In Depth

Special Lecture
Lawrence Grossberg
Lost in a Lost World:
On the Dangers of Ontological Certainty

Public Lecture organized by the Graduate School of Global Arts
at the Tokyo University of the Arts

(Granted by Agency of Cultural Affairs, Japan. Part of the &G Art Projects in the Age of Globalization)

July 1, 2016
Venue: Tokyo University of the Arts, Ueno Campus, Lecture Room 5-109

The Department of Arts Studies and Curatorial Practices at the Graduate School of Global Arts of the Tokyo University of the Arts was pleased to invite Professor Lawrence Grossberg of the University of North Carolina as our special guest lecturer this summer. Unfortunately, his visit to Japan was cancelled just before his departure due to his health concerns, but he sent us a video lecture of approximately 45 minutes and we screened it in public. Here we uploaded the recordings of the lecture.

And the whole English transcript follows:

Special Lecture: Lawrence Grossberg
> Click on the image to play the movie.


Welcome to my office in my home.
Let me begin by thanking sincerely Mouri-san [Professor of the Tokyo University of the Arts Graduate School of Global Arts] for trying very hard to get me to Tokyo and for inviting me. And also, forgive me if I mispronounce her name, Eri Kawade [Research Associate of the Tokyo University of the Arts Graduate School of Global Arts] and also my student, Keiko Nishimura, for all the efforts on my behalf.
I am sincerely sorry that I cannot be there with you today, but it is not a choice that was left up to me. So I hope this will work. I often talk to myself, but I don’t often talk to myself pretending that I am talking to the audience. So forgive me if I fail occasionally since I can’t see any faces or responses. I’ll begin.

I want to tell you a story, which, like any story, is about constructing the present and the past in a way that makes visible where we are, how we got here and hopefully how we might get somewhere better. It is a story about what Hannah Arendt might have called “the dark times of the 21st century”.
And it certainly feels like, at least, in that part of the world, that I can see and feel, the world is going to hell in a hand basket.
Now it is easy to slide into feeling like these are the worst of times, and maybe, even if you want to be more complex about it, these are the also best of times in some ways.
But I think we must constantly remind ourselves that we are not the only generation living in uniquely troubling times and places, now we are not the only generations that feel like we are facing impossible challenges and impossible forces arrayed against us.

Anyway, my story begins, since it must begin somewhere, with the so-called European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. That Enlightenment, embodying modes of thinking, feeling, living, socializing etc., is, at least, a key pivot point in the West, and the beginning and foundation for what we might call “Euro-modernity”, or I would prefer to call “Euro-modernities”.
And the contradictions that define its centuries-long histories are histories that are full of contradictions that might be figured, on one hand, in Raymond Williams’ notion of the “Long Revolution” toward greater democracy, greater literacy, greater economic prosperity, greater social justice etc., and on the other hand, figured by Walter Benjamin’s observation that there is no document of civilization, which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

Let me say a few words about “the Enlightenment” as a complex set of definitions and relations amongst a set of philosophical commitments, for example, rationalism, humanism, anthropocentrism, subjectivism, individualism, belief in freedom and agency, along with a complex set of philosophical logics including dualism, transcendence, negation and universalism and finally a set of political transformations and norms usually captured under signs like liberalism, democracy, capitalism, notions of private property, the nation state, etc..
Often an invisible, and for much of Western discourse of the 19th century, the unsayable consequences of these Enlightenment commitments included colonialism, imperialism, racism, gender and sexual regulations, enormous poverty and the legitimated violence that often attended these various organizations and expressions of power. These are what Walter Benjamin might have meant by “barbarisms”.
The question is whether the Enlightenment offered any terms with which to confront its own dark side, to consider how the contradictions, deep in the heart of the Enlightenment thinking, defined its political and social limits, its hypocrisies and failures. As the great American black poet Audre Lorde put it in the middle of the 20th century, the question is “Can one use the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house?”

In the 19th century, some Western theorists, such as Karl Marx, tried by introducing the notion of critique into Enlightenment philosophy, one might also point to Darwin and Freud here. Critique in Marx’s sense is not to be read in terms of logical truth and falsity, appearance and reality, but as the necessary misrepresentation of reality in social discourse. Necessary, because, in fact, discursive descriptions are always partial and inadequate to the complexities of the totality, so that the problem comes when a partial description, for example, a description of the market as a form of distribution and exchange, substitutes itself for a description of the totality, and misrepresentation occurs because that partiality must try to naturalize itself in specific contextual forms. It must take what is given to be the final result, so, for example, in Adam Smith and the classical political economists, according to Marx’s critique, what is given is the market and the market becomes the universal totality of not only economic life.

But the contradictions at the heart of the Enlightenment between the “Long Revolution” and “barbarism” become a driving animated force particularly in the 20th century, as the contradictions become increasingly unavoidable.

Different critics, historians, analysts have argued when this might have begun. One might begin it with the First World War and the increasing rationalization of mass killing through aerial bombing that was introduced. One might begin it with the communist revolution of 1917, with the great depression of 1929, with the Second World War and the subsequent discovery of the Holocaust and genocide that took place, not only against Jews but against other populations both in the West and the East, or of course with the deployment of the atom bomb.

But, also with moments of, if you will, of optimism and anti-colonial struggles that took place in the first half of the twentieth century and in the anti-racist struggles and in the anti-war struggles and in the growth of feminism and other forms of challenge to the existing structures of Enlightenment and “Euro-modern” power. One can see these efforts to chart and to think thorough and beyond the Enlightenment thought in the Frankfurt School and in pragmatism, both of which, I guess, offered trenchant criticisms of the notion of reason, as it existed in the Enlightenment and “Euro-modern” thinking. One can see it in a popularization of psychoanalysis and existentialism in the mid-20th century. One can see it in the early work of Martin Heidegger and his critiques of humanism, representation and epistemology, his refusal to throw ontology out of the realm of philosophy and critical thought.

ut, it is really after the Second World War that things get really interesting. One might start here, or at least I would, with the later Heidegger’s anti-universalist efforts to create what one might call a “historical or epochal ontology”, a philosophy that influenced and shaped Derrida’s subsequent development of deconstructive philosophy, philosophy that dooms itself to failure, and as we shall see it later, Foucault’s historical genealogies.

But, for the purpose of what I want to talk about today, I want to talk about a radical critique of the Enlightenment that developed after the Second World War, built on a recovery of, or construction, perhaps, of a new “minor” history of philosophy in the West, in Europe, that was argued to have been somehow marginalized, which included figures such as Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson and others.
The most famous 20th century philosopher in this attempt was the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze who argued for a return to what he called ontology. Now there are three dimensions I want to mention to this return to ontology against the Enlightenment.

First, it had a particular view of the Enlightenment, it assumed that each of the elements that comprise the Enlightenment, each of the philosophical commitments, each of the forms of logic and each of the political formations was necessary and each had invariant guaranteed content.
It assumed that various elements were necessarily related in fixed ways, in some kind of relation of entailment, if not equivalence, so that rationalism entailed freedom, entailed the commitment to subjectivism, entailed the commitment to individualism, etc., etc.. Hence, it assumed that the Enlightenment was a singular, stable and unchanging event, which then moved for centuries defining the West. It is, in fact, what is often referred to, as a quote, “the Western Tradition”. And, because it held such a view, it saw the need to find, if you will, a key to this singular totality, the Enlightenment.

And it found that key in the philosophy of Kant; now Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century has been read in many different ways. Most commonly he has been read as having reconciled empiricism and rationalism in what he called his “Copernican Revolution”, in which he argued that human beings are capable of experiencing and understanding the world only in so far as they have made it.

As a result, what followed from this is, first, a distinction in Kantian philosophy between the “phenomena”, the world as human beings construct it and experience it and are capable of knowing it, and what Kant called the “noumena”, reality in and of itself, outside of human experience. But obviously, Kant expelled the noumena, ontology, metaphysics, from the realms of science and philosophy and argued that, in a sense, epistemology, the question of knowledge and phenomenology, the question of experience, were the only possible sources of knowledge in philosophy.

Secondly, the consequence of Kant’s Copernican Revolution was to assume that humanity, which Kant understood, on one hand, on a model of European white, “middle class,” educated, male could serve, on the other hand, as a universal transcendental subject, defining humanity as the engineer or architect of phenomenal world.

This dualism between phenomenon and noumenon, between the human world and the world-in-itself is reproduced inside Kantian philosophy and the philosophies of those who followed him. Inside the phenomenal world, it takes the form of the dualism between culture, the human world, and nature, the world outside of the humanity. But now this is “nature” inside the world of human experiences. This is nature always and already constructed by humanity. So there is a kind of double dualism.

Whatever the problem this philosophy gives rise to, and I will talk about them, it is also a major revolution in Western philosophy because one might argue that with this philosophy, Kant introduces the notion of relationality. Kant introduces the notion that the world is always relational; in particular, Kant offers a theory of relations as mediation by which the constructs of an ultimately transcendental subject (still understood as if it were the dominant European subject) mediate reality-in-itself to construct the world of human experience.

But it is also an important to see that Kant attempted to reconcile another classic dualism– between determination and freedom; or to put it in contemporary terms, Kant raises the question of the relation of structure (as determination) to agency (as freedom).

For Kant, structural determination is the result of the subject as a reason, in which, now of course, the determination is self-determination because it is humanity creating its own structure. And, on the other hand, agency seems to be the result of the subject as will rather than as reason. This is the second critique where the subject is defined as a free and active self through legislation; that is, the subject legislates its own laws and therefore it’s free. I might add parenthetically that, in the end, Kant did not actually succeed in reconciling these two without adding a third term, a term that troubled his entire philosophy, which is imagination.

One might now argue that the turn to ontology, especially in European French and Italian thought after the Second World War, particularly rejects the first Kantian dichotomy, the dichotomy between phenomenon and noumenon, largely by re-thinking the second Kantian dichotomy, the relationship and difference between structure and agency, between determination and freedom.

Now there is the second dimension of this turn to ontology, and again, we can start with Kant. For yet, another way of reading Kant is to suggest that Kant was asking what reality must be like if one assumes that Newtonian physics was right, which is fine except that, of course, since the second half of the 19th century, physics has largely been an argument that we do not live in Newtonian universe, a universe that is stable and predictable according to law-like calculations.

Starting with the discoveries of the laws of thermodynamics, which redefined the relation of matter and energy and therefore the nature of the material world, science increasingly saw the universe not in terms of a stable structure but of entropic chaos, that is, the world is losing its structure. And continuing through in the late 19th and the early 20th century, the discoveries of relativity and quantum theory, and as the century goes on, cybernetics and information theory, it is the case that we live in a very different universe than Newton had postulated. And one might argue that contemporary ontologies have attempted to ask what must the universe be like in philosophical terms if these new physics are true. Parenthetically, one might well ask what happens to these new ontologies if and when one discovers the stochastic or probabilistic universe that now we assume we live in, however strange it may be, is proven to be wrong, as Newton has been proven to be wrong.

Anyway, what has emerged are a whole series of philosophical ontologies, the most influential one is, as I said, that of Deleuze. Deleuze sees the universe made up of, if you will, quanta of energy or force, “lines of becoming” he calls them, intensities, defined not by their differences from one another, not defined by negation, but each term defined positively as the capacity each quantum of energy has to affect change in another quantum, and to be in turn affected by the capacities of those quanta.
That is, the universe is defined by, if you will, elements that exist only as the possible production of change. And thus change, or what Deleuze calls “becoming”, is more fundamental than structure or stability. This is what Deleuze describes as a “monism of multiplicities” and as philosophy of immanence, as opposed to a transcendence in which something is greater than and supersedes all other things, be it God or the Law or the Subject or whatever. It is immanent, because, in Deleuzian philosophy, everything that exists, ultimately exists in just the same way, that is, as quantum of change or becoming, forces, lines of change.

The universe, then, the universe of possible or more accurately, virtual affects and changes, is made actual through the production of relations that activate, actualize or enable specific capacities of specific quanta, by putting in relation specific lines of becoming or specific elements. You can think of this in terms of quantum physics if you will, as an almost literal metaphor; when different quanta meet, they have different affects and different relations amongst different quantum particles, and produce greater totalities and greater affects.

And in these relations that produce particular affects through enabling particular capacities for a change, then, they can begin to produce more and more complex and larger organizations or structures which come to define particular actualities, particularly universe. That is the Deleuzian world. It is a universe in which an agency, the power to produce reality and to change it does not belong particularly to humans, but is the result of what Deleuze calls “machines,” in order to get away from the humanism of Kant and the Enlightenment.

And the “machines” are only defined by the kinds of relationships they produce. A coding machine produces particular kinds of codes, or a territorializing machine produces particular distributions of the quanta, an abstract machine captures and selects a group of quanta out of the virtual totality and puts them in a relation of content and expression. These machines exist, but for every machine the opposite exists, so every coding machine has a de-coding machine, and both the coding and de-coding machines, and both the territorializing and de-territorializing machines, the capturing and de-capturing machines, all of them succeed and fail, to different degrees, at different times and places.

Now, I actually like this philosophy and for those of you who may have an unfortunate experience of having had to read some of my writings, you would know that I have tried, over the series of almost forty years now, to engage with the Deleuzian philosophy and to integrate it and to use it in formulating my own version of cultural studies.

So, my argument is not with the philosophy; what I want to talk to you today is about the ways in which these ontological philosophies, in particular Deleuzian philosophy, has been taken up in the human sciences, has given rise to what is called, in the US academy, “an ontological turn”.
And I want to make some brief critical observations, of places where, I think, this ontological turn leads to problems, if not dead-ends.
I want to start with what is, for me, its most troubling consequence, which is the common association of this ontological turn with the dismissal of the possibility of value and politics of what is generally called critique or critical thinking, in which I locate not only Marx but also Cultural Studies, where critique is assumed increasingly by those within the ontological turn, to be paranoid elitist, complicit with power. It is a part of the old guard that has to be thrown out in favor of the new. So, that answer to Audre Lorde’s question is immediately and absolutely “No”. The master’s tools cannot be used.

Let me just give you a brief and quick example, of this one very influential and notorious article by the French sociologist and historian of science turned-philosopher, Bruno Latour, and his essay called “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”. He describes critique as, I quote, “critical barbarity“ and he says it is “predicated on the discovery of a true world of realities lying behind a veil of appearances”. It “lifts the rugs from under the feet of naive believers” and so it is about de-bunking, de-fetishizing, de-constructing the ordinary, everyday assumptions with which people approach reality, their lives and lived power.

His examples, however, are generally quite extreme—mostly of conspiracies; so, for example, he cites Jean Baudrillard’s claim that the attacks of 9.11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon never happened, or at least, that they were the result of the US’- Israeli conspiracy. To my mind, that’s not a very good argument; most of us probably do not embrace such conspiracy theories, but then he goes on to ask, “what’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is, teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu.”
So, I gather, critique has run out of steam because there’s too many conspiracy theorists and too many bad social critics who don’t know how to read Pierre Bourdieu. But what about Pierre Bourdieu? What about all those social critics who do know how to read Pierre Bourdieu? But, Latour dismisses them by saying that 90 percent of the work in critical human sciences is composed of such bad paranoid readings.

Now, the second example is the work of Timothy Morton, who is not a Deleuzian but what is called an “Object Oriented Ontologist”—who argues that, in fact, this critical attitude, and I quote now, “is directly responsible for the ecological emergence, not the corporation or the individual per se, but the attitude that inheres both in the corporation and in the individual, and in the critiques of corporations and the individuals.” So apparently those of us who practice that kind of critique are responsible for the environmental crisis that we face.

And one final example is the recently celebrated work of Jasbir K. Puar in Terrorist Assemblages, where she argues that the temporality of scholarly work is itself complicitous with modern power. She says, and I quote, ”How then do we reassess the valuation of scholarly production, emergent from apparent notions of stability, longevity, depth? Such a rethinking of the assumed shapes and temporalities of the labour of thinking and writing, contributes to a broader global vision that does not erase profoundly uneven materialities of production” in the world. So, apparently, because those of us who believe in critical work believe it has to be done carefully, rigorously, and to some extents slowly, we are unable to challenge the inequalities of the world.

Now, the second point I want to raise about these ontologies is to raise some questions for thought, if you will. Points of inconsistency. I don’t have time to dwell on them, I’m trying to write them up myself, and perhaps it will be the last book I will write. For while the new ontologies, the ontological turn, often based in Deleuze, rejects the binary logic of Kant, noumena /phenomena, culture/nature, etc., it is actually quite selective in how it does it. And as a result, it is consistently setting up its own dualisms.
In fact, the ontological turn looks a lot like a kind of postmodern logic of good and bad concepts, of the old and the new, of old history and new history. Just to use one very philosophical example, it starts with the distinction between transcendence, which it sees in Enlightenment philosophy and Western rational thinking, and immanence. But it does not avoid the binary of transcendence and immanence. Instead, it says immanence is more ontologically fundamental, and transcendence then becomes an active power, over and against immanence that has to be resisted. The alternative would be to reject the very binary distinction and to suggest that the kind of relationships suggested or described, or diagrammed in notions of both of immanence and transcendence, have to be seen as multiplicities. On the one hand, there is an absolute choice between the two, and on the other, there is a multiplicity or variety of ways of being between these extremes, of what we might call transversality, a variety of ways in which various concepts, various realities, various practices may relate to one another.

The aim of avoiding the couplet of transcendence and immanence in Deleuze is to offer a “naturalist philosophy,” which says, following the pragmatists and/or Spinoza, if you will, that whatever is experienced to exist, does exist—where experience it is not subjective or even necessarily human—no more or no less; that is, there is a form of reduction to be avoided which denies the reality of some events, even though they are experienced, and there is another form of reduction, also to be avoided, which asserts the existence of some things that are not and cannot be experienced, such as the transcendental subject. But in fact, I want to suggest that the ontological turn makes the opposite—the first—mistake by suggesting there is less in the world than what exists and is experienced. So that we end up with a kind of reductionism that denies the reality of some events except as assertions of power over and against the fundamental nature of reality. Why this should make them less real is unclear.

Similarly, what starts off as a critique of Enlightenment universalism ends up with a new ontological universalism. What’s start off as a reasonable critique against the claim that discourse is always representation, ends up rejecting the very possibility of representation as anything other than an expression of power, although one might want to ask what their own work is doing, if not representing the world. What’s start off by rejecting critique often ends up offering its own critical diagnoses of what’s going on, but now based on a leap from an abstract concept to socio-historical realities, so that one might well want to ask, for example, of Latour, why the discovery of the Actor Network Theory, that everything that exists exists as actor networks, as it were below the awareness of people’s conscious experience of reality, is any less a critique than the things he dismisses.
But this ontological work in the human sciences moves often from philosophical concepts like pre-emption or incipience or imminence to statements that claim to be describing sociological, historical realities, in which the very complexity, the very structures of relationalities and mediations, that link the abstract concept to the concrete realities is lost. What starts off as an attempt to extend the boundaries of agencies beyond the human, ends up often abandoning the specific forms of agencies of the human.

And this leads me to one final dimension to the emergence of ontology and the ontological turn. In one sense, all of them, as I have suggested, are asking Audre Lorde’s question. But I want to suggest that the fact that a generation of European intellectuals and philosophers turned this question of political strategy into a philosophical and even an ontological question, was shaped and even determined by a very particular context.
This context is described brilliantly and beautifully, I think by the French philosopher Michel Serres, who was born in 1930 and is part of the generation that includes Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan etc., etc., people born in the years between the First and the Second World Wars in Europe. Serres writes, “My generation lived through these early years very painfully. The preceding generation was twenty years old at the beginning of the events and, as adults, lived them in an active way, becoming involved in them. My generation could only follow them in the passivity of powerlessness—as child, adolescent—in any case, weak, and without any possibility of action. Violence, death, blood and tears, hunger, bombings, deportations, affected my age group and traumatized it, since these horrors took place during the time of our formation—physical and emotional. My youth goes from Guernica, [in parenthesis he says, “I cannot bear looking at Picasso’s famous painting.” By the way, it’s one of my (LG’s) all-time favorite paintings.] To continue,” My youth goes from Guernica to Nagasaki by way of Auschwitz. …My generation was formed, physically, in this atrocious environment, and ever since has kept its distance from politics. For us power still means only cadavers and torture.”

I want, then, to suggest that, in some way, the ontological turn is as much an expression of the disappearance or death of politics as it has been understood from Socrates to European Modernities. It is an expression of what the fascist, German philosopher Carl Schmitt called the absence of the “nomos” of the earth after World War II, which we are witnessing increasingly day by day in the United States, and recently in England, in the dissolution of a century-long demarcation separating what we colloquially call the right and the left, Conservatism and Progressivism. And the increasing, if you will, de-politicization of generations. What we are left with is a series, partly derived from the new ontological turn, of what I would describe as ethical figures.

I don’t mean to deride the importance of ethics. Ethics is absolutely necessary for politics, but it is not equivalent to politics. What one finds in new ontological work in the human sciences are politics built on images of creativity, multiplicity, de-territorialization, becoming, the pluriverse, images of creativity, experimentation, autopoiesis or self-production, images of love, making, composition and helping to increase capacities, images of radical democracy, prefiguration and insurgency. It seems to me these are all ways of avoiding politics, in the desire for a philosophy that is immediately and necessarily political, a philosophical politics defined precisely as pure speculation, without any link, without any necessary responsibility to the concrete empirical world of power.

In its place, in conclusion, I want to return to the Enlightenment, and to see it not as a singular fixed totality but an open, changing and contested field of possibilities. To see that the terms, concepts, logics and politics, often seen in the Enlightenment, can be extricated from one set of relations and put into another, so that the terms may vary, their meanings may vary, and the relations amongst them may vary. So, there is not one, but many actual and possible enlightenments, and hence, many, actual and possible modernities.
And thus, I want to return to the possibilities of critique, not as a search for the right theory, but as a changing, complex set of practices and concepts aimed at a better understanding of what’s going on, in order to find ways to make the world better. It is what Eve Sedgwick called ”the accountability of the real”. It is what Michel Foucault, re-reading Kant’s essay, “What is Enlightenment?” in his own essay of the same title, extracts from the Enlightenment to defend; as he says, “the question of today” is “what is our actuality… what is the present reality, what is happening today,” because only then can we ask about “the field of possible experience,” only then can we know the “mode of action” capable of transforming the present. And he continues, this “implies a sense of historical inquiry that [is] as precise as possible—not a gesture of rejection…we need to separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking as we do.” And, this, for me, is the project of Cultural Studies as critique.

How do you think otherwise without giving up the recognition of the need to understand reality in all its complexity—material, organic, social, phenomenological, affective, cognitive, etc.—in all its complexity, as that which grounds, both limits and enables, the possibilities of living otherwise? How do you give new meaning and vitality to Marx’s notion that people make history but not in conditions of their own making, but also by recognizing that they make history never by themselves, always in relations to the multiple operations and levels of existence, including material and organic existence? How do you recognize that other worlds are possible but that to get to them, we need to understand how one is grounded materially, socially, technologically, historically, geographically, organically in the current world that we are living in?

Thank you very much. I wish I were there with you. That’s all.