I’m a bit groggy this morning. Last night my three year old daughter smacked her forehead against the coffee table and we had to take a trip to the emergency room. Seven stitches and five hours later we finally got home around one thirty in the morning and then didn’t get asleep until four or four thirty. I’m amazed at how well she handled everything. She was a real trooper. After the initial shock of all the blood– and boy do heads ever bleed! –she was rather nonchalant about the whole thing, making offhand remarks like “I bumped my head a little! I hit my head on table. Blood was everywhere! Sometimes that happens!” in an amused voice and, while calmly playing before leaving for the ER, “I don’t need to see a doctor and we don’t have any bandaids”. We danced in the hospital room and she charmed all the nurses and doctors. After everything was over she actually didn’t want to leave as she was having so much fun. That’s my girl! What a ham and little attention addict. At any rate, hopefully I’ll make some sense in this post.

Responding to a couple of my posts from earlier this week on translation, Nate over at Un-canny Ontology writes:

What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?

Translation is more than a simple replication. Translation always involves a certain degree of interpretation in which what is inputted is always changed or transformed – from photons of light to complex sugars. Objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly, which means that objects first and foremost recognize each other.

I am pretty uncomfortable with Nate’s talk of objects “knowing” each other and “recognizing” each other as I think this implies a degree of intentionality (in the phenomenological sense) that only belongs to a subset of objects (humans, many animals, certain computer systems perhaps, social systems), not all objects. In my view, it’s necessary to distinguish between reflexive objects capable of registering their own states and relations to other entities like social systems or cognitive systems, and non-reflexive objects that do not have this characteristic. In other words, where non-reflexive objects are in question it’s important to emphasize that intentionality is not required for translation to take place and be operative in relations between objects.

read on!

Nonetheless, when this qualification is made, I do think Nate is asking a good question. I’m of two minds about this question. On the one hand, my initial thought is that it is not for philosophy to answer how translation takes place in any specific relation between objects. Initially this response might look like a dodge; however, it is premised on a distinction between the sort of thing philosophy does and the sort of thing other disciplines do.

Since I am on a Bhaskar kick lately, this point can be illustrated by analogy to Bhaskar’s ontology. Bhaskar asks the transcendental question “what must the world be like in order for our sciences to be possible?” Among his answers is the thesis that things must be structured and differentiated, they must be capable of acting without us knowing them or being aware of them (his generative mechanisms), they must be capable of acting without producing effects in all cases, they must have powers or capabilities, it must be possible to form more or less closed systems (for experiment to be possible and significant), and in open systems these generative mechanisms must be capable of acting without producing the sorts of effects we encounter when triggering a generative mechanism in the closed system of an experimental setting.

Bhaskar’s thesis is that the world must be this way for our science to be possible and for our practice of experimentation to be intelligible; however, his ontological claims about what the world must be like do not tell us what generative mechanisms actually exist, how they are structured, what powers or capabilities they have, and so on. What generative mechanisms exist is a task for direct inquiry in various disciplines, not something that philosophy can answer a priori. The case is similar with respect to translation. Philosophy can tell us that objects must translate one another when they interact and therefore draw our attention to the differences produced in interaction, but it has nothing of its own to say about what translation machines or mechanisms actually exist and how they are structured. This is the job of inquiry in other disciplines. Thus, for example, it falls to the biologist to investigate how leaves translate light into energy. Likewise, it falls to folks like Nate in the field of rhetoric to investigate how audiences are selectively open to certain speech-performances and how these performances on the part of a rhetor are translated by audiences into something else.

Nonetheless, and this is my second point, we can make some very general ontological claims about what objects must be like for translation to be possible. Hopefully these theses somewhat address Nate’s question. My tendency at present is to think of translation in terms of information theory. This should come as no surprise as the ontic principle is, in many respects, adapted from Bateson’s definition of information as “the difference that makes a difference.” So how should this be understood?

First, the concept of information is to be distinguished from that of noise. Information, as a difference that makes a difference, is something that stands out in contrast to noise. If, for example, a student in an introductory philosophy course has great difficulty reading Derrida’s essay “Differance”, this is not because the text is difficult or poorly written, but because the student, having just come to philosophy for the first time, lacks the background in philosophy that would allow the student to encounter the elements of the text as information. Everything in the essay seems significant and as a result it all becomes noise insofar as nothing can be distinguished in the essay by the student. Information can thus be thought in Gestalt terms as a relation between what leaps into the foreground (information) and what passes into the background (noise).

It’s important to note that for self-reflexive intentional objects like students, this relationship between foreground is a dynamic, not fixed, relation. Not only can these systems evolve such that elements that before were mere noise can take on the status of information, but also relations between foreground and background can shift back and forth, such that something that a moment ago belonged to the domain of noise now comes to the fore as information or a difference that makes a difference.

Second, and of great importance, it should be noted that information and noise are not ontological properties of the world, but are object-specific properties. There is no information “out there” in and of itself. Rather, objects “constitute” information for themselves. The idea that information exists “out there” and not simply for an object constitutes a sort of transcendental illusion within ontology that I’ll have to write about in the future. To put this point differently, information is only information for an object. Likewise, noise is only noise for an object. It is not the world that is disordered or chaotic, but rather the world for an object that is disordered or chaotic. Here I am drawing on the manner in which information is thought by systems theory and autopoietic theory.

Third, objects are only selectively open to other objects in the world. Take the example of sitting at a coffee shop with friends. All sorts of things recede into the background in this situation: the actions of the staff, the conversations of other people, the traffic that could be discerned through the window, the talking head babbling away on the television, the music playing in the background, etc. In this scenario we only share selective relations to the world about us. The rest largely disappears until another shift takes place in relations between foreground and background.

It now becomes possible to say a few very general things about the ontology of translation and what must be the case in order for translation to be possible. First, there must be an ontological distinction between stimuli and information. The term “stimulus” is not the happiest term as it still implies a reference to a receiving object. However, I would like to stipulate this term not as a reference to a receiving object, but rather treat it as a difference transmitted by another object. At any given time there are all sorts of stimuli flying about in the world that are not information for various objects. Thus, for example, at this very moment there are all sorts of radio signals pulsing through the air about me. These signals are real things that are out there. However, for me they scarcely exist and are not information as I have no way of receiving them. In order to receive them I need an additional black box– my nifty new iPhone or my computer –that can function as a mediator allowing me to relate to these stimuli.

Second, if there is a difference between information and stimuli, and if stimuli exist in all sorts of ways without being information, it follows that information is not something that is already out there, but rather is constituted by objects receiving these stimuli. This, I think, approaches Nate’s initial question. For information to be possible, certain things have to be true of objects. On the one hand, it is necessary that objects (generative mechanisms) exist that emit stimuli. On the other hand, objects must have channels and an internal structure (endo-relational structure) that organizes these stimuli into differences that make a difference. Channels are modes of openness to other objects in the world, while endo-relational structure, in part, is the mechanism by which stimuli are transformed into differences that make a difference.

Thus, for example, no matter how much I talk to a rock, I cannot compel that rock to get out of my way. While the sound-waves of my voice might indeed affect the rock in a variety of ways because the rock has channels for receiving differences in this sort of causal way, the rock cannot encounter those sound-waves as speech because it does not possess channels or an endo-relational structure for constituting sound-waves (stimuli) as speech (information) in the manner of other reflexive objects. Likewise, last night I could not heal my daughter’s wound through speech; however, when I function as a psychoanalyst for someone else, it is possible to cure a psychoanalytic symptom through the intervention of speech. The channels and endo-relational structure that constitute openness to different forms of difference are something that must be surveyed in every instance and that cannot be determined by philosophy a priori.

This point can be further illustrated with respect to the periodic table of elements. The periodic table is not simply a summary of what we’ve discovered about the endo-relational structure of various elements, but also, for those who know how to read us, tells the chemist, biologist, and physicist all sorts of things about channels or different possibilities of relation that can take place between elements. On the one hand, each element is a generative mechanism capable of producing a variety of actualities. On the other hand, elements are only capable of selectively relating to one another according to very precise laws and these relations generate new properties or actualizations when they take place.

A couple of further points. Over at the Pinnochio Theory, Shaviro riffs on Nate’s post and my own, writing:

I think that the source of this problem, in Nathan’s account, is the following. He says that ” objects first and foremost recognize each other,” precisely because — here paraphrasing Levi, and also to an extent Graham Harman — “objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly.” But as I’ve said before, my biggest disagreement with both Levi and Graham is that, for me, objects do encounter each other directly.

There’s a lot more in Steven’s post, but I wanted to zero in on this particular remark as I think it conflates my position with Harman’s. For Harman objects are absolutely independent or withdrawn from one another such that you get the question of how they can enter into relations with one another. Within my proposed ontology, objects do touch one another. What that don’t do is represent one another in the manner of a mirror representing an object. Rather, every relation between objects is a translation and every translation involves transformation. In certain respects, this places me closer to Latour and Whitehead in the sense that I do not place objects behind absolute “firewalls” as Graham does. Where I differ from Latour and Whitehead, is in holding that objects have a being that is not reducible to their relations to other objects (their endo-relational structure), and that the relations objects do entertain to other objects are selective. Where Whitehead and Latour hold that each actual occasion holds a definite relation to every other actual occasion in the entire universe, I hold that 1) objects only share relations to other particular objects and are unrelated to a number of other objects in the universe, and 2) that even if all other objects in the universe were to cease existing a particular object could continue to exist (something that is impossible in Whitehead’s and Latour’s universe). In part I believe this must be the case as inquiry would become impossible were objects to be related to all other objects as it would no longer be possible to form more or less closed systems within which inquiry takes place. Insofar as inquiry clearly does take place it follows that this thesis cannot be true.

My gloss on the “occasional” in Latour is thus somewhat different than Harman’s. Discussing Latour’s reference to occasions in Prince of Networks, Harman writes, “A thing is not separate from its relations [for Latour], and in fact ‘each element is to be defined by its associations and is an event created at the occasion of each of those associations’ (Pandora’s Hope, 165, emphasis added by Harman)” (80). Where Harman reads this as a reference to the philosophical doctrine of occasionalism, I read the reference to occasions in temporal terms as in the case of referring to things like “on this great occasion…” To speak of objects entering into relations with one another in occasions is thus to refer to the selective and limited nature of those relations, along with the fact that objects contingently encounter one another or encounter one another in an aleatory fashion. I would differ from Latour here in hold that it is not the occasion or the relations that make the object the object. The occasions can modify the manner in which the object actualizes itself, but this is quite different from suggesting that the object is its relations.

Despite these ontological differences, Harman and I do arrive at similar conclusions. If I am comfortable talking about objects “withdrawing” from one another then this is because translations that take place within an object always differ from the other object that instigates the translation or provides the input for the process of translation. The other day I came across this comment over at Another Heidegger Blog:

Why do you not address the most obvious problem of why vicar’s (representations) are central to the mechanism of causation between two inanimate objects?

Do you read as coherent that when a baseball hurls into a windshield it must FIRST send a representation of itself INTO the glass, and then it must brush this “vicar” into a state of phenomenenal breakdown, a breakdown which THEN results in the baseball cracking the glass? Does this make any sense to you? Aside from projecting a human caricature of experience and cognition, in what way does this actually seem to reveal how objects interact without human beings?

This is an example of what I would call an uncharitable interpretation of Harman’s position. It is important that we understand just what I have in mind by the “principle of charity”. The principle of charity does not consist in passively endorsing another position or refraining from criticism. Rather, the principle of charity is a necessary condition for philosophical discourse, requiring that we present the positions of other thinkers in the most reasonable and plausible light before proceeding to criticism of that position. Working on the premise that our interlocutor is a reasonable and intelligent person that genuinely wants to get at the truth, explain features of the world, and understand things– a premise that should be granted at the beginning of dialogue and revoked only when proven otherwise –we should ask ourselves, with respect to our interpretations of the positions of others, “is this a position that a reasonable person would endorse or advocate?” If our impression of another’s position is that it is batshit crazy insane, then it is likely we have misinterpreted the other person’s position, not that the author is making the absurd claim. Note, that the claim that a position is reasonable or a position that a rational agent could hold is not equivalent to the claim that the position is true. Of course, it comes as no surprise that this person’s reading of Harman would be so uncharitable, given that he confesses he’s only read of Harman’s theory of causality as developed in his early work presented at the speculative realism conference, and that he has not actually read Tool Being, Guerilla Metaphysics, or Prince of Networks.

The characterization of Harman’s position above is clearly absurd. Harman’s thesis is not that objects must first encounter other objects under the form of a “sensuous vicar” and then relate to them. Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of. Austin over at Complete Lies drives this point home nicely in his recent post on Harman’s theory of vicarious causation:

In Aristotle’s Categories he distinguishes between subjects and predicates. The Greek word for “subject” is hypokeimenon (ὑποκείμενον) meaning “underlying thing.” Essentially, it is that which is predicated but remains beneath the layers of predicates. We can also understand this through substance and accidents. The substance of the thing is that which the accidents adhere to without itself becoming anything fundamentally new. My car is still a car even if I have it painted a new colour for instance. The predicate “silver” does not alter the substance “car” in any substantial way. So there are substances and there are accidents. Great. The chief occasionalist insight to be made here is through the chain of causality. The position is one that says substances don’t touch each other. Let’s use an example. When I have a relationship with a person, there is more to that person than our interactions. Let us assume it is a romantic relationship between lover and beloved. Does this relation exhaust the other’s being? Is it not the case that there is far more to the person than their relation to me? While we would likely share much of our lives with each other, there remains a fundamental gap between the two of us. Don’t we interact on the level of accidents and not substance? When I talk to or touch my girlfriend, there is always more to her than these interactions. This is also the case for my interactions with non-human objects, for instance the relationship I have to the laptop I am writing this on. There are infinite possibilities for relations within a thing, it can interact with practically anything else in the universe in any number of ways, none of which could exhaust its possibilities. This is the point of the fire and cotton example. Cotton can do a lot more than burn, and the fire only engages the cotton on that level and not on the part of the cotton (to use improper language) that could become denim or a Q-Tip. While the fire destroys the cotton, this does not mean it has exhausted those potentialities, it has simply destroyed them.

The point is that there is always more possibilities open to any object than those actualized in any particular relation the object enters into. In many respects, then, Harman’s claim can be understood in counterfactual terms. One of his key points regarding the inexhaustibility of objects pertains to the inexhaustibility of their possible relations. If objects are always in excess of or more than their relations, if they only relate to one another under particular aspects or in terms of “sensuous vicars”, then this is because there is always an excess of other relations they could enter into under different aspects. I hope to expand on this a bit in the near future in terms of the sorts of transcendental illusions generated through the process of translation, giving transcendental illusion not an epistemological grounding restricted to thought or the human-world gap, but an ontological grounding.

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