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The New Dualisms

May 23rd, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Gene Fant dug up this little gem from the latest Proceedings of the Modern Language Association by Timothy Morton:

It’s not just that rabbits are rabbits in name only; it’s that whether or not we have words for them, rabbits are deconstructive all the way down—signifying and display happen at every level.  Nothing is self-identical.  We are embodied yet without essence.  Organicism is holistic and substantialist, visualizing carbon-based life-forms (organic in another sense) as the essence of livingness.  Queer ecology must go wider, embracing silicon as well as carbon, for instance. . . .  Queer ecology would go to the end and show how beings exist precisely because they are nothing but relationality, deep down—for the love of matter” (277).

I've read the full essay so you don't have to. Perhaps the most shocking line is this one:

Karl Kroeber suggests that if you don’t believe Nature exists, you need to stand out in a midwestern thunderstorm (42). This suggestion now sounds distressingly almost like waterboarding.

We should use this to establish a new academic rule:  if your theory leads you to believe that standing in a thunderstorm and waterboarding are nearly equivalent, then we are prima facie justified in thinking that you have something wrong in the water upstream.

But while it's tempting to dismiss Morton, I actually think that there is something we can learn from them, like this:  dualism might be unavoidable.

The feminist literature (and much of post-modernism) has been driven by an animosity against Descartes and his substance dualism.  But it's not clear they've managed to escape it, at least not in any way that might be helpful.

Where Descartes turned to the language of substance to explain certain philosophical problems,  social theorists like Morton frequently establish a body/culture dualism in its place.  We may be 'relationality' all the way down when it comes to establishing our understanding of identity, but there's still some particular matter that exists within those relationships--something that will still still stand beneath explanation and call for it.

For scientists, body/soul dualism is out--but they're pretty happy talking about consciousness in non-bodily terms, and leaving it to the philosophers to explain its interaction with our brains in the way Descartes had to explain the soul.  That turns out to be a hard problem to solve, such that one has resorted to playing the mystery card at that point.

There is a lot to be said about the various strengths and weaknesses of the new dualisms.  But that there are other dualisms out there is worth bearing in mind before critiquing Descartes for his.

It's possible--and I may defend this at some point--that he was using the philosophical vocabulary at hand to explain some of the same phenomena that Mr. Morton is attempting to solve, albeit in very different ways and with very different presuppositions.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.