Nostalgia overflows me as I write this…
I’m remembering the free exchanges of half-baked ideas and irreverent attitudes that animated the theory blogosphere in the late 2000s—during the early days of what was tentatively regarded as “speculative realism.” The frenetic dialogues and debates among learned scholars, enthusiastic amateurs, and so many other critics and supporters, enriched my evenings with fresh takes on stale topics. It was a time of intellectual orgies and useful stupidities – and I loved every minute of it.
Now, years later, I’m feeling tinges of that old excitement while reading a few new posts by Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects. Levi has posted a rough cut text of talk “Domestic Objects/Wild Things,” which includes some themes I find quite thought-provoking, and, perhaps, useful for articulating some issues that have been circulating in my brain for awhile now.
Of immediate interest is Levi’s return to the notion of a “wilderness of being”— something he and I discussed nearly a decade ago (see here). At the time not much came of it, but in this new talk Bryant seems ready to open the door to revisit some of the possibilities swirling around and through this cluster of ideas.
Here is one of many interesting passages from Levi’s text:
We live in a world of entropy. The things about us, whether they be vehicles, roads, homes, computers, or kitchen cabinets, are perpetually threatened by entropy. Driveways and walls crack, grass grows in the seams of sidewalks, coffee cups get chipped, cars get scratched and dented, decorative bushes in yards get overgrown and grow wildly in all sorts of different directions, and the doors of kitchen cabinets come off of their hinges. Everywhere domestic objects harbor anarchistic and insurgent wild things within them, constantly threatening to emancipate themselves so as to become free for their own adventures.
And then these:
The domestic objects that make up our everyday experience in our concernful dealings with the world consist of a unity or synthesis of the symbolic and the material. The symbolic is like a net thrown across the earth, lacerating it and structuring it. It transforms the analog into the digital, the continuous into the discrete, or the smooth into the striated….
What, then, is the wild thing? If I gave an answer to this question, I fear I would undermine the entire point, for then I would transform the thing itself into the thought-thing, and thereby domesticate the wildness of the wild thing. I would involve myself in a performative contradiction.
I wonder how many different ways these kinds of statements have been issued by philosophers over the years? How many scholars have asked us to avoid the traps of foundationalism, reification, ideology, mythic givens, formalizing structures, etc. —those many tendencies in tradition, language and articulation that produce dogma and delimit the semantic possibilities generated by so-called wild concepts?
As Levi restates it here again so beautifully, far too many intellectuals fail to genuinely acknowledge and accept the wild independence and vibrant potency of non-linguistic materials and systems in their philosophies. And far too often theorists continue to mistake their conceptions and descriptions— what Bryant calls their ‘thought-things’— for the reality of things themselves.
Alternatively, Bryant asks us to recall and become more aware of how things are always more than what we think about them. Any assemblage of materials organized sufficiently to enact particular causal effects does so via its onto-specific properties, relations, and depth of organization. This amalgam of properties and relations expresses very particular embodied capacities, or what neo-materialist theorist Jane Bennett has called ‘thing-power‘. Which is to say, noumena are indeed fanged—possessed of relatively independent causal affectivity, and capable of acting upon us and the planet in ways unencumbered by what we believe or say about them. Such independent realities can cut through our caricatures and casual certainties to disrupt the comfort of habitual expectations, often in ways that, in particular circumstances, can even result in significant trauma.
As Katerina Kolosova reminds us:
The real is not necessarily a physical exteriority. Rather, it is an exteriority in the sense that it is outside the reach of our linguistic intervention, appropriation and re-invention. The real is an effect that is experienced as violence (as the implacable limit to our signifying automatism), as a linguistically non-negotiable limitation, as that which Lacan would call the tuché that happens to the (signifying) automaton in the form of trauma.
The other post that really interests me (found here) in this regard has Levi addressing a student’s concern with the aforementioned talk transcript.
Levi paraphrases the student’s concerns this way:
“Professor Bryant”, he said, “throughout your talk you’re very critical of philosophy and how it converts the thing into the thought-thing or replaces the thing with the thought-thing. But isn’t the conversion of the thing into the thought-thing a good thing? Isn’t that how we know things? If we can’t convert the thing into the thought-thing, doesn’t that entail the ruin of philosophy and science?”
It’s a perceptive question that gets right to the crux. Levi’s response is instructive:
This is a very difficult point to articulate because I am essentially trying to indicate or allude to something that is outside of language, even if it is entangled in language all sorts of ways. When I make the claim that the cardinal sin of philosophy (and many other forms of theory besides) consists in converting the thing– in its materiality –into the thought-thing, I am trying to articulate the way in which the thing is replaced by the signifier. Any attempt to explain this is necessarily doomed to failure. It simply cannot be done because I am attempting to point at something that is outside of discourse, outside of language, outside of conceptuality; yet, in the very act of doing this, I bring the thing into language, discourse, and conceptuality.
Although, at this point, we risk derailment or descent into mysticism, it is a worthy venture. To be sure, there is nothing we can say about relatively independent potent materialities that doesn’t already entail a kind of domestication via the very symbolic order we use to make-sense and register their existence. Our interpretations and classifications, our stories and poetics, are meant to bring the wider world of causal and sensory interactions into practical understanding, and thus to partially control. Therefore, everything we say or write about autonomous things, assemblages, and flows —and the processes that obtain among them —are more or less a series of useful caricatures and generalizing descriptions fabricated to navigate and interact with/in what Cornel West has called ‘the funk of life.’
A real danger arises, however, in how some people and discourses can tend to overdetermine what they encounter with how they interpret it. This conceptual overdetermination, rooted in encultured cognition and ideologically charged commitments, not only does a kind of semiotic violence to the objects of our perception, circumscribing and inducting them primarily into the service of human concerns, but can become a form of self-capture— a ‘cage’ build within language that gathers and delimits thought into algorithmic decisions and stock interpretations. By entrapping ourselves in doxa this way people often fail to appreciate the genuine complexities and consequences of the many non-linguistic realities in which we are embedded.
Yet, things always exceed us. The objects of our attention remain more than what they seem, even as they are entangled in the very circuits of language and communicative gesturing that animate our particular concerns. In this way such relative autonomy assured in the depths of their material properties and constituent relations remain resistant to the pretensions of conceptual domestication.
Ecological Embeddedness and Sentient Bodies
In recent decades, a significant body of research has been accumulating and converging around a cluster of related scientific theories often collectively known as ‘4EA’, which taken together describe cognition as “embodied, embedded, enacted, extended, and affective.” Mark Rowlands (2010) outlines the various elements of the convergence this way:
- Embodied involving more than the brain, including a more general involvement of bodily structures and processes.
- Embedded functioning only in a related external environment.
- Enacted involving not only neural processes, but also things an organism does [practice and performance].
- Extended into the organism’s environment.
- Affective involving emotional attunements that valences stimuli in terms of meaningful salience thresholds e.g. good/bad, inviting/threatening, etc.
These related insights into the nature of perception, cognition and behavior propose an alternative to dualist philosophies of mind, with a novel emphasis on how the dynamic interactions and expressions between brain, body and ecosystems are inseparably intertwined, and work together to co-create, or ‘bring forth,’ materially rich and semiotically complex embodied experiential worlds.
As early pioneers of 4EA theory Varela, Thompson, and Rosch (1992) write, “the species brings forth and specifies its own domain of problems …this domain does not exist ‘out there’ in an environment that acts as a landing pad for organisms that somehow drop or parachute into the world. Instead, living beings and their environments stand in relation to each other through mutual specification or codetermination” (p. 198).
From these researchers we get a hint of why conceptual overdetermination and domestication by humans can be so problematic. If we are in mutually impacting, co-determining relationships with other embodied agents and material systems, then imposing our specific mode of being, relating, or knowing on others inherently limits our ability to perceive novelty in, discover, become intimate with, learn from, and form ethical relations with them. If we are to obtain a fuller awareness of the conditions within which we co-exist we must find ways to remain open — conceptually as well as existentially — to the ways that nonhumans exist and express themselves.
Years later, revisiting the status of 4EA theories, Di Paolo, Rhohde, and De Jaegher (2014) write: “Organisms do not passively receive information from their environments, which they then translate into internal representations. Natural cognitive systems…participate in the generation of meaning …engaging in transformational and not merely informational interactions: they enact a world” (p. 33).
Closing ourselves off to the vibrant properties, movements, effects, and depth of other beings and ecological forces through conceptual overdetermination hinders our ability to intelligently navigate, adjust, collaborate, or adapt in enacted conditions. Overdetermined and domesticated thought thus becomes a barrier to genuine encounters, and efforts to calibrate our expectations and aspirations with reality, as the very conditions of material/ecological possibility within which action is possible.
In The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), David Abram writes:
“Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more- than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of the wolves and the honking of the geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”
Pragmatism and Practice
Significantly, Shaun Gallagher (2014) has also pointed out how embodiment and being entangled in the lives others and with other properties suggests a type of pragmatist orientation to life and thought that explicitly rejects the domestication and overdetermination of language. Gallagher argues that the philosophical school of pragmatism can even be understood as a forerunner of embodied, enactive and extended approaches to cognition.
Pragmatist sociologist John Dewey, for example, wrote that “the brain is essentially an organ for effecting the reciprocal adjustment to each other of the stimuli received from the environment and responses directed upon it” (1916, pp. 336–337). And neo-pragmatist philosopher Robert Brandom has commented that “a founding idea of pragmatism is that the most fundamental kind of intentionality (in the sense of directedness towards objects) is the practical involvement with objects exhibited by a sentient creature dealing skillfully with its world” (2008, p. 178).
The main thrust of much of both 4EA thinking and pragmatism seems to converge on an interpretation of ‘intellectual activity’ as a derivative and emergent capacity following from the material and energetic interplay between brain, body and world. And importantly, for us here, that reality itself is not just something the brain imposes upon or merely constructs. Rather, brain, body and external objects, flows and forces are of relatively equal importance as factors in how particular worldly encounters and relations come about viz. embodied and ecologically embedded performance/practice.
Communication and intellection can then be understood to be less and less about mobilizing ready-made conceptions or transcendental Truth claims, and more and more about the pragmatic coordination and adaptation of sentient bodies through mobilizations of various cognitive and environmental resources for performative navigations of worlds. Conceptuality, from this perspective, is simply one aspect in a much thicker and extensive (and mostly non-linguistic) relational process—a series of evolutionary games that particular kinds of bodies play among various other bodies and forces in different contexts.
Language-games as embodied adaptation
So what do I mean by “evolutionary game”? In large part, I mean it in sense very much related to notions made famous by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his later work, Wittgenstein contended that words acquire meaning by their use, and attempted to track how their use was inexorably tied up with social practices. He eventually arrived at the notion of ‘language-games’ to draw attention not only to the function of language itself, but also to how all linguistic activity and intentions are generated from the social lives and concerns of the people who use it. What we do, we do with others — and Wittgenstein painstakingly showed how language is contextually conditioned by dynamic normative patterns of embodied (extra-linguistic) social activity.
The classic example of a language-game is the so-called “builder’s language” introduced in §2 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953):
The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar” “slab”, “beam”. A calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. Conceive this as a complete primitive language.
What is important here is that the builder and his assistant play a particular learned language-game that makes use of acknowledged signifiers in order to do something in particular: namely, collaboratively build. Language-games are, for Wittgenstein, concrete social activities that crucially involve the use of specific forms of language. By describing a variety of language-games—the countless ways in which language is actually used in human interaction—Wittgenstein meant to show that “the speaking of a language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” The meaning of a word, then, is not found in some supposed correspondence between it and a given object, but rather in the pragmatic use that is made of it by actual people in “the stream of life.”
Throughout his later work, Wittgenstein maintained that even rule-governed language-games were not static or bound. Even the most conventional language-games remain open to change, in numerous ways, and continue to evolve as people use and re-use phrases, framings, and arguments in new and sometimes idiosyncratic ways. These changes result in what linguistics call ‘semantic drift’, or what I describe as semiotic mutation — novel inflections or emphases, or combinatory significances brought about by different iterations or creative uses. And I argue that this characteristic mutability of language-games opens out to a distributed dynamism of embodied human communicative exchanges that necessarily renders philosophical thinking always already provisional (and revisable) to varying degrees.
It is this provisional and open, yet embedded and entangled, character of language and cognition that I believe we ought to lean into as a means of mitigating the negative effects of conceptual overdetermination (dogma), which then allows the relatively independent potency or depth-capacity of bodies, systems and flows to participate more earnestly in the many worldly negotiations occurring between autonomous and entangled agencies that constitute daily life.
Feralization, or the rewilding of philosophy
What becomes clear through this brief survey, then, is that in order to take reality more seriously (and ourselves less so), there is a need to continually establish within theoretical knowledge more embodied, pragmatic, relational, and open intellectual approaches. This, I suggest, requires a feralization of philosophical thinking and it’s domesticating intellectual self-sufficiency.
Such a process would require a significant deflation of the human tendency towards semiotic domestication and the over-managing of reality according to particular, all-too-human models and sets of concerns. By reorienting cognition to deemphasize the many conceptual idols and doxic formulas that populate and overdetermine philosophical thinking we can, instead, begin reemphasizing more embodied ways of sensing, communicating and behaving.
This shift in cognitive orientation not only allows us to register our everyday experiences differently, it also also helps foster more pragmatic attitudes, dispositions, and ways of using language that are more open and responsive to the non-linguistic agencies and forces among us.
Instead of continuing the habit of over-coding, and generally relying too heavily on semiotic content and symbolic orders, we can start to better understand our everyday encounters as consequentially entangled, embodied, enactive, and pragmatic dances with-in various mixed material-energetic life conditions.
In Marilyn Strathern’s words, such cognitive adjustments allow us “to create the conditions for new thoughts” (1988: 20).
As I have written elsewhere:
What rests beneath our zombie delusions and mythologies are countless sensuous bodies. What is revealed is a world composed of material entities in energetic interactions that exist within a vast mesh of ecological metabolism. Bodies jostle and exchange in, against, across and through one another in what we could conceive as transcorporeal (‘across-body’). What is of value in this view is that while our cognitions are unreliable, shot through with myth-making, we nonetheless have our embodied sapience, the wisdom of bodies that are practically engaged in a world structured and coordinated by and as assemblages of other bodies.
But how to even begin undomesticating philosophical thinking? My proposal is that the loosening of doxa and overdetermination begins with making operant use of a type of axiomatic negation: an intellectual protocol and cognitive cue for auto-deflating habitual and dogmatic tendencies and closures within thought itself. Axiomatic negation instantiates, viz. philosophical heuristic, a dispositional logic of refusal of certainty, and a refusal to be captured by the institutional or idiosyncratic ideologies external to our everyday acts of cognitive negotiation. This axiomatic refusal, I believe, is cognitive reflexivity taken to its most practical conclusion; as an auto-deconstructive gaming of the very activity of language-games as such.
Oh so meta, I know… but not in a way that seeks to reestablish any previous dogmatic modes, semantic regimes, or dependencies on particular kingdoms of reference. Not even ‘meta’ can escape the corrosive yet liberating effects of axiomatic negation, as a thorough rewilding of philosophical thinking as living practice. Instead, what remains is the need to re-prioritize embodied practical encounters and skillful perception, and to cultivate an openness to the relative autonomies, surprises, patterns, and overt materiality of worldly existence. This openness enacts a perpetual unsettling of the privilege and control that language, logos, ideology, and culture has been granted, or violently installed, over more contextual, practical and visceral relations within the natural world.
What might evolve from these types of shifts and refusals are new species of abstraction: feral philosophies that thrive on auto-reflexivity and animated by deeply pragmatic concerns. In short, beyond the overdetermination of dogmatic abstraction and ideology we can think and talk about things in a new manner and tone, and with different emphases, concerns, and, more importantly, outcomes.
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next” — Ursula K. LeGuin,
At its core, an acceptance and willingness to operate from the inherent limitations and mutability of language and thought is to make explicit the productive character of the unknown, or the unknowable, as that which always exceeds capture by conceptuality. Tarrying with uncertainty activates our thinking about what is possible.
As sociologist Andrew Pickering puts it:
What if the unknowable was not simply a blank to be filled or a defect to be rectified, but instead, an inescapable facet of everyday existence, which continually regenerates itself as we attempt to know and interact with the world?
How many of our personal and social problems are the unpleasant result of a dogmatic adherence to some ideology and prior belief? How many of us stunt our learning and ability to adapt by interpreting our experiences through default positions and habitual reference?
Taken up together, an appreciation for the unknown and the undomesticated has the dual advantage of anchoring epistemic humility, and, with this, intensifying and expanding our curiosity. It is with humble curiosity that most of the dazzling creativity and innovation found throughout the planet has been brought into being. And now, as much as ever, if humans are to survive this century, we must to cultivate such openness, curiosity, and creativity.
The feralization of philosophical thinking is an opportunity for creative evolution and social innovation, as well as a necessary enhancement of our ability to prioritize and adapt, and behave in less dogmatic and ideologically programmable ways. Evolving and honing this wilder disposition towards language, ideology, communication, and embodied agency allows for more conscious, curious and flexible deployments of manifest thought-images and theory.
As Bryant suggests:
We cannot dispense with theory and theorization– here I think my student is absolutely right –which strives to grasp the thing in thought, but we must theorize in such a way that our thought perpetually marks the difference between the thing and the thought-thing, that refuses the substitution of the thing with the thought-thing, and that calls on us to place us in a space of encounters that require us to encounter the other of thought and that challenge our conceptual encounters. Like the psychoanalyst who exposes themselves to the midden pit of the analysand’s speech, we must open ourselves to encounters with materiality of all kinds that challenge the reduction of the thing to thought and the false sense of mastery that the thought-thing brings.
Let’s perpetually mark the difference again and again, forever. And in doing so generate new species of abstractions to philosophize in more embodied, relational, and ecologically sane ways.
feral philosophy is real philosophy, only wilder.
feral philosophy is thinking that was domesticated but has gone wild.
feral philosophy began as academic, scholarly, studied, but turned surly, stoic, comedic, poetic. It became wild and unkempt through neglect or lack of care. It ran off, chastised, tail between legs. It was driven off because it was not thought attractive to tidy minds. It escaped captivity, desperate to breathe fresh air.
feral philosophy can be pungent, awkward, stand-alone, weather-proof. It can be skewiff, cantankerous, skittish, even fugitive. It isn’t well-tempered or pragmatic. It sniffs out conventional or received wisdom.
feral philosophy is often unfinished, but it is not untutored. It matters that feral philosophy was domesticated before it went wild.
It shouldn’t be confused with marketing, new age or eastern philosophy. Its roots are in western philosophy, gone wild on the vine. Its pedigree goes back to Heraclitus, not Confucius. It’s a descendent of Aristotle, not Buddha. It is neither resigned nor layback. It is ‘old age’ as opposed to ‘new age’.
feral philosophy is an aspiration.