A Speculative Realist Review of ‘History of the Tantric Religion’

chinnamasta

Those who have followed this blog since its inception in late 2015/early 2016 know that while it is mostly an international relations, politics, and history blog it has also gradually become a place to explore my journey into the new philosophical school of speculative realism. I have been gradually working my way through constructing a geopolitical take on speculative realism. In so doing I have also been inspired to engage with philosophical positions that come from South and East Asia as I have seen some obvious parallels between some of those schools of thoughts and the rebirth of metaphysical materialism in some sectors of ‘western’ philosophy. Above all, the worldviews with a Tantric side seem to offer the most interesting overlap.

Tantra is not in fact what most westerners who hear the term believe it to be. According to the school of Californian Buddtology, Tantra is feeling all mystical about having sex in weird postures. While it is certainly true that contemporary Tantra has some optional sex practices as part of its ritual culture, I have a feeling your average Cilantro-Botoxian from the Hollywood Hills would find little in common with the philosophy behind the movement if they ever actually bothered to read about it.

As an atheist and hard materialist myself, I naturally wanted to read about Tantra from as secular and scholarly a source as I could find. Fortunately, I was able to locate the second revised edition of N.N. Bhattacharyya’s ‘History of the Tantric Religion.’ I am not interesting in converting, after all, but rather understanding more fully this school of thought that presaged speculative realism by thousands of years. And this book delivered.

It is both a history of the thought trend and also an exploration into its themes. Many of these themes have been diluted or merged with more mainstream thought over time, leading Tantra today to have the reputation of something that is more about technique rather than a distinct world view on its own.

In its beginning, Bhattacharyya shows us that Tantra was an anti-establishment impulse that came from women and the lower castes of society. In direct opposition to Brahmannical divorce from the real world to follow abstract ideology (insert joke about woke neoliberal overlords here) an organic take on Hinduism and Buddhism arose which centered not the abstract goals of a priestly caste but rather the physical, real, and material. This was most evident in the relationship between physical objects-especially that of the human body, the natural world, and substances both foul and delightful- what could be consumed (meat, alcohol, bodily fluids, etc). Many Tantra-aligned schools of thought dabbled in atheism, skepticism, and controlled ritualistic hedonism. The violation of preexisting social taboos was important to challenge complacent thinking and transcend the rote wisdom we are saddled with that stops us from seeing the flow of nature as it really is. All of these schools were interested in the natural world and how the human body and the gods reflected this material existence. When gods were used they were explicitly stated to be symbols of natural forces to which we are only separated from by the illusion of human difference.

Sadly, over time most of these traditions would end up weakening and merging with the greater normie culture of medieval and early modern India. Others, such as Vajrayana Buddhism (who longtime followers of this blog know I have an obsession with the aesthetic of) effectively came to rule entire regions in the Himalayas. But having become the establishment those too largely lost the contrarian and material nature of the original school of thought as they degenerated into Llamaist theocracy.

Still, several core elements of this rebellious and wonderfully base philosophy still survive in many various deity cults and practices in South and Himalayan Asia today. These could be summed up (my own take here, be warned) as ‘the only way out is through.’ In other words, the way for a human to recognize their place as part of an unfolding natural process is to de-emphasize socially constructed protocol (caste, class, moralism, absolute idealism) for confronting the base nature of everything head on. Afraid of death? Spend time meditating upon the charnel grounds. Afraid of becoming a slave to the passions? Indulge in all of the passions in a disciplined manner so that you eventually grow tired of excess and regulate them in a rational manner. Afraid of violence and strife? Adopt the iconography and terms of war and slaughter in the form of wrathful deities, whose fearsome aspect is then turned from something shocking potentially directed against you into something powerful that is now on your own side. The practice of focusing on ones personal selection of deities is often a major part of this, as the gods most associated with Tantric practice (such as Chinnamasta, pictured above) are often grotesque, their power overflowing in fountains of gore, limbs, bones worn as decorations, and yet dancing through it all. They show that the most terrifying things can be internalized into something powerful and helpful, and turning fear from something to avoid into something to co-opt into bravery and critical thinking.

When I think of people around the speculative realist movement who do this Graham Harman and Ray Brassier come to mind, if in different ways. Harman wants to rub the fact that you are an object, and therefore that ‘objectification’ is not only not a bad thing but an honest and true claim, in your face. Brassier wants to bring philosophical nihilism out from the edgy teenager/depressive persons territory and claim it as simply objective truth to be confronted directly as fact before moving on to anything else.

In a way we all do this to some level without realizing it. People enjoy horror movies for cathartic or thrill seeking reasons even if (and sometimes especially if) they are the kinds of people who shrink from conflict and danger. I professionally advocate for tearing down the perpetual war state for strategic reasons but love military history and war movies. I can also speak from personal experience that the most effective means I ever came across for confronting and managing my situational depression when it flares up was to indulge it critically. This meant  treating it more like an annoying acquaintance than an enemy, indulging it just enough to integrate myself with the experience before realizing it didn’t really matter because it was just systems responding irrationally. Interestingly, the most effective way of speeding up this process is very Tantric…I watch as many depressing movies and read as many depressing books as possible. Eventually, by charging directly through you end up punching right past being stuck. It becomes a challenge of a sorts, ‘oh you think that is bad? I’ll show you worse!’ By the end of it you sort of win the game or you get sick of playing. Either way, crisis averted because now you are thinking entirely differently from when you started. In the process you learn self-discipline so the potential for even gaining knowledge is there too.

In an era where shrinking violets control the discourse and seek to avoid uncomfortable topics is a moralizing version of anti-intellectualism, I can think of no better way of thought to counteract this Tipper Gore-ish trend than that of subversive Tantric methods of thinking.

Guess that explains my love of black metal. If there is one genre of music that could fit this topic, its surely that.

 

Facts Don’t Care About Your Grifters

Grifters

Its been a bad couple of months for the grifter. Hot on the heels of the implosion of the Russiagate spy thriller industrial complex and the sudden flailing about of its most shrill and conspiratorial partisans we have also been the witness to two utterly unsurprising and overdue reckonings with the more traditional conservative grifter.

First came the much vaunted Peterson vs Zizek debate, which you can watch here. While I have little invested in either of these two famous commentators I was curious as to how an obvious carnival barker such as Peterson would perform against an actual intellectual like Zizek. Zizek, it must be noted, is not a philosopher I consider myself a huge fan of in many ways. I am firmly on a realist and he on the idealist. He loves Hegel, who I cannot stand, and is part of a long-running unfortunate trend of left-wing thinkers who are aligned first and foremost with anthropocentrism. That being said, he is undeniably a philosopher and an intellectual, words that Peterson aspires to be but has always come up short on attaining.

What happened in their debate is mostly notable for how unused to being challenged Peterson was on his own talking points. He has based most of his career on conflating Marxism and Postmodernism (two ideologies that really could not be more different) and has never had to confront the fact that his image of Marxism was entirely divergent from its actual real world manifestation-as well as that the cultural feed for the social justice nuts he decries has much more to do with the inherent pathos of the classical liberalism, individualism, and Christianity that is part and parcel of the very ‘west’ conservatives love to champion.

Hardly a surprising result of the debate of course. But then it happened again even more recently. Ben Shapiro, an even more blatant fraud than Peterson (though beloved by the same demographic of alienated and terrified young men and bitter divorced dads who create such spawn) showed how utterly unused to being challenged by critical questions he is on live television.

The similarities between these two and others like them, aside from apparently voiceboxes that approximate various tones of a deflating Kermit the Frog, is the nature of the conservative grift. Conservatism by its very nature often trends towards the anti-intellectual. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ and a reflexive desire to defend entrenched power is hardly conducive to critical thought, even if a conservative position happens to be the more correct one. Naturally, however, said entrenched powers know they need a propaganda wing too, hence the vast amount of astroturf funding that goes out via think tanks and various organizations affiliated with big money to prop up things like Turning Point USA and the like. If you were actually to leave public discourse in its natural state, critics and not defenders would thrive.

This creates a money pit. The grifter may or may not actually believe what they say but senses an opportunity to make bank. No trickster could fault such a tactic, and be sure that I do not. It’s a rough world out there in the post-recession hellscape. The problem is that these artificially buoyed people become both convinced that they themselves are wholly responsible for their success (which jives nicely with the ideology that they expound) and then enter into a feedback loop where they begin to believe their own bullshit-assuming of course that they already didn’t. Such incestuous behavior leads to Peterson inventing his own political theory in a vacuum or Shapiro writing his own articles about himself in the third person and giving them self flattering and hyperbolic titles. Meanwhile, both take immense pride in being expert debators but (until recently) only debated psychologically frail college students and utterly superficial news anchordolls. Much like Uri Geller, the spoons only bend when the spoons have been chosen by the person who claims to be able to bend them.

It is worth noting, however, that this is not new. The last proper conservative intellectual in the English speaking world was Edmund Burke, all the way back in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries-and even he was not recognized as anything near an orthodox conservative in his time. While overly reactive against the (legitimate and inevitable) class basis of the French Revolution, he was still a person of nuanced thought who charted a course rooted in history and against many of the dominant tides of thinking in his day. There hasn’t really been a conservative political thinker of such importance or impact since in Britain, America, or their offshoots. Despite what people try to say (including desperate liberals who like to maintain the facade of the rational conservative as someone to hash out the enlightenment project within the salon, god forbid they have to talk to anyone left of them or of unorthodox persuasion) the entire experience of conservatism has drifted far away from anything properly intellectual since basically the industrial revolution. It is telling that the figure of the last generation most held up as an example of former conservative rationality and class was William F Buckley, himself a Bill O’Reilly style pundit more than any kind of proper thinker with anything of substance to say.

But there is money in it and fools aplenty willing to eat up bargain basement level platitudes and superficial gotcha moments packaged as philosophy. In this way, the mainstream right resembles the hypersensitive and hysterical trends of the moralistic wings of the left. Much like two sectarian branches of the same religion, both despise each other more for their similarities than the differences. Both are also clearly cultural inheritors of the protestant reformation and liberal patrician thought and their respective glorification of virtue signaling intent over action and accomplishment. The irony is that while this world views only work in a vacuum, they can only be disseminated in public forums. With the right challenger, they can be made to look utterly foolish under the disinfectant of exposure. It is important to hold interviewers to a high standard in order to best combat these grifters and their influence lowering public debate to that of the tattletales of the elementary school classroom. If so confronted, as Peterson and Shapiro have been recently, their influence will be undermined.

 

The Universe of Repulsion

 

ravenstealssunboddhisatva

My own depiction of Pacific Northwest Raven as a Tibetan wrathful Bodhisattva, or perhaps anti-Bodhisattva. 

Concurrent with my 3 years of delving into speculative realist philosophy has been a simultaneous exploration of the historical intellectual thought in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I remain as much a materialist and atheist as I have ever been, but find the intellectual journey of these religions far more interesting than that of the Abrahamic faiths I have been surrounded by for most of my life. In some ways I believe they can show glimpses of what intellectual life would be like in the western half of Eurasia (and its descended colonies) were it not for the rise of Christianity. Particularly in Japan, Mongolia, and China, where foreign religions largely integrated with pre-existing polytheism rather than simply replacing or expunging them. The only places in the west where such syncretism occurred is in Afro-Caribbean influenced places, some Native American modern beliefs, and New Orleans voodoo-and those of course are heavily dominated by surrounding Christian cultures.

Hinduism had outright atheistic and materialistic schools of thought, and Buddhism denies the immutable soul and upholds philosophical inquiry as dialectic exchange. Certain concepts, such as ‘Indra’s Web’ (shared by both), a concept of the universe as a web containing droplets where each droplet reflects the others ad infinitum, have a remarkable level of confluence with Whitehead’s process theory or to be much more contemporary Bryant’s ‘democracy of objects’- with the notable exception that the philosophical trends are expressed materialistic, and the religious concepts usually are the opposite. Still, much of this way of thinking effectively did not exist in the west from late antiquity until Shopenhauer and its interesting to follow its trends as thought in parts of the world where it was in effect never interrupted.

This bring me to my main point here with the post, and its a problem I have with both process theory and other adjacent to the new speculative turn schools of thought as well as those eastern religions. The problem is quite simple: sure the universe is all interconnected, but this certainly does not mean that it is all *one*.

One of the reasons I have always been partial to hard polytheistic cosmologies as cultural complex is because while there is the acknowledgement that the pantheon of (I would hold, symbolic) figures all takes place in the same world, they are fundamentally different and sometimes at odds. While many philosophical trends, secular and eastern, are superior to the brute certitude and absolutism of Abrahamism, they still can’t quite bring themselves to see the power of chaos and repulsion. In fact, repulsion seems one of the few universal values that can be said to observably exist.

I generally find metaphysics that are not grounded in actual science or natural philosophy to be nothing but faffing about and New Agey nonsense, and fortunately my background in being an astronomy nerd is in fact much longer and more robust than that of philosophy. Dark Energy, so far considered the dominant force of our universe, immediately comes to mind. If the concept of negative mass can be proven it will contribute to this. The fact that gravity is universal and omnipresent, but also weak compared to the forces of energy (dark or otherwise) also makes a case of interconnections not being enough to overcome repulsion. But this is, first and foremost, a humanities blog and there the immediate effects of repulsion seem most obvious.

In international relations we find the natural desire for all states, no matter their official ideological inclination, to balance and counter-balance each other so as to maintain the maximum freedom of action in an anarchic inter-state world that is possible. In culture and politics we see competition leading to rivalry which leads to divergence, and unity only possible when a majority is willing to countenance the use of force to keep such unity alive. Societal bonds break down both for oppression from an increasingly alien ruling class as well as in times of immense complacency and opulence. New mergers are often only possible when two groups fear a third group more, in which case unity itself is the product of an even higher level of repulsion. Foreign attack or invasion is the best way to create unity, because the level of general repulsion is often held to be greater than that which occurs naturally within a society when not under existential threat. When things are left to their natural anarchic state, repulsion is the norm. It is unity that is the artificial construct and temporary state, beneficial as it can often be. But repulsion seems to be the baseline all is working from on the macro-scale. As the Arab proverb goes (paraphrasing here): ‘My country against other countries, my region against my country, my town or city against my region, my family against my town, me against my family.’ What we see here is that unity is only truly reliable when a greater force of repulsion is present. Even those insufferable kinds of people filled universal love show this by the scorn they heap upon those that deny their vision and the hierarchies of condescension they create from those who follow the doctrine they espouse down to ‘the unenlightened’ who do not.

Some schools of thought in speculative realism, especially Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, adopt a view more closely to what I am getting to with repulsion. Despite being more on the process theory side of things (as, I think increasingly, am I), Bryant talks about such issues as well. These thinkers speak not only of withdrawn objects and and the core of objects being inaccessible, but also of the real material basis for divergence between objects in thought. As stated before, I myself am not into the metaphysical side of things enough to bother as much with this aspect, but I do think that one can acknowledge that everything is interconnected through processes while still rejected the idea that ‘all is all one’-unless that one thing is base struggle. Interconnections need not mean monism or uniformity. In fact, rivalry and division are also a form of being connected to things. A kind of connection through repulsion-which is still a type of relationship of course but one of many rather than of one.

All of this is to quibble with semantics of course. But I feel for those of us who study the competition of societies vis-a-vis each other, or the unpredictability of change in any form, it is a useful rhetorical tool to have. It also has the positive value of being able to repel hippies and anti-intellectual ‘its like, all one mannnnn’ type people who deny the very real existence of power struggle and the importance of divergences in thought while still engaging with some concepts common in discourse that are not themselves wrapped up in Platonic forms or absolutism.

Or in other more flippant words, maybe interconnections through repulsion is the true, ahem, ‘middle path.’

Seven Types of Atheism: A Book Review

chuckyjacksoff

Seven Types of Atheism, by John N. Gray is a book I have been meaning to get my hands on for a few months now. Gray is my favorite living philosopher for a number of reasons, mostly related to his ability to critique most of the currents in European political thought from a kind of Taoist-Antihumanist position. He is an atheist but not a progressive or believer in the power of humanity. Though on contemporary politics we are extremely different, him going for Burkean conservative secularism and me for a kind of regionally adjusted geopolitical realism that ers on the side of hard left due to ecological concerns and the current failings of our contemporary ruling classes, but we come from the same place…that history is not a teleology, it has no predetermined end point nor a guiding overall ideology-and that attempts to impose a universal moral ideology is a horrific mistake. Rather, history is a cyclic process of constant crisis management and adaptation which knows no clear cut answers that work in every location or time period. He ends up more on the managed decline side of things-where I used to be I might add-though I now end up more on the ‘seize the moment to start a new cycle lest you be dragged down further’ side, but it is the kind of disagreement on big issues that reasonable people can have.

The reason I came to Gray was due to a recommendation from someone I knew who said that my attempts to articulate my own general position towards political theory sounded like his. I read Straw Dogs shortly after that, and since have gone on to read all his major works. I enjoy and learn from all of them, if not to equal extents. Straw Dogs and above all Black Mass I would contend remain his top works. Though I have moved in many ways in a different direction since, Gray was still the pivot point of my turn away from much of mainstream liberalism.

If anyone has been following his output recently, nothing in ‘7 Types of Atheism’ may necessarily surprise you. In the past 5 or so years he has written numerous criticisms of the myopia of seeing atheism as a purely progressive and humanistic endeavor for the patrician bourgeois of the western world’s developed nations. He not only does this to critique New Atheists, who he rightly scorns as charlatans and entertainers, but also to return awareness of the rich diversity of atheist thought which is not reflected by many contemporary trends. He is especially interested in non-liberal incarnations of the atheist world view, both ones he clearly dislikes as well as ones he respects. ‘7 Types’ is in effect the ultimate coda to these various positions he has scoped out over time. He starts with the New Atheists and Secular Humanists, and his largely negative views of them, then continues on to a mid-tier of various types (scientism, misotheism, etc) which he doesn’t like much either but sees at least some things worth engaging in. He then ends with what is clearly his favorite grouping, the ‘Atheists Without Progress’, and the ‘Mystical Atheists’ (Santayana and Conrad in the first and Shopenhauer and similar thinkers in the second).

I personally have never engaged much with Santayana, though I probably should considering there is a lot of overlap with my interests, but I certainly define myself in this ‘atheist without progress’ category. The impersonal and directionless nature of the cosmos is not what we make of it, as postmodernists and existentialists might claim, but rather simply a fact. The natural world is a material world, and a material world is stuff and energy. Our ability to control our responses to this are just as much slaves to nature as the other animals-even if we have perfected the art of deluding ourselves otherwise. It is not *all* for the worst of course, it gave us art and music after all. Its neither bad nor good because nothing is, the cosmos has no morality and this is fine.

Rather than go through each case study or argument piece by piece, I think it would be perfectly succinct to simply state the best and worst part of the book as I found them.

The best part of the book is that in many ways it serves as a slap in the face to the many Christians who have recently been drawn to Gray because of his savage critiques of New Atheists and Stephen Pinker type euphoria. Gray had developed a bit of a weird fan base that kind of missed the part where his critique of many contemporary atheists was precisely that they were too Christian and behaved as if they were the inheritors of all that baggage. The faith in progress, of human perfection, of a linear path going towards an end goal in history, of good and evil being repackaged as reason and unreason, it was all a very Christian form of atheism. Gray is more in line with the pagan thinkers of old, being fatalistic and skeptical of attempts to seek an artificial ideological improvement for the human race at large rather than localized and contextualized harm reduction. Universalism, outside of the big rules of hard science, is simply a method of moral posturing that heightens rather than reduces tensions and whose only benefit is as a psychological palliative for those who wield it. By re-centering his opposition to the monotheist world view as the core of his critique of many types of atheisms, Gray is reminding (intentionally or not) the faithful of Abraham that they created this mess in the first place. Perhaps if there were eight types of atheism I could consider myself a ‘pagan atheist’, or one who denies the reality of the gods but sees the use in the world view of personified natural forces for festivals and community building. But the point remains that Gray is reminding us of the origin of many of the bad ideas we struggle with, secular or religious, are monotheistic in nature-and stem from a religion that unlike most makes specific factual claims it cannot back up (a la the Resurrection of Jesus).

The worst part of the book to me is a general critique I have developed of Gray in the past few years: I do not think it realistic that many humans could become a kind of apathetic renunciate.  We are an action species by and large. To reject the idea that we are reasonable means accepting the fact that we will take action regardless of being able to see the pointlessness of much of it in the long run. We still have short term goals after all, which are far more immediate. There are people who renunciate, of course, but the realistic observation is that such people never become powerful, and powerful people count for much more. That means, if you like them you have to actively support them, and if you do not you should oppose them. Humanities’ ‘warring interests’ that Gray accurately points out are more likely to lead to a call of arms than a peaceful withdrawal. Since I believe individualism as politics to be a waste of time, one can only take such views from a deeply personal perspective-and even then this only applies to some people. I myself may want one day to live in remote A-frame cabin in Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest, but before that point I want to uphold my friends and revel in the misery of my enemies. You can only get things done by building communities, and all communities need foes and challenges to provide that extra glue of solidarity. I can always renunciate when I am old if I want to, and if I’m dead before then I already, in effect, have.

Since Gray used numerous fictional authors to help illustrate his largely non fictional point I believe it is only fair if I do the same to summarize this one respectful disagreement I have with his work. Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, Kull, and arguably the entire sword and sorcery subgenre, was someone who shared my view that history is cyclic, civilizations decay after apogee, and the future is barbaric-just as the barbarians one day will be the civilizational apogee before they collapse in turn. This view came, like mine, not from theory or philosophy but from years of a rigorous study of world history. There are enough of such people who would say the following: ‘But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood,’ that walk this Earth. And even more of us who are not like that for the most part but have just enough appreciation of the ups and downs of irrational humanity as to have a little bit of that storm in them. For now, this is where I consider myself to be.

Or to take it from the mouth of Howard’s most iconic character:

‘I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.’

 

In Praise of Objectification

riaze bronzes

The Riace Bronzes, pictured above, were originally made around 450 BCE. Found in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy in the 1970s, they are a fantastic example of Greek sculptural talent that has survived in excellent condition.

If you look at them superficially they seem the pinnacle of lifelike form. Artistic realism from a time when it was rare in much of the world. But they are in fact not quite this. A closer look reveals that they are in fact aesthetic exaggerations. The proportion of the limbs is incorrect, the spinal divot is greatly accentuated, the torso too long. If they weren’t beautiful they would be grotesques-a perverse distortion of the human form. And yet it is this accentuation itself that makes them so striking, not for being horrifying, but for being captivating. They are proof of the power of objectification.

We live in a contemporary culture that seeks to deny this power and the positive role that objectification can play. Moralists across the political and social spectrum which have inherited the puritanical drives of monotheism and puritanism seek an artistic world that reflects a reality where nothing can be perfect. Being a (political) realist, I agree that the world can never be perfect and should never be idealized in thought. But being a (speculative) realist I also maintain that there is no harm doing so in the visual arts or in the abstract. So long as we maintain the the difference between ideal and real not only do I not see harm, I see a valuable lesson for rumination by the materialist.

The first and most simple point is entirely subjective, so I will dispense with it quickly. Non-objectified art can be made with less talent and often just leads to edgy pure-interpretative postmodern navel gazing. It is boring and its time is rapidly drawing to a close. Various cultures have created great works of art by not just idealizing the physical forms of people, but animals, plants, mythological creatures, you name it. The Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, one of my favorite man made places I have ever been to, objectifies (if using the definition of moralist scolds of left and right) foxes for symbolism. Much of what is great and striking in classical art does something similar for more human like figures. Modern art such as Osprey which merely seeks to recreate historic clothes and armor often does much the same. Propaganda does the same in more abstract form, particularly in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century.

But more substantially and less subjectively as a second point, to the philosophical realist objectification is good in any context because objectification is true. The concern with the moralists of left, right, and center is always the fear that humanity will be reduced to an object. They wish to avoid embracing this, but I would prefer embracing it directly. Humanity is a collection of objects which in turn creates its own cohesive object as the human in turn (See Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology and Levi Bryant’s Onto-Cartology in turn, mentioned a few entries ago on this blog in greater detail). Humanity is more than the sum of its parts, sure, but only because the addition of multiple objects creates new ways for assemblages to interact in physical space and thus to create new and larger objects. Your liver is an object, but in meeting with your other object-organs it creates a greater object-assemblage, which is yourself. And yourself, it reasons to assume, is itself a smaller object as part of the assemblage of humanity itself as a species, and Earth itself as an object-planet. Therefore, from a materialist standpoint, you really are an object. And all objects, depending on their use to others, become objectified by living beings in some way.

The third point is that objectification reminds us not to be suckered into anthropocentrism. As humans we constantly objectify everything around us because our relationship with the rest of the world is much more honest than the one we have within our own species. In the era of the anthropocene it is more and more important that we disavow with this artificial separation between how we perceive ourselves and the rest of the natural world. To reduce someone to an ‘object’ is not really an insult, but rather an honest admission as to how we view most people who we do not have a personal acquaintance with. This also overlaps with contemporary culture’s obsession that physical beauty matters more than everything else. If one believes that acknowledging (ever-changing) beauty ideals exist and will always exist in some form, this is viewed as morally bad. But really it is an admission of reality. The actual ideals will change, of course, but not that such ideals in some form will exist. What this means, ironically, is that the woke-burqa alliance is actually stating that they believe, deep down inside, that physical beauty is the only meaningful form of praise.

I disagree. I think a person can be objectified for their body, or for their brain, or for some useful or impressive talent (which most likely involves the manipulation of objects in turn) because it is both consistent and correct to do so. Society does not exist to have numerous atomized individuals all pretending they are all perfect wholes separate from the rest-nor does it exist to pretend that egalitarianism must mean different traits are not exceptional. It exists so that different specializations can be harnessed for a variety of communal outputs. The real objective should not be to ‘make everyone comfortable and modest’ or ‘make everyone beautiful’, which would only make everyone bland and indistinguishable even in the entirely unlikely scenario that it would succeed (not to mention create an underground and illegal beauty and horror market to fill the need being denied) but rather to increase the amount of things we are going to objectify so that more people can be objectified in more fields…and thus elevated.

The cultures that first dove into philosophy were the same ones who made works like the Riace Bronzes. This is not a coincidence. When Christian fanaticism came to power many of these so called idols were smashed. Islam did much the same. Daesh did this just a few years ago in Syria during the occupation of Palmyra.

Maybe its time to bring the idols back.

 

The Hip Old Fogeys and the Fear of Realism

pomothot

Back when I was firmly ensconced inside academia it seemed apparent to me that there was a certain cadre of social science professors-as well as their acolyte grad students-who were still under the delusion that they lived in 1990, and that 1990 was the future. They were, of course, postmodernists. Now, I know I have delved multiple times before into why I find that ideology anti-intellectual and useless for anyone taking the (correct) position of materialism so I am not going to go back into that here. But what I wish to deal with more specifically is the last gasp critiques of this dying old guard that refuses to admit it is yesterday’s fad.

I was sent, jokingly, a link to this which galvanized my idea to write a reaction. I am not interested in picking on these three academics specifically however, but rather the general trend of certain (usually boomer, or if younger, hipster) academics and their closest students to insist that they are still the cutting edge and critical observation. If you take a look through the list of positions held by Theory Revolt on how history is taught at the university level you can see in their own worlds what they are all about. Largely, they are opposed to a stodgy fusty old man and High Tory kind of historical instruction that defers to authority and source material and insists on universal truth. They wish for more theory to counteract a bland spreadsheet of dates and facts with little interpretation. Well, I agree with that.

The problem is that the widespread teaching of this kind of history is long since banished to the margins of most academia (outside of DC in polisci and economics in general, of course.  I am sure I have ranted about this before). The other problem is that to replace it with ‘critical theory’ (a nebulous term that implies critical thought but functionally and largely just means relativizing everything into subjectivity and attaching the milquetoast label of ‘problematic’ to everything) would be to update history courses from 1960 into the far off future of 1990. Theory Revolt is proposing nothing new as a solution to a problem that ceased being a problem around the time I was born. To be honest, this ‘revolt’ cannot be against the academic establishment: because for the most part these critical theorists *are* the academic establishment in the humanities.

Furthermore, this is reflective of a class of scholars who would rather ‘queer’ specific niche aspects of history than, say, write a large and comprehensive history of alternate sexualities. But I happen to know of a big-picture book that has done more for the subject that a million woke lit crits and film reviews about how things are portrayed in fiction. And that brings us to the other problem these academics have inflicted on us: fiction is now held as just as reliable a form of knowledge as nonfiction. Now as any cursory perusal through this blog can show, I do not write fiction off as a tool of analysis and fun for atypical nonfiction and theoretical topics. But it is no panacea on its own. I cannot help but think that the postmodern infiltration of all of the recent humanities topics has contributed to the unfortunate trend of many (usually) mainstream liberals and neoliberals to have meltdowns when real life does not conform to a Hollywood/Harry Potter/West Wing fantasy narrative about history as a progressive teleology where people like them are the heroes.

One of the habits of these types in the field is to become incredibly niche in their interests so that they are the only expert in an entire university or even country. That way they can all pretend they cannot speak with any authority on their colleagues’ research and thus that no one can be professionally challenged. A mutual non-aggression pact. Though stultifying, this hardly effects the students. It does, however, discourage the learning of big picture issues and cross-disciplinary topics. As a History undergrad/ International Relations postgrad crossover working on a doctoral thesis that was both of those majors at once, I made it a mission of mine to encourage cross disciplinary study and events as part of a group I was in. We successfully brought together scholars from History, Literature, Politics, Psychology, Anthropology, and the like from around the world to meet each other and think of joint projects. This is work that helped cross-pollinate ideas and contacts. It is also something I never saw the people on the deep end of critical/postmodern theory ever do…unless, that is, that it was around a topic that would guarantee that everyone in attendance was also of a similar ideological background. We had no such scruples in our group, and lively discussions that resulted from this were much more enlightening.

One of the positive things that postmodernism gave us, before it went off the rails, was a greater emphasis on scrutinizing the purpose and ideology behind primary sources. They did not invent this, of course, but helped to popularize it. The thing is that good historians already did this, and now there are more historians of all calibers who do. But they do it across the board. Marxist historians, realist historians, geopolitical historians like myself. We all do it. The foundational work of the Post Cold War era was not Derrida or Butler, but Diamond. It was the re-entry of physical space that jump-started humanities disciplines left moribund and uninteresting to most people by decades playing in the ashes of a postmodern apocalypse.

Lest you fear I am only now updating the curriculum to 1998 or 2005, let me assure you Diamond was only the start. Speculative Realism is a school of philosophy that has been doing its thing since 2008 and through the present. While still primordial, the normally dry but practical naivete of analytic philosophy and sterile introspection of continental philosophy have been both left in the dust by thinkers like Meillassoux, Harman, Brassier, and others who have taken the critical thinking of the continental and paired it with a commitment to removing the anthropocentrism of that school of thought by returning to a real world that (obviously) exists outside of our feelings about it. In other words, social science creationism is out, philosophy’s reconciliation with real life begins anew. This is the actual cutting edge of philosophy and hopefully soon theory as well in today’s world, not the stodgy old fogeyism of the Me Generation. After all, we live in a world of obvious and undeniable environmental deterioration. As if the greater world around us was not enough to wake us up from decades of prosperity induced solipsism, everything that has happened since the Great Recession has really just reminded the world around us that politics (and therefore useful theory) must be rooted in the physical as the core of all things political is the struggle for the allocation and distribution of resources. Full stop. Only the physical can confront the physical. The challenges of the anthropocene will either consume us or be alleviated by new technology.  Anything else is in effect theology, and that is a waste of time for issues of import in the here and now.

By all means let’s have a theory revolt. But let it be against all types of fogeyisms, Tory or Woke. Realism is necessary and coming back, but it won’t be doing so uncritically. And a vital part of that is making a world where academics are uncomfortable and can be wrong. Because that is how we grow.

 

 

 

Geopolitics in a World of Interlocked Machines

mt roraima

Mt Roraima, the closest thing to a true natural border, serving as the meeting point of the borders of Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela

In previous posts I have mentioned in brief my fascination with speculative realism and object oriented ontology. I was always planning on making a post drawing the connections between it and the geopolitics which are the centerpiece of my writing here, but kept putting that off. Of course, now that I have read Levi Bryant’s (blog here) excellent book on ‘Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media’ I am now jump-started into finally getting around to this task. This post will also partially count as a book review for said work.

Also, as an aside, damn University of Edinburgh, you folks publish a lot in both speculative realism *and* China-Central Asia studies. I can’t believe I never realized this connection until after I moved out of the city. All my fields represented in my favorite place I ever lived. Missed opportunities and all that.

I got my start in grand historical narratives with Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, and I feel that its influence and verifiability in my experience kept me always on the side of anti-idealism and pro-realist interpretations-one of the few views I have never changed in my adult life. The anthropocentrism of so much of philosophy is both silly and divorced from the big picture and largely seemed to make most of philosophy-especially since the postmodern turn-utterly divorced from anything interesting or practical. It was only with my discovery of John Gray and then speculative realism as a whole that I finally found like minded people who wanted to insert some materialist and/or pseudo Taoism into these trends and thus rescue philosophy from its own self-imposed irrelevance.

From what can be inferred by the writings of many of these new wave of thinkers, the breaking point is the anthropocene itself. Human-caused environmental destruction ironically shows both how unintentionally powerful we are as a species as well as how utterly enslaved we are by the forces of nature even as we effect them. Climate change and the like are very real material things that cannot be ‘socially constructed’ away. This really forces the issue: western philosophy must get its head out of its own ass. The world is real no matter what you want to think about it. And postmodernism, Kantian idealism, and all the rest have done nothing but effectively make the same case for philosophy that climate change denialists and young Earth creationists do for the hard sciences. By relaying everything through human interpretation (correlationism), we elevated ourselves to the status of godlings in ideal but deluded street preachers in the real. Here is the world, we are part of it and it is part of us. We are not special or have some separate destiny through our unique access to consciousness. We are where we come from and what we are made of. In turn we effect the rest not because we are apart of the world but because we are very much an integrated (if increasingly overly powerful) part of the process.

Thinkers like Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Steven Shaviro, and others have done much work on bringing the usefulness in realism back to metaphysics and I encourage you to check out their work. But I must say, none of them quite have pieced together all the elements I wanted to see in one place like Levi Bryant has. More importantly, he does so in a way that makes it easier to do what I wanted to do–connect these forms of philosophy to geopolitics and history.

To put it extremely succinctly but perhaps unjustly as a summary: Onto-Cartography is Bryant’s mode of viewing the reality of objects (both physical and functional, so from plants to states or companies) as machines made of component parts, which in turn are machines made of component parts. All machines can be modified, made irrelevant, or increased in power by the addition or subtraction of various sub-components. These are all real de facto objects in space, whose interactions with each other and space itself as a medium are the sum total of reality. There may also be hidden objects-which is to say things that exist but that we do not and might never know of due to our lack of ability to interact with them-or objects that me might infer the existence of but still cannot detect outside of the inference on objects we can see (such as dark matter and dark energy, or the ideology of an umfamiliar society which you cannot yet communicate with linguistically). The one connector between all of these machine-objects, whether seen or unseen or man made or organic, is nature itself. The only holism here is that all things are natural.

This is not to say that all things are monistic and equally intertwined (what I would call the hippie-spiritualist platitude of ‘we are all, like, one mannnnn’). Some machines only interact with some things and may be invisible to others. The internet interacts with me and you if you are reading this, but not a wild boar rummaging around in the bush. Nor are such bilateral relations equal. The machine-activity of plant life, evolving constantly and striving to extract energy from the sun is utterly dependent on the sun-but the sun is hardly dependent on those plants and would exist unchanged without them. So too does it follow that bi-laterals can be proportionally unequal when they do exist as a back-and-forth, with the Earth influencing the sun, but nowhere near as the sun influences the Earth. Our solar system in turn, while obviously influenced by the context of evolving in the Milky Way galaxy, would continue to exist if it was ejected from said galaxy until the death of the sun, and the Milky Way itself would be unaffected by its absence. Most relationships in physical space exist to some degree, as everything observable interacts with energy and gravity, but this is dead end. Functionally speaking, the relationship between machine-object assemblages that matter are context dependent and have to be broken down to strategic linkages of power and cause and effect. So too, with grand theories of the humanities, where being pro or anti-capitalist becomes an almost meaningless position from the perspective of actively seeking to create change through politics when instead one must use a targeted approach to attack or support policies through their interlinkages with direct results, geographic context, and the interplay of physical factors that social science theory may not account for. This brings us strongly into the need to re-engage with geography-long one of my main causes.

When you consider that agriculture first arose in parts of the world that had the easiest plants to domesticate, and animal husbandry arose where the easiest and most useful animals to domesticate still lived or evolved, it becomes a legitimate question: Who domesticated who? Are we not now as beholden to our wheat crops and herds as their spread and cultivation is beholden to us? Are we not one giant interlocked process of physical objects as machine processes whose relationships can change or be re-evaluated by the constant evolution, revolution, and modification of these relationships through nature-often unintentionally? I would lean in the direction of a strong yes. The factors cited above which are also those which most directly the anthropology and history at the center of the humanities are directly tied to this geographic understanding. Against this background there is also the understanding that Bryant, much like Ibn Khaldun, constantly reminds us of: entropy. Machines break down with time. Geography itself, long treated by pop-geostrategists as eternal, is in fact temporal-if not as much as human societies themselves (Bryant 120, 174). To function in such a world machines need to either repair themselves or be re-invented, so is the overlap of seeing states (or tribes or gangs or whatever) as machines interlocked with the fate of their physical and contextual environment. To quote Bryant directly from page 191: ‘The social is not a specific sort of stuff, but is another word for the ‘ecological’. A social assemblage is an ecology.’ So zoologists have treated the interactions of their various species but anthropologists often have difficulty meeting this standards when looking at people.

So too does Bryant’s concept of hidden objects matter for international relations. Something that effects nothing until it does is a surprise, and often disproportionately makes history precisely because no one was prepared for it. Daesh, or ISIS, was something that lurked from the De-Bathification and marginalization of Sunnis in occupation Iraq but did not come to have proper international sway as a new and utterly bizarre entity until the circumstances of conflict in the Post Arab-Spring world enabled it to move from an ideology of rejected and angry sunnis to one which held a territorial base and influenced a web of international alliances. It was an object that barely mattered, dark to most of the world, until it achieved the mass necessary to exert a much larger gravitational force on other actors, so to speak. One could also see this process on a much larger scale in the meteoric rise of previously nonexistent powers in a short period of time, From Macedon under Philip II and then Alexander to Mongolia under Chinggis Khaan. As Ibn Khaldun was fond of postulating, the next new vigorous dynastic founders are often the most marginalized and sometimes even irrelevant people in a given order. See also the French and Russian revolutions where ideas of disaffection merely simmered until the situation made it that they could co-opt entire societies once they had momentum and a territorial base. The territorial base is key, as it means direct resource acquisition and interaction, something discussions in a salon never could achieve on their own. Tellingly, those that think salon discussion alone can bring about change (these days, mainstream liberals and conservatives) are those who already identity with the ruling class and therefore whose priorities are already de facto supported by the arms, power, and consensus of the pre-existing state.

Geography both constrains and enables what those who rule a certain place can do. It also means, in my opinion, that even if all nations can (and should) come together on environmental points that clearly would benefit everyone that they will never be able to share other common causes. Nations dependent on rare Earth exporting are going to be different that nations dependent on tourism, just as a highly urbanized region is not going to see eye to eye with a mostly rural area and neither will agree with a wilderness frontier. As geography and culture are very interlinked in an explicitly materialist way, and Earth is replete with societies of different geographies, the political idea of a common humanity vanishes even as we acknowledge we need to downgrade humanity’s overall importance in the grand scheme of things. Resource security with different powers and maintaining the right diplomacy is a way of maximizing differences for mutual gain, rather than some quixotic quest for a world order of moralism. The only thing universal is the natural and material mediums through which all such interactions take place-and even those change with climate, altitude, arability, power relationships between assemblages, and the like.

Bryant offers those of us who are old school realists and geostrategy watchers to engage with contemporary philosophy and both put into place language outside of general policy-wonkery. Considering how many absolute quacks infest geopolitics this goes in a positive direction to establish a much maligned field as more legitimate philosophy in the materialist tradition. Seeing states as the entropy-affected machines that rise and fall in reaction to the various people in that interact with their physical places as well as the pressures of the natural world and those of other people is a neutral and realist way to ground the study of alliances, war, strategy, and the historical contexts which feed into the self-justifications of states and the policy traps they often make for themselves. The relationship with nature by societies are always (at least) two ways, we affect nature and it effects us, because we like our technology and our animals, are as much a part of it as the wilderness. If we can chart the territories of wolf packs relatively objectively and always keeping the environmental context in mind, there is no reason we cannot do it with the formations of people as well. And any attempt to effect change within these societies must keep this context in mind. It also, perhaps most importantly for the realist school of IR thought, gives us the means to engage in contemporary materialism when talking about the power imbalances between strong and weak states as well as how they constantly adapt and evolve to try to find better balances of power for their interests.