Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Peter Gratton on the pain of rocks

In a recent post, Peter Gratton had THIS to say:
The stuff on new materialism–I noted this at several times during the conference–has run its course. Liz Grosz talked about the pain of rocks, Barad discussed the unconscious of protons…we have moved to the stage where there’s no method for the use of these terms, except anthropomorphism. I almost want to analyze why certain figures (and there were many at the conference) want to arrive at the conclusion that rocks have a world, etc....[T]here’s this stuff about the pain of rocks and it having a “pure auto-affection”–it’s a conclusion that seems wanted at this moment. I’ll have to think this more through, but count meas incredibly dubious: it doesn’t multiply the differences in the world but in fact says to the world, you’re great, you’re like us. Martin Hägglund, who also gave a great talk, and I chatted about this quite a bit. (In any case, there’s an easy way out of not doing anthropomorphism, at least one from the tradition that inspires new materialists: just go Spinoza and say there are many more attributes to the modes than simply mind and body. And thus a rock’s self-relation may be many things that we cannot gather given our own attributes.)
This is perplexing.  I don't think that it is anthropomorphic to speculatively explore non-human consciousness supposing that non-human worlds of experience overlap or may be like our experience in some respects, as much as they may be unlike our experience in other respects.

In the tradition of Jakob von Uexkull or even to some degree William James and Alfred North Whitehead, it isn't about multiplying different world pictures nor even rendering them common to ours, even though the diversity of world pictures has its place.  I think it is about speculatively and phenomenologically allowing non-human worlds to exhibitively self-display their experiential features where these features are attended to for what they are.    Ordinal phenomenology is one method, speculative naturalism another; there is also semiotic phenomenology or more broadly bio and ecosemiotics.  For several years now I've commented on how it isn't anthropocentric/anthropormorphic at all to find that pain, for example, is part of a constituting domain which is extra-human (or non-human).  It's one thing to read a human face across nature by imposing human emotive qualities upon other things within the world, but another to realize the broader intensive aesthetic character of the natural world of which human beings are but a small part.  Equally alien (distinct with our own modes of perception, as are all organisms) we are nevertheless deeply natural - deeply "part" of nature.  

I realize the trend is to de-humanize nature as much as possible, but really, human beings are part and parcel of nature, and so we can expect that what we experience is continuous from the outside in rather than assuming it is always the case we project our experience (onto others) from the inside out.  This is what Gratton seems to miss. 

Even removing human beings from nature and stating, "Ok, the experience of others may not be like our subjective experience" doesn't mean that others aren't capable of experiencing emotion, pain, etc. etc.  The fact is, it isn't our experience to begin with.  If human beings didn't exist, elephants would still grieve the loss of a matriarch, dolphins would still express joy, crabs would still feel pain, and so on.  Further still, all things - taking a panexperiential viewpoint - would struggle to persist and would undergo self-relations.  We don't need to appeal to analogies involving human-centered experience to make that case.  No one is saying the world is like us.  I (for one) am simply saying that we are part of the world, naturally, like everything else.  If that is true then there is continuity as much as there is difference.  Neither is absolute in reality although it is possible to take either epistemologically true and absolute.

Schopenhauer stated that empathy, given the reality of suffering. could be a basis for ethics; and no one wants to suffer afterall, Yet it seems that the conclusion ontologically precedes what things are.  Which is to say, yes, all things do suffer in their basic and most essential persistence, ontologically. The ethical judgment regarding that ontological fact is a "second," as Peirce would say.  Not a "first."

For those interested I discuss some of this in my forthcoming Animal Experience: Consciousness and Emotions in the Natural World (Open Humanities Press Living Books About Life series) and did speak to some similar issues in my most recent radio interview with the Philosopher's Zone on ABC National Radio in Australia.  Regarding pain and panentheism (which involves a modal and multinaturalist or theistic naturalist account of pain and God; or how pain and intensive aesthetic quality transcends human beings and is not constructed by them), see my "Speculative Naturalism: A Bleak Theology in Light of the Tragic" (forthcoming through the Journal of Nature, Culture, and Religion this summer).