This is the sort of speculative writing that’s high on pretension, and low on appeal. But, I’m using it to distract myself from the Big Project, and so, here it is.
Let’s say something like this: speculative thinking (materialist, idealist, linguistic, whatever) operates in a kind of imaginary space. Speculation is a kind of creation, even if we’re just making castles in the air, and you need a space to make things in.
The Ideal person—who thinks that ideas or language constitute reality (everyone from Plato to Maimon to Derrida)—the Idealist likes the city, and gets anxious when they leave it. This imaginary urban space is rapacious, constantly expanding, moving its walls until everything is inside the city (and there are no more walls). In time, you cannot talk about anything outside the city. The campfire and the trees are as unnatural as pavement, and nature is just another symbol. Whether the campfire and a circle are made of ideas, or present only in the trace their absence leaves in language, it’s still reason and its symbols all the way down. And you cannot really argue here, because arguing is done with symbols and ideas, and the moment you open your mouth, you’re back downtown.
The Material person—who thinks reality does its thing no matter what we think about it—likes nature, ecologies, and the countryside. And this space is no less rapacious: the city and the most fragile or hierarchical social formations are shown to be, at heart, just more nature. Urban spaces have their own ecologies, art is a more delicate form of a bird’s mating dance, armies are swarms of metallic bees, and symbolic communication is employed by octopi, monkeys, and some rambunctious forms of mold. Here symbols give way to tools, and reason is a patina which emerges from matter like a rainbow skin.
I’ve been fair to neither of these visions, yet find both appealing (I’m probably more drawn to the latter—I have hippie parents, what can I say?). But, what interests me is that both are visions. By this I mean orienting pictures that you can’t really argue with, which (I think) precede and guide our thinking and building. It’s been argued that the very existence of these alternatives is an argument against them, that we need to find something in the middle. But, between the city and the rural, is the suburbs. And, for reasons of temperament and upbringing, I cannot abide the suburbs.
Nonetheless, we need something else, if only to address the upcoming environmental collapse; and this collapse is the Big Thing thinking is now forced to orbit. I’m not saying we need to think about this collapse all the time. Read Ibn Tufayl, play a videogame, paint a painting, jog (if you must), do whatever: life is short. But it’s the Big Thing, and anything (from politics to metaphysics) which wants to speculate about the Big Picture, must address this looming disaster. Urban Idealism and Rural Materialism are both not going to work.
Maybe I’m retreating myself, to the tradition I’m most familiar with (Jewish thought), but I wonder if imagination might be the faculty we should be playing with, rather than reason or sensation. Imagination as the space which these other two try to flesh out, or operate within (as a friend put it, the “faculty necessary to create minnesang and nature romantic as well as bauxite mining and drone wars”). That philosophers despise imagination is as good a reason as any to check it out. I know mawkish imagination is the suburban faculty par excellence, but, maybe, if we accidentally redeemed part of the suburbs, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.