March 2010


Can the Obama administration get any more depressing? First we get “health care reform” without even a public option for price control. Now he’s calling for oil drilling, turning back on his campaign promises once again. It seems that there isn’t a single progressive position that he isn’t willing to bargain away to the plutocracy that rules the country. Too depressing for words.

Okay, I wanted to write a wizbang post on this issue and probably will in the future when my thoughts settle a bit more, but in the tradition of Nate who has sadly been rather absent lately due to his paternal bliss, I have to ask, what in the hell is up with French continental philosophy’s obsession with the subject. Now please understand, when I ask this question I’m not asking it seriously. I know that the question of the subject has somehow come to be seen as the crucial and burning question of how change is possible. But to be quite honest, after going through all my Lacanian, Zizekian, and Badiouian escapades, I have to confess that I’m left scratching my head as to how the question contributes anything to producing change beyond providing a sort of pep rally for demoralized leftists living in a neoliberal world.

What sort of theory produces theoretical change? When I reflect on this question the answer seems to be cartographic theory or that form of theory that either provides the tools to or that actually do map collective assemblages. Here I have in mind work like that of Foucault, Marx in Capital, Latour, various feminist thinkers, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. The point is that it’s very difficult to do anything if you don’t have a map of how things are put together, and it’s very difficult to strategize action without knowing the basins of attraction that tend to pull human bodies into particular patterns. It’s difficult to see what the category of the subject really contributes to any of this. And indeed, it seems that preoccupation with the subject actively draws attention away from such work.

The more I think about the recent discussion surrounding Life After People and narrativity (here, here, here, and here), the more it seems to me that what is at stake is something similar to what Marx denounced under the title of “commodity fetishism”. Initially, this suggestion might sound very strange coming from an object-oriented ontologist, for commodity fetishism occurs when relationships between people are treated as relations between things. However, a bit of reflection reveals that what is at stake in the hegemonic fallacy and commodity fetishism are isomorphic to one another.

David Harvey gives a nice illustration of what is at stake in commodity fetishism in his latest (which is really quite good, by the way). There Harvey asks,

…what’s going on here [with commodity fetishism]? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price– the "how much" –is socially determined. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers– those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them. (39 – 40)

Note that while the supermarket situation disguises collective relations insofar as all we’re confronted with in the market is the price and the empirical properties of the head of lettuce, it does not follow from this that this disguise is an illusion in the ordinary sense. The lettuce, the price, and the cashier are all things that are really there. What is absent are the collective relations this lettuce embodies as congealed or crystallized labor.

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Over at An Un-Canny Ontology Nate weighs in on our recent discussion of Life After People. Nate writes:

In his response to Tim and to my problem with the TV show Life After People, Levi over at Larval Subjects remarked:

I think narrative is a way in which these things take place, but is not the way. This is what I referred to in a prior post (over at Philosophy in a Time of Error, I think) as an occupational hazard. The rhetorician spends his or her time analyzing narratives and thus naturally sees narratives and signifiers in everything.

And then a little later:

The whole thing that set off my original post was Nate’s rather snide remark that all the object-oriented ontologist can say is “objects act”. Hell no. We’re interested in how objects act and celebrate those modes of analysis that show how objects act and what differences they contribute.

I’ve made bold this last sentence because it draws out a larger question. What, if we are not creating narratives, does Levi mean when he makes this last statement? A narrative is story set up in an sometimes enlightening but often constructive format. It can take shape in variety of forms (novels, short stories, poems, TV shows, movies, anecdotes, even grocery lists, etc, etc.). The first order observation that Levi fails to see when watching Life After People is that he is watching a narrative – I am in no way adding this narrative, as Levi claimed, since as a TV show Life After People is automatically a structured way of relaying a story – and if the title and the obvious fact that it is a TV show want to be ignored, one can always point out the second glaring reason – Life After People has a NARRATOR. The show, the story of a world without people still needs to be narrated, significance needs to be given to the objects of this specific (and post-human) world. BUT, this significance is not placed onto the show by an outside viewer as a first-order observation. No. It is inherent in the show itself, which brings me back to the original problem I had with it. When stripped of all of its narrative aspects, what are we left with? I would argue, that what we are left with is something far more boring than the job of a rhetorician.

There’s more there so check out his post. A couple of points are in order. First, nowhere have I denied that narrative is at work in the show. I just argued that I don’t think this is what is crucial or interesting in the show (I provide a narrative analysis I would find interesting later in this post). This is the point, in my recent post, of the garlic example. Just as I wouldn’t deny that the garlic plays a role in the pasta, I would not deny that narrative plays a role. What I am thus objecting to is the manner in which Nate and Tim are treating narrative as a God-term that is the only important difference at work in the show, or the only element that plays a role.

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Michael, over at Struggles With Philosophy has recently been writing some interesting posts on object-oriented ontology (here and here). In today’s post, Michael calls for a move from object-oriented ontology to object-oriented empiricism. In other words, Michael is interested in how OOO might be put into practice. As Michael writes:

At one level I want to differentiate between the theory (or philosophy) of OOP and the praxis of OOP, which will be designated as OOE. The former (OOP) will primarily be engaged in the philosophical discussion and theoretical debates of an object-orient approach, and the main role of OOP will be to produce Object-Oriented Ontologies. The latter (OOE) will primarily be concerned with illustrating the benefits (and limitations) of Object-Oriented Ontologies for the analysis of the experiences of the ‘real’ world, aimming to research particular objects(or events) and how these objects act and relate to other objects. In other words, the Object-Oriented Empiricist will use (or steal) the ontologies produced in OOP and design their research projects in accordance with what object-oriented ontology they adopt.

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This week my students and I began exploring Meillassoux’s After Finitude. The first chapter of Meillassoux’s After Finitude begins with a call to rehabilitate the discredited distinction between primary and secondary qualities. It will be recalled that secondary qualities are purely relational, existing only in the interaction between the body and the object or the subject and the object, whereas primary qualities are qualities that are in the object itself, regardless of whether any body or subject relates to them. Generally primary qualities are treated as any qualities that can be mathematized or quantified (extension, duration, mass, wavelengths, numerical temperatures, and so on). When elucidating secondary qualities Meillassoux gives the nice example of the pain you feel in your finger when burnt by a candle flame. To be sure, the candle flame causes this pain, but it cannot be said that the flame has pain as one of its qualities. The pain only exists in the relationship between my finger and the flame. Thus, in the traditional sorting of primary and secondary qualities, qualities like colors, tastes, textures, scents, sounds, pains, pleasures, and so on are all purely relational in character. And insofar as these qualities are all relational, it cannot be said that there is anything like colors, tastes, textures, scents, pains, and pleasures in the world itself.

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No, this is not a Kant bashing diary.

Given the flurry of writing today it’s probably fairly evident that I’m trying to avoid grading. Despite my antipathy to Kant and transcendental idealism, I do find his thought endlessly fascinating and replete with brilliant and devious arguments. It was thus with great pleasure that I got to recently explore the Prolegomena once again with my students. And as we worked through the Prolegomena I found myself particularly struck by the logic and structure of the a priori categories which Kant introduces in the transcendental analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason. In particular, I found myself fascinated by the manner in which every third category is a combination of the preceding two categories. For the object-oriented ontologist the categories falling under quantity and relation are particularly important.

To be clear, I am not endorsing Kant’s specific theorization of the categories (i.e., that they are a priori structures of the mind). As a realist I am, of course, committed to the thesis that attributes like being a substance belong to the things-themselves, not the mind regarding objects (viz., they are primary, rather than secondary, qualities). Nonetheless, there is a great deal of interest in these categories, despite the short shrift he gives to their elaboration (does Kant somewhere treat them in detail in his lectures?).

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I’m experimenting here so hopefully the more mathematically knowledgeable among us won’t give me too hard a time. Perhaps one of the ways the argument of my previous post could be understood is in terms of mathematical categories. What mathematical categories allow us to think are functional morphisms or relations between sets. I’ll say more about this in a moment. In playful jab at my friend Nate, I wrote the following in my previous post:

Rhetorically Nate seems to think that it’s of no significance that his post was written on the internet, requiring fiber optic cables, a particular platform, news feeds, electricity, etc., that created the opportunity for our thoughts to be brought together and preserved despite the fact that we live an hour apart.

Drawing on the formal resources of category theory we can construct an external diagram of the point that I was trying to make, depicted in the upper lefthand corner of the post. In this diagram we notice that there are upper and lower case letters and arrows. The upper case letters are what are referred to as objects in category theory, and are essentially sets. Thus, for example, the set composed of Levi and Nate constitutes what category theory refers to as an object (not to be confused with what OOO refers to as an object). We can denote this set with the name “conversants” or communicants, or simple “C” for short. The lower case letters refer to rules defining relations, morphisms, transformations, or correlations between sets. The relation between f and g connected by a small circle (I can’t figure out how to make the symbol here) is referred to as a composition of functions or morphisms and is read “g following f”. Thus, if we follow the arrows we have X pointing to Y governed by the morphism f and we have Y pointing to Z governed by the morphism g. We note that there is an arrow pointing directly from X to Z with the composition of g and f (g circle f, read as g following f)) which is to be read as the composition of these two morphisms for the three objects or sets involved.

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For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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Scu of Critical Animal has a really interesting (and amusing) post up about certain forms of argumentation he often encounters in animal rights discussions. As Scu writes:

One of the more peculiar charges made against those advocating for the liberation of animals, particularly those who advocate for animal rights, is that we somehow hate humanity. That our desire for animal welfare, animal emancipation, etc., is based on an animus to humans.

Scu cites some pretty amusing passages from Roudinesco and Gasset, where the former tries to draw a connection between animal rights activists and Hitler’s vegetarianism, suggesting that to support animal rights is to support Nazism (Derrida, to his credit, proceeds to tear Roudinesco to shreds in this interview), and where the latter seems to argue that we properly respect the dignity of animals by hunting them.

I find all this interesting as I often encounter the same sort of argument in response to object-oriented ontology. Somehow decentering humans from the center of being, arguing that humans are among beings, not correlated to each and every being, or arguing that philosophy needs to move beyond its obsessive focus on the human-world gap or relation gets translated in the mind of some critics into the thesis that we should hate humans, that humans are of no importance, or, the claim that I find most baffling, that we’re abolishing humans.

How one arrives from such claims to these conclusions, I do not know. With all due respect to former governor Palin, there just seem to be certain issues or claims such that when people confront or encounter them they become retarded. I often reflect on this when we reach the chapter on emotional fallacies in my critical thinking courses. Here I think the Spinoza of book III of the Ethics is an invaluable guide. It would be a mistake to believe that, in most cases, people fall in to these sorts of fallacies intentionally or out of some sort of conscious malice.

Rather, when passionate attachments that organize a person’s cognition are endangered these distortions of thought seem to arise inevitably of their own accord. Here the situation is not unlike the bending of time and space that occurs in the vicinity of a massive object like the sun. You can’t approach a massive object directly– at least not without very powerful forms of propulsion –because of the manner in which the massive object curves space and time. Rather, these sorts of massive objects can only be approached asymptotically, through a curve. And the case is similar with these sorts of passionate attachments. Any attempt to approach them directly seems to encounter a curvature of thought in the audience that distorts what is being said like a funhouse mirror distorts an image beyond recognition. Thought just falls apart. Thus, at the level of form, not content, there’s no marked difference between Roudinesco’s reaction to animal rights discussions and the reaction of a conservative nationalist to criticism of the policies of his beloved nation. Just as Rudinesco equates the claim that we shouldn’t eat animals with hating people (two totally different and unrelated claims), the nationalist is likely to equate criticism of the French penal colonies with hating France.

Here the passionate attachment, the intensity of the affect, bends the structure of cognition, distorting the space of reasons and grounds, in much the same way that the massive object bends the structure of space and time. While this sort of a theory might help me to understand why thought becomes so distorted in the vicinity of particular issues and claims, I nonetheless find myself baffled as to why people have these sorts of passionate attachments in the first place. That, I think, is the real mystery. Why would a person as intelligent as Roudinesco nonetheless have such a passionate attachment to the idea of humans as being at the center of being, such that any extension of rights to nonhuman entities is seen not simply as sharing and extending rights, but as actively negating human value? As Scu remarks in his post, this line of thought is really no different than that of the person who believes that treating homosexuals as equals amounts to actively hating heterosexuals or taking away the rights of heterosexuals. What is it that leads someone to have such a passionate attachment to their nation that any discussion of the wrongs of that nation are equated with actually hating the nation? I can’t help but find these sorts of attachments bizarre.

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