May 2010


I’ve just begun Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism?. So far, despite its interest from the perspective of debates surrounding post-structuralism and second-order systems theory, I can’t say that it is getting off to a very auspicious beginning. Here’s the problem: Cary’s argument seems to proceed by way of the signifier, signs, information, and second-order systems. In short, he proceeds by way of phenomena that are nonetheless human. His introduction, for example, makes a lot of Foucault’s Order of Things announces the end of man. But how does Foucault do this? Foucault does this by championing discursive structures and power in history. Yet these are still human phenomena. Here we’re still within a correlationist framework that pitches the issue in terms of specifically human phenomena.

In my view, the claims of anti-humanism, post-humanism, and those forms of theory that claim to be overcoming anthropocentrism are all too often highly overstated. Until you have an ontology capable of thinking objects without any reference to the human or human phenomena, you still remain in an anthropocentric and humanist orbit. Foucault in his discussions of power and discursive structures, Lacan in his discussions of the signifier and the real, Derrida in his discussions of the play of the signifier and the trace, Luhmann in his discussions of social systems as communication systems, all remain nonetheless all too human in their focus on the primacy of human phenomena with respect to everything else. Of this group, Luhmann is probably the best of the bunch insofar as he at least recognizes the existence of other systems that are not human or social in nature. But still he insists on tracing everything back to the distinctions our systems make in observing these systems.

The point here is not to reject Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, or Luhmann. Not at all. The point is to recognize that they conflate regional ontologies with ontology as such, treating modes of access as determinative of what things are. But the questions of how we have access to entities and the question of what things are are entirely distinct and are not to be confused with one another. Until we overcome our tendency to make that confusion we have not attained a posthumanist philosophy. But like I said, I’ve only just begin reading Wolfe’s book so perhaps I’ll be surprised as it proceeds.

UPDATE: As I get further in Wolfe’s book I’m finding that it’s much more interesting and complex than I initially thought. In the introduction Wolfe writes:

To return, then, to the question of posthumanism, the perspective I attempt to formulate here–far from surpassing or rejecting the human –actually enables us to describe the human and its characteristic modes of communication, interaction, meaning, social significations, and affective investments with greater specificity once we have removed meaning from the ontologically closed domain of consciousness, reason, reflection, and so on. It forces us to rethink our taken-for-granted modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes and affective states of Homo sapiens itself, by recontextualizing them in terms of the entire sensorium of other living beings and their own autopoietic ways of “bringing forth a world”– ways that are, since we ourselves are human animals, part of the evolutionary history and behavioral and psychological repertoire of the human itself. (xxv)

Towards this end, Wolfe deploys the second-order cybernetics of Luhmann, Varela, and Maturana. Luhmann, especially, is one of the undiscovered gems of theory. If you’re interested in his work start with The Reality of Mass Media, and then proceed to Social Systems. In discussing “different perceptual modes” of humans and animals, Wolfe is simultaneously quite close and exceptionally far from object-oriented ontology.

First Wolfe’s proximity to object-oriented ontology. One of Harman’s most significant contributions to contemporary debates has been to note that the difference between the mind/object gap and any other object/object gap is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In other words, the gap pertaining to relation is, for Harman, ontological, not epistemological. As Harman so nicely puts it,

…there is no object at all, whether animal, floral, or mineral, capable of caressing the skin of another object so perfectly as to become identical with it or otherwise mirror it perfectly. When a gale hammers a seaside cliff, when stellar rays penetrate a newspaper, these objects are no less gulty than humans of reducing entities to mere shadows of their full selves. To repeat, the gap between object and relation is inherent in the nature of things, and not first generated by the peculiarities of the human mind. The fact that humans seem to have more cognitive power than shale or cantaloupe does not justify grounding this difference in a basic ontological dualism. (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 81)

In evoking different modes of perception in different critters and in drawing of the second-order cybernetic theory of Luhman, Maturana, and Varela, Wolfe appears to make a very similar point. Indeed, in chapter 4 or 6 of The Democracy of Objects (I haven’t yet decided where to place the chapter), I draw on similar resources to discuss the “interior of objects” and their relations to other objects. My move here is to ontologize Luhmann’s and Maturana’s essentially epistemological claims about systems and their environments, information, and self-referentiality. This strikes me as a direction Varela is moving in as well. What Wolfe wishes to draw attention to are the unspoken anthropocentric biases that govern our discussion of a host of issues. He argues that second-order cybernetic systems theory significantly challenges a number of these assumptions and allow us to discuss modes of perception that aren’t human.

However, if Wolfe’s thought is nonetheless remote from object-oriented ontology, this is for two reasons: First, Wolfe still seems to think these issues in epistemological terms. Rather than seeing selective relations entertained towards other objects as a general ontological feature of each and every object or as a fundamental feature of the world itself, Wolfe seems to adopt the pessimistic thesis that this marks the impossibility of our knowledge. Yet this thesis only follows if one worked from the premise that knowledge is a matter of representation or adequatio intellectus et rei. If, as Harman has argued, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world, this model of knowledge was mistaken from the outset and we need to significantly rethink our epistemology as a consequence. Here the skepticism that has characterized post-structuralist thought is ripe for a Zizekian “healed by the spear that smote you” move. Far from being a limitation of specifically human knowledge, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world. It’s the very nature of being. This Wagnerian move is at the heart of Harman’s ontology.

Second, while Wolfe indeed makes advances by extending thought to the domain of the animal and those with disabilities (he has an inspired reading of Temple Grandin), nonetheless he suffers from illicitly restricting these claims to the living. That is, a non-living/living dyad still seems to function in his thought, restricting these “modes of perception” to the living. Yet if Harman is right, these points are every bit as true of rocks and cotton as they are of aardvarks and humans. Here, I suspect, Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology will be especially interesting. For if I’ve understood Bogost correctly, Alien Phenomenology wants to raise questions like “what is it like to be a rock or a computer circuit”, thereby opening discourse to nonhuman and inanimate domains.

Over at Amazon I notice that Wolfe’s book has received some negative reviews. It appears that one of two (or maybe both) things are going on here. Either Wolfe’s reviewers lack a background in theory and are frustrated with a book that presupposes some knowledge of theory, or Wolfe’s reviewers harbor anthropocentric sentiments and are irritated at his dethroning of humans from the center of being. At any rate, if you’ve read his book and received it favorably consider writing a positive review to offset these unfair reviews.

Given that the Supreme Court has told us that corporations are persons, wouldn’t it be great if they were really treated like persons before the law? Take the British Petroleum oil spill. Given that 11 people died in this disaster, shouldn’t BP be brought up on manslaughter or second degree murder charges? And like others that are found guilty of second degree murder or manslaughter, shouldn’t BP be sent to jail? Here I’m not talking about sending the CEOs to jail, but the corporation itself. Like the Geico car insurance commercials where there’s the little bundle of money with eyes that look at you, we could place some sort of certificate representing the corporation in a jail cell for the duration of its term. During this time, all business activities, stock trading of the company stock, etc., would be completely halted. Perhaps BP would be in jail for 40 years, and during this time all of its business would be completely suspended. After all, that’s what happens to others when they go to jail. And wouldn’t this lead corporations to make greater consideration of the public good and welfare?

And while we’re at it, we need a new set of laws revolving around “ecocide”. Ecocide consists in the murder of irreplaceable ecological systems. This is certainly what is now unfolding in the gulf. Shouldn’t the Bill of Rights be expanded to include ecological systems and animals? When you really begin to think about it, it’s bizarre that anyone can own the land.

George Lakoff has an interesting post up on Obama’s communication failure with respect to the Gulf Oil Spill. Lakoff writes:

Crises are opportunities. He has consistently missed them. Today was a grand opportunity to pull together the threads — BP and the spill, Massey and the mine disaster, Wall Street and the economic disaster, Anthem BlueCross and health care, the Arizona Immigration Law, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — even Afghanistan. The press threw him fastballs straight down the middle, and he hit dribblers every time.

Quite right. In The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein analyzes the way in which neo-liberals have used periods of crises to push through a series of economic and legislative reforms. There is no reason that crises of this sort can’t be used to do something similar, but for progressive ends. Yet Obama has done nothing of the sort. No doubt this is because Obama himself appears to endorse neo-liberal economic policies, but all the same.

Lakoff goes on to remark that,

The central idea is Empathy. Democracy is based on empathy, on people caring about one another and acting to the very best of their ability on that care, for their families, their communities, their nation, and the world. Government must also care and act on that care. Government’s job is to protect and empower its citizens.

That idea is what draws together all the threads. The bottom line for corporations (whether BP, Massey, Anthem or Goldman Sachs) is money, not empathy. The bottom line for those who hate (whether homophobes, the Arizona Legislature, or al Qaeda) is domination and oppression, not empathy.

Empathy, and acting on it effectively, is the main business of government.

While I completely agree with Lakoff’s thesis that corporations are profit driven entities and that this is something that needs to be trumpeted again and again, I’m more reluctant about his rhetorical strategy of framing issues in terms of entity. Perhaps I’m a cynical bastard, but I just don’t think people are primarily motivated by empathy but rather by interest. Appeals to charity strike me as very weak. Rather, what needs to be trumpeted is that the profit motive pursued by corporations is directly contrary to the interests of working and middle class people.

The BP oil disaster will very likely have a tremendous impact on the economy. This is a no brainer, of course, with respect to the Gulf economy, much of which is dependent on the fishing industry. But it’s difficult to see how the collapse of that economy won’t also impact the American economy as a whole. Moreover, corporations and neo-liberal de-regulation have, since the 70s, caused the stagnation of wages for working and middle class people, increased joblessness, and created a major wealth gap between the top 5% and the rest of us. This is something people need to understand.

Obama has missed a major opportunity to reverse some of these dynamics and to pump up regulation, actually fund regulators so they can do their jobs, and fund green technologies and renewable, eco-friendly resources. This should have been a major opportunity to push significant tax cuts for those who buy hybrid cars, increased regulations energy efficiency in the trucking and shipping industry (the former travels over a trillion miles a year in America alone), and to push for green energy sources. Why has Obama, who is so intelligent and rhetorically gifted, missed these opportunities? My cynical heart tells me that he’s completely aware of this opportunity but isn’t interested in seizing it because he too is owned by the corporations. In the wake of the SCOTUS decision allowing corporations to spend unlimited money advocating for particular politicians, this seems to follow as a matter of course.

I’m both gratified and pleased to be informed, by Micha Cárdenas, that the Public School of Los Angeles is devoting a course to Speculative Realism this Fall. This, I believe, will be the third or fourth course devoted to Speculative Realism in the country. Peter Gratton, of course, devoted a course to SR this last year. Jon Cogburn, also, I believe, has also devoted a course to SR or plans to. Finally, Joe Hughes tells me that he’s assigned SR texts in his courses. I’m honored to be included among the resourses for the PSLA course on SR and feel even more compelled to complete The Democracy of Objects as a result.

However, apart from my own personal gratification and Spinozist joy at seeing the power of SR to act in the world increased, I’m astonished at how the very nature of philosophy is changing as a consequence of new media. Blogs, discussion groups, new presses, and courses are a testament to how electronic media are changing the nature of academia. And in saying this, I am speaking beyond the domain of SR, and to philosophy, theory, and thought in general. At this time it has been nearly a decade since I last attended SPEP, the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, the largest academic conference in Continental philosophy. This is not due to lack of acceptance, as I presented two papers at SPEP previously and have since been asked to contribute. Rather, it arises from a deep sense that there is something terrifically wrong about venues like SPEP and the APA insofar as they are governed by gatekeepers that function to promote a sort of philosophical orthodoxy. This is not something I would necessarily recommend to emerging philosophers as it’s necessary to make your mark, but in the last decade, due to having landed a position such as it is and therefore having accomplished a degree of economic stability and job safety, and my publications, I haven’t had to bow to these institutions. And I do believe that these institutions are anathema to philosophy and in many respects quite contrary to the sort of audience I would like to have or to whom my thought is addressed.

What is interesting to me is the rise of far more egalitarian, multi-disciplinary (not to mention “multi-existential”) modes of discourse emerge that circumvent these centers of power and normalization. To be sure, the internet has its drawbacks, but nonetheless it does represent something of a dialectical synthesis between the Athenian agora and text. Any idiot gets to speak and participate in discussion, and audience is no longer an audience of fellow scholars within a discipline, but whoever comes along and has something interesting and intelligent (hopefully) to say. As a consequence, the sorts of dialogues that emerge in print are no longer determined by the gate-keepers of elite journals, conferences, or the pedigree of schools, but rather are the consequence of the formation of collectives that are borne of people that would like to talk a bit more with each other. Not only do we witness the emergence of electronic journals and presses devoted to rendering intellectual labor a dimension of “the common”, of that which is owned by no one, of that which is readily available to everyone who is able to click on a link, but all sorts of new possibilities emerge within this common as well.

At the risk of telling a story about how I had to trudge through two feet of snow uphill for ten miles to get to school, this medium has rendered available all sorts of possibilities for engagement that were unthinkable to me when I was dissertating. It is now possible for graduate students to engage with established thinkers one on one whether through email or through blogs. Moreover, graduate students now have far more leverage to write on issues of philosophical interest to them as a result of the dialogues they are capable of entering into, rather than strategizing what their dissertation should be on based on the statistical predominance of jobs advertised in the last JFP. Rather than passively conforming to a regime of attraction, it becomes possible to play a role in the formation of that regime of attraction. Likewise, those who are theoretically on the margins can now work at forming collectives through conferences, dialogues, and publications that allow them to play a role in defining regimes of attraction. Likewise, cross-fertilization occurs across disciplines, changing the audience to which practitioners of particular disciplines address themselves, leading theory of all sorts to trace a line of flight. Disciplines are no longer able to enact the narcissism of thinking themselves as the sole discipline, but must now, as Haraway would have it, engage with all sorts of local knowledges and the diffraction patterns they generate.

Like any shift, this shift comes with its own drawbacks, challenges, and deficits. We will have, as we did with Plato in the Phaedrus, those who discern these new modes of connectivity as the collapse of civilization. It is unclear what text will become in this new medium and within this new field of connectivity. Text, no doubt, will not disappear, but it will become different. Part of our task is to ensure that this new shift embodies its own form of eudaimonia and arete without being reactionaries.

I look with longing from afar at the Bennett reading group that is now afoot, led by Peter Gratton. Check it out, and above all participate in comments! I get the sense that Bennett is vacillating a bit with respect to her own claims from certain aspects in the tone of her book. I, for one, ardently wish to see her continue in this path of thought and develop it further (which isn’t unlikely given what a creative and acrobatic thinker she is). In other news, Adrian already has an excellent post up to kick the discussion off. I am myself unable to respond at this time due to writing The Democracy of Objects, but Adrian’s thought and critiques are never far from my own thought. Enjoy!

In other news, The Democracy of Objects is coming along nicely with lots of new material. Today saw 18 pages of text developing chapter 3 on “split-objects”, dealing heavily with Aristotle’s concept of primary substances (who I believe has been mistreated by contemporary philosophy), Locke, Hume, and Kant. I’m surprised at how nicely everything is coming together and pleased by the arguments I’m developing. It’s painful not to post it all here as it comes out, but hey, I have to surprise y’all with something! Nonetheless, given how quickly things are coming together I expect that I’ll have a complete draft in the next month or so. Blogging is not wasted time.

This post will remain at the top of Larval Subjects until something changes with the Middlesex Situation.

In solidarity with our brothers and sisters at Middlesex and to preserve the integrity of academia, I strongly encourage readers of Larval Subjects to sign this petition boycotting Middlesex until the Philosophy department is restored and those students and members of the faculty who have been wrongly suspended have their positions restored. This is not just an issue pertaining to the Middlesex Philosophy department, but goes straight to the core of academia. We must not let these sorts of practices become acceptable.

We the undersigned therefore commit ourselves to an academic boycott of Middlesex University until it shows evidence of full reinstatement and continued support for its philosophy program.

Prior to such reinstatement, we will refuse to act as external examiners or to deliver talks at the school. We will encourage colleagues to reject job offers at Middlesex. We will refuse to visit campus for any reason other than to protest the decision to close the philosophy program. We will, in short, cease to engage with Middlesex as a legitimate academic institution.

You can find the petition here.

Graham has an INTERESTING POST up clarifying his views on the actual and the virtual. As it turns out I’m working on the chapter that develops my account of the actual and the virtual right now. I wanted to briefly draw attention to a couple of points in Graham’s post. Graham writes:

Yes, I use actual to mean “real.” There is a tendency by some realists (Levi, Roy Bhaskar) to use actual as more of a “bad” word. Such as when Levi says: “For me the term ‘actuality’ has connotations of presence or what is manifest. When I say this I do not intend to imply that qualities or actualities are present for a consciousness or a perceiver… but rather as present or actual in the world.”

In other words, for Levi “actual” has the connotation of “relational.”

Back in the day when I was heavily involved with Deleuze scholarship I would encounter something similar to what Graham describes here. The actual was somehow treated as a bad thing, while the virtual was somehow treated as a good thing. In the most egregious cases the actual was even treated as a sort of illusion or false reality. Needless to say, this is not a view I advocate. For me the actual is in no way a bad thing nor a mere “husk” that manages to get at becoming or something along those lines. Here I almost wonder if I don’t need a different term because these tendencies of thought are so sedimented in contemporary discourse. The sole reason for deploying the distinction between the actual and the virtual is to underline that objects cannot be confused with their qualities, but rather objects always harbor more than they manifest at any given point in time.

In this connection, I am deeply sympathetic to Harman’s critique of the thesis that objects are bundles of qualities (or in its more insidious correlationist formulation, bundles of impressions). It is precisely this thesis that I want to avoid. I attempt to do this by splitting objects between their being as substances and their being as local manifestations. Consequently, there’s a certain respect in which I want to take Locke seriously. Locke recognizes that objects cannot be equated with their qualities, yet when he tries to think this through he arrives at the idea of substances as a “bare substratum”. I endorse the thesis that objects cannot be equated with their qualities, while rejecting the thesis that substance is therefore a bare substratum. Rather, substance, in my view, has structure and organization. Yet to deploy this thesis I need an account of this structure that is something other than qualities. I need a ground of qualities in objects and this ground is what I’m trying to get at with the concept of virtual proper being. In many respects, my understanding of virtual proper being is very close to what Deleuze calls “real qualities”. Like Graham’s real qualities, virtual proper being is completely withdrawn and never a quality in the world nor a datum for experience. Rather, it is the ground of such things.

With all of this said– and perhaps this distinguishes me from Bhaskar and DeLanda, along with certain Deleuzians –I have a deep fascination with the dynamics of the actual or the coming-to-be of quality. In this connection, it will be noted that a good deal of what I write about has to do with the coming-to-be of quality or the actual. As a consequence, there can be no question for me of the actual being a “bad word”. For me the problem is not the actual, but actualism, where the latter reduces objects to qualities or local manifestations at a given point in time.

Within the framework of my onticology, the real embraces both virtual proper being and local manifestation. If I say the real is virtual proper being then I find myself in the awkward position of implying that local manifestation is somehow unreal. This, I think, is a problem that Deleuze and many Deleuzians ran into and one I patently don’t endorse. But if I say that virtual proper being is actual, then I’m left without the means of distinguishing the excess of objects over any of their particular manifestations. Terminologically I’m not sure what to do here.

Graham goes on to remark that,

And here’s why… Despite Levi’s caveat that “powers or potentials… are not to be confused with possibilities,” I sometimes think he is too focused on the fact that the withdrawn dimension of the thing is what can generate many more effects in the world than it is currently generating. For me this is a dangerous way to frame the problem, because this will give some people the impression that the reality of a thing is the sum total of its possible effects. Cf. Merleau-Ponty’s claim that “the house is not the house viewed from nowhere, but the house viewed from everywhere.” This sounds innovative, but in fact it fails in continuing to treat the house as a view, or in this case as a very large series of views. But the house is primarily something that exists, not something that is seen, or that is registered by other entities outside it.

This is certainly not an impression I wish to convey. In my view, the virtual proper being of the house, its existence, is not something that can be gotten to through a view or a plurality of views. Nor is it something that is incomplete. Rather, the being of the house is power or a force to be reckoned with. We don’t get at the existence or being of the house by adding up views because power is never a quality or qualitative, whereas anything we experience is always an exo-quality. More fundamentally, the house cannot be regarded as a totality of points of view because the process of actualization or the coming-to-be of quality always involves translation and is therefore a unique event each time powers of the house are actualized. My point here is that there can’t be an aggregative summation of points of view that would reach the house precisely because each actualization is a new and novel event that involves translation with respect to relations to other objects. Nonetheless, at the level of virtual proper being, it is still that house that’s being actualized. In other words, the house is a genuine existent, not an incomplete being awaiting fulfillment in the actual.

This is one of the reasons I distinguished between potential beings (Vitale’s formulation) and beings that are populated by potentials or powers. The house, in its virtual proper being, is not a potential being. A potential being would be a being that is awaiting existence. Here the assumption would be that this being is only a real being when it is an actual being (in my sense). But virtual proper being is fully real and actual (in Graham’s sense). It is not a being awaiting existence. It is a being that completely exists. And in this respect we can have real, existing beings that don’t produce any qualities at all but which are nonetheless perfectly structured. Thus I’m not sure how to respond when Graham asks, “…when Levi speaks of powers or potentials, I want to ask him where those powers or potentials are located. What is the actuality in which those powers or potentials are stored?” For me they are right there in the withdrawn dimension of any object. This thesis strikes me as no more odd than the thesis that real qualities and real objects are completely withdrawn and never present to any other objects in the world. In fact, I believe it does much the same work. It’s only if we begin from the premise that these powers or potentials are themselves qualities that the thesis seems to be strange and seems to place qualities in the object already (e.g. that they seem to claim that the acorn is already an oak tree). But a power is not a quality. It is a condition for qualities, but the production of qualities requires a whole series of translations, movements, and mediations to take place and is a new event in the world whenever it takes place. And here, admittedly, I can only allude to the powers of objects without being able to say what these powers are because whenever we say what something is we end up referring to qualities.

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