Kant and Speculative Realism

I need more time to work through Graham Harman’s critique of certain aspects of my Whitehead book. But I think I can give a quick answer to his PS about Kant.

Graham quotes, against my reading of Whitehead as a kind of post-Kantian, Whitehead’s own assertion that Process and Reality involves “a recurrence to pre-Kantian modes of thought” (page xi). Throughout my book I am referring, instead, to a passage where Whitehead instead credits Kant as “the great philosopher who first, fully and explicitly, introduced into philosophy the conception of an act of experience as a constructive functioning” (page 156). This particular way of relating to Kant is crucial to my whole reading of Whitehead; it is why I position Whitehead as a kind of (radical) post-Kantian. Ultimately, which of these two sides of Whitehead’s attitude towards Kant one wishes to cite is a tactical decision. But in any case, I think that my Kant/Whitehead juxtaposition is more than what Harman dismisses as a “bats and birds both fly” argument.

I certainly do take Graham’s point when he says: “So, why do I choose to portray Kant as an enemy rather than an ally? Largely because of how Kant has been appropriated.” From an anti-correlationist position, Kant is indeed the source of the problem diagnosed by both Harman and Meillassoux, and it makes sense for them to move against him.

My own positioning of Kant as an ally has a different genealogy. It really comes out of the implicit “Kant vs Hegel” faultline in French philosophy. My very first book was on Blanchot and Bataille, and a big part of my argument (inherited from my initial advisor, Joseph Libertson) was that they were reacting against Hegel (whom they encountered via Kojeve) by disassembling the whole (Kojevian more than actually Hegelian, perhaps) “labor of the negative” — hence Bataille emphasizes “negativité sans emploi,” and Blanchot “desoeuvrement” — both of which mean that negativity cannot be put to work, cannot perform a labor. Negativity is weak, and not productive. I saw a link here between the Bataille/Blanchot critique of negativity and Kant’s emphasis on limits: even though Bataille and Blanchot never themselves say anything about Kant. But Foucault definitely positions Bataille in relation to Kant (rather than to Hegel) for this reason in his crucial early article on Bataille, “A Preface to Transgression.”

Subsequently, thisconfiguration seemed to me to be the key to Deleuze’s hatred of the dialectic, and to his presentation of Nietzsche as the thinker who “stood Kant on his feet” in a manner analogous to how Marx stood Hegel on his feet. Deleuze separates productivity entirely from negativity. Similar anti-dialectical stances in Foucault and even in Derrida are grounded in this sort of argument, as well. From there I came to a sense that one could read the second half of the First Critique (the Transcendental Dialectic) as, in effect, Kant’s rejoinder-in-advance to Hegel’s critique of him in the Encyclopedia Logic. And this, in turn, takes on considerable relevance today, since Hegel’s critique of Kant is such a centerpiece of everything that Zizek does. I never managed to work this out in a form that I was satisfied enough with to publish — but it definitely stands behind why I found Kant of such importance in talking about Whitehead and Deleuze.

To try to put this more concisely: Kant’s importance is in saying that there are limits to the pretensions of thought to determine the cosmos. Hegel and Zizek argue that any limit to thought is illusory, since it is turns out to be thought itself that is positing such a limit. I think that Kant’s Transcendental Dialectic is best read as a rejoinder in advance to this sort of argument. It is in this particular sense that I argue for reading Kant as (surprisingly, perhaps) an ally of some of the speculative realist arguments against unlimited correlationism; rather than seeing this part of Kant’s philosophy as being — as Deleuze sometimes implies — a policing action against speculation. Of course it is both, but my reading of Kant in Without Criteria is designed to bring out some of the often overlooked “minor” aspects of Kant — which is something that gets me in trouble with more orthodox Kantians,and more generally with normativists, as much as it does with speculative realists who see Kant as the enemy.


I think that Hardt/Negri are right when they suggest that a contemporary analysis of “the organic composition of capital” will involve great attention, not just to what capitalist corporations do internally, but to the “externalities” that greatly affect “the increase and decrease of value” (Commonwealth 141). But there is rather a too easy slide from this to the claim that “capital is increasingly external to the productive process and the generation of wealth. In other words, biopolitical labor is increasingly autonomous” (141). These two statements are not equivalent. The first one means that what is being expropriated from workers is not just their eight hours a day of labor power, but their entire body and soul, with all the knowledges and practices that are parts of the common lifeworld that informs them, and that they inherit. In this sense, it is perfectly true that predatory capital is extorting wealth today to an enormous extent through continuing “primitive accumulation”, and through what might be considered a sort of “ground-rent” on what was up till recently the commons,or general culture, until it was appropriated in the form of “intellectual property.” But — where Hardt/Negri say that “the exploitation of labor-power should be understood in terms of not profit but capitalist rent” (141), they really should have said “as well as” rather than “not… but.”

Hardt/Negri then make a sort of rhetorical slide when they move from the (correct) claim that capital is increasingly exploiting the entire life-world of the multitude, to the (highly dubious) claim that, therefore: “rather than an organ functioning within the capitalist body, biopolitical labor-power is becoming more and more autonomous, with capital simply hovering over it parasitically with its disciplinary regimes, apparatuses of capture, mechanisms of expropriation, financial networks, and the like” (142). The problem here is that capital has always been “parasitic” in this sense. Industrial production was/is no more “organic” than the current regime of immaterial production. (That is, unless you get rid of the old-fashioned, idealistic notion of what is “organic”, and understand that the relationship of parasite to host is itself entirely something “organic”). It is not as if workers in call centers and workers hired through temp agencies somehow have more autonomous control over what they are doing than workers on a factory assembly line. What we are still seeing is the expropriation of relative surplus-value.

The ambiguity here relates especially to the idea of the “real subsumption” of labor under capital. I think that Hardt/Negri are right to see the intensifying movement from merely formal subsumption to real subsumption as a characteristic of the current order. I agree entirely with them that today “capital might be said to subsume not just labor but society as a whole or, really, social life itself, since life is both what is put to work in biopolitical production and what is produced” (142). But I cannot for the life of me see how this can be inverted into the assertion that, therefore, “capital is increasingly external and has an ever less functional role in the production process” (142). (“Functional” is a strange word here. Capital is always dysfunctional in the sense that, as Marx often says, it introduces faux frais into the process of social reproduction. But it is highly functional in the sense that it coercively organizes production to the end of more intensive expropriation — I am inclined to agree with Max Weber that the whole point of capitalism, in contrast to earlier modes of expropriation, is that it “rationally” organizes its extortion). With real subsumption, the coercive organization of all life by capital for the purpose of increased expropriation is, if anything, intensifed beyond what it ever was in the time of merely formal subsumption.

Hardt/Negri can thus be denounced as guilty of the old Marxist sin of  “economism”, to the extent that they seem to argue that the advance of capitalist exploitation, in itself, somehow objectively leads to a situation in which the multitude (proletariat) becomes autonomous and is able to take the production and reproduction of life into its own hands. They even say that “the exercise of capitalist control is increasingly becoming a fetter to the productivity of biopolitical labor” (143); this is just a new formulation of the old idea, from the earlier Marx, that capitalism is doomed to collapse because the relations of production turn into fetters on the development of the forces of production. This is a position that Marx himself later nuances and problematizes greatly, and perhaps rejects entirely.

I think that Hardt/Negri’s claims that the current form of capitalist control interfere with productivity needs to be modified. They identify three trends that are needed in order for capitalism to control production, but that in fact limit production (145ff): destroying and appropriating the common fetters or reduces production, as does “precarization” of labor, and as does the enforcement of borders and the limitation of labor mobility. I am not convinced that these trends really cripple productivity in the way that Hardt/Negri say; rather, they all work to insure profits by transforming abundance into scarcity. Such measures do indeed lead to crises, as has been the case for the entire history of capitalism; but do such crises actually herald the end of capitalism?

I think not. Indeed, Hardt/Negri themselves quite accurately note that the inevitable, and repeated, economic crises of capitalism do not lead to collapse, but rather offer opportunities for capital to reorganize itself on a more intensive basis: “capital works by breaking down, or, rather, through creative destruction achieved by crises. In contemporary neoliberal economic regimes, in fact, crisis and disaster have become ever more important as levers to privatize public goods and put in place new mechanisms for capitalist accumulation” (143). It is extremely odd, therefore, that in the same paragraph where they observe this, they also argue that “subjective” crises, as opposed to “objective” ones, do indeed threaten the survival of capitalism by means of the contradiction between relations and forces of production. In Hardt/Negri’s own context, this distinction makes no sense. For all that they proclaim their allegiance to a Deleuzian affirmationism rather than to the old Hegelian vision of “the negation of the negation,” Hardt/Negri are in fact relying on a facile dialectical reversal in the bad old Hegelian manner.

“Economism”, in the Marxist tradition, has generally meant a belief in the inevitability of the fall of capitalism, and the birth of socialism, through objective economic laws alone. And I do think that Hardt/Negri can be charged with this, for all their claims to be radically rewriting Marx in accordance with the changed configuration of capitalism we face today. At the same time, I think that Hardt/Negri are right in their attention to economic processes, or to the accumulation of capital; in contrast to the way that Badiou, for instance, entirely dismisses such concerns, and turns instead to a romantic and mystical hyper-voluntarism. I think that Hardt/Negri are in fact at their best and most helpful when they discuss the “metamorphoses of the composition of capital” (Commonwealth 131-149); if only we leave out that twist of dialectical reversal at the end by which they endeavor to rescue things.

What I propose, therefore, is indeed a renewed “economism” — only without the sense of historical inevitability tacked on at the end. I haven’t really seen any arguments about agency, or about organization, that are more than futile compensatory fantasies. I think economism is of value, to the extent that at least it lets us see clearly what is going on, what the situation is, in which we are enmeshed. Economism would correspond, therefore, to Jameson’s famous call for a “cognitive mapping” of the world system of capital. It is necessary in order to account for the ascendency of finance capital in the present moment. It would let us better understand what has happened as the latest crisis has once again allowed for the reorganization and further consolidation of capital, rather than leading to even minimal changes in its oppressive functioning.

The positive functioning of “economism” is all rather vague for the moment — let’s just say it is something I am starting to explore and work on. I think that the whole subjective/objective opposition, which Hardt/Negri retain as a legacy of Hegelianism, needs to be questioned in the light of speculative realism’s attack on correlationism. The point would not be to get rid of the strong sense that economic arrangements are matters of concern for human beings in particular, but to understand the workings of such arrangements in a different way. I do not think that Marxist capital logic needs to be confined to the Hegelian framework, even if this framework is where he started out from. (Apologies for the vagueness of these final propositions; I am only at the beginning of thinking about them. Stay tuned).

Infinte Regress

A few days ago, Graham Harman gave a hint of his (soon-to-be-published) response to my (soon-to-be-published) Whiteheadian critique of him:

Shaviro is wrong to say that I am inconsistent in allowing this sort of infinite regress while being horrified it in the case of Latour’s mediators, where Joliot mediates between politics and neutrons, but further mediators will be needed between Joliot and neutrons, and so on infinitely. Using the phrase “infinite regress” for both is an equivocation, as I will explain in my response to Shaviro in The Speculative Turn. The first of the two is merely strange, but contradicts no obvious facts. Latour’s infinite mediators, however, contradict themselves: if there is a problem with politics touching neutrons directly, then there will be just as big a problem with Joliot touching either of these, and so on to infinity, with the result that no contact between any two things will ever occur. But this is absurd, while the infinite regress of objects is merely strange, not illogical.

Now, I don’t feel I understand Latour well enough to comment on the problem Harman raises as to the supposed infinite regress of mediators between mediators in Latour’s account of networks. Harman is claiming, in effect, that Latour falls victim to a Zeno’s Paradox kind of situaiton. I cannot judge whether this is right or not.

However, this wasn’t quite the point I was making when I compared Harman’s acceptance of the infinite regress of objects or substances with his rejection of the infinite regress of relations. Harman’s complaint about Whitehead is that, in Whitehead’s brand of relationalism , an entity is

nothing more than its perception of other entities. These entities, in turn, are made up of still other perceptions. The hot potato is passed on down the line, and we never reach any reality that would be able to anchor the various perceptions of it. (Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 82)

This sort of infinite regress has nothing to do with the Zeno’s Paradox-like regress of which Harman accuses Latour. It is rather a regress of the same “merely strange, not illogical” sort that Harman himself so cheerfully accepts when it comes to substances. Therefore, I still don’t accept Harman’s distinction between the bad infinite regress of relations, and the good infinite regress of substances.

Harman’s objection to Whitehead’s relationalism comes down to his sense that, given this regress of relations, an entity is nothing but its prehension (or, what Harman calls “perception”) of other entities. However, this is wrong. Whitehead explicitly rejects the “nothing but” that is unspoken, but seems to be taken for granted, in Harman’s account. The “nothing but” is what Whitehead calls the “sensationalist principle” of Locke, Hume, and Kant: the assumption that perception is purely passive and receptive, the “bare entertainment” of data. This assumption is wrong, for several reasons. First, because prehension or perception has much more to do with affectivity, or with “obscure feelings,” than it does with the “clear and distinct” ideas of “presentational immediacy” (which is the only form of perception recognized by Hume, and, responding to him, by Kant); and second, because prehension is active as well as passive (or, better perhaps, because it resists being described in terms of an active/passive dichotomy). When what Whitehead calls an “actual entity” constructs itself by prehending or perceiving other entities, it is in fact engaged in elaborate processes of revaluing the prehended data: processes of choosing, adding, subtracting, relating, juxtaposing, tweaking, and recombining: ultimately of deciding and selecting. Decision and selection are left out of Harman’s account of relationalism.

I think that the big problem with Harman’s attack on relationalism is that he doesn’t distinguish between different notions or senses of relation. His complaint that relationalism destroys the integrity of individual entites, and does not allow for novelty to emerge, might well be correct if applied to Hegelian, dialectical relationalism, in which the “labor of the negative” allows everything to be swallowed up within a self-reflecting totality, as well as if applied to Saussurean or “structuralist” relationism, where there are no positive terms, but only negative determinations of the differential elements within a closed order by one another. But this is not the way that relations work in William James, or Whitehead, or (to the extent that I understand him) in Latour. Relations proliferate wildly in these thinkers; there is no overarching totality or system in accordance with which they are deployed. This difference is somewhat akin, I think, to Delanda’s distinction between the “relations of interiority” that we find in Hegel and Saussure and the “exteriority of relations” that Delanda himself, following Deleuze, favors (I have written about Delanda’s logic here). Where Harman gives us a vision of independent substances wrapped in vacuums and only communicating vicariously, James and Whitehead and Latour and Delanda give us a world in which things are continually jostling up against one another, touching and affecting one another (but this does not mean that they are totally interpenetrating one another, or “determining” one another through some sort of ironclad causality).

It may well be that an ungrounded infinite regress is not such a bad thing (as Harman says, for instance, here). There are, however, other ways to nuance the question of infinite regress. Kvond suggests as much here, raising the point that what stops the regress from being infinite might be of another nature than the entities among which the regress takes place. (This could be seen in a number of ways; I am inclined to think of it in terms of Schelling’s notion of a ground, as opposed to Hegel’s totalizing closure). But I need to think about this some more, so I will postpone further discussion until another time. For now, I will just conclude by saying that the great thing about Harman’s philosophy is the way it makes us so aware of the multiplicity and diversity of things:

Atoms and molecules are actants, as are children, raindrops, bullet trains, politicians, and numerals. All entities are on exactly the same ontological footing. (Prince of Networks, p. 14)

But I agree with William James that relations, both “conjunctive” and “disjunctive,” are every bit as real as the terms they place into relation:

The relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system” (Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 42).

A “system,” in this sense, is an open one, rather than a closed Hegelian or Structuralist totality; these “relations” are ones of exteriority rather than internal determination; and the “experience” that encounters them is not exclusively that of human beings, but applies to all the elements (terms and relations) involved. I am looking for a “speculative realism” that does justice to the multifariousness of relations, as well as to the multifariousness of things or substances.