August 2009


I’m in a rush as I have to get cooking for my dinner guests coming over tonight, but I thought I would draw attention to this post. Deontologist has written a post on my thesis that things like fictional entities exist. It appears that I’ve really irritated or provoked him with this thesis and discussion is getting to the point now where there are little jabs here and there, but perhaps it can still go somewhere. Where I, being the ontological slut that I am, wish to remain indiscriminate as to what is and is not, advocating what Pete nicely refers to as a “generic ontology”, Pet wishes to draw a strong distinction between what he calls “pseudo-existence” and “existence”. Clearly the ontic principle forbids me from making this move. If a difference is made then, within the framework of my ontology, I am necessarily committed to the existence or being of that difference.

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In response to my post on Extended Cognition, english140prof or Alice writes:

Students in my Digital Humanities course are reading selections from Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media for next Tuesday. I agree with Ian that McLuhan remains extremely useful, especially when introducing humanities-based students to a new media curriculum. Of course, the Medievalist in my English Department also appreciates that I’m resurrecting his work and introducing it into general student discourse!

In many respects, I think this gets at the project of re-construction I proposed and that Paul Ennis named. On the one hand, I’m hoping to teach McLuhan– hopefully in the context of my “extended pedagogy” experiment –in the next semester or so. Any suggestions as to what text would be good to assign would be terrific. I think I might have frightened other people off with the proposal of extended pedagogy. The point of extended pedagogy is not to structure classes in the same way, but to provide an opportunity for academics interested in each others work to collaboratively read a text with one another over the course of the semester. The text could be an entire book or, as Mel and I plan to do this semester, something as small as an essay like Deleuze’s “Post-Script on Society of Control”. In this respect, the extended pedagogy experiment allows for dual duty, simultaneously providing the opportunity to do research with someone who’s though and ideas you’re interested in and assign material to students. Now, ideally– and Mel and I are going to try this –I would also like to involve students for a portion of the semester. This would involve creating a blog or discussion list for the class where students from different courses would participate with one another in digital dialogue. I think this could potentially be a productive experience for the students in the form of active learning, rather than simply listening to professors lecture and guide discussion. I’d like to do this with McLuhan in the future.

All of these pedagogical issues aside, however, in other contexts I’ve spoken about object-oriented ontology in the context of a project I refer to, following Paul Ennis, as “re-construction”. Part of that project would consist, as Deleuze suggested, in creating a counter tradition and in resurrecting those moments of the philosophical and theoretical tradition that are particularly valuable from the standpoint of onticology and ontography. Just as Deleuze sought to create a minor tradition consisting of Lucretius, the Stoics, Spinoza, Hume, Leibniz, and so on, OOO needs its “minor tradition” of those object-oriented philosophers that have been object-oriented philosophers without knowing it.

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pariswallsIn relation to my post on Speculative Realism and Scientific Naturalism, Deontologist and I have been having a stimulating discussion on the ontological status of signs. I advocate the thesis that symbolic entities have real existence and are entities in their own right. Deontologist holds that this is a “trivial”– a truly unfortunate use of language –use of the term “existence” and that only material or physical beings can be truly said to exist.

The discussion began as a discussion about the ontological status of fictional entities like Harry Potter. I hold that fictional entities like Harry Potter are real. In making this claim, I am not making the absurd claim that there is a material referent to the novels depicting David Lewis where a physical Harry Potter exists in one of David Lewis’ possible worlds. Rather, following basic principles of phenomenology, I contend that Harry Potter exists qua fictional entity. Harry Potter is real as a fictional entity. The important caveat here would be that where phenomenology might make this entity dependent upon a sense-bestowing intuition issuing from the cogito– at least in the Husserlian formulation –I hold, following Harman, that Harry Potter, as an object, enjoys independent existence once he has come into existence. To be sure, Harry Potter had to come into existence through the agency of an author, but once he has come into existence his existence is as independent as any other entity that might exist.

We could similarly draw on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” and Limited Inc. to make this point. In these texts Derrida arrives at conclusions that are surprisingly congenial to object-oriented ontology. Meditating on the conditions under which the grapheme or sign are possible, he notes that in order for a grapheme to function as a grapheme, it must be iterable. As he works through the logic of iterability, he shows that it follows that the being of the grapheme or sign cannot be dependent on the intentionality of the person that uses it or enunciates it. In order for the grapheme, mark or sign to be iterable, it necessarily, as its condition of possibility, presupposes the absence of both the speaker, the referent, and the addressee. Derrida puts this point dramatically, remarking that every grapheme, text, or sign presupposes the death of the subject insofar as it is iterable beyond the intentionality of any subject or any context in which it might have been produced. Thus, like Kant’s famous glove turned inside out, the object-oriented ontologist need only give positive formulation to Derrida’s negative thesis. To say that the grapheme, sign, or text presupposes the death of the subject and absence of the referent is to say that the being of the sign, grapheme, or text is that of an independent and real object that is irreducible to the intentionality of the person that employs the sign or the referent to which the sign refers. Neither concept, context, intention, idea, or referent, the grapheme enjoys an independent existence tracing its course throughout the world in excess of any relations it might happen to enter into. Hopefully I will be forgiven for considerably condensing Derrida’s transcendental argument here.

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Alright folks, apparently there are some out there that want to nominate me for the 3 Quark Prize. Frances Madeson (hopefully she won’t hate me for posting this) contacted me about this yesterday, asking what post I would suggest, and being terribly embarrassed and suspecting her of being the impish, comic, wise, artistic, New Yawker, Jewess (I’m only a crypto or Sephardic Jew Francis… Family name is Andejar on my mother’s side… They took us all during the Inquisition and made us Catholics), brat that she is, I couldn’t bear to respond. Truth be told, I pretty much think that all I write is, as I told her when I finally could bear to respond, so much detritus, flotsam, and shite. I want to get away from it as quickly as I can. Moreover, the posts I like and am proud of are the ones that always get the least attention (this speaks to my point made to my friend Pete or Deontologist, that one’s writing is as much an object to the author as it is to the reader). Nonetheless, simply earning the admiration of folks like Madeson is an honor in itself. At any rate, if any readers have suggestions, send them her way or the way of Paul. I clean my hand of this, especially given that the contest is decided by Daniel Dennett insuring that I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of placing. Nonetheless, even as I’m deeply embarrassed and humbled, I am also extremely grateful and honored. As is obvious from the manic and obsessive manner in which I post, the blog and blogosphere is tremendously important to me. I am, as it were, full of libido when it comes to this medium. What I want, above all, is to preserve things and send them out into the world, getting others to read the things I have found valuable and exciting so that, in my lonely life, I might have others to talk with or, more aptly, play with.

As a sort of ironic autobiographical caveat, Larval Subjects began one drunken night over Spring break a few years ago when I was infected by the disease of the minotaur. I had read a post by a Deleuzian that was denouncing Lacan and started to write a lengthy response to their post (I had just discovered blogs), when I noticed they hadn’t posted anything for a year. Wanting to preserve my remarks, I started a blog instead, making that post my first diary. As time passed, blogging fundamentally transformed my thought process, curing me of minotaurishness and making me a much uglier beast. In this medium it was no longer possible to play the role of the minotaur defending the “correct” reading of other philosophers. Rather, I was forced to engage with others from entirely different backgrounds with entirely different sets of concerns. Gradually the academic game of mastering a thinker disappeared, I arrived at peace at my institutional place in life or rank, and began to do something else. What that other thing is, I don’t know.

FrancisBaconFigurewithMeatPeter over at Philosophy in a Time of Terror reflects on why speculative realism might be significant:

Call it the argument from catastrophe, in which you cite the real possibility of global environmental devastation (in a previous era it would have been the nuclear holocaust) and then accuse X figure of basically wanting that through some theoretical apparatus. In any event, what is exciting about the work in SR is how it meets up with work in environmental studies and animal ethics, to name but two areas, which have long argued for getting out of the human as a part of a larger normative project, part of which would be finding means for averting the very catastrophe in question. This is where, in a sense, I see SR going, namely connecting up with these other movements in such a way as to bolster SR’s normative accounts (such as they are). Or at least, I see these connections whenever I’m at an environmental philosophy conference.

I confess that my gut reaction is to dismiss Peter’s musings out of hand because the bastard gets to live in San Diego. However, I take solace in the fact that the California higher education system is currently a mess, so I guess I can forgive him. Jokes aside, this sounds right to me. At the risk of generating all sorts of ire, I suppose what I want from the object-oriented ontology I’m trying to develop is a “theory of everything” or a “grand unified theory” (a GUT).

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Reza Negarestani gives a peek into the sequel of his uncategorizable Cyclonopedia:

The Mortiloquist

A barbaric interpretation of the life and problems of Western philosophy.

Feasting on the theatrical resources of Greek tragedy, Jacobean revenge drama, grand guignol theater, the theater of cruelty, aktionism (especially Herman Nitsch’s the Fall of Jerusalem and Orgien Mysterien theater) and employing the dialogue-commentary of scholasticism, The Mortiloquist is a cross-breed of play and philosophy. In this textual mongrel, the life of Western philosophy is gutted out by outlanders and barbarically staged.

Taking place in an alternative history of the Greek Empire during a hypothetical siege of Athens, The Mortiloquist begins with a heated debate among three philosophers. Aristotle, Speusippus and Andronosos have refused to flee from the Academy. Oblivious to the commotion in the streets, they are arguing the impact of Speusippus’ ‘alien causality’ on generation and corruption of ideas. As those who represent the philosophical militancy and political ethics of the Greek Empire, the philosophers are put into an ordeal of unspeakable cruelty at the hands of the barbarian invaders. They are forced into freshly gutted out carcasses of three oxen; the animals are then sewn up to trap the philosophers in a way that only their heads protrude.

Looks like it should be a wild ride. Read the rest here.

transversalRemarking on my post on values and normativity entitled “Co(m)-plications“, Asher Kay of Spoonerized Alliterations writes:

This is a tantalizing vision. I, for one, am totally tantalized. The concept of emergence and the insights of neuroscience (and other parts of complexity theory and cognitive science too) provide some powerful support and explanatory power for OOO’s placement of the human within the realm of the real. And to this point, these relative scientific latecomers have not been coerced into the service of a serious, wide-ranging ontology.

So I’m all happy and cheerful and so forth. Then I read a quote like this (from Larval Subjects), and I begin to wonder if my philosophical sky is really so cloudless:

I think it’s important to show that object-oriented ontology in its realism is not making a call for a scientistic naturalism, but still leaves a lot of room, in suitably re-constructed form, for a number of the sorts of social and cultural analyses the world of theory has come to hold so dear.

I emphasize the “not” there, because that’s where I did a little double-take. Is that right? Isn’t OOO a call for scientistic naturalism? I mean, non-scientific descriptions and explanations are super cool and all that, but we’re talking ontology here! If we’re going to embed and embody the human in the world, what else are we going to use besides the methodology that’s all along been all about objects?

I think my friend’s remarks here are symptomatic of what first comes to the mind of many when we hear words like “ontology”, “realism”, and “objects”. “If”, the train of thought runs, “we are advocating an object-oriented ontology and a realism, this entails that such an ontology is not a subject-oriented ontology. Therefore object-oriented ontology must be interested in showing how the really real world is the result of neurons, atoms, stars, mountains, and so on.” From this point of view, objects are treated as physical or natural objects and are contrasted with subjectivity and culture. The thesis here would be that subjectivity and culture are epiphenomena of these natural objects.

This, however, is not the move that OOO is making. The realism of OOO is not one more move in the battle between realism and idealism where one is asked to choose either realism and advocate the position that really real objects are physical and natural objects and everything else is epiphenomena of these objects or where one is forced to advocate some variant of idealism that holds that all objects are products of mind or culture and that we can never know what things-in-themselves might be independent of mind or culture. Rather, as Ian Bogost notes in his brief response to Asher, OOO places all objects on equal ontological footing. As I articulate it, OOO draws a transversal line across the entire distinction between subject and object, culture and nature, placing the two orders that characterize the discourse of modernity on a single ontological plane.

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Brain_600Hat tip to Mel. These two articles (here and here) do a nice job articulating claims about extended cognition or the manner in which technologies change the nature of thought. From the first article:

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.

In discussions with cultural and literary theorists I sometimes get the sense that work investigating online modes of communication, ARGs (alternate reality games), video games, television, etc., is somehow a sort of trick. That is, the subtext seems to be that academics should be engaged in serious work(tm), analyzing high literature and art, and that those that work on film, modes of internet discourse, ARGs, video games, television, and so on are folks that have managed to game the academy so as to find a way of meshing their cheeto eating tendencies (pop-cultural fluff) with their academic work. Although there is certainly a lot of fluff out there in the ever growing body of pop-culture research (just as there is in literary studies), I think this severely misses the point.

If these things are worthy of investigation, then it is not on the premise that somehow all cultural production should be approached in an egalitarian fashion that treats them all as having equal merit (an aesthetic judgment), but because these things have become dominant modes of communication that pervade our entire lifeworld and which constitute the dominant mode of symbolic activity for humans. Although I have myself engaged in quite a bit of semiotic analysis of pop-cultural entities like films and television shows, what really interests me is not so much the content and meaning of these things, as the technologies themselves. As always, the work of Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler are invaluable here. What they both investigate, in their own way, is the manner in which writing technologies transform the very nature of our cognition. Thus, for example, differential calculus is literally unthinkable prior to the advent of writing. Where the primary mode of cultural transmission is oral in character, the use of equations divested of narrative and rhythmic content simply cannot get a foothold in the world due to how our minds are put together. With the advent of writing it becomes possible to think the world and relate to one another in an entirely different way. As Vernant notes in his ethnography of the Greeks, the inscription of laws on public buildings in the market place changed the nature of the law by transforming something that could shift from speech act to speech act across time, into an enduring persistence standing there as something literally written in stone.

This is the significance media studies. Not only is there the issue of how the Gutenberg printing press transformed the nature of the world, but in our own historical context, there is the issue of how different forms of computer programming, telephone communication, satellite communication, internet communication, visual and auditory forms of communication such as we see on television and in film, structure the nature of social relations and cognition in very different ways.

The mysterious Philosophy in a Time of Terror weighs in on the whole OOO and humanism discussion.

Recent discussion surrounding trolls, minotaurs, gray vampires and the whole growing bestiary have gotten me thinking about a post I wrote my first year blogging entitled “In Praise of Irritation” later published in Reconstruction. In that post I was making a play on words, seeking to capture the resonance of both being irritated by someone and the sense of dynamic systems theory where a system requires a perturbation, stimuli, or irritant in order to produce new system states. As I wrote in that post,

I find Acephalous very irritating, and for this reason I had a very fine discussion with him that was generative of concepts for me (here and here). I suspect that Acephalous and I understood little of what the other was saying, but it was productive for me as it led me to develop thoughts I would not have otherwise developed– these days I’m becoming more and more sympathetic to his position based on my aleatory materialism –and he wrote about it further. Jodi Dean irritates the hell out of me because she seldom responds to my posts on her site, which I find terrifically rude (no doubt my tone comes off as insulting as I tend to write “dissertations” like I’m lecturing or teaching), but this irritation leads me to write even more with the vain fantasy that she’ll someday respond. As such, her silence generates ongoing communicative events. My friend Melanie irritates me to no end, as she’s always challenging psychoanalysis and attacking my latest theoretical fetish, leading me to throw up my hands in exasperation and heatedly defend what I was claiming, thereby generating ongoing autopoiesis between the two of us. My friend Noah, in graduate school, was extremely condescending, mocking, and abrasive, while brilliantly astute theoretically in a way that diverged sharply from my own views, leading me to constantly spar with him and pushing my thought to develop in ways that it never would have otherwise. My dear friend Robert irritates me to no end, as he constantly misinterprets my claims and pushes them in directions I don’t like, leading me to try to demolish him theoretically, while never really wanting to so that we might continue irritating one another. Yusef drives me up the wall with his playful writing style and rhetorical excesses, and therefore drives me to become even more rationalistic despite the fact that I sympathize with many of his positions, just to spite him.

The thesis behind this praise of irritants was as follows:

Theoretically, of course, it’s odd that I would look for an interlocutor that I could really work with. As a Lacanian I advocate the principle that “all communication is miscommunication.” In my analytic practice I see everyday how my interventions are taken in surprising directions by my analysands, and understood in ways I could have never anticipated. The systems theorist in me adopts the thesis that “all miscommunication is communication.” In some respects, I think the latter thesis is more interesting. If systems are dynamic, this entails that they must reproduce themselves from moment to moment by generating further system-forming events. Systems are composed of events, not objects or things. A social system must generate additional communication on the basis of every event of communication, so as to endure in time. Agreement and consensus tend to diminish further operations or the production of ongoing communicative events as there’s no necessity of continuing communications where there’s agreement, whereas conflict and difference tend to promote ongoing autopoiesis of communication. Irritation (in its system-theoretical sense) generates ongoing communication.

Ultimately I do think there is something to the category of the troll and the minotaur, though it should always be remembered that trolling and minotauring are verbs rather than nouns. It cannot be said that one is a troll or minotaur. Rather one behaves rhetorically as a troll or minotaur in particular communicative situations. The troll is like the protesters at the town hall meetings surrounding the healthcare debates here in the United States. They are not interested in participating in discussion, but in insuring that no discussion takes place. Of course, it’s important to recall that they might not know that they’re doing this. The minotaur is similar. Drawing again on the analogy to health care reform, the minotaur is someone that participates in such a way that that no reform takes place, but rather tries to trace everything back to the infrastructural bureaucracy and legalisms upon which the system is based. The minotaur is the person that traces everything back to some master-thinker, forgetting that there is an issue being discussed. Or they treat every discussion as an issue of misinterpretation, rather than genuine disagreement, implicitly holding that if one simply understood they would advocate the position. Rather than formulating a new, interesting, whizbang version of Kant or Heidegger, for example, they attempt to show that Kant and Heidegger have already addressed such and such an issue in some obscure text. But again, these are verbs, not nouns. They are not essences, but ways of comporting towards others.

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