FW: [-empyre-] Ontology again

dean wilson deanwilson9 at gmail.com
Thu Oct 25 13:42:54 EST 2007

Sally, I hope your apology isn't for your earlier post. Eugene and
Judith are both performing artists and their books should inform media
and technology anthropologists. I personally think there is no better
analogy than drumming for the concept of code.


On 10/25/07, Sally Jane Norman <s.j.norman at newcastle.ac.uk> wrote:
> oops, seemingly wrong sender code....
> ________________________________
> From: Sally Jane Norman
> Sent: Wed 24/10/2007 8:16 AM
> To: soft_skinned_space; soft_skinned_space
> Subject: RE: [-empyre-] Ontology again
> 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
> best
> sjn
> ________________________________
> 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
> * * *
> >reggie/all,
> >
> >'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.
> >
> >sdv
> >
> >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
> disenchanted.
>   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
> chronology.
>   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
> Jameson
> * * *
> >
> 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
> when
> 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
> deliberate
> 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
> series,
> 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
> epistemological
> 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
> the
> disciplined and self-interested empiricists of a capitalist
> and
> technoscientific society refuse to ask questions about being
> and
> destination. For instance, why was the European Union made?
> For
> 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
> technocratic
> state capitalists - and the biologists are really not
> proving any
> exception. Those explanations will only get better if we
> distinguish
> 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
> dangerous
> world!
> 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
> >>
> >> _______________________________________________
> >> empyre forum
> >> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> >> http://www.subtle.net/empyre
> >>
> >>
> >
> >
> >
> > _______________________________________________
> > empyre forum
> > empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
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