March 2009


dsc01066 About ten days ago I decided, on a whim, to plant my very first vegetable and herb garden in my yard. I am not at all sure what motivated me to do this. The desire seemed to erupt out of nowhere. Perhaps it had to do with all the biology I’ve been reading lately. As a result of Toscano’s fascinating analysis of developmental systems theory or interactive constructivism in the magnificent Theatre of Production, I recently reread Susan Oyama’s Ontogeny of Information and have been working my way through the outstanding articles collected in Cycles of Contingency. More generally I’ve found myself filled with an overwhelming hunger for scientific knowledge, such that I find myself inhabited by a deep aversion to anything that vaguely smacks of cultural studies (with the exception of ethnography), and am unable to get enough in the way of nature shows, books on physics and astronomy, texts in biology, etc. I suppose, with all this material about ontogeny and interactive constructivism, I wanted to see the process of ontongeny or development in action, how plants construct themselves, but also how my body might be constructed differently as a result of this inhuman encounter, how I might become other, like Tournier’s Robinson, as a result of this encounter with the soil. But maybe, above all, I wanted to do something other than think– at least philosophically –but to surrender myself to soil and grass and plants, completely absorbing myself in what I was doing. In this connection I often find myself wondering whether our bodies, our organisms, do not need a minimal degree of tension, otherness, materiality, in order to find happiness. Through placing my hands in the soil, through mixing myself in this alien stuff, I hoped to find this otherness that might relieve me of some of the malaise that accompanies a lethargic, overly intellectual, passive, consummerist lifestyle.

So the idea was conceived on day and the next day I found myself gardening. I’ve never gardened before so I had no idea just how big this project was. I plotted an area of my lawn that was roughly fifteen by eleven feet or 165 square feet. This struck me as a small area, but for a body such as my own, unaccustomed to manual labor, removing the grass and turning over the soil armed with nothing more than a mattock and a spade, this turned out to be a grueling, monumental undertaking. In two days, overeager and overambitious as I always am once I start something, I pulled up the grass in this area, turned the soil over, hauled in five hundred assorted pounds of topsoil, manure, and special planting sand, and planted a variety of different herbs and vegetables. I planted sage, rosemary, Italian oregano, English thyme, basil, chives, lavender, green onion, six different varieties of sweet and hot peppers, cucumber, variety romaine, and spinach (these decisions were dictated by the North Texas climate). The herbs were all pre-planted and were simply a matter of digging a hole and dropping them into the ground. Yet the romaine, cucumbers, spinach, and many of the peppers were planted directly by seed simply thrown into the ground. After these grueling two days, two days where I seemed unable to stop working once I started in the morning, where my mind was entirely clear and empty as I lacked consciousness and had simply become a digging mechanism, my body ached intensely for the following week, shaking at first, bringing wishes that I could somehow detach my groaning arms and legs from my torso for relief. I suspect this overexertion is part of the reason I fell ill last week.

Nonetheless, much to my delight this afternoon I saw, with jaw dropping wonder (why should I have been so surprised), the leaves of spinach, romaine, and cucumbers tentatively beginning to poke up from the earth as if by magic. How is such a thing possible? Why does it fill me with so much surprise? Why do I feel the bizarre desire to now sit beside the garden and watch as these tender young plants grow? As if I could actually see their cells “popping”– pop, pop, pop –as they divide and organize themselves, undergoing their miraculous adventure of emergence and self-organization. The garden does not look like much yet, I know. In weeks to come I hope to surround it with flat, irregularly shaped rocks. I fear that I will never get all of the hardy Texas grass out of it. Nonetheless, this is a strange and simple form of satisfaction. How delightful to deal with something real, with something that isn’t a theory, signifier, or a concept. How wonderful to escape into the dirt and muck and watch life come into being.

Since I seem to be grumpy these days (no doubt because of the huge pile of grading before me and the illness I recently endured) it seems like a good time to continue exploring pet peeves as a way of striving to externalize and objectify internal aggressions. With respect to American ideology, one of the claims that drives me into endless fits is the thesis that people are primarily motivated by wealth incentives. Here the thesis runs that capitalism is the most natural and effective economic system because humans, by nature, lack motivation if not given strong economic incentives to work and produce.

I am sure my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist can provide all sorts of ethnographic examples of just how this essentialist thesis is plainly false. From the documentaries I’ve watched– and here I’m sure Jerry will beat me over the head as a dolt for getting some of my anthropology from television documentaries –I’m particularly partial to a number of South American tribes that strike me as being far more motivated by finding ways to amuse themselves and form strong community than by accumulation. These tribes– the few I’ve bothered to investigate at all, at any rate –strike me as playful and imaginative, without being concerned by accumulation.

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Perhaps I’m a mean spirited, miserable bastard– okay, yes, I am a mean spirited, miserable bastard –but two of my greatest pet peeves with what passes for “leftist” political thought as practiced in the United States revolve around a superficial politics based on the “kumbaya” that seemed to emerge around and following the sixties. I encounter this sort of political thought not so much in political theory circles, as I do among certain democratic activists still in the grips of 80s and 90s identity politics as the paradigm of all politics, to the detriment of anything having to do with political economy. “Kumbaya Politics” seems to be based on the thesis that the root cause of all suffering and conflict arises from the friend/enemy distinction as it organizes social groups. In other words, the thesis runs, if we would just recognize that everyone is human, that there is no genuine friend/enemy distinction, then human conflict would come to an end and we would all live harmoniously with one another. The reason there is conflict, strife, and struggle in the world lies in the operation of this artificial friend/enemy distinction among groups. Were we to just be tolerant– and here I think the Enlightenment concept of tolerance becomes twisted beyond all point of recognition –human conflict, cruelty, and struggle would end.

The second, and closely related, thesis that irritates me to know end is the thesis that the goodness or evil, justice or injustice, of a person’s actions is a function of their intentions. That is, the only people who are genuinely unjust, who are genuinely evil, are those who intend to be unjust and evil. Or, put differently, a person must consciously entertain unjust, wicked, and hateful thoughts to be unjust, wicked, and hateful. Given that the vast majority of people do not intend to be wicked, unjust, or hateful, given that the vast majority of people think of themselves as doing good and desire to do good, it follows that the vast majority of people are not “bad” people.

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I have been behind the curve on this one due to an incapacitating illness that has left me unable to do much of anything, but I am pleased to announce Taylor Adkins’ translation of Laruelle’s Dictionary of Non-Philosophy. This marks the first full translation of one of Laruelle’s books in English. Let us hope that more are to come. One of the thoughts that occurred to me through my nausea induced fog over the last couple of weeks is that if something like a materialist object-oriented philosophy is to be formulated, the concept of matter must paradoxically be left undefined. Or perhaps, put differently, matter must be treated as a non-concept. Ontological materialism would differ from other ontologies in that it would not begin from a concept of matter and then proceed to work through its implications, but rather the being of matter is itself an object of lively investigation outside of philosophy. Simply put, the materialist does not begin by knowing what matter is. We see why this must be the case in both the history of philosophy and the history of science. In the history of philosophy there are few positions more reviled than that of materialism (at least, symptomatically, among Continentalists). Few moves could be more cliche than renunciations of materialism, and often materialism is treated as a position so lacking in viability that it need not even be addressed or engaged. Indeed, one often gets the sense that philosophers take it as small beans to reject materialism.

My thanks go to Taylor for his diligent work. I hope he continues!

However, generally when we look at the details of these denunciations of materialism we discover that matter is treated as something absurd like Aristotle’s “un-form-atted” matter of Husserl’s hyle, such that one can quickly reject the notion of a matter without form as an absurdity, or archaic notions of matter are adopted such as Lucretius’ version of the atom where matter is conceived as impenetrable points coming in an infinity of different shapes, governed only by mechanical interactions. Yet one need only open any elementary physics textbook to see 1) how nowhere and at no time is the claim made that matter is un-form-atted, and 2) just how mysterious and open to investigation to concept of matter remains. With respect to the first point, if it should turn out that strings exist– still a highly speculative thesis –we find form and structure at all levels of matter, from the smallest unit of existence all the way to it more complex assemblages or societies. Matter, it turns out, is far more interesting and astonishing than was ever dreamt by Aristotle or Lucretius. Of course, to be fair, Lucretius managed to find a high degree worthy of wonder in his humble atoms, introducing us to a world where everything save the atoms themselves are constantly changing, where qualities are emergent, where all objects contain void, etc. He also has the distinct honor of having proposed the first workable scientific model of the universe. With respect to the second point, some 80% of the matter in the entire universe still remains unaccounted for, necessitating the need for new forms of matter and energy such as the mysterious dark matter. In short, the question of just what matter is remains very much open and is not the beginning point of an ontology, but rather something to be worked toward.

The question then becomes one of how to articulate an ontology without a concept of being. Can such a project even be conceived? Murmurs have been heard here and there. Heidegger had his question of being and his ontological difference. While certainly not a materialist by any stretch of the imagination, he does provide resources for at least posing questions of ontology without beginning from a presupposition of what being is. Likewise, in Deleuze we have the concept of difference, where we are to begin without a foundational identity in the form of a concept. Likewise in the case of Badiou with his undefined sets (and here it’s worthwhile to add that no ontology or philosophy can be adequate to our age, or to thought since the 17th century, without thinking actual infinity, the true discovery of the Enlightenment and the horror of all the obscurantism that followed the Enlightenment in the reactionary philosophies of German Idealism and its descendants). Finally, Laruelle, with his non-philosophy, with his non-concept of the real, provides a rich resource for thinking a materialism without a concept of matter.

Today NPR reported on fMRI research that indicates that when people think of issues pertaining to religion regions of the brain involved in interpersonal relations light up.

The human brain, it appears, responds to God as if he were just another person, according to a team at the National Institutes of Health.

A study of 40 people — some religious, some nonreligious — found that phrases such as “I believe God is with me throughout the day and watches over me” lit up the same areas of the brain we use to decipher the emotions and intentions of other people.

The researchers speculate that the development of this sort of cognition was crucial to the development of civilization:

Without religion, Bulbulia says, “large scale cooperation, which now spans the world, would be impossible. He adds that humans differ from other species in their ability to cooperate in very large groups.

Religion can help foster cooperation because it ensures that people share the same set of rules about behavior, and think they’ll be punished if they don’t follow them, Bulbulia says. Religion also unites people, especially in times of great uncertainty.

This theory, I think, would indicate that it’s rather inaccurate to suggest that the brain processes thoughts of God exactly as it processes thoughts of other persons. Rather, if the evolution of religious thought played a large role in the ability of humans to engage in large scale cooperation, then this is because the thought of God would be something like the “Person = x” similar Kant’s famous “object = x”, functioning as a general structure allowing for the possibility of empathy towards all people irregardless of their differences. Just as Kant’s “object = x” isn’t any particular object but a formal structure that allows objects to be thinkable, so too would the person = x be a formal structure enabling all interpersonal relations (cf. Deleuz’es “Tournier and a World Without Others” for a good gloss on this Other-structure). Where individual encounters with particular people tend to be governed by the same/different schema, allowing for empathy towards those whom we code as “like us”, the formal schema of the “Person = x” would allow these individual differences to be surmounted– to a greater or lesser degree, anyway –allowing for the different to be seen as a part of the same. In this way, differences between different tribes, cultures, languages, customs, etc., could be surmounted to allow for cooperative activity. Of course, at this meta or transcendental level of personhood– the person = x –the same/different schema would still be operative but in a way in which sameness was no longer defined by local and immediate social relations between individuals. In other words, what this neuro-research seems to have uncovered is something like belief in the existence of the Lacanian big Other, where the subject believes, through the screen of fantasy, that the Other is structured in a particular way and that it desires specific things (the transformation of desire into demand via fantasy that fills out the lack in the Other).

Of course, one wonders why neurologists are claiming that the functioning of these brain centers is an evolutionary development (presumably they’re referring to genes) rather than a cultural acquisition. All the fMRI research seems to establish is that certain brain regions light up when people think about religion. Nothing here establishes that the cause of these brain structures must be genetic or innate in character, rather than the result of developmental processes involving our relation to culture.

Anyway, read the article here.

Any ontology has to navigate the Charybdis of conceiving entities as atoms completely unrelated to anything else and the Scylla of reducing entities entirely to relations. If entities are thought as atoms that are completely unrelated, then many of the properties of an entity become entirely mysterious. In part, the properties of an entity arise only in and through the relations the entity shares with other entities. Thus, for example, a seed only begins to germinate in relation to other entities such as particular temperatures, moisture, sunlight, etc. When the seed is divorced from its relation to these other entities, we are at a loss to account for the ground or reason for these properties are why they are thus and so and not otherwise. We can say that an entity has these properties, but are unable to explain why or how the entity came to have these properties.

Hegel articulates this point well in The Encyclopaedia Logic (EL):

Existence is the immediate unity of inward reflection and reflection-into-another. Therefore, it is the indeterminate multitude of existents as inwardly reflected, which are at the same time, and just as much, shining-into-another, or relational; and they form a world of interdependence and of an infinite connectedness of grounds with what is grounded. The grounds are themselves existences, and the existents are also in many ways grounds as well grounded. (§ 123)

If we were to retranslate Hegel’s terminology in a more agreeable way, we could translate “inward reflection” as the property of entity characterized by “self-relation” or “being-a-one” and “reflection-into-another” as “relation-to-another-one”. Thus, Hegel’s self-relation or being-a-one would refer to actual occasions or objectiles, and his relation-to-another-one would refer to prehensions of other entities. Hegel clarifies just what he has in mind with this conception of existence in an illuminating note to this paragraph:

The term “existence” (derived from existere) points to a state of emergence (my emphasis), and existence is being that has emerged from the ground and become reesetablished through the sublimation and mediation. As sublated being, essence has proved in the first place to be shining within itself, and the determinations of this shining are identity, distinction, and ground. Ground is the unity of identity and distinction, and as such it is at the same time the distinguishing of itself from itself. But what is distinct from the ground is not mere distinction any more than the ground itself is abstract identity. The ground is self-sublating and what it sublates itself toward, the result of its negation, is existence. Existence, therefore, which is what has emerged from the ground, contains the latter within itself, and the ground does not remain behind existence; instead, it is precisely this process of self-sublation and translation into existence.

Hegel has a highly complicated and elaborate conception of essence. Moreover, part of the difficulty in reading Hegel lies in the fact that epistemological issues are always imbricated with ontological issues. When Hegel refers to essence as “shining within itself” he is speaking in the epistemological register rather than the ontological register. That is, Hegel is referring to a new cognitive relation that has emerged with respect to entities. Rather than encounter an entity in its immediacy, we now encounter being as mediated. Thus, when I approach a being in its brute immediacy, I simply focus on its qualities or characteristics and treat it as a brute fact. An apple falls. This could be treated as an encounter with the apple in its immediacy. The falling apple begins to “shine within itself” when I am no longer focused on the brute immediacy of this event, but rather when I seek a ground for this event. Here the falling apple no longer “speaks for itself”, but rather there must be a reason or a ground for this falling that exceeds what is presented in the event of falling. Hegel’s point, then, has to do with how we shift from relating to objects in their immediacy, to looking for reasons that objects are thus and so and not otherwise. The objects come to “shine” in the sense that they no longer appear self-sufficient in their immediacy, but rather indicate some deeper ground beyond the immediacy of what’s encountered. This is an epistemological shift. Ontologically, objects will have grounds regardless of whether or not anyone thinks to inquire after them.

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70106_duchamp_nude_staircaseIn many respects Whitehead’s actual occasions or actual entities are analogous to what I call “objectiles”. I have adopted the term “objectile” for objects to capture the sense in which objects are dynamic and ongoing activities unfolding or producing themselves through time. Thus the word “objectile” is a portmanteau word combining “object” and “projectile”, so as to underline the sense in which objects are not fixed points in a spatial location, but rather spatio-temporal processes over time. Like Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending A Staircase, objectiles are not to be thought as stationary substances composed of fixed qualities or predicates, but rather as this very unfolding and movement through time and space. Objectiles are not the now in which they are, but are this very adventure across space and time.

duchampdescendingSo too in the case of Whitehead’s actual occasions or actual entities. Actual occasions make up the ultimate building blocks of Whitehead’s universe. As Whitehead puts it in Process and Reality,

‘Actual entities’– also termed ‘actual occasions’ –are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real. They differ among themselves: God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space… The final facts are, all alike, actual entities; and these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent. (18)

Whitehead’s ontology is thus atomistic in character. The universe, for Whitehead, is not composed of one substance, but of an indefinite number of substances, and, moreover, new substances are always coming into being. However, unlike Lucretian atoms that are eternal and indestructable, such that they never change and such that each one always possesses exactly the same properties for all time (i.e., they are immutable), Whitehead’s atoms or actual occasions are complex multiplicities or manifolds that become. “…[H]ow an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is… It’s ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming'” (23). In his earlier work Whitehead thus referred to actual occasions as events. An objectile, actual occasion, or actual entity is an event. And like all events it is therefore temporally elongated.

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20050716-019-pennsylvania-camping-cracked-mud-along-susquehanna-tracksI remember, with wonder, the mud along the shores of the James River down the street from me in Richmond, Virginia. I couldn’t have been more than four or five. My father would take me fishing for catfish and like any boy of that age, I would play in the water and the mud. We would catch a few fish and then return home. Often there would be a bushel of oysters waiting at the house and we would shuck them while preparing the fish, with their writhing whiskers, awaiting the feast to come.

If the mud of the river would fill me with such wonder, then this is because it would crack and harden in the hot sun, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I can still hear my father singing:

When the work is done
and the sun goes down
We all get together to have a little fun,
Down in the Mississippi mud

I would try to preserve these little pieces of earth, to put them together as a puzzle, but they all fell apart. What filled me with wonder, I think, was that earth could take on this form when evoked by the sun. Here was a sort of transformation of the elemental. Grains of dirt, otherwise loose such that it would fall from your fingers, could, after becoming wet, turn into this solid substance with a distinct pattern that couldn’t otherwise be discerned in the grains of dirt. A qualitative transformation. An interaction between substances– dirt, water, and photons of light –produced this new substance.

The idea, then, would be that substances reveal themselves, disclose themselves, in their interactions with one another. One substance draws something out from another substance, a new quality, a new arrangement, new properties.

I feel as if I only exist in being drawn out. In monadic isolation nothing takes place. I hibernate and remain still. It is only in relation to others, others who see differently than me, others that are hostile to me, others whom I love, others whom I hate, that thoughts take place in my mind. I discover my being relationally through a conjugation with other substances, other persons, such that I’m led to undertake involuntary adventures in aleatory encounters with these others that function like perturbations, informational interventions, that produce within me the revision of everything that I thought. This is the beauty of the internet… Such a strange field of aleatory encounters with such unsavory characters; yet nonetheless, despite all the frustration and misunderstanding, a cross fertilization of substances drawing oneself out of oneself, becoming, as a result, other. Sand for oysters everywhere. What a disaster for civilization!

Given how much I have written about Deleuze and how much Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari I have read, I confess that I am a bit embarrassed when I come across claims/charges that Deleuze is a vitalist. When I compare the references to vitalism I come across in the biological science and history of science (this wiki are a passable account of what I understand by vitalism) that I read with my understanding on Deleuze’s ontology, I have a difficult time seeing how Deleuze fits the bill. This leads me to wonder if I’m not missing something deep and obvious about Deleuze’s ontology or what counts as vitalism, or both. As it stands, it seems to me that charges that Deleuze is a vitalist are more ways of sidestepping arguments against Deleuze’s ontology than accurate interpretations of his position. That is, they strike me as ad hominem attacks on his position designed to dismiss through the association of his ontology with a position rightly regarded as noxious today rather than real arguments against the claims that he’s actually making. Someone help me out here. What am I missing?

UPDATED (Ask and ye shall receive): Michael, over at Complete Lies (a blog I’m just now discovering… Sorry Michael!), has a post up discussing vitalism. In a comment responding to Kvon, he further clarifies the manner in which he understands vitalism:

I think the key is the distinction between “machinic” and “mechanistic.” Mechanism is the old Newtonian physics that we all grew up with, which the romantics (like Schelling) and later vitalists (like Bergson) rebelled against. I think it’s safe to say that Deleuze and Grant are both steering clear of any sort of mechanistic causality as well as any Cartesian dualism with a causal “outside” and a non-causal “inside.” From my understanding of Deleuze, when he speaks of machines, he does not mean the same thing as when Descartes speaks of automata. That’s the difference.

Under this model, mechanism would be Newtonian mechanistic causality and vitalism would be the presence of some other force or activity within the depths of things. I wonder, however, whether this opposition isn’t a bit dated. Rather than giving ourselves two options about the nature of objects (mechanistic causation versus vitalistic agency), why not instead bite the bullet and argue that Newton-Laplace et al got it wrong, and that mechanistic causation as conceived by these thinkers is an exceedingly abstract, limited, conception of matter. Here, I think, we get the transition from the physics of certain types of objects to the sciences of chemistry, biochemistry, and biology. When evoking chemical reactions, biolochemistry, and biology we don’t need to evoke occult agencies like vital forces, but are instead talking about certain physical processes that obey time’s irreversible arrow and which are iterative (especially in biochemistry and biology) in nature. Under this thesis, rather than setting up an alternative between mechanism and vitalism, the claim would instead be that we have a lot to learn about how matter works.

One of the issues that’s repeatedly come up in debates surrounding various camps of speculative realist thought is the issue of whether or not the category of “object” should be retained within realist orientations of thought. Thus, in a recent post, Alex of Splinteringbonestoashes writes,

In using “object-oriented philosophy” as the term for any realist (anti-correlationist) position, isn’t there the danger of absolutising the object as realist ontological unit? I’m uncertain that, say, Brassier would want to limit himself in such a way for example, especially given recent critiques of metaphysical schema which rely upon objects as their basic structural component (I’m thinking particularly of Ladyman’s “Who’s Afraid of Scientism” in the latest Collapse). Indeed whilst it makes perfect sense to talk on a folk-metaphysical level about giving objects their proper attention (as you and Graham Harman do), to think at least as much about the interactions between inanimate non-human actants as human ones, does this not remain overly wedded to the very level of correlated folk-knowledge any realist must attempt to escape from? If the crucial component of science for realist philosophies lies in its anti-intuitive findings, leading to a continual disenchantment of the manifest image, why ought we to continue to think in terms divorced from these findings (i.e.- to remain at the level of “objects all the way down…”). Ladyman’s “Ontic Structural Realism” for example strikes up a radically eliminativist approach to objects tout court, in contrast OOP seems to remain overly in hoc to the visualisable structure of the objectal.

Before commenting further on this remark, it’s first important, I think, to point out that while all object-oriented philosophies are necessarily realist philosophies, not all realist philosophies are object-oriented philosophies. In order to qualify as an object-oriented philosophy the ontology in question must minimally argue that objects are 1) the minimal units of being (paraphrasing Whitehead in the first chapter of Process and Reality, “‘Actual entitites’– also termed ‘actual occasions’ –are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real” (PR, 18)), and 2) that these objects exist in-themselves or are not dependent on mind or the human to be what they are. Examples of object-oriented philosophies would thus be Aristotle, Lucretius, Leibniz, Whitehead, Latour, Graham, Harman, and myself. Note, all of these philosophies are wildly different, but they all share the common claim that objects are the minimal unit of being and are independent substances.

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