From Kant to the coronavirus, the noumenon finds a way.
As an overconfident undergraduate dedicated to Sartre and relativism — as I still largely am, with important modifications — I once challenged a pragmatic philosophy professor how we could ever know what was really real.
“Reality objects,” he said. “Reality pushes back.”
Reality has been pushing back, hard, on a lot of our assumptions and institutions as the coronavirus pandemic seeps into everyday life. While the ultimate effects on the U.S. population remain to be seen — they look worse by the day — the effects on our post-truth regime (in all senses) may prove as important. The crisis is piercing not just immune and healthcare systems, but media bubbles, in what feels like an overdue denouement to a prolonged epistemological crisis.
Let’s go back to Kant (if I may be allowed a Maddowesque wind-up), who secured knowledge of the world by — counter-intuitively — cutting off contact with it. While this is uniformly baffling to non-philosophers, he had his reasons. Foremost among them was the fear — alien today — that the laws of physics were subject to change without notice. By making these necessary laws of experience instead of laws of the world (and redefining “world” down as the object of that experience) he accomplished his aim, but blocked us off from knowing anything about the thing-in-itself, the “noumenal” — as opposed to the familiar “phenomenal” — world.
Kant’s theory has a fatal inconsistency, however. Though he limited scientific knowledge to experience, he allowed that this experience was fashioned from something beyond the phenomenal world. He called this thing “the manifold” and was careful to acknowledge that we can’t say anything about it — time, space, substance, causality are all categories of experience and can’t be applied to the manifold — other than that it (in some sense) obtains.
I’ve come to admire this “flaw” in Kant’s theory, like the flaws in Persian rugs allegedly introduced to appease Allah. Kant knew that, even if he could not philosophically deduce it, the absence of receptivity to something — if only an indescribable X — would render consciousness absurd if not abominable.
Fichte and Hegel had no such sympathy, finding the humility of the thing-in-itself unjustifiable and intolerable. (It is the former, but I believe the task of life is to make peace with the latter.) This turn to absolute idealism ushered in the epistemological divides we are familiar with today. If God is dead and we have no access to “things as they are,” then we must constitute all the meaning that matters— individually, socially, unconsciously, etc. The good news is that this is useful for undermining illegitimate authorities, like monarchies and theocracies. The bad news is that it works pretty well at undermining everything else, whether it’s the media, science, or the “intelligence community.” This dawned on me even in graduate school, when I took breaks from reading Foucault to smoke pot and listen to Rush Limbaugh, whose perspectivalism was then still a novelty among conservatives. (This is a predictable strategy of conservatism — borrowing the destabilizing tools of the left — as Corey Robin details in his 2011 book The Reactionary Mind.) It has proven to be a powerful, all-leveling rhetoric, as seen by the Bush administration’s famous mockery of “the reality-based community” and Trump’s conviction that it is words — not things—that make it so.
The left and the right agree on more than they admit in this debate. Their core shared belief is that all statements are expressions of power relations — at least when these statements come from the other side. (This sort of selective post-foundationalism is what might be a called a philosophy of “naive critique,” which is as incoherent as it sounds.) And so we find ourselves in a fight over “the narrative” with no end in sight. Within this frame, debates become unresolvable in principle. All we know is, as Hilary Putnam concluded, “the mind and the world jointly make up the mind and the world,” and we are left to haggle over the proportions.
Esoterically — in the world of academic philosophy — and in popular culture, the revenge of the noumenon has been underway for some time. Reality has been objecting and — slowly, uncannily— showing itself.
Deconstruction was the thing in the ’90s — when I was mixing Foucault with Limbaugh— and Derrida’s project can be read as a tentative attempt to reject Hegel and gesture (a very ’90s way of putting it) toward the manifold. Deconstructive readings lead to a place where the circle cannot be closed and something must be posited to explain this non-closure, though this introduces another non-closure etc. Something, something weird, is out there.
In his In the Dust of This Planet (2011), Eugene Thacker explicitly argues that the spooky appearance of the unseen in horror fiction is the anxiety about this world beyond us — or, as he prefers, “without us.” He cites H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1934), with a passage that could be lifted from Kant, in which a mad scientist describes his conquest of the noumenal world.
“What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have. I have always believed that such strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers.”
Once through this barrier, these things do in fact violate Kant’s categories of experience — as one would expect — even the substantial property of mutual exclusion.
“Foremost among the living objects were great inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine. They were present in loathsome profusion, and I saw to my horror that they overlapped; that they were semi-fluid and capable of passing through one another and through what we know as solids.” [Emphasis in the original. I take the “horror” at this overlapping to mean that something more than mixing is at stake, that these entities are violating basic objective categories.]
True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has cited Thacker’s book — and other recent works on nihilism— as an influence on the show’s brilliant first season. This is usually taken to mean that he lifted the perspective of Matthew McConaughey’s meandering Rush Cohle from these books. I would argue, however, that the entire power of the season derives from the portent of the unseen, which is finally not quite revealed in a chase scene through an impossible, organic maze. (Detective fiction and film noir, from The Big Sleep to Chinatown, could easily support a reading like Thacker’s reading of horror, with antiheroes like Rush Cohle and J.J. Gittes standing guard at the murky portals of the unthinkable.)
Unlike in prose, where properties that are not the object of a possible experience can simply be asserted — as in Lovecraft — TV and film have to rely on other cues, since they are necessarily phenomenal and (in popular practice) representational. The noumenon has to be represented as a phenomenon that’s not quite right, like the so-called “Carcosa” — a sort of devil’s nest — of True Detective or the dust-filled noumenal goo of Stranger Things’ “upside down.”
Speculative Realism, a recent “school” of thought — in which most faculty of course dispute their own membership — has also begun to question the committed idealism of the so-called Continental tradition in philosophy, most interestingly by Quentin Meillassoux in his After Finitude (2008), which defends an objective, mathematical description of the universe and the discarded distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Unrelated, but notably similar, is documentarian Errol Morris’ defense of Kripkean realism in his idiosyncratic coffee table book The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality)(2018), in which he takes aim at the relativism of Thomas Kuhn, who once launched the titular object at Morris’ head during an argument when the latter was a philosophy student. Morris’ defense of realism is the all the more striking, since it was his Thin Blue Line (1988) that shocked the documentary world by introducing re-enactments and full-blown perspectivalism into a supposedly disinterested medium. Morris’ point, consistent with his films, is that just because truth is hard to locate, doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.
It was sort of breathtaking, wasn’t it, the day the coronavirus crisis broke through Trump’s reflexive spin machine? What day was it? March 9? March 10? In truth, as in business, Trump is a compulsive — and skilled — debtor. His skill at evading payment — that he tells lies today that will have to be backed with new lies in the future — has been maddening to his opponents in part, I think, because they too are committed to an anti-foundational, coherence model of truth. If he can just keep laying down new truths to make the old ones make sense — like MCU retcon gone wild — he just might get away with it, we fear, sealing us inside an airless Orwellian envelope.
But this? This is real. We can all see it. This is the real, uncannily visible. And if we don’t miss the moment, it could be a very good place to start.