May 2011


As someone whose eccentric use of philosophical language is sometimes criticized, I was delighted to come across this passage in Stengers Thinking With Whitehead. Stengers writes,

Bergson names and describes duration, but his text induces the experience of it, induces the trust that transforms experience into experimentation on duration. And it is precisely at this point that he coincides with Whitehead, for the concept of nature also depends on a “literary” apparatus liable to induce a perception of what we are aware of in the mode that this concept has the task of exhibiting.

The purpose of a discussion of such factors may be described as being to make obvious things look odd. We cannot envisage them unless we manage to invest them with some of the freshness which is due to strangeness. (Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 107 – 108)

One of the ways of conferring a bizarre appearance upon any kind of experience, without recourse to the particular experience provided by hashish, listening to music, hypnotic induction, or the philosopher’s meticulous description, is to call attention to the “constant factors,” those we neglect because they inevitably belong to all experience, but which no experience exhibits in particular. The point is thus to create a contrast between what I say I perceive and what is always exhibited by what I am aware of. (62 – 63)

There is a poetics of philosophy that is like a use of language against language. It is this poetics that we perpetually complain about when reading philosophers and bemoaning their difficulty. Philosophy renders what is familiar strange. Yet this practice of rendering the familiar strange is not done out of any sort of perversity, but is rather undertaken precisely to bring forward that which withdraws. Stengers will write that “[w]hat is required by our instinctive knowledge, far from leading to a foundation of knowledge, as conditions would do, instead refers each mode of knowledge to its operations, its choices, its ambitions, and priorities. Without a beyond. At its own risk” (49). The poetics of philosophy is a sort of choice, a selection, exercised at the heart of being, bringing that which, due to its ubiquity, was before invisible. Yet to exercise such a selection language must lose its familiarity so that the possibility of a manifestation might become available for thought.

In light of an excellent discussion with Michael of Archive Fire today, I’ve come to realize that the concept of potentiality, of potency, is the theme of all of my philosophical work. This is always an odd moment where you realize that you’ve been writing and thinking obsessively about something without realizing that you’ve been doing so. And here, before proceeding, I hasten to add that despite our differences, I am both very fond of Michael and deeply sympathetic to his positions. After a somewhat rocky start, we’ve found a place of discussion where we are able to mutually respect each others work while also disagreeing. If there is one fundamental difference between Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology, it is that he is staunchly and heroically committed to actualism, whereas I am thoroughly committed to the existence of potentiality or potency. For Harman, objects are thoroughly and completely actual. For me, objects are always split and divided (in the Lacanian sense) between a virtual domain of potencies, powers, or potentialities, and actuality or whatever qualities they happen to actualize or manifest at any particular point in time. Salt, for example, harbors all sorts of powers within it such as the power to melt ice even when salt is not melting ice.

It’s damned difficult to think the concept of potentiality, potency, or power. In Prince of Networks, Harman follows Latour in criticizing the concept of potency or potentiality because it undermines the possibility of novelty. For Harman and Latour, the problem with the concept of potency or potentiality is that it treats the object as already containing what it will become. Here we need only evoke the example of the acorn evoked in classrooms across the world when explaining Aristotle’s concept of δύναμαι, dunamis, or potentiality, as opposed to energeia, entelechy, or actuality. In these cases, we say that the acorn is the potentiality of the oak tree. The oak tree would be the actuality the oak tree or what the acorn is to become. The problem here is that this seems to suggest that the acorn already contains the oak tree, that there is nothing truly novel about the emergence of the oak tree, and thus that the concept of potentiality completely undermines novelty.

I fully endorse Harman-Latour’s critique of the concept of potentiality as it is posed. In my view, the challenge is to think a concept of potentiality that does not treat an object as already containing actualities of what the object will be in virtual form (as in the case of an acorn already containing the adult oak tree, but virtually). Along these lines, I’ve tried to argue, following Deleuze, that there is no resemblance between a power, potentiality, or potency, and the actuality that it comes to actualize. Potentiality, power, potency is pure capacity, pure “can-do”, pure ability. As such, it tells us nothing of the form that the actualized power will take when it becomes a quality or what I call a local manifestation. These potentialities are what I call, following Spinoza, “affects”, or the capacity to affect and be affected. They are structures of the object, they aren’t featureless, yet they do not embody any determinate qualities. In this regard, it is completely misleading to suggest that the power of an acorn contains an oak tree. No, acorns contain the possibility of all sorts of unique and aleatory movements (under specific conditions) that might become an oak tree.

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H/T to Timothy Richardson. This morning my friend Tim sent me the following link as an interesting example of an object:

A team of astronomers has identified a novel new kind of galactic wanderer – lone, Jupiter-sized planets expelled from forming solar systems and drifting in the empty void between the stars.

The researchers, led by Takahiro Sumi of Japan’s Osaka University, spotted 10 such free-floating “orphan planets” in data from a 2006-7 microlensing survey of our galaxy’s centre, which searched for the tell-tale sign of transiting bodies’ gravitational fields distorting light from distant stars.

Team member David Bennett, of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, explained that this first sighting in a small portion of the Milky Way points to enormous numbers of orphans. He said: “Our survey is like a population census. We sampled a portion of the galaxy, and based on these data, can estimate overall numbers in the galaxy.”

In addition to “dark objects”, there could thus be “rogue objects”. Rogue objects would be objects that pass in and out of assemblages, breaking with relations, as well as modifying relations in the assemblages into which they enter. Some famous examples of rogue objects in literature might be Melville’s Bartleby as well as Kafka’s Joseph K. In philosophy we might think of Deleuze’s empty square, anomalous, dark precursor, and quasi-cause, as well as Badiou’s subject.

This would bring the tally of objects to four: dark objects, dim objects (which andreling introduces; love that term!), rogue objects, and what might be called “domestic objects”. Domestic objects would be objects heavily enchained in an assemblage such as a cell in my body dependent on a host of other cells.

In the responses to my last post Michael, from Archive Fever, makes an interesting (as always) remark. Michael writes,

an object/assemblage is not real if it does not make a difference/affect the world. All actually existing entities have force and consequence

For me the case is very different. If I draw a distinction between things and actants, then this is because I hold that things are irreducible to their effects on other objects. On the one hand, things are always in excess of the manner in which they happen to affect other things at any given point in time. No object is every exhausted by the manner in which it affects other objects. Even in that case where, improbably, a thing enters into all possible relations it could enter into with other things, there would still be a residue of excess in the thing that never manifests. This is a central feature of what Harman, I believe, has in mind by “withdrawal” and is part of the reason that Morton refers to things as “strange strangers”. Like Hegel’s famous “bone in the throat” (at least as read by Zizek), there is always something inassimable about all objects. I won’t get into my reasons for this claim (you can read them in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects), but will only underline that I am committed to this thesis of the excess of objects over their actualizations.

On the other hand, because I hold things cannot be defined by how they affect other things, it follows that it’s possible that there are things that affect no other things at all. I say it’s possible, not that they do exist. How would I know? In order for me to know that they exist they would have to produce some sort of difference with respect to me or the social and natural world with which I dwell. Yet such a thing is precisely a thing that produces no difference beyond the mere difference of existing. It seems appropriate to refer to these types of things as “dark objects”. Dark objects are objects that are so thoroughly withdrawn that they do not affect anything else at all. Again, all I emphasize is that dark objects are a metaphysical possibility, not that they exist. Of course, if dark objects do exist, they would be thoroughly actual or real. They would just have the peculiar property of affecting no other things. And here, as an aside, I confess that I find the strange idea of living in a world with all sorts of dark objects of which I’m scarcely aware to be a thought that both disturbs and incites wonder.

There are, of course, many objects that approach the status of dark objects. Dark matter seems to approach dark objects in and through its elusiveness. Likewise, neutrinos often seem to have many properties of dark objects. In the realm of social and political theory, what Spivak calls the “subaltern” would share much in common with dark objects. Such too would be the case with what Badiou calls the event, and what Ranciere calls the part-of-no-part. In this regard, part of political practice would consist in diminishing the darkness of quasi-dark objects, of devising strategies to “brighten” or intensify their appearance in situations.

In a recent response to one of my posts, Ross writes:

Ah, well, with all this reading of Leibniz it’s no wonder that you ascribe some sort of teleological agency to nature, and for that matter, the entire non-human universe.

Here it’s incredibly important to emphasize that I don’t ascribe teleology to all things. Indeed, I believe that teleology is even rather limited in the case of humans and social systems. Do I often speak of nonhuman objects as “doing” things, “wanting” things, “aiming” at things, and having goals? Absolutely. These anthropomorphisms– rife also in evolutionary theory, sociology, and Marxist thought –are not intended to suggest that things really have aims and purposes, but merely to draw attention to the contributions that nonhuman things make in the world and to us. They are designed to break the bad anthropocentric habit of treating nonhumans as passive stuffs upon which we project meanings and which merely obstruct us.

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Over at Immanence, Adrian Ivakhiv has announced that Stenger’s Thinking With Whitehead is now available. This is an exciting event and I’ve ordered my copy for next day delivery. Less appealing, however, is Adrian’s post. Ivakhiv writes:

The publication of the English translation of this tome, a long nine years after the French original, is a genuine Event in the world of process-relational philosophy (or whatever you’d like to name the “beatnik brotherhood,” as Harman calls it, of philosophers of immanence and becoming — a brother/sisterhood that Harman asserts does not constitute a counter-current to the hegemonic alliance of philosophies of essence, substance, and onto-theological transcendence, but that Deleuzians and others would like to think does).

With its Foreword by Bruno Latour and its thorough fusion of Whitehead, Deleuze, and science (Stengers was a student of Deleuze’s, and is a philosopher of science and collaborator of Ilya Prigogine’s), I suspect the book may reorient the post-Latourian world away from its current infatuation with objects and back to the processes that produce, sustain, and destroy those objects.

(Them’s fighting words! I’m having fun, of course; salty flavor very much intended.)

In the case of my own work, there is no opposition between processes and objects. Things are processes and processes are things. At this very moment trillions of cells are at work in my body, sending signals and materials to other cells, working over all sorts of chemical materials they receive from other cells, and engaging in all sorts of internal processes by which they are both produced and do they producing. My body is doing trillions of different things right now. As light changes my pupils contract and dilate. As I write this post all sorts of muscles tighten and loosen. Chemicals and electric pulses shoot through my brain. As my body digests the food that I ate last night plays a role in how my cells develop and even shifts my moods and thought processes as a result of the hormones it causes to be released. The air conditioning kicks on and my skin prickles, causing the hairs on my arm to stand up. Each movement that I make, each thing that I write, simultaneously leaves a trace in my body, feeding back into all these processes, becoming causal factors in subsequent processes. Once I have written this post and, indeed, in the very process of writing this post, I become. I become other than I was. The post is not a trace of my thinking but is the thinking itself. It pounds inchoate thoughts into a particular form and modifies the subsequent train of my thoughts. Yet still, I am. I am this process, these processes, this history and the future this history opens me to.

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Recently a friend of mine, noting some of the lengthy comment section discussions on my blog, asked whether these things are the best use of my time. To be sure, these discussions can sometimes be frustrating, occasionally they can get nasty, and they do indeed take time. Everyone works and thinks differently, of course, but in my case the activity of discussion is not secondary to thought, nor is it a distraction from thought, but rather it is the thinking itself. My thought– assuming I can even refer to it as mine –occurs and takes place in an assemblage. That assemblage happens to involve other persons.

Returning to the extended mind hypothesis, Clark and Chalmers depict the example of a man Otto suffering from Alzheimer’s. In his day to day activity, Otto makes use of a notebook in which he writes down places that he’s been, things that he needs to do, important experiences and facts, etc. Here we might recall Christopher Nolan’s Memento, where Guy Peirce’s character, suffering from amnesia, tattoos clues to his wife’s murder on his body for an example similar to the one described by Clark and Chalmers. Clark and Chalmers argue that Otto’s notebook is not something outside his mind, that it is not a mere prop for his mind, but rather that the notebook itself is directly a part of his mind. Arguing from the standpoint of a functional equivalence between the mind of a person who does not suffer from Alzheimer’s and the mind of Otto with his notebook, Clark and Chalmers claim that Otto’s mind consists of Otto+notebook. The thesis that what properly constitutes Otto’s mind is what takes place in his head, under this hypothesis, turns out to be an unfounded prejudice. The notebook is an integral feature of Otto’s mind.

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