Failure to thrive


Three surprisingly high level topics have popped up in my internet watering holes. This not being a scholarly effort (not to mention the cost of collating randomly-placed things that show up in my komórka), so there aren’t actual references. They’re in the “microzeitgeist”; you’re probably exposed to them as much as me.

First, there was a (frankly correlationist, but still enlightened beyond usual internet standards) debate on human nature. Second, the question of time and the ways it can possibly either be naturally unstable or destabilized. Third, a thousand Gregory Bateson stories came out of the ether, mostly coalescing on the topic of the “double bind”. Not all of these discussions were in the spirit of topologos disputatio — some, like the Rogan-Weinstein duo, oscillate violently between an interesting degree of pure exploration and longer rounds of mutual congratulation.

Greg Bateson aside, the issues of time and human nature collide on an edge between the “correlationist” horizon (until which “being and thinking are correlated” and nothing in the Great Outdoors of nonhuman reality can be thought) and the great violent sea of “reality” as strongly emphasized by friend of the blog Uriel Alexis (which is closely related to the Lacanian “Real” which we overuse; but also quite dissonant from the Tarski story of ambient conditions as satisfiability problem).

In light of this idea that we’ll misname the reality principle (thoroughly confusing people who expect to see Freud in it), it’s jarring, if rhetorically seductive, to deny human nature. What, smack the top of your head with a flexible ruler — there you are! But the qualified debate on human nature necessarily focuses on the human as a process; the correlationist fallacy is not a binding constraint as long as the human process remains one, since, well, how can one even talk of the Great Outdoors — that immense space where no human is available for navel gazing? Indeed skeptics about human nature are invariably ethical consequentialists (a tricky system of implicit equations on the axiology hierarchy, but quite natural to humans under correlationist conditions): what ends, they ask, does realist discourse on human nature serve?

[Lower-level versions of this debate are always in “background radiation” — IQ, gender roles, overactivation of the amygdala in conservatives. But suddenly discussions that can be more… realistically… dragged to the plane of topologos disputatio are popping up online.]


Uriel Alexis’s cry of “reality rules!” depends enough on intellectual influences that it would be unscholarly to refer to this principle as being specifically his, rather than something that hangs off a particular iteration of an intellectual tradition found in the antiquity of antiquities. This is not to devalue his own stuff (particularly as he manages to stay in disputatio with Nick Land): it’s an excellent t-shirt sized phrase that not only identifies with laser-like precision the gravitational center of a huge politico-intellectual movement, but leaves a few hooks from where to hang theories-in-disputatio.

“Reality rules” points to at least three universes of meaning:

  1. A nominal assignment that transpiles to “rules of reality”. From a sufficient distance, this is a wild ontological claim that nevertheless works sometimes from within the correlationist circle — physicists claim that reality does appear to follow certain regularities that can be even somewhat misnamed as “laws”. Still, there is something circular to this: within the correlationist circle, it seems possible to validate a dissolution of the very same circle. Having sailed a thousand miles into the ocean, I claim sea dragons are not there.
  2. A terminal statement (“it is ultimately reality that reigns”) about the process view of reality in which skeptics of human nature take refuge. This differs from meaning 1 in that “reality” becomes an enforcer rather than a lawgiver, a cop rather than constitutional law. Our own reading of Lacan sees the Real as the process of random cruelty that can never fully be accounted for within the correlationist circle. But this is also how the “rules of reality” are validated — by letting Queen Reality express herself.
  3. A loose underdeveloped axiological claim — “reality is great!” This is almost always an attempt to dissolve the so-called “is-ought” question as a pseudoproblem. Yet getting rid of “ought” can be achieved as a forceful political move (an axiological castration, so to speak); what would remain, if someone was brave enough, would be to dissolve the “is” problem, that is, disolving the correlationist circle and claiming knowledge of the Great Outdoors, reality itself. What is, is; but what is? The rules of reality, maybe.

Discarding meaning (1), we could rephrase the cheer-scream as “reality kicks ass!”, somewhat demoting meaning (2) — maybe something kicks the ass of reality too? In any case, (1) and (3) together give some buoyance to a weakened version of (2), in which the process of reality is given considerable autonomy but denied imperium. In this way, science (rules of reality) and axiological optimism produce a type of vaccine against realism, which may have nasty consequentialist implications. This view, which Steven Pinker has been misnaming “enlightenment”, is actually pastoralnature gives us milk and grains, but we can bend it to our will.

On the other hand: demoting meaning (3) and restoring meaning (1), we could say with Laibach that “Life is life!”. This view tries to obviate axiology by stating that reality continues in the absence of meaning (3). But it is impossible for an all-powerful tyrant not to be great: this view a fully circular dispensational view — tyrant-Queen Nature defines the whole general axiology and produces meaning (3). It is also Laibach who says “in the absence of God we all pray to police“. One can devalue this reality, but only at the cost of producing an axiology machine beyond it where the rules of reality evolve, out of the grace of God, either through Whig history or the afterlife. 

Aren’t these close to the left- and right-wing of philosophies of reality? Can we ever bring them together in topologos disputatio

Of course not. More abstraction is needed! Thus formulas like “reality rules!”. Maybe an algebra around it is needed; who knows what Uriel Alexis is coming up with next.


There are, of course, situations where pastoral and dispensational assumptions break down. The pastoral view fails where despite the best of our efforts we can’t convince Queen Nature to help us out. Take the titular medical jargon, “failure to thrive“. A (small) human’s untimely death is chalked up to failure to thrive when through no commonly-understood pathological process it fails to achieve the “developmental milestones” that are indispensable for the kid to survive —  this in a society sheltered from ancient evolutionary menaces. Humans are notoriously born premature; our huge heads wouldn’t come out otherwise. This means infanthood is a provisional period where the baby has already been incorporated into society but cruel Queen Nature still holds the reigns.

In other words: a kid may fail to thrive as a plant seed may fail to take. The plant fails to grow enough leaves to make food, the raw nonhuman thing of the baby fails to make enough weight to make humanity. The story according to which the human soul weights however many grams is literally true. Failure to thrive is not only a limit to the kind of thinking according to which humanity is fully constructed by humans; it is also provides (in dead babies) a much closer correlationist horizon than those brought by Meillassoux in the arche-fossil or the accretion of the earth.

But failure to thrive is also a clear limit to the approximately right-wing cheer scream of “Life is life!” — it clearly is not! The dispensational bargain is that submission to reality produces the Ought. A type of dispensational bargain is Darwinism, by which infant death is coextensive with maladaptation to the environment. But what when humans have acquired near-demiurgic powers over the environment (in the controlled setting of the neonatal ICU) but the the sheer indeterminism (some people use words like “Cthulhu” at this point) of reality still takes over? Yes, reality rules like a haphazard sea monster; also, reality sucks and doesn’t even follow the rules.

The bridging element between the failures of pastoralism and dispensationalism is the now-fashionable double bind. Failure to thrive both clearly and undeniably evidences human nature (you must be this heavy to thrive) and the inhumanity of nature. Humanity (in the timescale where H. Sapiens is a relatively stable entity; that is, as an explicitly and specifically human process) has developed within a feedback loop that has encouraged certain tendencies (toward sociality and social construction) and discouraged other (antisocial) features. In humanity, this feedback loop is no longer in direct and strictu-sensu-Darwinian touch with reality, but is mediated by all sorts of mental models that dramatically accelerate tempo. This feedback loop has produced the ambient axiologies; but it also has been produced on the ambient axiologies. We like to imagine that this is the surplus over reality that allows us to say “reality kicks ass” and have the theurgy of human culture to kick its ass. But this theurgy is built in tempo and very often “the time is out of joint” and the ongoing conditions drift around and away from ambient axiologies. How can ambient axiologies work, then? In dispensational fashion. Does the feedback loop reward dispensational tendencies, then? Is the Enlightenment just submission to Cthulhu? 


What’s the upshot here? Clearly, Absolute Realism is a losing proposition, no matter which way you vote. In the sense of the feedback loop just sketched, it’s fully incompatible with a culture built through the synchronic update of ambient axiologies; rather like market failures in economics, it demarcates the boundaries around which the best-of-all-possible-worlds does work. In other words, it’s a concept of crisis, and the adequate response to something like failure-to-thrive (i.e. infant death). But it’s possible that Absolute Realism is not a feature of crisis, much like failure-to-thrive deaths are not a feature of Darwinian maladaptation.

It’s all too to fetishize Cthulhu as the core constitutive force that it may not be. Like any fetish, this would work by substitution: first the foot summarizes the entirety of the human figure, and then the boot abstracts and suspends the desire for specific human feet. The time is out of joint; the human world (i.e. the feedback loop) is built in tempo, but this tempo is not always synchronous along all persons — and besides, nature is commanded by mr. Susskind’s arrow-of-time. We therefore see successes and failures (in our tempo) as summary substitutes of the feedback loop; later, we substitute these summary signals for an inhuman (and human-made) construction, or rather for an impractical fetishized variant with spike heels that are horrible to actually walk and carry a human figure, a whole human figure.

This is no definitive argument, of course. Maybe the crisis is itself made of Absolute Realism; maybe most of the feedback loop is crisis and pastoralist progress is temporary respite. Still, to put these things to disputatio the speculative work of abstraction must take places. Thus we toil away in theory.


One response to “Failure to thrive”

  1. […] The flash-fad for Greg Bateson (already subsiding) made me do it. It wasn’t all bad — going there (feedback loops; cybernetics; systems theory; macroprudentiary regulation!) indeed points to hard consequences of our own complication of time in (chronos/tempo/kairo). But the unplanned rhetorical development led to this wallop of a paragraph in our last essay: […]


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