Part II: Re-enchantment Is Resistance

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Upwards of fifty years ago, the hard-nosed empiricist philosopher Bas van Fraassen wrote some words that have stuck with me ever since. I beg a measure of patience, because I am quoting from memory (my copy of the book is buried among 55 boxes in a pole barn). Basically, van Fraassen said this: “I can believe in witches and fairies; indeed, I may have met a few. But I cannot for all the world believe in a ‘set’.”i A “set” in this instance is a mathematical entity as in “set theory.” What van Fraassen the very hard-nosed empiricist is saying is that witches and fairies are objects of direct (and possibly personal) experience, whereas mathematical sets – which, mathematicians assure us, are surely among the most rational things in the world – have no such connection to experience. As such, “sets” have far less basis (in van Fraassen’s hard-nosed estimation) for anything like rational justification. And while van Fraassen’s empiricism would have been much improved had he gone radicalá la William James and Alfred North Whitehead – rather than following David Hume, his point is still well worth taking. If witchesii and members of the fae are supposedly “uncanny,” what in the hell does that make a “set,” even an “ordinary” one? (The weird ones get downright wyrd.)

Following up on the previous essay, I want to talk about our relatedness to the uncanny (which I’ll now treat as uncontroversially real) from a Whiteheadian perspective. The uncanny manifests itself in us. But if Whitehead is correct, then that manifestation takes two special forms: first there is the internalization of relatedness, in which we draw the uncanny into ourselves as part of ourselves, as how we realize our selves to ourselves. But secondly, there is the externalization of relatedness in which we pro-ject ourselves onto the world. These forms of relatedness will require spending a few words on the badly framed traditional question of “internal” and “external” relations; badly framed because it takes those relations as given rather than as processes in realization. At the very end, I’ll come back to the significance of this essay’s title.

Part I: The Concrescence of The Uncanny

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This year of the plague has been a miserably difficult time for all of us. For my part, it has all but obliterated my writing and research which, given how others have suffered, is a rather small price to pay. I’ve not gone cold or hungry, and but for the one time when pipes burst, I’ve had running water. So I’m trying to push myself back into writing, and that push has got me toying with thoughts of something that is fun yet Whitehead related. So I’m going to deviate from the “standard” Whiteheadian brief here, and perform a two part divagation into an arena that is often left aside as an example of the “irrational”. Specifically, I want to dip a toe into the uncanny. I will explain in a moment my reasons for the previous two scare quoted terms. But first I want to say something about my own curiosity on the subject. Also, I would draw everyone’s attention to the irony that I begin this writing on “pi-day”, March 14 or 3/14. For the “irrational” number π, as we will observe, is disturbingly uncanny.

Night time, when shadows and substance blur into one another

My own little journey began – one hesitates to say “innocently enough” given the nature of the subject matter – on social media. With social distancing (which, in my case, includes an unpleasant measure of social isolation) I was shifting around for various available forms of online connections, and stumbled into a small group of writers, creators, and artists who focus their attention on folk stories, and folk horror in particular. We engaged in various asynchronous forms of sharing, but also in synchronous activities such as watch parties of old-school ghost stories freely available at various streaming services. Given the workings of my mind, I naturally began wondering about fitting such stories and ideas within Whitehead’s speculative philosophy.

Year of The Plague 7: Cats

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I’ve struggled these last months to say anything of any interest – to myself, much less to anyone else – and as one can see by tracking the entries to this blog, I’ve not enjoyed much sense. I’ve started this YotP7 entry at least three times now, gone almost all the way to the end, only to throw it all away as empty twaddle. So I’ve finally decided fuck it (it’s my blog and I get to say that), I’m just going to talk about my cats. I don’t expect there to be any redeeming philosophical content here, though I don’t preclude the possibility. (Writing is, after all, a creative activity, and creation takes on a life of its own.)

Bluesy and Jazzy as Kittens.

Before proceeding, one caveat that any cat person will readily understand: talking about “my” cats can be a little problematic, since the suggestion of possession or ownership also suggests a sharply drawn line. A person I’m connected to on Twitter periodically shares photos of “Not My Cat”, a young brown tabby that continues to walk into his home and help itself to food, shelter, napping places, and companionship. My situation is not quite so extreme, but it still merits making, or at least being alert to, a distinction.

The Year of The Plague 6: Only The Lonely

Writing has been brutally difficult these last few weeks. I started on this blog some while back, and after 1,200+ words just threw the whole thing away as irreparable twaddle. What I have here is still something of a hot mess. I am so little qualified to speak on the events of the last few weeks that I came to acknowledge that words were simply failing me. I am tired, I am angry, I am frustrated by my own impotence and cowardice, and trying speak of such matters only seems to make them worse. It is as if we’ve learned nothing since Ferguson, and the casual, ‘business as usual’ dehumanization of Michael Brown and so many other, unarmed persons of color. Privileged protofascists cry out with self-righteous savagery for more violence from the police against those who would dare object to the indefensible violence of the police. Militarized thugs – literally wearing blackshirts! – abandon any pretense of professionalism or commitment to the people and communities they are nominally sworn to serve and protect, instead viciously attacking peaceful protesters exercising their legitimate Constitutional rights, and doing so with absolute abandon. Utterly secure in their surety that their brutality will be given a free pass by the other fascists whom they gleefully serve, these paid bullies prove they care nothing for law, only for enforcement. (And when that surety is challenged by facts, responding with a temper tantrum. No wonder they voted for Trump – they have so much in common.)

Meanwhile, the Butthurt Baby in Chief wants to distract people from the real issues by spewing infantile nonsense about declaring “Antifa” to be a “domestic terrorist organization.” Quite aside from the fact that President Tinyhands cannot make such a designation, there is no such thing as an “organization” called “Antifa.” “Antifa” is a label that people can adopt or reject, individually or collectively, in any manner that they choose. As someone on Twitter (I’ve forgotten who) recently commented, “Antifa is an ‘organization’ in the same way that ‘people who hate the Dave Matthews band’ is an organization.” (Besides, does anyone really hate the Dave Matthews Band?)

Relational Ethics

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Time to take a break from my meditations on the year of the plague; life still goes on.

Ethics, especially as caricatured by philosophers who have written on the subject, has (the story goes) often been taught as a collection of rules “informing” the student about what the youth (invariably male, as was the instructor, up until the late 19th, early 20th centuries) should or should not do. In this picture of things, ethics (theory, if you will) was simply the ironclad apologia for the morality (practical, cultural practices) of the day. As noted, this is at least somewhat of a caricature, and if one turns instead to the pages of the great philosophers – specifically Aristotle, Kant, and John Stewart Milli, representing virtue, deontological, and utilitarian ethics, respectively – one can recognize that even as these thinkers morality remained rooted in the assumptions of their day, their ethics as written placed the emphasis not on lists of rules but forms of practical inquiry. This point was given explicit pride of place by John Dewey in the excellent part 2 of the Dewey & Tufts Ethics (the part where Dewey was the sole author), “Theory of the Moral Life.”

But while emphasizing the inquiriential aspect of ethical theory, another aspect of the subject matter – implicit in treating ethical theory as a mode of inquiry – deserves discussion. A simple prescription of static rules would actually suffice were it not for two things: ethics itself is not static, and the nature of that dynamism means that ethics is fundamentally relational in character. I’ll focus exclusively on the latter point here.

Year of The Plague 5: Get to Work!

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I recently learned that I was, in fact, born in a plague year, 1957, during the early stages of the “Asian Flu” pandemic. (I’ll have more to say about this naming convention in a moment.) Estimates on mortality in the US range from a low of 70,000 to a high of 116,000. (Information on the H2N2 pandemic may be found HERE.) After some 12 weeks (rather than the 12+ months during which H2N2 ravaged the world) COVID-19 is already at the upper limit of that earlier pandemic.i With the inevitable second wave of infections and deaths that will come with the push to reopen the country regardless of consequences; with sloppy and unevenly applied testing, almost non-existent contact tracing; and with the monumental infantilism of people who believe their right to be slobbering, self-absorbed imbeciles trumps your right to live, the death toll from the SARS-CoV-2 virus will easily surpass that of H2N2 by the middle of summer. (And, let’s face it: that is a conservative estimate.)

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A word about that “Asian flu” moniker: It was common to name diseases after a place, sometimes even the place where the disease was first located or even came from. This rule has always been applied unevenly; for instance, the “Spanish Flu” pandemic most certainly did NOT originate in Spain. So why aren’t we calling SARS-CoV-2 the “Wuhan virus,” or COVID-19 the “Chinese disease”? One is almost inclined to admire the willful stupidity of persons pretending puzzlement over these questions, since the answer is so manifestly obvious: because doing so is blatantly racist and serves no other purpose than to function as a dog-whistle trigger for low-lifes such as the pond-scum comprising Donald Trump’s political base. One might as well complain that, “My grandfarther used to call black people by the ‘n’ word, and address them as ‘boy’! Why shouldn’t I be allowed to do that now, since it was so commonplace back then?” The naming convention for the disease has already been established, so no excuse other than racism can be offered for changing it in such a way as to blame a certain ethnic group. And let’s face it, even if SARS-CoV-2 is too tricky for their poor, pea-puddin’ racist brains to remember, terms like “novel coronavirus” and “COVID-19” are simple enough that even a remedial 3rd grader can learn and use them properly, all with little or no effort.

Book Sale

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Taylor/Francis (Routledge) is having a sale on electronic versions of the book I coauthored (and which this blog is named after) The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism. The note from Routledge reads as follows:

(W)e’re running a monograph sale through June 11th. Readers can now access your book free-of-charge for seven days. At the end of the trial period, they’ll have the opportunity to purchase the eBook for £10/$15.

https://tfstore.kortext.com/the-quantum-of-explanation-215103 (EPUB version)

https://tfstore.kortext.com/the-quantum-of-explanation-199954 (PDF version)

While I am obviously biased, many people who are not me also think that it is a very good book — indeed, one of the most important contributions to Whitehead scholarship in the last few decades. Many books in the secondary literature get Whitehead wrong; if you read our book, you’ll have some idea just how wrong. But in addition, Quantum will (ideally) provide you with essential insights into Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process and Reality, so that you might see for yourself why this latter book is such a revolution in thinking for the Western tradition. I’m not making any money off of this sale, and the price being asked by Routledge is pretty nearly unbeatable. So I encourage you to check it out!

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Year of the Plague 4: Leaving Facebook During Isolation

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I left Facebook – permanently – on Wednesday, May 6th, 2020, around 12:00 PM Central US time. What an absolutely peculiar thing to do during a period of extreme social isolation, especially for someone who is already at the extreme end of social isolation. Perhaps the only peculiarity is that it required a plague year to drive me to it. This will be a personal blog entry, with no special appeal to higher philosophical principles than those that naturally leak through me on account of who I am. Besides, it’s my blog and I’ll b!tch if I want to.

Before I go further, let me state that I am in favor of social media establishing and enforcing meaningful community standards of what is appropriate and acceptable. Fascists, terrorists, psychopaths, racists, and their ilk are persons who would exploit nominal tolerance for the purpose of annihilating it. Karl Popper spoke and wrote on this subject at various times under the heading of “the paradox of tolerance.” But there’s nothing even marginally paradoxical here. “Tolerance” is toleration for other ideas and for rational disagreement. But there’s nothing even remotely paradoxical about a refusal to be patient of one’s own extirpation. Tolerance can only go as far as those who are equally willing to be tolerant. Those who would destroy “the other” – really, all others – for the purpose of hegemonic, monocultural domination, own no space under, and have no claim upon, the umbrella of tolerance. There is nothing paradoxical about this. Continue reading

Year of the Plague 3: Against Stupidity…

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the gods themselves contend in vain.i

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a field day for the cognitively challenged; and the more galactically egregious the “challenge,” the more indefensibly extreme has been the response. Infantile stupidity in this instance seems to break out roughly into two major groups that roughly correspond to the origins of the novel coronavirus (these, in turn, seem overwhelmingly to take the form of conspiracy theories of one kind or another), the other major class being purported “cures” that vary from the semi-serious to the dangerously crackpot. The semi-serious versions have, at this time, almost all been shown to be dangerously crackpot when actually employed on any scale, so the difference is entirely a matter of degree rather than kind.gif-leslie-nielsen-nothing-to-see-here-2

Quite aside from the general disregard for trivially simple facts relating to the pandemic itself, these “source” and “cure” stupidities (one might even call them “before” and “after”) actively add additional layers of danger and risk to people’s lives. The “before” group, dominated as it is by conspiracy theories, is more than capable of singling out some one or few individuals as “the reason” for the disease. Such people can then have their lives torn apart by invasive internet searches and statements, inspiring acts of stochastic terrorism against purely innocent persons. Recall, for example, the self-appointed “hero” from North Carolina who traveled to DC with firearms to put an end to the non-existent child-trafficking ring Hillary Clinton was supposedly operating, the “basement” of a pizza parlor that had no basement. Nothing more than the bare, abstract possibility (never mind actual fact) of intelligence would have sufficed to see through the infantile nonsense of the whole “pizzagate” fabrication. But intelligence is never as sexy or exciting as the vicious lies that prop up conspiracy theories. Continue reading

Year of The Plague #2: Argumentum ad Ignorantiam

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A recent article (23 March, 2020) by Eric Schliesser and Eric Winsberg (“S&W”) in The New Statesman: America, “Climate and coronavirus: the science is not the same,” attempts to make the case for separating climate science – specifically the facts about Anthropogenic Global Warming (“AGW”) – from the COVID-19 pandemic.i This pandemic is driven by the “novel coronavirus,” but I will stick to just “COVID-19.” Superficially, there is nothing wrong with wanting to do so since these are, after all, different topics. But just because the two subjects are non-identical does not mean that lively and effective analogies cannot be drawn between them. It is this last point that S&W wish to deny. Their attempt is specious on multiple levels, and I wish to address a few of those levels here.dollar sign

To address this speciousness, we must understand the nature of the argument that S&W are making.ii The abbreviated form of their argument goes something like this: (1) The facts about COVID-19 remain highly questionable, as the amount of data is severely truncated by lack of testing, and significantly variable methodologies of evaluations across international, and even local, lines. (2) This lack of data makes any comparison with, or analogy between, COVID-19 and AGW an error. (3) Further, the paucity of adequate data regarding COVID-19 requires us to view any and all such claims with great skepticism. (4) Such skepticism, in fact, that dramatic action which entails substantial economic impact ought to be rejected wholesale. Continue reading