November 2010


Happy Birthday Lizzie! As of 1:26PM you’re officially four years old. You’ve translated my life in all sorts of ways, turning it upside down and inside out, deepening my thought and sending it off in entirely new directions, opening up a world that, before, was entirely invisible to me, and turning me into an incorrigible kid and bowl of jello that can’t help but completely regress to childhood as we explore the world together. But, above all, you’ve introduced a telos into my life that has no other aim, purpose, or goal beyond the simple aim of growing together, that is without condition or demand, and that is as basic and unquestionable as oxygen and water. Last weekend your mother and I were privileged with the envious joy of watching you and your friends bounce madly and with abandon and endless energy in the bounce house in the backyard. Today we shared a quiet day together, opening presents, singing songs, drawing, telling stories, and doing crafts. We’ve watched you grow into an architect and an engineer, an artist, a story teller, a dancer, a prankster and a joker, someone who perpetually thinks about others and strives to treat them with dignity and love, a ballerina, a princess (I don’t approve), a musician, a lover of pink and yellow, an unrepentant cuddler, occasionally a tickle zombie, and a lover of bugs, mud, puddles, snow and snowballs, and froggy boots. You are the real, that which I could have never anticipated and which I can never mold or define. Even when you came into the world you kept me up for three days straight as I awaited your arrival such that when you finally arrived the world was all a glorious blur of absolute exhaustion and I still found myself absolutely surprised and filled with wonder at this strange and beautiful personality– and it was there from the very beginning, from the very first gesture –that had joined my world. We love you and love sharing the adventure of our lives with you.

I’m heading off to California on Tuesday afternoon to present at the UCLA Hello, Everything: Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology symposium and the Claremont Metaphysics and Things symposium. There’s been a slight change of plan. Rather than presenting on sexuation, ontotheology, and Lacanian sexuation, I’ll be giving a talk entitled “On the Reality and Construction of Hyperobjects with Reference to Class” that revises and deepens the discussion of class that I’ve been developing here on the blog (the sexuation issues were just too complicated for the time allotted). At Claremont I’ll be giving a talk on Derrida and OOO entitled “The Time of the Object: Towards the Ontological Grounds of Withdrawal” that draws on Derrida’s concepts of differance and trace to make a case for withdrawal. If anyone is interested in seeing the papers I’d be happy to share so long as you promise not to distribute them.

In other news, I’ve been writing everything these days in a program called LaTex. It’s more complicated than a word processing program (a bit like writing in hypertext), but if you can figure it out your documents come out looking absolutely gorgeous, like journal articles.

Often when people think of Marshall McLuhan, the first thing the think is his thesis that “the medium is the message.” While this is indeed an important dimension of McLuhan’s thought, it seems to me that McLuhan’s thesis that mediums are anything that extends the senses or the body of man [sic.] (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, p. 7) is far more significant to understanding the import of McLuhan’s project. With this thesis, McLuhan vastly expands the domain of media studies, such that media studies take on general ontological import. Indeed, we can now say that through McLuhan’s definition of media, media studies is now without an object, for media studies will now no longer be the investigation of a “regional ontology” or a particular domain of the world such as newspapers, comic books, and films, but will now define a dimension or feature of general ontology. To wit, media studies will be that branch of general ontology that investigates how one object extends another.

read on!
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Over at notes for a later time, Thomas has an excellent post up responding to my critique of theoretical monism yesterday. There’s a lot in Thomas’s post, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage in particular:

The difference Levi draws between theoretical monism and pluralism (which I may have to borrow), correctly captures the bricolage quality that should overcome a lot of the pitfalls of closed structures (reductive? hegemonic? hierarchical?) that rely on a singular, static master concept for their explanation. This is one of the common threads in Latour’s critique of the “sociology of the social”, Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”, Parsons’ critique of Positivism/Idealism, and Marx’s critique of Political Economy. In each case, we have a conceptual agent that does all the work in the order of things without itself being explained.* We may as well have recourse to “God”. Flat Ontology’s position that all entities are agents in reality activates material and immaterial conditions to create an action situation that is active in the truest sense [my emphasis]. Instead of an instance of action between subject and an object, we have an interaction of multiple agents that initiates a variety of processes that are identified by their significance to the observer.

There’s a lot of nice stuff in Thomas’s post, so please take the time to read it. I hadn’t thought about it in quite these terms before, but I think Thomas is essentially right. There are two basic criticisms I’ve heard directed against OOO, one based on just plain ignorance and word connotation, the one slightly better yet still based on connotations. This first line of criticism seems to hear the word “object-oriented” and concludes that OOO is a scientific realism that wishes, after the fashion of Ayn Rand, to champion a sort of “objectivism” against “subjectivism”. This criticism still works in the nature/culture distinction, where either nature or culture is the real. Yet it’s precisely that thesis that OOO elides. Cultural entities, for OOO, are every bit as real as natural entities and vice versa. The second criticism worries that OOO has no place for the subject. Yet here the problem is the same. One still thinks within the framework of an opposition between subject and object and concludes that if OOO is championing objects, it must be rejecting subjects. Yet for OOO, subjects are one type of object among other types of objects. In other words, for OOO there is no subject/object opposition, there are just objects.

This second criticism also seems to worry that OOO reduces everything to passivity. The subject/object opposition is indexed to the active/passive distinction. Subjects are the active in that they act on the world, while objects are the passive in that they are acted upon (Zizek formulates exactly this position at the beginning of The Parallex View). As a consequence, the person adopting this criticism might concede that for OOO subjects are objects, while objecting (pardon the pun) that OOO has thereby reduced subjects to passivity, undermining their agency. What I like about Thomas’s formulation is that it captures the sense in which for OOO the point is not that everything is passive, but rather that OOO wishes to think everything as an agent or as active. Hence the idea of agental realism.

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while has probably come to realize that many of the positions I argue against are positions I formally held. In other words, often, in my criticisms, I am working through my own positions and trying to expand them through a sort of quasi-dialectical gesture that both integrates elements of the position I held and moves beyond it. My hope, then, is that my criticism not be taken in the spirit of rejection, But rather of placing a theoretical apparatus in its proper context and recognizing the limitations of that theoretical tool.

With this caveat in mind, if we turn to the domain of critical theory broadly construed (ie, as referring to social and political theory), then it seems to me that we’re faced with a plurality of theoretical monisms that lead to an inability to explain how change is possible. By “theoretical monism” I mean any critical theory that is more or less organized around some conceptual master-signifier or concept that functions as the ground of everything else. That master-term might be the signifier, sign, power, economics, etc. The problem is that when you have one term functioning as the ground of everything else, it’s no longer clear what produces change within a system.

Take the example of Lacanianism. As The Democracy of objects will make clear, I very much remain a Lacanian. However, for a long time I was just a Lacanian. By being “just a Lacanian” I mean that I believed that Lacanian theory provides us with a general theory of the social. Such a thesis might appear surprising to many who perhaps association psychoanalysis with psychology (ie, a discourse about individual minds), however we must remember that for Lacan, like Hume, psychology is, strictly speaking, impossible because the subject is constituted in the field of the Other. In other words, no social, no subject. Consequently, as Freud will argue in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, the ego is essentially constituted inter-subjectively, and psychoanalysis is every bit as much a theory of the social as it is a theory of the subject. Indeed, Lacan’s theory can be read as a theory of the clinical setting as opposed to a theory of mind (a point he endlessly repeats in his seminar).

As “just a Lacanian” I believed, above all, that the signifier structures reality. As Lacan puts it in Seminar XX, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric.”. Impressed by the structural linguistics I had read and work by Lacan such as “The Instance of the Letter”, I came to understand all of reality as structured by the symbolic. First you have the pre-symbolic real (what Lacan and Lacanians often call the “mythological real”), which is understood to be undifferentiated and without structure, and then you have the signifier that comes to structure of reality. What makes a men’s room a men’s room and the ladies room the ladies room? The signifier “man” and “woman”. What makes the ten o’clock train the ten o’clock train? The signifier “ten o’clock train”, not the material train itself. What constitutes the difference between blue and green (note some cultures classify shades of green as blue and vice versa)? The signifiers “blue” and “green” coupled with their differential relations.

In short, the signifier precedes the thing and structures it. There is a pre-symbolic reality, but because we can only relate to the world through the symbolic (all our cognition is linguistically structured) we can know nothing about it. Moreover, because language is transubjective rather than based on individual intentions, the social precedes the subject and reality. As a consequence, question of the political must necessarily be a question of the symbolic because the symbolic, as that which precedes and conditions reality, would necessarily structure social relations, assigning people positions and so on. To act politically would thus be to act on the symbolic. Q.E.D.

There’s a lot that’s right about the Lacanian position, and much here that I still hold, but the problem is that if it is language alone that structures reality it’s difficult to see where change comes from at all. Where is the alterity that allows change to take place? To be sure, there is the Lacanian subject and the Real. The Lacanian subject is that void that always slips away from any signifying chain (there is no signifier that can pin it down and each signifier reproduces it, ie, it’s radically withdrawn). The Lacanian Real consists of formal that no language can handle and that therefore prevents any totalization of the symbolic (each form of neurosis is organized, for example, around such a formal aporia or Real). But while the Lacanian subject and Real open the promising possibility of a scrambling of any totality and possible escape, their very formality leaves specific struggle underdetermined. Paraphrasing Deleuze, these concepts are too baggy to capture the real.

And so it went. I could give formal conditions for change, quasi-transcendental conditions for the possibility of change, but I was unable to give any account of the specific conditions of struggle and why they ought to take one specific form rather than another in a specific context. This, I’ve come to believe, is a result of the theoretical monism of the Lacanian framework. However, what if, instead of placing ourselves with the straight jacket of Lacan or Foucault or Marx or Deleuze and Guattari or Latour, etc, we instead tried to think Lacan and Marx and Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari and Latour, etc? “Wait”, someone will say, “isn’t this what Zizek is doing or Deleuze and Guattari are doing or Badiou is doing?”. Sure, that’s what they say they’re trying to do, but they’re not doing it. Deleuze and Guattari fair the best here, but in the case of Zizek it’s still the signifier that has primacy. In Badiou economics and nonhumans disappear altogether.

This is what flat ontology is trying to do. I hate that I’m repeating myself so much these days but it’s a point that needs to be repeated again and again. The point of flat ontology is not to reduce everything to the same. Flat ontology rejects every hegemon. The point of flat ontology is to think interactions among heterogenous components: technologies, animals, minerals, vampires, corporations, capital, humans, works of art, speeches, video footage, corporations, salamanders, etc.

Look at what happens when you adopt this pluralistic realism: because you have introduced heterogeneity into your framework, refusing any hegemon, you now get tensions among different fields that become occasions for various forms of collective invention. You get singularities. Take the example of the feminist movement in the sixties. Twenty to thirty years ago you had three fields interacting with one another. You had the symbolic codifying the place of men and women, micro-powers with their filiments stretching everwhere structure subjectivity and male and female desire, and the economic-military complex of the factory. Because of the draft and the war effort women enter the factory. Suddenly they encounter a contradiction between how the symbolic and micro-power structures the world. New individuations take place. “Girls can do it too!”

The men come back from the war and kick women out of their jobs. But at the level of the symbolic and micro-power, change and invention is already afoot. Newborn children witness fraught relations between husbands and wives– women bitter, perhaps, at the loss of their professional and economic freedom, men suffering from war trauma and still living in the symbolic and power structures of the pre-war period. Among daughters and sons a new space of possibility glimmers on the horizon. Meanwhile, there is unparalleled economic prosperity due to Keynesian economics, allowing for a loosening of existing power and symbolic relations. Twenty years later a space of invention and creation explodes, like a germinating plant, as these children come of age and form groups to invent new collectives. The outcome is not determined but an occasion is opened where a new regime becomes possible.

Wars, factories, signifiers, weapons, economics, universities, all play a role in occasioning this new group-subject. Occasioning is not causing. Rather, occasioning is catalytic, drawing together a complex field of relations where a group and invention might come to be and where praxis is self-directing. What opportunities do we miss as amresult of theoretical hegemony or monism which renders vision of other actors invisible? Flat ontology strives to overcome missed opportunities.

In contemporary social and political theory it is not unusual to hear questions as to how a subject is possible. By a subject, of course, one means a self-directing agency that is not a mere puppet of context or environment. In social and political theory, the subject does not refer to human individuals, but rather “the subject of history”, eg, the proletariat. It seems to me that we would do well to abandon this sort of talk. The term “subject” renders a number of things invisible, taking a number of questions off the table. This is because subject has connotations of an isolated individual. Sartre draws a valuable contrast between collectives and groups. A collective is a sort of anonymous social relation in which every individual is exchangeable with other individuals and roles are given. He gives the example of queuing for a bus. Everyone takes a ticket and hopes to get a seat on the bus. Each person is alloted a position that is exchangeable with that of any other position. Here we might think of the Lacanian symbolic and how it allots certain ego/social positions.

By contrast, a groups refers to relations where self-directing praxis Emerges among the members of the group. The members of a group are united around a common project, such as, for example, Lacan’s L’ecole. They aren’t merely passive beings defined by pre-existent social relations, but rather actively transcend the given of the social field and define a common project. As a consequence, groups are self-directing.

There are, in my view, a number of advantages to speaking about groups rather than subjects. First, of course, we can seek the conditions under which groups emerge out of collectives or come into being. Sartre has an exquisite analysis of all of the conditions that led to the storming of the Bastille and the invention of a new unity and the broader conditions that occasioned that invention. However, the concept of group rather than subject brings into relief other valuable questions. With the concept of group we get the question of how praxis is coordinated among diverse individuals. In other words, we get all sorts of practical questions pertaining to how individuals invent a group or themselves or mediate their differences. Likewise, we are afforded with the opportunity to analyze the microfacisms that emerge within groups, how groups ossify and become collectives, and how invention becomes self-defeating and alienating dogma.

The question of political theory is not a question of how subjects are possible, but of how groups are possible. The problem with the concept of subject in political theory is that it illicitly unifies that which must be produced or unified, foreclosing these sorts of questions. As a consequence, we should eradicate this term from our vocabulary when doing political theory, instead asking how a group is possible. It is groups, not individual subjects, that are the subject of political theory.

As I’ve reread Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason I’ve been astonished by the overlap between Latour’s actor-network theory and Sartre’s account of how the social comes into being. One of Latour’s central claims is that the social does not explain but must be explained. As Latour remarks,

In most situations, we use ‘social’ to mean that which has already been assembled and acts as a whole, without being too picky on the precise nature of what has been gathered, bundled, and packaged together. When we say that ‘something is social’ or ‘has a social dimension’, we mobilize one set of features that, so to speak, march in step together, even though it might be composed of radically different types of entities. This unproblematic use of the word is fine as long as we don’t confuse the sentence ‘Is social what goes together?’, with one that says, ‘social designates a particular kind of stuff’ [my emphasis]. With the former we simply mean that we are dealing with a routine state of affairs whose binding together is the crucial aspect, while the second designates a sort of substance whose main feature lies in its differences with other types of materials. We imply that some assemblages are built out of social stuff instead of physical, biological, or economical blocks, much like the houses of the Three Little Pigs were made of straw, wood, and stone. (Reassembling the Social, 43)

The central target of Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT) is what he calls “the sociology of the social”. The sociology of the social would be that form of sociology that suggests that the social is composed of a special sort of “stuff” (“social stuff”, not unlike phlogiston) that holds people together in a particular way. Generally sociologists of the social appeal to power, social forces, signs, language, norms, and human intentions.

By contrast, Latour argues that all of these agencies are rather weak and fail to account for why the social (assemblages of humans and nonhumans) are held together in the way they’re held together. In place, the sociology of the social, Latour instead proposes a sociology of associations. The social, for Latour, is nothing more than associations between human and nonhuman entities (and sometimes, many times, solely associations between nonhuman entities) that include semiotic components, human intentions, norms, laws, but also technologies, animals, natural entities like rivers and mountains, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, Latour will argue that it is nonhuman actors that do the lion’s share of the work in associating human beings with one another, and that signs, intentions, norms, laws, etc., are rather weak tea in maintaining certain assemblages or associations between humans. As Latour writes in a justly celebrated passage,


A shepherd and his dog remind you nicely of social relations, but when you see her flock behind a barbed wire fence, you wonder where is the shepherd and her dog– although sheep are kept in the field by the piercing effect of wire barbs more obstinately than by the barking of the dog. There is no doubt that you have become a couch potato in front of your TV set thanks largely to the remote control that allows you to surf from channel to channel– and yet there is no resemblance between the causes of your immobility and the portion of your action that has been carried out by an infrared signal, even though there is no question that your behavior has been permitted by the TV command.

Between a car driver that slows down near a school because she has seen the ’30 MPH’ yellow sign and a car driver that slows down because he wants to protect the suspension of his car threatened by the bump of a ‘speed trap’, is the difference big or small. Big, since the obedience of the first has gone through morality, symbols, sign posts, yellow paint, while the other has passed through the same list to which has been added a carefully designed concrete slab. But it is small since they have both obeyed something: the first driver to a rarely manifested altruism– if she had not slowed down, her heart would have been broken by the moral law; the second driver to a largely distributed selfishness– if he had not slowed down his suspension would have been broken by a concrete slab. Should we say that only the first connection is social, moral and symbolic, but that the second is objective and material? No. But, if we say that both are social all the way through, but they certainly are collected or associated together by the very work of road designers. One cannot call oneself a social scientist and pursue only some links– the moral, legal, and symbolic ones –and stop as soon as there is some physical relation interspersed in between the others. (RS, 77 – 78)

Latour’s point is that if we wish to take account of the fabric of the social, of those assemblages that exist, we have to take into account the role that nonhuman entities play in organizing particular patterns of relations and behavior. Each example contrasts, more or less, a humanist explanation (reference to power, signs, laws, morals, etc) and a nonhumanist example. Thus, in the first example, Latour contrasts control of the sheep through power (the role of the shepherd and the sheep dog) and control of the sheep through a barbwire fence. This example is particularly nice because it shows that for the sociology of associations the behavior of sheep is every bit as much a sociological question as the behavior of humans. The second example contrasts human intentions with the unintended consequences of technology (becoming an overweight couch potato). The third example contrasts agency through law and signs with agency through a nonhuman actor such as a speed bump.

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