June 2010


Skholiast has an especially rich and nice post up riffing on my post about Rote Theory and Practice. He really gets right to the core of the issue. Perhaps I’ve just had it driven into me by my background in Lacanian psychoanalysis, but for me the ultimate normative imperative regulating my thought is “Listen and look!” I’m not suggesting I always live up to this, but it is the ideal that governs nearly every discussion of ethics and politics I participate in. In this regard, I have a visceral reaction to any theoretical framework that I sense is merely subsumptive, placing phenomena under pre-existing ossified categories rather than opening itself to being surprised by phenomena. Needless to say, listening and looking is not equivalent to merely “hearing” auditory vibrations or receiving wavelengths of light. Listening and looking is incredibly hard and requires overcoming Malkovichism:

Again, I am not suggesting that I live up to this ideal. It is not without reason that Freud said psychoanalysis is among the impossible professions. But that makes it no less a theoretical ideal.

Over at Philosophy in a Time of Error, Gratton admirably sums up onticology’s and OOO’s positions on politics and ethics:

First it was politics, now it’s about ethics. By the seemingly operative anti-hermeneutic at work, I think this means that onticology supports killing babies if that means saving more lollipops.

Or this characterization, at least, seems to be what OOO is charged with by a number of its critics.

Over at Networkologies Vitale has a post up discussing his network ethics. I won’t get into Vitale’s network ethics here, but I did want to make a few remarks about his characterization of flat ontology. Vitale writes:

In his recent reply to my post on SR and Politics, I argue that Levi’s argument that the pressure on SR and OOO to talk about race over frogs is misguided is itself problematic. But I don’t say WHY I think this is the case.

At first it might seem obvious: people are more important than frogs, and racism radically effects people’s lives. Of course, I just assumed that people are more important than frogs. But with OOO and SR, this seemingly simple anthopocentric gesture becomes problematic. If OOO works to put all objects on the same level, why are people more important than frogs? Isn’t this precisely the sort of thinking we’re working to get rid of? Isn’t the whole point of the Latour litanies that its important to view neoplatonism and flowers as being on fundamentally the same ontological level?

Of course, then the question becomes why. Why is it so important to us to make ontology and flat? Why do we want so badly to move beyond our Cartesian and Kantian heritage? Ok, we want to secularize our philosophy, get rid of the residual religiosity in us. Or at least, that would SEEM to be the reason. Ultimately, Deleuze’s desire for a flat ontology is that he follows on Nietzsche’s desire for a non-otherwordly philosophy. And values. The push for a this worldly philosophy was originally supposed to be about ethics, right? I wonder, is that still why a flat ontology and lack of transcendence is important to us all?

I think Vitale somewhat misses the point of the example of the biologist protesting that OOO doesn’t discuss frogs in my last post. The point is not that frogs and people are of equal concerns to ethical thought. In fact, the point is not about ethics at all. The point is that there are distinct domains and levels of inquiry that have their own degree of specificity. This is why I situated the point about frogs in the context of a discussion of what ontology investigates.

Flat ontology is not a normative or ethical claim. When flat ontology places objects on equal footing the point is not that all beings are to be treated equally in the political or ethical sense, but rather that there is no one being that overdetermines all the rest. Flat ontology and flat ethics are two very different things. In fact, I’m not entirely sure a flat ethics can even exist. For me, the ethical implications of OOO are still unclear and there’s a massive amount of work to be done. Somewhere in Process and Reality (if someone can find the reference, please, please, please give me the page number!) Whitehead observes that all life lives from death. Insofar as living objects are “dissapative systems” that function “far from equilibrium”, they require inputs of energy from other sources to maintain a particular local manifestation. And this necessarily involves the death of other things.

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Okay, I admit it, Ian’s post riffing on my last post royally pissed me off. And I say this, of course, in the background of my good friendship with Ian. Nonetheless, I’m led to wonder what, exactly, someone means when they make the claim “I am not the Marxist”. In the spirit of my last post, however, I’m forced to engage in second-order observation, wondering what distinctions might organize Ian’s indications in the world and thereby recognizing the contingency of my own distinctions. And when I engage in this, I think there’s a grain of truth in what Ian is saying, though I desperately wish he would express himself differently.

Reflecting on Ian’s post, I suspect that implicit in his remarks is a distinction between what might be called “rote theory” versus “theoretical practice“. This distinction can, I think, best be articulated in terms of the psychoanalytic clinic. In the psychoanalytic clinic, like anywhere else, there’s good practice and dismal practice. Bruce Fink nicely sums up the difference of the Lacanian clinic with the thesis that the analyst is an advocate of the analysand’s desire. Translating this into concrete practice, we can say that the psychoanalytic clinic is radically anti-normative and begins with each new analysand or patient on the premise that all of psychoanalysis will have to be recreated.

We can think about this in terms of Aristotlean logics of the relationship between the universal and the particular. Many other pyscho-therapeutic practices begin with diagnostic categories and immediately strive to subsume every new patient under these categories. These categories, of course, also come with causal claims or presuppositions as to why the patient has the symptom they have. In this respect, many other psycho-therapies treat symptoms as signs, much like a sniffly nose is a sign standing for a particular virus or microbe.

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Over at Vitale’s blog Networkologies, I just noticed this post on SR and politics. Vitale writes:

To what extent do we still need, or continually need, to queer philosophy? Let me be clear on what I mean by this. To what extent do we still need, or continually need, to work against the normative tendency of philosophy to be a predominantly white, male, heterosexual, middle-to-upper middle class discipline [for more on the term 'queer' in this sense, see the PPS below]? Why is or has this been the case? What are the implications, and even philosophical implications, of this?

Let’s even look at the Speculative Realist movement, or the bloggers associated with it. Am I the only one who is ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ (more on my use of these terms below)? Is there anyone who doesn’t get white privilege on a regular basis? Even though I’m Sicilian-American, I get white privilege on a continual basis. Are there any women who regularly blog on philosophy, speculative realism (I can only think of Nina Powers, and yet she doesn’t really deal with issues related to speculative realism that much . . .)? And let me be clear about this: I don’t think its a sin to be born a man, or to be hetero, or to have whitish skin. But I do think its important that if you get a certain type of social privilege, you fight against it. And that means, I think, trying to dissect the way this produces epistemological privilege of various sorts. So, I do think that if the speculative realist movement is predominantly white, male, hetero, we need to not only ask ourselves why this might be, but how it impacts our thought, and what we can do about this.

First, let me note that I find Vitale’s concerns here to be admirable. Second, let me pointedly note that Vitale knows next to nothing about the sexual preferences or backgrounds of the various figures in the SR movement (assuming it can even be called a movement). I also have to add that to the same degree that philosophical thought needs to be vigilant in examining whatever race, class, or gender assumptions might haunt its discourse, the same holds true of political thought. The rise of capitalism, and communicative capitalism in particular, has been accompanied by a crisis of identity. This crisis of identity is deeply connected to the rise of wage labor. As Marx noted in the Communist Manifesto, with capitalism all that is solid melts into air such that traditions and communities are perpetually dissolved. Part of the reason for this lies in the manner in which the money-form functions. One of the interesting features of money is that it creates a common measure allowing for all things, no matter how heterogeneous, to be exchanged. This is true of identities as well. Because labor is also a commodity and because all commodities are now equivalent by virtue of the money-form, predicates of identity are no longer fixed predicates belonging to human beings, but are no all more or less equivalent. This, in turn, leads to a crisis of identity insofar as “every person” is equivalent to being no person.

What we get as a result of this shift is a desperate search for identity within the framework of liberal logics. This pursuit of identity can take many forms such as religious fundamentalism, ultra-nationalism, psychological diagnoses (“I’m bi-polar!”), and the various forms of progressive identity politics we encounter within the contemporary social sphere. The premise of this sort of identity politics is that we are not real unless we can ground ourselves in a particular identity. And here the mad pursuit of identity, the overwhelming desire to label or subsume ourselves under a particular identity, can be seen as a symptom of how contemporary capital functions. The problem is that this symptom, like all symptoms, obfuscates or veils the social relations that generate the symptom. The point here is not that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with questions of identity, but that we should raise questions about how this particular form of politics might very well function to perpetuate the very structure that generates these crises in the first place.

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As I begin composing the final chapter of The Democracy of Objects in my mind, I find myself thinking a lot about the thesis that the world does not exist. In addition to the arguments I outlined in my post “Wither Went the World”, I find myself, in particular, thinking of Lacan’s graphs of sexuation. However, rather than reading these diagrams in terms of sexuation, I would instead, following Zizek, prefer to read them in terms of ontology. And here, to be precise, in reading these diagrams as diagrams about ontology, we should read these diagrams as referring to ontological discourses rather than being as such.

On both the masculine and the feminine side of the graph of sexuation, what we get are two different ways of handling the withdrawal at the heart of being. The left side of the graph refers to masculine sexuation, while the right side of the graph refers to feminine sexuation. Over at Lacan.com we find a nice summary of the formalizations found on the two sides of the graph:

The phallic function, of course, refers to castration or lack. Rather than referring to a masculine and feminine side of the graph, we can instead refer to a side of the graph that pertains to ontologies or philosophies of presence (the masculine), and a side of the graph that refers to object-oriented ontologies (the feminine). Moreover, rather than treating phi as the “phallic function”, we should instead treat phi as withdrawal. What we get in this schema are two fundamentally different ways of discoursing about being. Accordingly, we can reformulate the formulas for masculinity and femininity in terms of philosophies of presence and object-oriented ontologies as follows:

Philosophies of Presence: All are submitted to withdrawal with one exception. There is one that is not.

Object-Oriented Ontologies: Not all are submitted to withdrawal. But there is no exception. There is none which is not is not submitted to withdrawal.

As I have often argued on this blog (and as has been argued copiously in the Lacanian secondary literature), the graphs of sexuation are both ways of dealing with the real, impasses of formalization, or the paradoxes that emerge whenever we attempt to totalize being or language. Here readers can do a Google search for “Larval Subjects sexuation” if they’re interested in reading my various posts on these issues. On each side of the graph we get a formal deadlock between the upper formula on the top of the graph of sexuation and the lower formula on the top of the graph of sexuation. Lacan’s thesis is that there’s a “masculine” and a “feminine” way in which this impasse occurs (he’s never quite clear as to why he attaches these formal impasses to sex, but I’ll pass over that).

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In rereading the final chapters of Jeffrey Bell’s Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos: Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of Difference I was reminded of just how close object-oriented ontology and onticology are to Whitehead’s ontology. Of course, anyone who has been following Graham’s work is already aware that Whitehead is one of Harman’s key thinkers and influences. In my own onticology, my work with autopoietic systems theory (am I boring everyone to death with this stuff yet?) can be seen as an attempt to formulate Whitehead’s account of prehensions in object oriented terms. In Process and Reality Whitehead remarks that,

…every prehension consists of three factors: (a) the ‘subject’ which is prehending, namely the actual entity in which that prehension is a concrete element; (b) the ‘datum’ which is prehended; (c) the ‘subjective form’ which is how that subject prehends that datum. (23)

There’s a very real sense in which Whitehead’s pithy statement here of the three dimensions of prehension completely sums up the object-oriented position on inter-object relations, the concept of withdrawal, and the concept of translation (which some philosophers who use terms like “thick” and “thin” to describe reality accuse object-oriented ontologists of using in a completely metaphoric way, as if we haven’t already written a great deal as to what takes place in translation. Sorry, I couldn’t resist the poke). What we have here is a distinction between the substance doing the prehending or translating, how the substance prehends another substance (the “subjective form”), and the other substance (datum) prehended in the prehending.

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An interesting discussion surrounding flat ontology and flat ethics has been brewing amidst the Bennett reading group. Scu posts some questions here, Adrian follows up, and then Scu clarifies his position here. Unfortunately I have not been able to follow the Bennett reading group as closely as I would like because of writing The Democracy of Objects which I regret given that Bennett is so close to my own heart and project. Indeed, I think my time would have been better spent last week catching up with these discussions than getting embroiled in the normativity debates as I increasingly get the feeling that the theoretical references in the normativity debates are so wide of one another that it’s difficult to have any discussion at all. In connection to the normativity debates, I worry would have to acquaint myself deeply with a pretty vast literature on these matters and likewise for my interlocutors, for much of a discussion to take place, and I get the sense that such a foray into that literature would have diminishing returns on my end. My worry with those orientations focused on normativity in the deontological sense is that they risk never end up getting off the ground. For example, while normativity broadly construed (i.e., in the non-deontological sense) is everywhere at work in Marx’s thought, my feeling is that a focus on deontology as a preliminary to the sort of analysis Marx carries out in Capital would have the effect of preventing Capital from ever being written. That is, you never get to the hard analytic work of the world in these sorts of projects because you have a conception of the preliminary as a necessity for methodological rigor that holds such projects in a constant state of deferral.

But I digress. For me one of the most difficult questions arising from the post-humanism that arises from flat ontology is the question of how it requires us to rethink the nature of the ethical and political. When we reject the centrality of the human within being, treating the human and social as two system-references among others rather than the ground of all others, what consequences follow for how we think the ethical and political? There are a couple of options we can follow here. One would be to recognize that ethical claims are inherently object or system-specific. Here we get the sort of humanism that Scu worries about as following from flat ontology. The idea here would be something like the thesis that we have recognized the contingency of the human way of relating to the world (i.e., that other objects are organized in very different ways and therefore relate to the world in very different ways), but we are, at the end of the day, human and must therefore treat all other entities according to our own organization.

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As a long time admirer of his work, I’m exceedingly excited to see that Jeffrey Bell has taken up blogging. Go check out his blog Aberrant Monism!

I forgot to respond to some of Reid’s questions about system-references in my last post. I don’t know whether Reid has been following my posts for the last few months, but I argue that objects are essentially systems. Following Maturana and Varela (though my major points of reference are Bateson, von Foerster, and especially Luhmann), I distinguish between autopoietic systems and allopoietic systems. An autopoietic machine, Maturana and Varela argue,

is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produce the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in a space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. (Autopoiesis and Cognition, 78 – 79)

Translated into English, autopoietic systems are systems that produce their own components through their own components. These systems roughly compose the domain of the living and the social, though there might be other autopoietic systems as well. By contrast, allopoietic systems are systems that are produced by something else. These systems are roughly the domain of the inanimate.

The key feature of autopoietic systems is that they are operationally closed. Operational closure refers to two things: First, it refers to the manner in which the operations of an autopoietic system only ever refer to and relate to themselves. For example, communication only ever refers to other communications. Second, it refers to the way in which a system relates to an environment. Systems do not directly relate to their environment, they do not receive information from their environment, but rather they constitute their own openness to an environment. A system can be perturbed or irritated by its environment, but the information value that this perturbation takes on is not something that was already there in the environment, but is rather constituted by the organization of the system itself. Put crudely, what counts as information for a frog can count as nothing for me, and supposing that a frog and I are perturbed by the same something in the environment, we can nonetheless produce entirely different information out of that perturbation. As such, information is always system-specific. I differ markedly from Maturana and Varela and argue that this second sense of closure (selective relations to an environment), is not unique to autopoietic systems, but is true of all objects, whether autopoietic or allopoietic (though information functions in very different ways in each case). One of the most important points here is that information is not something transmitted or exchanged between systems (sometimes we think of communication as the transmission of information that remains the same for sender and receiver). Information is system-specific and does not exist independent of the system in which it occurs. Or as Lacan (and Luhmann) liked to say, all communication is miscommunication.

Hopefully this is enough to give Reid a sense of what I’m talking about when I talk about “system-specificity” or “system-references”. The point is, that whenever we make claims we need to specify the system to which these claims pertain. We can’t generalize across systems because each system has its own internal organization and therefore relates to the world in its own specific way. As I suggested above following Luhmann, societies are themselves autopoietic systems. If this is true, we can’t make the sort of universalistic, a priori claims that a lot of transcendental philosophy would like to make. Rather, we have to analyze social structures on a case by case basis to determine 1) how they are organized and thus how they produce meaning events, 2) the specific way in which they’re open to the environment, and 3) how they evolved or developed the particular distinctions that regulate their own internal processes and relation to the environment. If this is true, certain forms of transcendental philosophy have to be excluded a priori because they illicitly generalize over very different cognitive and social systems, working on the premise that they all share the same internal structure or organization. I see this as thoroughly consistent with Marx’s understanding of values. Marx was always careful 1) to analyze the emergence of specific values in terms of particular forms of social organization, and 2) to emphasize the historical situatedness of particular values in particular social organizations. In this regard, values for Marx aren’t merely “instantiated” in particular material conditions as Reid seems to suggest, but rather are products or inventions of particular social forms not unlike evolution is the invention of new species and forms of life.

In order to discuss systems we have to engage in second-order observation, observing how other systems observe their environment, rather than working naively from the premise that we observe the world in the same way. In a number of respects, this is precisely the problem with more traditional transcendental approaches. Although they attempt to self-referentially take the organization of the observer into account by analyzing the transcendental structure of mind, they nonetheless don’t take the additional self-referential step of recognizing that they observe differently than other systems and therefore end up illicitly generalizing one transcendental structure to all subjects, rather than recognizing that the world is populated by an infinite plurality of transcendental structures not unlike Leibniz’s monads. The problem, then, is that while there might be an “a priori” (note the square quotes), this “a priori” is always system-specific and can’t be generalized across systems. And since autopoietic systems are evolving systems that each have a contingent history and a contingent organization, we can’t generalize a priori structures across cognitive systems or social systems, but have to look at systems in their specificity like good Lacanians who recognize that there’s no general structure of mind or good neurologists who recognize that each brain develops differently.

I’ve written about autopoiesis quite a bit lately, and have been writing about Luhmann for years. In my view, one of the major failings of contemporary social and political thought is that it fails to take into account the operational closure of systems and therefore doesn’t even raise the question of how to communicate with a social system to change it when that system is closed by virtue of being organized by its own distinctions. This question has been one of the oldest and longest running themes on this blog. Moreover, I’m surprised that more Lacanians haven’t raised similar questions given Lacan’s theory of interpretation and the challenges facing interpretation or the analytic act when dealing with an autopoietically closed analysand. At any rate, if Reid is interested he can read more about systems here, here, here, and here, or he can do a search for Luhmann on this blog.

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