian, or a Nietzschian, but I don’t believe you can have just an epistemology and ontology that is not also an ethics, whether implicit or not. I’m not interested in disinterested truth, and in fact, I don’t believe in it. These are part of my own epistemo-onto-ethics.
I’m not sure exactly what Ian’s trying to say here, but I know he’s pissed at the ‘social justice’ police (however, see his comment to this post, which clarifies things a bit). I think we need to continually work to fight our own tendency to complacency in regard to thinking we’re doing something just by name dropping Marxist lingo and stuff like that. So in that regard, I agree with Ian’s critique. But I don’t think that we should abandon the attempt to make philosophy ‘political’. Rather, I think we need to go radically in the other direction. And if some are self-righteous about it, its important that we fight that in ourselves. Rather than arguing that the goal isn’t good because some people fuck up its application, I think its important to work on fixing the practice.
Its our responsibility to make philosophy live, and to make it just. I hope that by saying these things in print, it will keep me honest. Its important. And I think that we always need to work for social change at multiple levels of scale, intellectually, practically, on the level of the everyday and the professional, etc. There’s no need to say that working on one of these is at the expense of the others. We are articulated in so many lifeworlds.
I dunno if I’m a Marxist. I’m sure I’ve called myself a Marxist at some point, but I also call myself gay sometimes. Its all about strategy, if you ask me, not about essence. Marxism’s a word. But an ethical practice to make the world a better place is more important. I think Marx is a good start, but any ‘good’ Marxist today I think is a heretic anyway, just as any good Lacanian, Deleuzian, etc.
But rather than jettison the goal because its application has been messed up, shouldn’t we attempt to fix the application instead?