October 28, 2010
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Plato: For the greater good.
Aristotle: To fulfill its nature on the other side.
Karl Marx: It was a historical inevitability.
Machiavelli: So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a
chicken which has the daring and courage to boldly cross the road,
but also with fear, for whom among them has the strength to contend
with such a paragon of avian virtue? In such a manner is the princely
chicken’s dominion maintained.
Hippocrates: Because of an excess of light pink gooey stuff in its
Jacques Derrida: Any number of contending discourses may be discovered
within the act of the chicken crossing the road, and each
interpretation is equally valid as the authorial intent can never be
discerned, because structuralism is DEAD, DAMMIT, DEAD!
October 28, 2010
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Over at I Cite, Jodi Dean has written the following righteous rant:
I’m going to be Istanbul next week, so I won’t be here to vote. I’m not going to fill out an absentee ballot, though. I’m not voting. Deliberately. The election won’t do anything but secure a false sense of connectedness from those who do vote to the oligarchy that continues to exploit us.
I’m not saying voting doesn’t matter. It does–to the pundits who want to talk about it, the networks who amp their ratings through it, the ad makers who collect the money poured in to the campaigns, the corps with enough money to buy their members of congress (who seem to get more expensive the more worthless they become).
Voting matters to all those circulating facebook injunctions to vote, telling us to tell our students to vote. Really? We should lie to them and try to get them to feel that this is change they can believe in? That their choices between fascists, oligarchs, and idiots are choices about what’s best for the country? No.
The guy running for re-election in my district is a bad guy blue dog. He’s running against a far right nut job. Blue dogs are already hurting the Democrats. No surprise there–they are basically Republicans who caucus with Democrats in order to screw them. I’m not going to hold my nose and vote for him this time. I prefer not to vote at all. No candidate for me, no vote. The dominant choices for governor are Andrew Cuomo and a nut job–the homophobe who emails people porn. Cuomo is pledging more tax cuts. Really? Like that will help NY schools and strapped communities? What about dealing with extreme inequality of wealth in the state? I bet a tax increase of five or ten percent won’t even be felt by some of the hedge fund guys down on Wall Street. But their tax dollars would certainly help the rest of us–in the form of schools where kids can learn, roads where we can drive, programs that can provide for the less well off.
If I thought we could get some of this by voting, I’d vote. I’ve given voting quite a few chances, though, and, get this, things are only getting worse. The more we vote, the worse it gets. Now this could be a correlation rather than causation. But if voting is what has gotten the criminals into office and given them the chance to plunder and exploit, then why should we think that voting will do something different?
Doing nothing would be better–especially if it became a mass strike.
Standing around would be better–especially if it became a rally or a march.
I thoroughly share Jodi’s sentiment, though I haven’t decided whether I’ll vote yet or not. The democratic party has exercised a sort of political blackmail for the last couple of decades: “vote for us or you’ll get them!”. In the meantime we get the same neo-liberal policies. We’re like Charlie Brown playing football with Lucy, yet when this is pointed out we get the same old lectures about the evil other side, encouraging us to try and kick the ball again when we know very well that our alleged side will proceed to enable and legitimate the evil other side. It’s madness. Meanwhile Rome burns. The left needs to seriously begin thing about ways of organizing outside of party politics, providing genuine alternatives. This won’t happen until we stop behaving like weenie liberals and bowing to this blackmail. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who argues “vote for the democrats or else you’ll get them” is immediately an apologist for these policies and therefore suspect. Until the democratic party illustrates a genuine willingness to take on their corporate overlords, they should be thought as little more than a more moderate version of the ultra-rightest, neo-liberal status quo. And so long as we keep eating the crumbs they throw our way none of this will change. Arguments from incrementalism and the difficulty of change do not pass muster. So long as you continually bow to these forces you will only push things further in the neo-liberal direction (as if they could get any further, for Christ’s sake, even Nixon was to the left of Obama). Incrementalism is just an excuse for continuing to champion corporate interests over the interests of the planet and the vast majority of people.
October 26, 2010
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H/T to Frank L.
The following conferemce looks like it will be very interesting.
Systematized Objects: the other “world” literature [systems theory, ANT, OOO, assemblages, posthumanism, extended mind]
Seminar Organizer: Meredith A. Farmer, UNC Chapel Hill; David J. Baker, UNC Chapel Hill
Currently, a number of analysts are thinking about what constitutes, assembles, or traces “objects. ” While Bruno Latour (2005), Manuel DeLanda (2006), Andy Clark (2008), Graham Harman (2009), and Cary Wolfe (2010), et al. might not agree on what objects “are,” they’re all interested in shifting away from the transcendental ego in ways that evade the ”modern constitution” or the “bifurcation of nature.” And we’re interested in how this move — and all its concomitant effects — might influence not literary theory, but literary criticism. This will be a workshop. Participants should have work in progress (at any stage of completion) that puts ideas found in work ranging from systems theory and complex adaptive systems to Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) to work in conjunction with works of literature. We invite you to outline your project and then – just as importantly – to explain why you find work on systems or networks to be useful for literary criticism. Presentations will be brief (12-15 minutes), and we’ll plan to spend at least as much time discussing as listening. Our goal is for each participant to get substantial feedback on developing, groundbreaking work from others working in these areas. If something congeals, we may also consider producing a collaborative essay or a proposal for a collection.
October 22, 2010
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Morton has a righteous rant up on denunciations of interiority and eudaimonism. It seems to me that these rejections come from the linguistic turn and a certain form of Marxist thought. With the linguistic turn we got the idea that the subject is an effect of the signifier. As a consequence, any talk of eudaimonia would be the height of naivete. With a certain variant of Marxism, talk of eudaimonia and interiority smacks too much of the bourgeois individual that ignores the manner in which we’re always already embedded in social relations. I’m sympathetic to both of these lines of arguments, however I also think there’s a way in which we’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater with these sorts of rejections. A while back one of our Marxist colleagues denounced any talk of eudaimonia (though not in those terms), arguing that Marxist thought must formulate itself in terms of sacrifice. This left me scratching my head. If Marxist critique is not premised on proposing a more fulfilling and satisfying life for us, then what is it worth? Why be interested in this form of critique and its political program at all. Indeed, Marxism will denounce a certain form of commodity subjectivity. However, part of the point here is that commodity subjectivity is already unsatisfying. We are filled with burning desires and wants, yet whenever we get the objects we believe to correspond to these wants we are only further dissatisfied. Giving up what didn’t satisfy you in the first place isn’t a sacrifice at all. It’s an improvement. What we should be emphasizing is not some sort of puritanical or ascetic minimalism where we suffer in our just righteousness, but rather the possibility of another life and another form of collectivity that is far more satisfying. And besides, doesn’t Spinoza’s geometry of the passions, Hume’s analysis of the passions and sentiments, and much of Buddhist thought give us both the means of detaching ourselves from erroneous passions and the means of pursuing joyous collective passions? Far from Kantian asceticism, wasn’t this Spinozist-Humean tradition a big part of what inspired Marx?
October 21, 2010
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This is a ways off yet, but it should be a terrific event:
Call for Papers: International Conference of the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion
Thinking the Absolute:
Speculation, Philosophy and the End of Religion
June 29th – July 1st 2012 Liverpool Hope University, UK
Keynote Speakers to include Catherine Malabou, Iain Hamilton Grant and Levi Bryant
‘The contemporary end of metaphysics is an end which, being sceptical, could only be a religious end of metaphysics.’
Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude. An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum, 2008), p.
Meillassoux identifies the ‘turn to religion’ in contemporary continental philosophy with a failure of thinking. The Kantian refusal to think the absolute leads to scepticism about reality in itself. Ironically, this lends itself to ‘fideism’, the decision to project religious meaning on to the unknowable beyond. According to Meillassoux, a philosophy obsessed with mystery becomes the accomplice of irrational faith. The solution is to find ways of once more thinking the absolute in its reality, severed from its dependence upon a knowing subject, or upon language and social norms. At the same time, new possibilities for thinking religion (exemplified by Meillassoux’s own Divine Inexistence) are emerging.
This conference invites proposals which critically consider this speculative turn in philosophy and its implications for thinking about religion. To what ‘end’ is speculation leading? Does it simply announce the closure of religion and its subordination to a philosophy of the absolute, nature or the ‘All’? Can it open new lines for a philosophy of religion which is not wedded to the Kantian horizon? Is speculation itself open to Kierkegaardian critique as yet another move to position and reduce ethical and religious claims, sacrificing the future on the altar of abstract possibility? Does renewed attention to the canon of speculative idealism offer a way beyond the impasse between relativism and dogmatism?
The organisers welcome proposals which examine the roots and extensity of recent speculative thinking, and which critically consider its impact – direct and indirect – on philosophy of religion. Relevant thinkers and themes might include Quentin Meillassoux on God and the absolute, Alain Badiou’s ontology, Catherine Malabou on Hegel and plasticity, Francois Laruelle’s ‘future Christ’, Iain Hamilton Grant on Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and the thinking of the All, Ray Brassier’s nihilism, the impact of object-oriented ontologies on theology and metaphysics. However, we are particularly looking for contributions which creatively use or depart from the speculative turn to offer original insights into the nature and content of the field.
Abstracts of 300 words for 20 minute papers to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org by end of February 2012.
October 20, 2010
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I ordinarily don’t like to give advice on writing as I don’t believe I’ve attained the status as a philosopher, academic, or writer to speak with authority on these sorts of issues. I often think of myself as a sort of rogue, scoundrel, or hobo that wanders about at the margins of the academy without having really established myself in any way. In other words, I have a pretty low opinion of my work. Nonetheless, I do have some thoughts on how I cope with the struggle of writing. When it comes to writing I have all sorts of tics and phobias that make work a great challenge for me. In my core I am profoundly anti-authoritarian, suspicious of any groups, and resistant to any demands. This, I think, is a fractal like symptom that pervades every aspect of my life from very small things to very large things. Thus, for example, when I was in college and grad school, I would have to read the texts for a course a semester in advance because it was impossible for me to read texts if they were assigned. Something about the simple demand brings out my inner Lucifer, inciting me to defiance. Likewise, I find it intensely painful to fill out forms for the government or the college of any sort. Again, the demand. When it comes to writing I struggle to complete articles and conference presentations. Rather, I experience blog posts and email discussions as far more valuable and rewarding. In this regard, I feel a profound affinity and sympathy for Leibniz. Leibniz was a scribbler, a ltter writer. Even his massive New Essays on Human Understanding was a letter to Locke, abandoned when he died. Leibniz was gregarious and communicative, craving, it seems, talk above all else (let’s not forget he was also a diplomat). I ache for this as well. What is an article but a line on the CV that falls into oblivion, killing more trees along the way, never to be heard from again. What the hell are we doing in writing articles? There is something beautiful in the epistle and in many respects blogging is, as Mel put it to me recently, the new epistlary. Yet again, the issue surrounding conference papers and articles revolves around my loathing of demands. To get around this, I now trick myself, telling myself that I’m writing a blog post or email rather than an article or conference paper.
Setting these weird little ticks aside, the biggest issue I struggle with when it comes to writing is originality. Am I saying something original? Do I have something original to say? The pursuit of originality, I believe, is one of the most paralyzing things for writers and among the greatest impediments to writing. First, it’s important to note, I think, that the more you write, the more you will. This, of course, is a banal truism, which is part of why I like it as a maxim. The point isn’t simply that if you write more you are, by definition, writing more. Note the future tense in the maxim. There are two reasons that you will write more if you write more. The first is professional and institutional. It is imperative to get your stuff out there in some form or another. You might have the most brilliant ideas in human history since Aristotle, but if no one knows who you are nothing will come your way. By contrast, once you begin to get stuff out there writing opportunities snowball. Suddenly people are asking you for pieces here and there, for contributions to their journals and conferences, and so on. Writing issues more writing. This is true even of blog writing. When I think of people to contribute to conferences and edited collections, these people are usually people I’ve corresponded with or who have blogs that interest me. Had they not posted their random thoughts I wouldn’t have thought about them.
However, there is another reason that the more you write the more you will write. Writing is like kudzu. Kudzu is a vine common to the south that grows at about a foot a day. It’s a really amazing (and irksome!) plant. This is how it is with writing as well. Writing grows from writing. Writing produces the imperative to write more. This is because, as you write you discover new themes, new concepts, and things that need to be worked through. Like a growing crystal, writing expands. In my view, one of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make lies in trying to write before you write. By this, I mean that many writers, myself included, try to have their ideas before they write their ideas. But things just don’t– at least for me –work this way. Now, of course, just as you need a seed to form a crystal in a supersaturated solution, you need a seed to start writing. However, the seed is not the idea. The idea is something that only comes into being in the process of writing. It is not something that is there prior to writing. The point is not to have the idea before you write, but to allow the idea to emerge in writing. And once you’ve produced a lot of chaff, you then get to the arduous work of polishing and organizing. In this regard, it is a necessity to write obsessively and all the time. This is where ideas are born, not before the act of writing.
The drive for originality is also a big impediment to writing. On the one hand, we suffer from a sort of transcendental illusion. We (or I) think to ourselves that if we have an idea it can’t possibly be original precisely because the idea is familiar to us. It is not new to us. But writing is not for us, but for others, whether those others be our own future selves or the self we are becoming in the act of writing (writing has the magical power to remake you) or for the others who might read our scratchings on bit of napkins. On the other hand, originality cannot be anticipated. If originality could be anticipated it wouldn’t be originality. Rather, originality follows the logic of Lacan’s tuche or chance encounter. Originality is something that occasionally takes place, but if it does take place it can only be known as having had taken place, it can never be experienced in the moment. We only ever know that originality has taken place retroactively. As a consequence, it’s important to surrender the desire to anticipate originality so as to clear a space in which the event or chance occurrence of originality might take place.
Finally, I believe it is incredibly important to make ourselves uncomfortable if we wish to write. There’s a way in which scholarship, expertise with respect to a particular thinker or field, is the kiss of death for writing. We become so familiar with our area of expertise that the will to write dries up and disappears. Consequently, one strategy for producing writing lies, for me, in encountering the unfamiliar. If I’ve been spending too much time with the phenomenologists for a year or so, I should throw myself into the study of some branch of mathematics, or the investigation of some period of history, or into an engagement with biologists like Stephen J. Gould. An encounter with the unfamiliar, with alterity, generates an unassimialable kernel with respect to what I had previously been focusing on. That kernel functions as a seed to throw thought in motion, generate new conceptual spaces, form a weave of relations to make sense of these disparate worlds, thereby generating the work of writing.
October 20, 2010
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It seems to me that every text we encounter in philosophy is actually three. The first text might be referred to as the literal text. Even though the literal text is right there, it is something we can never directly encounter because it’s always covered over by the hermeneutic horizon we bring to the text, our assumptions we have about the nature of the world, about the nature of society, the questions we’re asking (rather than the questions the text is asking) and so on. We can approach the literally text, but it also somewhat eludes us. Thus, the literal text always has the power to surprise us, but it is always receding and withdrawing as well. Much of this has to do with points Derrida made about citation and iterability in “Signature Event Context”. If we can never quite encounter the literal text, then this is because every text exceeds it’s context, such that it resonates differently depending on the context it falls into. Texts resonate differently when we read them at different points in life and when they are read at different points in history or in different social conditions. Indeed, texts can sometimes be unreadable because the questions we’re asking render the text completely opaque. This is why the work of criticism is literally inexhaustible. Criticism doesn’t so much seek to get at the literal text or the text in the Real, but rather produces a new text based on how a text resonates in a particular context or setting.
The second text is the text that Freud, Derrida, and Lacan taught us how to read. Drawing on Freud’s theory of dream interpretation, this text is divided or split between manifest content and latent content. The manifest content is what the text would explicitly like to do or argue. It is the project of the text as conceived by the author or what the author thinks he is doing. The latent text, by contrast, is what the text is actually doing despite itself. A perfect example of this play of manifest and latent text is Derrida’s reading of Husserl in Speech and Phenomena. Derrida is able to liberate an uncanny double of Husserl, a simulacrum of Husserl, by reading the traces of a dissident thought within Husserl’s text. Thus, Husserl wants to ground his phenomenology in presence (the “principle of principles” he articulates in Ideas I), yet in his discussion of time and expression, we find a Husserl that articulates a presenting without ground or sense-bestowing transcendental ego. Likewise, Saussure wants to treat speech as primary with respect to writing, yet in his distinction between langue and parole we discover that writing always precedes speech such that again, there can be no origin or foundation in presence. Readings based on this manifest/latent play often produce the most interesting encounters with a philosopher because they produce something new that departs from fidelity to a master, rather than simply trying to articulate the sense or meaning of a text. These readings are essentially psychoanalytic, even though they are not psychoanalyzing the author of the text. They read what the text represses, or for the other text within the text.
The third text is what we might call the text of the community. The text of the community is not the text itself, but rather the text as it has been received and interpreted by a particular community of readers (usually in the academy, but also among the various sects of a religion in relation to their sacred text). In this connection, think about the heyday of existentialism in the United States. During this period, Heidegger was understood as an existentialist in Sartrean flavor and the literal text of Heidegger, all those passages that supported a different project and reading, were largely illegible and invisible. Likewise, uncouple decades ago, Lacan, in the United States, was literally reduced to the mirror stage (especially in film studies). It took the pathbreaking work of Bruce Fink (who really brought Miller to the United States) and Zizek to liberate am very different Lacan where the mirror stage played a minor role.
In the article factory of the American academy it is seldom the case that it is the first or second text is discussed. Rather it is the received text, the text of the community, that is often the object of discussion in articles and at conferences. The same passages from the ur-text are cited again and again, the same books and articles from the master are cited again and again. As am consequence, the text of the community comes to replace and obscure the literal text, rendering it invisible and beyond the possibility of being read with new eyes, encountering all it’s strangeness, reading it “to the letter” as Lacan recommended. It is for this reason that it is sometimes prudent to cease discussing certain thinkers altogether for a time. This is what the Enlightenment thinkers recommended. Rather than continuing to grapple with the scholastics and Aristotle, they simply ceased talking about them. This was a necessary condition for a new sequence of thought to emerge. Likewise, Sartre had to go out of fashion in the United States in order for an encounter with Heidegger and the other phenomenologists to take place. The treatment Sartre received from the Heideggerians phenomenologists in the United States was unfair and failed to do justice to the richness of Sartre’s text, but this misses the point. The issue was not one of accurate readings, but of shifting paradigms and bodies of research, clearing a space in which a new sequence of thought might emerge. That required a repression of Sartre’s thought and a mistreatment of his text.
The issue here is not one of accuracy in reading, but of institutional power structures. Academics don’t read in a vacuum. Rather, which texts are cited and how they are cited is collective structure, akin to what Foucault called an “episteme” governing, guiding, and constraining what research scholars do. The mechanisms of these power structures manifest themselves in how grad students are trained, in the formation of canons of essential texts, in how texts are selected for publication by journals and presses, how talks are selected for conferences, and how discussion unfolds at professional conferences. The key point is that the canon is always somewhat contingent or arbitrary. Other figures, texts, and questions could make up the canon, yet the academy naturalizes the canon treating these texts and questions could just as easily form communities of the text. As a consequence, academe functions as a reterritorializing mechanism, striving to reterritorialize any dissident reading of any dissident reading of a thinker or any introduction of new or forgotten thinkers back upon the current cannon. This takes either one of two forms: either the text is outrightly rejected as minor or naive (Deleuze encountered much of this in his attempt to resurrect Hume in a French context), or the interpretation is treated as outrightly deviant and mistaken (Lacan encountered this in terms of his reading of Freud with respect to the IPA). Academe functions to minimize deterritorialization which comes as no surprise given how much time is bound up in our research and how much our professional lives are bound up with resonating with the texts of the community. Try, for example, to have a serious discussion of Dennett and Gould at SPEP and see what happens and what sort of responses you receive.
Repressed texts, of course, return at later points. Right now, for example, I think Sartre is ripe for a comeback. Part of the groundwork for this return has been laid by Badiou, whose work is deeply indebted to Sartre. Badiou’s work is able to effect this return of the repressed because his thought is quickly becoming canonical in Continental circles. However, this return of Sartre will be the return of a very different Sartre, now resonating with the topological and set theoretical preoccupations arising out of Lacan and structuralist thought, and not a return of the Sartre of “Existentialism is a Humanism”. If Sartre returns, it will be in a reading not unlike Lacan’s reading of Freud, where Freud was read not in terms of how he conceived his project, but in terms of the letter of his text, leading to appropriations and theoretical constellations often at odds with many of Freud’s own stated intentions. Lacan’s reading of Freud was an exemplary psychoanalytic reading, reading what Freud actually says, rather than attending to what Freud intended to say. If Sartre does return, it will literally be a new Sartre. This is how it goes.
October 19, 2010
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My thoughts are a bit scattered this morning as I got little sleep last night, but nonetheless I wanted to underline something with respect to my last post. There I suggested that every system– where “system”, in my thought, is a synonym for “object” or “substance” –is haunted by entropy. Entropy measures the degree of disorder within a system. The short clip below gives a sense of the nature of entropy:
When the particles are first shot into the box they exist in a highly ordered state (i.e., they are strongly localized in the box). As a consequence, the particles begin with a very low degree of entropy, which is to say that there is a high probability that they will be found in one particular region of the box. As the system evolves, however, the degree of entropy or disorder within the system increases. It becomes more or less equally probable that the particles will be found anywhere within the system.
The claim that every social system faces the problem of entropy is the claim that every social system faces the question of how to maintain its organization over time. The relations that constitute a social system or object 1) establish or produce a low degree of entropy such that it is improbable that social actors will be found anywhere within the social system, and 2) are relations between external or independent objects. Take the geographical distribution of wealth in the city of Chicago. On the South Side you tend to find rather poor individuals, while on the North Side you find wealthy individuals. These concentrations represent a low degree of entropy insofar as the probability is low that you will find poor people evenly distributed throughout the city, just as the probability is rather low that you will find wealthy people evenly distributed throughout the city.
The mystery, then, for social and political thought, is why entropy doesn’t increase in such systems. With the passage of time, why doesn’t the distribution of poor and wealthy people become evenly distributed throughout the system. Put differently, what are the mechanisms at work within the social order that maintain a low degree entropy? Gratton maintains that our disagreement over structuralism is merely a disagreement over nomenclature. In short, the social and political theorist should begin with the premise that every social order is improbable.
Gratton likes the word “structure”, I prefer terms like “regimes of attraction” and “feedback loops”. However, I don’t think these are mere differences over nomenclature. Nowhere, among the great structuralist thinkers, will you find reference to anything like the problem entropy. The reason for this is very simple. As Derrida reminds us in Differance when discussing Saussure, structural relations are differential relations without positive terms. The phoneme “b” is literally nothing independent of the phoneme “p”. Or rather, we should say that there is no phoneme “b” or “p”, only the phoneme b/p constituted by internal differential relations. Such a thesis also holds for how Levi-Strauss analyzes kinship relations and myths, or how Althusser analyzes social structures.
However, if you begin from the premise that social relations are differential relations without positive terms, then you’ve already erased the problem of entropy. Why? Because there are no independent or positive terms being related that constantly threaten to fly apart increasingly the probability of distribution throughout the system overall. Because the being of the terms is already constituted entirely by the differential relations there is no issue of how a system maintains an improbable organization over time. It is only when you begin from the premise of a strange mereology where larger scale objects are composed of smaller scale objects that are themselves independent of the larger scale objects that they constitute that the problem of entropy or why the smaller scale objects don’t fly apart destroying the larger scale objects emerges.
The debate, then, is not whether or not there are patterns that reproduce themselves in time, but rather whether or not relations relate positive terms, terms that could be detached, or whether there are only negative or differentially constituted terms. If you take the first route, then the problem of entropy comes into full view and you’re faced with the mystery of how low probabilities of equal-distribution are maintained. If you take the latter route, the problem of entropy doesn’t appear at all as there are no independent terms that could fly apart. As a consequence, the latter route leads you to look for a “supplement”, “event”, “subject”, “act”, etc., because it’s impossible to conceive an immanent entropic dissolution of systems as there are no positive terms for a system to dissolve into. I’m not being unfair to the structuralists here– with whom I’ve worked obsessively for over a decade now in my research –but am taking them at their word with respect to the ontology that they themselves embrace.
In response to my post the other day, Mel worried that my thesis that every system or object is haunted by entropy might strike others as pessimistic. However, I think precisely the opposite is the case. The entropic dimension of every system entails that, as a matter of principle, every system can be dissolved, can be otherwise, can fall apart. Ontologically, then, there is no such thing as a natural social order (nor a “natural” natural object, if by “nature” one means “incapable of being otherwise”). Rather, every social order is a temporary victory over entropy that is perpetually threatened by dissolution. If the essence of ideology lies in treating as natural and therefore inevitable a historically contingent social order, then the entropic dimension of every social system marks the ruin of any inevitable or ineluctable social order. As such, the entropic dimension of every social system marks the ontological ground for revolutionary hope.
October 18, 2010
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In the after panel discussions, one of the key questions that came up was that of how I account for the work that the concept of structure is trying to do. It was Peter Gratton that raised this important and perfectly legitimate question (both in the Q&A following my talk and in subsequent conversations throughout the remainder of the day). If I understood Peter’s question properly, the worry here is that of how we’re to account for how certain social patterns iterate and reproduce themselves across time and geography if wen dispense with the concept of structure.
I very much like Peter’s way of formulating the question, but for me it’s precisely these sorts of concerns that lead me to reject the concept of structure. In my view, the problem with the concept of structure is that it tells us that there are patterns that reproduce themselves across time and space while telling us little in the way of how these patterns reproduce themselves. As a consequence, structure comes to be treated as an agency in its own right, somehow doing things, without giving us much insight into how precisely structure does these things. And in the absence of an exploded view schematic of how structure reproduces itself, we’re left with little in the way of an account of just how to engage structure.
Structuralism gets it right in recognizing that these patterns exceed the intentions of individual humans, functioning according to it’s own immanent principles, and that these patterns reproduce themselves across time and geography. The problem is that the concept of structure (as well as the theoretical practice that accompanies it) ends up being purely descriptive, failing to illuminate any of the causal mechanisms through which structure does this.
The history of subsequent French thought would have been entirely different had it followed the path of cybernetics, rather than the descriptive formalism of figures like Levi-Strauss. Like structuralism, cybernetics recognized that patterns iterate or reproduce themselves across time and geography. Moreover, like structuralism, cybernetics argued that these systems function in ways that exceed human intentions. Take the form of psychotherapy known as “Family Therapy”. Family Therapy is deeply indebted to cybernetics, seeing the symptom that a patient suffers from not as something localized to that individual, but rather as a product of the family system as a whole. Treating the symptom thus requires treating not the individual, but rather the family.
I’ll use myself as an example. Increasingly I’ve become aware of what a pissy little troll I am. I might go about complaining about the trollish behavior I encounter in others in relation to me, but my posts and comments are littered with snide little offhands that not surprisingly provoke snide behavior in others. I don’t do this consciously or intentionally, but almost as a sort of tick. What we have here then is a sort of symptom and we can ask why is it that I behave in ways to provoke conflict with other people when I find these conflicts so distressing. The family therapist would look at the family setting as a whole, not just at the individual. Thus, for example, perhaps my parents, despite having a very good relationship, were nonetheless prone to bickering. In this system, it could be that my unpleasant system functioned as a feedback mechanism that diffused this sort of conflict. In other words, by behaving in trollish and troublesome behavior conflict was directed my way rather than unfolding between my parents.
Another way of putting this would be that I functioned somewhat as a safety valve within this system, playing a role in how the system regulated and achieved equilibrium. Now there are two points to note in this analysis (and I only offer it as a crude example to illustrate a concept, and not even something that is necessarily true): first, the functioning of this system is independent of anyone involved. For example, it wouldn’t be necessary for me to actually behave in trollish and provocative ways to serve this function. My sister might scream, as we played with our legos, accusing me of pulling her hair or something when nothing like this happened. As an element in this system I am situated within a certain functional framework a priori, such that that function can become operative regardless of what I actually do. It is not necessarily the case that I unconsciously enact a particular action. The unconscious, as Lacan suggests in his seminar on The Purloined Letter, belongs to the system as a whole, not the individual.
Second, and more importantly, the emphasis here, in contrast to structuralism, is on the system as a dynamic system that undergoes all sorts of operations or activities to maintain and reproduce themselves. Rather than a mere description of relations as in the case of structuralism, we instead get relations constantly haunted by the spectre of entropy and which must therefore undergo certain operations to stave off entropy or dissolution. The abstract name for these operations is negative and positive feedback. Negative feedback, somewhat counter-intuitively, refers to self-regulating mechanisms that return a system back to a state of equilibrium. In the example above, the parents bicker threatening the family system with entropic dissolution, the child acts up redirecting marital conflict to the child as a problem, and the system returns back to equilibrium with everyone assuming their roles. Here the acting up of the child occasions the negative feedback that allows the system to correct itself and stave off entropy for another day. Positive feedback, by contrast, refers to sequences where systems spiral out of control, falling into entropy and ultimately destroying themselves. A blog debate, for example, might get so intense and heated that it leads to the dissolution of relations between blogs that hitherto existed. An old system dies, new ones are born. Entropy has had it’s day.
Cybernetics has its problems and systems thought has progressed quite a bit since the early innovations of cybernetics, but its example, when contrasted with structuralism is still instructive. Within the framework of cybernetics, systems are dynamic, entropy is a problem that faces any structure of relations, the emphasis is on the mechanisms and processes by which a system staves off entropy, and elements of a system can always be detached from the system (i.e., entropy can set in). In my view, this conceptual space is far more valuable than structuralist orientations insofar as it doesn’t merely give us a description, but instead gives us what Bogost calls an “exploded view” map of processes and elements while perpetually recognizing the entropy that haunts every system. The fact that every system is haunted by entropy, deflates the appeal of concepts like the Subject or the Event precisely because every iterating system of relations is already a multiplicity.
In my own work, I have thus proposed that we replace the rather crude concept of structure with the concept of “regimes of attraction”. The concept of regimes of attraction does all the work that Gratton thinks the concept of structures does, without falling into abstract descriptivism that ignores mechanisms through which structure (re)produces itself and the constant threat of entropy. By analogy to biology, structuralism is like vitalistic preformism that thinks a fertilized egg already contains the completely formed adult entity the egg will become, whereas the concept of refines of attraction is capable of explaining how pluripotent cells can take on determinate functions through their locality and interaction gradually building a body that was in no way there to begin with. Open to an environment, constantly threatened by entropy, and composed of discrete and independent units, the concept of regimes of attraction draws attention to how structures are multiplicities of activity, how they are built, and above all where their weak points might reside.
What, then, is a regime of attraction? A regime of attraction accounts for how discrete, autonomous, and independent entities are nonetheless drawn into basins of attraction that restrict the freedom of movement that virtually belongs to that unit. A basin of attraction is anoint towards which an entity or process trends as a result of feedback relations to other entities or processes. For example, if you roll a marble down the side of a bowl it will roll up and down the sides of the bowl until gravity finally brings it to rest somewhere in the bottom of the point. The range of places where the marble can come to rest is the marble’s basin of attraction for this system (there will be other basins of attraction for the marble in different systems; hence my distinction between exo-relation, local manifestation, and virtual proper being). Likewise if you are born poor it is likely that you will grow up to be poor, just as if you are born wealthy, it is likely that you will grow up to be wealthy. Poverty and wealth are basins of attraction for individuals (and there are many, many other basins of attraction forming a virtual phase space for each of us), towards which individuals are drawn in their lives. A regime of attraction is a field of feedback relations among entities and processes in an a network that organizes these basins of attraction drawing things in one direction rather than another. The important point is that every regime of attraction is haunted by entropy, by the threat of dissolution, rendering it far from ineluctable and challenging every basin of attraction. Mapping these regimes of attraction or feedback processes allows us to locate those weak links where an increase in entropy for a system is possible, thereby challenging basins of attraction.
October 17, 2010
Posted by larvalsubjects under Uncategorized 1 Comment
At the moment I’m sitting at the Albuquerque airport so I can’t go into too much detail on this question, but I did want to get some thoughts down in zeros and ones while they’re still fresh in my mind. The flat ontology of OOO already implies a very different form of theory and practice because it argues for the ontological equality, the equal-being, of all types of entities. Two things follow from this experiment: First, we can no longer treat “artificial” entities like groups, for example, as being less real than natural entities like trees are stars. If OOO is promiscuous, then this is because it argues that all of these entities are equally entities. Second, it follows as a consequence that we can’t speak of one type of entity overdetermining all others. The extreme poles of atomistic reductive materialism (Lucretius) or full blown linguistic idealism are both rejected by OOO. The point here is subtle. As I’ve argued in my last couple posts, one thing OOO aims for is the thinking of heterogeneous compositions. In response to this particular hypothesis, the fantastic Matthew Rigliano, who is, like myself, of a Lacanian bent, worried that I am rejecting the important role played by language or the symbolic in the social world. However, this is not at all what object oriented critical theory is up to. The point is not to exclude language, but to recognize that language plays only a role. Language remains as an important actor, but as one actor among many. The point then is to expand analysis.
OOO thus walks a razor’s edge between reductive materialism and hardcore culturalism. Itnearns the ire of the reductive materialists by arguing that therenare entities that simply aren’t material, but which are no less real for all that, while arguing that the materialists are right about the reality of atoms.. It earns the hostility of culturalists by arguing that there are entities that aren’t cultural constructions, while arguing that cultural constructions are entirely real.. OOO will clearly get it from all sides.
OOO wouldnargue that Jarod Diamond and Hans Enzenberger are both absolutely right and absolutely wrong. Diamond is right to point out the role that geography played in giving various cultures the flavor they have. He is wrong to ignore roles that actors, laws, texts, human decisions, etc, play in these assemblages. Enzenberger is right to point out that certain political decisions played a profound role in the undemocratic media environment to emerge around radio (the laws against citizen journalism), but wrong to ignore the manner in which radio itself is an actor that transforms humans and human relationships as well. In other words, OOO inconstantly emphasizing the heterogeneity of actors in these compositions and the need to think their interplay without subordinating one type of object to another.
Wouldntyis entail that OOO is dialectical, thinking the unity of opposites? No, because dialectical thought is premised on the internal relation of these entities, whereas OOO argues that entities are always detachable. Time to run.
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