Rationalism in Berlin


A few days ago the Emancipation as Navigation Summer school came to an end in Berlin. The event was just short of two weeks and included a range of topics from political theory, to logic, to diagramming the space of sex, to technofeminism, to the history of metaphysics, to Iberian cultures, to space travel, and so on. I wont go into a summary of each of day as those are available here but thought I would offer up some general impressions of the school for those interested in what went on besides what could be assumed from the content of each speaker’s lectures.

/1/ – Factions

It was quite obvious from the beginning of the school that it was not going to be a massive ‘preaching to the choir.’ Many of the attendants did not identify themselves as rationalists and were quite skeptical throughout the length of the school. This highlighted the various tensions between the thinkers brought together for the school: neo-rationalists, accelerationists, trans-modernists/universalists, and others less easily labeled. Cutting across these associations were particular emphases that often were in conflict: politics, philosophy, pragmatism, and aesthetics. Even within a particular designation (accelerationism for instance) there were debates as to how tethered that could be to particular forms of past politics (Marxism, communization, etc) or whether more attention to ‘actually existing accelerationisms’ (as Benedict emphasized) might be necessary despite their overwhelmingly capitalistic character. Or, simply put, there were neo-rationalists who are not accelerationists and accelerationists who are not neo-rationalists.

Which historical figures to hold onto or, what legacies were worth saving, also arose throughout the school. While certain canonical figures were widely invoked (such as Kant and Hegel) it was by no means a universal gesture. Heidegger, Deleuze, Lacan, Badiou, Sartre, de Castro, and others were utilized often only by one thinker to the chagrin of others present. These differences opened up a historical debate at who could be considered a rationalist while at the same time indexing points at which a formal take on rationalism requires a programmatic supplement whether in Foucaultian politics or Lacanian diagrammatics for instance.

/2/ – The Dead Elephant in the Room

Tied to the previous issues was the legacy or non-legacy of Speculative Realism. During the first public event Robin discussed how the explosion of interest surrounding the initial SR events was something to be missed as was the early and open debates online. Less officially, SR was often talked about in similar terms, as a ‘what could have been’ project. But how it was that SR ‘went wrong’ was not articulated beyond a basic sense that it had been too disparate to begin with or too ambitious in its aims or, as seems to be the case in online discussions, SR just became synonymous with OOO/OOP. The upswing of this is a certain amount of sensible caution in constructing a collective project going forward. This was reflected in the name of the school and that navigation, in particular, was a broad but not incoherent concept around which to cluster.

For myself it is always a bit odd thinking back to 2007 when I started Speculative Heresy with Nick and Taylor since no public reservoir for SR existed. Going forward with navigation the test will be maintaining a productive difference between various factions without going full on with claiming that there is a movement centered around a commonality that is negatively defined ie ‘not correlationist.’

/3/ – Amateur Academic Sociology

For better and for worse the school demonstrated that the kind of behaviors and divisions that occur online are not only online. Disagreements led to an attempt to ‘choose sides’ in a way that is quite unhelpful. This occurred as much with people who were critical of the speakers generally as well as their supporters. This is not unique to the summer school but something that needs to be handled with any event particularly when it’s tied to contemporary developments. Contemporaneity seems to often install either a desire to fall in line or one to degrade anything that calls itself new. Disagreement is all too often read as total disagreement in order to draw the sides more clearly at the cost of actually working out conceptual differences or even acknowledging them in a detailed way. Despite the comments that philosophy cannot be done on the internet, it is ridiculous to ignore how it’s managed to bring people from all over who share similar, not identical, projects.

What came up, but in a kind of diagonal fashion, was how easy it is to mesh the way in which one talks about things with the concepts they talk about. The different historical analyses conducted by the speakers and various participants indicated how this is often a difference in terms of how someone arrive at their current philosophy and how contemporary figures do or do not belong to that particular constellation. There were several moments in the summer school where it was clearly laid out where people agreed and where the disagreed or where a topic needed to be set aside for the time being. This may sound quite dry but it is something that all too often gets drowned out in either shouting or avoidance (at least in general this seems to be the case in conferences I’ve attended). While the focus on language can be somewhat dry for some it, at the very least, pushes the dire need for actually understanding what one another are saying rather than falling back on critical reflexes (as Pete has called them) where stock reactions to particular topics are employed rather than any attempt at critical reevaluation or counter argument.

An other issue, related to several points above, is how theory and philosophy views itself in relation to other disciplines. While there was an afternoon devoted to art and artists, all too often artists are viewed in philosophical circles as merely ‘bad theorists.’ I have discussed why I think that is here but a question for new rationalism and accelerationism is what its relationship to art and aesthetics is going to be and how firmly it wants to attempt to set the parameters of that relation. What I think is required is something along the lines of a meta-theory of implementation or, when does reason let go to navigate less for itself and more to find its limits etc?

/4/ – My own ax to grind

While I learned quite a bit from the summer school and enjoyed interacting with so many bright and interesting people that I tend to see only in the virtual world, one aspect of the school, which came up often, was a general adherence to an anti-naturalist stance. There are several problems here (and I think they are problems for navigational thinking and not merely problems for me). For one there was no distinction, or almost no distinction, between naturalism or nature ie a harshness towards naturalistic arugments regarding causes of human behavior were thrown together with a general theoretical concern for nature. That’s a demonstrably disastrous conflation. Furthermore when one says naturalism this means at least two huge bodies of work. It refers to ontological as well as methodological naturalism. While the normative thinkers popular in the summer school would universally denounce the latter many of them have far more ambiguous relationships to the former. While there are of course complex limitations on what we can say nature is we cannot, I think, simply let nature become a bludgeon for crude naturalists such as Richard Dawkins.

/5/ – Forward?

I doubt the summer school will be the last event of its kind and I hope to be involved with whatever it spawns. Because of, as much as despite the problems mentioned above,  I think neo-rationalism and accelerationism are interesting projects although I am positioned diagonally to both of them in a strange sense. There is an excitement and rigor that is wisely cautious at the same time that I think will continue to be productive.

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2 Responses to “Rationalism in Berlin”

  1. Thanks, Ben… you summed up what seems to be a very disparate grouping of individuals, all talented yet all more or less still seeking some kind of framework to hang their hat on – so to speak. Interesting all these differing labels and, as you say, distanciations and, I might add, distancing from the former SR world.

    I know I’ve tried to keep up but have moved on and back into my own poetry and satire fiction publishing of late so haven’t invested the time in current activities, so it’s nice to have someone of your caliber give us outsiders a few notes and details, remarks and commentary onto that otherwise closed world of academic specialisms. I know a lot of the philosopher do not feel the online world to be of benefit to their programs, and it seems that the blogosphere has been dwindling in some ways of late. Here and there a few remaining bastions, and of course the twitter gong world of blip byte messages passing by…

    Either way, I wish you good times, and a hopeful career ahead!

  2. So here’s my question: is SR dead? I mean assuming it ever was a geist of any sort.. As an outsider I never can be sure what’s going inside the Cathedral. I just here chants and smell incense from the street.

    And is neo-rationalism the new thing? It would make sense that professional discourse producers promote the proliferation of all sorts of reasoning-chains and weaves, and the literary devices (books, papers, etc) which contain them, as a means of self-sustaining work. What is to be gained or sorted or advanced by concerted reemphasis on the cognitive products we deem “reason”?

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