Wednesday, March 13, 2013

the ruthlessness of metaphysics: thoughts on (dark) vitalism

Philosophies of "life," "vitality," "creation," "experience," and so forth have been a frequented topic of discussion lately, largely in the context of critique (and I am generally in agreement with these critiques, drawing from Corrington's brand of naturalism which refuses to "sugar coat" creative activity as some form of power conducive to strictly human interests or which is somehow solely life-affirming rather than fitting into a more capacious and indifferent metaphysical perspective).  This is not to say, however, that philosophers such as Whitehead, Deleuze, or Bergson (and their respective emphases upon creativity) are unimportant.  We just should be wary of ascribing a specifically positive moral component to grounds and powers, creative activity, negation, and so forth. 

Partially responsible for these "vitalist" concepts reappearing - in addition to the fact that they are hallmarks of life-affirming immanentisms with corresponding "flat ontologies" - has been Latour's use of the concept of "creation" in his Gifford Lectures.  As well, creation and creativity are central themes in process philosophy, notably in Whitehead, but also others, where contemporary "vital materialists" or "neo-vitalists" have been making use of these themes.

In the same camp of "neo-vitalism" however is a line of thinking opposed to vibrancy (or positive creative addition) where emphasis is placed instead upon negation and death drive, or what I have titled "the vital negative."  Some lines of thought in this camp even bleed over into the philosophy of "accelerationism" and its themes involving death drive and the all out abnegation of life, an ethos of nihilism, and a hyper-Nietzscheanism.

The point of this post is to nod in a direction of productive tension that has been lurking underneath all of these philosophies all along.  It is no secret that Robert S. Corrington's "ecstatic naturalism" supplements most "sugar coated" forms of naturalism (essentially the history of American naturalism).  In a similar manner, Ben Woodard's "dark vitalism" may be a good substitute for weaker forms of vitalism where life has ceased to be a problematic.  Corrington and Woodard both offer an account of nature that reveals indifferent grounds and powers.

I would like to state that a tempered balance ought to be struck between the practice of metaphysics understood as cold indifference and clear eye to the world, to the "horror of life" as it is in its full gory details and metaphysics understood as warm embrace of positive genesis, where there is some outright moral component in that whatever is added to the universe is intrinsically good (and therefore the "horror" is only a problem if one understands it phenomenologically and ethically).  I would actually make a distinction between positive value and moral goodness, between negative value or negation and darkness as a concept of horror.

As I see it, this is not to say that the genesis of intensities, making for aesthetic contrasts of value, is not the expression of value itself.  This is also not to say that the world is inherently "meaningful" (as opposed to saying that the world possesses a power to transmit information, a natural semiotic, where "meaning" means transmitting information).  As Peirce said, ethics follows from aesthetics.  The aesthetic is of no specific moral value.  That comes later.

On the other hand, this is also not to say that we ought to "dance in decay" - that we ought to celebrate dark features of life in the sense that because the horrible is opposed to "warm forces of life" we may as well call ourselves "nihilists" and rally behind claims which state that an intrinsic lack of human centered meaning is good.  (Enlightened perhaps, but not "good.")  This is just as anthropomorphically deluded as it is to embrace "creation" as an in and of itself morally positive activity.

Detachment and precision, universal abstraction, the cold practice of metaphysics, reflects a nature that is largely indifferent.  There is no capital 'N' "Nature" whose intentions are malignant or benign.

A cold, bleak, indiscriminatory metaphysics, a "ruthless metaphysics," is one that abstracts the general features of the world, speculating into territory which may exhibit no care for the human, for the living.  The fact that we may feel special that we are receiving the honor of getting wiped out - whether humans or the universe we live in - isn't actually so special given the fact that this is a world where value understood ethically, morally, is "after the fact." The objective intensity of the world is not without value in itself. Specific "moral value" is a matter of human feeling toward that intensity as a second order effect.