Monday, 20 February 2012

Today's Class on Harman and Aesthetics

It was a lively and enjoyable session today with the MFA group on Harman, Speculative Realism and aesthetics.

Bits of what I said have appeared on this blog in various forms, and I've also presented this material at SEP/ FEP in York (summer 2011) and at the Portrait of Space project run by Theresa Gillespie and Rose LeJeune in Sept. where you'll also find a video of the talk.

As a few people asked I've put the text up here for a while with a view to continuing the conversation via the blog should anyone want to.

Monday, 6 February 2012

A magical theory of reference?

This is a reply to Alan's response to the last post.

If one takes Realism according Michael Devitt who says: “The general doctrine of realism about the external world is committed not only to the existence of this world but also to its ‘mind independence’: it is not made up of ‘ideas’ or ‘sense data’ and does not depend for its existence and nature on the cognitive activities and capacities of our minds. Scientific realism is committed to the unobservable world enjoying this independence.” [‘Scientific Realism’]

Then the challenge for any such Realism (epistemic, ontological etc.) comes not only in the affirmation of a mind-independent reality but also the claim that that reality is knowable in itself; that is that true statements can be made about elements of reality.

 This seems to necessitate taking one of two, intertwined positions; neither of which is satisfactory to me.

First: Certain forms of Realism necessitate skepticism. This is because if there is a world of which we are part then this world obviously precedes and exceeds us. It transcends us and hence our access to it and knowledge of it must be partial. The transcendental project in both Kant and Phenomenology is a way out of this skepticism and (late) Husserl is quite clear that his phenomenology is realist: "There can be no stronger realism than this, if by this word nothing more is meant than: "'I am certain of being a human being who lives in this world, etc. and I doubt it not in the least'" [Husserl, Crisis of European Sciences... - quoted by Zahavi who makes a strong case for Husserl as a realist.] But it is a different type of realism to Devitt's.

Second: epistemic and ontological realism require reference in order to have meaning. This seems to require some form of abduction to support the knowable existence of a reality that we might have unmediated access to. This is what Putnam meant when he said: “believing that some correspondence intrinsically just is reference (not as a result of our operational and theoretical constraints, or our intentions, but as an ultimate metaphysical fact) amounts to a magical theory of reference.

And Putnam’s position (in Reason Truth and History at least) is to argue that this requires the claim that a ‘god’s eye view’ of the world is possible in principle. He rejects such a position as incoherent because we can never grasp the world in its totality. Descartes recognized this; hence his need for a 3rd entity – God – to triangulate between Res Extensa (corporeal substance) and Res Cogitans (consciousness) Without God his system would have been incoherent.

Now; this is relevant to the last post because this is also what Luhmann also claims; namely that to have a world in-itself then this world needs a correlate observer with a view from nowhere. Luhmann then historicizes this saying that whilst we used to use God to perform this function (of position-less observation) this god-function has been replaced in the functionally differentiated social systems of modernity and the possibility of a position-less observation of the totality of everything has, necessarily, evaporated.

Also, and there’s so much more to be said on this than the following few lines, I think this points to the role of aesthetics in gesturing toward this totality. I take this to be what Bateson means when he draws together epistemology and aesthetics in grasping totality and claims that: "the loss of the sense of aesthetic unity was, quite simply, an epistemological mistake."

It’s also how I read Graham Harman’s claims that aesthetics is first philosophy and that aesthetics is a branch of metaphysics. Perhaps, then, only certain forms of magical thinking can help us speculate about the world beyond our prison house of language and reference.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

"Our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity is an epistemological mistake"

I’ve been thinking about Luhmann and religion at the moment and I have an idea that is probably heretical in terms of rigorous Luhmann scholarship. This is to consider “system” in quasi-religious terms; perhaps as comparable to God.

This is a reading that would require swimming against the stream of interpretation that has Luhmann’s account of Modernity as a sociological one that describes The System of Religion in relation to an increasing secularization of society. That is as a turning away from religion as a means by which to describe the world to forms of social systems that are self-observing and self-describing. Luhmann himself says that the purpose of religion was to deal with the problem of observing the indeterminate complexity of the world and to “transform indeterminable into determinable contingency” (Function of Religion, 1977, pg. 189) and that this function disappears in the functional differentiation of society in Modernity.

However; I’m sure that there is something weird and occult about Luhmann’s “system.” And that his thinking is infused with a form of occult spirituality (albeit a post-human spirituality, perhaps akin to that of Norbert Wiener, who, by the way, was also a pretty weird thinker, as anyone who has read God and Golem Inc. will know.)

There are 3 dimensions to this occult flavour to Luhmann’s work.

One thinks through how Hegelian Geist, or spirit is replaced by “system” in Luhmann’s own account of the development of modern society.

Two concerns how auto-poesis (self-organization) functions as an animating, first cause in his systems (in the later Luhmann at least when he’s drawing on the biological theories of Bateson, Maturana, Varela et al). A spirit, or life-force perhaps inhabits his systems. This is, after all, what Habermas recognized in his critique of Luhmann’s systems theory as meta-biological; that is as relying on a principle of irrational “life” as an organizing principle.

Three follows on from Luhmann’s own enigmatic statements about God such as:
The partner for radical constructivism is therefore not traditional epistemology, but traditional theology… One then easily sees that one still has to distinguish the distinguishing of the distinctions with which observers work and which can be observed in the observations of observers from the indistinct which was once called God and today, if one distinguishes system and environment, is called world, or, if one distinguishes object and cognition reality… This also means that the form of a theory described on the basis of its ability to resolve paradoxes allows for the question about functional equivalents, or, if it presents the paradox of observation as the observer, the question about God,” (from The Society of Society, translated in Moeller, Luhmann Explained.)

Now – I’m not really sure, if I’m honest, if I know what all that means and where I might go with it. But it does seem to mesh with something that Bateson has to say about an aesthetic unity in complex systems (which I’ve quoted below) in relation to spirituality. And this also seems to underwrite my own hunch that at the heart of Luhmann’s own system building is an aesthetic project; and that his is an aesthetic theory.

We have lost the core of Christianity. We have lost Shiva, the dancer of Hinduism whose dance at the trivial level is both creation and destruction but in whole is beauty. We have lost Abraxas, the terrible and beautiful god of both day and night in Gnosticism. We have lost totemism, the sense of parallelism between man’s organization and that of the animals and plants. We have lost even the Dying God.

We are beginning to play with ideas of ecology, and although we immediately trivialize these ideas into commerce or politics, there is at least an impulse still in the human breast to unify and thereby sanctify the total natural world, of which we are.

Observe, however, that there have been, and still are, in the world many different and even contrasting epistemologies which have been alike in stressing an ultimate unity and, although this is less sure, which have also stressed the notion that ultimate unity is aesthetic. The uniformity of these views gives hope that perhaps the great authority of quantitative science may be insufficient to deny an ultimate unifying beauty.
I hold to the presupposition that our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity was, quite simply, an epistemological mistake. I believe that that mistake may be more serious that all the minor insanities that characterize those older epistemologies which agreed upon the fundamental unity.” (Bateson – Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity, Intro.)