[-empyre-] Ontology again

Sally Jane Norman s.j.norman at newcastle.ac.uk
Wed Oct 24 17:16:06 EST 2007

Dear all, Reggie
Thanks for this; the discussion is deeply exciting.
The issue of language straining wildly to convey in prose the mathematical information conveyed in expressions like "curved space" - tensions between poetic and technoscientific discourse - is beautifully formulated. Victor Turner also comes to mind for me, insisting on the myriad notions and mechanisms of synchronicity which we develop in order to create and underpin our sense of community, wrought in Turner's (and my) world by ritual and theatre. Maybe a long way from the code discussion but an essential social device for forging collective identity, and one that's insidiously present in so many of our purportedly secular activities. DNA daisy chain?
Tongue in cheek, reading Dipesh Chakrabarty's text (thanks Reggie; it would indeed be ironic to begin to even try to condense this!), with its notions of the complexity of historical time, I glanced again at Brian's text reproduced further down in the mail which comes across as an example of how we invariably compress and reinterpret historical time as a function of our current vantage point. When the European Union was sketched out via the Rome treaty, "knowledge-driven economic growth" was still probably largely inconceivable yet this features first on Brian's list of three imperatives. Don't "classic answers" belong to the "classic periods" within which they are formulated? This isn't a criticism as much as an amused/ bemused awareness of how wilfully (and no doubt necessarily) we overlook the historicity-ridden assumptions of our discourse. I mean, it would be dreadful if everything we said had to be laboriously prefaced with "speaking from the standpoint of...." (precisely what academic knowledge is often about), but how we roll our standpoints into implicit assumptions is fascinating and packs a punch within our social and language codes. That's maybe what interests me about this list - it keeps jamming the codes, shifting the registers of discourse.
I realise I'm whimsically off topic insofar as that is possible... but the ways we dovetail and englobe and engineer our different temporal codes - including those conveyed by our systems of scientific interpretation - is a question that fascinates me.
with grateful appreciation for the livewire neurons in the arena


From: empyre-bounces at gamera.cofa.unsw.edu.au on behalf of Reggie Woolery
Sent: Tue 23/10/2007 5:40 PM
To: soft_skinned_space
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Ontology again

(thanks, Nick. Hopefully this text is not a block/mass)

Steve, Here is a text that suggests another view.

(Sorry for all the words. I'm not good at condensing.
Anyway, be gentle, I'm a newbie to the list.)  -- reggie

* * *

>'Invention of god' sounds like me. The word and concept
of 'code' being used so generally is in severe danger of
moving over the boundary into the area of non-existant
entities like god. For let's be absolutely clear no god or
gods have ever existed only religions.
>The appeal to keep the productivity of non-existant
entities available, is completely contrary to Judith's text.
>Reggie Woolery wrote:
>> Someone mentioned the invention of God earlier, as if He
is not a "code", which like DNA in the West, is hugely
productive for science, culture, art -- Watson knows this,
as do academics, citizens, and businessmen. No
>> conspiracy. It would be a shame to foreclose the
productivity of God-ness because of ethical passions. Why
and for whom do people desire to re-appropriate Master
utopian narratives is more of my interest, and I think
>> Judith's?
>> reggie
* * *
Dipesh Chakrabarty
The Time of History and Times of Gods

In truth, the historian can never get away from the question
of time in history: time sticks to his thinking like soil to
a gardener¹s spade. ­ Fernand Braudel, On History

The vulgar representation of time as a precise and
homogeneous continuum hasS diluted the Marxist concept of
time of history. ­ Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History

   At its core, this essay is about the problems a secular
subject like history faces in handling imaginations in which
gods, spirits, or the supernatural have agency in the world.
My central examples concern the history of work in South
Asia. Labor, the activity of producing, is seldom a
completely secular activity in India. It often entails,
through rituals big and small, the invocation of divine or
super-human presence. Secular histories are produced usually
by ignoring the signs of these presences. In effect, we have
two systems of thought, one in which the world is
ultimately, that is, in the final analysis, disenchanted,
and the other in which the humans are not the only
meaningful agents. For the purpose of writing history, the
first system, the secular, translates the second into
itself. It is the question of this translation ­ its methods
and problems ­ that interests me here as part of a broader
effort to situate the question of subaltern history within a
postcolonial critique of modernity and of history itself.
   This critique has to issue from within a dilemma that
must mark a project such as subaltern studies. The dilemma
is this: Writing subaltern history, documenting resistance
to oppression and exploitation, must be part of a larger
effort to make the world more socially just. To wrench
subaltern studies away from the keen sense of social justice
that gave rise to the project would be to violate the spirit
that gives this project its sense of commitment and
intellectual energy. Indeed, it may be said that it would be
to violate the history of realist prose in India, for it may
be legitimately argued that the administration of justice by
modern institutions requires us to imagine the world through
the languages of the social sciences, that is, as
   History¹s own time is godless, continuous, and, to follow
Benjamin, empty and homogeneous. By this I mean that in
employing modern historical consciousness (whether in
academic writing or outside of it), we think of a world
that, in Weber¹s description, is already disenchanted. Gods,
spirits, and other ³supernatural² forces can claim no agency
in our narratives. Further, this time is empty because it
acts as a bottomless sack: any number of events can be put
inside it; and it is homogeneous because it is not affected
by any particular events: its existence is independent of
such events and in a sense it exists prior to them. Events
happen in time but time is not affected by them. The time of
human history ­ as any popular book on the evolution of this
universe will show ­ merges, when thought of backwards, into
the time of prehistory, of evolutionary and geological
changes going back to the beginning of the universe. It is
part of nature. This is what allowed J.B.S. Haldane once to
write a book with the telltale title Everything Has a
History.  Hence the time of Newtonian science is not
different to the time historians automatically assume as
providing the ontological justification of their work.
Things may move faster or slower in this time: that is
simply the problem of velocity and speed. And the time may
be cyclical or linear: the weeks belong to cyclical time,
the English years go in hundred-year cycles, while the
procession of years is a line. And historians may with
justification talk about different regions of time: domestic
time, work time, the time of the state, and so on. But all
these times, whether cyclical or linear, fast or slow, are
normally treated not as parts of a system of conventions, a
cultural code of representations, but as something more
objective, something belonging to ³nature² itself. This
nature/culture division becomes clear when we look at
nineteenth-century uses of archaeology, for instance, in
dating histories that provided no easy arrangements of
   It is not that historians and philosophers of history are
unaware of such a commonplace as the claim that modern
historical consciousness, or for that matter academic
history, as genres are of recent origin (as indeed are the
imaginations of the modern sciences). Nor have they been
slow to acknowledge the changes these genres have undergone
since their inception.(2)  The naturalism of historical time
lies in the belief that everything can be historicized. So
while the non-naturalness of history, the discipline, is
granted, the assumed universal applicability of its method
entails a further assumption: that it is always possible to
assign people, places, and objects to a naturally existing,
continuous flow of historical time.(3)  Thus irrespective of
a society¹s own understanding of temporality, a historian
will always be able to produce a time line for the globe
whose structure is like this:

Time    Events in
T1    Area X  Area Y  Area Z
T2    Area X  Area Y  Area Z

   It does not matter if any of these areas were inhabited
by peoples such as the Hawaiians or the Hindus, who (unlike,
as some would say, the Chinese or the Arabs) did not have
a ³sense of chronological time² ­ as distinct from other
forms of memories and understandings of historicity ­ before
European arrival. Contrary to whatever they may have thought
and however they may have organized their memories, the
historian has the capacity to put them back into a time we
all are supposed to have shared, consciously or not. History
as a code thus invokes a natural, homogeneous, secular,
calendrical time without which the story of human
evolution/civilization ­ a single human history, that is ­
cannot be told. In other words, the code of the secular
calendar that frames historical explanation has this claim
built into it: that independent of culture or consciousness,
that people exist in historical time. That is why it is
always possible to discover ³history² (say, after European
contact) even if you were not aware of its existence in the
past. History is supposed to exist in the same way as the
earth does, for instance.
   I begin with the assumption that, to put it strongly,
this time, the basic code of history, is not something that
belongs to nature (i.e., is not completely independent of
human systems of representation). It stands for a particular
formation of the modern subject. This is not to say that
this understanding of time is false or that it can be given
up at will. But clear, the kind of correspondence that
exists between our worlds and the Newtonian imagination of
the universe, between our experience of secular time and the
time of physics, breaks down in many post-Einsteinian
constructions. In the Newtonian university, as historical-
imagination, ³events² are more or less separable from their
descriptions: what is factual is seen as translatable from
mathematics into prose or between different languages. Thus
an elementary book on Newtonian physics can be written
completely in Bengali alphabet and numerals, using a minimum
of mathematical signs. But not so with post-Einsteinian
physics: language strains wildly when trying to convey in
prose the mathematical imagination contained in an
expression like ³Curved space² (for, thinking
commonsensically, in what would such a space exist in not in
space itself?). In this second case, one might say that the
assumption of translatability does not quite hold, that the
imagination of Einsteinian physics is best learned through
the language of mathematics ­ for we are speaking of a
universe of events where the events cannot be separated from
their descriptions. Modern physics, one might say, took the
linguistics turn early in this century. Post-Einsteinian
cosmology, as the physicist Paul Davis puts it, makes even
mathematical sense only so long as we do not try to take ³a
God¹s-eye-view² of the universe (i.e., so long as one does
not try to totalize or to view the ³whole²). ³I have grown
used to dealing with the weird and wonderful world of
relativity,² writes Davis. ³The ideas of space-warps,
distortions in time and space and multiple universes have
become everyday tools in the strange trade of the
theoretical physicistS. I believe that the reality exposed
by modern physics is fundamentally alien to the human mind,
and defies all power of direct visualizationS²(4)
   Historians writing after the so-called linguistic turn
may not any longer think that ³events² are completely
accessible by language, but the more sober among them strive
to avoid absolute lunacy by resorting to weaker versions of
this position. As put in the recent book Telling the Truth
about History by Lynn Hunt and her colleagues, historians,
writing in the aftermath of postmodernism, would work toward
an ideal of ³workable truths,² approximations of ³facts²
that can be agreed to by all even after it is granted that
language and representations always form a (thin?) film
between us and the world (in the same way we can mostly
ignore the insights of Einsteinian or quantum physics in
negotiating our everyday movements in practical life). The
higher trans ideal of translatability between different
languages ­ thus Vietnamese history into Bengali ­ remains
something worth striving for even if language always foils
the effort. This ideal ­ a modified Newtonianism ­ is, in
their view, the historians¹ protection against the sheer
madness of postmodernist and cultural relativist talk
about ³untranslatability,² ³incommensurability,² and all
that. (5)
   Unlike in the world of physicist Paul Davis, then, the
imagination of ³reality² in the discipline of history is
dependent on the capacities of ³the human mind,² its powers
of visualization. The use of the definite article is
critical here, for this ³reality² aspires to achieve a
status of transparency with regard to particular human
languages, an ideal of objectivity entertained by Newtonian
science where translation between different languages is
mediated by the higher language of science itself. Thus pani
in Hindu and water in English can both be mediated by H-2-0.
Needless to say, it is only the higher language that is
capable of appreciating, if not expressing, the capacities
of ³the human mind.² I would suggest that the idea of a
godless, continuous, empty, and homogeneous time that
history shares with the other social sciences and modern
political philosophy as a basic building block belongs to
this model of a higher, overarching language ­ a structure
of generality, an aspiration toward the scientific ­ which
is built into conversations that take the modern historical
consciousness for granted.
   A proposition of radical untranslatability therefore
comes as a problem to the universal categories that sustain
the historian¹s enterprise. But it is also a false problem
created by the very nature of the universal itself that aims
to function as a supervening general construction mediating
between all the particulars on the ground. The secular code
of historical and humanist time ­ that is, a time bereft of
gods and spirits ­ is one such universal. Claims about
agency on behalf of the religious, the supernatural, the
divine, and the ghostly have to be mediated in terms of this
universal. The social scientist-historian assumes
that ³contexts² explain particular gods: If we could all
have the same context, then we would all have the same gods
as well. But there is a problem. Whereas the sameness of
our ³sciences² can be guaranteed all the world over, the
sameness of our gods and spirits cannot be proved in quite
the same object manner (notwithstanding the protestations of
the well-meaning that all religions speak of the same God).
So it could be said that while the ³sciences² signify some
kind of sameness in our take on the world across cultures,
the ³gods² signify differences (bracketing for the moment
the history of conversion, which I touch on very briefly, in
a later section). Writing about the presence of gods and
spirits in the secular language of history or sociology
would therefore be like an act of translating into a
universal language what belongs to a field of differences.

Excerpt from The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of
Capital, edited by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, Duke
University Press, 1997 (pg 35-60) Post-Contemporary
Interventions series editors: Stanley Fish and Fredric

* * *
Steve wrote to Jasper:

"I agree entirely with
the marxist sentiments expressed, but given that science,
the scientific
method remains the best means developed to explain things
and explain
the previously unexplainable. Extreme care needs to taken
establishing relations between science and capital because
whilst all of
the below is true isn't it rather wonderful that science
makes it provable

Great conversation here, very informative and thought-
provoking. But I
think you are getting a little generalist with the above!
The disciplined
empiricism formulated as the scientific method is certainly
not THE best
way to explain everything. A very different kind of
explanation has been
indicated with the reference to Lukacs' understanding of
the  class
division that made possible the productivist technoscience
of the 20th
century. And that understanding is not a "sentiment," it's a
form of reasoning and argumentation that has taken care to
mark its
distances from other forms. I would appreciate more detailed
explanation of
Lukacs' thoughts on this subject, and references to the
texts where he
develops these ideas; and I am convinced we would NOT find
they are based
on the current scientific methods of hypothesis, laboratory
experimentation, insertion of the results into statistical
smoothing of the series, etc.

If there were only one way of explaining everything, such as
science, well,
then, of course you could ultimately only argue about the
details (questions about "method"). But that old beast,
ontology, or
assertions about being, comes back consistently among humans
wondering why
they are here and how to guide their course through mortal
time; and
indeed, my view is that the very poor and willfully ignorant
ontologies of
fundamentalist religion are now so strong, precisely because
disciplined and self-interested empiricists of a capitalist
technoscientific society refuse to ask questions about being
destination. For instance, why was the European Union made?
knowledge-driven economic growth, competitive international
trade and
increasing consumption! Those are now the classic answers
that are given,
perfectly value-free (except for the dominant values they
refuse to name as
such), and very much in line with the unquestioned
asumptions of
technoscience. Most scientists who speak publicly have
pretty lousy
explanations about being and destiny, almost as bad as the
state capitalists - and the biologists are really not
proving any
exception. Those explanations will only get better if we
between different ontological departure points, and the
different modes of
reasoning and argumentation that flow from them. Only in
that way can some
debate take place. A monospecies mental ecology populated
only by
contemporary science makes for a stultifying and potentially

best, Brian

On 10/22/07 11:13 AM, "sdv at krokodile.co.uk" <sdv at krokodile.co.uk> wrote:

> Brian
> Symbolic murder ? hummmm
> The kernal of the issue is that science is not restricted to the
> theory/verification model, this restrictive understanding, as Nancy
> Cartwright and others have demonstrated, cannot adequately describe what
> happens within high energy physics labs, let alone within biology and
> economics work. Once the nature of this restrictive model is accepted
> then science is not the conservative model that you refer to,
> importantly it refuses the centrality of the matheme. Which enables us
> to place the human sciences on the same plane of reference as high
> energy physics.
> Actually I disagree with the way in which you present ontology as a
> philosophy of being, for isn't ontology at the very least concerned with
> the the investigation of being or existance which is disallowed by the
> proposition that ontological work might result in an act of 'symbolic
> murder'. I would however further amend this by quoting D&G that "before
> being is politics" with the implication that ontology is always already
> political. It is interesting and perhaps significant that you choose to
> support non-existant entities, rather than say; sexism or something
> equally terrible. It raises the question of whether a philosopher or a
> scientist must attack an 'ontology', a 'belief' that contains incorrect
> and possibly oppressive statements. There is something terrifyingly
> tragic about philosophers like Heidegger and Husserl, it's not just the
> formers Nazisim but Husserls relationship to the first world war.
> It's after the symbolic murder statement that things are said that
> remind me to say (sadly misquoting Rosa L and other marxists): late
> capitalism is an imperialist system and it will continue to expand until
> all the non-capitalist socio-economic systems have been destroyed.
> Negotiation ? it really doesn't look like negotiation from here.
> regards
> s
> Brian Holmes wrote:
>> sdv at krokodile.co.uk wrote:
>>> To argue that 'science is not THE best way to explain everything' well
>>> that's just nonsensical, what do you have left but religion, faith,
>>> magic, transcendentalism, humanism none of which explains anything.
>> Well, this could be a semantic issue, but "science" nowadays refers most
>> commonly to a method of experimental verification that doesn't bring
>> ontology into question. I have very strong reasons to suppose that the
>> organic chemist with whom I discussed cellulose polymers on my last
>> airplane trip does not for a moment suppose that the form, procedure and
>> results of his experiments have anything whatsoever to do with his basic
>> right to be the master and possessor of nature, i.e. everything that is
>> not him! I really do think that "science" based on the strict
>> subject-object distinction is NOT the best way to explain everything. It
>> certainly does not explain the basic valuations that motivate humans in
>> their life choices, and crucially, in their political allegiances,
>> despite the crucial effects those allegiances ultimately have on the
>> transformation of the world and its "nature."
>> After all that, if you want to extend the word "science" to cover every
>> kind of deliberate reasoning, and if you want to refer to the rare (but
>> of course, still numerous) scientists and philosophers of science who do
>> question their first principles, then OK, proclaiming science in this
>> incredibly broad sense as the best way to explain everything becomes a
>> near-tautology. However, if we start to make less crude distinctions,
>> then there is clearly a kind of Marxist humanism, of which Lukacs for
>> example has been a serious representative, which does not elide or
>> simply mathematicize the observer, but rather takes into account the
>> inertia of historical time and the struggle against the hierarchies that
>> have sedimented in the course of time. That is a very different position
>> and definition of the subject of inquiry, with very different results in
>> terms of the thinking of human destiny.
>> I am relatively ignorant vis-a-vis the philosophy of sciences, but for
>> example, Prigogine's inquiries into the "arrow of time" and all that any
>> serious consideration of it does to previous formulations of the truths
>> of science, appear important to me. Heidegger would clearly be another
>> example, not a trivial one either, even if you do not agree with his
>> understanding of what it is to be human (I do not personally agree).
>> Furthermore I think the idea that religion explains nothing is a bit
>> rash. When you try to tell a group of people that their ontology and all
>> its consequences simply mean nothing, it's symbolic murder, and that
>> will invariably produce a violent reaction. I think an enlarged
>> philosophy of life would take on the plurality of ontologies and the
>> need for dialogue that ensues. Indeed, I think that process of
>> negotiation describes the real situation now in the world, since the
>> collapse of hegemonic modernizing programs. However, the difficulties of
>> this dialogic process, and the time it takes to go through them (as
>> opposed to thinking, as the militarists do, that you can just bomb the
>> others into submission) are not sufficiently recognized today, with the
>> result that the negotiating process takes on quite horrible and tragic
>> contours. A real dialogism would accept that the creation of values is
>> the greatest human power, and that negotiation over the consequences of
>> divergent values is the greatest human challenge. Imho.
>> all the best, and yes, warmly, Brian
>> _______________________________________________
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>> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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