Monthly Archives: April 2010

criticism and method

In response to my response to his mention of Nancy’s Sense of the World (in which I also mentioned Graham Harman’s constructive criticism / reserved appreciation of Nancy) Peter Gratton makes a good point about the methods and goals of philosophical criticism. To summarize:

The point is not to critique Harman’s view of Nancy…. if your view is that Harman is wrong [about Nancy], then the best way to show this is to use Nancy to show that Harman is right (about OOO in general, not, obviously, Nancy). … Then you can demonstrate, perhaps, ways in which Nancy’s work explores places of sense as of now left out unaddressed in Harman’s work…. Then that shows Nancy or some other figure (this is just an example) to be a theoretical tool for provoking thought on these topics, rather than simply taking the hammer to hit the saw and forgetting about the wood to be worked.

Now, I think it is important that if we have genuine philosophical disagreements (as I do with some aspects of Harman’s approach) or that if we find some ideas to be more accurate or helpful than others, that we be clear and direct about this. But Gratton is right that simply defending one philosopher or theory or idea from the criticisms of another by arguing that the first is “right” and the second is “wrong” is likely not to produce a very constructive exchange. In this instance, I wouldn’t be motivated to take any kind of stance with regard to Harman’s appraisal of Nancy (and again, here I’m only relying on one short blog post) if I didn’t (1) find much in Harman’s work that I think is worth engaging and developing further, and (2) think that Nancy’s work can and should be brought into a constructive conversation with it. This point is applicable even more so to the urge I personally so often have to play the role of apologist for Derrida: it’s not that I simply think Derrida is “right” where others are wrong, nor that I feel compelled out of some sense of loyalty to correct what I perceive to be misinterpretations on the part of his readers and critics (as many of and as egregious of those as I do think there may be). Rather, it’s that I see in Derrida’s work many resources for other work outside of the “phenomenological” and/or “deconstructive” niches, and it seems that it would benefit both sides if these different areas were brought into more constructive and less dismissively critical conversations.

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Sense or whatever

It’s great to see Peter Gratton over at Philosophy in a Time of Error bring up and defend Jean-Luc Nancy’s Sense of the World. When I first read this book a few years ago I was pretty blown away by it (despite the fact that, as Gratton concedes, a lot of it is not so clear). Since the English translation of it has been out of print for a while, I had actually been looking for an affordable copy of it off and on until about four months ago, when I finally did get my hands on one. So, I hope in the not-too-distant future to be able to spend some real time going back into it. I haven’t worked much recently with Nancy outside of his later “Deconstruction of Christianity” project. Just between Sense of the World and Being Singular Plural (not to mention much else), I think there’s a lot of stuff there that’s valuable both for deconstruction and OOO – as well as drawing out some common ground between the two.

The possibility of OOO/deconstruction connections might not be a popular idea right now, but I’ve already mentioned that I think there’s more to a Derrida/Latour comparison than one might initially think. Nancy is definitely another figure through whom such a connection could be made. I can understand Graham Harman’s point that the idea of “whatever being” as an unarticulated ontological surplus of sense beyond signification is difficult to accept especially along with an insistence on the fundamental ontological role that relation plays, but ultimately I don’t think this difficulty make it impossible. In fact, I’m already inclined to disagree with Harman’s appraisal of this sort of approach (as found in the last chapter of Prince of Networks) in favor of one closer to Latour’s (and perhaps Nancy’s as well) that would affirm both that objects are simply their relations and that there is some unarticulated reserve outside of the de- and re-constructible network of significations.

litanize it

Via larval subjects, I’ve just seen and have been playing with Ian Bogost’s Wikipedia-based “Latour Litanizer“. It’s a great little web tool that generates more or less random lists of objects such as those found throughout Latour’s works, by mining Wikipedia entries. Three things strike me as worth some further thought here:

(1) the frequency with which, given repeated multiple pushes of the button, people come up in the object list. There’s at least one in almost every list, and I got one that only had one non-person in it. Of course this does not reflect anything even close to the actual distribution of human persons among things in the world, but it does point to the fact that, because of various aspects of our way of being in the world, we are much more apt to catalog particular humans as such than any other kind of being. I think there would be much more to say about how different kind of beings are distributed into sets starting from a point such as this.

(2) the occasional appearance of a Wikipedia disambiguation page as an object in one of the litanies. There may be nothing qualitatively different about this kind of set of objects than any other (set of) objects, at least qua set. Still, I have a vague sense that there’s something significant in a grouping together of objects with the same (or very similar) name being brought together for that reason as an object.

(3) the fact that Bogost has chosen to call these lists “litanies”. Given the religious background of this word – I imagine any English dictionary will list prayer or liturgy as its “primary” meaning, before getting to the “derivative” sense of a cumbersome list (and the significance of this connection is hard to ignore as well) – my hunch that there is something really worthwhile to be made out of a thorough application of Latour’s work to thought about religion is growing stronger.

taking apart religion, and putting it back together

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here; in that hiatus one thing I’ve been working on is a critique of the concept of religion. Such critique has been offered in various ways in the past few decades within anthropology, sociology, and even religious studies itself, but it’s rare that this work has spilled over into philosophical discussions of religion. Too often, philosophers still take “religion” as something unified – frequently, as I’ve mentioned before, in order to dismiss it out of hand as something that “we” have put “behind us” in one way or another, but perhaps just as frequently in order ostensibly to analyze it or take hold of it in a positive way. But the types of things – phenomena, customs, practices, beliefs – that we normally designate “religious” are in fact so varied that it’s extremely difficult (perhaps impossible) to include them all under one conceptual category without doing serious disservice to much of this content.

One of the most urgent problems with the use of the category “religion” is that this term’s history has been closely intertwined practically since its inception with the history of the rise of Christianity within Europe and of European political and cultural influence in the world. One of the most incisive (and strongly-put) analyses of this conceptual history in recent scholarship is Daniel Dubuisson’s The Western Construction of Religion. Emphasizing the Christian theological determination of thought about religion in general, Dubuisson makes his point in an imaginative way:

[A]sk, for example, what the Christian theology of the Trinity would look like if translated into the Algonquin, Quechua, or Buryat languages. To think of the symbols of the papacy or the function of the exorcist on the sole basis of voodoo categories would be a no less instructive or invigorating exercise. (92)

In the tradition of European philosophy (as well as other social-scientific disciplines, ultimately), we are used to talking about Nanai “beliefs” or the “faith” of Buddhist monks. We almost never give a second thought to the fact that these terms are alien to the traditions begin discussed, but native to the tradition(s) dominant in the Western cultural milieu.

Now, Dubuisson ultimately argues for dropping the term “religion” and associated language in favor of what he calls “cosmographic complexes”  – any system of thought and action that serves to place everyday life within a horizon of meaning. I can’t agree with him that religion-language needs to be left behind entirely, but I do think it needs to continue to be criticized and reformulated. I think there is actually some productive work being done as well to revamp our understanding and use of religion-language. One example is the work of Danièle Hervieu-Léger, which has been on my shelf, so to speak, for a couple of years and which I’m only recently at long last beginning to turn my attention to. I also have a hunch – though I may get proven wrong on this point because I haven’t really been able to explore it at all yet – that some of Latour’s recent work would be a fecund basis on which to build a more adequate understanding of all (or at least some of) that which we’re used to calling “religion.”