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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