object-oriented rhetoric

the strange world of antonyms

My 11 year-old son gets these strange assignments where he's asked to come up with antonyms for real world objects (e.g. this morning he was asking "what's the opposite of 'astronomer'?" We said geologist but it could have been astrologer or how about elbow?). I don't really mind the assignment. I suppose it is asking the students to think poetically, which is how you would have to think to oppose the sky to the earth and then extrapolate to astronomer/geologist. At the same time though we might say that astronomers and geologists have much more in common than astronomers and dancers. In the end the antonym business is a playful correlationist exercise, particularly when it comes to objects; it really depends on the individual's perceptions and valuations. 

After all, what is the opposite of toaster?  Apparently the answer is "materialism." Alex Galloway makes this point quite clearly in his recent piece on "The Poverty of Philosophy:"

There are two basic options when it comes to the task of the political.
One is an aligned politics and the other an unaligned politics. An aligned
politics is a politics tethered to a moral yardstick and equipped with an
ethical mechanic able to pursue it. The moral sphere refers to a law or goal
that must be attained, while the ethical sphere refers to a set of practices
governing action that, when observed and put into play, may tend toward
certain ends (moral or not). One may inhabit an ethos, therefore, without
having a morality; likewise one may be linked to a morality, but fail in
ethical practice. Thus, an aligned politics is the name given when the vectors of ethical action aim directly at a specific moral outcome. By contrast,
an unaligned politics is the name given to those projects unencumbered by
the moral law. Guided solely by the force vectors of the ethical sphere,
unaligned political projects may still gain formidable inertia, territorializing and deterritorializing entire domains. Unaligned, they exist as mercenaries, often jumping the gap between friend and enemy. If Badiou’s
project is the quintessential aligned political project, his moral truths scaffolded by a precise ethical mechanic, then Deleuze’s is the quintessential
unaligned political project, an absent moral superstructure overshadowed
by a massive vector field of physical forces. 

Realism is an unaligned politics. The issue thus is not that realism is
good or bad but that realism is dangerous. In its very unalignment, realism
ultimately lacks a true relationship with the absolute because it abdicates
the political decision. 

I believe I agree with Galloway's analysis here, though not his ultimate conclusion. I even agree with the notion that "realism is dangerous." On the flipside, who would deny that "aligned politics" are also dangerous? Colonialism, fascism, racism, sexism, capitalism, totalitarianism: would these not all be aligned politics? Galloway's preferred aligned politics is materialism, which he defines as "an aligned politics because it identifies
something like an absolute moral sphere (history, the social totality), and
buttresses such an absolute with the necessary tactics governing practice (demystification of the commodity, ideology critique, the dialectic, and so on).
What does materialism ultimately espouse? That everything should be
rooted in material life and history, not in abstraction, logical necessity,
universality, essence, pure form, spirit, or idea." In the realm of aligned politics, everything is dangerous and immoral except for what one happens to believe. Personally I find Galloway's description of materialism as both accurate and contradictory. How can "everything be rooted in material life and history, not in abstraction" and simultaneously identify "an absolute moral sphere"? Isn't an absolute moral sphere already an abstraction? Furthermore, this is an argument grounded in antonyms, which are necessarily abstractions, like aligned and unaligned politics.

From a realist-ontological perspective, what does one want to say about moral spheres? Presumably that they are rooted in material life and history, though maybe not in those words. At least from my perspective, a law or a goal is a thing that exists. All that a realist ontology argues is that there is no particular moral law or goal that is ontologically essential. E.g., it is not necessary for the world to be just or end up in justice or even move toward greater justice. If justice is a historical and material thing, then it can change over time. It is possible that the concept may cease to exist, just as it is certain there was a time when it did not exist. To deny this would be to claim that justice is an essential and universal idea. Clearly one can make that claim, but not as a materialist. My understanding of the way a politically aligned materialist position works is that one believes one knows how the world should work. What is the basis for this belief? At the foundation I think one must belief in the material existence of antonyms. 

Contrary to Galloway's argument, it would seem fairly obvious that the most dangerous and destructive human actions have not come from politically unaligned positions but rather from those who believed that reality must conform to their political views. When one looks at how Christianity becomes Crusades and Inquistion or Marxism becomes Stalinism, how can one possibly believe that aligned political positions are not likely to exist as mercernaries or jump the gap between friend and enemy? A realist ontology does not accept that antonyms like friend and enemy exist in some absolute sense among real objects. Perhaps a realist ontology makes it more difficult to make the judgments that make political belief comfortable. If you want to argue that a realist ontology provides no grounds in itself for opposing genocide, I think you could make that argument. By the same token it provides no grounds for genocide, which is where politically aligned positions almost inevitably tend to go.


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