Bruno Latour’s Foreword to Thinking with Whitehead

Latour is one of our most prolific philosophers of science & and obvious choice to write a foreword to Stengers’ book. Stengers is, after all, trying to clear a space for thinking that falls outside the heavily guarded walls of science. Latour has been criticized by working scientists for attempting a similar undertaking in his many books.

Latour begins by placing Whitehead ahead of Wittgenstein among 20th century philosophers, an assertion that will certainly get a rise out of the vast army of Anglo-American intellectuals who have made Wittgenstein a touchstone, if not a cornerstone, of their thinking. Here at the beginning of this adventure, I remain unconvinced.

Latour notes that Whitehead has been relegated to a kind of back corner of the classroom because he has “indulged in metaphysics” and pursued a speculative mode of thinking, practices supposedly ruled out by the analytical philosophy that has so dominated 20th century thinking–at least among the small number of people who pay attention to such things. Latour focuses on the way in which science, in order to assure its objectivity has ruled out values as illusions, as part of something “secondary” to the primary work science has set for itself. Stengers is not trying, so far as I can see, to diminish the work scientists actually do, but to clear space for “illusions.” Stengers go to some pains in her introduction to not reignite the science wars & to not diminish the work of science, which she values as simply another kind of adventure, while at the same time insisting on the reality of things that science rules out.

Noted later: Doesn’t my talk in the first paragraphs above of inside & outside, of ahead & behind, immediately plunge us into the kind of dualism(s) Stengers is trying to very hard to avoid–dualism(s) very deeply embedded in our language & thought?

Along came a spider and sat down beside her . . .

Medicine Buddha

It would be a comfort to believe that chanting the dharini of the Medicine Buddha Bhaisajyaguru could cure cancer. Seeking comfort, people sometimes cultivate such a belief.  To the extent that people gain comfort from such a belief & the practices flowing from it, I have nothing critical to say.  Sick people will find relief if it’s available. Call in mind-over-matter, or the placebo effect, it seems clear that comfort & relief. They will also look for it even if it is not available & this slips over into a distortion of reality, delusion. (“They?” I know this person–it is me.) That’s something we Buddhists like to avoid when we can. No doubt it easier to to maintain healthy, non-delusional belief within the context of a culture-wide belief system. Such cultural systems are disappearing from the world–and have been doing so for at least a couple of centuries–under the pressures of modernity.

The scholar & teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman does what is most difficult for a Western Buddhist: He adopts the traditional Tibetan worldview that Western Science is wrong in its most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality. As far as I can tell from reading & listening to a number of Thurman’s lectures, he is completely sincere in this. He can say, for example, that the fundamental underlying force in the universe is bliss [nirvana] & that it was the Buddha who discovered it. Thurman follows this with the idea that the Buddha’s discovery constituted the founding of a “buddhist science.” Thurman follows this up with what I take to be a metaphysical or spiritual insight I find valuable. Referring to the Four Noble Truths, Thurman remarks that the big deal here is not the first truth, that our world is characterized by suffering, but the third, that there is relief from suffering. “Any fool can invent suffering,” he says–“it takes real genius to see that there is a solution, nirvana.” Like many other religious modernisers, Thurman wants to find a justification in science for his belief in “buddhist science.” I don’t really get this. I remember seeing the same phenomenon when my parents used to drag me to the Grace Brethren church in San Jose. A lot of those men were engineers & I used to think that was why they tried so hard to find ways to align their faith with science; unfortunately, this almost always meant distorting or misunderstanding science.

Thurman is such a fine & energetic explicator of Buddhism I wish I could join him, but I can’t. There is a kind of old-fashioned film called, Travel with Robert Thurman to Bhutan, in which a group of students does exactly that. Along the way he delivers a couple of dharma talks that are pitch-perfect & offer genuine insight into liberation; the film ends, however, with Thurman lecturing Bhutanese education officials on the need to oppose modernization. The logic of this, flowing from his initial assumptions, is flawless. As practical politics it leaves a good deal to be desired.

And yet, imagine a post-apocalyptic planet in which some small pocket have kept “buddhist science” alive & imagine that over centuries a new world culture emerging based on the idea of relief from suffering. Well, I never liked that John Lennon song anyway. For one thing, it’s not “easy if you try.”

Nevertheless, I love the idea of a medicine buddha & the images are striking. Bhaisajyaguru is almost always portrayed with deeply blue skin, much darker than the Hindu god Krishna, for example. In both traditions, a distinction is made between light blue, associated with turquoise, and dark blue, associated with lapis lazuli. One could get lost in the tangles of Indian color symbolism & never emerge from the tangles, but it seems safe to say that early Indian culture, both Vedic & (later) Buddhist, associated light blue / turquoise with the sublime & infinite. Just spend some time staring at the sky. So here I am out on the cutting edges of modernity, yet trying to find some use for these images from a traditional culture that retain something powerful for me. Perhaps I can only read & understand them in symbolic & aesthetic ways. But is that a diminishment? Isn’t that how the peasants have always understood such images?

There is No Science of Consciousness; Or, Talking Animals

What follows is either a piece of grammatical / ontological speculation, or a shaggy dog story1–probably the latter. I was reading this report of a conference on the nature of consciousness in the NY Times when it occurred to me that there can be no “science of consciousness” because science is a product of consciousness. We can & do have consciousness of science, because science is a product of consciousness–an aspect–not the other way around. Maybe it’s just a trick of grammar & cannot be generalized, but it’s a trick that reveals something important. One does not say “the science of earth” for Geology (though we might well say Earth Science, which is itself revealing); nor does one say “the science of animals” for Zoology. Should one consider nouns like geology & zoology as highly compressed forms of apposition? If so, what does that imply? And why has no one yet proposed Consciousology as a name for this new science?

Show 1 footnote

  1. Scouting around for a brief definition of the phrase shaggy dog story, I found Wikipedia straightforward but appreciated the compact irony of the Urban Dictionary: “A joke, usually long, with a silly premise, often involving talking animals.”

Written on the Body?

For radiation therapy, the nurse & technician drew little targets with a pen on my abdomen & hip, then used those diagrams to write inside my body with radiation. The metaphor of writing (or, since Derrida, of inscribing) for these professional, routine physical actions feels in retrospect vitiated as well as pompous. Oh, he’s a professor—he can’t write about his treatment in plain terms. It’s not writing, then, though done with accuracy & precision. Both the pen strokes & the focusing & calibration of the photon beam.

The marker with which they drew the target left broad lines & was not cold to the touch during application. The mark, going on, felt slightly oily, not like an ordinary alcohol-based marker. Unlike the MRI, I felt nothing during the treatments themselves. (In the MRI I could actually feel warmth generated in my tissues as the magnets worked. The x-ray photons passed right through me–might as well have been neutrinos for all I could feel. But they had a noticeable effect on the tumor in the bone, shrinking it (I’m told) & thus relieving pressure & pain. My left hip is quite stiff but the back pain, especially while bending, has been reduced by ninety percent.


And here is a picture of the back pain itself. I drew it while lying on my back at night with the lights out, not looking at the pen or the paper, a day or two before the radiation treatments began. Tonight, perhaps, I’ll see if I can draw a picture of how that same area of my back feels now.


Pain drawing
Spine & Shoulder

I’ve been doing a lot of drawing, much of it abstract, but also trying to get down the branchings of the trees I see while lying in bed & looking out the window. And just now I’m feeling my way toward the fundamental difference / similarity between drawing & writing. What I’m doing now, using a keyboard, is very obviously writing, but when I scrawl a note using a pencil (whether a line of poetry or a note when the pharmacist calls about how to take a new drug) that feels a little bit like drawing. And then of course there is drawing: I look out the window & try to capture the curve of a branch. What, then, of a drawing like the one above? Done without looking but trying to catch the phenomenon of a specific pain? And what was the nurse doing in making marks on which to line up a beam of high-energy photons? Her marks contained very precise information. Were they writing or drawing?

Finally, though we are far beyond the “picture theory” of language, even this writing done on a keyboard is a kind of drawing. I want you to see what I can barely see myself–for us to picture things together, with picture being a highly transitive & collaborative verb.

The Time of Quarantine by Katharine Haake

Just finished reading Katharine Haake’s formallyadventurous post-industrial dystopian nightmare, The Time of Quarantine. It’s a genre I’m attracted to, both as reader & teacher — I’ve taught Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and Butler’s Parable of the Sower many times, finding them particularly effective with my first year students at Clarkson. I bought Haake’s book with these ideas in mind, but was quickly disabused of the notion that I could use this book with first-year students: the language & especially the shifting point of view & non-sequential presentation of events would throw them for a loop. It takes training to read this sort of fiction!

Imagine a novel set entirely inside Second Life. All of the characters are avatars, in the sense we now use the word, of actual people who also populate the novel, though the avatars are more “real” than the human beings they represent. That’s how The Time of Quarantine feels & it has interesting & troubling consequences that affect narrative technique & what I suppose I’d have to call fictional ontology. I found it difficult to track the shifts between flesh & blood & avatars, which I think is the point: in the world of the novel the cyberworld has begun to engulf the physical world. Under such circumstances, human agency beaks down & the characters behave like half-conscious puppets.

There are four central characters, Peter, Lyda, Helen, & Will. All but Will (get it?) have implants in their brains that connect them into the network, though how the internet is stiff functioning at a time when virtually all the rest of the world & its institutions have have gone kerflooey stretches plausibility. Peter is the puppetmaster. Removed by his neurologist father to an Intentional Community (IC) during the time of quarantine, he watches everyone in his small community die off of aplaguehe has himself brought in from the outside. After that, he is “raised by computers” that have beenprogrammedby his father to entertain & deceive him. Not sure why. And that’s the big problem here: it is very difficult to track any of the characters’ motives for doing what they do, to the extent that they act on their own at all, for it is Peter,ultimately, from his defunct quarantine community, who goes out onto the net, finds, Lyda, Helen & Will & draws them to himself. They will start over. It’s not exactly Eden, but that’s where the story ends. Peter insists that they must remain in this eden of his making of their own free will, but how can that be, since he has lured them there & made it impossible for them to leave. Peter’s solipsism is quitemonstrous.

The tone of these comments belies a good deal of exasperation, I know. Haake often writes beautifully, but so much of this story is spent inside the characters’ heads — actual events almost always being remembered or dreamed — that the narrative develops virtually no forward momentum. I’m not demanding a page-turner; I can appreciate modernist fiction; but the gravitational force of interiority ultimately causes this fiction to collapse in upon itself.