Category Archives: Skepticism

Marginalia On Radical Thinking: Interview with KMO, part 1

KMO is the host of Z-Realm and C-Realm , and a thinker on collapse whose thoughts I have seen evolve through the course of his podcast. While not a hard leftist in the since that many of my interviewees, his perspective is among one of the smarter that some on the collapse end of the left. Avoiding a lot of the common tropes to deep green politics.

Skepoet: How would you describe your political and social journey over the past few years?

KMO: I used to hold pretty orthodox and straight-forward libertarian views. Starting in the 1990s, I voted for the Libertarian Party candidate in every presidential election. My support of the LP ended in 2008, when they put up Bob Barr, a career Drug War blowhard, as their presidential candidate. I’ve always gravitated to artists and creative types as friends, and they tend towards what in modern parlance is known as ‘liberalism,’ and I’ve learned through repeated hard experience with strained or terminated friendships that there is nothing to be gained by engaging self-identified progressives in political debate, so my self-identification as a libertarian comes more as a confession than as a loud and proud declaration.

Also, since I’ve been paying attention, it seems like more and more people who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’ strike me as basically ‘Rouge Elephants,’ i.e. Republicans who don’t want to pay taxes and who gravitate to libertarian ideology because they think it justifies their privileged position in the status quo. These folks seem to have no problem with the Drug War and with imperial ambition. Also, many Ayn Rand supporters gravitate to libertarianism, and they are some of the most obnoxious ideologues I’ve ever encountered. I would hate for someone who formed their opinion of libertarians based on encounters with these folks (I’m working really hard to avoid using the word ‘Randroids’ – I guess I just lost that battle) to slot me into the same mental category with Rand’s most strident and self-satisfied  devotees.

Socially, I’ve gone from being someone who very much wanted to live on a rural farmstead for quality of life reasons, to being a panicked Doomer who wanted to create a lifeboat situation away from major population centers, to being a Brooklynite who has taken a sort of Bodhisattva vow with respect to the potential for civilization-wide convulsions and catastrophes. I’ve made peace with the idea that happens to my society happens to me.

 S:   In the C-Realm podcast, there is a very deliberate attempt to generate consciousness, but from what perspective do you think the most useful  consciousness comes?

The perspective that I encourage and articulate, simply because it’s what I’m best able to represent, is a meta-perspective that contrasts various worldviews. I talk a lot about narratives, world-views, ideologies, belief systems, and, per Robert Anton Wilson, ‘reality tunnels.’

The two worldviews that I contrast most consistently on the C-Realm Podcast are the ‘Doomer’ and ‘Singularitarian’ perspectives. The Doomers see technological civilization as being completely and rigidly  dependent on fossil fuels and economic growth. They think that we have passed the point of global population overshoot, and that a Malthusian Correction is unavoidable at this point. The Doomers remain completely unimpressed with the rapid development of information technology. The Singularitarians on the other hand see peak oil, population overshoot, and in some cases even climate disruption, as non-issues. In their view, artificial Intelligence, nanotechnology, and other game-changing technologies will render these challenges trivial in the coming decades. Many of them think that humans will improve upon the standard issue human template and augment humanity with technology. This belief is called ‘Transhumanism.’ I think that both the Doomer and the Techno-utopian worldview identifies important trends and implications, but each of them seems to be laden with heavy doses of wishful thinking and enormous blind spots. I focus on these two belief systems, because I have been an ardent supporter of each of them and now describe myself as a recovering libertarian and Transhumanist.

There is certainly a lot of unacknowledged political baggage piggy-backing on both of these worldviews. As Adam Curtis pointed out in All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Silicon Valley is rife with high-powered Ayn Rand devotees, and libertarian memes usually find a receptive environment in the brains of Singularitarians. Doomers tend to condemn libertarian ideology because they think that humans pursuing their own selfish ambitions have ruined the planet and brought humanity to the precipice of extinction.

I realize that I’ve drifted away from your question, so let me bring it back around and say that I think that embodied consciousness is critically important. I think that people reading text on screens and fighting ideological battles on-line or in print produce some very undesirable outcomes and counter-productive hostility. I spend a lot of time in front of the screen myself, and I’m grateful to have encountered Tai Chi and intermittent fasting, as these practices help keep me in my body when my ideological mind would drag me to absurd extremes. I know that you have interviewed more modern magic practitioners than I have and certainly know more about the history of the movement, but I’m attracted to the bodily focus of Chaos Magic and to the emphasis that the Mystery Schools place on self-knowledge.

S;  Do you find it interesting that both mystics and political radicals  (particularly in the Marxist tradition) speak in terms of  consciousness? What do you make that shared lingo?

KMO:  Before C-Realm was an interview-based podcast it was a web comic, and before it was a web comic it was a comic strip in a university newspaper. The title of the newspaper comic was ‘C.’ I came up with that title in my first semester in grad school studying philosophy in a Hegel seminar. The translation of The Phenomenology of Spirit that I used for that seminar used the English word ‘consciousness’ for Hegel’s ‘geist.’ I wrote the word ‘consciousness’ in my notes so many times that I came to abbreviate it as ‘C.’ I was thinking about creating a comic strip for the university newspaper, and when I wrote that letter C in my notes for the umpteenth time I thought, “Hey, that would be a good title for my comic strip.” So the C in C-Realm refers both to both the mystical and political senses of the word ‘consciousness’ which come together in Hegel’s tortuous dialectic of which Marx was so critical.

‘Consciousness’ is an ambiguous term with many meanings. I would find it intensely interesting if I thought that political radicals and mystics were consistently using the word in the same sense, but I do not think that this is the case. I think that ‘political consciousness’ tends to refer to consciousness as the holding of desirable beliefs and priorities while mystics make reference to an awareness, sense of identity, or point of view that transcends the physicality of the individual animal organism. (There are, of course, materialist practitioners of magic whom one could hold up as counter-examples, but then I would quibble with their inclusion in the category of ‘mystics.’) Now, you could say that the two meanings converge in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and that Hegel’s ‘geist’ on its dialectical journey encompasses both meanings, but I doubt that very many contemporary revolutionaries or mystics are that well-versed in or concerned with the details of their own memetic lineages and that their usages of the word ‘consciousness’ have diverged and compartmentalized since Hegel’s day.

S.:  KMO., you predicted exactly my point on Geist and consciousness, but you are right most people don’t see the dialectical relationship.  Do you think that we should re-merge the two meanings of consciousness in a way that would make Marxists uncomfortable?  Ironically, I think the tendency of Marxists or Hegelian Leftists like Zizek to reintroduce lots of psychoanalytic theory into Marxism is actually an indication of the need here?

I sometimes worry that the left–and here I don’t mean liberals or Democrats, but socialists–don’t deal enough in ecological limit theory and how do deal with it.  Murray Bookchin, an anarchist I did respect, thought that neither the singularity types (techno-utopians) nor the primitivists or doomers had much a realistic way to handle the future: the thought socialized and ecologically oriented technology would be important to sustainability?   I actually worry about this, and I am more skeptical of the way this is all framed.  Do you think we will need is somewhere in-between the singulatarians and the doomers?

KMO:  I don’t think it is within my power or yours to re-merge these two meanings of consciousness for anyone but ourselves and the tiny fraction of the population who pay attention to us. There are several more uses for the word ‘consciousness’ other than the two described above. I don’t think that translators of Hegel have any particular claim to the correct definition of the English word ‘consciousness.’ While I think it’s useful to ask people to clarify what it is they mean when they use the term, I don’t see much point in telling them that they have to mean something by it that they didn’t intend. Also, I have no more interest in making Marxists uncomfortable than I do in perturbing the peace of mind of Theosophists or Millerites.

If I could wave a magic wand and instantly infuse the English-speaking population with a correct understanding of words and phrases, I would use that power to rescue ‘decimate’ and ‘begs the question’ from terminal misuse.

As far as ideology goes, I don’t see any indication that political fundamentalists on the left are any more interested in testing their worldviews against empirical data or enhancing them with interdisciplinary thinking than are fundamentalists on the right. As for injecting psychoanalytic theory into Marxism, I’d rather hear political theorists attempt to integrate elements of contemporary neuroscience or even sociobiology into their discourse than try to wring some utility from hundred year old Freudian lingo.

I gravitate to ecological metaphors when it comes to the question of what people should believe, what values they should hold, and how they frame questions. I don’t think everyone should hold the same beliefs and values. Over-specialization and lack of variety set up the conditions for catastrophic failure and extinction. I think it’s good that we have self-aggrandizing, monomaniacal techno-triumphalists as well as sack-cloth-and-ashes, misanthropic Doomers. I’m also encouraged that there are enough people interested in a synthesis of these viewpoints to comprise an audience for the C-Realm Podcast.

S:  On psychoanalytic theory, I think you’re right KMO, the Marixst left avoidance of neuroscience is telling. Psychoanalysis in both Freud and Lacan thought that neuroscience was necessarily, and I don’t think Zizek, for example, truly reject it.  However, dealing with the internal self is something that Marxism doesn’t give you a way to deal with–it is only the social self and it’s alienation that is important.  Given how deeply internalized this is, not dealing with the psyche, is a key problem.  This has led to supplementation.  Is that clearer?

KMO:  Yes. Right up to that last statement.  I don’t think that a political ideology should strive to be an exhaustive guide to living which includes every possible self-knowledge and self-help modality.  Any meme complex that includes an attempted prophylactic against new discoveries and innovation sets off my cult BS detector.

I do think that a failure to deal honestly with the innate features of  human psychology and physiology is a common feature of political belief systems and certainly is not unique to Marxism.

To be continued. 

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 3

This is the third  part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part and second part prior to this.

Skepoet:  I find the rhetoric of the rhetoricians quite interesting.   I feel like we are diverging on the topic, but I keep meaning to point out that there is a danger to high level specialized academic discourses and that is one can forget that other academic discourses may completely reject the terms of engagement.    For example, the way literary historicists u e Foucault without interrogating his notion of power which Foucault rejected any attempt to pin down as reductive. This has always seemed to me to be a cop-out.    Here’s another example: your tropes of meaningful, colonizing, imply normative boundaries that you can’t make without a coherent social epistemology which is something you are bracketing out.

This is why I reject the idea of “science as rigorous common sense” in that those notions are over-filled signifiers semiotically which have almost no cognitive meaning to demarcate them even in “everyday” language. What does it mean to say science is “rigorous common sense” and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is none science,” and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.

Again, I feel like we have similar problems with the Skeptic’s community, but for reasons of method, we can’t make the same critiques nor can we even recognize the validity of the critiques.   This allow puts out the necessary for structural demarcations and not just the borrowing of political-philosophical language to talk about ideas.  I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice:  one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends.

I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?

Jamie McAfee:  You’re losing me a bit here.

“What does it mean to say science is ‘rigorous common sense’ and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is not science.’ and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.”

I’m perplexed. What is “rigor” if is doesn’t include normative constraints? As I discussed way back, rules and norms make science science. I’m not trying to be glib, but I don’t see where this is coming from. I’m deferring, as a rhetorician, to scientists about what the norms are. I’m not saying there are none. Sokal was, as a scientist, saying that there rules that defined what he did. (Well, that’s my charitable interpretation. If he meant something lazier, then up against the wall with him.)

I’d concede that I’m unable, as a the kind of rhetorician that I am, to comment on what the norms are. I don’t have any interest, as a rhetorician, in doing so. I can understand why they are and what they afford though. I can talk about the discrepancy between why the norms are, and they are justified, and I can talk about how arguments that flow from those discrepancies are problematic. Arguments are safely rhetoric, so I think I’m okay if I can get to that point.

“I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?”

Well, I don’t think anybody has “invalidated Lacan.” I just meant that some of the trendy science studies that was trotted out during the science wars is stuff that rhetoricians don’t read very much. I’ve never seen anybody reference heavily Lacanian science studies article in rhetoric. I’ve never seen Irigaray cited in a rhetoric article of any kind, for example. Laclau is something that I’m interested in. It’s not actually very popular, although not unheard of, in rhetoric. That was just sort of an aside about the science wars stuff. Some of the very technical Lacan business, about math for example, that’s been pored over isn’t really stuff that defines science studies as I know it. So I’m not sure there’s an issue there, unless you think Lacan should be discussed in science studies for some reason that I’m not catching

You’re making an excellent point here by the way about the appropriation of bits of theory out of context. Within rhetoric (and withing literary criticism before I switched over for my PhD program), it was something I tried to deal with to the extend that I could with the resources I had at the time. The magpie approach to theory that people in English departments do can be really problematic. There’s a limit to how deeply we need to get into the weeds as we are rhetoricians and not philosophers, but we need to go deeper than we often do.

“I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice:  one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends . . .It would be mutual in a sense because critical theory does build on rhetoric but doesn’t address it as such and rhetoric seems to using the concepts and boundaries of critical theory while bracketing out the epistemology and political economy that under-girds them. I suppose this is the hostility that only related fields could have to one and other. “

I’d like you explain this more, as I’m interested. There’s plenty of complaint about aspects of leftist theory in some corners of rhetoric. One of the few rhetoricians I know who calls himself a Marxist, not just as a scholar, but as a person, is sometimes pretty brutal about the failures of Marxists theorists. I’m somebody in rhetoric who is particularly interested in some leftist theory, and I fell the friction as well, and not just as a scholar.

I don’t quite follow what your take is, but I’d like to hear more about your take on this divide, as I find it a little puzzling.

S.:  I think you’re losing me too:  I am saying that critiquing something without defining it as a set of social practices but even as a set of social practices that are recongizable as such you have to have a normative definition.   Since science itself lacks a hegemonic
singular epistemological justification at the moment “accepting science’s norms” seems hopelessly confused.   The language about colonization and colonization of other discourses implies meta-demarcations between them and that requires a coherent
epistemology, which are not spelling out for methodological reasons. The rhetoric of rhetoric seems incompatible here with the bracketing.This tension is always there.   I  don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.

This is the crucial frustration is that langauge employed, as you acknowledge, actually assumes a framework but its a framework that cannot be addressed within rhetoric.  That’s fine in a way: that’s true of say physics too (which assumes methodological naturalism and a universal metaphysics that is coherent with mathematics in a consistent way.)  Philosophy itself has such limitations and many checks, but the order of checks seem different.   But it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.

Now put myself in rhetorical mode for a second, I can totally see how frustrating this is for the rhetorician who thinking, “Man, I am just pointing problematic assumptions that is betrayed by the language of the community” and in a way the critical theorist would do that without thinking as consistently on language as rhetoricians do.  Yet I would say that this frustrates the relationship between critical theory and rhetoric/literary theory.  It seems like there are bracketing out of the very epistemological and political economic categories that created the concepts’  specificity. For example, “Hegemony” without some notion of class conflict seems odd to me.   It seems like there has been a move to use that rubric, but to disconnect it from real social conflicts between groups of people over various forms of valuation.  So when we talk about “hegemony” in science, Iwant to go for whom as I don’t see scientists are a class or even a coherent enough community, but mainly as  a set of practices with a specific aim and specific limitations.  The definition I am working with though see to agree with yours until the last instances of “specific limitations” while merely descriptive approach can’t really set.

Here’s what I do like about your posture though: It actually avoids the “linguistic turn” in philosophy in a way by pointing out that this really is the domain of rhetoric and cannot deal with truth.  Badiou would call this an acknowledgement of anti-philosophy, and he wouldn’t consider it an insult.   I actually think this is important admission. It just seems that there are some many assumptions in the language that we trip up.   It is infuriating though to see Marxist theory being divorced from political economy in a way that makes it amendable to ignoring productive and structural elements of  class, and it seems   like methodologically rhetoricians can’t address that and maybe that this can lead to the sort of left-liberal tendency one sees in popular
uses of rhetoric. You can see how this would completely frustrate Marxists and anarchists who think that material conditions would have to be changed for serious  identity change to happen.  It would seem to be losing “our” (if anyone can have a claim to discourse) weapon in a way that doesn’t fight the battle “we” “designed” it for, no?

Anyway, we need to refocus on our common concern: Why do you think the New Atheist movement and the Skeptic’s movement has been increasingly co-terminus over time?

J.M.:  Ah. I gotcha. This is an interesting digression, but it’s not what we set out to talk about, so I’ll be quick.

“Since science itself lacks a hegemonic singular epistemological justification at the moment ‘accepting science’s norms’ seems hopelessly confused. . . but it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.”

Yes. We tend to study controversies in science or think about agency in terms of change. I’m not sure why you’d think that I think that “science” or even a discipline is monolithic. I think this gets at where we might be talking past each other. I didn’t mean to suggest that “science” had “a” set of norms necessarily. I think you have to talk about science as locally and specifically as you can.  I’d respond by saying that if science doesn’t have a single epistemological justification, I’m not sure how it’s a problem to think about it in social terms, particularly in terms of thinking about how people argue. Our starting point is “science is messy, let’s not accept the coherent, neat ways people talk about it and look at what people do instead.”

“It don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.” Yeah. I’m glossing stuff. The alternative way to look at this is to say that rhetoric purposefully blackboxes certain philosophical baggage.

I’m borrowing a technological metaphor here. A machine is a blackbox, and when it works, you don’t open the box. I scan my page in the copying machine and copies come out. It the machine isn’t working right, I open it and see where the paper is stuck. There are many, many moments in rhetoric when people open the box, but in order to “do rhetoric,” you are going to have to close it. The same it true of any intellectual activity. I want to bracket things that you don’t.

The specific complaint you make here is not a new to me though, and I’ve indirectly referenced the problem during the conversation. Rhetorical Hermenuitics, which is an anthology about Dillip Goankar’s essay about rhetoric of science is all about this issue. There are many efforts in there to deal directly with what you’re saying. I won’t claim it’s been solved, but it’s not new territory. The “ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language” is what Goandar is worried about.  (Again, you are very much on the ball if you are making that complaint.)

You’re point about hegemony is astute, and I like it. Hegemony is, to be clear, my imposition. Talking about modern culture as a hegemony is not a widespread thing in rhetoric. It’s something that I’m working out, and I agree with you about the class thing. There is a response to that in Laclau and Mouffe, but I’m not really getting that into the discussion yet. I’m revealing thinking in progress there. I agree with your critique. I think using hegemony as I am trying to us it is not wrongheaded, but I’m happy to admit I haven’t worked it out. Your comment is a good one, and helpful.

The worry about what happens when we use Marxist theory is a good one, and I’ve complained quite a bit about it (in graduate school, not here).  There is a crisis communication article I know that describes Nike as a subaltern, so I feel your pain. I’m trying to be a lot more contentious than some rhetoricians about using leftist theory, but you are right that our differences in what to explore and what to blackbox, and the anti-philosophical nature of rhetoric is going to make some tension. (I think that antiphilosohpical stance IS the goal, by the way. I saw a presentation from the little Latour cadre at a conference that explicated Latour’s version of anti-philosopihcal. He is against “critique,” and is very emphatic about looking at “surfaces.”)

But enough of that. I think I see our differences better. I appreciate your perspective quite a bit, and this was useful for me. I hope it was, at least, entertaining for you.

Back to our charge. . . . there was an older and smaller group of public skeptics out there, and I think the Atheist thing offered a more ideologically driven position that has created the bigger and more political Skeptic movement.

There has been, for example, a Skeptic society and a Randi orginazation for a long time, and folks like that used to concern themselves with “critical thinking about popular culture” and debunking hokum. Randi going after faith healers, for example. The first Shermer book I read was all about cults, groupthink, and superstition, not about the more political stuff he’s been into in recent years. (Interestingly enough, he talks about having been an Evangelical Christian and then an Objectivist. Micheal Shermer is an interesting guy.)

New Atheism, I think, allowed skepticism to become a movement. It wasn’t just explaining away fringy parlor trick stuff or sensational pop culture hokum or aliens, but a serious complaint about the power that religion has in society. I can’t imagine a Skeptic movement as big as what we’ve got without new atheism. Like, there would there be a widespread movement to complain about fortune tellers? The two aren’t exactly inseparable, but from where I’m sitting, they are damn near close.

I think the materialist point of view and the concern about the influence of religion predate New Atheism, but that stuff wasn’t articulated into something resembling politics before New Atheism got rolling.

Here’s an interesting exercize. Go to The “List of Episodes” page on wikipedia for Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit.” The show starts off, in 2003, firmly in the tradition of James Randi, with episodes about psychics and Near Death Experience. By 2006, you’ve got very serious episodes about the Death Penalty and the religious influence on the Boy Scouts. (That is not an orderly progression, as they did some political topics early on, and they kept doing silly hokum stuff until the end of the show.) If we put them in the context of New Atheism in popular culture, in 2006, the Blasphemy Challenge was going strong. The tipping point had been reached by then, I think. There were probably other reasons for for the changes in that show (like running through all of the usual targets for debunking. . . I don’t think they ever did a holocaust denier show though, or P and T getting more self important or self indulgent as the show went along), but I do think there was in increasingly political point of view that Bullshit that became felt along with the rise of New Atheism. Like, these guys who were in the tradition of magic performers to debunk things (which came from Houdini, although he wasn’t a magician) ended up being political commentators. Penn has made appearances on Fox news, and he’s become a popular online personality who talks about politics, ethics and religion. I think that without new athiesm, he’d have remained a magician.

S.:  It found it interesting that some many in the New Atheist movement were actually attracted and assumed to be true some really questionable (by anyone’s standards) science like Evolutionary Psychology and memetics. This is not entirely true for the skeptic’s movement in which memetic and evo-psyche are actually high points for debate and have many within the movement considering them either proto-science or even psuedo-science, but with the New Atheist movement it seemed like evolutionary psychology and memetics were used to push evolutionary biology into the social sciences and the humanities.  I have seen this in narratology where increasingly you see evolutionary psychology used to read literature.  I found this problematic because it seemed to stem from the same disrespect for any demarcation line of discplines in a way that was really scientistic. I also noticed increasingly after Shermer a movement to talk about markets as if they were memes or even evolutionary which is something
one had seen in Von Hayek and in, frankly, in social Darwinism. Now I do know biologists who pushed back on this:  evolution is not efficient and if that comparison is being done then some primary economic assumptions even by neo-liberals can’t be shared with evolution. Do you see this drift? It is interesting to me because I have seen real push back within the Skeptic’s movement itself on evolutionary psyche and I hear fewer and fewer people pushing memes around as a serious science, but now I see it more in the humanities.  What do you make of these tendencies?

J.M.: Yeah. That pushback is maybe a way to kinda untangle the New Atheism thing from the broader Skeptic thing. I seems to me that some of New Atheism’s roots in the sciences (what I mean is simply that some of those guys are professional scientists who became being public intellectuals) have lead to efforts to appropriate, really, science rhetoric as a way to talk about philosophy, religion, or politics. The bizarre hubris of some of those guys, and the really cavalier way they make huge claims, seems to come from confidently using the wrong tools for the jobs they are trying to do. (Here’s my physics hammer that I’m going to unscrew this theology screw . . . ., and then Sam’s gonna come out with his neurology broom to replace the morality light bulbs.)

I’d have to do a lot more study and deeper reading to really make the case, but some of the more problematic scientism that I see in Skepticism seems to be coming from there. I haven’t gotten down in the weeds with that stuff in a while.

As for people in the humanities messing around with claims about  evolution. . . . ug. I haven’t read that stuff, but I’ve heard of it. It seems like the latest version of  something like early psychoanalytic criticism or archetype-oriented criticism or structuralism that some other schools that maybe tried to do to uncover some underlying “truth” in literature. I’m not familiar with the stuff you’re talking about (except for having had previous conversations with you about it), so I’m not sure what it looks like, but that move doesn’t seem that novel. Silly, but not unprcidented. (These are outside of my areas of expertise.  My interests back when I was a literature guy were really different. I haven’t read Nothrop Frye in years, and was never an expert.)

It seems like this speaks to some authority (we’ll not call it “hegemony,” but it’s some legitimacy granting sparkle dust that we seen to believe in) that science has. Like, if we can enroll ourselves in the physical, even if it’s some indirect semiotic structural way, we’re getting at an underlying reality. I know this problem a little better, oddly enough, in some social sciences and in medicine than in the humanities. There was a fallout recently in Anthropology between the social people and the “sciency” people (I don’t know what to call them).  The DSM is now supposed to be “evolutionary,” and whenever they work on a new edition, there is an outcry from therapists and researchers who see their work as being social. Or the sometimes whacky ontology of medicine. (I think by the way, that this psychical/social division is a really screwed up way to categorize things, but that’s where the fault lines of argument are. I’d say that those fault lines are problems for talking about how people do things.)

Not a “rhetorical” question: while there is pushback from skeptic people against some of the abuse of scientific rhetoric that some of the New Atheists have committed, are there people arguing for the validity of knowledge that makes no effort to do the sparkle dust thing? That, for me, would be the move that would align skepticism more in line with the arguments I’d want to make about legitimacy of practice. As was the reason for our discussion, I’ve dropped out of the skeptic thing except for reading about the occasional flashpoint, so I don’t know exactly what the conversations are right now.

S.:  I find the humanities aping the sciences problematic, and it always seems to be done with a prior paradigm is just lingering too long. In this case, I think this comes from a push back to dominant historicism. Still what bothers me is that this doesn’t seem to be the same kind of theoretical enterprise, the claim is that we are making literary studies scientific by using the sciences, not scientific by adopting their methodology. That seems to indicate that the humanities have already fell into some of this cache. Now I come with a harder sense of the demarcation line, but I see this move as invalidating in two fronts: One it weakens to humanities separate project and two it weakens clear demarcations.  To use your rhetoric, it’s self-colonization.

Do you see this as a problem?

J.M:  Probably so.

One of “our” (rhetoric’s) answers for identity/demarcation stuff is an insistence on some idea of a classical heritage, which tends to mean that we define problems according to our vocabulary. So, like, when I read Collins and Evans, for example, I want to use it to figure it out how to discuss ethos or agency. Of course, this gets us back to the Goankar problem, since that vocabulary comes with ideology. (It’s very “thin” theory, though, that can be built upon in different ways.) Actually, some of the liberal-rhetorical vs. cultural theory tension might come from that. I think the dialogue between those two ways of thinking about relationships between discourse and material culture is harder than, I think, many rhetoricians let on. (Of course, lost of folks aren’t interested in that.) And, I think, that common exigency is the reason those ways of thinking are important, and why I think they should be in dialogue. (Although, again, it’s a bear though. We’ve, I think, found differences though this conversation that I’m not sure rhetoric has thought about very much. At least not in the professional communication areas where I am.)

Arguing for the strength of the humanities (or social science that doesn’t do the magic phsycialist sparkles) as a way to know things (as opposed to it being a pedagogical or aesthetic tradition or something) without appropriating problematically or doing some other odd thing is, frankly, really tough. Not just for “cultural” or institutional reasons, but because it can be tough to argue for the legitimacy of recursive social ways of knowing that don’t end up as some kind of “linguistic turn” defense. I think the kind of literary studies you’re describing (which, again, I don’t know much about) is a major misstep in trying to think about this problem.

S.:  Anything that you would like to say in closing?

J.M.: One tricky thing about this discussion that we didn’t explicitly talk about is the difficulty in defining a “Skeptic movement.” Is is the active online communities who participate, the public intellectuals, the activists, or something else? My having “dropped out” a few years back makes me less in touch with the conversations going on at the moment, but I think I’d be a little fuzzy on that even if I were reading the blogs every day and going to events. I’m glad you pointed out that its not a monolithic perspective. One issue that we didn’t get into is that we might talk about it as a kind of identity politics, or at least, there’s some identity politics involved. That I don’t identify with.

I think many of the issues that have come up in this discussion, both in terms of talking about lenses through which we can discuss science, and in terms of the ways that science discouse is used, might be understood in terms of the constraints/affordance theme that I recognize in my rhetoric. Of course, by focusing on that theme I’m giving up other possibilities. And with the shadow of the meta creeping up again, I’ll call it a day.

Thanks for the invitation, and I really appreciate your toughness. For me, the most valuable part of this has been seeing your more political take on the Goankar problem. You’ve cogently elaborated problems in trying to think across the rhetoric/Marxian theory gap.

On various false dialectical oppositions

There is a ideological binary opposition presented in much of the popular media for the last few decades about nature and nurture being opposed: it works itself up into the academy too with sometimes strong genetic determinist arguments–generally from scientifically questionable speculations by evolutionary psychologists–and then (admittedly rather rare) arguments from the humanities that everything is sociologically constructed (generally pulling from either Foucaultian influenced post-structuralism or structuralists visions of ideological apparatuses). Really, though, this dialectical opposition seems rooted in the early Enlightenment when both biological determinism and Cartesian special-pleading for the self set out two different visions of the human future.

I, however, increasingly doubt this move: The structural elements that wanted do deal only with the synchronic and not diachronic elements was a methodological move that gets reified into a stance that views ideas as either without a history or having a history, but biology is a historical science. It describes the development of organic life over time through processes that we have not entirely understood but have several mechanistic grasps of. This was why I always found the idea of nature problematic: nature implies as non-human totality, which seems to be special-pleading for the human species, or an undifferentiated totality, which is cognitively empty.

This has led to in re-reading Althusser, which I still find as problematic as I ever did as his hermeneutic for interpreting Marx implies that Marx either didn’t mean or didn’t understand his “true” methodology because even late works have “lingering” Hegelian idealism. This led me to take Althusser’s statement that ideology is not “ideal” but physical as manifested in the way we live and pair it, admittedly even to my mind, dangerously, with some ideas I have seen about the acceleration of human evolution. What I am about to articulate takes care of my view that Althusser’s synchronic understanding of historical materialism actually has the structure of the “means of productive forces” in ideology emerge almost without a history before there was an ideology there.

Even when I was in anthropology classes in the late 1990s, I remember being told that it was the consensus view that human evolution stopped with agriculture removing “natural” pressures from the evolutionary ecology of humans. I remember thinking though: How come Europeans developed lactose tolerance if this were true? Then I read Gregory Cochran’s The 10,000 Explosion, which is controversial and has some severe limitations even in my lay mind, but does talk about how social pressures would have genetically selective impulses and this could show up from disease immunities and, more controversially, relationships to authority and impulse control. Cochran admits that there are real limitations here and that there isn’t enough anthropological fieldwork paired with genetic testing to prove or disprove, but sexual selection in early agricultural society was exactly more extreme than in hunter-gather society since there was far more restrictions put on the survival of children, and in certain extreme examples, chieftains sometimes out reproduce serfs 1000 to 1.

Now I don’t know if we can take it as far as Cochran does, but he get to a point: Ideological and social impulses, which emerge from social arrangements in resource production and distribution actually change us physically. Furthermore, there is evidence that culture exists in any social mammal and thus emerges from “natural” conditions. This is say that both the “essentialist” view and the “social construction” view would largely miss the point: there is no dialectical opposition between “nature” and “nurture” nor does genetic determinism limit all social arrangements, but they modify each other in a feedback loop. Both the rubric of “nurtural” stances (or sociology) and “natural” stance (biology, comparative genetics) describe two different ways that human societies develop and interact. The question of dominance or innateness may miss the point: furthermore, both seem to assume that culture somehow emerges as a modern human conception out of nothing, or solely out of the means of production in ways that make “evolution” not possible. This confuses morphological differences with other differences too easily. There would be little morphological difference in modern humans because our social technologies have enabled us to stabilize our environment, but a variety of pressures socially would emerge to have influence on sexual selection.

So not only is ideology physical in the way Althusser meant as manifested by what we do and not just what we “believe,” but ideological pressures factor into to sexual selection ‘naturally” and thus have real effects there as well. It’s not eugenics or anything so crude at play here but developments from “natural” social responses because unless one believes the structures of production and the structures of society emerge ex nihilo, the social interactions come out of our biological and ecological limitations.

The dialectic of “nature/nurture” isn’t a dialectic at all. It is a false binary. Naturally.

Enlightenment Contested: Scientific Skepticism

Despite my love of philosophy, my first love in philosophy was philosophy of science and as a child, I read Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer to show up the locals in science in my small middle Georgia town. My first love was biology and anthropology, and my first crush on a writer was the science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, and the scientist and science journalist, Stephen Jay Gould. One of the things you will notice is that while I will make critiques of scientific community’s publishing practices, of the sociology of research, on fields with have little historical, comparative, or experimental checks (such as Evolutionary Psychology): I do, however, think the chanting of many in the New Atheist and “Skeptic’s Community” about “reason” is vapid and more than a little unreasonable as what is meant by “reason:” moves from meaning “science” to “logic” to “commonsense” to “critical thinking” without realizing that these are not the same thing, and even individually

Despite my philosophical critiques, I actually still consider myself part of that moment. I listen to Skeptic podcasts, and while I avoid the new atheist, one of my favorite popular philosophers is Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking (Blog and Podcast). I was struck, however, listening to a recent episode of Rationally Speaking: the difference between intuitive and deliberation reason is fascinating as it indicates that a) most people actually don’t think deliberately rationally, and b) this is rational in a extreme way. This leads to a set of flukes: human beings do not have a base-line “system b” intuition about probability and advanced numbers.

If one wanted to talk about “dialectics of Enlightenment” (to borrow a phrase from Horkheimer and Adorno and use in in a completely different way), it is clear that the more you study the “reasoning brain,” the more complicated our picture of human logic becomes. Most logical skills are not innate, and the optimistic vision of the 17th century Enlightenment enables the science which makes us question “natural” reasoning states. No wonder why post-structuralists philosophers can appear so convincing when you understand them, the more you know about science and logic, the more you realize that people do not automatically think scientifically and logically even without “substitution” and other forms of cultural habit.

So the legacy of the Enlightenment, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Israel, is contested within itself. This, by the way, is why I am not “anti-modern” in a simple sense: I am a loyal opposition to modernity because I think “reason”–by which I mean logic and scientific rigor–actually undoes most of the optimism in the early parts of the Enlightenment and the violent meloncholia that Nietzsche calls nihilism can emerge if one is burned to bad by the dreams of a completely reasonable world. I, however, don’t think it is just philosophy that gets you there–either in analytic breakdown of modal logic or the speculative categories of modern European philosophy and critical theory.

Still understanding “reason” in a not naive way, and realizing the limitations of framing and limits of a particular sociology, science is one of the modern gifts that one should fight, tooth and nail, to preserve even when one is critiquing “scientism” (abuses of the scientific demarcation line) and bad practices, of which there are many, in the scientific community.

Korean Elections, Skepticism, New books, Science fiction, and The Enlightenment

It is election day in South Korea, so the dancing girls and old woman handing fliers with numbers on them (as candidates are assigned a number here) with the booming trucks trying through small city streets and crowding the corners.  There is not much in American style attack ads and the spectacle is limited for a month or so. In Mohyeon-meon on the outskirts of Yong-in, where my university is nestled in the side of a mountain, I see little of this, but in visiting my beloved in Daejeon and travelling through Seoul, which I do weekly, I see the carnival of democracy.

Of all forms of democracy, I value representative democracy the least: in either its American or Parliamentary form.   The tendency for “rational irrationality” to creep into deliberation and the human inability to intuitively understand probabilities make this almost a given.  There is one maxim that Badiou gives from his various sets that I take more seriously as I get older: Politics is what cannot be represented.  However, I am not taking the purist stance of many anarchists who wish that there are no concessions to spectacles as people’s lives are made and broken in public policy.

At least, in Korea, election day is a national holiday, so people do not work in the mildly warm spring air, one sees children playing in the knocks of the side walk and the edges of the street while street vendors , I stopped by my local fruit vendor and bought some naval oranges.   I don’t drive here in South Korea and “New Urbanism” is just, you know, the way cities organically function here for all their problems. So I stop by and interact more with people, even as just as respite from the carnival.

I keep mulling some of my new story in my head: It’s refreshing to be writing something other than critical theory or political blogging for once.  Not that there isn’t politics in my short story, even in the long arm of the Hegelian geist:  I deal in science fiction because I can critique what is and what could be.

Yesterday I completed most of my spring book buying: I tend to seasonally allot myself reading.  In Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanhamoon in Seoul, there is little fiction so no new Paolo Bacigalupi that I wanted, although I have quite enjoyed re-reading his “Pump Six” collection of stories, which rank up their with Philip K. Dick and early J.G. Ballard, as well as China Mieville for writing that truly deals with issues substantively without reading like it is a fictionalized version of a Berkeley culture studies class.    So I got a few more shorter Badiou works after looking fruitlessly for anything else by Francois Laruelle.

I noticed a few more “skeptical” titles on religion that I considered:  I have become re-engaged with Skeptical Thinkers in both the classical tradition and in the so-called “Skeptic’s Movement.” I am still highly critical of the positivistic inclination in many of the Skeptic’s movement, and the want of consensus of scientists to decide norms from descriptions.    In many ways, I find it philosophically undeveloped, and politically naive.   The rampant soft-libertarianism, un-reflective left-liberalism, and the acceptance of bad economic thought as well bothers me.   Furthermore, I doubt I could get a one of them to put Bertrand Russell, quit whining about relativism and post-modernism without understanding them (or even knowing what isn’t Post-modern or Post-structural.), and realize that criticizing scientific practices in both practical and scientific grounds is often not done out a fear of science, but a love of it within its demarcation.

I consider this a sign of the times, though.  The radical Enlightenment never completely one and the few truths of those in the Counter-Enlightenment never really took hold.  It is, however, cowardly not to engage with skeptics. After all, I started blogging in order to combat bad science in education and misreadings of science in the humanities,  then started combating naivete realism in “Skeptical blogs”–structural frameworks have to be engaged in.   As I am not a believer in anything that could be called supernatural, and I detest ignorance as much as arrogance, I should engage with as a person who has come to similar conclusions from radically different means to illustrate the point.

So instead of science fiction, I picked up Jonathan Israel’s massive, “Enlightenment Contested?,” because at the core isn’t this what it is all about?   The skeptic’s movement is sort of a popular form of the French Newtonians which pretty much influenced all analytic philosophy.  But this book not only goes into thinkers like those considered Counter-Enlightenment, but also Asian influences on the Enlightenment, and how three different variants of the mood of the Enlightenment set the stage for most of political theory in the modern period.   As I think we are living in a time when these ideas and the political arrangements, even the aesthetic trends in this, have begun to hit a limit and we can see how they transform.

The spring air calls through the window.  One can forget it is an election sense or that even the environment is beginning to show severe signs of wear-and-tear.

 

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