I’ll be teaching the following course at The New Centre for Research & Practice starting this October.  This will be followed by a course of the same name devoted to Onto-Cartography.  Please come join me!  Enrollment information can be found on the New Centre’s website.

 

The Anarchy of Objects:  Objects and Regimes of Attraction

Instructor: Levi Bryant Module: 1 of 2 Date & Time: Sundays: October 19th & 26th; November 2nd & 9th 7:00 PM – 9:30 PM EST; 6:00 PM – 8:30 PM CST

DESCRIPTION: Since the revolutionary work of Immanuel Kant, Continental philosophy has been dominated by the idealist or correlationist turn wherein it is argued that mind structures and constitutes reality. In 20th century Continental philosophy, this correlationist turn has been manifested in the thesis that it is language, signs, discourses, or narratives that structure reality. This thesis has also harbored the emancipatory promise of liberating people from oppressive conditions through a critique and deconstruction of various discourses and symbolic systems that structure social relations.Through the disclosure that forms of subjectivity and identity are not intrinsic properties of persons but are social constructions, these identities and power-relations are revealed to be contingent, and it becomes possible to build new forms of subjectivity, identity, and social relations. Such is the political import of the work of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and those influenced by Lacan. The emancipatory achievements of the semiotic turn are not to be underestimated nor minimized; however, they have obscured another form of power, non-discursive power, that arises from materiality as such. Power issues not simply from signification and how we signify, but also how the world of objects about us is organized.

Through a reading of Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects, this seminar explores both the being of material objects and how they contribute to the organization of social relations through technologies, infrastructure, living beings, and features of geography. Over the course of the Fall seminar, students will be introduced to the ontology of objects, relations between objects, and how they influence the form that societies take. Special emphasis will be placed on interrelation between the agency of signs and the agency of material objects in structuring the social worlds in which we live. In exploring these themes, the seminar hopes to disclose new sites of political struggle as well as new opportunities for political emancipation.

REQUIREMENTS: Each seminar session will consist of lectures over the material assigned that week, as well as class discussion. Students are expected to participate in class with contributions of their own in the form of questions and observations. Students are required to attend all four sessions of the online seminar. Over the course of the week there will also be message board discussions over the material. Students taking the course for credit will write a 3000-3500 word essay applying the concepts drawn from the assigned readings in the analysis of how a region of the social world is structured.

As a good cosmopolitan or citizen of the world, we commonly assert that all value terms are relative.  We say this because we look at the multi-cultural world about us, and see that different cultures (what’s a culture?) have different sets of values.  I can very well see how I could decide an issue like whether or not the world is round through an appeal to evidence, I reason, but I can’t see how I could resolve disputes over different theories of what’s right and valuable.  There’s no apparent referent that would allow me to decide these things.  Thus, when sitting in my chair, reflecting on these things, I say it’s all relative.  I say that just as society determines the value of a dollar bill and that the value of that bill doesn’t reside in the bill itself, every society decides what is of value, what is just, what is good, what is beautiful.  I then congratulate myself for being tolerant and being able to recognize this.  If everyone just understood this, I think, there’d be no war.  “You have your values, I have mine.”

I then walk out the door.  A man mugs me on the way to work.  He takes my wallet.  I’ve lost my identification and now have to make calls to the bank and credit card companies.  I find myself uttering “his action was wrong”, but then I remind myself that what he did was good according to his set of values and wrong according to my system of values.  I’m slightly heartened by this wisdom.  Next I go to work and discover that my family’s health benefits have been cut because the company hasn’t been increasing profit this quarter, but that pay has been increased for the CEO of my company.  This strikes me as a contradiction, but I remind myself that those that run the company have one set of values and I have another.  Our dispute really arises, I say, because we just have different interests.  My daughter joins the Peace Corps and goes to another country.  She’s abducted and sold into slavery.  I remind myself that these are just conflicting sets of values concerning different cultural attitudes towards people and women.

In each case I try to console myself by saying that the different groups of people just have different sets of values.  If that slaver just understood that my daughter doesn’t share his values, he wouldn’t abduct her.  He’d recognize that he should recognize that his own values are his own and are not those of others, and wouldn’t abduct people who don’t advocate the value of abducting people.  But then I’m stunned.  I realize that in saying he should respect other systems of value, I’ve evoked a trans-e-valua-tive norm that he ought to obey.  But my relativity thesis forbids me from doing this.  How can I reconcile this?  I thought my relativity thesis would bring peace, but only at the price of imposing a trans-cultural value…  Respect for differing valuing systems.

And that’s really the problem.  In my relativism I thought I could stand above the fray, outside of what my judgments commit me to, surveying all the different cultural systems of value.  But I’ve found that my attempt to stand outside still committed me to a norm that wouldn’t be advocated by all of those different cultures.  I now realize that I’m never outside and that while it is good to be tolerant, I still have to choose.  I recognize that my choices might not hold up well under scrutiny, that I might turn out to be wrong, but I also realize that there’s no other way and that if I do turn out to be wrong, at least I can revise my positions on value and norms.  I find that even if I’m baffled as to how we would ever decide which value system is true or just, I nonetheless have to attempt to formulate criteria.  From this is borne an new concept:  what peoples believe to be right and what is right.  It might be that something is right even if no one has knowledge of it.  And it might be that it is possible for us to be mistaken.  All of our actions and judgments, when not sitting in the comfort of our home, suggest that we’re really committed to this; we just don’t know how we would ever acquire this knowledge and rational means for demonstrating such claims.

Every claim and action we take commits us to other things.  If I make the claim “my father murdered a servant” (Plato’s Euthyphro), I am committing myself to a concept of murder.  Euthyphro’s father bound a servant who had killed another servant, and threw him in a ditch while waiting for the authorities to arrive.  During this time the servant died from exposure to the elements and hunger.  Is this murder?  For example, is it manslaughter?  Or is it something else.  Has Euthyphro properly categorized this occurrence?  For Euthyphro, it seems that a dead body resulting from the action of some human being is sufficient to categorize an event as murder.  But is this true?  The question is not idle speculation.  Categorizations of happenings as murder or manslaughter come with very different sets of duties and entail very different punishments.  The question is not one of whether Euthyphro has accurately or veridically categorized his father’s action as murder, but more profoundly is a question of how we should respond to the action of Euthyphro’s father.  Euthyphro’s categorization presupposes a concept of murder, and part of the work of philosophy would consist in 1) getting clear on just what his judgment of his father presupposes (prior even to raising questions of whether it’s correct or not), and then, 2) determining whether these are good presuppositions.  The stakes are high.  If Euthyphro’s presuppositions are mistaken, yet he manages to persuade the court that his father did indeed commit murder, his father’s reputation might be ruined, or his father might wrongly be put to death, or Euthyphro might even bring the wrath of the gods down upon the city (recall how Oedipus brings the wrath of the god for failing in his duties to his mother and father).  This is why questions of knowledge are never just questions of knowledge.  They are also questions of of just action, because the concepts we deploy in acting in the world.  Mistaken commitments will lead to bad action.

Despite the crudeness of Euthyphro’s concept of murder and his confusion surrounding what piety is, he nonetheless has one trait that is commendable.  Euthyphro understands commitment.  Socrates is astonished when Euthyphro tells him that he’s indicting his own father.  “How could you do this to your own father!”  Socrates’s utterance– and I don’t think he really believes it –presupposes that we have one set of rules for family and perhaps friends and another for those outside those circles.  Euthyphro will have none of it.  The moral and legal law, if it exists, applies in exactly the same way for all people regardless of whether they are kin or strangers.  Euthyphro is a universalist.  He understands that his advocacy of a law– regardless of how misguided it is –holds in all cases regardless of whether the case is a member of tribe.  He has a concept of justice in germinal form.  He understands that his position on the law commits him to treating members of tribe, kin, in exactly the same way as strangers.

Our claims and actions also commit us to “future” judgments.  I claim that God, by definition, is a perfect being.  From this a number of other commitments follow.  I ask myself, “what would a being have to be in order to be perfect?”  Well such a being would have to be omniscient because certainly a perfect being wouldn’t be perfect if such a being didn’t simultaneously know all things past, present, and future.  I further reason that such a being would have to be omnipotent, because a being limited in its power could not be perfect.  Likewise, such a being would have to be eternal because the capacity to die would be an imperfection.  Such a being would also have to be rational because it is more perfect to be rational than irrational (look at how people evaluate those in the grips of a drug addiction).  Finally, such a being would have to be morally perfect, because it’s impossible to see how a perfect being couldn’t also be good and just.  Here my commitment to the thesis that God is a perfect being entailed my commitment to all sorts of other things about God (omniscience, eternity, omnipotence, eternity, goodness).  These things followed from that first posit.

Now I read a sacred text like the Bible.  Perhaps I am committed to the truth of the Bible.  Yet I quickly find that my commitments revolving around the essence of God conflict with my commitments to the truth of this holy book.  I open the first few pages of this book.  It tells me that God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden called Eden.  In that garden he placed a fruiting tree that he forbade them to eat from.  A creature tempts Eve, she eats and then Adam eats.  God, full of wrath at this defiance, exiles them from the garden and condemns them to suffer from disease, hunger, cold, menstration, death, etc.  I recall my commitments.  Can my commitment to the perfection of God be squared with my commitment to the truth of the Bible?  The two are in conflict.  Since God is omniscient, God already knew they would eat the fruit.  “But”, one objects, “it wasn’t God that did this, they had free will and the serpent tempted them.”  But God created that creature and knew they’d eat the fruit, regardless of their free will.  God created the circumstances in which this could occur, knowing full well how things would turn out.  This sounds like the action of a sadist, like the antagonist in the Saw films, not the actions of a morally good being.

At this point we have to choose.  Our commitments require it.  Will we abandon our commitment to God’s perfection so as to maintain our commitment to the truth of this holy text?  If we do that we’ve abandoned the best reason for remaining committed to God:  he’s perfect and therefore good.  Will we abandon the truth of this story?  Will we say it’s just a creation of misguided poets as Plato often said of the Greek poets?  Wouldn’t this entail abandoning the entire book?  Will we try to reinterpret the story to make it logically consistent with our commitment to the perfection of God?  Perhaps God did it for the good of Adam and Eve.  However, it’s hard to see how this action was good for Adam and Eve.  That’s like saying it was good to lose one’s loved one because it allowed you to grow as a person.  Will you say the story is only allegorical, attempting to teach a moral lesson through metaphor?  That’s probably the best option– we’ll call it the “Joseph Campbell/Jung thesis” –but now you’ve also called into question the truth of all these other stories and the entire ontology presupposed by that book.  Regardless of what strategy you adopt, the point is that your commitments commit you to other things and that in these circumstances you have to choose.  You can’t have it all.  You can, of course, revise your commitments– that’s what critique is all about –but those revisions will now commit you to yet other things.  A great part of the work of philosophy consists in determining just what we have committed ourselves to, what follows consistently from these commitments, where these commitments conflict with one another, and how we ought to revise our commitments to resolve these conflicts.

A standard critique of  universalism in the domain of politics is that the universal is really a veiled particularity.  For example, one might speak of “universal rights” such as those outlined in The Declaration of the Rights of Man, yet a critic might rightfully point out that when these rights are carefully scrutinized, they’re not really universal at because in reality they favor the interests of Western European men, and are actually exclusionary to women and people from other cultures.

I think this is a good argument.  The problem is that from this observation people often make the entailment that universals don’t exist.  After all, if every proposed universal we’ve ever come across turns out to be a veiled particularity, then it would seem to follow that universals are always fictions, shams, lies, rhetorical constructs.  “Universals” (note the scare quotes) would really just be, as Nietzsche argues, rhetorical techniques through which one group advances their power and privilege over another group.  While this argument appears plausible on the surface, the main problem is that it fails to recognize that it is arguing from the standpoint of the universal.  In other words, the critique of the false universal, presupposes a concept of true universality.  The person who dismisses the Rights of Man on the grounds that they really embody a veiled particularity or privilege, is actually presupposing a concept of the universal.  They’re saying that this “universal” fails to live up to what universality ought to be.  Universality, despite the attempt of the Nietzschean to banish it, strikes again.

It’s been a long time since I read Laclau and Mouffe, but if memory serves me right, it seems to me that they say something similar.  While Laclau & Mouffe emphasize the way in which different groups struggle with one another over who gets to fill out the empty content of the universal term (e.g., who gets to say what freedom really means, communists or capitalists?), they also seem to suggest that there’s something of the universal that always exceeds and escapes particularity.  I’d like to suggest that this dimension of the universal (and maybe they already said it; or maybe it was Zizek) is what Lacan referred to as Real.  There is something Real about the universal, which is to say that the universal is impossible to represent in the world, impossible to represent, but that it nonetheless always returns to its place.

No matter how thoroughly we debunk the universal, no matter how completely we show that every known claim that something is a universal is in fact a veiled particularlity, the universal still seems to return.  The universal is like the ghost of Hamlet’s father calling for us to overcome the injustice of particularity, of unfairness, of inequity, even if we don’t know what true fairness, equality, and universality would be.  The universal does not so much exist as insist.  It insists both as something that calls us to make it real, but also as something that everywhere and always seems to recede while nonetheless being present.  And perhaps this is the whole problem surrounding the universal.  When we think we know and have it, when we think it is established in the world, we can be certain we’re in the domain of veiled particularity.  However, when we think the universal as an ever receding horizon, as something that perpetually calls to us, that insists, despite the fact that it is not yet actual or real in the world, then we know we’re in the domain of true universality.  Universality is a problem to perpetually be addressed.  It is a problem that perpetually addresses us.  It is not something that is already here.

 

The skepticism I’m speaking of here is that sort that denies that we can know whether the world exists, whether any of our theories are true, whether other people exist, whether the moment before now really occurred and whether the moment after now will occur, and so on.  Let’s call this sort of skepticism “decadent skepticism”.  The decadent skeptic wins every argument.  I’m not referring to the sort of highly valuable skepticism we find in Derrida, Lyotard, certain moments of Wittgenstein, Latour (yes, I think he’s a huge skeptic), Hume, Nietzsche, Zizek, etc., where suspicion is called on a variety of our claims about reason, what we can know, what morality is about, etc.  These latter anti-philosophers are absolutely vital to the philosophical project of discerning how far we can get with reason (without having to make appeals to gods and whatnot).  I’ll call this latter sort of skepticism “critical skepticism”.  This skepticism, I think, does real service to thought and society by revealing biases, prejudices, assumptions, and illicit forms of power behind claims and institutions that claim to be acting on behalf of the good, public welfare, and the true.

The problem with decadent skepticism is that it makes no difference.  I guess here my assumption is that good philosophy makes a difference in how we do things.  Good philosophy leads you to see different things than you would have otherwise seen, pursue the formation of different types of institutions, regard different things as being ethical obligations, etc.  Good philosophy makes a difference in what we believe to be of value, how we judge, how we cognize, how we build, and so on.  Decadent skepticism ultimately makes no difference (at least as far as I can tell).

Suppose we’re unable to refute the extreme skeptic in his claim that the world does not exist, that there are no other people, that we’re just a brain in a vat hooked to electrodes, that yesterday really did not exist and tomorrow will not happen, etc.  The decadent skeptic always wins his arguments because he’s undermined any possibility of evidence through his skepticism.  The thing is, though, my life wouldn’t be any different were all of this true.  I’d still have to behave as if there are cause and effect relations, as if tomorrow will happen, as if yesterday I placed myself in debt, as if there are other people, as if I need to work in order to eat, etc.  This is why I call extreme skepticism decadent skepticism.  It is “philosophical” in the worst vernacular sense of the term:  that sense which wonders about things that ultimately make no difference whatsoever.  So no, I have no idea how to refute the extreme skeptic, but nonetheless neither my life nor that of the skeptic’s is any different if he’s right.

 

B_S_no._13H_bevel_gear_cutting_machine_blueprint_drawing_bIn Onto-Cartography I propose a machine-oriented ontology.  “Machine” is a synonym for “entity”, “thing”, “object”, or “being”.  Machine-oriented ontology– or more simply, “machinism” –is the thesis that all of being is composed of machines.  I make the argument for this thesis in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects; though there I use the term “object”.  Clearly the term “machine” is here used in a sense quite a bit broader than it’s used in ordinary language.  In natural language we thing of a machine, above all, as something that is built by humans.  Such a view implicitly holds that there are three broad categories of entities:  natural beings such as trees and stars, tools such as forks and ice pics, and machines.  We can then ask what it is that distinguishes a machine from a tool insofar as both machines and tools have humans (and other similar entities) as their condition of existence.  If, however, I make the claim that all of being is composed of machines, it is clear that I have distorted the use of this term as it occurs in natural language.  Clearly stars, planets, tardigrades and trees are not produced by humans (allowing that farming is a different form of cultivation than designing and building a car).  And clearly, trees are very different types of entities than blenders, computers, and garage door openers.  Certainly a work of art is a different type of entity than a garbage disposal.  A machinic ontology would have to be sensitive to these differences, articulate what they are, and develop a machinology (akin to a zoology) of the different types of machines that exist and what their distinguishing features are.  Just as reptiles are different types of animals than mammals, but both are nonetheless animals, automobiles, hammers, stars, buildings, and butterflies are all different types of machines, belonging to different genuses, but are nonetheless machines.

The choice of “machine” for “entity” is certainly a rhetorical choice.  What matters is the concept behind the signifier, not so much the signifier that’s chosen to nominate that concept.  If the term doesn’t appeal, you’re welcome to choose others.  There are few debates as irritating, worthless, and superficial as those over terminological choices.  What then, if any, is the rhetorical payoff of referring to entities as “machines”, beyond perhaps irritating vitalists and luddites?  If I’ve chosen the term “machine” rather than “thing”, “entity”, “object”, “event”, or “process”, then this is because I think “machine” comes closest to drawing our attention to how things operate and what they do.  “Process” comes close, though still doesn’t do as good a job, I think, as the term “machine”.  Machinism is an essentially operational perspective on being.  It asks not what things are, but what they do.  In this regard, machinism is an analytic framework similar to the manner in which phenomenology is an analytic framework.  It is a framework of concepts designed to analyze beings in a particular way.

NPCA_posters3Machinism can best be understood by contrasting it with what might be called a “substantialist” approach.  A substantialist approach asks what a thing is.  Here before me I have a marker.  The substantialist asks “what is a marker?”  He then proceeds to describe the marker.  “It is long and cylindrical.  It is made of plastic.  It has blue along its body and cap, spelling the word ‘Expo’.  It has a felt tip.  It is used for writing.  Etc.”  The substantialist might ask “what constitutes the essence– if there is one –of markers?”  The concept of essence has a bad reputation, but really all one is asking when inquiring after essence is “what set of features determine that that entity is a member of a kind?”  Or alternatively, “what distinguishes this type of entity from all other types of entities?’  For example, “what makes a marker a marker rather than a pencil or a pen?”  It’s difficult to see why this question is so objectionable.  What’s objectionable are misattributions of essence, or the claim that some type of thing has an essence when it really does not, e.g., claiming there’s an essence to “American” beyond being a citizen of a particular country (“Americans are like…”).

Without discounting substantialist analysis– there are circumstances where it’s entirely appropriate –machinism asks a different question.  Rather than asking “what is it?”, machinism asks “what does it do?”  Now one might suppose that this question was already covered under substantialism.  After all, when analyzing the marker, we said markers are used for writing.  However, writing is something we and other apes do with markers, it is not what markers do.  A machinic orientation asks what the marker does, how it acts and operates on other things?  For example, we might ask how writing instruments operate on us?  Does years of using writing instruments change a person’s bone and muscle structure in their hands?  Are the hands of writers different than those of non-writers?  Do writing utensils change our neurological structure?

read on!

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Why does philosophy, dealing with such apparently abstract issues, generate so many controversies?  Because philosophy is essentially debating what counts as a publicly admissible reason as a ground for persuasion and governance.  It essentially discusses what is free game (or a personal preference beyond law) and what is binding or public. Philosophy is meta-politics, or the question of what can count as a reason, whether there are any reasons, who ought to be authorized to speak, whether everyone should be authorized, etc. It explores the boundary between reasons and violence (tyrannical imposition) and is politics before politics.

I won’t call it “negative theology” because that would be attributing too much to such a position, but it strikes me as closely related.  I’m sure my theology friends will correct me and I’m eager to learn.  So what do I mean by “theological mysterianism”?  When confronted by the critiques of rational/natural theology, I often hear people respond with mysterian answers.  What is a claim of rational theology?  Such a claim might be something like the following:

God is, by definition a perfect being.  If God is a perfect being, then God must also be morally perfect and must be omniscient, for when we ask ourselves what “perfection” would be, these properties are logically entailed.

If God is morally perfect, then the stories of Job, Adam and Eve, and Zeus committing adultery cannot be true, because they violate one or the other of these properties of moral perfection or omniscience.

How does the mysterian (usually an advocated of revealed theology) respond?  Generally they respond with the claims that humans can’t possibly understand or know God’s perfection because we’re just lowly humans and lack the cognitive capacity to understand these things (or the infinite).  In this way, the mysterian is able to preserve the truth of the stories they get from the authority of revealed theology (stories in sacred texts), by saying these things are beyond our comprehension.  The argument runs “Although God appears to act immorally in Job, it’s only an appearance produced as a result of our inability to comprehend divine perfection.”  Likewise, “Although the story of Adam and Eve appears nonsensical because there’s 1) no plausible reason why a divine being would need to experiment with whether beings such as us would eat the forbidden fruit, and 2) a being that did know how things would turn out but did such a thing anyway would be an immoral sadist, we just can’t understand God’s omniscience, rationality, or moral perfection.  He had his reasons and they were good.”  In this way, the advocate of mysterianism is able to defend the truth of these stories and stave off critique.

Such a strategy is fine so far as it goes, but it is not without consequences.  If we submit the mysterian argument to weak transcendental analysis, we see that it assumes that God is unknowable.  This has serious implications for discussions of God in public discourse.  The mysterian began by wanting to save the stories they derive from revealed theology by saying that God’s nature is essentially unknowable.  Not a bad strategy.  However, what they fail to notice is that they’re burning down the house when they say this.  If God we claim that God is essentially unknowable, that he’s a complete mystery, then we’ve sacrificed the right to say anything of God.  We’ve sacrificed the right to say that God is good, that God’s creation is good, that God commands certain things, that there’s a reason for things, or that there’s any way that we can distinguish God from a tyrant (a being that arbitrarily acts merely based on taste and is able to establish his acts as sanctioned because of his mere superior power alone; like Q in Star Trek:  The Next Generation).  In other words, in a desire to preserve his stories as true, the mysterian abdicates any right to use God as a reason or premise in any argument about our moral duties, how the polis should be organized, why creation is good, etc.  Why?  Because the mysterian has said we can rationally know nothing because he is so far “beyond” (as Plato would have it) any rational comprehension.  If you wish to make that argument, fine.  However, in doing so, you’ve sacrificed any right to use appeals to God’s goodness and commands in your argumentation on any other issue.  Notice, in making this argument I’ve done so in a completely immanent fashion.  I haven’t appealed to any external or outside criteria, but have merely taken the mysterian at his own word and drawn out the consequences of those words.  Somehow I suspect that no one is really a mysterian and that people who argue this way also argue that some knowledge of God is possible when they appeal to God.

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