Tag Archive: political theory

The objects versus relations debate has revved up again over at Larval Subjects, in the commentary responding to Levi Bryant’s Questions about the possibility of non-correlationist ethics.

The debate, as I would describe it, circles around the following question: If we agree that traditional philosophy has been too centrally premised on the relationship between humans and the world at the expense of the world itself (with all its other things, beings, entities, relations, and whatnot), then is it better to promote a philosophy that focuses on objects, that is, not just on human subjects/objects but all objects, or one that focuses on relations between things (subjects, objects, networks, processes, whatever)? The first approach is taken by object-oriented philosophers like Bryant, Graham Harman, and others; the second by relationists, such as those influenced by Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, and Spinoza, among others (though the exact list depends on whom you ask; a few recent and recommendable books in this latter tradition are Steven Shaviro’s Without Criteria, John Protevi’s Political Affect, and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter).

Since I’ve responded to Levi’s points on his blog, I’ll restrict myself here to addressing in greater depth the question raised by Levi, Scu, and anxiousmodernman (in their comments) about the politics of relationalism.

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radical orthodoxies, left & right. . .

Slavoj Zizek’s engagement with theologians like radical orthodoxist John Milbank continues to perplex me a little bit, but having heard him speak a few days ago with death-of-God theologian Thomas Altizer at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Montreal left me reassured me that Zizek is far from the wildest (and zaniest) mind out there. Altizer’s voice thundered through the Palais des Congres conference room as he corralled Hegel and William Blake into a kind of ecstatic rave-up on Satan and the self-annihilation of God. I’m not familiar enough with Altizer’s thinking to judge it, but it sounded a little to me like taking two parts X (in this case, Hegel), one part Y (Blake), and sprinkling in some N and M (Nietzsche and Jung?) just to see what will come of it (something, I think, about spirit’s immanence in the world through the self-annihilation of God via Christ). [sentence deleted out of respect]*

But Zizek’s big argument was the same as ever: that the relativists, postmodernists, multiculturalists, holists, pagans, buddhists, relationalists, Deleuzians, and even deconstructive theologians like John Caputo (addressed directly) are all wrong, and are really just propping up the illusory Big Other instead of releasing us into the revolutionary moment, and that what we need instead is a Leninist revolutionary force to bring about, I guess, an egalitarian utopia on Earth.

I like watching Zizek perform and enjoy his post-Yugoslav sense of humor, and I think his big Lacanian thought is a very good one to have around — on ecological matters no less than on others (though there’s an incoherent desperation in his writing on ecology that makes me glad Tim Morton is around to tell us more clearly what Zizek would like to say). But I can’t help wondering if there’s a kind of continuity — not of ideas, but of sensibility — developing between his (and Alain Badiou’s) ultra-Left neo-Orthodoxy and other orthodoxies, like the Radical Orthodoxy of Milbank and of Philip Blond, spiritual gurus for some of the “red Tories” among David Cameron’s soon-to-be-ruling Conservatives in the UK, and maybe even the Radical Traditionalists that have influenced the European New Right (including the neo-’Pagans’ among them such as Russia’s Aleksandr Dugin and France’s Alain de Benoist). I haven’t read Zizek’s/Milbank’s Monstrosity of Christ (being, quite honestly, a little afraid of it), only reviews of it; but it does seem to me that all of these neo-orthodoxies are fervently anti-liberal, both in liberalism’s economic (neoliberal) and its cultural variants, and are either sour on democracy, or at least merely utilitarian in their approach to it.

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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

– Through the Looking Glass

Lawrence Lessig has written a lengthy retort to Kevin Kelly’s article, which I just wrote about, describing the open-source movement as a form of socialism. Lessig, leading theorist of the open-source movement and a respectable legal scholar (whom I’ve blogged about here), says no way, but his argument, which he admits is a “rant,” is as sloppy as he accuses Kelly of being.

Lessig’s argument is essentially that one cannot redefine a word at will:

“Words have meaning. We don’t get to choose their meaning. If you call something “X” people will hear the equation. They won’t read the fine-print which says (“By X, I mean really not-X).”

and that the word “socialism” has a clear meaning and Kelly’s redefinition of it plays into the wrong hands. Kelly’s “sloppiness” here, as he calls it,

“has serious political consequences. When a founder of the movement which we all now celebrate calls this movement ‘socialist,’ that plays right in the hand of those would attack everything this movement has built. [...] I do think that now is not the time to engage in a playful redefinition of a term that has such a distinctive and clear sense. Whatever ‘socialism’ could have become, had it not been hijacked by revolutions in the east, what it is in the minds of 95% of America is not what Wikipedia is.”

The irony here is that Lessig writes as if he hasn’t a clue of the historical meaning of the word “socialism” beyond its use as an epithet by American conservatives. He is, in effect, choosing the meaning of a word even as he diallows others from doing that. “At the core of socialism,” he writes, “is coercion”:

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There’s a wealth of material in post-marxist and poststructuralist political philosophy to be found at the After 1968 web site, which documents a series of seminars and lectures held in Maastricht over the last few years. You can find texts by Agamben, Deleuze, Badiou, Ranciere, Baudrillard, Negri, Derrida, Nancy, and others there, though it will take some scrolling, clicking, and poking around to locate them.

One of the more interesting finds there is a link to the translated notes from a lecture by Deleuze on Spinoza’s concept of affect. It’s arguably this concept and its transmission through Deleuze, together with the more recent upsurge of research in the neuroscience of affect and emotion (by people like Antonio Damasio), that underlies the fairly dramatic upwelling of interest in all things ‘affective’ in recent social and cultural theory.

The site also provides links to Deleuze’s last published piece of writing, the brief, lyrical “Immanence: A Life…”, and to Giorgio Agamben’s insightful, meditative dissection of it (which, thankfully, is only slightly marred by Agamben’s own obsessions with sovereignty, “bare life”, biopolitics, etc.). Agamben spends three whole pages analyzing the punctuation – colon, ellipsis – of the title alone, and though that may sound overindulgent, it’s well worth reading.

Deleuze’s notion of immanence changed over the years and, as Christian Kerslake argues, left questions and inconsistencies in its wake. But it remains very evocative and, in this final version at least, sounds to me completely resonant with the (Madhyamika) Buddhist ontology I’ve been exploring.

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