Friday, March 15, 2013

Reflections on Wolfe's Before the Law

I am in the process of composing a review for Cary Wolfe's Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame. In my first crack at a review, I tried to stick as close as possible to the text, tracing the main argument through the entire book, and carefully crafting my language to condense the argument of each section while staying under the 2000 word limit.

 I'm not sure how that turned out yet -- but it seems like it hardly reads like a review. The theoretical background required to understand the arguments are daunting. Wolfe both critiques and preserves moves and arguments from prominent theorists in the same section. He vacillates between abstract theory to concrete examples that illustrate how the theoretical lens makes visible aspects of the political previously ignored through politics grounded in the concept of sovereignty or humanist 'rights' discourse.

In this blogpost, I'm going to do the complete opposite of my first try at the review. I am going to contextualize the text as a whole within my own recent readings in ANT, Object Oriented Ontology, and New Materialist philosophy. I want to show how Wolfe's methods and arguments differ and correspond to these other theoretical paradigms.

Harman's Object-Oriented Philosophy may be the furthest from Wolfe's own project. Harman's philosophy, at least as elucidated in Guerilla Metaphysics, departs from particular phenomenological figures: Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Alphonso Lingis. For the most part, it seems that Harman picks out passages from these thinkers that deal with objects in a quasi-mystical way; indeed, it seems that Harman is less concerned with their major arguments (particularly his treatment of Levinas, so concerned with ethics as first philosophy) than tracing thinkers who use the same rhetoric he wishes to preserve in his own philosophy. No doubt, these passages are beautiful, but one cannot help thinking that Harman does not take seriously the legitimate critiques of phenomenology, particularly those of Jacques Derrida, which he dismisses as an instance of tortured self-reflexivity. Furthermore, even Harman's use of Heidegger rarely addresses the fact that Heidegger's work is oriented toward the meaning of Being itself (late Heidegger) and the meaning of Being for Dasein (Being and Time). Harman's uses of Heidegger Heidegger make almost no reference to temporality, Being-towards-death, or even Dasein. I would argue that Harman's appropriation of Heidegger ignores Heidegger's desire to move beyond thinking of Being in terms of the "present-at-hand," as it preserves the idea of 'substance'.  

Harman quite unashamably develops a metaphysical system of relation based on autonomous 'withdrawn' substance.Harman uses the concept of "withdrawness" in order t avoids accusations of a return to naive metaphysics. While Harman's articulation of a grand metaphysical system of relations is impressive, it says little about the crucial distinctions among these entities. Because Harman does not believe the physical world should be left for scientific investiation (an epistemological endeavor) he posits a general metaphysical account of the world's constitution. But where does this ontological/metaphysical description get us if it cannot make meaningful distinctions among objects? Is this not still left to epistemological and empirical inquiry? Harman admits that the human relation to everything else is surely "more complex" than other relations among objects, but not different in kind. How is our relation more complex? What is the difference between a rock, a deer, and a human being? 

Harman's metaphysics, and his rhetorical decision to use "lists"  random objects that fascinate him (usually objects in the natural world or objects not specific to our contemporary time), flattens rather than thickens and multiplies kinds of relation. Even as Harman says that we should populate our texts with objects and things, he does little (if anything) to articulate the object's concrete specificity apart from naming it in a list with other objects. Objects are not considered in terms of their meaning but, Harman argues, should be considered because they are part of the world. Harman's metaphysics, then, is framed as an autonomous realm from ethics or politics; for Harman, we need to articulate a foundational metaphysical system first and only then can we consider and decide on these other issues. If I'm not mistaken, Harman has argued that metaphysics do not necessarily imply a particular political or ethical stance. Even if we accept that, it still might be worthwhile to 'speculate' on how his metaphysical position can be used to support and even justify particular political or ethical orientations. 

Levi Bryant's Onticology (or OOO) fares a bit better in relation to Wolfe's work, since he recognizes that each object is an autonomous system with its own structured relation to its environment. Like Wolfe, he draws on Luhmann's systems theory. However, as Wolfe's points out in a footnote to Before the Law, Bryant still remains tied to Harman's theories of relations and objects on an ontological level (with the addition of the realm of the 'virtual' drawn from Deleuze).  That is, Bryant agrees with Harman that each new relation creates a 'new object' so that objects are nestled inside other objects. Bryant and Bogost have both maintained that ontological problems are often mistaken for epistemological ones, a position I do not think Wolfe shares.  In a blog post on What is Posthumanism?, Bryant writes that the weakness of Wolfe's book, citing Harman, is that

  Wolfe still seems to think these issues in epistemological terms. Rather than seeing selective relations entertained towards other objects as a general ontological feature ofeach and every object or as a fundamental feature of the world itself, Wolfe seems to adopt the pessimistic thesis that this marks the impossibility of our knowledge.

For Wolfe, this does not just mark the impossibility of a complete knowledge (which Wolfe addresses in Before the Law as the God's Eye View) but also assures that no matter what entities we choose to consider as possessing what he calls, drawing on Heidegger, a "self-contestatory" relationship, that we will have been wrong in our decision. Does this relegate knowledge of how other beings 'see' to scientific inquiry? To a certain extent, yes, but I do not think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this delegation.. Indeed, is not scientific inquiry (or at the very least, empirical inquiry) the mode of 'second-order observation' (how something observes rather than how we observe it) occurs? If we do not rely on such empirical inquiry, then our method results in anthropomorphization. Sure, we do this anyway, but without the check of empirical inquiry into a system's observational systems, then perhaps we go too far in assuming that ALL objects function as autopoietic, closed systems. 

Wolfe argues against the ontologizing of relations in a footnote to Before the Law. Even though Wolfe agrees with Bryant's ethico political position, in the following passage, he argues "we do not need the either/or-ism of 'literally different agents': 

"when we relate to something, we literally become a different entity," that "an entity that enters into a relational network with a hammer or a computer has different powers and capacities than an entity that does not exist in these relations and is, therefore, by this logic, a different agent." (Bryant qtd. in Wolfe n131)

Wolfe responds: 

"we can simply say that we are and are not the same agents depending on the context, Bryant's 'pre-hammer' entity does not vanish when the hammer is picked up (and if he did, he, naturalistically speaking, couldn't pick up the hammer in the first place). We are (to put it in Derrida-ese) constituted by differance pre- and post- hammer" 

In other words, Wolfe does not see much benefit to following Harman's ontological distinction of separate objects. . 

For Wolfe, distinctions between system and environment, as for Luhmann, are functional distinctions. These functional decisions are based, in some cases, on  our current state of knowledge.  I think that for Wolfe, these new forms for ontology go too far in considering any and every object as worthy of speculative inquiry. We have pressing political and ethical questions that call for pragmatic action, informed by empirical inquiry, and even though, as he puts it, we will always have been wrong in our choice, we must make one conditioned action at a time. 

This is not to say that Wolfe exclusively privileges the living or even carbon based life forms. He writes, 

"The relevant question, which I cannot explore in detail here, would be the mode of embodiment in relation to recursive developmental change that allows not just requisite plasticity in the organism's individual ontogeny, but also, and therefore, its ability to thereby enter into an essentially prosthetic relation to the external technicities of code, semiosis, archive, and so on--regardless of whether the organism is made of 'flesh and blood' or silicon and silicone" 

We have to seriously ask whether it is worth thinking about the relations between a banana peel and the floor, given that the banana peel (at least so far as we know) cannot enter into a prosthetic relation as the condition for the possibility of having its relations matter to it. This is why the speculative realism of Harman and to a certain extent, Bryant, goes too far in its kind of object fetishism. Bryant even speaks of "abstractions" as "objects" that act in the world and Bogost even asks if we have an ethical responsibility to these "ideas." Ideas and abstractions are 'embodied' in particular material instances, as Bryant has argued, but do ideas matter to ideas? Do ideas mean to each other? Are ideas and abstractions really "whos" that can relate to other whats? I have my doubts. 

And Bryant recognizes, in a way that Harman never even begins to address, that entities have different capabilities. Relying on Maturana and Varela's distinction of allopoietic and autopoietic entities in Democracy of Objects, he writes, 

"where allopoetic systems often appear to have a greater degree of elasticity with respect to their qualities, autopoietic systems seem to have a greater degree of elasticity with respect to distinctions or what we might refer to as 'channels'" (173)

 Bryant's term, "channels" refers to an autopoietic system's ability to make new distinctions "thereby enhancing their capacity to be irritated or perturbed by other objects" and this is what we mean when we say that certain autopoietic entities have different degrees of 'freedom' (the freedom to develop different distinctions) (173). 

Bryant thus addresses a major problem I have with Harman: his offhanded description of relations between human and other objects as "more complex." In Bryant's terms, then, we might say that Wolfe is much more interested in investigating autopoietic systems than allopoietic systems -- at least in terms of biopolitical choices. 

The key distinction for Wolfe, however, drawing on Stiegler, is that the nonhuman animal (or the nonhuman entity) must be able to have a prosthetic relation that constitutes it as a 'who' in the first place. 

I find the following passage in Before the Law as making a similar point as Bryant, referring to evidence of 'neuroplasticity' of certain animals:

"their individual ontogenies are quite rigid and subject to a very limited set of variations. Thus, their individual ontogenies are of little importance in explaining their behavior. For creatures of sufficient neurophysiological plasticity, however, it is a different story, one in which the correspondingly high degree of individual variation in individual ontogenies give rise to more complex social and communicational behaviors necessary to coordinate them" (70). 

He expands on this in a later passage, 

"the animal behaviors and forms of communication we have been discussing are 'already-there', forming an exteriority, an 'elsewhere', that enables some animals more than others to 'differentiate' and 'individuate' their extistence--and thus to be 'thrown'-- in a manner only possible on the basis of a complex interplay of the 'who' and the 'what', the individual's 'embodied enaction' (to use Maturana and Varela's phrase) and exteriority of the material and semiotic technicities that interact with and rewire it, leading to highly variable ontogenies, complex forms of social interaction, individual personalities, and so on" (76). 

I think this relation -- the individuation of 'whos' is what Wolfe will compare later to Dasein later in the text, but not Dasein as understood by the Heidegger of Being and Time, but the 'limited' Dasein given to the 'animal' in Heidegger's Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: "having a world in the mode of not having" (79). 

Bryant agrees that each entity has its own 'world' as it appears to it and this is why it is necessary to use second-order observation. But for Wolfe it is crucial to distinguish between having a world in the mode of not having and simply that any entity (or even abstraction) always has a limited way of seeing the world.  That is, because of pressing political and ethical issues, Wolfe is most concerned with the nonhuman animal just as much as the 'human' as  'thrown' Dasein. This is because the world matters and means to a Dasein -- the Dasein cares for its own individuated being and is constituted as a 'who' by relation to a prosthetic what. The block of wood outside is not a 'who' because, so far as we know, it does not have sufficient neuroplasticity to make new distinctions, which would eventually result in a collective memory shared among the community of wood-beings. 

Indeed, Wolfe seems to make the argument that this position may even be more 'posthumanist' than Bryant's, who (at least in a blogpost) restricts the conditions of value to the existence of the human. Bryant writes, 

"No case could here be made [. . .] that there's something of intrinsic value in nonhumans such as animals or planets. Rather, we would be committed to the thesis that there are only relative values of some sort of another. . .the planet, for example, would only take on value-predicates in relation to humans. Were humans to not exist, the planet would neither be valueless or valuable, it would just be." (Bryant, qtd. in Wolfe 84). 

In contrast to Bryant, Wolfe maintains that we need to leave open the possibility that the 'to whom' it matters might not be a human being; he leaves open the possibility that "the addressee of value--and indeed of immunitary protection--is permanently open to 'whoever it might be'" (84). 

One thing is for sure, though: Wolfe emphasizes that there must be a qualitative difference (not just a difference in 'degree' as if there was a 'biologistic continuum') among "the chimpanzee in biomedical research, the flea on her skin, and the cage she lives in--and a difference that matters more (one might even say, in Derridean tones, 'infinitely' more) to the chimpanzee than to the flea or the cage?" (83). 


Of course, we might ask, why should we have an ethical and political obligation to those beings that we learn 'have a world' in the sense of Dasein, but not to other nonhuman objects or ideas? I think this returns us to the basic question posed by Bentham: not can they reason ,but can they suffer? Although 'suffering' is  an insufficient criteria as we are not quite sure of its extra-human meaning--it is already an anthropomophism-- it seems as though that being a 'who' to which the world matters is a condition for 'suffering'. A block of wood, so far as we know, does not suffer,  nor does a cage: it just 'is'. It seems like Wolfe may suggest that an originary technicity may be a necessary condition for something to 'suffer' in the sense of Bentham. 

Still, we are left with the question: what is to be done? That is, if we cannot simply extend "rights" to various animals, then how do we enact our choice through law? Do we need to think law in terms of 'immunitary protection'? According to Wolfe, we cannot depend on outmoded terms of political sovereignty. 

And just who is this "we" that decides? I t think Wolfe is aware of the problem of assuming a 'we', but his pragmatic bent means that 'we' as human beings who are reading this book, who are helping to shape and enforce laws, must choose. We must choose to want to know rather than not want to know about the animal Holocaust taking place in service of globalization -- the mass 'letting die' so that we might live. We must choose to want to know that our consumption of meat may endanger the ecological sustainability of the planet. We must choose, we must decide, we must act conditionally -- and we must do this satisfied that we should never be content with a 'good conscience': no matter who we choose for "immunitary protection" we will have been wrong. We must act on our incomplete knowledge and hope that we will come to know and make ever more subtle distinctions, thickening and multiplying the lines rather than flattening relations through an all-encompassing metaphysical ontology. 

Wolfe writes, 

"This very act of immunitary selection and protection on the basis of the capacity to 'respond'--a capacity itself based on a constitutively prosthetic relation to technicity--can never be juridical, however, because is is always already traced with the automaticity and mechanicity of a reaction. It is a 'line', to use Derrida's formulation, that is always already 'multiple' and nonlinear, always folded and in motion, always under erasure" (103). 

The benefits of thinking in a biopolitical frame is that "it puts us in a position to articulate the disjunctive and uneven quality of our own political moment, constituted as it is by new forces and new actors not very legible by the political vocabulary of sovereignty we have inherited" (104). 

Biopolitical thinking is to think the apparatus or dispotif (the institutional practices!) that subject both humans and nonhumans. We no longer just think about the ethics of eating "animals" (as if they were a unified category) but of what Wolfe provisionally calls "flesh." 

One of the best examples Wolfe gives to illustrate the complexity of Biopolitical thought is the problem of 'synthetic meat', which, now that I think about it, challenges my idea that the notion of 'suffering' is sufficient to decide (to draw a line, make a cut) of who counts and who does not. Wolfe argues that synthetic meat according to someone like Peter Singer, would be perfectly ethical, since (presumably) no animals had to suffer in order for it to be made. Leaving aside the fact that most synthetic meat production requires serum derived from other killed animals in order to grow (and issue explored in The Tissue Culture and Art Project's artworks), Wolfe argues that from a biopolitical standpoint, the issue is not so clear: 

"From this vantage, synthetic meat might not even appear to be an 'animal' issue per se, and would be seen as utterly continous with the technologies and dispotifs that are exercising a more and more finely tuned control over life and 'making live' at the most capillary levels of social existence. Indeed, it would seem continuous with the practices of domestication, manipulation, and control of life that characterize factory farms" (96-97). 

Because it even further distances us from the animals we kill, leaving it to industrial production, some groups are against the production of synthetic meat. 

Thus, it is not only that we need to choose which animals might fall under the criteria of Dasein, but the institutional practices that fundamentally change our relationship to the nonhuman world.