L.M. made a link the other day to an interview with Charles Taylor. My friend B. Smiley had recently directed us to a webcast interview with CT, which prompted some email discussion. See the comments for an email exchange with B. Smiley and another friend name Charles (not the same Charles). Apologies to readers who are also on the Ideal list and have seen this all before.

- sally mckay 4-18-2007 1:41 am


warning: armchair philosophy dump...

I found the Charles Taylor interview really interesting. I particularly appreciated the outline of similarities and differences between the reductivist scientism of Dawkins/Dennett and post-structuralism. Taylor reminds me of Mary Midgley whom I adore..."Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological." There are links to one of her debates with Dawkins here.

I'm not a fan of the ballistic Dawkins but I do like Dennett's style. I recognise that his hardcore materialism is too limiting, but I'm very susceptible to it. There's a really great brain-in-a-vat story here.

Also, I think there is a lot of beautiful mind-bending stuff that comes from Dennett's analyses of consciousness, such as his suggestion that qualia (the redness of red, and other such internal experiences of perception) actually do not exist. I also like his description of consciousness in which, "at any point in time there are multiple drafts of narrative fragments at various stages of editing in various places in the brain." I posted about Dennett awhile ago here.

But, just like when I was in art school back in the 80s and post- modernism was supposedly separating language from meaning, I keep thinking to myself (like Midgley and Taylor), "all very well, but that's not how we experience the world, nor how we function." If I ask someone to pass the salt they don't stare at me blankly for lack of empirical data regarding my use of the word "salt," they just pass it on over. I've just read Midgley's Poetry and Science, which draws connections between addressing consciousness as we actually experience it — complete with agency and shared cultural meaning— and an ability to act on behalf of the planet, and on behalf of other people outside our own society's contracts. The reductivist, atomistic science stuff is really compelling, but I think part of its seduction is that rather than offer empirical reality, it actually offers escape into abstraction and away from the demands of reality as we live it.

B. Smiley:
I cannot even get as far as the Cartesian division of mind and matter. I am stuck way back at the distinction between the organic and the non-organic. Apparently a childish stubbornness causes me to cling to the observation of Pascal, way back before the whole Enlightenment even got started, that we humans (and we could extend that to everything that we know to be alive) exist between two immense voids, the universe and the unimagineably small world of the electrons and their quarks ... layers and layers, each unfathomably smaller than the last.

This is our experience of investigating the world, that life is anomalous and non-life is normal everywhere we look. That's what we see, but that is now how we live. I consider that a persistent division, and find it completely normal that we should continue to find it confounding.

That is very interesting. I will try to find out more about Pascal. Your description resonates with a point I came to in the physics research I was doing a couple of years ago. Discussions flip instantly between the tiniest particles and the entire cosmos without ever passing through the world we inhabit and experience (which is pretty much Netownian, from a physics point of view).

One thing atomism does well is resolve our differences (living not living) at a fundamental level. When it gets down to quarks we are all made out of the same stuff. I can understand why people want to stick with that premise. But if I am reading Midgley correctly, she sees a problem with focussing exclusively on particles as opposed to the entities they comprise. She worries that while physics itself is moving beyond distinct particles (calculations are no longer based on tiny objects, but on the fields and forces of their interactions), other sciences, such as biology, are hung up on atomistic models (partly because the earlier atomism of physics has such a good rep, and physics is seen as the most scientific of the sciences). Hence you get weird stuff like Dawkins ascribing all this motivation and agency to particles called genes, or Dennett construing people as robots that are simply carrying out the mandates of their component parts.

Midgley talks quite a bit about relations between living/non-living aspects of the planet. The following excerpt is from Poetry and Science:
"[James Lovelock] found that there is a whole range of mechanisms by which the presence of life seems, from its first appearance on the earth, to have deeply influenced the atmosphere in a way that made its own continuance possible when it otherwise would not have been.

The scale on which this happens is hard to grasp. We need only to consider here one simple and dramatic element in it —the carbon cycle. The carbon which living things use to form their bodies mostly comes, directly or indirectly, from carbon dioxide — the somewhat inert gas which, on the other planets, acts as a full-stop to atmospheric reactions. Life is therefore always withdrawing the gas from the atmosphere and two statistics may convey soemthing of the scale on which it does it. First, if you stand on the cliffs of Dover, you have beneath you hundreds of metres of chalk — tiny shells left by the creatures of an ancient ocean. These shells are made of calcium carbonate, using carbon that mostly came from the air via the weathering of rocks — the reaction of carbon dioxid with basaltic rock dissolved by rain.

This process of rock-weathering can itself take place without life. But when life is present — when organisms are working on the rock adn the earth that surrounds it — it takes place one thousand times faster than it would on sterile rock. Coal and oil, similarly, are storehouses of carbon withdrawn from the air that we know, air that makes possible the manifold operations of life. Similar life-driven cycles can be traced for other essential substances such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and that more familiar precious thing, water.

There is also the matter of warmth. During the time that life has existed on earth, the sun has become 25 per cent hotter, yet the mean temperature at the earth's surface has remained always fairly constant. Unlike Venus, which simply went on heating up til it reached temperatures far above what makes life possible, the earth gradually consumed much of the blanket of greenhouse gas — mostly carbon dioxide —which had originally warmed it. Feedback from living organisms seems to have played a crucial part in this steadying process and to have ensured, too, that it did not go too far. In this way the atmosphere remained substantial enough to avoid the fate of Mars, whose water and gases largely steamed away very early, leaving it unprotected against the deadly cold of space. Here again, conditions on earth stabilised in a most remarkable way within the quite narrow range which made continued life possible.

Lastly, there is the soil. We think of the stuff we walk on as earth, the natural material of our planet, and so it is. But it was not there at the start. Mars and Venus and the Moon have nothing like it. On them there is only what is called regolith, naked broken stone and dust.


In short, if all this is right, living things — including ourselves — and the planet that has produced them form a continuous system and act as such. Life, then, has not been just a casual passenger of the earth's development. It has always been and remains a crucial agent in determining its course."

B. Smiley:
Most interesting. And good background for Midgeley's "Evolution as Religion". Thanks for lending it to me, Sally.

What is so strange about Pascal's observation is how anachronistic it was. He could have had no conception of the magnitude of the situation he was musing about. He didn't even know about molecular scale -- let alone sub-atomic. And nobody had any idea that we were in a galaxy which is one of billions. (I had to look it up. There are 50 billion or so "nearby" galaxies, the largest of which contain a trillion stars). He was born a few years after Galileo built his telescope. The discovery of the Andromeda galaxy was pretty new when he wrote the Pensées. He had been dead for almost a century when Kant proposed the nature of the Milky Way.

Charles (not Charles Taylor):
Oooh, a philosophy discussion! Warning: armchair philosophy retort coming in:

That was an interesting piece from Taylor, but I don't think the comparison between the reductivist scientism and post-structuralism works for me. The interviewer posed the question as if the concept of 'memes' was the same as the post-structuralist use of the concept of 'language' (discourse) - the assertion being that in both cases the self is somehow not real, but an "effect" of memes (for scientists) or language (for pomos). This framing plays on the idea that pomo theory is all about conscious social life as nothing but a play of language - the debate is framed as one of "language vs. the real" and the detractors worry about getting lost in a world of signifiers with no grounding. However, as I've come to understand it, the important pomo distinction is not between language and the real, but between spoken and written language. The original Derridean problem was: "what is the difference between something that is spoken and something that is written?" -- before Derrida it was accepted that spoken language was somehow more real, more direct and less susceptible to misinterpretation (you say, "pass the salt", I pass the salt) whereas written language could be misconstrued because you were not there to give context (there is a disconcerting absence of human intention and will - anyone could read your message in your absence and read into it meanings you did not intend). In this framing technology was the thing that carried a threat to human rationality because it could screw up human intention and rationality. The human rational self could then always be appealed to as a place to return to and act as an arbitrator - e.g. "well it all went pear shaped THIS time, but that's because we didn't have widget it part 4, plan B, so if we make this correction and do it again it will work out right NEXT time". Or in a less technical example - "So sorry you misread my email, but I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, I'll never do it again now that I understand after we've had this face to face talk".

Derrida's philosophy was aimed at showing that both the written and the spoken are equally susceptible to to misunderstanding - or 'play' -- and that there was no way to make a firm distinction between the two methods of communicating. There is no ground, no life in its broadest sense (right down to the quarks), without play. It is the technologies - or more broadly "contexts" -- of communicating that increasingly become of interest to him and other pomos (he looks at Archives for instance, Foucault looks at architecture etc. and current pomos like deLanda bring in genes and memes along with war technologies and discourses...the technological context is expanding to become the 'non-human' context). It seems absurd, as Talyor claims, to say that Foucault (or pomos generally) are "against science and rationality" - a good part of Foucault's life was spent developing a very nuanced understanding and appreciation of the 19th C sciences, and anyone who reads him will know that his conclusion is not that it was all bunk. I would say there's is a more honest and humble sense of rationality in pomo thinking - and so more robust.

Pomos are not interested in a definitive answer to the question of "is there a self?" or "what is the self?", but instead are more interested in "how can/do we create a self" (or more creatively/ radically, as Taylor recognizes, "what kind of self do you want..."...but he forgets to add the second part "...and what are the ways and odds of getting it?"). In this analysis the central problem for pomos is the way in which our human intention -- our sense of self if you will -- gets 'decentered' by the technologies/contexts we have for experiencing it and communicating it. In this view the concept of self as a machine or gene (Cartesian/ Scientists) is not so much wrong as incomplete, and this seems to be in keeping with how Taylor thinks, because it misses the sense of 1st person action in the world - the sense of unfolding and emergence that is subject to surprises, to play to which we humans must react. The play in emergence, the unexpected, decentres a strong sense of will or predetermined program, removes any sense of teleology, but preserves a place for choice. In this emergence I understand that Talyor wants to rescue a strong sense of human as rational and determining agent, as the person who makes choices based on 'validity' which impacts outcmes I don't think that the pomos would disagree with him...I understand him as being quite close in sentiment -- but the pomos want to remind us of the sense of the absurd of the unexpected or ironic that can enter into rational action and send us all for a loop. They want to embrace and consider all the implications of the slippery ground, Taylor seems to want to shore it up, to avert his eyes. The pomo view can get close to cynicism when read in a certain way (as if all our plans will just get screwed up in the end), but the more affirmative way is to read the self as - and Taylor references Foucault here -- a 'work of art'. The artist being someone who understand that self-expression is limited/enhanced/ decentred by the technology/medium through which they can experience and express. In this sense the self kind of disappears in the act of creation only to reappear in a new context as an agent making a choice...the necessary absence at the heart of self and reason is what touches on the religious, the need for belief in order to act on reason (and why reason cannot be defeated with reason alone)...which is why is "Evolution as Religion" sounds like a pretty intriguing title....

Charles, this is great! thanks so much for putting all this in words. I have a bunch of homework to do.

I haven't really read the post structuralists, just absorbed bits and pieces through the lens of visual art. I've always viewed Postmodernism as a tool for better exchange of meaning, rather than an armature for eradicating meaning. Unfortunately there has been a lot of art that adopted erasure of content as a method, or even in some cases, as a weird kind of moral imperative. We saw this in painting during the 80s, and at its most cynical I'd say it was actually coming from a kind of modernist art-for-art's sake paradigm that was incapable of investing value in other kinds of cultural context that also produce art.

That phase seems to have been winding up. The big upside of course is that acknowledging cultural context blasts open the power structures behind the canon, and recognises a myriad of other aritsts with agendas that don't engage with the art-for-art's sake paradigm. This path offers a critical means of seeing art as relevant to life, to self, to communication across cultures, and to an engaged role within cultures. The bad news is, there seems to be some kind of backlash to this coming from some very entrenched critics (still talking about visual art here), who make plaintive entreaties for a 'return to criticality.' Meaning, there's too much diversity and we've lost our criteria for judging value, meaning, we can't be the arbiters of value anymore and we want our old power structures back. But there's lots of other people for whom the introduction of context allows for a more relevant criticalitiy, a critique of power, and a way forward towards engaging with many different types of art on many different terms.

That said, something about "self-as-art" has a bad ring for me. At a polar extreme to these dudes calling for a return to criticality, there's an angry bunch of people sick to death of theoretical writing about art and anti-intellectualism seems rampant. That's really worrying too. There's a kind of trend back towards the dumb artist, creating magical transcendent products for the rest of us, but not engaged themselves in the discourse that rises off them. The phrase "self-as-art" seems to kind of fit into that model, and I'm suspicious.

I'm sorry this is all so art-specific. It's really all I know, and I don't even know it as well as I should.

Charles (not Charles Taylor):
...my take on pomo is just...well, one take...Thanks for all your comments on Chas Taylor, it was great to engage in this stuff again. I really appreciated the art context in your last post and I agree there is lots to be suspicious of if people think that being an 'artist' is some kind flaky intuition driven process of non-thought. I am particularly informed on pomo by the writings of Gilles Deleuze, and he is often criticized for making change look too easy...but I think he stresses at several points how hard it is to create (in any critical and/or artistic field), and self-create...in particular how hard it is to break habits. He does make distinctions between the creation of science, philosophy and art, each with its own challenges. Even Foucault in History of Sexuality makes a lot of the discipline necessary to create a self...but I would need to read more. In the academic world where I have recently travelled (and this is why I really liked the art context), the reading of pomo as "armature for eradicating meaning" (good phrase) is also coming to an end...I guess it had to exhaust itself by its very premise of meaninglessness.

Anyway, I too think it is exciting to now move on to think what contextual critique could mean without falling into relativism and anti-intellectualism. I wonder what kind of writing is necessary to encourage people to think and believe for themselves without the big stick of truth or moral dogma...

- sally mckay 4-18-2007 1:41 am

Hey I'm on the ideal list and I only saw half those messages, leading me to believe that you split off to a secret email exchange after I responded with: "You rock!" But that was only because I thought Charles (not Charles Taylor) was really Charles (Charles Taylor) and I wanted to impress him by being totally agreeable.

Carry on.

- L.M. 4-18-2007 7:30 am

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