To the Political Ontologists

The political ontologists have their work cut out for them. Let’s say you believe that the entire world is made out of fire: Your elms and alders are fed by the sky’s titanic cinder; your belly is a metabolic furnace; your lungs draw in the pyric aether; the air that hugs the earth is a slow flame—a blanket of chafing-dish Sterno—shirring exposed bumpers and cast iron fences; water itself is a mingling of fire air with burning air. The cosmos is ablaze. The question is: How are you going to derive a political program from this insight, and in what sense could that program be a politics of fire? How, that is, are you going to get from your ontology to your political proposals? For if fire is not just a political good, but is in fact the very stuff of existence, the world’s primal and universal substance, then it need be neither produced nor safeguarded. No merely human arrangement—no parliament, no international treaty, no tax policy—could dislodge it from its primacy. It will no longer make sense to describe yourself as a partisan of fire, since you cannot be said to defend something that was never in danger, and you cannot be said to promote something that is everywhere already present. Your ontology, in other words, has already precluded the possibility that fire is a choice or that it is available only in certain political frameworks. This is the fate of all political ontologies: The philosophy of all-being ends up canceling the politics to which it is only superficially attached. The –ology swallows its adjective.

The task, then, when reading the radical ontologists—the Spinozists, the Left Heideggerians, the speculative realists—is to figure out how they think they can get politics back into their systems; to determine by which particular awkwardness they will make room for politics amidst the spissitudes of being. In its structure, this problem repeats an old theological question, which the political ontologists have merely dressed in lay clothes—the question, that is, of whether we are needed by God or the gods. If you have given in to the pressure to subscribe to an ontology, then this is the first question you should ask: Whatever is at the center of your ontology—does it need you? Does Becoming need you? Is Being incomplete without you? Has the cosmic fire deputized you? And if you decide that, no, the fire does not need you—if, that is, you resist the temptation to appoint yourself that astounding entity upon which even the Absolute depends—then you will have yourself already concluded that there is nothing exactly to be gained from getting your ontology right, and you will be free to think about other and more interesting things.

If, on the other hand, you are determined to ontologize, and determined additionally that your ontology yield a politics, there are, roughly speaking, three ways you can make this happen.

First, you could determine that even though fire is the primal stuff of the universe, it is nonetheless unevenly distributed across it; or that the cosmos’s seemingly discrete objects embody fire to greater and lesser degrees. The heavy-gauge universalism of your ontology will prevent you from saying outright that water isn’t fire, but you might conclude all the same that it isn’t very good fire. This, in turn, would allow you to start drawing up league tables, the way that eighteenth-century vitalists, convinced that the whole world was alive, nonetheless distinguished between vita maxima and vita minima. And if you possess ontological rankings of this kind, you should be able to set some political priorities on their basis, finding ways to reward the objects (and people? and groups?) that carry their fiery qualities close to the surface, corona-like, and, equally, to punish those objects and people who burn but slowly and in secret. You might even decide that it is your vocation to help the world’s minimally fiery things—trout ponds, shale—become more like its maximally fiery things—volcanoes, oil-drum barbecue pits. The pyro-Hegelian takes it upon himself to convert the world to fire one timber-framed building at a time.

Alternately—and herewith a second possibility—you can proclaim that the cosmos is made of fire, but then attribute to humanity an appalling power not to know this. “Power” is the important word here, since the worry would have to be that human ignorance on this point could become so profound that it would damage or dampen the world-flame itself. Perhaps you have concluded that fire is not like an ordinary object. We know in some approximate and unconsidered way what it is; we are around it every day, walking in its noontide light, enlisting it to pop our corn, conjuring it from our very pockets with a roll of the thumb or knuckly pivot. And yet we don’t really understand the blaze; we certainly do not grasp its primacy or fathom the ways we are called upon to be its Tenders. You might even have discovered that we are the only beings, the only guttering flames in a universe of flame, capable of defying the fire, proofing the world against it, rebuilding the burning earth in gypsum and asbestos, perversely retarding what we have been given to accelerate. This argument expresses clear misgivings about humanity; it doesn’t trust us to keep the fire stoked; and to that extent it partakes of the anti-humanism that is all but obligatory among political ontologists. And yet it shares with humanism the latter’s sense that human beings are singular, a species apart, the only beings in existence capable of living at odds with the cosmos, capable, that is, of some fundamental ontological misalignment, and this to a degree that could actually abrogate an ontology’s most basic guarantees. From a rigorously anti-humanist perspective, this position could easily seem like a lapse—the residue of the very anthropocentrism that one is pledged to overcome—but it is in fact the most obvious opening for an anti-humanist politics (as opposed, say, to an anti-humanist credo), since you really only get a politics once the creedal guarantees have been lifted. If human beings are capable of forgetting the fire, someone will have to call to remind them. Someone, indeed, will have to ward off the ontological catastrophe—the impossible-but-somehow-still-really-happening nihilation of the fire—the Dousing.

That said, a non-catastrophic version of this last position is also possible, though its politics will be accordingly duller. Maybe duller is even a good thing. Such, at any rate, is the third pathway to a political ontology: You might consider arguments about being politically germane even if you don’t think that humanity’s metaphysical obtuseness can rend the very tissue of existence. You don’t have to say that we are damaging the cosmic fire; it will be enough to say that we are damaging ourselves, though having said that, you are going to have to stop trying to out-anti-humanize your peers. Your position will now be that not knowing the truth about the fire-world deforms our policies; that if we mistake the cosmos for something other than flame, we are likely to attempt impossible feats—its cooling; its petrification—and will then grow resentful when these inevitably fail. You might, in the same vein, determine that there are entire institutions dedicated to broadcasting the false ontologies that underwrite such doomed projects, doctrines of air and doxologies of stone, and you might think it best if such institutions were dismantled. If it’s politics we’re talking about, you might even have plans for their dismantling. Even so, you will have concluded by this point that the problem is in its essentials one of belief—the problem is simply that some people believe in water—in which case, ontology isn’t actually at issue, since nothing can happen ontologically; the fire will crackle on regardless of what we think of it, indifferent to our denials and our elemental philandering. You have thus gotten the politics you asked for, but only having in a certain sense bracketed the ontology or placed it beyond political review. And your political program will accordingly be rather modest: a new framework of conviction—a clarification—an illumination.

Still, even a modest politics sometimes shows its teeth. William Connolly, in a book published in 2011, says that the world-fire is burning hotter than it has ever burnt; the problem is, though, that some “territories … resist” the flame. What we don’t want to miss is the basically militarized language of that claim: “resisting territories” suggests backwaters full of ontological rednecks; Protestant Austrian provinces; the Pyrenees under Napoleon; Anbar. Connolly’s notion is that these districts will need to be enlightened and perhaps even pacified, whereupon political ontology outs itself as just another program of philosophical modernization, a mopping up operation, the People of the Fire’s concluding offensive against the People of the Ice. Don’t fight it, Connolly, in this way, too, an irenicist, instructs the existentially retrograde. Let it burn.

The all-important point, then, is that there is absolutely no reason to get hung up on the word “fire,” in the sense that there is no more sophisticated concept you can put in its place that will make these problems go away: not Being, not Becoming, not Contingency, not Life, not Matter, not Living Matter. Go ahead: Choose your ontological term or totem and mad-lib it back into the last six paragraphs.  Nothing else about them will change.

• • •

Anyone wanting to read Connolly’s World of Becoming, or Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, its companion piece, also from 2011, now has some questions they can ask. The two books share a program:

-to survey theories of chaos, complexity; to repeat the pronouncements of Belgian chemists who declare the end of determinism; and then to resurrect under the cover of this new science a much older intellectual program—a variously Aristotelian, Paracelsian, and hermetic strain in early modern natural philosophy, which once posited and will now posit again a living cosmos a-go-go with active forces, a universe whose intricate assemblages of self-organizing systems will frustrate any attempt to reduce them back to a few teachable formulas;

-or, indeed, to trade in “science” altogether in favor of what used to be called “natural history,” the very name of which strips nature of its pretense to permanence and pattern and nameable laws and finds instead a universe existing wholly in time, as fully exposed to contingency, mutation, and the event as any human invention, with alligators and river valleys and planets now occupying the same ontological horizon as two-field crop rotation and the Lombard Leagues;

-to recklessly anthropomorphize this historical cosmos, to the point where that entirely humanist device, which everywhere it looks sees only persons, tips over into its opposite, as humanity begins divesting itself of its specialness, giving away its privileges and distinguishing features one by one, and so produces a cosmos full of more or less human things, active, volatile, underway—a universe enlivened and maybe even cartoonish, precisely animated, staffed by singing toasters and jitterbugging hedge clippers.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding this last idea rather winning, though one problem should be noted right way, which is that Connolly, in particular, despite getting a lot of credit for bringing the findings of the natural sciences into political theory—and despite repeating in A World of Becoming his earlier admonition to radical philosophers for failing to keep up with neurobiology and chemistry and such—really only quotes science when it repeats the platitudes of the old humanities. The biologist Stuart Kauffman has, Connolly notes, “identified real creativity” in the history of the cosmos or of nature. Other research has identified “degrees of real agency” in a “variety of natural-social processes.” The last generation of neuroscience has helped specify the “complexity of experience,” the lethal and Leavisite vagueness of which phrase should be enough to put us on our guard. It turns out that the people who will save the world are still the old aesthetes; it’s just that their banalities can now borrow the authority of Nobel Laureates (always, in Connolly, named as such). Of one scientific finding Connolly notes: “Mystics have known this for centuries, but the neuroscience evidence is nice to have too.” That will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the role of science in the new vitalism, which is that it gets adduced only to ratify already held positions. This is interdisciplinarity as narcissistic mirror.

But we can grant Connolly his fake science—or rather, his fake deployment of real science. The position he and Bennett share—that the cosmos is full of living matter in a constant state of becoming—isn’t wrong just because it’s warmed over Ovid. What really needs explaining is just which problems the political philosophers think this neuro-metamorphism is going to solve. More to the point, one wonders which problems a vitalist considers still unsolved. If Bennett and Connolly are right, then is there anything left for politics to do? Has Becoming bequeathed us any tasks? Won’t Living Matter get by just fine without us? And if there is no political business yet to be undertaken, then in what conceivable sense is this a political philosophy and not an anti-political one?

The real dilemma is this: There are those three options for getting a politics back into ontology—you can devise an ontological hierarchy; you can combat ontological Vergessenheit; or you can promote ontological enlightenment. Bennett and Connolly don’t like two of these, and the third one—the one they opt for—ends up canceling the ontology they mean to advocate. I’ll explain.

Option #1: Hierarchy could work. Bennett and Connolly could try to distinguish between more and less dynamic patches of the universe—or between more and less animate versions of matter—but they don’t want to do that. The entire point of their philosophical program is a metaphysical leveling; witness that defense of anthropomorphism. Bennett, indeed, uses the word “hierarchical” only as an insult, the way that liberals and anarchists and post-structuralists have long been accustomed to doing. Having only just worked out that all of matter has the characteristics of life, she is not about to proclaim that some life forms are more important than others. Her thinking discloses a problem here, if only because it reminds one of how difficult is has been for the neo-vitalists to figure out when to propose hierarchies and when to level them, since each seems to come with political consequences that most readers will find unpalatable. Bennett herself worries that a philosophy of life might remove certain protections historically afforded humans and thus expose them to “unnecessary suffering.” She positions herself as another trans- or post-humanist, but she doesn’t want to give up on Kant and the never really enforced guarantees of a Kantian humanism; she thinks she can go over to Spinoza and Nietzsche and still arrive at a roughly Left-Kantian endpoint. “Vital materialism would … set up a kind of safety net for those humans who are now … routinely made to suffer.” That idea—which sounds rather like the Heidegger of the “Letter on Humanism”—is, of course, wrong. Bennett is right to fret. A vitalist anti-humanism is indeed rather cavalier about persons, as her immediate predecessors and philosophical mentors make amply clear. The hierarchies it erects are the old ones: Michael Hardt and Toni Negri think it is a good thing that entire populations of peasants and tribals were wiped out because their extermination increased the vital energies of the system as a whole. And if vitalism’s hierarchies produce “unnecessary suffering,” well, then so do its levelings: Deleuze and Guattari think that French-occupied Africa was an “open social field” where black people showed how sexually liberated they were by fantasizing about “being beaten by a white man.”

Option #2: They could follow the Heideggerian path, which would require them to show that humanity is a species with weird powers—that humans (and humans alone) can fundamentally distort the universe’s most basic feature or hypokeinomon. That would certainly do the political trick. Vitalism would doubtless take on an urgency if it could make the case that human beings were capable of dematerializing vibrant matter—or of making it less vibrant—or of pouring sugar into the gas tank of Becoming. But Bennett and Connolly are not going to follow this path either, for the simple reason that they don’t believe anything of the sort. Their books are designed in large part to attest the opposite—that humanity has no superpowers, no special role to play nor even to refuse to play. Early on, Bennett praises Spinoza for “rejecting the idea that man ‘disturbs rather than follows Nature’s order.’” We’ll want to note that Spinoza’s claim has no normative force; it’s a statement of fact. We don’t need to be talked out of disturbing nature’s order, because we already don’t. The same grammatical mood obtains when Bennett quotes a modern student of Spinoza: “human beings do not form a separate imperium unto themselves.” We “do not”—the claim in its ontological form means could not—stand apart and so await no homecoming or reunion.

Those sentences sound entirely settled, but there are other passages in Vibrant Matter when you can watch in real time as such claims visibly neutralize the political programs they are being called upon to motivate. Here’s Bennett: “My hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.” On a quick read you might think that this is nothing more than a little junk Heideggerianism—that techno-thinking turns the world into a lumberyard, &c. But on closer inspection, the sentence sounds nothing like Heidegger and is, indeed, entirely puzzling. For if it is “hubris” to think that human beings could “conquer and consume” the world—not hubris to do it, but hubris only to think it, hubris only in the form of “fantasy”—then in what danger is the earth of actually being destroyed? How could mere imagination have world-negating effects and still remain imagination? Bennett’s position seems to be that I have to recognize that consuming the world is impossible, because if I don’t, I might end up consuming the world. Her argument only gains political traction by crediting the fantasy that she is putatively out to dispel. Or there’s this: Bennett doesn’t like it when a philosopher, in this instance Hannah Arendt, “positions human intentionality as the most important of all agential factors, the bearer on an exceptional kind of power.” Her book’s great unanswered question, in this light, is whether she can account for ecological calamity, which is perhaps her central preoccupation, without some notion of human agency as potent and malign, if only in the sense that human beings have the capacity to destroy entire ecosystems and striped bass don’t. The incoherence that underlies the new vitalism can thus be telegraphed in two complementary questions: If human beings don’t actually possess exceptional power, then why is it important to convince them to adopt a language that attributes to them less of it? But if they do possess such power, then on what grounds do I tell them that their language is wrong?

Option #3: Enlightenment it is, then. What remains, I mean, for both Connolly and Bennett, is the simple idea that most people subscribe to a false ontology and are accordingly in need of re-education. Connolly describes himself and his fellow vitalists as “seers”—he also calls them “those exquisitely sensitive to the world”—and he more then once quotes Nietzsche referring to everyone else, the non-seers, the foggy-eyed, as “apes.” I don’t much like being called an orangutan and know others who will like it even less, but at least this rendering of Bennett/Connolly has the possible merit of making the object-world genuinely autonomous and so getting the cosmos out from under the coercions of thought. Our thinking might affect us, but it cannot affect the universe. But there is a difficulty even here—the most injurious of political ontology’s several problems, I think—which is that via this observation philosophy returns magnetically to its proper object—or non-object—which is thought, and we realize with a start that the only thing that is actually up for grabs in these new realist philosophies of the object is in fact our thinking personhood. This is really quite remarkable. Bennett says that the task facing contemporary philosophy is to “shift from epistemology to ontology,” but she herself undertakes the dead opposite. She has precisely misnamed her procedure: “We are vital materiality,” she writes, “and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it.” There is nothing about her ontology that Bennett feels she needs to work out; it is entirely given. The philosopher’s commission is instead to devise the  moralized epistemology that will vindicate this ontology, and which will, in its students, produce “dispositions” or “moods” or, as Connolly has it, a “working upon the self” or the “cultivation of a capacity” or a “sensibility” or maybe even just another intellectual “stance.” Connolly and Bennett have lots of language for describing mindsets and almost no language for describing objects. Their arguments take shape almost entirely on the terrain of Geist. They really just want to get the subjectivity right.

There are various ways one might bring this betrayal of the object into view, in addition to quoting Bennett and Connolly’s plain statements on the matter. Among the great self-defeating deficiencies of these books are the fully pragmatist argumentative procedures adopted by their authors, who adduce no arguments in favor of their  chosen ontology. Bennett points out that her position is really just an “experiment” with different ways of “narrating”; an “experiment with an idea”; a “thought experiment,” Connolly says. “What would happen to our thinking about nature if…” The post-structuralism that both philosophers think they’ve put behind them thus survives intact. But such play with discourse is, of course, entirely inconsistent with a robust philosophy of objects, premised as it is on the idea that the object exerts no pressure on the language we use to describe it, which indeed we elect at will. The mind, as convinced of its freedom as it ever was, chooses a philosophical idiom just to see what it can do.

This problem—the problem, I mean of an object-philosophy that can’t stop talking about the subject—then redoubles itself in two ways:

– The problem is redoubled, first, in the blank epiphanies of Bennett’s prose style, and especially when she makes like Novalis on the streets of Baltimore, putting in front of readers an assemblage of objects the author encountered beneath a highway underpass so that we can imagine ourselves beside her watching them pulsate. The problem is that she literally tells us nothing about these items except that she heard them chime. One begins to say that she chose four particular objects—a glove, pollen, a dead rat, and a bottle cap—except that formulation is already misleading, since lacking further description, these four objects really aren’t particular at all. They are sham specificities, for which any other four objects could have served just as well. She could have changed any or all of them—could have improvised any Borgesian quartet—and she would have written that page in exactly the same manner. You can suggest your own, like this:

-a sock, some leaves, a lame squirrel, and a soda can

-a castoff T-shirt, a fallen tree limb, a hungry kitten, and an empty Cheetos bag

a bowler hat, a beehive, a grimy parasol, and Idi Amin

These aren’t objects; these are slots; and Bennett’s procedure is to that extent entirely abstract. This is what it means to say that materialism, too, is just another philosophy of the subject. It does no more or less than any other intellectual system, maintaining the word “object” only as a vacancy onto which to project its good intentions.

-The problem is redoubled, second, in the nakedly religious idiom in which these two books solemnize their arguments. That idiom, indeed, is really just pragmatism in cassock and cope. The final page of Bennett’s book prints a “Nicene Creed for would-be vital materialists.” Connolly’s book begins by offering its readers “glad tidings.” Nor does the latter build arguments or gather evidence; he “confesses” a “philosophy/faith,” which is also a “faith/conviction,” which is also a “philosophy/creed.” Bennett and Connolly hold vespers for the teeming world. Eager young materialists, turning to these books to help round out their still developing views, must be at least somewhat alarmed to discover that our relationship to matter is actually one of “faith” or “conviction.” A philosophical account of the object is replaced by a pledge—a deferral—a promise, by definition tentative, offered in a mood of expectancy, to take the object on trust. Nor is this in any way a gotcha point. Connolly is completely open about his (Deleuzian) aim “to restore belief in the world.” It’s just that no sooner is this aim uttered than the world undergoes the fate of anything in which we believe, since if you name your belief as belief, then you are conceding that your position is optional and to some considerable degree unfounded and that you do not, in that sense, believe it at all.

It’s not difficult, at any rate, to show that Connolly for one does not believe in his own book. The stated purpose of A World of Becoming is to show us how to “affirm” that condition. That’s really all that’s left for us to do, once one has determined that Becoming will go on becoming even without our help and even if we work against it. Connolly’s writing, it should be said, is generally short on case studies or named examples of emergent conjunctures, leaving readers to guess what exactly they are being asked to affirm. For many chapters on end, one gets the impression that the only important way in which the world is currently becoming is that more people from Somalia are moving to the Netherlands, and that the phrase “people who resist Becoming” is really just Connolly’s idiosyncratically metaphysical synonym for “racists.” But near the end of the book, three concrete examples do appear, all at once—three Acts of Becoming—two completed, one still in train: the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the 2008 financial collapse; and global warming. All three, if regarded from the middle distance, seem to confirm the vitalist position in that they have been transformative and destabilizing and will for the foreseeable future produce unpredictable and ramifying consequences. What is surprising—but then really, no, finally not the least bit surprising—is that Connolly uses a word in regard to these three cases that a Nietzschean committed to boundless affirmation shouldn’t be able to so much as write: “warning.” Melting icecaps are not to be affirmed—that’s Connolly’s own view of the matter. Mass foreclosure is not to be affirmed. Quite the contrary: If you know that the cosmos is capable of shifting suddenly, then you might be able to get the word out. The responsibility borne by philosophers shifts from affirmation to its opposite: Vitalists must caution others about what rushes on. The philosopher of Becoming thus asks us to celebrate transformation only until he runs up against the first change he doesn’t like.

This is tough to take in. Lots of things are missing from political ontology: politics, objects, an intelligible metaphilosophy. But surely one had the right to expect from a theorist of systemic and irreversible change, one with politics on his mind, some reminder of the possibility of revolution, some evocation, since evocations remain needful, of the joy of that mutation, the elation reserved for those moments when Event overtakes Circumstance. But in Connolly, where one might have glimpsed the grinning disbelief of experience unaccounted for, one finds only the bombed out cafés of Diyala, hence fear, hence the old determination to fight the future. The philosopher of fire grabs the extinguisher. The philosopher of water walks in with a mop.

Thanks to Jason Josephson and everyone in the critical theory group at Williams College.

30 responses to “To the Political Ontologists

  1. Bravo, Christian. You’ll get some critics, no doubt, probably those who will maintain that you’ve skewered only process philosophies and not also ‘object-oriented ontology’. But you hit the mark here.

  2. Ruth Groff

    You know what I think of this stuff.

    But I worry that you want to say that political philosophy does, after all, float free of metaphysics — or that one can defend the priority of the object without recourse not just to an ontology, but an ontology of a specific kind. This seems wrong to me, as you know. If nothing else, political philosophy can float free of metaphysics only if the world has a certain metaphysical character, the character ascribed to it by analytic fans of Hume and continental fans of Kant alike.

    Here is a question, though: how do your 3 choices above, seemingly exhaustive, work in Aristotle’s case? I think I’d need to see that really set out carefully, before those choices wouldn’t look to me like a slate that already presumes non-Aristotelian commitments.

    I know that I am being a meanie, objectively. It’s just that these issues are so delicate, and have been my core preoccupation for forever. Apart from the parts about which I have reservations, I think it’s brilliant. I completely agree that Bennett just wants to get the subjectivity right. And also about the as-if stuff.

    • Christian Thorne

      Ruth, I think I should learn from you on this one. I mean, you should tell me how an Aristotelian would get from ontological claims to political ones and whether that path adds a fourth option to the other three. I’m ready to hear that it does. But my sense from earlier conversations is that politics and ontology remain hard to talk about efficiently within a single argument, even under Aristotle’s tutelage. You ever had much luck with it?

  3. Good post, but watch for a pile-on from the OOO cronies here in the comments section of your blog (that is, if they choose not to feign indifference while steaming behind their keyboards). They have a tendency to shirk substantive criticism and interpret it instead as a personal attack. In return you’ll either get a pile-on here, a casual but arrogant one-off on one of their blogs, or feigned indifference. No argument though. Glad to see more and more are recognizing re-hashed history of philosophy and flat out charlatanism.

  4. It has already begun; Levi Bryant has responded. I second Ruth’s point about the Humean and Kantian takes of analytic and continental philosophy.

  5. Christian Thorne

    Here’s the link to Levi’s response:

    It was cool of Levi to take the time to reply on a busy day. I’m also heartened to realize that we actually agree on a few core points. So two quick thoughts in that spirit: 1) I’m not the one asking that political claims be derived from ontological ones. I’m just taking Bennett, Connolly, et al at their word. My whole point, in fact, is that it’s harder than many recent theorists realize to talk about politics and ontology in the same framework — and that when political philosophers dabble in ontology, the politics begins to feel like an add-on. In that sense, I don’t much object to anyone wanting to undertake ontology qua ontology. And if the ontologists want to grope their way back to politics, I’ll still be interested, as long as they spell out all the steps. What’s troubling me is a situation in which some ontologies get to count as politically more virtuous than others, without anyone ever having had to make the case. This is what’s happening at conferences and in graduate seminars: ontological policing. 2) I’m also concerned with the effort to “legislate what is”; I like that phrase of Levi’s an awful lot. But it is precisely the ontologists who do this most conspicuously. I haven’t yet come across an ontology that wasn’t more or less fantasy-driven or an ontologist who didn’t appoint him- or herself the Legislator of Being. But then there, I’m guessing, we diverge….

  6. Ruth Groff

    I definitely don’t think that you can get from ontology to policy (or to *any* particular moral judgment, for that matter) in an Aristotelian context. (Nor – I’m pretty sure I think – in any other metaphysical context; but Aristotle is explicit about this.) But this is the wrong criterion for assessing the relevance of ontology anyway; it’s the wrong demand. It reminds me of one of that lecture, I forget which one now, where Adorno is fussing about about bad ways of thinking about the relationship between philosophy and practice. I’m not saying that it’s your demand, but it is one that people seem to go to without even thinking, it seems to me. “Oh, ok; well if ontology is so important, then what specific politics can I read off of that metaphysics?” So that’s one whole big issue, too big for a fb post I think, but I would love to talk about it. Aristotle’s metaphysics is too big for here too, but I’ll say that you might want to land him in category #1 — fan the flames of the not-so-fire-y things. Except for not really, because first of all not everything is fire (the only thing that everything is is a thing with one or another particular set of powers-to-do – real ones, I mean – that may or may not be developed); and also, nothing is guaranteed to actually be ablaze, even if they are such that they could be, and therefore would do well to be (i.e., even developed powers-to-do may or may not end up being expressed). Meanwhile, on the question of whether or not that which exists needs *us* in order to be ablaze, the answer is that some of the things that exist do, others not so much. This is an important difference between Aristotle and Hegel. As a matter of ontology, people (well, Greek men, technically speaking) do turn out to be dependent, blazing-wise, on something that it looks as though only people (ok, ok, Greek men who are rich) can provide. And this, as it happens, has some political import. Though it doesn’t translate into policy. (And it’s still a separate question whether or not “Ontology will tell you what to do” is a good way to think about the significance of ontology for social, political or moral philosophy.) Sorry so long-winded without actually saying a lot. Hey maybe we should think about writing something together! Even if we disagree.

    • Christian Thorne

      Right on, RG — but then I’m not sure that we are disagreeing. It’s the vitalists, Deleuzians, Spinozists, &c who think that you can derive a politics more or less directly from an ontology, and my point is that I have yet to see them do it successfully. I’m demanding it only because they promise it. But then you, too, Ruthie, seem to be saying that politics floats free of metaphysics….

  7. Ruth Groff

    Response # 3 to Christian

    Yes, I’m not sure that we disagree either. I didn’t mean that it was your demand. It’s possible, though, that you will say that THOUGHT about how the world is (literally: onto-logy) is epistemology, not ontology. I think that the distinction you make – assuming an implied “Yes, yes, of course thinking subjects are objects,” to put it in shorthand – between ontology as (a) the basic features of that which exists and ontology as (b) thoughts about same, is a useful distinction in relation to their ambitions & how they mishandle the whole issue. As I see it, thoughts about the basic features of that which exists are importantly different in content than thoughts about knowing — notwithstanding the fact that they are all thoughts (as opposed to things that, in my view, are not thoughts), and notwithstanding the fact that the former are not just thoughts but knowledge-claims. But I think you bring out nicely that what follows from how things are (or could be, in virtue of what they are) is not necessarily the same as what follows from either correct or incorrect thinking about how things are. For example, as a matter of (a), above, I think that it follows from the fact that human beings have real powers, reification is possible as a social phenomenon. As a matter of metaphysics, if the world is as Hume says, then it can be marked by regular successions of impression that are themselves conjoined with a feeling of disapproval, but it can’t contain a phenomenon such as reification. Meanwhile, as a matter of (b), there are clearly significant ideological and therefore political effects that follow from not being able to properly think reification at the level of social science, say. Of course, being able to think it won’t make it go away. But I don’t think that politics floats free of ontology either in the (a) sense or the (b) sense of ontology. I guess if “floats free” = anything short of “generates specific policy choices” I do. But as we agree, that’s just a political version of what Bhaskar calls the “ontological fallacy” of positivism; political programs, like scientific theories, are underdetermined by the data. 🙂 I think that what I think is that what can and cannot happen, politically, is constrained, albeit in different ways, by ontology in both the (a) and (b) senses. I think I also think, with Aristotle (and, I’d say, Marx), that it is good for things to be thriving, healthy, actualized versions of the kind of thing that they are, rather than scraggly, truncacted, distorted versions. This sets certain basic positive parameters in place, too, viz., whatever one takes to be the conditions of possibility for the flourishing of things of our kinds. None of this amounts to a politics that can be *derived* from ontology, but neither does it amount to politics being a-ontological, or a-metaphysical. If there is any kind of phenomenon whatsoever in the picture, then – if it’s a person who’s got the picture in mind – there is already metaphysics there, in both the (a) and (b) senses.

  8. Ruth Groff

    ps. I think in sorting out this issue one also has to distinguish between the concepts of “political” and “normativity.” This too is a delicate operation, but it makes a difference, I think, whether or not normativity itself is posited as a basic ontic variable. There is all the difference in the world between Aristotle and Plato on this point, to my mind. Though even if you believe that there is actually a thing such as an uninstantiated property of goodness, it doesn’t follow from this that you’d know what to do other than that you should do the thing that would be the instantiation of that property. Kant gets a little more content out of his moral ontology. “Content.”

  9. Jason Adams

    Hi Christian, very interesting piece, as usual! Here are a few comments: my reading is that ontology is always implicitly present in every philosophical or political argument (particularly when it is disavowed, as it is in the arguments of liberals like Rawls, with his claim to being “political not metaphysical”). But to say this is not the same as saying that one must get one’s ontology “right”, as though one knows, ahead of time, what that would be. Those who think they’ve gotten it right are usually the first to suggest we no longer need to think about it, since it is just assumed, which is why it is an issue at all, in the writings you’re referring to. Rather it suggests that one’s ontological presuppositions, of say, metaphysical nationalism or self-interested rational actors, etc. (in political science and other social sciences), have political implications and that it is in fact, possible to think these things differently. Not “correctly”, but differently than they presently are, which is what to my mind, makes ontology a political domain, at least as much epistemology or anything else. Second, to suggest than an ontology of becoming means that those who assert it either have to directly confront and hold back the negative dimensions of becoming-as-acceleration (as directed by global capitalism, etc.) as best they can or pragmatically accept most of it, while trying to direct the remainder in more preferable directions, not only avoids the ethical questions folded into what I think is implicitly celebrated in this critique since it is the only other option left unstated (acceleration tout court, as with Jameson’s “Representing Capital”?) but also misses the dynamism of celerity understood in a broader sense, as irreducible to deceleration or acceleration, at least in the absolute sense most people assume those terms to mean (as for instance, I think Nick Land does, in his work). Third, the claim that ontopolitics is really just epistemoralism since the realization that ontological claims often have political implications means that we should cultivate our capacity to be affected by the complexity of the world as such: to me this seems more like epistethics, since a capacity to affected by the world tends to trouble moral certainties, something a little more negotiable between diversely situated entities than what moralism allows. Finally, the closing portion about melting icecaps, mass foreclosure and selective affirmation: selective affirmation is what real affirmation is – it is selective. Beyond Good and Evil does not mean beyond good and bad. Even if Hardt & Negri / Deleuze & Guattari can be read or misread as celebrating rape and genocide as a result of their Spinozist/Nietzschean affirmationism (but isn’t that implicitly a claim that they were not selective enough?), I am am not sure how to understand the concomitant suggestion we should unselectively celebrate acceleration as such, if that is what you are saying. Here I follow Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche: “to affirm is to create, not to bear, put up with or accept.”

    • Christian Thorne

      Thanks, JA. There’s a lot to think about there. Let me respond quickly to the matter that is most easily settled, which is to reassure you that I’m not misreading Hardt, Negri, Deleuze, or Guattari. Here are Hardt and Negri: “From the perspective of the new United States, the obstacles to human development are posed by nature, not history—and nature does not present insuperable antagonisms or fixed social relationships. It is a terrain to transform and traverse. … The frontier is a frontier of liberty. … Across the great open spaces [open spaces???] the constituent tendency wins out over the constitutional decree, the tendency of the immanence of the principle over regulative reflection, and the initiative of the multitude over the centralization of power.” — that’s Empire, pp. 168-9. And in Multitude, there is a section called “Twilight of the Peasant World” where they say in so many words that the termination of the peasantry “is one condition that makes possible the existence of the multitude” — you can check p. 116. Deleuze and Guattari are such straight-up imperialists that it’s hard to know where to begin. The bit that always floors me, even when I think I’ve factored it into my understanding of them, is the praise-song to Englishmen abroad in What is Philosophy?: “the English are precisely those nomads who treat the plane of immanence as a movable and moving ground, a field of radical experience, an archipelagian world where they are happy to pitch their tents from island to island and over the sea. The English nomadize over the old Greek earth, broken up, fractalized, and extended to the universe. … The English inhabit. For them a tent is all that is needed” — p. 105. But the passage I had in mind here comes from p. 96 of Anti-Oedipus, where they are explaining that our desires are not locked into the family or the Oedipal triangle. This, of course, is reason to celebrate: “There is no Oedipal triangle: Oedipus is always open in an open social field. … It is strange that we had to wait for the dreams of colonized people in order to see that, on the vertices of the pseudo-triangle, mommy was dancing with the missionary, daddy was being fucked by the tax collector, while the self was being beaten by a white man.” The point not to be missed is that a phrase from that first sentence carries over the ellipsis: French-occupied Africa is “an open social field” — the liberated alternative to the bourgeois family.

      • Christian Thorne

        I’m glad you nudged me to pull out that last passage from D&G; it’s even more dumbfounding than I remembered it. I went back and tweaked the sentence in the essay to reflect it more precisely. Thanks.

        • Jason Adams

          Aren’t D&G writing this from a specifically French locus of enunciation, though? When they speak of Europeans (continental Europeans), they say that they are peoples marked by homogeneity, the State apparatus, etc., while Anglo/Americans are marked by heterogeneity and imperial reach (and that these qualities impact their respective literatures). The concluding argument they arrive at though is not that Anglo/Americans are the “better” form of life, but that what is needed is a world that is reducible to neither Euro nationalism nor Anglo/American globalism, but instead, the “open whole”, something beyond and quite opposed to both. And when H&N are writing about the nature of American imperialism (in a manner indebted to William Cronon, etc.), I am pretty certain they are not prescribing, as though this were a good thing, but describing, as though this was talked about and thought about by imperialists. To use the term “open spaces” does not mean they themselves see them as having been open spaces, but rather that this is how Jefferson, Madison, et. al. saw them. As for the peasantry comment, that is a residue of their Marxism, which I don’t think you’d find in D&G so easily, not that they were immune to such things. There are also a number of indigenist writers influenced by them, that I wonder how you’d respond to on this topic, such as Gerald Vizenor.

          • Christian Thorne

            Hardt & Negri definitely aren’t just reporting on what Jefferson and others thought. They really have absorbed those ideas into their epochal account of how the multitude came into being. And it shows up lots of places in their writing: Negri has a section in INSURGENCIES on “immense American spaces,” which is nothing but commonplace colonial fantasy, and he had the bizarre habit for a while of referring to white settlers as “English Tartars.” Same deal with Deleuze and Guattari: They routinely get off on colonial history, and not just Anglo-American. Here’s another sentence from ANTI-OEDIPUS: Proper nomads, the people who refuse to be repressed, “want virgin lands, more truly exotic, families more artificial, societies more secret that they design and institute along the length of the wall, in the locales of perversion.” I’m not sure why their being French would make that any less retrograde.

  10. Jason Adams

    Oh yes, and a reply to Utisz: the OOO-skewering was in the last post on Meillasoux. So now my question for Christian is, what are the strengths of each vis-a-vis the other? Are there any points of resonance for you in either?

  11. Ruth Groff

    Hey C., et. al.,

    I worry that I have been oblique in some of what I’ve said. Partly this is because it’s so complicated. And partly it’s because I don’t know how much of what works as heuristically for me is common knowledge between us, and I may have erred on the side of assuming too much. But partly it was laziness.

    So here’s a crash course in the relationship between metaphysics and politics in Aristotle, as I see it. Everything that is a material thing, for Aristotle, is always already a thing of one kind or another. There are some differences that matter, between what A. calls a substance and what he calls an artifact, but they don’t differ in this respect. Everything that is a material thing is a material thing of one kind or another. You never get down to something that is just matter as such. [A. has a concept of “prime matter,” but it’s an abstraction only, one that picks out the fact of the materiality of material substances (or artifacts; I’ll use substances loosely, from now on, to refer to both). ] Ok good. All material things are a this or a that. Even teeny, weeeny, weeeny, things. No generic matter. Not Descartes.

    The this-ness or that-ness of the thing is its form, on the basic of which it falls into a kind. But this is tricky too, because the this-ness (or that-ness) consists of being able to do this or that. Tricky because the “able to” is not a foregone conclusion. Aristotle talks about two degrees of potentiality re: the “able to” – first and second order actuality. In the case of humans, for example, given our form we are “able to do” language. But that “able to” is potential only — unless and until we (a) actually learn a language; and (b) actually speak it. Then, having actualized the power, comes the question of virtue: if we not only do learn a language, and do actually speak it, then we can ask whether or not we are speaking it excellently.

    Aristotle thinks that all things – what with having forms defined in terms of powers to x or powers to y – can potentially do what things of their kind can potentially do, excellently. Though there’s no guarantee. And he thinks that, for all things, it’s good to do excellently the kind of do-ing in virtue of which they are a this rather than a that. To do excellently the kind of doing the capacity for which makes one be a this rather than a that, is to flourish as a this or a that.

    De Anima is all about the cognitive capacity that A. thinks humans have, as part of OUR form, to discern form as I’ve just described it. That’s a conversation for a different day.

    The Ethics opens with the question of what constitutes flourishing in the human case. As you can see, the answer is going to hang on what our form is. There, A argues that our form is such that two kinds of activity, done excellently, constitute flourishing. One is the cognitive activity of math & science as A. understands these endeavors; that’s best. But also perfectly suitable and good is the cognitive-but-in-a-differnt-way-plus-affective activity of wise deliberation with others about courses of action. The name for the virtue that you have if you excel at the first kind of distinctively human activity is “sophia”; the name in the second case is “phronesis” (though phronesis must be combined with affective excellence & cleverness, in order to pull off the relevant activity.)

    Now, I’ve called the phronesis-activity “wise deliberation with others about courses of action,” and that’s what it is, but Aristotle’s term for it is “politics.” The plot thickens.

    The Ethics involves a careful discussion of different kinds of relationships, with different kinds of purposes. A. calls them “friendships.” One of the kinds has as its purpose the cultivation of phronesis and good character by each in the other. [There is also a kind he calls “political,” which falls short of this. For now, I think we can bracket this. I will tell you that as I read A., the *proper* polis is best understood as a multi-party character friendship, not as a “political” friendship.]

    The Politics is about the polis, both what a proper one would be like and about what various deformed ones are like. A proper polis turns out to be the necessary venue for the practice of phronesis. It is the relationship that just *is* the enactment of the distinctively human activity, at which it is possible to excel (and thereby flourish as a human), that is called “politics” in the Ethics. The proper polis doesn’t include in the association women or non-Greeks, because they (we) can’t excel in the relevant way, and therefore are not viable partners, phronesis-wise. It also doesn’t include workers because it sucks for them, but someone has to do the farming and the manual labour, the doing of which leaves one no time to get good at wise deliberation.

    I don’t agree with Aristotle’s slate of distinctively human powers [and I don’t think that Marx does either, Marx being my favorite minor post-Aristotelian :-)], but at least you can get a sense of the through-line, in terms of the relationship between ontology and politics. The ontological given, on this picture, is the form. We can tell from the human form that the proper polis has as its purpose the cultivation of sophia and phronesis. But after that the metaphyics isn’t going to help.

    The other thing I wanted to say an extra word about was my reference to how Plato and Aristotle are different on normativity. Plato thinks that there is such a thing as goodness as such. Aristotle doesn’t. Aristotle has it that there are good thises and good thats, but “good” is defined functionally: to be a “good” this is just to do this-activity excellently. (It’s a little on the disenchanted side, but at least A. has it that it is pleasurable to do excellently the human activity, at least it is so long as you aren’t too fucked up.) Plato has it that there is an actual property, goodness, which would exist even if it weren’t instantiated anywhere.

    Apologies if this is stuff you already know. As I said, I was worried that I’d been oblique. If so, maybe this will fill things out just a little. (How you get from Aristotle to Marx is another story.) I’m just going to hit “Post Comment” without reviewing, and hope for the best; I hope there aren’t too many typos and confusing bits.

  12. Ruth Groff

    ps. I should have proofread it. Also, I don’t mean to suggest that goodness isn’t pleasurable for Plato. On the contrary. Being good is way more pleasurable as Plato tells the story than as Aristotle tells it. & they handle the relationship differently qualitatively, too, not just quantitatively.

    Ok, done now.

  13. Ruth, apologies, but I don’t grasp how your comments are relevant to the post. Can you explain?

  14. Ruth Groff

    Hi Jason,

    In my initiatial post – which Christian then responded to on fb; we had a thread there that was just us, before we moved it back here – I said that it wasn’t clear to me that Aristotle would fit neatly into any of the 3 categories that Christian had allowed, in terms of the thesis that there is a significant relationship between metaphysics and politics. I said I’d need to see a case for it. C. said he didn’t really know enough Aristotle to do it, so I should say more about how things go in the Aristotelian context. I did (along with saying some other things). But then I worried that what I’d said didn’t included enough information for anyone who didn’t already know Aristotle to see what my clipped summary referred to. So I thought I should spell out a little Aristotle, in the hopes that my earlier post, in which the comments were couched in terms of C.’s “fire” analogy, would have a bit more of a referent, for someone who didn’t already know Aristotle.

  15. Ruth Groff

    Sorry. “Didn’t include,” not “included.”

    Also, the Plato/Aristotle comment similarly refers back to an earlier comment to the effect that I thought that “politics” and “normativity” were being run together. I noted, since I was already talking Aristotle, that Aristotle gets the polis “from” a metaphysics of substantial form & dynamism, but that for what it’s worth, there is no form of the Good in the story. In sharp contrast to Plato.

  16. Ruth,

    Thank you. I did get the feeling that some of us were left out of part of the conversation. It wouldn’t occur to me to think that his analysis could easily target Aristotle.

  17. Hi Jason,

    Yeh, me neither. That was the point. 🙂

    But I was worried that he (hey C.) was thinking that the choices were either (a) “deriving” one’s politics from one’s metaphysics; or (b) thinking that politics floats free of metaphysics. (And thus that those three categories of what the options are for “ontologists” were going to catch anyone who would deny the latter.) I also thought – as I said – that the typology itself seemed to be predicated upon a post-Aristotelian metaphysics.

    Do you do work in this area? What’re yr interests?


  18. Hi again Jason. Just registered that your name is a link. Got it.

  19. Then, as you can see, I work in pragmatism, am conversant in a number of traditions, and am a recent PhD. I became “rail-roaded” 😉 into doing more metaphysics than I ever imagined, because I didn’t realize until late how different pragmatic metaphysics is from most of its contemporaries. My primary interests are in phenomenology in the pragmatist tradition, which is (scholastic) realist and processive.

    I discovered this blog through this post because I’ve been going back-and-forth with some object-oriented philosophers and materialists lately.

  20. O — well, it’s great you found it! Christian is my dear friend. But even if he weren’t, I’d think him crazy-smart. Interesting that you characterize pragmatism as realist. What’s the “scholastic” signal?

  21. Let me quote pragmatism’s founder, Peirce from the Century Dictionary:

    “Nominalism: I. The doctrine that nothing is general but names; more specifically, the doctrine that common nouns, as man, horse, represent in their generality nothing in the real things, but are mere conveniences for speaking of many things at once, or at most necessities of human thought; individualism.

    Realist: I A logician who holds that the essences of the natural classes have some mode of being in the real things; in this sense distinguished as a scholastic realist; opposed to nominalist ….”

    Or as I phrase it, descriptive categories or predicates are universal and real of nature and not just human nature; Kant and Hume can bite me.

    This view gets me in trouble with some materialists, who tend to be nominalists.

  22. Thank you, Christian, for another brilliant and incisive post. It’s good, as always, to hear your voice. For my part, I remain undecided about JB’s book: I can’t tell whether it’s more incoherent than it is symptomatic, or more symptomatic than it is incoherent.

    Incoherence first. It seems to me that vitalist materialism can account, at least in principle, for the extreme fullness of everything in the universe — with the small exception of the very “non-” (the negative, or perhaps the void) on which its entire argument about the “non-human” logically depends. But what exactly is the status of this little “non”? How, if at all, does it participate in the very argument it enables? If vitalist materialism *cannot* affirm the possibility that thought has a power to think the “non-,” it seems to me that its project collapses, because in the absence of this ability to think the “non-,” vitalist materialism would lack the ability to make the one distinction — between nonhuman and human agency — that matters most to it. But if, on the other hand, it finds that it *can and even must* affirm the power of thought to think the “non-” — if there is no other language or logic but the “non” in and through which it can articulate its ontology and its ethics — then its project *also* collapses, because the negative (and, differently, the void) is the one thing that cannot and should not be possible in a universe that is full of vibrating matter. JB’s thus seems to me to be a thought that can think everything except its own possibility as thought; and that, once it begins to think that possibility, must begin to embrace the very opposite of what it thinks. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Hegel too was a Spinozan before he realized that he needed to think the negative in order to remain Spinozan; and, as you say below, the universe, up to and including thought, is filled with strife. But if by “incoherence” we mean an inability of thought to think itself, then JB’s own unthinking opposition to her own thought does seem to indicate that more than a little bit of incoherence is at play in her work (at least in this, her pre-Hegelian, or perhaps pre-Badiouian phase).

    On the other hand, though, I sometimes think the importance of JB’s work is not its incoherence but its status as symptom. Aside from the void, the other thing this presumably all-inclusive text seems to rule out is the possibility of mourning. The transition from living body to dead body is, from the standpoint of vibrating matter, no transition at all (or, if it is any transition, it’s more like the transition between minute 9 and 10, or minute 1 and 2, or minute 14 and 15 of a piece like Philip Glass’s “Contrary Motion”). But while loss, and the mourning of loss, is precluded in this ontology, it’s not absent from JB’s text. Just as in the Nicene Creed death is not death but simply the beginning of “the life of the world to come,” this text derives considerable energy from the sublation of mourning. This sublation certainly does reappear at the closing of the text, with JB’s strange but revealing attempt to rewrite the Nicene Creed. But, really, it appears even prior to that, and in classic Freudian fashion, too: in and as the manic assertion that *all* matter — everything, up to and including, presumably, the matter of the corpse — is in fact vibrating with unseen life. The good news, here as in other belief systems, is that there is no death, that death is not an ontologically valid category, that mourning is not necessary or even possible. One might be tempted to describe JB’s text as a textbook example of the “oceanic feeling” Freud described at the opening of _Civilization and its Discontents_. But I think this is off the mark. JB’s is a text that, by its own account, has many losses to mourn: the “human” whose hubris it worries about is responsible, not entirely wrongly, for the loss of the entire world. So great is this loss, however, that the text seems to have decided that it would rather *lose loss itself* — abandon loss as a meaningful ontological or ethical category — than think a politics that’s adequate to the very loss that seems to concern it most. Its many claims to good vibrations notwithstanding, JB’s would then be a profoundly melancholic text. It would be a text that seems to want to try to defend itself against the loss of world by reconstructing a world that’s full to the point of delusion, a world in which loss and mourning alike are no longer thinkable or even possible. But surely leftist mania is no antidote to leftist melancholy.

  23. I also wanted to reply to your superb post on Messailloux, and in particular to a line in it that you seemed to have treated as a throw-away, but that in fact is very important as a point for the immanent critique of Messailloux’s thought. The full quote from the “Conclusion” of the _Critique of Practical Reason_ is as follows: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” This doubling of “above” and “within” is important to remember when reading Messailloux. It underlines the sense in which scientific utterances of a very specific sort — utterances that present the human being with an uncountable infinity, an infinity of a multitude of possible worlds, and that as such remind the human being that its planet is a “mere speck in the universe” — were not only not absent from Kantian thought, but were in fact its “extimate” interior, the very paradigm (in the rigorous sense that Agamben has outlined) for the laws of the intelligible world itself. It’s not by accident that in this same conclusion, Kant speaks not only of astrology but also of gravity. In the _Groundwork_, Kant opposes Newtonian causality by treating its form as the paradigm for the causality that freedom itself is (a point that both Heidegger and Adorno made in their lectures on Kant). Kant’s categorical imperative derives its form — the form of a law that’s unswerving and necessary, to which there are no exceptions (i.e. “miracles”) — from the very natural science whose laws it also opposes. Non-human science is not then exterior to Kantian thought; to the contrary, it’s the extimate core of Kantian thought. It’s the very model for that anonymous void that’s internal to the moral subject, and that constitutes the moral subject precisely by humiliating the subject, by speaking to the subject in a voice and gaze, and with a desire, characterized by absolutely imperious impersonality (cf. “Kant avec Sade”). Messailloux’s bullying references to the “outdoors,” not to mention his recourse to the natural sciences in an attempt to “put the human in its place,” are hardly then breaks with Kantian thought. They simply turn up the volume on one of the worst inheritances of Kantian thought: the attempt to found an imperative for the human in an boundless infinity that is not itself human (and don’t forget that on strict Kantian terms the “human being” is only one among many possible “rational beings”: there might be rational beings on other planets, as Kant writes in a famous footnote, who are capable of realizing Enlightenment in their own lifetime). It’s no counterargument to say, as a “speculative realist” (horrible brand-name) might, that at a thematic level Messailloux affirms anomie and antinomianism, the strict and necessary dissolution of all physical and logical laws. What matters in the Kantian imperative is not, of course, content but rather only form; and the form implicit in Messailloux’s claims about science is consistent with the form of the Kantian imperative: unswerving necessity. Nor is it any counterargument to say that the doubling of “starry skies” and “moral law” is exactly the “correlationism” against which Messailloux fights. For Kant, remember, the imperative claws its way into the living being, the finite animal being, by way of a feeling of “respect”; it emerges there within the living being when the living being finds itself in awe of the “fact of reason” within it. The same holds of the form of Messailloux’s prose: his text is written in such a way as to produce in the reader a sense of the sublime (to be precise the *mathematical* sublime: these fossils that are unimaginably and awesomely old, and that terrify me with the corresponding thought of the inevitable extinction of the world, the sun, the universe, etc.), and on this basis — on the basis of the same old Kantian nexus of nonhuman science and the sublime — to found an imperative *for the reader* the form of which is identical to the very Kantianism against which Messailloux wants to define himself. It’s true that this wouldn’t hold were Messailloux’s text to have no reader, or were his text to be entirely unintelligible (“green ideas sleep furiously”); in this case, indeed, Messailloux might escape from the terrible irony of finding, there within his own voice and gaze, the very Kantianism he hates. But so long as Messailloux’s claims make sense to a reader who is conscious of the experience of reading Messailloux’s text (indoors or outdoors), Messailloux’s text *cannot* make sense to that very same reader. “Messailloux” is not at all a name for post-Kantian thought. It’s a name for a Kantianism at war with itself — or better, for a Kantianism that finds it can survive its own demise precisely and only by virtue of waging an intense and passionate war against itself. It’s a name, in other words, for an unwitting Aufhebung of Kantianism: at root, Messailloux’s project is to break with the epistemology of the First Critique by doubling down on the deontology of the Second Critique and the aesthetics of the Third Critique. The human subject *always* has experienced the categorical imperative with reference to a sublime object of non-human science; it changes nothing at all to swap out the “starry skies” above me for the “filthy fossils” below me.

  24. You would appreciate Berry’s criticisms:


    Please withdraw this post.
    Oh, it is already withdrawn…into itself…infinitely.