How would you rate the Proctontologist?

Yesterday, in a comment on the Lee Drummond forever thread, I posted the following quote from

“Ontologicality is a proctology, but only if you allow for the proctological to speak its ontologicality. Ontology is just a set of assumptions postulated by the anthropologist for analytical purposes. Indeed, it is well worth pointing out that such an exercise in conceptual creativity needn’t be territorialized with reference to any geographical coordinates whatsoever; it need not refer to anything... Geographical or, dare I say it, cultural distance is not a necessary condition for alterity. Formally, all you need to set the game of alterity up is a set of initial assumptions and some body of material that appears to contradict it.”

Most of this is a direct quote. But where ontologicality and the proctological meet is not at the sphincter – that would mean depth, darkness, stench – but at the level of buttocks – sameness separated by difference of the line, of the butt-crack. Of course, ontologicality circles around the sphincter but is never able to properly penetrate it.

On Savage Minds, this same quote has led to debate on whether the proctontologist should be considered a troll. I share with you my response:

Personally, I wouldn’t call the proctontologist a troll. He’s a much rarer beast, a satirist. Vulgar? Sure. But have you ever read Jonathan Swift? Or seen any number of currently popular standup comics who appear to draw inspiration from Lenny Bruce?

The imagery is inspired in its precision. The contrast between the deep dark stench of the sphincter, the orifice through which knowledge of what is going on beneath the surface is found (Freud), and the pale buttocks separated by a line (Deleuze), with the ontologists rimming the surface (arguing in circles) is, while nasty, filled with contrasts ripe for Lévi-Straussian analysis. Nothing could be further from the trolls’ dull repetition of angry claims without the least shred of wit.

That said, allow me to surprise you. I find this whole ontology business fascinating. A chance encounter on OAC brought me to Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks, which is a clear and readable explication of Latour’s work up to 1999. Then someone pointed me to the book I am reading now, Isabelle Stenger’s Thinking with Whitehead. When you realize that where all this is coming from is a search for alternatives to scientific materialism and the bifurcation of the world into physical Reality and mental Other Epiphenomenal Stuff and create a worldview that sees both photons and the beauty of the sunset, both demography and mythology, as equally real, with neither reducible to the other, it all gets very interesting, indeed.

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Comment by John McCreery on February 9, 2014 at 4:10pm

If the Man/Nature dichotomy is specious, then perceptions and conceptions are no less "phenomenal" than photons.

Precisely. But, here is where I believe you go astray, the advocates of taking other ontologies seriously, or at least the ones I have read so far, are  not asserting that their comprehensions are God-like. If anything, they are arguing that obsession with problems that arise from assuming that there is only one essential ontological division — between God and Creation, mind and body, primary and secondary qualities, stuff that math covers and stuff that it doesn't—is directly counter to what we all experience, a world in which there are lots of different things related to each other in all sorts of ways. A.N. Whitehead put it nicely in his description of the worldview of 17th century science and its persistence down to what he called the modern day (c. 1925):

“There persists, however, throughout the whole period the fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ’scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived. It is not wrong, if properly construed. If we confine ourselves to certain types of facts, abstracted from the complete circumstances in which they occur, the materialistic assumption expresses these facts to perfection. But when we pass beyond the abstraction, either by more subtle employment of our senses, or by the request for meanings and for coherence of thoughts, the scheme breaks down at once. The narrow efficiency of the scheme was the very cause of its supreme methodological success. For it directed attention to just those groups of facts which, in the state of knowledge then existing, required investigation.”

His point is not to deny that the physics of light and the neurophysiology of vision have predictable relationships with the colours in the sunset that the poet describes and the painter paints. It is, rather, to insist that the poet and painter's sunset is not reducible to the physics and the neurophysiology. A truer account of the world requires both the art and the science, not just one or the other. 

That said, I, too, see a good deal of confusion arising from the politics that have come to be associated with this line of philosophical thinking. That we should deal with people respectfully and try to understand the terms in which they understand the worlds they inhabit seems to me to be a right and proper thing to do. The injunction to defer judgment and try to enter as fully as possible into what others think about the nature of things and to explore the relationship of their ideas and conventional feelings to their social arrangements and the material circumstances of their lives seems to me a basic principle of sound ethnographic and historical research. The serious stretch is to go the next step and consider their ideas and ways of life as possibilities that we ourselves might adopt. I say "possibilities" deliberately; we will, in fact, reject more than we accept. Among the rejected possibilities may be some that we find revolting, despicable, or outright evil. The point is that if we resist the temptation to dismiss or suppress them out of hand, we may learn something new and valuable.

It may be as trivial as learning that seaweed and raw fish, far from being repulsive, taste pretty good in sushi. It may be as cosmic as considering the implications of the Chinese way of thinking described by Francois Julien in The Propensity of Things, where the balance of forces at work in a space is more important than the individual entities that affect and are affected by them; life as a game of go with anonymous black and white stones instead of a game of chess, where each class of piece is restricted to certain moves. Or, to take another example, life as a Chinese landscape painting in which people and their things are small, the mountains are very large, and the composition has no fixed, single perspective.  Or, to imagine ourselves as part of a world in constant motion, where up today is down tomorrow; but up and down remain important: "All men are brothers"; but brothers are always older and younger.  

Comment by Larry Stout on February 9, 2014 at 2:31pm

If the Man/Nature dichotomy is specious, then perceptions and conceptions are no less "phenomenal" than photons. But, alas, our comprehensions never can be actually comprehensive.  The "last word" can only be the "Ouch!" uttered by some wretch who's the momentary sole survivor of the next Chicxulub-style event.  For the nonce, we are at liberty to chase our semantic tails.

Comment by Huon Wardle on January 29, 2014 at 12:45pm

My thought is that the best satire is the work of people who are deeply engaged by and envious of the ideas in question. Satire is a kind of disguised infatuation; as indeed this particular case suggests rather candidly.

Comment by Keith Hart on January 29, 2014 at 11:35am

Oh I don't know.Maybe not you and I, but some sort of middle ground sometimes pops up. I really look for it in the Latour business and maintain an uneasy truce bsed on prior friendship with EDVC on Facebook. I'll have a try at exploring the middle ground in the main thread.

Comment by John McCreery on January 29, 2014 at 11:26am

Lord knows, if we were expecting to change people's minds, we wouldn't be using this medium. When's the last time you saw anyone move from a predetermined position during an online debate?

Comment by Keith Hart on January 29, 2014 at 11:12am

I have followed this story in its public form and behind the scenes, John. As satire, I don't think it will make many readers think again. I can imagine why some at SM would be affronted and others confirmed in their negative attitude. For me the interesting question is the use of a pseudonym, an issue over which we once had wars here. Who is the proctontologist? One answer I saw was 'a disgruntled student of Martin Holbraad's at UCL'. Big deal.


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