July 2009

AntibodyWorking through Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students, I naturally have memes on my mind these days. Although there is a tendency for the concept of “memes” to be looked down upon in the world of theory, Dennett puts forward a number of striking ideas that are well worth consideration when thinking about the nature of language and culture. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett argues that memes, much like organisms, often form their own immunological system so as to help insure their replication. A meme, of course, is simply a cultural unit. Memes can be anything from hairstyles, to clothing, to techniques for preparing food, to songs, to particular ways of organizing society. The disturbing thesis of memetics– quite close in many respects to structural linguistics –is that the aim of memes is not to communicate or provide any advantage to those who use them, but simply to replicate themselves. Of course, one way in which memes can effectively replicate themselves lies in being useful in some way to the other replicants, humans, in which they commonly lodge themselves.

One way in which memes help to replicate themselves is by acquiring something resembling an “immune system”. Through the acquisition of an immune system, a memetic complex helps to insure its persistence and diminish drift or memetic change as it is replicated or passed from host to host. An obvious example of such an immunological system belonging to a mimetic complex would be certain concepts of faith as it operates in religion. Indeed, faith often functions like an anti-body within meme-complexes of religious belief. On the one hand, despite its very public, political, and social nature, it is not unusual to hear it said that faith is a private matter. In presenting itself as a private matter faith paradoxically enhances its likelihood of social or public replication by creating a defense against critique and criticism. The person who criticizes faith becomes the jerk who is not respecting another person’s privacy. Thus the person of faith is free to discuss and assert their faith as publicly as they like, but criticism is treated as a violation of the faithful person’s privacy and is said to ignore their rights or indicate a lack of respect.

read on!

Anotherheideggerblog has a terrific interview with Bogost. It’s filled with all sorts of gems and nuggets. His observations about deconstruction are particularly interesting:

In this respect, Derrida opened my eyes in ways I will always be grateful for (as I will for the influential American deconstructionists I had the benefit of studying under), but once my eyes were opened, I didn’t know what I saw. Nothing. A blank vista. A desert.

Why? Deconstruction is superb at setting things in eternal motion, like some wild steampunk apparatus fastened with magnets of opposing poles. And that apparatus is mesmerizing. But beyond enchantment, it offers little direction on what practical steps to take. It is a paperweight. Once things are destabilized, then what? It is poetic and moving to assert, like Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” but what sort of coward or psychopath would leave his companions stranded there, in the desert, with this useless joke of a compass? Go where, exactly? To do what, precisely? What’s the third term, the structure that offers alternative to the aporia without reconciling it? Deconstruction can never answer this question, by definition, yet it is where the real work resides.

Read the rest here.

No, I’m not starting another religious fight. InfiniteThought, true to her name, has a brilliant (in the American, not English sense of the word… Yanks don’t call nice room designs or good meals or timely cups of coffee “brilliant”), inspired, and raw review of Lars von Trier’s latest. Here’s a taste:

If depression is the feeling that somehow everything is askew, even with itself, that things are out of joint, and perhaps have always been so, then one’s own nature quickly becomes an internal faultline by which to measure this sense of abyssal disconnection. If nature is indeed ‘Satan’s church’ as Gainsbourg’s character (‘She’) claims at one point, then between the rational man (Dafoe’s distant, condescending therapist) and nature red in tooth and claw (the talking autophagic fox, the deer unconcerned that it has a stillborn fawn dangling from its womb, the runt egret covered with ants and eaten by its mother, the crow that Dafoe has to kill interminably whilst hiding in a burrow from his by-now completely deranged wife), lies woman, a confused and confusing mixture of the pathologically normal and the biologically disconcerting. If you think this is itself a problematically misogynist claim, overcoded with the self-hatred we are supposed to internalise from women’s magazines and the false expectations of a hyper-sexualised culture, I would suggest that we begin instead with the very real problems in self-conception generated by these contradictions: otherwise compassionate men are traumatised by the graphic nature of childbirth, finding it hard to reconcile the comforting warmth of the vagina they used to know with the monstrous visceral apparatus it becomes, however sanitised the hospital surroundings might be. Or the ambiguity of menstruation in a modern world, trying to square the regular heavy flow of blood, welcome only as an indication that one is not pregnant, with the world of plastic bags, air fresheners and pre-cooked meat (if this makes absolutely no sense, it’s because it’s a form of nausea almost impossible to explain because so mundane and so disturbing at once). It’s not hard to feel disgusted with this nature whether it’s because, as Charlotte Roche (interestingly a dead-ringer for Gainsbourg) said in that interview I did with her a while back, this womanly, female nature is experienced in a bizarrely, almost entirely individualised way.

The rest is required reading so go to it.

In the name of gender equality:

I can’t resist:


bryantAs I look back at Difference and Givenness, a book about which I have so many ambivalent feelings and from which I feel so distant, I think that if there is any accomplishment in this text it is to be found in the seventh chapter “Overcoming Speculative Dogmatism: Time and the Transcendental Field”. If I feel so ambivalent about Difference and Givenness, then this is because it is a book I believe to be populated by the sorts of micro-fascisms described by Foucault in his preface to Anti-Oedipus. It is a police book, filled with the desire to correct and dampen exuberant Deleuzians, assert academic hierarchy, and shackle them to constraint. It is a book that reeks of scholarship and a scholarly mentality, full of ressentiment directed at those who refuse to bow to the philosophical tradition and “practice rigor”. Rather than a book that functions as a “difference engine”, functioning to open up possibilities through aleatory appropriations that lead in surprising directions, instead it strove to maintain boundaries, borders, and possibilities. The book is shit in the psychoanalytic, object drive, sense of the word.

This had something to do with the context in which it was written. Overcome by an institutional framework dominated by phenomenology and Kant– indeed impressed by these things –I was, at the time, obsessed with the question of what entitled me to advocate Deleuze’s position. “How does the Deleuzian respond to the Husserlian”, I wondered. What a sad question, this question of authorization, as if we must first show our identification before passing through a series of gates or allowing ourselves to speak. As if we must first know in advance, ground things in advance, rather than engage in polemos. It is the question of an obsessional that is always preparing to begin without ever beginning, that is always deferring his encounter with his love as he gets the right career, becomes worthy, makes things right with the respective families (there’s always something left to do insuring that the eventual encounter is deferred), rather than simply passing to the act and letting the chips fall where they may.

But if there is something redeeming in this wretched, sad work of ressentiment and this sordid affair, if there is something that resists our academic machinery that only allows discipleship and slavish commentary, creating horrifying grey vampires and minotaurs that fight to the death, defending against any slight deviation, innovation or creation that isn’t beyond in some unobtainable realm recreating the rites of the sacred golden bull, it is to be found in the seventh chapter. Like all good obsessional phenomena it contains a marker of its own lie, the seed of its own undoing, an acknowledgment of its own fantasy, and this is what takes place in my seventh chapter. Like the rest of the passive work, it remains sad in that it contends that we must still pass through critical thought to reach speculative uncertainty. However, unlike the rest of the work, so obsessed with faux rigor coming from the Derrideans, the Husserlians, and the saddest creatures of all, the hermeneuts, it strives to undermine the very premise of all these approaches, showing that the difference between the critical and the speculative is indiscernible. In doing so, it sought to free the rights of the speculative, but was still ambivalent, as Nick Srnicek notes in his sensitive review of my book, so that the project of obsessional reflexivity might be abandoned once and for all. At least by me.

And oddly, it accomplished that goal, as uncertain or unconvincing as those arguments were. I can still recall, like a Spring day, my analytic session with Bruce Fink. Why did I choose a position at a two year school? “There”, I told Fink, “I will have academic freedom. I will be able to explore my interest in all styles of philosophy, psychoanalysis, biology, physics, history, literature, and so on without being required to be anything. No one will care what or where I publish, so I will be free to do what I want.” In his characteristic manner he said “hmmmm!!!”, making a honking sound like one of the squash horns my grandfather used to make for me as a young boy. At the time I thought that was a rationalization. Often I still do. I took myself out of the prestige game, though I still yearn for it sometimes. But what I was doing ultimately, I think, was giving myself the freedom to speculate. What a relief it was to read Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus years later! Perhaps, above all, what that seventh chapter gave me was the authorization to speculate without bowing before the obsessional alter of “Continental rigor” [editorial note: defense]. However, the fact that I would undermine my own work in this way must indicate that here there’s still something unresolved. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel embarrassment whenever anyone wants to discuss the work or wants insight into it.

brainvatIn email today an old friend of mine asks,

Currently I’m having a bit of a spat with other graphic designers over in another pocket of the Internet. My question is: can design be understood to have an ontology, can there be an ‘ontology of design’? Does this make philosophical sense?

I’m wondering if the assemblage that is my discourse, field, discipline, community, etc. can be understood as a thing? I like the notion of tracing it through all of those lenses and coming to a networked definition. A flat ontology perhaps? Does this make sense?

Hopefully he won’t object to me posting his question here as I think it’s an extremely interesting question that goes straight to the heart of what I’ve been working on with regard to cultural and social theory. Within the framework of my onticology, the criteria by which something is real lies in making a difference. As I put it with my ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference”. Thus, to be real is to make a difference. More recently I have described the ontic principle as a deflationary move. I’ve stolen the idea of “deflationary moves” from my buddy Nate over at the terrific blog What in the Hell. Nate praises Badiou for the deflationary move of placing ontology in the domain of mathematics. Where philosophy has been obsessed with the question “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?”, “Badiou’s” ontology is deflationary in the sense that it says “this question has already been answered and if you would like to know that answer go study mathematics.” As a consequence, Badiou is able to set aside the question of being, dethrone it from center stage, and instead focus philosophy on the question of truth. Deflating the ontological question allows the object of philosophical inquiry to be shifted elsewhere.

Unlike Badiou (and Heidegger), I do not think the central question of philosophy has been “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?” Rather, following Zubiri, I think the central question of philosophy is “what is reality?” However, like Badiou, I try to effect a deflationary move with respect to the question of reality. Since roughly the 17th century, philosophy has been obsessed with the question of how we might come to know reality. As such, reality has been treated as a transcendent beyond that must be reached, and which is to be distinguished from something else that is not reality. What this thing that is other than reality, I do not know. It seems to be mind, culture, language, power, and a host of other things relating to the human. The problem is that situated in these terms the question of how we can know reality is hopeless. Why? Because one of the central lines of thought we inherit from the 17th century is the thesis that we only have access to our representations. Well, if we only have access to our representations then we can only ever scan our representations to find the marks of reality, but since these marks are themselves representations we have no criteria for determining whether they are marks or simulacra: Descartes with his mind in a vat.

read on!

thingsBenoît of Idios raises questions as to whether Caesar crossing the Rubicon was the best choice of examples for illustrating object-oriented ontology. In the course of his post, he makes a couple of casual remarks that I believe are worth responding to. Benoît writes,

I’m not sure if a dissection of “Caesar crossing the Rubicon” was the best example to use, as I still don’t grasp the particular value OOP/SR brings to the table when all of the modes of analysis above are possible without dissolving the Kantian limit on epistemology(or, why they are obvious).

Another way to put this would be to say that a particular difference (say, language) could make most of the difference (because honestly, I’ve never heard anyone defend that a certain difference makes ALL the difference, at least in my experience of the Continental tradition), and I’d still get all the same toys.

What am I missing?

First, I think Benoît somewhat misunderstands my aim in “How Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?” That post was not designed to present a concrete object-oriented analysis, and therefore it comes as no surprise that it is rather uninteresting as a piece of analysis. If you’re looking for a good object-oriented analysis read Latour’s Pasteurization of France or Science in Action, Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism, or Bogost’s Unit Operations. What “How Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?” aimed to do was simply draw attention to the role that other other actors or objects play in a situation, beyond minds, signifiers, social structures, and so on. I think such simple illustrations are important because, by and large, we have been educated in an environment so pervaded by the primacy of the signifier that it’s often difficult for us to imagine anything else in the world of theory. I know this was certainly the case for me back in my orthodox Lacanian days. I was so accustomed to viewing the world in terms of texts and signifiers, that I was really unable to even imagine any other type of analysis. The only alternative I could see was phenomenology. In both cases, however, we have a subordinating mode of analysis. In the linguistic idealisms we get the subordination of objects to the signifier and texts, whereas in phenomenology we get the subordination of objects to intentionality. What is impossible, in these frameworks, is for nonhuman objects to surprise us or make any contribution of their own.

read on!

metastaseis1Over at the OOP (why do I always start singing “are you down with OPP” whenever I say this?), Graham expands on my post about Caesar. I’m having tremendous difficulty articulating what I’m trying to get at in a way that is accessible to others who have predominantly worked within hermeneutic or meaning-centered orientations of theory (I use this term generically to refer to any predominantly semiotic, semiological, hermeneutic, deconstructive, discursive, or sociological approach to theory), so it’s nice to see him nailing the issue somewhat towards the end of his post. As Graham puts it,

The best way to see the importance of this is to compare any ANT-type [actor-network-theory] reading of some historical event with a more reductive reading. In the latter case you’ll see histories claiming that “the Crusades were all about economics,” or in the other direction, “Pasteur brought light to the darkness and gave birth to a new, enlightened era of medicine.” In the ANT’ish case, you’ll always find something much more interesting and surprising– actors displaced from their original goals due to chance material obstacles, forced to translate their progress along strange paths that they never intended.

There has been a lot of protest against Latour’s use of the term “actor” to refer to anything from pebbles to human agents. However, I think Harman nails it here when he draws attention to the manner in which goals shift as a result of aleatory encounters among differences in a multiplicity. This is not simply a question of unanticipated consequences, but also about the manner in which goals shift in unanticipated ways and begin to develop in unexpected ways as a result of bringing things together in networks. Here, perhaps, we could distinguish between smooth spaces and gnarled spaces. A smooth space is a space you move through without any sort of friction or resistance. As a result, nothing stands in the way of envisioning a goal and executing it. By contrast, a gnarly space is populated by all sorts of singularities or differences that gradually lead to a transformation of the goals themselves.

read on!

mapofitalyI sometimes get the sense that when I make remarks about flat ontology and collectives of human and nonhuman actors the points I’m making are so simple, so vulgar, so obvious that others are often confused as to what I might even be referring to. Ghost, for example, remarks,

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s grateful for all the time you’ve spent explaining this stuff. I’m beginning to get a handle on it, but as you describe the differences between a flat ontology analysis and something Zizek might do, for instance, I realise I need to see this ontology in action. A detailed flat ontology analysis might dissipate the feeling for me that the old nature/binary is still there, but now together in a new container.

No doubt I’ve exacerbated the problem because I’ve developed a somewhat abstract vocabulary with mysterious expressions like “there are no differences that do not make a difference”, “there is no transportation without translation”, and “nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else”, all situated in terms like “objectiles”, “actors”, “exo-relations”, “endo-relations”, “attractors”, “phase spaces”, “endo-consistency”, and so on. Faced with this infantry of terms and expressions, it’s difficult to determine what I might be getting at. A good deal of this has been my fault as I seldom give very elaborate examples to develop my claims. Hopefully I can rectify some of this today through the question “how did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”

read on!

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