February 2011


For the last week I’ve been following Shaviro’s advice and reading George Molnar’s Powers: A Study in Metaphysics. Every once in a while you come across a book that is deeply satisfying because it both confirms your own thoughts and helps you to articulate your positions while also providing you with a whole set of new arguments. This is certainly the case with Molnar’s Powers. As I observed in a previous post, the domain of powers analyzed by Molnar corresponds to what I call “virtual proper being”. Within the framework of my onticology, I argue that objects are split or divided between their virtual proper being and their local manifestations. The virtual proper being of an object is its powers, what the object can do, while local manifestation is the properties that an object comes to embody or actualize.

Molnar attributes five features to powers. First, Molnar makes the case for what he calls “directedness” or physical intentionality. Intentionality is not restricted to the domain of the mental, according to Molnar, but is a feature of physical objects as well. The directedness of a power is a form of intentionality insofar as a power is directed towards its manifestation in a quality. Thus, for example, the solubility of salt is directed towards salt dissolving itself in a liquid. The manifestation is that towards which the power (solubility) tends or is directed. Second, powers are characterized by independence. The key feature of powers is that they are independent of their manifestations. Salt has the power of solubility even if it is never dissolved in water. In this regard, powers are non-identical to their manifestations. This is one of the reasons that I endlessly emphasize the role played by regimes of attraction in the actualization of objects. Regimes of attraction can be roughly equated with context. Insofar as powers are independent of their manifestations we never entirely know– to quote Spinoza and Deleuze –what an object can do. We discover the powers of an object by placing it in different contexts and seeing what it does. Yet in doing so, other powers contained within objects remain dormant insofar as they can only be actualized or manifested in other contexts.

Third, Molnar argues, powers are actual. By this Molnar means that powers are not mere possibilities, but are real features of objects. They belong to the actual object itself. Closely related to this, fourth, powers are intrinsic to the objects that posses them. In other words, powers are non-detachable “parts” of objects. It is for this reason that I’ve been led to equate power or virtual proper being with the substantiality of objects. Finally, fifth, powers are objective features of objects. Hume had argued that our notion of powers is merely a psychological effect of how the mind associates events. By contrast, Molnar argues that powers are real properties of objects.

Of these five features, I find the feature of independence particularly fascinating. If the substantiality of objects is defined by their powers and powers are independent of their manifestations in qualities, this seems to entail that it’s possible for there to be objects that are completely unmanifested or “invisible” within the world. This would take place in the case of objects whose powers are actual and real, but which are completely dormant. Such objects would appear as if they don’t exist precisely because they don’t appear at all, but would nonetheless be entirely real and existent. Here we encounter an unexpected cross-over between Badiou and Molnar. In Logics of Worlds Badiou analyzes objects in terms of their intensity or the degree to which they appear in a world. An object with nil intensity would be an object without any manifestations whatsoever. Yet such an object would be entirely real insofar as the powers that define it would be actual features within the world.

In Irreductions, or perhaps it’s elsewhere, Latour says that we’ll never do better than a politician. Presumably when Latour evokes this aphorism, his point is that we always have to navigate the world in such a way that we have to deal with resistances, assemble other actors to form coalitions or assemblages, and so on. The point would be that the purity of a stance is impossible to maintain, but that compromise is always necessary. Here it’s important to note that for Latour, the figure of the politician is an ontological category, not primarily a political category. What we call politics is a subset of a more general ontological condition. Take the example of the wood carver. If the carver is a politician, then this is because in working the wood, the carver must work with the flow of the grain, the knots, the shape of the wood, etc. The final product is a sort of compromise between the singularities of the wood and the aims of the carver.

Latour is right, but the worry that arises with respect to his aphorism is that it comes to function as the thesis that we should abandon certain aims and goals, thereby pre-emptively compromising. In this connection we hear terms like “pragmatic realism”, where the idea is that we must settle because the so-called “mature realist” understands that certain things just aren’t possible. Of course, in having pre-emptively declared that certain things are not possible, the pragmatic realist insures that they aren’t possible by virtue of never pursuing them and re-structuring the social space by creating popular consensus rendering them possible. It is here that I think Zizek and Badiou are on the right track. Their politics continues the aphorism written on the walls in Paris in Spring of 69, saying “be realistic, demand the impossible!” The only realist position is to demand the impossible and to refuse all pragmatic realism or compromise.

We can thematize this point in terms of Latour’s theses about realism. Earlier in Irreductions Latour also makes the claim that reality is resistance. While I do not share Latour’s view here– whether or not something resists something else has nothing to do with whether it’s real –I certainly would agree that how we come to know reality involves resistances. In this regard, the person or group that aligns herself with a politician (in the political, not ontological, sense) withdraws herself from the domain of social reality. This is precisely because she creates no reality that the politician must navigate and therefore becomes invisible. She presents no singularity that must be navigated. In this regard, the goal of the political activist should be to be like a knot of wood. The goal should be to occupy the position of a singularity that must be navigated. This would be the case regardless of whether or not one is sympathetic to the politician or shares her ideology. It is only in this way that the political subject can play a role in forming the social space. By contrast, in aligning oneself with a politician, the subject ceases to be a political subject insofar as they have become invisible, a smooth space, that requires no navigation.

Chris Hayes has an interesting editorial on the Egyptian Revolution in this week’s Nation. My attention, in particular, was drawn to these two paragraphs:

Conservative opinion on Egypt is by no means uniform, but it’s not surprising to find right-wingers attacking the pro-democracy protesters and ElBaradei. After all, the foundational thinker of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, was terrified by the anarchic forces that popular revolt can unleash. After the storming of the Bastille in the summer of 1789, Burke wrote in a letter that the French “are not fit for Liberty, and must have a Strong hand like that of their former masters to coerce them.” In 1790 he took to Parliament to denounce the French revolutionaries for having “pulled down to the ground their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures” and warned that the door was open to “an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy.”

Few conservatives would see much of Burke in our current occupant of the White House, but there is a certain core affinity. In 2005, when David Brooks first met the young Senator Obama, they reportedly spent much of the time discussing and debating the finer points of Burke’s philosophy. The cardinal principle of Obamaism is that incremental change at the margins is always and everywhere preferable to both the status quo and radical upheaval. In 2004, before he was the presidential candidate of hope and change, the newly elected senator wrote a congratulatory e-mail to his supporters in which he revealingly defined his mission as “making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today.”

This gets at, I think, core existential perspectives on the world. When I refer to a “core existential perspective”, I am referring something that in many respects precedes any particular propositional beliefs or stances. Rather, such perspectives would be like a frame in a painting or a photograph. It wouldn’t be what’s in the photograph or painting, but would be that opening that allows what’s in the photographic or painting to appear at all. And here, prior to any analysis of any particular political events or institution, prior to any judgment, prior to any appraisal, it seems to me that at a very deep and basic level one has always already decided with whether they side with power or the marginalized. This fundamental existential decision, never consciously made, never the result of any sort of rational appraisal or activity of “making things explicit”, is the machine that is always already operative in how one perceives and judges events. This is true in politics, in one’s judgment of social issues, in ones attitudes towards academia, and so on. Always and everywhere one either sides power and authority or with radical democracy (and when I speak of radical democracy, no, I’m not talking about the system we have here in the States).

And it’s here that we get the basic question. When you look at something like what took place in Egypt, do you see terrifying anarchy, law and disorder, and the need for a smooth transition, or do you see the promise of radical democracy? What is it that you see in such moments. What you see says far more about yourself, about your own basic existential orientation towards the world, than it says about the events themselves. Above all, it says a great deal about the nature of your desires. Burke doesn’t come out looking good in his appraisal of the initial stages of the French Revolution, and Obama doesn’t come out looking good here.

Over at Wired, Bruce Sterling responds to Lee Braver with the following:

I appreciate the helpful commentary here. I’m gonna make an effort to get my head around this stuff.

Perhaps a student workshop at the European Graduate School is in order. I keep threatening to go up there and teach them some philosophy, as opposed to whatever-it-is that I actually teach them.

Now that’s a course I’d definitely like to see… Especially since I’m so intrigued by the idea of speculative fiction.

Here’s a GREAT VIDEO GAME that’s also a wonderful pedagogical that’s also a wonderful pedagogical device. The player has a minimum wage job coming in at a whopping $9 dollars an hour or $300 dollars a week. Based on this, the player is to figure out how to pay for the basic necessities of life. For many students, I suspect, this would be very eye opening. Such is the nature of regimes of attraction.

Over at An Un-Canny Ontology, Nate has an exceedingly interesting series of posts porting Deleuze and Guattari’s machines into object-oriented ontology. Check them out here, here, and here. All of this meshes very nicely with my account of objects as autopoietic and allopoietic machines.

Over at An Un-Canny Ontology Nate has discovered that onticology has hit the religious market as well. It would appear that our commercial blitz is working quite well. Thank you Aranofsky!

One of the central claims of object-oriented ontology is that objects are withdrawn from one another. In this way, OOO radicalizes the Kantian claim. Kant had claimed that the in-itself is withdrawn from humans such that we only have access to phenomena and never things-in-themselves. OOO accepts this thesis with the caveat that this is true of all objects, regardless of whether the entities involved are humans relating to nonhuman objects or other human beings, or whether the entities relating to one another are planets relating to stars. Each object encounters other objects as phenomena or what Graham calls “sensual objects”. The consequence that follows from this is that the inner world of objects is essentially unknowable. We can track inputs and the outputs produced as a result of these inputs (what I would call “local manifestations”), yet the inner world of objects is a black box.

I’ve been delighted to discover that Andrew Pickering articulates a very similar line of thought in The Cybernetic Brain. This is a wonderful book, so take the time to read it if you have access to it. This point and how it modifies our understanding of knowledge and the world comes out very clearly in his discussion of Ross Ashby’s famous homeostat. As recounted by Wikipedia,

The Homeostat is one of the first devices capable of adapting itself to the environment; it exhibited behaviours such as habituation, reinforcement and learning through its ability to maintain homeostasis in a changing environment. It was built by William Ross Ashby in 1948 at Barnwood House Hospital. It was an adaptive ultrastable system, consisting of four interconnected Royal Air Force bomb control units with inputs, feedback, and magnetically-driven, water-filled potentiometers. It illustrated his law of requisite variety — automatically adapting its configuration to stabilize the effects of any disturbances introduced into the system. It was the realization of what he had described in 1946 as an “Isomorphism making machine”.

What we get in the case of the homeostat is a machine where each individual homeostat evolves in response to the outputs of the others. As Pickering describes it,

…we need to think about Ashby’s modelling not of the brain but of the world. The world of the tortoise [which I discuss here] was largely static and unresponsive– a given field of light and obstacles –but the homeostat’s world was lively and dynamic: it was, as we have seen, more homeostats! If in a multiunit setup homeostat 1 could be regarded as a model brain, then homeostats 2, 3, and 4 constitute homeostat 1’s world [what I would call it's "regime of attraction"]. Homeostat 1 perturbed its world dynamically, emitting currents, which the other homeostats processed through their circuits and responded to accordingly, emitting their own currents back, and so on around the loop of brain and world. (106)

The conclusion to be drawn from this, says Pickering, is that “[a]s ontological theater [...] a multihomeostat setup stages for us a vision of the world in which fluid and dynamic entities evolve together in a decentered fashion, exploring each other’s properties in a performative back-and-forth dance of agency” (ibid.). The key point here is that the other objects are not explored cognitively through passive representation, but through action and interaction. One homeostat discovers the properties of another object through perturbing it in particular ways. This, in turn, produces certain outputs. Thus, Pickering goes on to add, that “[...] relations between homeostats were entirely noncognitive and nonrepresentational. The homeostats did not seek to know one another and predict each other’s behavior. In this sense, each homeostat was unknowable to the others, and a multihomeostat assemblage thus staged what I called before an ontology of unknowability” (ibid.).

Here there are a few points worth making. First, the properties– outputs, local manifestations –discovered in the environment of the “brain-homeostat” are a function of the brain-homeostat’s actions (inputs). As a consequence, what the brain-homeostat discovers is a function of its own action. The other homeostats can harbor all sorts of other powers– virtual proper being –that are not manifested because either 1) the other homeostats are not being perturbed in such a way as to activate them, or 2) because the other homeostats do not have channels that allow them to be perturbed by the brain homeostat. In this latter case, we get a situation in which the other homeostat is so withdrawn from the brain-homeostats that it’s as if the homeostats do not even exist for one another. This would be analogous to the neutrinos I discuss elsewhere. Second, as the dance of agency unfolds through the communication of the homeostats with one another, patterned relationships begin to emerge. This would be analogous to what takes place when fireflies flick to one another in such a way that an oscillating pattern emerges where they all appear to simultaneously switch off and on in response to one another. Thus, third, we here begin to get the genesis of higher order objects. Through the formation of these patterned interactions, we begin to get the emergence of an entity in its own right that can interact with other entities at higher levels of scale. Here this higher scale entity draws outputs from lower scale entities (the homeostats) so as to maintain a patterned existence and unity in the order of time. In this case, it is not really one of the homeostats that’s a brain, but rather the homeostats taken as an aggregate that form something like a brain through their ongoing interactions and communications to one another. Here we might think of the homeostats as being akin to individual neurons.

In response to one of Ian’s Facebook posts on the whole Sterling thing, some folks mentioned that they’re now convinced that the whole SR thing is an advertising gimmick. While I’m troubled to see that the truth is out, I’m also relieved. Now that all of this is out in the open, I can now make some exciting announcements. I just met with our marketing department today and it seems that the uniforms athletes will be wearing in the next Olympics will have a small SR logo on them. This will consist of a finely sewn abstract image of Rodin’s Thinker holding a 7-11 Big Gulp in its hand. The sales team at SR headquarters located in LA is extremely excited about this as we expect that this logo will open up all sorts of marketing possibilities in High School athletics, as well as the teen sports market. Meanwhile, our marketing team has been very fortunate to secure the same logo on a stock car in the racing circuit. This should earn the interest of the Nascar dads and will help us during the next election cycle as we put up third party candidates seeking to represent the political interests of nonhuman objects, powers, and patterns. Meanwhile, we’ve also commissioned Aronofsky to direct a series of television commercials pushing our new line of products as well as our political positions on the rights of dust mites and bed bugs. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to list it all. I would say more but as it stands I’m late for a lunch involving lobster, truffles, and caviar. After that it’s off to play a round of polo with my new Arabian stallion. Then I have to meet with a few senators, promising them campaign contributions if they push SR. Things have gotten very very busy, though as soon as the semester is over I’ll be off to vacation at the new tropical island the corporation purchased with Graham Morton, Bogost, Brassier, Grant, DeLanda, Meillassoux and a few other choice guests. We had Dubai build the island in the shape of an “S” and an “R”, so as to both represent SR and emphasize the anteriority of productivity over objects. Gotta run!

On twitter and elsewhere a debate has arisen surrounding substances versus production. Here the thesis runs that production is prior or anterior to substance. Given that I write about production all over the place and thematize objects as in a constant state of self-production because they are perpetually disintegrating (this will become clearer once The Democracy of Objects comes out), this is a core theme for me. However, it does seem to me that the thesis that production is anterior to substances is based on a bit of a fallacy. The idea seems to be that because substances must be produced, there must be a domain of production anterior to and other than substance. I’m fully on board with the thesis that substances must be produced– this is one of the things that interests me most –but I don’t accept the idea that because of this there is a domain anterior to substances (this would be my gripe with Simondonian talk of the pre-individual). Rather, substances are produced out of other substances. Within this framework, being would always and everywhere be composed of substances– existence would come in chunks –but new substances would be produced out of other substances. Production is certainly anterior to substances, but this anteriority is not something other than substances, but rather is composed of other substances. In this regard, I just don’t see much of a debate between substance-ontology and production-ontology. Substance-ontology can thematize and discuss production to its hearts content. In doing so, however, it’s still discussing dynamics of substances in the genesis of new substances.

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