ancestral rhetoric

There's a speculative realism reading group at UB now, and the graduate students have asked me to join them. The first book they've selected is Meillassoux's After Finitude. It's a fine and logical starting point. Needless to say, Meillassoux makes some fascinating arguments, and I find the impetus of his project, at least as I understand it, to be significant. I will say that in reading the book it sometimes feels as though the "great outdoors" that he's found puts us hip deep in mud. That is, the interlocutors he constructs and then addresses raise some very pedantic points. I put this stylistic/rhetorical effect down to a clear difference in audience. I'm not a philosopher. I am not Meillassoux's audience. I can read and understand his argument. I just think the concerns he addresses (as valid and important as those concerns may be for some) aren't particularly concerning to me. I believe it is this rhetorical effect that primarily produces the ambivalence I have towards his argument. Put in more general terms, if you witness an argument between two people over an issue in which you have little or no stake, it's hard to have a strong opinion, especially when neither has taken up the task of trying to convince you.

However, when I set aside this rhetorical/methodological disconnect (which I think is one of the things you have to strive to do when reading across disciplines), there are many interesting points. He makes a very keen point in recognizing the importance of moving beyond both metaphysics and fideism, the exigency for which is perhaps best witnessed in American political discourse. And, as his use of the example of ancestral knowledge (i.e. scientific knowledge of a world prior to humans) suggests, the humanities face a challenge in rethinking their relationship to the sciences. Correlationism, which can only insist that scientific knowledge is only knowledge for us rather than knowledge about an external world, is essentially shut off from the scientific world. While I would not suggest that the humanities should be secondary to the sciences, if we are to be in conversations about science and technology, we cannot shut ourselves off from them either. As such, what is required is a way to speak about a world that is real (and hence not falling into fideism, where everything is a matter of belief) without being essentialist (and thus returning to metaphysical dogmatism).

Though there are certainly key differences, on this general level, the work I was doing in The Two Virtuals was similar, though there I was more in conversation with Manuel DeLanda. In Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy DeLanda identifies himself and Deleuze as realist philosophers, that is, "philosophers who grant reality full autonomy from the human mind, disregarding the difference between the observable and the unobservable, and the anthropocentrism this distinction implies." Delanda's book takes up the project of describing a non-essentialist reality. 

One of the issues in my book, on which I continue to work, is what I might call, in reference to Meillassoux, "ancestral rhetoric." For Meillassoux, ancestral refers to "any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species" (about 2 million BCE). This is a reference to homo habilis, the first in the homo genus. For Meillassoux's purpose the particular dividing line isn't the issue; he just wants to point to something that is clearly before correlation is possible. In thinking about ancestral rhetoric, that dividing line is more curious. Is it the 200K years of homo sapien sapien? The maybe 70K years of symbolic action? The conventional rhetorician is limited to symbolic action; Meillassoux's correlationist might extend correlation to an era prior to that. At least some probably would, though that begs the question of what is being correlated. Either way, the result is that rhetoric remains intersubjective. With this intersubjectivity and without a metaphysical absolute to govern its truth, communication become fideist: a matter of belief within a discourse community. Ancestral rhetoric would indicate rhetorical practices in the absence of correlation and suggest that rhetoric does not rely upon correlation in order to exist (any more than any other object in the world does). Rhetoric then becomes something that exists in the world, an object among objects, rather than some correlationist ephemera. 

Why would this (i.e. a speculative rhetoric) be significant?  As Latour points out so eloquently, so many of our "social" issues are also "technoscientific:" medicine, environment, communications, education, finance, and so on. They are all hybrids. However, if we are stuck in correlationism, we have not productive way of engaging technology and science; we have no basis for establishing a conversation beyond fideism. If rhetoric is "in-itself" rather than "for us" then it becomes an object (or objects) with which we must contend in composing someting that is not simply agreed upon (or not) intersubjectively. Here is where an object-oriented democratic rhetoric might begin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>