February 2010


Over at Object-Oriented Philosophy Graham has an interesting post up raising the question of who might be the most overrated philosopher of all time. There are three rules to the game: First, the overrated philosopher must be recent. Sorry, if you don’t like Hegel that’s not grounds for claiming he’s overrated. He’s earned his place through his influence on subsequent philosophy. Second, the philosopher must be rated by many as being one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Note, this criterion need not imply consensus. It can refer to how fan clubs rate philosophers. And finally third, the most overrated philosopher will probably not be completely worthless. That is, he or she will have made some genuine contributions.

Graham hasn’t stated who his choices are and doesn’t plan to, but some of his readers have suggested Sartre, McDowell, Derrida, Sellars, Kripke, and Russell. I don’t think Sartre fits the bill because first off, there are hardly any Sartreans about these days, and second I do think the Sartre of Being and Nothingness and The Critique of Dialectical Reason gets a bum rap. Sartre somewhat got clothes-lined by the existentialist movement (which he partially brought on himself with essays like “Existentialism is a Humanism”), but he is, in my view, a much richer philosopher than people give him credit for. The time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Sartre’s thought. I just don’t know enough about McDowell to say one way or another (I have Mind and World, but have never read it). Derrida definitely fits the bill of overrated philosopher in my book. I actually wrote my masters thesis on Derrida and desperately wanted to find something groundbreaking in his thought, but I could never escape the impression that Derrida is a one trick pony that created three or four concepts (differance, supplementarity, and trace) that he then monotonously repackaged with different terms in text after text from there on out. I’ve just never gotten the obsession some have with Derrida, even if I do think his deconstruction of metaphysics is valuable. I don’t know that anyone has ever characterized Sellars, Kripke, or Russell as “greatest philosophers”, so the issue strikes me as moot with them. These are modest thinkers, rather, that each created a handful of concepts and lines of arguments that were extremely important, but not much beyond that. In other words, they’re not what I would call comprehensive philosophers, but by and large were restricted to very specific problems and questions. By a comprehensive philosopher I have in mind a philosopher that develops not only an epistemology and metaphysics, but also a moral, political, and aesthetic philosophy. Think Kant or Sartre.

My vote for overrated philosopher actually kills me because he’s been such an influence on my own thought and I encountered him at exactly the time I needed to encounter him: Badiou. When I first picked up Badiou’s Ethics and Being and Event both texts hit me like a gust of fresh air. At the time I was in a general malaise, feeling as if philosophy was dead and had been reduced to semiotic analysis of texts and armchair sociological meditations. Badiou dared to do philosophy again and opened a whole new field of thought for me. However, when you get into the nuts and bolts of his thought I somewhat feel that there just isn’t a whole lot of “there there”. Badiou certainly fits the bill of being a “comprehensive philosopher”, but I just don’t get the sense that his concepts are a fecund source of inspiration for generating new research and thought in other philosophers and people in other disciplines outside of philosophy.

One of the ways in which I measure the greatness of a philosophy is not by the content of the philosopher’s work itself, but rather by what a philosophy is able to engender in the work of others. Thus, for example, if Husserl is a great yet underrated philosopher, this isn’t necessarily because of his own work. Let’s face it, Husserl’s own work is often monotonous, repetitive, and obsessional in character (the grounding of the ground that needs to be grounded through yet another reduction that will be more rigorous than the last). The greatness of Husserl lies in broaching an entirely new style of philosophy that engendered research for hundreds of thinkers spiraling out in thousands of different directions: Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Levinas, Marion, Henry just to name a few. I don’t get the sense that Badiou’s thought has this sort of generative power. Rather, we seem to get a repetitive schema that endlessly repeats being as multiplicity, event, truth-procedures, subject without broaching entirely new fields of thought or research. By this criteria, I would probably rate Derrida higher than Badiou just because of the impact Derrida has had on so many other research orientations, and often in ways far more interesting than Derrida’s own work. But who knows, perhaps I just need to return to Badiou and read him again with fresh eyes.

Over at Love of All Wisdom Amod has an interesting post up on OOO and Asian thought. I wanted to zero in on this particular passage. Amod writes:

The first comparison that came to my mind when I read about this was one that I doubt Speculative Realists would find flattering: Ayn Rand. Rand blames Kant for most of the perceived evils of contemporary society, including even its supposed irrationalism, going so far as to call the austere Prussian “the first hippie in history.” Why? Because, in a word, of Kant’s correlationism! What most irritated Rand about Kant was the turn toward the subjective, away from the objective facts of the world; from here, she thought, it was a short slide into Communism, sacrificing human beings’ rational faculties. The merits of Rand’s interpretation of Kant and of post-Kantian intellectual history are dubious; nevertheless it intrigues me that in some respect she has found an unlikely bedfellow in the Speculative Realists.

I can’t speak for all the speculative realists as we’re a diverse group, but I do think I’m in a position to speak generalize about the object-oriented ontologist wing of the SR camp. It seems to me that few things could be further apart than Rand’s “objectivism” and OOO. On the one hand, Rand’s objectivism is not genuinely a variant of object-oriented thought but is instead a continuation of the Biblical narrative of the centrality and primacy of man with respect to all other beings. Like Adam and his dominion over all other creatures in the Garden, Rand emphasizes the dominion of man over the earth. This is also why Rand refers to her ethical thought as an egoism, and it is certainly a humanism to boot. By contrast, far from celebrating the centrality of the human, OOO speaks to how humans are amongst beings, no higher or lower than other beings. On the other hand, when Rand speaks of “objectivity” what she is emphasizing is the epistemological thesis of the identity of concept and object. For Rand objects are passive matters to be dominated for man’s ends (and I’m using gender marked language intentionally here), whereas OOO emphasizes 1) that objects are actants in their own right and not simply passive matters awaiting imprint from men, nor screens for human concepts. Additionally, where Rand repeats Bacon’s fantasy of dominating mother nature for human ends, OOO emphasizes the perpetual withdrawal of objects, which is, somewhat, equivalent to Adorno’s thesis of the non-identity of concept and object. OOO would make Rand twitch.

I think Amod’s post reflects the connotations of the term “object-oriented”. Upon hearing this term the hasty reader might immediately conclude that “object-oriented” signifies the opposition of being “subject-oriented”, such that we are to be “objective” or “scientific”, as opposed to examining the human element. This thesis seems to be confirmed when Amod goes on to write that OOO wants us to be “less Indian and more Chinese”:

A while ago I noted that South Asian and East Asian thought are in many respects further from each other than they are from the West, and I’d like to expand on the point in the context of Speculative Realism. A central concern, possibly the central concern, of Indian (or more generally South Asian) thought has been the psychology of the human subject. One begins with the suffering subject, already conceived in some sense as separate from the world, and then that subject tries to detach even further from the world. The Yoga Sūtras and the Jainism of the Tattvārtha Sūtra take us even further than Descartes: we are trying to become pure subjectivity. Even Pali Buddhism, focused on the subject’s unreality, nevertheless focuses its attention on the inner subjective world. Reality in the Pali suttas is composed of five “aggregates”; only one of these (rūpa, matter or form) is physical, while the other four are all primarily within the mind. I’m not sure that this all is correlationist per se, but it is anthropocentric and privileges the subject in ways the Speculative Realists seem to oppose.

Turn to China, on the other hand, and one finds a philosophy concerned above all with the outer world, one that often speaks of the exterior world in interior terms. The closest word classical Chinese has for “emotion” is qing, which has more of a sense of “disposition”: one’s emotions are imagined in an almost behaviourist way, based on the way that they predispose one to react in the outer world. I say “almost” behaviourist because there’s some dispute about how much interiority one finds in the work of thinkers like Confucius: Ted Slingerland has argued there is a little, while Herbert Fingarette has argued there is none at all. (On Fingarette’s account Confucius begins to seem an eliminative materialist like Paul and Patricia Churchland; and at least according to the “Pathfinder” list of links I found above, the Speculative Realists are quite sympathetic to eliminative materialism and its attack on subjectivity.)

Yes and no. Remember that for OOO there aren’t two categories or domains of being: the domain of the subject and the domain of the object. Rather, for OOO there’s only one species of being: objects. The consequence that follows from this is that humans are objects too. As a result, humans can’t be excluded from ontological questions. They are every bit as interesting to the object-oriented ontologist as the relationship between, to use Harman’s favorite example, the relation between cotton and a flame. Consequently, the battle cry of OOO is not “eradicate subjectivity!”. Rather it’s quite different. The battle cry of OOO is “don’t reduce objects to subjectivity!” What OOO objects to is not the thesis that when humans relate to objects they color it with their subjectivity in all sorts of ways. This is one of the reasons that OOO is so sanguine about correlationist critiques of realism. It’s not that we think that what these theorists are pointing out is outright false (as Whitehead and Leibniz liked to point out, there’s truth in every philosophy and what philosophies suffer from generally is not falsehood or bad argument but overstatement), rather it’s that OOO theorists can integrate all of these claims while maintaining a realist stance. It’s already built into our ontology.

What OOO objects to is the fetishistic privileging of human-object relations in all matters metaphysical and the claim that objects are nothing but appearances, as Kant put it, for humans. However, were there a cage fight between Kant and Rand (and no doubt Rand would win as she’s the “real man” of the two), the OOO theorist would be rooting on the side of Kant because the OOO theorist supports, as a matter of course, that whenever two objects enter into a relation with one another they distort one another. Kant is closer to the truth as OOO understands it than Rand on this matter because at least Kant understood how relations between human objects and nonhuman objects led to withdrawal, whereas Rand does not understand this and reduces all objects to mere passive means. The gripe with Kant is not this thesis, but his refusal to extend this thesis to all objects, such that the difference between a human relating to an object and a flame relating to cotton is a difference in degree not a difference in kind. I believe Amod’s post is a testament to how deeply the connotations of words (like “object”) and certain oppositions (subject-object) are embedded in our metaphysical unconscious.

In my development of the ontology of objects within the framework of onticology I have tried to argue that objects are not their local manifestations or actualizations, but rather a virtual endo-relational structure composed of relations among attractors, singularities, powers, or generative mechanisms. It is this virtual dimension of the object that, in my view, constitutes the proper being of an object. This virtual dimension of the object, I argue, constitutes its substantiality. Consequently, it follows that no object ever directly encounters another objects, but rather objects only ever encounter one another as local manifestations of their virtual proper being. The proper being of the object, its virtual structure, is always in excess of any of its local manifestations.

This model of objects is proposed, in part, to account for the identity of an object throughout its variations. Objects continuously vary or change as their conditions change, yet there is something of the object that remains the same. But what is this something? Certainly it can’t be the local manifestations or actualizations of the object because those local manifestations change with shifting conditions or changes in exo-relations to other objects. It is this insight that leads many, I think, to overmine objects by reducing them to their relations to other objects. Yet as Harman has compellingly argued, this line of thought fails to provide the conditions for the possibility under which these variations are possible. As a consequence, it follows that the identity of an object cannot be something in the appearance (to the world, not to humans), local manifestation, or actualization of an object, but must reside in another dimension of the object. And because the object can undergo variations while remaining that object, it follows that the proper being of the object, its substantiality, must be something that does not manifest itself. It is there everywhere in the object, without ever becoming present in the world. It is the “principle” of the object, its “essence”, its “style of being”, without being something that we could ever find in the local manifestations of the object.

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Within the framework of onticology I’ve had difficulty articulating just what I have in mind by the concept of a “flat ontology”. The term “flat ontology” is, of course, derived from the work of Manuel DeLanda. In Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy DeLanda describes flat ontology thus:

…while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. (47)

For DeLanda, then, flat ontology signifies an ontology in which there is only one ontological “type”: individuals. Thus for DeLanda the relationship between species and organism is not a relationship between the universal or essence that is eternal and unchanging and the particular or the organism as an instance of the species. Rather, both species and organisms are individuals that are situated in time and space. If species are not eternal essences or forms defining what is common to all particulars of that species, if they exist in space and time, then this is because species, as conceived by biology are not types but rather are really existing reproductive populations located in a particular geography at a particular point in time. For DeLanda, then, being is composed entirely of individuals.

While I find much that is commendable in DeLanda’s ontology, where the sorts of entities that populate being are concerned, I’m a bit more circumspect. At present I’m not ready to throw in with DeLanda and the thesis that there are only individuals. I am agnostic on the question of whether universals exist, and my intuitions strongly lean in the Platonic direction of treating numbers as real objects in their own right that have being independent of human minds. If this is the case, if numbers are real, then I have a difficult time seeing how they can be treated as individuals in the sense that DeLanda intends and, moreover, I do not think that the genetic concerns that preoccupy DeLanda are relevant to questions of number, i.e., a genetic account of how numbers come to be– if, in fact, they do come to be and are not eternal objects –does not get at what numbers are.

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In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

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Ian Bogost weighs in on the question of materialism over at his blog, writing:

Maybe part of the problem is the singularness of materialism. Gratton cites Harman on materialism being reductionist, and this is what I’m getting at too. Rather than seeking to define definitively the nature of matter (a task that inevitably leads to scientific reductionism), or taking material to mean that which mediates or regulates human interactions (which leads to inevitable correlationism), instead we should desire a multitude of materials. True materialism is an aggregate. Or, put differently, “materialism” doesn’t exist, but “materialisms” do.

I get the sense that many people misconstrue object-oriented ontology as a singular material affair, as a reductionism: “everything’s an object.” But instead, proponents of OOO hold that all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The funeral pyre is not the same as the aardvark; the porcelatta is not equivalent to the rubgy ball. Not only are neither pair reducible to human encounter, but also neither are reducible to one another. In this respect, McLuhan is a better place to look for materialism than is Marx.

There’s a lot more in the post, so read the rest of it here. Here I think Ian hits the core of the issue. Both materialism and correlationisms are reductive positions. The variations of anti-realism all seek to reduce objects to some human related phenomenon, while the variants of materialism always seek to reduce objects to some identical material “stuff”. What is always missing is a genuine ontological pluralism, a promiscuous or slutty ontology, that allows for a variety of different actants irreducible to one type of being. This is one of the reasons object-oriented ontologists tend to refer to themselves as realists rather than materialists. Here Latour’s essay “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?” is rewarding reading.

Peter Gratton and Graham Harman have a few interesting posts up about how the term “materialism” is used in continental philosophy (here, here, and here). As Peter writes:

It just so happens I did an edit on an article I wrote on Adrian Johnston’s Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations today, then turned my attention to reading Malabou’s Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, and then a couple of chapters of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and each claim to be a materialist. Bennett can lay the easiest claim, since she’s a self-described monist, but Johnston and Malabou are formalists in the strict sense. In fact, Malabou’s whole project centers around her claim that form has been too quickly written off as “metaphysical” by Derrida, Heidegger, et al. And Johnston offers what he calls a “transcendental materialism.” Malabou and Johnston are writing a book together, so maybe they’ll hash out this better, but I think the term is really just a place holder for “I’m not an idealist.” And I just don’t know what explanatory power “materialism” has any more.

I confess that I’m equally baffled by the varied uses of the term “materialism”. Perhaps I’m particularly wooden on this issue, but for me, in order for a position to count as materialist it has to pass what I call “The Lucretius Test”. Lucretius is a genuine materialist because he is making a genuine claim about what exists, regardless of whether it has anything to do with humans, and this stuff is matter. In this respect, Bennett would be a genuine materialist because she is analyzing material things and their powers. Likewise with DeLanda. While they all differ as to what matter is (a proper ontological dispute), there’s no doubt that all of these thinkers pass the Lucretius test.

By contrast, when I turn to Zizek, Badiou, Johnston, and Meillassoux I have a difficult time discerning what is materialist about these orientations of thought. In The Parallex View Zizek claims that the core thesis of materialism is that “the whole is not”. While I don’t find the thesis that the whole is not objectionable, I fail to see what it has to do with materialism or how it might pass the Lucretius Test. These other variants of Marxist thought seem to run something like this: Idealism privileges mind, thought, and reason in the construction of reality. We focus on human practices such as production, discourses, language, etc. in the construction of reality. Therefore idealism consists in a focus on mind and thought while materialism focuses on human practice. However, in my book this conclusion doesn’t follow at all. A position is no less idealist because it focuses on, say, practices of discourse or language games as opposed to categories and cognitions. No, that position is still every bit as idealist because it still has humans constructing reality. Therefore it doesn’t pass the Lucretius Test.

Marx is somewhat off the hook here because he does speak of humans working with nonhuman matter in processes of production. The problem is that the role played by nonhuman and natural things really gets short shrift in Marx. The focus is on how humans transform these matters into something else, not the role these matters themselves play in transforming humans and each other. Here you’d need something like a communism of objects, where humans are among objects, not in a necessary and inexorable relation with all objects. Such positions still privilege the human-world relation, to the detriment of all other relations. “Transcendental materialism”, for example, only makes sense to me if you’re talking about something like DeLanda’s conception of the virtual where attractors haunt actualized objects, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. I don’t see anything like this in Badiou’s transcendental (his transcendental still strikes me as being social in character, and this is borne out by all the examples he uses in Logics of Worlds) or in Johnston’s transcendental which is thoroughly Kantian. By contrast, DeLanda’s attractors have nothing human about them. They’re there in the things themselves. Now Lucretius had all sorts of interesting things to say about the human-world relation, but the key point is that his ontology was, in no way, restricted to that relation. Lucretius had all sorts of interesting things to say about interactions among atoms that have nothing to do with the human, and there’s no sense in which Lucretius requires humans to exist for substantially differentiated and active beings to exist. Thus, while Lucretius is an underminer of objects in Harman’s vocabulary, he certainly is a genuine realist. And moreover, as Graham likes to say, if you only ever find yourself talking about the human-world relation then you’re a correlationist. If your philosophy has nothing significant to say about the relation between a rock and soil, you’re a correlationist. At any rate, it seems to me that we’ve begun to use these terms very loosely.

After the hectic week I’ve had I’m not firing on all cylinders this evening so hopefully I’ll be somewhat coherent here, but I wanted to draw attention to Peter Gratton’s interview with Paul Ennis where he heavily discusses speculative realism. Already Ennis’s post has generated a lot of discussion (here, here, here, here, and Complete Lies well thought out remarks here). Without repeating Harman’s own remarks, I wanted to zero in on a particular passage in Ennis’s interview. Ennis remarks,

Hegel, and I think Meillassoux quotes him on this, said we cannot sneak up on the ‘thing itself’ to see what it is really like or put differently consciousness cannot get around itself to know the really real (the correlationist circle in Meillassoux’s terms). Hegel has a wonderful solution to this problem in the Phenomenology of Spirit. He simply says that discussions of the ‘in itself’ is something that is only ‘really’ happening for consciousness so when it comes down to it the ‘in itself’ is ‘really’ a feature of thinking and so, technically, there is no in itself object out there to be understood. The ‘in itself’ is not something consciousness is unfamiliar with – it is something that belongs to thought itself…

I more or less agree with Harman’s analysis to the effect that this thesis expresses the quintessence of what OOO opposes. However, approaching Ennis’s remarks from another angle, I also think it is suggestive of the wrong sort of question. In other words– and here I’m not trying to single out Ennis by any means –we have to ask if Hegel is a wonderful solution to a particular problem, what is the problem and question to which this solution responds? And here I think there can be no doubt, the problem to which Hegel’s “solution” responds is the epistemological problem of how it is possible to know the thing-in-itself.

However, it is precisely here, among other sites, that Hegel and OOO parts ways. While it is certainly true that there are variants of speculative realism that are almost entirely concerned with questions of epistemology (Brassier comes to mind), when OOO defends realism what’s at stake is not epistemology but ontology. In other words, it’s of crucial importance to an understanding of OOO that we distinguish between epistemological realism and ontological realism. Epistemological realism is a thesis about knowledge to the effect that objects out there in the world are “really like” our representations of them or that there is a correspondence between intellect and thing. Ontological realism is the thesis that objects are independent of human culture, language, cognition, and perception, that they would be what they are regardless of whether we regard them through any of these agencies, and that they exist in their own right rather than simply being constructions of humans. For OOO the question and problem is not that of how we know entities or the in-itself, and this because all objects already withdraw from any relation they enter into such that they are in excess of these relations.

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We’ve now completed compiling all the articles for The Speculative Turn so the manuscript will be sent off to Re.Press in the next day or so. Nick tells me that the MS comes in at around 400 pages. I have to say that the articles in it are fantastic and I can’t wait to have the finished material version of it in my hands. It’s been a long trudge but we’re finally getting there. Hopefully this volume will serve to spur a good deal more debate and discussion. With any luck it will be out by June.

What’s really amazing is that the three of us, and the participants, managed to pull this together without ever meeting. It’s enough to throw me into a vertigo of objects such as Graham describes with his infinite submultiples of multiples. Here you have all these objects, the people involved, mixing with yet other objects, the articles submitted, grocking with yet other objects (fiberoptic cables, computers that go awry– one of mine had a meltdown two weeks ago forcing me to go back over all sorts of stuff –programs, blogs, email accounts, telephone poles, servers, tired bodies and brains, recalcitrant neurons more interested in sex, food or drink at a particular moment than the intricacies of principles in Aristotle, technicians of all sorts that we’ll never meet, three year olds knocking their feet on laptop keyboards as they lay across you creating strings of meaningless letters and symbols in the middle of what you’re doing, interrupting your train of thought as they ask for you to help them go potty), etc., etc., etc., all enlisted in bringing yet another object into the world (the finished text), that will then enter into all sorts of other objects and assemblages when it is discussed in blog posts, other articles, other books, and so on. It’s amazing anything ever comes into being, yet somehow things do. The Speculative Turn has not yet passed through all the trials of strength required for it to stand and abide on its own, but it’s a hell of a lot more real than it was when I first contacted Nick and Graham with the prospect of such a collection.

It’s Scu’s birthday today. From one Aquarius to another, happy birthday! Give him some love as he’s much beloved.

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