Category Archives: Philosophy

Head like a holist

From a Timothy Morton interview at Orion Magazine:

If you’re just a droplet in an ocean, and that ocean is more real than the droplet, well—poor little droplet. You totally don’t matter. I’m sorry to say this evil-sounding thing in an ecology magazine, but quite a lot of how we talk about the Gaia concept means, when you strip the nice, leafy imagery away, you’re just a component in a gigantic machine, and so are polar bears, and so polar bears are replaceable. Who cares if they go extinct? Mother Nature will evolve something else, another component. The normal holism is very often a form of mechanism.

But you have to be a holist to be interested in ecological beings such as meadows and coral. A meadow is a whole with lots of parts. Coral has lots of things in it that aren’t coral, like DNA and little striped fish. If you say there’s no whole, or that parts are more real than whole, then you’re agreeing with Margaret Thatcher that “society does not exist, it’s just individuals.” There is no biosphere. There is no Mother Earth. That’s not such a great pathway.

For me, if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing. If there are such things as football teams, they exist in the same way as football players. They’re not more or less real than football players. So, there’s one football team. There’s lots of players on that team. Therefore, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

The holism that Morton describes here is far from being limited to our thinking about ecology; the sciences, and indeed the social sciences, are riddled with it. (The inverse of Thatcher’s nihilism, in which “the social” becomes both the source of and answer to every challenge, a sort of sociological alpha-and-omega, is still very prevalent — though I’d argue it’s slightly preferable.) As Morton points out, the problem is rooted in language, but perhaps more particularly in narrative; the systemic is difficult to narrate, because narrative — at least in its most popular and prevalent forms — needs heroes and villains, black hats and white hats, causes and effects. Climate change is particularly sticky in this regard. As I like to put it: no one’s to blame, but everyone’s complicit.

(Cf. Bruno Latour’s re-reading of Lovelock’s Gaia theory against the greater-than-the-parts holism of Earth Systems Science. As I understand it, a lot of the OOO philosophers regard Latour’s work as being quite close to their own thought; Harman in particular refers to Latour frequently, and has even written a book on him (which is still somewhere in my TBR pile). I’ve found what OOO I’ve read (which still isn’t much) to be interesting, but it lacks utility, a sense that I might use it to think with purpose beyond simply thinking; that utility is exactly what I get from Latour, and is presumably also the aspect of Latour’s work that makes him “close, but not close enough” for Harman. When discussing this with an academic philosopher, he suggested to me that “social theory” was “a category created to contain would-be philosophers who in some way ascribed to Marx’s dictum that the point of philosophy was not to interpret the world, but to change it”; I was quite delighted by that, even after it was made very clear that it wasn’t meant as a compliment.)

Fully-automated luxury scale-tipping

… like others I have encountered who share their unconscious technological assumptions, [Srnicek and Williams] throw the phrase [“scaling up”] around without making it at all clear what they mean by it. For example, in an argument with an apologist for industrial agriculture I pointed to the superior productivity of soil-intensive horticulture in terms of output per acre (e.g. Jeavons’s raised bed techniques that can feed one person on one-tenth of an acre); their response was “Yes, but how will you scale it up?” I kept pressing them to explain what that meant: “Why does it need to ‘scale up’ at all? If one person can feed themselves with a tenth of an acre, or a village can feed itself with fifty acres, why does any single operation need to be larger?” I get the impression some advocates of “scaling up” are unable to grasp the possibility of 300 million people brushing their teeth in an uncoordinated effort using their own toothbrushes, unless it is somehow “scaled up” to everybody brushing at one time with a single 10,000 ton toothbrush—coordinated by a central body that formulates tooth-brushing guidelines. If an individual action is already taking place at the optimal scale, the best way to “scale up” is probably to proliferate horizontally.

[…]

Williams and Srnicek are drinking the neoliberal capitalist Kool-Aid in taking at face value the claims of efficiency for global supply and distribution chains. They really do not reflect superior efficiency at all, but rather the irrationalities resulting from perverse incentives under capitalism. […] In short, Srnicek and Williams are at least as guilty as any they criticize of failing to adapt their strategy to changed circumstances; in this case they fail to acknowledge the radical technological advances in cheapening, ephemeralization and reduced scale of production machinery, and to take advantage of their promise for creating a counter-economy outside the existing capitalist economy and leaving the latter to starve for lack of labor-power or demand, instead of taking it over.

From a lengthy and enjoyably punchy review by Kevin Carson of S & W’s  Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.

Latour de force

I’m interested in art for the same reason I’m interested in science — it’s a way to handle the fact that we have landed in a completely different world than we thought we were moving toward. We need art now for the same reason that we needed art in the 16th century, when we learned about the discovery of America, which changed everything — music, theater, poetry, literature. We don’t have the mental equipment, the sensory equipment, to handle the ecological mutation going on today. You cannot expect the social sciences to learn how to handle the ecological crisis. How do you cope with telling your grandchildren that you were born in 1947 and had an enormously good time — that you profited from globalization and the process that has led to the sixth extinction. How do you tell this to your grandchildren? If you say, “Well, I had a good life, too bad for you,” you are a moral wreck. So how do you handle this situation? This is fodder for art.

Bruno Latour interviewed at LARB.

Postmodernism and “post-truth”

I’ve noticed a revival in a minor but persistent trope of late, namely the habit of blaming postmodernist philosophy for somehow creating the current breakdown of societal consensus (a.k.a. “post-truth politics”). Here’s an example from someone who’s definitely big enough to know better, Daniel Dennett:

Dennett: Philosophy has not covered itself in glory in the way it has handled this. Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”

Interviewer: My understanding of postmodernism – and you’re a very prominent atheist – is that in the absence of a single meta-narrative, which is God, you had competing narratives…

Dennett: Yes and one’s true and the others are false. One of those narratives is the truth and the others aren’t; it’s as simple as that.

I’m going to charitably assume that Dennett, like most of postmodernism’s tireless detractors, has simply read little or none of it. I will admit to not having devoured the entire canon myself, but in none of what I have read did I encounter the idea that it was “respectable to be cynical about truth and facts”; rather, I encountered numerous early investigations into what was an already-existing phenomenon regarding the normalisation of cynicism about facts, particularly (though far from exclusively) in political discourses. Postmodernism was not dogma but diagnosis; blaming Foucault for post-truth politics is akin to blaming your death on the doctor who tells you you have cancer.

Indeed, without postmodernism posing those very questions, we’d likely have never ended up taking such a close look at cognitive bias — which is, after all, a pretty good psychological model for explaining the postmodern condition. (Indeed, it’s worth recalling that, while postmodernism was having its heyday, research psychology was largely devoted to optimising the science of making people buy shit they didn’t need; in doing so they developed countless strategies for the framing and manipulation of data, and weaponised the rhetorics of persuasion before gleefully offering them up to the highest bidder. None of which contributed to growing cynicism about facts and truth at all, of course. *rollseyes*)

The point of postmodernism is not and was never “there are no facts”, the denial of an objective reality. The point is that facts are unevenly distributed across a metamedium which distributes half-facts and falsehoods with equal facility. The point is that the whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth objective reality is by definition inaccessible to the subjective experience of individuals; there is far too much to know for any one individual to know it all.

The point is that he who controls the distribution of stories controls the stories themselves.

Admittedly, there was some celebratory stuff about the smashing of metanarratives, as Dennett’s interviewer bravely brings up. And I suppose he’s kind of right, in that it helped shape a culture wherein it was respectable to question authority (though there’s a linear causality there which, as a card-carrying postmodernist, I find troubling; it seems just as likely that postmodernist thought could have been shaped by a culture of questioning authority).

But there’s nonetheless a vast difference between critiquing the concept of truth and critiquing those who declare themselves truth’s arbiter… and I suspect that Dennett’s identification with the latter role informs his anger. His rejoinder to the interviewer is a collosal tell, in a way: this is supposedly the most influential philosopher in the United States, and he’s reduced to Daddy-knows-besting a journalist with the temerity to ask an informed question about a colossal and complex topic which he’d written off with a brief and flimsy falsehood. He tells us that there is truth and there are lies, and that he can tell the difference, but he will not — perhaps cannot? — tell us how to distinguish them. Indeed, if we struggle to tell the difference, he has no patience with our weakmindedness.

So tell us again, Daniel: where exactly does this deep-seated division and demagoguery in American culture come from, hmm? To borrow from another philosopher: you can’t see the postmodern condition for the same reason a tourist stood in Trafalgar Square can’t see England.

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(I am also amused at the suggestion that postmodernism was ever fashionable or respectable outside the very rarified circles of academic sociology, having never read a positive word about it anywhere outside of the academic literature, with the possible exception of late 80s and early 90s UK music journalism — and it didn’t exactly get an easy ride inside the academic literature, either. But the funny bit is that it’s nonetheless quietly gone and become a huge part of how we understand our world, even if we don’t use the sociological lexicon. Pariser’s interminably successful “filter bubble” concept? It’s just a simplified model of the media mechanics of the postmodern condition… and you can barely spit without hitting an op-ed headline that includes it.

Facts only become truth once they’re packaged in a way we find palatable. You’d think a philosopher who hangs out in Silicon Valley would get that by now.)