October 19, 2009
Posted by larvalsubjects under Uncategorized
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The new issue of theory and event is now available. Looks terrific.
Theory and Event 12.3
Jodi Dean and Michael J. Shapiro
The articles in 12.3 suggest a political-theoretical topography marked by the prominence of Freud and Deleuze and traces of Benjamin and Derrida. Screened of proper names, the features contouring the political are swamps and fissures, shifting edges, unstable sprawls and impossible spaces without centers. There are subterranean forces threatening to rupture or exceed the unstable structures unsuccessfully attempting their containment. How one or how we—itself the name of a problem and an aspiration—might make it through or even reside in such a terrain thus becomes the question (dis)orienting this issue of Theory & Event.
In “Freud and the Political,” Mladen Dolar opens with an anecdote about Freud in a cave, a hidden encounter with political resonance. Rather than coinciding with the social surface, the political takes the form of a more fundamental fissure. Psychoanalysis describes and dissects this crack of the political, a point Dolar explores in relation to the psychoanalytic institution, drive, and the opposition between the artificial and the primary masses. Too often, Dolar explains, psychoanalysis’s relation to the political is misread as the Oedipal familial drama (as in the critique presented in Anti-Oedipus). He offers an alternative reading that addresses the subversion of roles and positions, the untying and undoing of relationships, central to psychoanalysis’s circumscription of the political.
James Martel (“The Messiah who Comes and Goes: Franz Kafka on Redemption, Conspiracy and Community”) argues that we only clumsily make our way through the political. Most of the time we misrecognize what’s going on, who’s here and who’s there. Most of the time we fail to do what we intend. But, by reading Kafka with Benjamin, Martel demonstrates that not realizing our intentions is not so bad after all. Failure and misrecognition disrupt the narratives of authority to which we subscribe. Martel writes, “Such disruptions produce less a sense of our own ‘agency’ than a sense of participation in an ongoing conspiracy, one that formally excludes us even as it serves as the means for our (potential and only partial) redemption.
Laura Penny’s “Parables and Politics: How Benjamin and Deleuze & Guattari Read Kafka” is also concerned with Benjamin’s reading of Kafka, which she compares with that of Deleuze and Guattari. For Penny, at stake in this comparison is judgment and its refusal. Thus, she endorses the Deleuzian rejection of judgment insofar as judgment can neither sense nor summon new possibilities for life.
If the Kafkan messiah who only comes the day after his arrival features largely in the articles by Martel and Penny, then the specter of a future to come animates Antonis Balasopoulos, “Ghosts of the Future: Marxism, Deconstruction, and the Afterlife of Utopia.” Balasopoulos introduces the term “apparitional unconscious” as a way to open up utopian discourse to theoretical appraisal. He focuses on Jameson and Derrida, staging a disagreement and disjunction at the site of the (non) site/future of utopia. Moreover, he emphasizes an affirmation that is also necessarily a critical selection, that is, a decision.
The final two articles return to the psychoanalytic themes with which 12.3 begins. Joanne Faulkner considers the place of disavowal in Hobbes, particularly with regard to its exclusion of those positioned as other. Exploring the fantastic position of the other as repository for the citizens’ jouissance, Faulkner gestures toward a Lacanian response to a politics of fear and security—traversing the fantasy. In contrast, Michael Williams (“A Traversal Beyond the Pleasure Principle: From Pervert to Schizophrenic”) suggests an even further traversal, from Lacanian perversion to Deleuzian schizophrenia.
Issue 12.3 also includes an interview and several book reviews. Keith P. Feldman, Anoop Mirpuri, and Georgia Roberts interview geographer Derek Gregory. This interview, “Affect, Ethics, and the Imaginative Geographies of Permanent War,” grows out of the work of the research collective, “Public Rhetorics and Permanent War,” work strongly influenced by Black British Cultural Studies.
Alexander D. Barber’s “Lessons from the Grand Inquisitor: Carl Schmitt and the Providential Enemy” is a review essay discussing Kam Shapiro, Carl Schmitt and the Intensification of Politics and Carl Schmitt, Constitutional Theory. Upenda Baxi reviews Francois Debrix, Tabloid Terror: War, Culture, and Geopolitics. Finally, Kara Keeling’s The Witches Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense is reviewed by Nicole Ridgway.
Michael J. Shapiro
Freud and the Political
The Messiah who Comes and Goes: Franz Kafka on Redemption, Conspiracy and Community
Parables and Politics: How Benjamin and Deleuze & Guattari Read Kafka
Ghosts of the Future: Marxism, Deconstruction, and the Afterlife of Utopia
The Eternal Jouissance of the Community: Phantasm, Imagination, and ‘Natural Man’ in Hobbes
A Traversal Beyond the Pleasure Principle: From Pervert to Schizophrenic
Affect, Ethics, and the Imaginative Geographies of Permanent War: An Interview with Derek Gregory
Keith P. Feldman
Georgia M. Roberts
Lessons from the Grand Inquisitor: Carl Schmitt and the Providential Enemy
Alexander D. Barder
Reading ‘Terror': Reflections on François Debrix, Tabloid Terror: War, Culture, and Geopolitics
Rethinking the Politics of Visibility through the Black Femme Function
October 18, 2009
Posted by larvalsubjects under Normativity
Jodi Dean has a couple of absolutely chilling posts up on plutonomy (here and here). I don’t know what is more harrowing and depressing here: The fact that the document Jodi links to reads like a mad scientist version of Marxist thought that uses analysis of the structuration of our contemporary situation not as a means for emancipation and developing alternatives but to even more effectively exploit us, or the poster that responds to the Citigroup document by pointing out that it contains bad grammar, that the author is stupid, and that they’re just “wicked”. I don’t find the author of the document particularly stupid– in fact the bits Jodi cites strike me as uncanny and frightening and inverted doubles of something one might find in a “radical political theory” journal or book –rather, what is so upsetting about the document is how clear sighted the author is about the economic structuration of our moment and all the injustices it contains.
Rather than seeing this as impetus for emancipation, the author instead sees it as opportunity for even more effective exploitation. What does strike me as stupid is the idea that somehow suggesting the author of this document is stupid and wicked constitutes an adequate response to such reasoning. The author of this piece is obviously what Zizek characterized as a “knave” or someone who cynically serves the ends of dominant power. The person that denounces such reasoning on abstract normative grounds is clearly the leftist fool that believes he’s won some sort of important victory when secretly not holding the testicles of the lord that claims the right to prima nachte as he rapes the serf’s wife on the dusty road and commands her husband to hold his balls as he does so. The leftist fool thinks he’s here gotten away with some radical victory after not preventing the lord’s testicles from getting dusty as commanded. Unfortunately, his wife has still been raped.
read on for more rant!
October 18, 2009
Lately I’ve been thinking about the most common informal philosophies in philosophy. These tend to appear when someone is arguing against another position. My vote is for false dilemma and the strawman. Of these two, I think false dilemma tends to be the more insidious as it looks like one is presenting a legitimate argument when they are not. The mechanism is very simple. You characterize the other position in terms of two alternatives, the first of which is fairly undersirable and the second of which is completely unacceptable. In non-philosophical contexts you might encounter an argument like “look, we can either deal with prison overcrowding and an increase in taxes to build more prisons or we can let murderers, pedophiles, and rapists walk free on the streets.” It is likely that few want prison overcrowding or higher taxes, but when contrasted with the alternative it appears to be the only choice open. If this is a false dilemma, then this is because there are other options like house arrest, freeing non-violent offenders, decriminalizing certain drugs, and so on.
In philosophy we see false dilemmas like this all the time. “You either accept that there are eternal, ahistorical norms embodied in a transcendental subject, the mind of God, or a Platonic realm or you endorse the thesis that ‘anything goes'”. Are these really the only two alternatives? Another would be the one Deleuze addresses in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense where we are told that “either there is a supremely individuated world where identity precedes difference (through forms, transcendental categories, essences, etc) or the world falls into an incoherent chaos.” Both Kant and Proclus are guilty of this in their own ways. In the case of Proclus if identity does not precede difference than the world becomes completely irrational chaos. In the case of Kant, without the pre-existent of the categories the field of sensibility is an incoherent chaos. Darwin, it seems, blew this line of thought out of the water by showing how 1) organisms differ from themselves over the course of their development (they’re never the same from moment to moment), and 2) that no two organisms of the same species are exactly the same but that they randomly vary, but that nonetheless 3) we are able to give an account of how pattern, organization, or form is emergent through selective processes.
The strawman is fairly common as well. For example, how many times have we now heard that speculative realists, in placing humans on equal footing with other entities or in claiming that we need an ontology capable of thinking the world in the absence of the human, are guilty of excluding the human, denigrating the human, or not attending to the human? The only speculative realist position that comes remotely close to this position would be Brassier’s radical nihilistic and thought of extinction, but even there his tremendous interest in political and ethical issues speaks otherwise. The rhetorical strategy here seems to be implicit. The idea is to implicitly link SR to a hatred of the human so that it can be cast in the patina of a nihilistic, totalitarian political and ethical philosophy advocating things like genocide or various forms of abuse and murder for technocratic and pragmatic aims. Of course, none of the speculative realists advocate anything remotely like this and many of them even advocate the ontological de-centralization of the human precisely because they believe that treating the human as central leads to rather poor political theorization.
In philosophical debate, whether in text or in action, one almost never sees, I think, an honest or accurate portrayal of the opposition’s positions. We need only think of Husserl’s strawman with respect to the notorious “natural attitude”. Has anyone within the natural attitude ever advocated the crass positions Husserl targets? In Utah Eleanor and I had an amusing moment when she suggested that I’m being rather unfair to the phenomenologists (and a quick glance at my bookcase would indicate, to the contrary, that I’m deeply fond of the phenomenologists), to which I responded “because, of course, the phenomenologists have been so fair to naturalists, realists, etc., etc., etc..” Likewise, we might think of standard Anglo-American characterizations of phenomenology, postmodernism, continental philosophy, and so on. Similarly we might think of Kant’s characterization of Hume in the first Critique. Or think about the endless bullshit media and technology theorists have to face when they are told that examining the role that technologies play in the social they are falling into “technological determinism”. Another favorite (though I’m not sure if this is so much a strawman as an all purpose tool for not having to think about certain things) is the critique of philosophical positions that asks “but did this way of thinking arise at this particular point in history?” In other words, the thesis seems to be that if a particular ontology arose at a particular point in history this renders it false or artificial. Sighs. This is similar to the standard critique of SR where it’s said that the human is being excluded as opposed to not being treated as central. Almost every critique of another philosophical position seems to resemble the position it is critiquing about as much as a shadow resembles the person that casts it. Moreover, the characterization of the position being critiqued is about as substantial as a shadow as well.
October 18, 2009
Posted by larvalsubjects under Normativity
Reflecting on the normativity debates that have been waging recently, I’ve increasingly found myself thinking of Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing”:
As I try to put my finger on just why transcendentalist positions cause me so much uneasiness (as well as certain ways of modeling truth and inquiry), the association that comes to mind is that of wanting one’s “money for nothing”. To get money, of course, one must work in some way. That is, acquiring money has a thermodynamic dimension that requires work, labor, and friction with a world independent of us. Indeed, this is true even of counterfeit money that requires all sorts of labor to be produced. “Money for nothing” would be the fantasy of a production of value in a frictionless universe that requires no expenditure of energy, nor any engagement with resistance to produce itself.
Perhaps the clearest symptoms that transcendent and transcendentalist accounts of normativity want their money for nothing are to be found in the vigorous defense of the is/ought distinction, the imprisonment of normativity in a transcendental subject completely independent of the body, the world and society, or the imprisonment of norms either in the mind of God or in a Platonic realm of the forms. In all these cases, transcendentalist (Kantian and post-Kantian) and transcendent (Platonic and theistic) construct a theory of normativity that carefully divorces norms from thermodynamic questions of work and labor. By taking the norms out of the world and treating them as non-existent yet nonetheless binding, transcendental approaches carefully separate normativity from the frictions of the world.
October 16, 2009
One of the issues that tends to give me headaches within the object-oriented ontologies of Harman, Latour, and Whitehead are the questions of time and space. It seems to me that all of the object-oriented ontologists are more or less agreed in rejecting the notion of time and space as containers. If objects are, to use Bogost’s gorgeous term, the primitive “units” of being (which isn’t to say they are simple or indivisible), then it follows that time and space cannot be more primitive than objects, that they cannot be containers within which objects reside, but rather time and space must be generated by or arise from objects somehow. But how, precisely, to conceive these processes or the genesis of spatio-temporal fields and relations among relations? Of the object-oriented ontologists, Whitehead strikes me as having the most well developed account of spatio-temporality, though sadly I have a bear of a time understanding just what he is claiming (perhaps Shaviro can flesh this out for us some day). Whitehead was led to a similar conclusion precisely because he treats being as composed of actual occasions and nothing else.
I’m on the run so my comments will have to be brief, but it seems to me that one way spatio-temporal relations might be conceived is in terms of a sort of network topology pertaining to paths or vectors of relations among objects. Speaking in the context of spatiality, consider the difference between the three-dimensional geometrical plane in the diagram to the left above and the network diagram to the right. The geometrical plane above represents the standard notion of space as a sort of container for objects. Proximity and distance is a function of where objects are located with respect to one another in a coordinate system. Two objects are near or far when their coordinates share a close proximity to one another. Here the space precedes the objects.
October 14, 2009
Posted by larvalsubjects under Speculative Realism
I’ve been playing catch-up since returning from the Salt Lake City, Utah RMMLA conference, but had a truly marvelous time. Not only were the panels outstanding– and somehow Eleanor Kaufman, Spencer Jackson, and I managed to write complementary papers without consulting with one another –but the dinner discussions with Joe Hughes, Eleanor, and Billy Stratton were terrific. I confess that I’m a bit dejected after returning, having to depart from such invigorating and just plain fun discussions. As it turns out, Eleanor not only has a talent for giving brilliant, original, and highly illuminating papers, but also produces singular, strange, amusing, and absolutely endearing one liners that I have come to call “Eleanorisms”. Samples:
I usually make money when left to my own devices.
Yeah, rocks are a lot nicer than people.
These, of course, entirely made sense in context, but they’re even better when left to resonate out of context expressing the eternity proper to their articulation. Were I to have the opportunity to talk to her more often, I would certainly have to devote an entire series to these sorts of remarks. There was a lot of heated discussion about object-oriented ontology with great and productive criticism all around, but I think Eleanor and Joe went away a bit more sympathetic and interested. I eagerly look forward to her next (two?) books, one of which she tells me is object-oriented though not necessarily a realist (us other object-oriented ontologists are no ordinary realists either!).
With any luck, we’ll expand the number of theory panels next year at the RMMLA. Right now there are two Deleuze panels. I suspect that we could actually throw in another, given the size of the audiences. Additionally, I’d like to see a Badiou/Zizek/Lacan panel and an SR panel. We’ll see. Who knows, perhaps even an “STS” panel heavily devoted to thinkers like Latour, Bogost, Kittler, and McLuhan.
October 10, 2009
Posted by larvalsubjects under Politics
A great little editorial from the Guardian:
One of the remarkable things about the manifesto of the recent University of California Santa Cruz student occupation, the Communiqué from an Absent Future, was the emphatic use of the word communism to describe their project to “demand not a free university but a free society”.
This re-appropriation of the word communism marks a new direction after numerous attempts to refigure a certain spirit, while avoiding the specific content, of communism under such concepts as “the common” or “communisation” in various brands of leftwing, post-cold war political activism. Communism itself had been more or less abandoned to the dwindling base of old far-left political groups and Maoist movements.
Yet something has certainly changed of late, of which the UCSC occupation statement is simply the tip of a larger cultural iceberg. After the 2008 global economic crisis a spell of naivety – about the potential of the half-forgotten anti-globalisation movement; the efficacy of anti-war demonstrations; and whose interests are really being served by identity politics – has arguably been broken. This has forced a reappraisal of the whole project of postmodern, leftwing political thought: from the commitment to non-violence, all the way up to the abandonment of materialist economic analyses like Karl Marx’s theory of the “declining rate of profit”.
Read the rest here.
Hat tip to K-Punk.
October 10, 2009
Below is the paper I presented at the RMMLA this morning. We had large audiences for the two Deleuze panels, great discussions, and my paper was very well received. My only regret is that I couldn’t really get into the details of Deleuze’s understanding of simulacra as “signal-sign systems” as the paper would have been twice as long, so I had to focus on his critique of Platonism. It’s absolutely gorgeous here in the mountains of Utah, though I’ve had a wicked headache since arriving as a result of the altitude. Hopefully that will go away by tomorrow. I should also add that I wrote this paper at the airport and on the flight here, so a number of my allusions are unreferenced. Go easy on me! At any rate, without further ado…
Interpretation hits the real.
The simulacrum enjoys a short life in Deleuze’s thought. Appearing primarily in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, the concept then disappears in his later thought. This is not, of course, so unusual in Deleuze’s work. As has often been observed, each of Deleuze’s texts creates a new conceptual constellation. However, later, in interview, Deleuze will remark that the concept of the simulacrum was a poorly formed, while nonetheless giving no explanation or account of just how this concept was poorly formed. In my view, if Deleuze was led to abandon the concept of the simulacrum, this was not for reasons pertaining to the endo-consistency of the concept or its ability to attain a coherence and consistency allowing it to stand and support itself, but rather for rhetorical reasons pertaining to phenomena of resonance and echoes within the philosophical tradition of representation. This rhetorical situation or set of exo-relations within the tradition of representation only intensified with the appearance of Baudrillard’s work which made the simulacrum its key concept, but in a sense directly opposed to Deleuze’s own intentions in mobilizing the concept. Where Baudrillard mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum diagnostically as a symptom of our times in a war against representation and the real, Deleuze, while sharing Baudrillard’s war against representation, mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of the real. In short, Deleuze mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of a realist ontology. If, then, there is a problem with the concept of the simulacrum, this problem is to be found at the level of the plane of expression where the signifier “simulacrum” continues to resonate all too easily with both the logic of representation and anti-realist thought that has dominated philosophy since the late 17th century.
From the beginning of his work until the end, Deleuze dismisses the thesis that metaphysics is at an end or that it has exhausted itself. This affirmation of metaphysics should be taken seriously. Since Heidegger, there has been an unfortunate tendency within Continental thought to conflate metaphysics with onto-theology and philosophies of presence. Rather than following a path of thought that would metaphysically overturn onto-theology and the primacy of presence, the decision was instead made to either a) abandon metaphysics altogether in favor of humanist correlationism, or b) attempt to achieve, as in the case of Heidegger, a passage beyond metaphysics to something called thinking. By contrast, to affirm the possibility of metaphysics is to affirm realist ontology against the correlationisms that have come to dominate philosophy, suturing being and the world to the condition of the human. Within the constellation of French thought arising out of the late 60s, Deleuze is singular in this affirmation of metaphysics.
October 8, 2009
In preparing my talk on Deleuze’s overturning of Platonism and his theory of simulacra for the RMMLA on Friday, I came across the following terrific interview with Deleuze on A Thousand Plateaus and assemblages:
If there is no single field to act as a foundation, what is the unity of A Thousand Plateaus?
I think it is the idea of an assemblage (which replaces the idea of desiring machines). There are various kinds of assemblages, and various component parts. On the one hand, we are trying to substitute the idea of assemblage for the idea of behavior: whence the importance of ethology, and the analysis of animal assemblages, e.g., territorial assemblages. The chapter on the Ritornello, for example, simultaneously examines animal assemblages and more properly musical assemblages: this is what we call a “plateau,” establishing a continuity between the ritornellos of birds and Schumann’s ritornellos. On the other hand, the analysis of assemblages, broken down into their component parts, opens up the way to a general logic: Guattari and I have only begun, and completing this logic will undoubtedly occupy us in the future. Guattari calls it “diagrammatism.” In assemblages you you find states of things, bodies, various combinations of bodies, hodgepodges; but you also find utterances, modes of expression, and whole regimes of signs. The relations between the two are pretty complex. For example, a society is defined not by productive forces and ideology, but by “hodgepodges” and “verdicts.” Hodgepodges are combinations of interpenetrating bodies. These combinations are well-known and accepted (incest, for example, is a forbidden combination). Verdicts are collective utterances, that is, instantaneous and incorporeal transformations which have currency in a society (for example, “from now on you are no longer a child”…).
These assemblages which you are describing, seems to me to have value judgments attached to them. Is this correct? Does A Thousand Plateaus have an ethical dimension?
Assemblages exist, but they indeed have component parts that serve as criteria and allow the various assemblages to be qualified. Just as in painting, assemblages are a bunch of lines. But there are all kinds of lines. Some lines are segments, or segmented; some lines get caught in a rut, or disappear into “black holes”; some are destructive, sketching death; and some lines are vital and creative. These creative and vital lines open up an assemblage, rather than close it down. The idea of an “abstract” line is particularly complex. A line may very well represent nothing at all, be purely geometrical, but it is not yet abstract as long as it traces an outline. An abstract line is a line with no outlines, a line that passes between things, a line in mutation. Pollock’s line has been called abstract. In this sense, an abstract line is not a geometrical line. It is very much alive, living and creative. Real abstraction is non-organic life. This idea of nonorganic life is everywhere in A Thousand Plateaus and this is precisely the life of the concept. An assemblage is carried along by its abstract lines, when it is able to have or trace abstract lines. You know, it’s curious, today we are witnessing the revenge of silicon. Biologists have often asked themselves why life was “channeled” through carbon rather than silicon. But the life of modern machines, a genuine non-organic life, totally distinct from the organic life of carbon, is channeled through silicon. This is the sense in which we speak of a silicon-assemblage. In the most diverse fields, one has to consider the component parts of assemblages, the nature of the lines, the mode of life, the mode of utterance…
In reading your work, one gets the feeling that those distinctions which are traditionally most important have disappeared: for instance, the distinction between nature and culture; or what about epistemological distinctions?
There are two ways to supress or attenuate the distinction between nature and culture. The first is to liken animal behavior to human behavior (Lorenz tried it, with disquieting political implications). But what we are saying is that the idea of assemblages can replace the idea of behavior, and thus with respect to the idea of assemblage, the nature-culture distinction no longer matters. In a certain way, behavior is still a countour. But an assemblage is first and foremost what keeps very heterogeneous elements together: e.g. a sound, a gesture, a position, etc., both natural and artificial elements. The problem is one of “consistency” or “coherence,” and it prior to the problem of behavior. How do things take on consistency? How do they cohere? Even among very different things, an intensive continuity can be found. We have borrowed the word “plateau” from Bateson precisely to designate these zones of intensive continuity. (Two Regimes of Madness, pgs. 176 – 179)
I take three key points from this interview:
1) Assemblages are composed of heterogeneous elements or objects that enter into relations with one another. These objects are not all of the same type. Thus you have physical objects, happenings, events, and so on, but you also have signs, utterances, and so on. While there are assemblages that are composed entirely of bodies, there are no assemblages composed entirely of signs and utterances.
2) I think the idea of different kinds of lines is particularly fruitful. This is especially the case of those lines that tend towards ruts, black holes, and death. Posts about minotaurs, trolls, and gray vampires are really posts about black holes. The black hole or, as Einstein called it “dark star”, is an entity whose gravitational force is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape from it. Minotauring, trolling, and gray vampiring are forms of engagement that suck all discussion into their orbit, preventing it from moving on. As such, they tend to prevent the formation of assemblages. One aim in cultivating and evaluating assemblages lies in finding ways to escape ruts, black holes, and lines leading to death.
3) Deleuze’s claims about coherency and consistency are particularly important. Consistency and coherence are not qualities that precede assemblages, rather they are emergent properties that do or do not arise from assemblage. It is noteworthy that the term “consistency” is not being used in the logical sense, but in the sense of solutions and substances. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of consistency is closer to the way we use it when talking about cement, referring to it as “soupy”, “dry”, “lumpy”, “coarse”, “consisting of stone and lime”, etc., than the logical sense of “lacking in contradictions”. An assemblage can be riddled with contradictions as in the case of the economic and ethnic divisions that divide the North and South side of Chicago, while still producing consistency and coherence. Consistency and coherence are thus not about being without logical contradiction, nor about harmony, but rather about how heterogeneous elements or objects hang together.
October 7, 2009
Somewhere or other I came across the comment that according to Latour the most popular book is the best book and the most popular theory is the true theory. This represents a profound misunderstanding of what Latour is getting at with his concept of trials of strength. Remember that for Latour something is real if it is resistant. Reality, for Latour– and I’m still trying to figure out where I come down on this –consists of gradients of resistance. Some things have a high degree of resistance, some do not and are easily toppled or shattered.
In order to understand what Latour is getting at with his concept of “trials of strength”, it’s worthwhile to first begin with nonhuman examples because these examples are less normatively charged. If the evocation of nonhuman examples is warranted, then this is because Latour takes himself to be presented a generalized ontology in Irreductions that holds equally for human and nonhuman actors. When I was young, I loved to build things. I built all sorts of things. Tree forts, bridges, etc., etc., etc. A bridge built across a creek– where the creek is fifteen or twenty feet across –poses special issues where a trial of strength among forces is concerned. This is especially the case of the creek floods every Spring when the ice thaws. There are two primary gradients of resistance with which the wood and design of the bridge must struggle: On the one hand, there is the force of gravity. On the other hand, there is the force of the flowing water. In its turn, the wood itself is a force, generating a gradient of resistance for the water.
Now one way of engineering a bridge, especially for a twelve year old child that knows little about principles of engineering, is simply to nail plywood across two parallel 2″x2″ boards or studs and then lay this platform across the creek. There are two problems with this strategy (which is the first strategy other children in the neighborhood adopted when building a bridge across the creek). First, this strategy will not prove particularly effective in standing up against the force of gravity. When you walk across such a bridge it will bow downward in the middle, perhaps breaking or dipping underneath the flowing water of the creek.
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