July 2011

Graham has an interesting post up responding to some remarks by footnotes2plato. Footnotes2plato writes:

But in order to avoid spinning into the nihilism of some speculative realists, where human values are a fluke in an uncaring and fundamentally entropic universe… I think OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications.

Over the years this issue of nihilism has come up a few times with respect to OOO and SR. To be quite honest, I’m not sure what exactly is being asked for or what exactly it means. How, precisely, does anything change with respect to values and meanings by arguing that humans are amongst beings, that they are one type of entity among others, rather than arguing that all other entities are correlates of humans? If humans and all other rational entities cease to exist, all sorts of other entities will continue to exist. There will still be frogs, the sun, asteroids, and octopi. What OOO refuses is any ontological framework that reduces entities to correlates of human beings and that renders all other beings dependent on human beings.

read on!

Graham has a post up briefly outlining some of our differences. The first difference he outlines is, I think, genuine. I conceive of objects as dynamic systems that endure through time whether existing for the briefest of instances or millions of years, while Graham seems to hold that each instant is an entirely new entity. This, for example, each stroke of the finger while writing this post would be a distinct and new entity, whereas I hold that these are activities are activities of one and the same entity (me).

The second difference Graham outlines, however, misrepresents my position. Graham writes,

2. Levi tends to hold that anything that has an effect is real. By contrast, I hold both that many real things may have no current effects (Levi is somewhat open to this concept of “dormant objects”) and that many things have effects that are not real (here Levi would disagree, I think). For example, all of the objects of experience have some sort of trace emotional or intellectual effect upon us, but for me this not the same thing as reality. Reality and causal efficacy are two separate things for me.

Neither of these claims represent my position. First, I do not hold that whatever is real produces an effect. There are real entities, in my view, that produce no effects whatsoever. I call these entities “dark objects”. Indeed, in The Democracy of Objects I even evoke the existence of such objects as the very reason that we engage in experiment in the sciences. Were objects constantly producing effects there would be no point in experiment because there would be no circumstances in which an object fails to manifest its powers. The whole point of experiment lies in creating controlled conditions to discover non-apparent properties of entities. This wouldn’t be necessary if entities were always producing their effects. My point about effects is thus epistemological not Ontological. Ontologically an entity can exist just fine without producing effects. But epistemologically we can only know whether a type of object exists if it produces an effect.

Likewise, I do not hold that whatever produces effects is real. I take it that in order for something to qualify as robustly real it has to be characterized by independence or an ability to exist in its own right without depending on the existence of another. Yet there are plenty of things that produce effects that do not exist in their own right. Tye other night I had a nightmare about cockroaches crawling all over me. This dream left quite an impression on me, leaving me disquieted for the rest of the following day. As such, it produced a number of effects. Yet the dream doesn’t qualify as robustly real because the entities and events of the dream do not exist in their own right, but depend for their existence on me as an entity.

A general criteria for whether or not an entity is a real entity or what Graham would call a “sensual object” might be whether the entity in question is relational or not. I borrow this distinction from Okrent’s Rational Animals, recommended to me by Jon Cogburn. My dream doesn’t exist as an entity in its own right because it exists only as a relation to another entity. Likewise, it might be parents, children, and siblings don’t exist because they only exist relationally. While the people that hold these relations exist independently, those place holders exist only in and rough a higher level object: a family. Here families would be entities, perhaps, that exist in their own right, while being-a-parent or being-a-child exists only in and through the existence of a family. Obama exists, yet presidents aren’t real objects. Rather, presidents only exist in and through a higher level object: a government. Adopting Graham’s language, it could then be said that relational entities are entities that exist only on the interior of a higher order real entity. I’m still toying with this thesis, so go easy on me here.

In response to my last post, nuno asks the following interesting set of questions. Nuno writes:

thank you for your post, i´ve been struggling with Deleuze problem of the reunification of aesthetics for years, and googling it last week !, and find secondary sources redundant, simply repeating Deleuze quite eliptical remarks.

My problem is that I grasp the idea textually – i could spit it in a exam – but in practice is a very hard to grasp.

1), if the the encounter with the work of art produces new a priori that means that it wasn´t really an a priori no?

or in another formulation:

2) these new forms of sensiblity are discovered – as if already there – or really created? they were just there waiting to be actualized or something new is produced?

3) if i produce a new a prior, say by watching a rosselini film, it will stay there hereafter (forever) or it will only last for the time of the film?

4) will the list of a priori forms of sensiblity be infinite?

sorry for all these questions, i never had the oportunity to discuss this issue with anyone.

As I understand it, Deleuze’s transcendental aesthetic is not the discovery of an a priori that was already there, but rather the production of a new a priori or form of sensibility. The key here is the three syntheses he outlines in chapter two of Difference and Repetition. These new a prioris are produced out of these passive syntheses. This is why they are also ever bit as artistic as they are forms of sensibility. The results of these syntheses are explored in chapter four of Difference and Repetition. Why call these forms of sensibility a priori? Consider the difference between my perception of an apple and a form of sensibility. In the former case I merely reproduce my image of the apple in memory when I recollect it. With a genuine form of sensibility, however, I am able to manipulate the structure of intuition in all sorts of ways, drawing further inferences from the structure independent of experience. As I argued in Difference and Givenness this is the same sort of thing we’re doing in the mathematics of toplogy when we imagine a geometrical figure undergoing variations. The structure that emerges through the activity of synthesis has its own logic or field of infinite possibilities that can be explored in thought, independent of experience. There’s a structure to the form of sensibility that opens a field of a priori inferences.

read on!

John Protevi send me this article today, showing how certain types of video games enhance women’s spatial skills, placing them on par with male spatial skills. Why is this important? There’s a common narrative in biology and neurology that certain differences between men and women (assuming it’s even appropriate to use these crude categories) that argues that we’re biologically hardwired to have certain talents. It is said, for example, that men are biologically hardwired to be more mathematical and to have better spatial skills, whereas women are better contextual, affective, and relational thinkers. We heard a variation of this years ago from Larry Summers, who suggested that money spent on women in the sciences and mathematics and wasted.

A study like this is important because it shows how these differences, in the case of spatial reasoning, at least, are developmental not innate. Here these differences would be the result of the morphogenesis of a body, it’s processes of individuation, not a predetermined code in the genes where genes are understood to function as a sort of architectural blueprint that predetermines what an organism will become at the level of its phenotype.

It is precisely this sort of developmental point, this point about the becoming of objects, that I try to capture in my distinction between virtual proper being, local manifestation, and regimes of attraction. The virtual proper being of an entity is the powers or potentials that a being possesses. The local manifestation of an entity is the manner in which it actualizes itself at a particular point in time. This dimension of objects is a manifestation because it is a way in which an entity becomes actual or takes on properties or qualities, while it is “local” because such manifestations refer to local conditions in which the entity exists. Finally, the concept of “regimes of attraction” refer to the relations an entity shares to other entities and that play a key role in how it locally manifests itself.

In the case of this particular study we’re shown that the virtual proper being is not “hardwired” to relate to space in a particular way. Rather, the female brain, like the male brain, is a field of potentials that can be locally manifested to form a variety of different spatial dispositions. The brain, as Catherine Malabou and Tom Sparrow both argue, is plastic in such a way that it can come to be formed in a variety of ways. Here, certain types of video games form a “regime of attraction” drawing the brain towards particular local manifestations or the formation of certain affects, where affects aren’t to be reduced to “feelings”, but rather are to be understood, following Spinoza and Deleuze, as powers to act and be acted upon. The body that plays with these partular sorts of video games forms a particular form of spatiality, of being affected by space, of thinking space, that other bodies do not have.

In this connection we get a Generative transcendental aesthetic. In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the transcendental aesthetic referred to an a priori form of sensibility that precedes any receptivity. Kant believed it necessary to introduce this concept to account for how it is possible for mathematics to be a priori (capable of being known through thought independent of experience), yet be universal and necessary. Kant’s thesis was that maths are really the thinking of time and space (forms of sensibility) and that the mind imposes these forms (to put it crudely) on the world. It is because these forms of sensibility arise from mind that the universality of maths is guaranteed. All things we experience will already be “filtered” through these forms of sensibility, thereby guaranteeing that the patterns I can discover in pure thought will also be found in the objects of the world that I experience.

To understand the difference between what belongs to the transcendental aesthetic and the empirical aesthetic, compare the difference between thinking geometrically and tasting a particular glass of wine for the first time. When I think geometrically I am able to discover certain spatial relations in thought alone, despite the fact that I’ve never directly experienced objects with these spatial properties. By contrast, I could never, through thought alone, discover what a particular wine might taste like. I have to have the experience of tasting the wine to know what it tastes like. The transcendental aesthetic is thus a form of sensibility that precedes any particular experience and that structures all experiences.

Now what is interesting in the study linked to at the beginning of this post is that we get the possibility of a genetic transcendental aesthetic. What this article describes is the formation of forms of sensibility through interaction with various entities in the world (in this case, video games). A new form of sensibility is developed by those who play these video games. A new a priori becomes available to these bodies. This generative transcendental aesthetic was the theme of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, where he constantly focuses on themes of learning (not knowing), where he argues that the two senses of the aesthetic (as a work of art or creativity and a form of sensibility, affectivity, or feeling) need to be reunited, and is the reason he engages in countless analyses of writers, painters, poets, and directors (he argues that they create new forms of transcendental sensibility or forms of a priori thought. We also find something similar in Bogost’s idea of an “alien phenomenolgy”. Bogost wishes to understand how other entities “experience” the world, whether those entities be bats, quarks, particular humans, or computers. What is it that an alien phenomenology investigates? It investigates the transcendental aesthetic structure a particular type of entity’s experience of the world.

Over at Fractured Politics, Kris has a truly excellent interview up with Morton. The majority of the interview is taken up with a discussion of Morton’s concept of hyperobjects. This is the clearest articulation I’ve yet seen of the concept. Once again it’s worth noting how great Kris’s blog is. Not only are the posts generally excellent, but the discussion that accompanies them tends to be outstanding as well.

Graham’s Quadruple Object and The Prince and the Wolf are now available through Amazon. I haven’t yet seen the latter, but the former is excellent. It’s a lean and mean introduction to his thought with a lot of new material in it as well.

In response to my last post, Thomas asks a really interesting question:

I’m interested in how this works for the construction of history.

Levi, as a resident of Texas you are probably aware of the controversy last summer about the right-wing rewriting of US history and social studies textbooks by the Texas Board of Education. The new textbooks which come out later this year will be nothing short of propaganda. I’m working on a new project to create a wiki textbook that will let Texas high school students themselves research and write their own textbook with the collaboration of professional historians and amateur history buffs from around the world. You can see the beginnings of the project here:


I’m currently trying to write something for the wiki about the relationship how our own values and historical facts get tangled up together.

What I would like to say is that historical facts get embedded in a kind of material history of their own. For example, one of the outrageous things that the Texas Board of Education tried to do was get rid of the word slavery from the US history textbook (they want to replace it with the “Atlantic triangular trade” whatever that means).

I’m embarrassed that I still owe Thomas an email. For the last few weeks I haven’t been very good at responding to people. I think I’m in a slightly autistic state right now. In Thomas’s case, I think I must be envious about what he related to me.

Anyway, Thomas’s question about history is really complex. I'm basically on board with what he’s saying about the materiality of history. One of the things I've repeatedly argued over the years is that texts aren't simply about something, they are something. In other words, texts are themselves material actors or entities that circulate throughout the world. Consequently, for any text that text will be both referential (referring to some other entity that does or does not exist) and a material entity in its own right. This would be the case with texts recounting history as well.

As I see it, history texts retroactively produce history. This is not to say that history texts don’t refer to events that did in fact take place. Rather, my thesis is that history is a bit like a hologram. You tilt a hologram one way and a little picture of a ship appears. You tilt a hologram another way and a frightening clown face appears. This is similar to what takes place in writing a history. My favorite example here is the Enlightenment thinkers. It’s often suggested that the Enlightenment thinkers broke with history, striving to inaugurate something new. I think something different took place. The Enlightenment thinkers “rewrote” history. Basically they used every trick in the book to diminish the importance of the medieval scholastic thinkers. They simultaneously resurrected Greco-Roman thought (especially materialists like Lucretius, but also the Sophists and the Roman rhetoricians). For an account of this check out Peter Gay’s gorgeous Pagen Enlightenment book that recounts all this.

read on!

There’s a great interview with Morton up over at Figure/Ground. Check it out here!

Over at New Apps there’s been an epic discussion about constructivism and materialism. Over the course of the discussion there’s been a lot of talk about Foucault, developmental systems theory, discursive practices, and materialism. It all started with an offhand remark by Catarina Dutilh Novaes about social constructivism. I asked what exactly is meant by social constructivism and suggested, as I have in the past, that we should just talk about constructivism. What’s the difference? Social constructivism places all the onus of construction on signs, signifiers, narratives, norms, categories, discursive practices (i.e., all that pertains to the human). Constructivism simpliciter includes all of this, but also includes nonhuman entities such as tools, microbes, weather events, materials like wood and metal, animals, etc., etc., etc.

One of the things I’ve found striking in this discussion is the tendency for people to call themselves “materialists” so long as they are committed to the claim that discursive practices are material. I guess the idea is that idealism focuses on ideas and thought, whereas materialism focuses on practices. I’m all for focusing on practices and I agree that they’re material, but I don’t think this is sufficient for claiming the title of “materialism”. I even had one respondent claim that discursive practices literally bring entities into existence. In other words, for this person no entities existed prior to discursive practices and no entities will exist after discursive practices. Wow! I fail to see how such a position can, in any possible universe, be called a materialism. Rather, to qualify as materialist I believe a position must be reject anthropocentrism and be posthumanist. The rejection of anthropocentrism refuses to grant humans any privileged place in assemblages. Humans are certainly important to humans and clearly we’ll be talking about humans quite a bit when we do social and political theory, but they enjoy no ontological privilege. The world or being exists apart from humans, existed before humans, and will exist after humans.

A posthumanist position is a position that refuses to make claims like “discursive practices bring beings into being.” Humans certainly perturb entities in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they even invent entities as in the case of technologies, social institutions, and the creation of new atomic elements in the lab. However, this is a far cry from the claim that humans bring all other beings into being through their discursive practices. A posthumanist orientation treats humans as one more interactant among a variety of other nonhuman interactants such as animals, atoms, quarks, stars, meteors, various material substances, microbes, etc., etc., etc. Humans are participants among other participants, not godlike entities upon which everything else depends and which bring everything else into existence.

For me construction takes place everywhere in the universe, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. The fox and the hare busily constructed one another and continue to construct one another over the course of evolutionary history. There’s nothing discursive about this process. Stars are busily constructing all sorts of heavier atomic elements. Moreover, construction works reciprocally. Just as human norms and categories construct other humans and entities in the world in all sorts of ways, all sorts of other entities such as the bubonic plague, Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 virus, cows, the foods we eat, etc., are busily constructing humans in all sorts of ways. Construction is a general ontological feature of the world, not a feature restricted to the “social”.

Reading the harrowing blog What is it Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy, I find myself wondering whether there isn’t something at the core of philosophy that doesn’t generate these attitudes. These don’t seem to be simple stories of sexism produced as a lack of awareness, but rather seem to be represent outright misogeny. Could there be something about the philosophical project itself, as it has historically been conceived, and the philosophical concept of reason that generates this sort of misogeny? Historically, of course, the major philosophemes have been gendered within philosophy. The masculine side has been treated as the domain of reason, intelligibility, form, the subject, activity, autonomy, logic, moral duty, normativity, and the concept. The feminine side has been treated as the side of matter, the body, the object, emotion, affectivity, empathy, compassion, passivity, heteronomy, irrationality. Philosophy, historically, has sided with the former chain, calling for the domination and mastery of the latter. Does this persist today in philosophy even though these terms aren’t excplicitly conceived as gendered anymore? Does this lead to certain systematic ways of relating to women? Here philosophy would be “phallosophy” and this sort of misogeny would follow from certain unconscious axioms internal to the nature of philosophy as currently conceived and practiced. If there is anything to stereotypes about differences between how men and women communicate, this would certainly seem to follow. All too often masculine dominated philosophical communication is characterized by combativeness, the fight, a logic of victor and vanquished, etc. This would a priori exclude feminine styles of communication– if such exist –and would lead to unconscious attitudes towards women wherein they embody all the qualities that philosophy is supposed to vanquish. The most striking thing about the stories related at this blog are just how downright creepy so many men are in philosophy. These are truly bizarre attitudes and behaviors.

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