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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