Erasure and Objects

Lately, I have been wondering status of objects.

Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects posited that correlationism implies the erasure of objects, and in Graham Harman’s Tool Being, the time for relational ontologies is now past.

The issue is not some hackneyed attempt to champion the sciences and objectivity over meaning, but to draw attention to the material dimensions of how we dwell and live. Today, more than ever, we need to reflect on whether the tools of deconstruction, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Marxist critical theory, and semiotics are adequate to thinking the world we dwell in and how these theoretical orientations might erase the fundamental materiality of existence. This erasure is so thorough that it’s difficult to even discern when working within these theoretical frames for, after all, one can only see what one can see, and being is here reduced to meaning. This critical reflection is not undertaken to erase these methodologies– quite the contrary –but to mark their limits, note their blindspots, and develop a theoretical frame capable of both preserving what is vital in these forms of thought and of moving beyond those limitations. This is what is at stake in the critique of correlationism. Materiality is not phenomenality, a lived experience, a meaning, nor a text– though it can affect all of these things –but something with its own dynamics and forms of power. We need a form of theory capable of thinking that and that avoids the urge to treat everything as texts, meanings, and correlates of intentions

For those not in the know, correlationism is a loose term to encompass all philosophies in the Post-Kantian European tradition in which the reality of an object correlates to consciousness, and this relation reduces meaning of an object to meaning-for-us. This is especially true for phenomenology. Now, phenomenology was meant to overcome an excess of materiality in which the natural attitude was thought to be all encompassing. The subject got lost when the constitutive function of intentionality was forgotten and the natural attitude of what motivates, I think, Bryant’s emphasis on materiality, sought to reduce all things to the third-personal natural attitude of science itself.

Could it be that the inverted excessiveness of materiality got lost with the exhaustive skepticism of phenomenology? Could it be that phenomenology concealed the object as Harman is indicating in Tool Being and does that really speak to complete erasure? Does that erasure, even if true, mean that we then swing the pendulum of our philosophical concern to again the same excessiveness of the natural attitude that calls for materiality?

Initially, the above post of Bryant linked an article by Clive Hamilton on how some philosophies promoted an ontological separation between human beings and nature. This ontological separation is damaging when it comes to linking the responsibility human beings have in reshaping the planet completely. Moreover, the dangers of these metaphysical distinctions promote culturally, as in climate change, pose a significant danger. No pragmatist can argue with that.

The Murder of Tamir Rice and the Subjectivity of His Murderers

I tried to publish a shorter version of this essay closer to the actual murder of Tamir Rice. I e-mailed both the Akron Beacon Journal and The Plain Dealer. The Northeast Ohio Media Group is the corporation that owns both major newspapers in Cleveland and Akron, and they didn’t even want to have anything to do with it. With such media ownership, actual discourse is shutdown, silenced, and the uncomfortable doens’t need addressed. I even thought I had found a sympathetic ear with the Call and Post, Ohio’s only Black newspaper, but that led nowhere as well. In the essay below, the point I make over and over again is how the force for violence is lashing out of whiteness against a world of difference. We must understand more than ever how such subjectivity is formed and takes root in the policing culture of Northeast Ohio. We need to be aware of why those in power fail to see Tamir Rice’s death as a murder. This failure is the philosophical task before us, and it’s more important than ever given that all eyes, including the Department of Justice own report on the incident, are on Cleveland. Here’s what I wrote below

The Murder of Tamir Rice and the Subjectivity of His Murderers

In April 2014, Lorain County, just outside of Cleveland, received armored trucks.The Lorain County sheriff and the Lorain Police Department this week each received a MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle. These armored trucks could protect from roadside bombs, and yet here in Ohio, pictures of White officers securely in their seat and can look out over the average streets of Elyria and feel safe, secure, and confident in their ability to project order. The local news pictured the officers smiling as they sat in the seat looking out of the steel contraption, yet there is a problem. We’ve had to invent a word for it: overmilitarization, and it comes at a price. The over-militarization of police departments enhances the subjectivity that lashes out against difference with force. The subjectivity created, sought after, and reinforced in Northeast Ohio’s police forces takes pleasure in the force it projects and is blind to itself in the question of whether such force is ever truly legitimate.

But make no mistake, the subject lashing out in force was already there, and it’s so common that many – in the media and the community of Cleveland at large – are justifying this prevailing subjectivity as the status quo. White men call into John Denning’s show on WNIR out of Kent, and constantly proclaim how there should be no minorities. We should all be treated the same and ignore the complaint of minorities. Only the delusion of Denning’s audience and even his oversimplified conservative narrative being entirely white and having never known and substantial hardship could make such an innocuous and stupid claim. Neither he nor his audience is alone. In our political climate, sadly, the sides are being drawn along partisan lines. The conservative reaction to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Tamir Rice in Cleveland here is that questioning the institution and its use of violence is justifiable in the service of justifying this social order. Violence is seen as the only measurable response against a world that does not listen to the subject’s desire to assert such authority. Such a desire to assert mastery and authority is at the core of whiteness and police forces that are mostly White. If only Eric Garner in New York City or Michael Brown had just listened, then they’d still be alive according to countless conservatives on talk radio, Fox News, and the ever so definitive former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani.

On the Left, the difference of others inundates the sense of normalcy such police subjects desire in the world, and so now protests are springing up everywhere disrupting everybody’s life. Such public disruptions are a call to attention of how these disruptions feel systemically in all Black Souls. To put that in simpler terms, police white males desire order and security and project those expectations onto the individuals they confront, and the police violence is the symptom of a decisively insipid racism we can no longer confront intellectually. The disruptions alert us to that fact, and they should continue since a call for justice is necessary to reevaluate where the United States is going. The demonstrations should pour over and disrupt the very heart of Playhouse Square and continue until Cleveland itself can cope with a longstanding problem of police violence. They should never end.

Underlying those projections, the desire for mastery and authority justifies violence already before its occurrence. Anytime the police feel the pangs of difference and disorder from the projected whiteness, violence can be justified in terms of how these desires arrange what they desire in the system itself. Violence becomes a way of remastering what is always other and in violence, one unmakes what is other into whiteness by murder or reducing otherness to what can be controlled. If violence unmakes the other, the victim of violence is erased through police murder. If the victim of violence is alive, then the victim is reduced to a body, a thing that can be played and toyed with by the authority that wants to transform the world into whiteness, and in unmaking others into bodies is as long of an American tradition as slavery itself. The taskmaster’s whip turns the victim into a body, and whenever the slave would discover in themselves the desire for freedom in disobedience, the lash was broke over their back to remind them they are just a laboring body. In policing, the subject regards all difference as a body to be subjugated by either respecting authority or, again, asserting that dominion over the victim’s body through the threat of violence and its application.

The problem with violence ultimately is that it unmakes the other and must be renewed to unmake the other into the very desire every time. Such unmaking requires tremendous energy, and police forces recruit subjects that share in the same desire for security and order. These desires cannot be unmasked for what they are since that would undermine the public trust we, the citizens of Northeast Ohio, place in the police. Institutional racism fuels these desires until the point they become normalized and cannot be seen for what they are and the values they promote. These values reflect how the desires are given space in these institutions, and symptomatic of these desires come out in violence. Eventually, unmaking the other will come at the moral cost such violence creates, and now the moral cost of our community is the murder of Tamir Rice. Tamir Rice

Tamir Rice was 12, twirling around a toy gun, an airsoft pistol. Yet, make no mistake. Officer Timothy Loehmann was already incompetent, lacking the skills to be a police officer to follow instructions or properly handle his weapon according to his former employment in Independence, Ohio. Officer Frank Garmback, the driver, had already settled an excessive force charge of $100,000 earlier in 2014. As the video clearly shows, Loehmann shot the kid in seconds. They did not approach the scene reasonably, tell the kid they knew he had what looks like a weapon, or take proper cover. In the end, they pulled next to the kid and shot him. They executed what they thought was a threat, but the very incompetency and institutional backdrop that informs their very subjectivity means the officers are a product of a system that cannot recognize its own responsiblity in Rice’s death. They murdered him. They shot a boy with an airsoft gun alone and playing at a park, and it is no surprise that they – being institution of the police or those that espouse blind faith in the police – cannot fathom how it is murder.

What fixes nature?

Part of the obscurity of value ontology lies in the fact that it is not clear what fixes the truth of moral claims. Values are unlike other material things. They compel us even maybe while we might desire otherwise. Or maybe not. I’ve been swimming in this problem for quite some time.

But today, I do not want to discuss values. I want to push a little further and ask what fixes experience of objects. Let’s call the set of all objects, nature. According to James, we should remain humble before experience in general, even objects. Now, clearly James thinks that purpose can impose upon texture and meaning onto experience, and this imposition of purpose can alter the meaning of objects. Various conceivable effects of the object can be experienced. I may experience the buffalo as a biological animal, provider of sustenance, as manifestation of natural spirit, or as both a provider of nourishment and a provider of sinew for bowstring. In this way, radical empiricism, like phenomenology, talks about how experience itself is connected to every transition of how the buffalo can or will appear as having “meaning for us”. As James puts it, if we experience the object as efficaciously real, then it is real as such.

Added to the above is that no one single person’s experience (or interpretation of it) can determine how objects and their conceivable effect will be for everyone else. For James, pluralism implies the widest possible big tent interpretation of experience, requiring what we might call a radical democratic and epistemic openness. Instead, we should be humble about the range of possible experiences and be open that our experience of objects can never be of the whole. Our experience or a claims are made of objects, but not the whole. Reality is felt, perceived, judged, and explored in snippets.

Given these conditions, James is skeptical about knowing what fixes nature, and the fixivity in nature is a key assumption many help themselves to. It gets people the metaphysics of independence. As Hume implied, continuity implies independence. If an object can be experienced in its materiality by all of us over time, then we can posit a realist property possessed by the object. The stark realization is that the independence and materiality of objects is an assumption, one among many, and to be fair, an assumption that while taken on pragmatic grounds, cannot for the Jamesian be proven absolutely. In fact, by my own Jamesian commitments, I cannot absolutize any metaphysical commitment about objects (this is the reason that James is the least dogmatic of all the pragmatists and the one that gave the richest interpretation of religion in human experience). I do not even know if there is  some structure that fixes nature. I can only tell you what the science we have at the time tells us what we might think fixes nature and that it really helps scientific inquiry to think such structures persist through time. As such one version of speculative realism may be right, or again none of them, but I am hardly in a position to know. The Buddhist may be right about interdependent co-arising about objects. Then again, maybe not.

The only thing I have access to is the relational aspect of experience and the purpose I am directed towards by my own choosing and I can assess the purpose of others and their beliefs. Within experience, I have the freedom to experiment and explore, but as Dewey firmly showed better than James, such exploration and freedom can impact others in our community.