origami_chubby_owls_by_htquyet-d5xrtm4To be is to differ.  We must take care not to be lured by language.  We might wish to draw a distinction between being and becoming, treating being as that which does not change and becoming as that which changes.  Yet nothing about the term “being” implies stasis.  Being denotes existence and with the exception of those beings that perhaps don’t become such as mathematical entities, all existing entities become.  Existence, for the most part, is phusis; though the concept of phusis must be rethought in light of both the materialist tradition descending from Democritus and modern physical and biological sciences.  We must avoid the animisms of vitalism.  Those that renounce ontology on the grounds that they endorse becoming are particularly irritating because they don’t seem to recognize that they’re making an ontological claim about the nature of being or existence.

Being differ in a variety of ways.  Here I am not proposing the trite thesis that being is characterized by comparative difference.  The thesis is not that apples are different from oranges, though this is true.  Such a thesis wouldn’t get at the heart of beings, at their internal constitution, at what it is to be an entity.

Beings differ constitutively, internally.  In the first instance, beings differ through the constitution of a boundary.  In some instances, the boundary constitutive of an entity and necessary for the existence of a being as a being, is a membrane like the skin or an eyelid.  Boundaries, however, need not be membranes.  They can be operations and forces as well.  If, for example, a city is an entity, it is certainly not an entity with a membrane.  To be sure, there’s perhaps a line on a map, but the map is not, as Bateson says, the territory.  No, the boundary of the city, that which constitutes the city as a distinct entity, is its operations.  These operations consist in administrative functions of its government and institutions, the manner in which it sorts outside and inside, the way in which its citizens define the difference between those who belong and those who don’t, etc.  Cities and institutions do not have physical boundaries like membranes, but rather engage in activities or operations that sort inside and outside, what belongs and what doesn’t, what arises from within and without.

read on!


I’m pretty sick right now so hopefully my thoughts will be semi-coherent.  Laying my cards on the table, I think that both Spinoza and Lucretius are the two thinkers– in broad outlines and without endorsing all of their claims –that got things right.  The difficulty, however, is that I can’t see how Spinoza can work without some doctrine of being.  Here’s how I understand the doctrine of creation in Spinoza:  In order for God (substance, nature) to create something, three requirements must be fulfilled:

  1. The created being must be logically possible.
  2. The created being must be physically possible.
  3. The created being must result from preceding causes.

God/nature creates all that can be created and restrains itself in no ways (it is absolutely affirmative), but it is for this reason that there are no miracles in Spinoza’s universe.  A miracle is an event that does not arise from preceding causes (3) and that violates what is physically possible (2) and is therefore something that cannot exist.  Likewise, God cannot simply resolve to create flying horses on our planet because an entire lineage of evolution would be necessary for such an entity to come into existence and because the physical circumstances of our particular planet prevent such a being from existing (elsewhere in the universe such beings might be possible).  It would thus appear that Spinoza is a strong determinist.

Problems begin to arise when we think about Spinoza’s ethical project.  Reading the Ethics is supposed to persuade us to change in some way.  We are supposed to do things differently than we did before (in particular, we’re supposed to occupy ourselves with organizing joyous encounters and with escape ideas born of the imaginary).  However, it’s hard to see how this is possible if Spinoza’s determinism is true.  A student in one of my classes today put it well.  “Suppose”, he said, “I get an F on an exam.  It’s not that I chose to do things that led to that F (not reading the material, studying, etc), but rather that I was caused to get the F by events preceding me taking the exam.  I could not have chosen to do otherwise because everything in Spinoza’s universe is the result of preceding causes.”  The case would seem to be the same with respect to Spinoza’s ethics.  Some people will achieve beatitude not because they chose to do things that led to beatitude, but because there were a series of causes that produced that outcome in much the same way that water boils when heated, not because it chooses to boil.  Likewise, there will be all sorts of people that even though they understand Spinoza nonetheless remain mired in sad passions because they’re caused to remain mired in sad passions.  Things couldn’t have been otherwise.  If that’s the case, it’s unclear what we gain from reading Spinoza’s Ethics at all because we can’t do other than what we do.

Clearly Spinoza couldn’t have really believed this because he indeed seems to think that we can do all sorts of things in the pursuit of joyous affects.  However, how are we to reconcile this with his determinism?  I feel I must be missing something in his thought as his prescriptions belie his descriptions, but I cannot for the life of me see how his metaphysics allows for these prescriptions.  A doctrine of freedom seems necessary to render his thought coherent.

The problem with correlationism is not that it drew attention to the relationship between thought and being, humans and the world, but that in doing so it had a tendency to reduce other beings to what they are for us.  Correlationism’s question always seems to be “what are things for us?”, “how do the beings of the world reflect us?”  Thus, in Kant, you get the analysis of how beings are structured by our categories and forms of intuition (time/space).  Things are transformed into “phenomena”, where “phenomenon” signifies being as it is structured by us.  The phenomenologists draw attention to how beings are organized around our meanings and projects and how they are given in and through these meanings and projects.  Again, beings are transformed into phenomena.  The semioticians and partisans of the linguistic turn perpetually show how things signify and express our meanings.  For example, when Zizek analyzes German, French, and English toilets, he shows how each embodies and represents the dominant ideology of these peoples.

Within correlationism, the beings of the world are treated as screens upon which we project ourselves.  These are strange projections because we don’t experience them as issuing from us, but as being properties of the entity itself.  The critical and philosophical task thus becomes one of recovering these meanings, of showing how they structure our relationships to entities, of showing how they issue from us, of showing how they are constructed by us.  I hasten to add that these are valuable projects that should not be abandoned.  The point is not to abandon these modes of analysis, but to broaden the modes of analysis open to us.

If realism has any critical significance, then perhaps it lies in asking what entities contribute as the entities that they are independent of any meanings we might attribute to them.  What do entities do– not what do they mean –and above all, how do they affect us and our social relations?  How do they modify, by virtue of what they are, our ways of doing, acting, and relating to one another in the world?  Zizek wants to ask how toilets express a particular ideology, but we can also ask the question of how toilets and waste management change the lives of a people.  What is the difference between a society that has toilets and a society that uses outhouses, latrines, etc.  What problems emerge as a result of this way of handling waste?  How does our relationship to diseases such as cholera change?  What is the significance, for social relations, of not having periodic epidemics of cholera?  We are looking here at what the things contribute and do and how they change our lives.  What is discerned here is a different form of power; one that isn’t based on belief or ideology, but on built features of environments.  As a consequence, different strategies of politics emerge through thinking how these powers might be engaged with to render other forms of life possible.  Correlationism renders this invisible.

formIn a manner that resembles Derrida, the mathematician G. Spencer-Brown argues that in order to indicate or refer to anything we must first draw a distinction.  We can’t, as it were, point at the world, but must always cleave the world in two that a region of being might come into relief or focus.  The consequence of this is that indication or referral always contains two blind spots.  First, insofar as the world has been cleaved in two by the distinction, something falls away or disappears from view.  We get a sort of “reality-effect” where what is indicated seems to be all that is the case, forgetting that there is an unmarked space of our distinction that we set aside to render this referral possible.  Second, the distinction itself becomes invisible, giving us the impression that the indicated is itself a “given”, all that is, while causing us to forget that the distinction is what allowed the indication to come into relief in the first place.  It should be noted that all perception and cognition essentially has this structure.  The analysis of the umwelt of an animal or the philosophy of a thinker consists in analyzing both how they draw distinctions, what these distinctions bring into relief or allow to be indicated, and, if one is engaged in a project of critique, what they render invisible.  In discussing this, Niklas Luhmann argues that whenever we see we are not seeing because the distinction that allows our vision to be possible contains a constitutive blind-spot or unmarked space, and that we cannot see what we cannot see because we necessarily have to deploy distinctions to see at all.  However, we can nonetheless engage in “second-order” observation, observing how we draw distinctions and how others and other beings draw distinctions, marking their blind spots and raising the question of how the world would appear differently were we to make the unmarked space the marked space, or observe the marked space from the vantage of the unmarked space.  Here it can be seen that where communicative and cognitive systems are concerned, there is a politics of distinction.  For it is not simply the case that distinctions, at this level, render things visible or thinkable; but rather, distinctions are also selecting among what is to be thought and seen, what is to be attended to.

WritingIn this regard, writing and citation are no different.  Citations in an academic text implicitly presuppose a distinction functioning as a selection mechanism or machine, defining what is to be included and what is to be excluded.  The distinction underlying citations for a particular text is also a statement of value, of what is worth thinking, of who is worth attending to, of who is worth hearing.  I emphasize that these distinctions are implicit because, after all, one attends to what is indicated, not the distinction that allowed the indicated to be indicated.  Distinctions, as it were, disappear in the act of being used.  In other words, we shouldn’t begin with the premise that the person has malicious intent in distinguishing as they do.  While they do indeed use the distinction, that distinction is invisible to them.  This is why critical work revealing distinctions that underly a particular form of indication are valuable.

read on!


This evening is the first meeting of The Anarchy of Objects. Programmers are encouraged to visit the course homepage in google classroom for updates and information about the course. By all means, please take the time to post questions and comments prior to the seminar beginning so things begin with a roar! For those who have not yet signed up and are interested in doing so, there are still openings. Information can be found at The New Centre website. Come join us!

Inchoate thought emerging from ongoing discussions I’ve had with my friend Duane Rousselle over the last couple of years.  It seems to me that anarchist/communist political thought– at least as I conceive it (I could be completely misguided as to what both anarchism and communism are) –pull in two distinct directions, one normative and the other practical.  At the normative level, both anarchism and communism signify– to my mind, again, at least –a radical egalitarianism.  I take it that “anarchy” signifies not “without law”, but without sovereigns, masters, kings, fathers, mothers, god, party, etc., because, in fact, anarchist collectives develop a number of norms to regulate interactions among their participants and how their participants relate to the world.  Alternatively, we could say that anarchism is that political orientation that reject all forms of Oedipus, of paternalism, of sovereignty embodied in a figure or party, instead embracing a posthuman politics (as we don’t know what defines the boundaries of political agents or who/what counts as a political agent a priori) and a politics of fraternity and sorority…  A horizontal rather than a vertical politics.

These “laws”, of course, are always subject to subsequent revision and abandonment.  Here I should add that I am not a libertarian anarchist because I think an anarchy of individuals very quickly leads to various forms of exploitation and tyranny, but am, for lack of a better word, a “collectivist anarchist”.  I take it that the thesis of anarchism is that collectives are fit to rule themselves; that they don’t need a vanguard such as the party to lead them.

For this reason, in a previous post I argued that anarchism is that variant of political thought that haunts all existing political thought in practice.  It haunts other variants of political thought both as the promise of what genuine justice ought to be– egalitarian fairness and equality –as well as that form of political thought that reveals the lie of all hierarchical political thought and practice that masters and a vanguard party are needed.  Anarchism, I think, is the “real” of all political thought and practice…  A point that Badiou has articulated very nicely in his meditations on inconsistent multiplicities that haunt consistent multiplicities.

On the other hand, there is the practical/pragmatic problem.  As political thinkers such as Jodi Dean and Bruno Bosteels have argued, it is very difficult to accomplish anything without some form of organization and leadership.  Without this, it seems, nothing ever comes to fruition.  In this regard, there’s a vantage from which the Party is a necessary evil.  The exigencies of political engagement require a betrayal of the egalitarian idea because in the absence of this nothing is ever accomplished.  There is both a normative and a practical problem here, however.  Normatively, such a move seems to betray the inconsistent multiplicity that is the Truth or Real of all social relation.  Politics almost seems to become messianic at this point.  Rather than a realized or actualized multiplicity or egalitarianism, we instead seem to get a multiplicity and egalitarianism that is always-yet-to-come, but that never, in fact, arrives.  At this point, signifiers like “multiplicity” and “egalitarianism” seem to become rhetorics in the pejorative sense that alienate collectives in the Party without ever delivering the egalitarianism that was promised.  We end up with a bifurcation of the world into that of the animating rhetoric– one might think of certain institutions that claim to be revolutionary without ever changing hierarchy or addressing the problems they claim to address such as neoliberalism –and the actually existing collective.  Of course, at this point, we no longer have a collective at all because the collective has been bifurcated into the Party and everything else.

On the other hand, there is the practical problem.  The history of the Party or of parties is far from stellar.  As Niklas Luhmann argues, when systems (the Party is an instance of system) reach a certain point of self-organization and become autopoietic, they function not to address the problems they claim to be addressing, but to reproduce themselves and their own organization.  This can readily be discerned in the history of various leftist parties that endlessly seem to abandon the political aims for which they formed, instead focusing on their own reproduction and continuance, as well as in maintaining their own internal hierarchy.  Revolutionary rhetoric is deployed, yet it comes to be the party that matters.  The Party comes to coincide with the interests of the multiplicity– and not in a good way –such that what is in the interests of the Party is said to be what is in the interest of the multiplicity.  Historical examples abound.  Here we are often lectured about what the ideal party should be and why, because it is ideal, it wouldn’t fall into these problems; but really the ideal is always the problem.  The ideal is that rhetorical lure that functions to efface the genuinely existing concrete reality.

Closely related to this practical problem is the problem of desire that haunts all attachments.  Deleuze and Guattari taught us to look not solely at the avowed doctrine of a political orientation, it’s platform and its aims, but also to look at the micro-desires that inhabit its participants.  It is possible, at the molar level, for a party to be egalitarian, but to nonetheless be fascist at the micro-level of the structure of its desire in that it encourages obedience, wrote adherence to an orthodoxy, and placement of leader and party over multiplicity.  There is a sad desire that wishes to obey, exclude, dominate, and control that haunts even the most anarchist and communist of organizations.  How to overcome these desires?

Perhaps what is needed is a new idea and practice of leadership that would accord with the egalitarian ideal of anarcho-communism.  The real issue– and the Real issue (for those who speak Lacanese) –is that of how decision can be made in a way that doesn’t betray the dimension of inconsistent multiplicity that is the truth of social relation.   Something towards this end is already suggested in Lacan’s framework of “cartels”.  Lacan’s cartels were curious things.  They were cells composed of four or five people designed to produce knowledge– in each case for an individual, not the group as a whole –pertaining to some problem, issue, or question.  The most curious feature of the cartels is the so-called “plus-one”.  Lacan recognized that discussion would go on forever in these groups– discussion over even which question should be explored –if there wasn’t some way to decide and finalize things (like the period of a sentence).  What was needed was something to halt the endless discussion, the endless sliding of the signifier, the dominance of S2 without an S1.  This was the function of the “plus-one”.  One member of the cartel, Lacan advised, would occupy the position of the “plus-one”, engaging in an act that halted discussion, allowing a decision to be made and new things to commence.

The interesting feature of the plus-one– as I understand it anyway; I think a number of Lacanian organizations have betrayed this key feature –is that the plus-one is an empty place.  The person that occupies the position of plus-one is not a participant in the discussion, but is rather a function that halts the endless sliding of discussion.  S/he– or should we refer to it as f(x)? –is an empty master with no illusion to containing knowledge or wisdom.  There’s nothing– to use Zizek’s early vernacular –sublime about the plus-one in his/her exercise of the act.  S/he’s purely empty, a function.  Compare, then, the plus-one to a Platonic Philosopher-King.  The Platonic Philosopher-King is sublime in that he embodies a wisdom not shared or possessed by the rest of us.  It’s precisely because of this that the Philosopher-King, according to Plato, is fit to rule.  He is sublime, of course, because we attribute this wisdom to him, but because we don’t have this wisdom ourselves we don’t really know if he has it.  He’s animated by agalma; at least with respect to dimwits like ourselves.  The plus-one, by contrast, is abject, an idiot, containing no knowledge or special wisdom whatsoever.   S/he is a function but not a father or master.  S/he’s an empty performative point.

What Lacan effectively does with the concept of the plus-one is evacuate the position of the leader, the fantasy that lies behind our attachment to leadership, while nonetheless retaining the function of decision necessary for things to proceed and get done.  The question is whether something similar is possible at the larger scale of social relations and organization.

When Speculative Realism appeared it quickly generated a firestorm of controversy.  There was something about defending realism and critiquing correlationism that generated excitement in some and anger in others.  To this day, I’m still not sure why these things generated so much heat and enthusiasm.  It was as if the word “realism” violated some taboo, and like the violation of all taboos, some exalted in the violation while others seemed to feel that something sacred had been violated.

However, as I reflect, I wonder if the critique of correlationism might have a rather different message than that of realism?  I wonder if the lesson of correlationism might not be the possibility of a renewed perspectivism.  Sadly, at least in popular culture, perspectivism (let’s call it “vulgar perspectivism”) has become a worn concept that does more to support a certain reactionary ideology than to challenge it.  Where perspectivism ought to be an encounter with otherness or difference, the lesson of perspectivism in popular culture seems to be something like the thesis that “everything has their own perspective and everyone is entitled to their own perspective, therefore I shouldn’t have to attend to the perspectives of others.”  No, that’s quite not right.  The vulgar perspectivist argues something like the following:  “Because everything is a matter of perspective, I can only have my own perspectives on others.  Therefore I can never really encounter others but am only ever really encountering myself.  Therefore I shouldn’t even bother trying.”

The vulgar perspectivist is a sort of hyper-correlationist.  Since everything, for them, is a matter of perspective and since each of us is forever trapped in our perspective, there shouldn’t even be an attempt to understand others.  In this connection, the critique of correlationism would not so much bring about an encounter with a perspectiveless real, as open the possibility of an encounter with alterity.  A lot of ink has been spilled talking about the anthropocentrism of correlationist thought.  When the correlationist asserts the impossibility of ever thinking world and thought apart from one another, he isn’t simply talking about any thought, but rather the thought of a particular species:  humans.  Just consider, for example, phenomenology.  Heidegger’s abbreviated analyses of animal umwelts aside, phenomenology subordinates all other beings to human thought.  Nor is it just a species subordination that takes place, but a conception of normal human thinking that is being assumed (here Canguillhem as well as early Foucault are deeply relevant to the critique of correlationism; as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on animal worlds, the worlds of people with different psychiatric “disorders”, the worlds of different artists and sexes and…”).

Correlationism isn’t just the thesis that we can never think being and thought apart, but is also a species specific conception of the world that makes deep assumptions about what a normal human being is.  Now generally when this is pointed out, one of two objections are made:  Often one denounces the critic of correlationism as somehow hating human beings.  This is a rather peculiar charge.  Pointing out that a position is incomplete or overlooks something doesn’t amount to hating human beings.  Such a criticism also assumes a unicity to the term “human” that there is good reason to doubt.  On the other hand, one concedes the importance of trying to think such alterity, while also arguing that it is impossible to think alterity because it is always us thinking the different and thereby reducing it to the same.  This is always the core argument of correlationism:  even as you’re trying to think that which is other than thought, you are still the one thinking it and therefore you can only think thought and never that which is other than thought.

However, we really should question this argument.  In interpersonal relations there is a profound difference between the solipsistic narcissist that only ever hears their own meanings in the words of others and a person that marginally begins to understand the world of another person.  We readily seem to grant that it is possible to understand something of another person’s world, to grasp them in their difference, and that there is a difference between only ever hearing yourself in another and in hearing another.  To be sure, we never fully grasp another person, but isn’t there a difference between the man who only ever interprets women in masculine terms, in terms of his own experience, and the man that has some glimmer of understanding of what it’s like to be a woman in this particular world, and vice versa?  If we grant this, then why is it such a leap to suppose that we might be capable of understanding something– not everything –of the world of other beings?  Isn’t there a difference between thinking of cats in terms of what would motivate us if we were a cat and attempting to think about what might motivate a cat qua cat?

One way of understanding the critique of correlationism then might be as a pluralization of correlation and as a radical perspectivism.  What we would get here is something like a non-reductive realism of perspectives.  This would entail a posthuman phenomenology that both challenges the unicity of the term “human”, recognizing a variety of different phenomenological structures for different human beings, but also an exploration of the worlds of other species.  It would be a world without Model, but that recognized an infinite variety of models in the plural.  More to come.


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