TfE: Philosophy and Theory

So far, I’ve tried importing thoughts from Twitter. Today, I’d like to import some thoughts from Facebook, and to even import some that are not my own! I have a habit of writing massive comments on FB, and getting drawn into some complex discussions and sometimes even strident debates. I often only find the right way to express an important point in such moments. These moments are then lost in time, as the man said, like tears in rain.

Here’s a thought courtesy of Reza Negarestani, who, whatever else you might think of him, is probably in a better position to talk about the curious relationship between philosophy, the humanities, and the art world than anyone; and to treat the relations between these institutions not merely in terms of their possible, abstract configurations, (e.g., the way in which philosophy/theory might inform artistic practice), but in terms of their actual, concrete manifestations (e.g., the way in which art institutions contract with philosophers/theorists to provide intellectual prestige):

We are living in a world where the word philosophy is deemed inferior to even fields such as comparative literature, media studies, etc. This is not to say that such fields don’t think philosophically, but to merely point out the compromised states of thought in which a theorist in this or that field thinks philosophically yet either thinks of philosophy as antiquated or a dangerous enterprise while unconsciously parasitizing on it. I have heard the same things from the art people. Just because you know this or that philosopher, it doesn’t mean you know the meaning of philosophy, what it stands for or what the task of a philosopher entails. What is this hostility against philosophy by the very people who feed upon it? How can you actually talk about theory without the philosophical elaboration of the term theory?

I think this is an important provocation. Moreover, it reminded me of an FB exchange I had with McKenzie Wark, concerning a common trope in the humanities, namely: that philosophy is in some important sense ‘over’, and that its replacement by something simply called ‘theory’ is to be both welcomed and encouraged. This exchange is lost to the mists of time, but I somehow preserved the most important fragment, which I attached to a comment on Reza’s post:

It looks like I’m actually going to have to qualify [my opinion on ‘theory’]. I’m not sure I can do this without alienating absolutely everyone. Here goes.

I’ve got plenty of criticisms of academic philosophy as it currently stands. I could bitch for hours about the cultivated triviality of much analytic philosophy and the cliquish irrelevance of much Continental philosophy, and the general disdain with which both seem to treat the task of engaging with ‘deep conceptual issues’ in a way that is accessible to those outside their own disciplines let alone the general public. Of course, there are some good sociological explanations of these tendencies rooted in the more general perverse incentives of contemporary academia, but such explanations aren’t excuses for the sorry state of the discipline. So, not only do I think that it is generally good for people outside of professional philosophy to engage with ‘deep conceptual issues’, I think that it is specifically important for people to do so given the insularity of philosophy as it currently stands.

The problem I have with the label ‘theory’ (not art theory, social theory, political theory, but just ‘theory’) is when it is explicitly used to take on the mantel of ‘dealing with deep conceptual issues in wider culture’ that philosophy has abdicated — often referencing and using a range of resources it has inherited from philosophy in the process while simultaneously disavowing philosophy as such — only to produce results that are themselves shallow, cliquish, and inordinately self-satisfied. This does not describe everyone who works in ‘theory’ broadly construed by any means, any more than my bitching about analytic/Continental philosophy applies to everyone working in philosophy. It is meant to describe those who champion the democratic potential of ‘theory’ against the ossified state of ‘philosophy’, while refusing to identify what the fuck ‘theory’ is supposed to mean beyond the generalised common sense of their own little circle in the arts and humanities. Theory of what exactly? When one asks this question one is usually reminded that the ‘critical’ is now silent, in what is to my mind an ironically uncritical gesture. Critical of what? Of course, there is a determinate tradition of ‘critical theory’ coming out of the Frankfurt school, but once this has been mixed with the melange of poststructuralism and assorted Continental thought that filtered through literature departments in the late 20th century it becomes rather indeterminate, doesn’t it? Critical of capitalism? Critical of ideology? Critical of society? Or just generally critical of a bunch of things we all already know are bad, yeah? The rough leftist political common sense prevalent in the arts and humanities isn’t bad per se. It’s on average a good deal better than the societal common sense it defines itself against. But filtering it through the Chinese whispers game of jargon inherited third hand from French philosophers and peddling it to students as ‘critical awareness’ seems disingenuous to me.

I don’t want to simply defend the authority of philosophy. I don’t think that only those who have had ‘official’ training in philosophy deserve to use concepts inherited from the philosophical tradition. Possibly the best philosopher I’ve ever met — Reza Negarestani — is a complete autodidact with no institutional accreditation or support (to the detriment of those institutions I might add). Philosophy should allow us to challenge whatever we like using whatever tools we like, and systematically discourage appeals to authority wherever possible. The problem with the label ‘theory’ in my experience is that it is all too often appealed to as its own alternative source of authority, and when one challenges it, from a philosophical perspective or otherwise, one is confronted with a series of rhetorical devices designed to insulate a certain common sense rather than to *critically* engage with the relevant issues. I don’t mind people wanting to call themselves ‘thinkers’ or ‘theorists’ rather than philosophers. There’s a certain desirable generality to this use of the term that can be genuinely democratic. I dislike people setting themselves up in the castle of ‘theory’ as if it were an established tradition or body of doctrine. Though much of the work they want to count therein is undoubtedly good, this use of the term is not specific enough to index anything useful, and certainly not specific enough to stand in opposition to philosophy (whereas ‘art theory’, ‘social theory’, and ‘political theory’ are much more specific, and have useful connotations in contrast with, e.g., ‘philosophy of art’, ‘philosophy of society’, and ‘political philosophy’).

This comment was followed up by one from Dan Sacilotto, who has a particularly intimate awareness of the problems involved in trying to do philosophy in a context which is simultaneously parasitic upon and hostile to it (‘Give us philosophy,’ the literary theorists demand, whispering under their breath, ‘but not too much‘):

I think it is helpful to trace the separation of theory from philosophy historically to the attempts in the post-Kantian context to radicalize the critique of metaphysics, and particularly the way in which the 20th Century post-Heideggerean historicist and textualist tradition exacerbated the skeptical results of transcendental epistemology into a global crisis for philosophy as a whole.

With Heidegger, you already get something like a pathologizing of philosophy as metaphysics, and the announcement of its closure. With Levinas, you get the strict separation between ontology and ethics, and with Derrida the deconstruction of metaphysics sharply separates the business of positive philosophy from its textual-historical assessment, etc. Things begin with the separation between noumenal unknowability and phenomenal knowability, then get extended into the ontological difference between the radical withdrawal of being and the worldly disclosure of beings, and finally to the separation between philosophy and its Other (ethics, theory, thinking…) It’s the history of correlationism in a nutshell, which progressively pathologizes philosophy.

This leads to Jameson’s distinction between philosophy and theory, which is yet another variation on this motif: while philosophy is historically marked by the dream of self-sufficiency or systematicity, theory is properly dialectical insofar as it apprehends historicity, contingency, non-totalizability and relativity, as well as its indissociability from ideology and practice. Jameson’s own words are these:

“[T]he dialectic belongs to theory rather than philosophy: the latter is
always haunted by the dream of some foolproof self-sufficient system, a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause. This dream is of course the after-image of philosophy as an institution in the world, as a profession complicit with everything else in the status quo, in the fallen ontic realm of “what is.” Theory, on the other hand, has no vested interests inasmuch as it never lays claim to an absolute system, a non-ideological formulation of itself and its “truths”; indeed, always itself complicit in the being of current language, it has only the vocation and never-finished task of undermining philosophy as such, by unraveling affirmative statements and propositions of all kinds.”

This rhetoric is evidently attractive to those inhabiting the humanities, particularly fields such as literary criticism and cultural studies, since it simultaneously disqualifies the authoritative pretensions of philosophical discourse in its traditional universalist, scientific and systematic goals, while at the same time empowering those who avow the insuperable historicist horizon marked by contingency, relativity, and textual devotion. This global pathologizing of philosophy, and the assimilation of dialectics to theory, progressively allows generations of students and professors to basically disavow the necessity for philosophical formation, while adhering to their prefered philosophical frames (Marx, Foucault, Derrida…), endlessly regurgitating the tropes of post-Heideggerean historicism, preaching against all-things-logos, and scolding the ethnocentric, totalitarian and phallogocentric excesses of ‘philosophy’.

I think that this analysis is basically correct. I offered a similar one in the fourth chapter of my book, in order to show that the popularity of Object Oriented Ontology does not derive from its purported rejection of the ‘critical’ orthodoxy of Continental philosophy and the ‘theory’ it influences, but rather from the way it consolidates and legitimates the latter’s skeptical orientation, precisely by rebranding it not simply as ‘philosophy’ but as ‘metaphysics’. The story I tell there about Continental philosophy and the disciplines downstream from it is probably a little too simplistic, sacrificing a certain amount of historical precision in the name of rhetorical incision, but I still believe it to be largely correct. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this narrative is the way it extends the arc that Dan describes above from Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida to François Laruelle; explaining his inevitable popularity in terms of what he enables people to do.

Laruelle’s non-philosophy, much like deconstruction, Being-historical thinking, and genealogy before it, positions itself as a practice distinct from, and indeed outside of philosophy, while simultaneously usurping its position, refusing to acknowledge philosophical responses to it by insisting that it is simply doing something else. In fact, the dubious virtue of Laruelle’s position is that it makes this logic explicit, by making it axiomatic: suspending philosophy’s ‘axiom of sufficiency’ in the same way that non-euclidean geometry suspends the parallel postulate. The non-philosopher stipulates that all philosophy is inadequate, and is then free to use philosophy as they see fit, without fear of dialogical reprisals. It is, ironically enough, a more thoroughly auto-positional gesture than that of which it accuses philosophy, not to say a thoroughly unilateral approach to discourse. The philosopher cannot turn to the non-philosopher and ask: ‘Is this talk of axioms a mere analogy, or does it reveal deeper assumptions about the underlying structure of thought and talk, such as those studied by logic and proof-theory?’ for they, and all such questions have already been foreclosed. It is entirely unsurprising that this pattern of usurpation and foreclosure makes non-philosophy attractive to post-philosophical ‘theory’.

Lest it seem unkind, and equally unilateral, to address a response to Wark without presenting her own words, I think it wise to turn to her writing, much of which I find interesting and insightful. She most certainly understands the pressures imposed within the academy, and the way that they engender a pervasive conservatism:

We live in a curious time, when a lot of people seem to want ‘radical’ ideas from the academy, but they want them in the most conservative way. There’s a desire for Master Thinkers, for Great Traditions, for Discipline. The demand is that the most hide-bound of disciplines somehow yield their opposite, without in any way raising questions about how such disciplinary knowledges are structured in the first place.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting a return to that ‘60s gesture of wishing the past away, of pretending to start completely anew. That all too often simply reproduced old ideas in all innocence of their genesis. The past is, indeed, not even past.

But one can ask critical questions about where this intellectual past came from. One can look for other pasts, which yield other relations to the present. And one can question the citational form of all of those relations to the past. Any of which might be more interesting than simply shrugging off the question of certain dubious ancestors.

The heroes of any discipline are the ones who renewed its reasons to exist. For that they will be forgiven anything. But if one’s commitment is to thought and life, rather than a discipline, one can take a more jaundiced view of this special pleading.

I find myself in complete agreement here; though I think the relationship to the past and the future of thought that Wark recommends is one that can be practiced in, and articulated by philosophy. Whether it is one that is compatible with the academy is another matter.

Furthemore, Wark has an analysis of the historical factors that shaped post-Jamesonian ‘theory’, and the problems this engendered, which quite neatly complements mine and Dan’s story about post-Heideggerian ‘philosophy’:

If there is anything worth revisiting, however, it might be the feeling that the theoretical writing about the postmodern was an afterimage of a kind of cultural mutation, which in turn was an afterimage of a mutation in the mode of production itself. While the theory and the cultural criticism moved on, I’m not sure we ever got to a good discussion about how the mode of production might have mutated, and how big a mutation it might actually have been, let alone what might have caused it.

Still, it is instructive to revisit Fredric Jameson’s early essays on the topic, collected in The Cultural Turn. I vividly remember reading these in the mid to late 80s, from the time I finished my BA degree through BA Honors and a Masters degree. In revisiting these texts I find both certain methodological cues that I think one can still follow, as well as some too tentative diagnoses of what changes had actually taken place.

Jameson certainly had sensitive antennae for some kind of phase shift across the whole cultural scene. Not the last virtue of his intervention, which started as a talk for the Whitney in 1982, is its breath of vision.

As a first approximation to a definition: the postmodern is a series reactions against established forms of high modernism in the university and the museum. There were as many postmodernisms are there were modernisms. Hence there is no one stylistic tic. All seemed however to erode the old high-low art distinction.

Something similar happened in the academy, with the emergence alongside the specialized disciplines of “a kind of writing simply called ‘theory’.” This was the end of philosophy as such. In thought as in art, new forms were called into existence, out of the matrix of all the old ones, to describe a different kind of scene.

Of course one must remember that in the 80s and 90s one had to defend the project of doing any kind of synthetic or abstract conceptual work. Hard as it might be to make any sense of this now that we know we live in the Anthropocene, but in the 80s a lot of people thought that even to attempt to describe social and historical totalities was to oneself be ‘totalitarian’. And of course there is still a kind of left wing denialism that does not want to accept the evident fact that the biosphere is indeed a totality now forcing feedback-effects into every local corner of experience.

Jameson at least defended a concept of totality, even if a rather partial one. “Historical reconstruction, then, the positing of global characterizations and hypotheses, the abstraction from the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ of immediacy, was always a radical intervention in the here-and-now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities.” (35) Except that in the Anthropocene, we might now have to spend rather a bit more time understanding the counter-finality of its “blind fatalities.” Jameson is still sounding a rather optimistic note, from Lukacs rather than Sartre here.

What moral can we draw from all this? Well, I think that we can identify better and worse ways of thinking about the topics that we all recognise are important to think about, whether we see this importance through the lens of the love of wisdom, or the ruthless criticism of all that exists. However, we must recognise that the greatest obstacles to such thinking are not so much the labels we attach to it as the power dynamics and incentive structures that control access to its necessary means, and subtly distort its possible ends. To identify as a philosopher is not necessarily to take on a position of power in a structure ossified by tradition, any more than to identify as a theorist is necessarily to take on a position of resistance to such power in a movement driven by dynamism. This illusion is merely one more obstacle to be overcome if we are to think, together.

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Appropriate descriptors: (neo)rationalist, left-accelerationist, socratic wanderer, heretical Platonist, computational Kantian, minimalist-Hegelian, heterodox Foucauldian, dialectical insurgent, conceptual mercenary, philosopher of fortune.

One thought on “TfE: Philosophy and Theory”

  1. Both theory and non-philosophy are but synonyms for philosophy. I feel that the discourse on theory has begun to recognize this, as at least the “common man” seems to use the two rather interchangeably.

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