September 2011


Over at An Un-canny ontology, Nathan Gale has written a fascinating post comparing the rhetoric of Graham’s object-oriented philosophy with the rhetoric of my onticology with respect to the theme of the uncanny. In many respects, OOO is the perfect choice of philosophy to explore the rhetoric of the uncanny. If we go back to the German sense of the word, the unheimlich signifies that which is “un-homely”. As Freud writes:

The German word ‘unheimlich’ is obviously the opposite of ‘heimlich’ [‘homely’], … the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar. Naturally not everything that is new and unfamiliar is frightening, however; the relation is not capable of inversion. … Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.

This is precisely what OOO pursues or seeks under the name of “object” or “thing”. The heimlich or homely/familiar would be 1) in Heideggerian terms, the worldhood of the world or the system of significance/meaning described so magnificently in division I of Being and Time, or 2) the object reduced to the status of being a carrier for human meanings, representations, or ends as in the case of a dollar bill as the material vehicle (in Peirce’s language) of value such that value is not an intrinsic property of the dollar bill, but rather “projected” onto the paper and ink by the social. In both cases, the heimlich is characterized by relationality, and this in two ways: first, there is the obvious relationality of the heimlich involved in its relationship to the person as what is familiar. Second, the heimlich consists of relations between entities or relations between meanings. Heidegger taught us to see how the “as-structure” of a hammer is not an intrinsic feature of its present-at-hand being, but rather the result of the manner in which it belongs to a network of relations to other entities (nails, boards, etc.), and a system of ends and aims. By contrast, the structuralists and post-structuralists– not to mention late Wittgenstein –taught us to see how meaning is not an intrinsic feature of a signifier, a concept that lies behind the signifier, but is rather an effect of differential relations between signifiers. No signifier signifies alone, but rather signifiers only signify in relations between signifiers. It is these relational networks that constitute the heimlich or the network of “worldhood” or the familiar. To be at home is to be related.

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I realize this is not a popular view, but I think there’s something deeply amiss with Continental “philosophy” as it’s practiced in the United States. In my view, much of what passes as philosophy is really intellectual history. We are suffocating in a culture of commentary. Europe provides the thinkers (Heidegger, Merleue-Ponty, Derrida, Deleuze, Doucault, Husserl, Levinas, Badiou, etc.), and we provide the exegesis. The major American Continental conferences are, in this respect, little more than hagiography. I find this state of affairs quite perplexing. The analytic, Anglo-Americans seem to have little problem owning their own voices, so why is this so difficult for the American Continentalists?

Whenever I express views like this people get quite defensive and the straw men begin to fly. No I am not suggesting that we should ignore the history of philosophy or that the culture of commentary should cease. I do, however, believe that philosophy departments should strongly discourage graduate students from writing dissertations on other philosophers and that presses, journals, and conference committees should follow suit. The criteria for a dissertation on another thinker (and please note that I wrote a dissertation on another thinker and would not meet this criteria) should either be a) that the dissertation shows the highest level of historical scholarly rigor, or b) is an incredibly unique and original reading of the thinker. Examples of a) for me would be works lkke Kiesel’s study of the genesis of Heidegger’s thought, Allison’s work on Kant, or Gasche’s work on Derrida. Examples of b) would be texts like Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, Deleuze’s study of Foucault, Hagglund’s book on Derrida, Zizek’s work on Lacan, and the work of some of my colleagues that I won’t mention as it would look slavish. In other words, the bar should, in my view, be incredibly high for those seeking to do dissertations, or publish works or give presentations on other thinkers. It should be more difficult to do such work than to do work on a question or a problem.

I have sometimes said that the real work of philosophy is generally done outside of philosophy. Here I have in mind work by people like Jussi Parikka or Ian Bogost in media studies and game studies respectively, work by people like Judith Butler or Donna Haraway in queer theory and theory of science, and so on. People such as this are the ones broaching fields of phenomenality and constructing the basic concepts necessary for the investigation of these domains of phenomenality. They are asking questions, posing problems, and generating the concepts required as a function of the questions the ask and the problems they pose. Give me a page from Blanchot next to a page of the average commentator on Heidegger anyday. These thinkers have an object other than the history of theory that enables them to produce theory. Unfortunately, philosophy, making a Faustian wager to support “philosophers“, ended up with only the history of philosophy as its object. It thereby became sterile. Is it a mistake that our greatest philosophers, until the 19th century, were never professional philosophers, but always physicists, wanderers, chemists, alchemists, statesmen, etc? Is there something about this absence of an institutional place for philosophy that is a necessary condition for philosophy?

It’s here that the straw men emerge. We first get the voices that defend the importance of commentary (I don’t disagree!) who seem to believe I’m suggestingthat this practice should be avoided (I’m not), all the while failing to recognize that we’ve created an institutional space in university training, journals, and conferences that is extremely Oedipal and where commentary enjoys a hegemonic status (philosophers, it seems, have a hard time recognizing the institutional dispotifs of their own practices even as they write about Foucault). Next we get those tiresome souls that make charges of re-inventing the wheel, as if a de-emphasis on writing about father-figures– whoops, I mean philosophers –entails the disappearance of critical and careful engagement with other thinkers. Somehow we forget how Aristotle did it in the first book of the Metaphysics or how Deleuze does it in the first chapter of Difference and Repetition. Isn’t this kind of response a massive symptom, indicative of the swerve of the Imaginary Lacan discusses when talking about how we draw on formations in the Imaginary to avoid unpleasant betrayals of our desire?

We’ve created this massive dispotif that hinders philosophy even as it claims to promote and preserve it. Many of us are neither good historians nor are we philosophers. We are, instead, those doing all we can to prevent philosophy from taking place or happening. I hope this is a temporary historicial bottleneck that arose momentarily to preserve something precious that was in danger of being destroyed. I hope this is now beginning to change.

Ian Bogost has a post up discussing gamification in terms of operational closure or withdrawal (for more on operational closure cf. my posts here and here). Here’s a taste:

Gamification maximizes operational closure to insure that organizations’ external relations never become real relationships, never “tune” the incompatible worlds of company and customer in order to arrive at a recognition of their mutual incommensurability. Instead, exploitationware seeks to distract or manipulate people into doing whatever is best for organizations, while feigning the hard work of tuning the couplings between the two. It’s a confidence trick.

For those not familiar with the trend of “gamification”, cf. this wiki and a post I wrote on the concept a while back. So what’s going on here? There have been a number of questions as to just what Luhmann might mean when he claims that social systems are not composed of persons, humans, or individuals, but rather that humans belong to the environment of these hyperobjects. Isn’t it obvious that social systems are composed of humans?

Luhmann’s thesis is that social systems are composed not of humans– though clearly these social systems cannot exist without humans as a substratum –but rather of communications. Gamification provides a very nice– and harrowing –example of how this works. The person who participates in one of these games is not registered by the social system as a person but rather as an element that is only relevant in terms of a certain range of communicative events they are capable of producing within this system. Here the sociological distinction between persons and roles might help to gain some purchase on this point. Roles are never identical to persons. Rather, roles exist only for the social system in which they occur– there are no police officers outside of a social system that constitutes police officers –and these roles predelineate a set of possible functions, acts, and possible speech-acts (a judge is able to perform certain speech acts that a teacher is not).

This is what takes place in gamification. The person that participates in the gamification game shifts from being a person to a functional element that participates in the production and reproduction of the functions defined by the entity (usually a corporation or government institution). Thus, for example, the player becomes an element in the corporations advertising strategy, spreading that corporate name and agenda throughout the internet in the course of playing the game. Here we get a way of producing surplus-value or profit that doesn’t even pay the worker. For the worker the reward is the enjoyment or jouissance of game play. Yet often the players of these games do not even recognize or know that they’re a part of a corporate apparatus or money making venture. I suspect this is what Ian is getting at when he talks about the external relations beneath the game becoming veiled or invisible in gameplay. You might be working for McDonald’s without even realizing it.

A lot of people have been perplexed by the idea of operational closure I discussed in a previous post and why it entails that there is no direct transformations of information between systems or objects. Maturana and Varela give a nice analogy that might shed some light for some on this concept. As they write,

Perhaps an analogy will clarify [the concept of operational closure]. Imagine a person who has always lived in a submarine. He has never left it and has been trained how to handle it. Now, we are standing on the shore and see the submarine gracefully surfacing. We then get on the radio and tell the navigator inside: “Congratulations! You have avoided the reefs and surfaced beautifully. You really know how to handle a submarine.” The navigator in the submarine, however, is perplexed: “What’s this about reefs and surfacing? All I did was push some levers and turn knobs and make certain relationships between indicators as I operated the levers and knobs. It was all done in a prescribed sequence which I’m used to. I didn’t do any special maneuver, and on top of that, you talk to me about a submarine. You must be kidding!”

All that exists for the man inside the submarine are indicator readings, their transitions, and ways of obtaining specific relations between them. It is only for us on the outside, who see how relations change between the submarine and its environment, that the submarine’s behavior exists and that it appears more or less adequate according to the consequences. If we are to maintain logical accounting, we must not confuse the operations of the submarine itself and its dynamics of different states with its movements and changing position in the environment. (The Tree of Knowledge, 136 – 137)

This is operational closure. For us, the observer, there appears to be a correlation between the movements of the submarine and the reefs in the environment. For the submariner, by contrast, there is no submarine nor any reefs, there are only the events that show up on the submariners dials and instruments and the operations that he carries out on his levers. Take the submariner out of the picture– he’s too much of a homunculus –and leave just the operations and the instruments and you have an operationally closed system.

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Over at Philosophy in a Time of Error Gratton has a post up about the recent Wall Street protests. Gratton writes:

And if no one covered it, does it exist?

It turns out I get better access to news about it (or we all do, via the Intertubes), four days in, with scores of arrests, in the media capital of the world (TM). I got alerted that Keith Olberman had a piece about the lack of coverage on his still-little-watched nightly news program on Current. In any case, given the number of unemployed (or “underemployed and overeducated”) just in the tri-state New York region, it will be interesting to see if these protests grow as the days go on.

This is a perfect example of the importance of Luhmannian sociological autopoietic systems theory for political practice. Luhmann is a grim and pessimistic thinker when it comes to questions of political change. I would not go to him seeking a theory of political change. He does, however, allow us to identify salient features of social systems that might allow us to develop better emancipatory political practice.

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One of the things I noticed during the extraordinary events that took place in New York was that there seems to be a sort of antipathy/insecurity in other disciplines with respect to philosophy. In discussions– and I must say that this was the finest set of events I’ve ever attended and I’ve attended some pretty damn good events –people would often preface their remarks with statements like “I’m not a philosopher, but…” or, coming from the more political crowd I would hear something like “philosophy is detached from such and such an engagement, but…” This is something I’ve encountered in a number of venues and which I have a difficult time understanding.

I suspect that my lack of understanding on this issue has something to do with my own background. I failed my second year of high school through a combination of our school burning down through arson and the total chaos that ensued, lost love, and substance abuse. I was even homeless for a somewhat lengthy time during this period– during which I learned the importance of objects due to a prolonged experience of Heidegger’s famous broken tool, i.e., I experienced the infrastructure required to sustain a life such as simple things like washer machines to wash my laundry so as to work to make the money to pay my rent and buy food –and was, in many respects, simultaneously discovered and created by a teacher to whom I’m infinitely indebted today. I had never been a good student and this teacher was the first person in my life that recognized that I might have a talent at writing– I’m still skeptical on that score –and that perhaps I should pursue advanced courses. Although, as a child, I had dreamed of writing (fantasy/sci-fi novels and “modules” for gaming), I had never seen it as a real possibility. I had expected to be dead by the time I was 18… Mostly, no doubt, because adulthood looked so miserable and hopeless to me (the grind of the factory or corporation).

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The clip below is an example of macro-level phenomena that remarkably resembles the quantum strangeness that led to the Copenhagen, correlationist interpretation of quantum mechanics. If something like thisnis going on at the quantum level then 1) it would indicate that the quantum level obeys laws of physics familiar at the macro-level of existence, and 2) would allow for a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Given the loathing people seem to have of vitalism and animism it’s likely that I will regret this post, but as I work through Bennett’s thought again with my students and encounter the metaphysics of indigenous Hawaiians as articulated by Marisol, I increasingly wonder whether I shouldn’t make room for a concept like “strategic vitalism” in my own thought. Like Gayatri Spivak’s concept of strategic essentialism, the concept of strategic vitalism is an “as if” way of talking. Just as strategic essentialism does not claim that there are national, ethnic, sexual, class, etc., essences (there aren’t), but nonetheless holds that it is productive to deploy such essences strategically for certain political aims, strategic vitalism would not make the claim that all beings (including non-living entities) are animals, but would hold that treating all beings as animals has certain positive political, ethical, and analytic effects. So what might these effects be?

The whole point revolves around the thesis that how we think and talk about the world has effects on how we relate to the world and other things. In developing her key concept of “thing-power”, Bennett remarks that she “…will feature the negative power or recalcitrance of things [their resistance]. But I will also seek to highlight a positive, productive power of their own. And, instead of focusing on collectives conceived primarily as conglomerates of human designs and practices (“discourse”), I will highly the active role of nonhuman materials in public life” (Vibrant Matter, 1 – 2). Bennett seeks to treat nonhumans, including non-living beings, as agencies (actants) in their own right, akin to animals.

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Over on Twitter, sdv_duras, joepdx and I have been having an interesting discussion about OOO and human emancipation. For me, my interest in OOO revolves around what I believe to be its potential for social and political thought. Thus, while OOO is a posthumanist ontology that seeks to decenter the primacy of humans and, especially, the place that correlationism or the subject-object correlate enjoys in theory, this posthumanism aims not at the banishment or exclusion of humans, but out of a reflection on the very practical inadequacies of correlationist social and political thought. On the one hand, I believe that correlationist social and political thought (ideology critique, cultural Marxism, discursive and semiotic constructivism) is inadequate to explain why social systems hold together as they do and therefore to effectively strategies ways of changing oppressive regimes. In my view, the failure to take nonhuman agencies into account as part of the glue that holds social systems together dooms us to ineffectual critique and practice. The point is not that semiotic and ideological elements aren’t part of that glue, but that they don’t exhaust the glue that accounts for why social systems hold together as they do. On the other hand, I want an account of being that is robust enough to make room for a viril ecological theory. The tendency of much cultural theory over the last sixty years –and there are notable exceptions among folks like Deleuze, Latour, Haraway, Barad, Bennett, certain Marxists, Serres, the Whiteheadians, etc; yet they have, overall, enjoyed rather marginal status in discussions –has been to treat the things of the world as mere screens upon which humans project their meanings. In other words, there’s a tendency to treat nonhuman entities as contributing nothing save their status as vehicles for the transport of human meanings, intentions, aims, goals, signs, etc. Just as the value of the dollar bill resides nowhere in the paper and ink of that dollar bill, but is rather projected by us, just as there’s nothing intrinsic to the “Mens Room” and the “Ladies Room that makes it a mens room or a ladies room, but rather it is our language that diacritically produces this difference in things, much of the project of “critical theory” (broadly construed) has consisted in following Feuerbach and Marx in showing how the “sortals” of the world are really our work and not from amongst the things themselves. In my view, a robust eco-theory and politics cannot rest content with this thesis, but must also recognize the agency and independence of all manner of nonhuman entities.

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Today my students and I began working through Bennett’s account of thing-power and assemblages as developed in Vibrant Matter. For Bennett, every thing that exists possesses a conatus or a “will” to persist in its own being. This conatus is defined by its affects. Following Spinoza and Deleuze, affects are capacities to act (active affects) and to be acted upon (passive affects). The active affects are what a thing can do. For example, the ability to play a piano would be an active affect. By contrast, the passive affects define the receptivity of an entity or the manner in which it is open to interaction with other things in the world. Within the framework of my own thought (and I’m very much on the same page with Bennett on all these points), the passive affects define a “transcendental aesthetic”, defining the field of receptivity entities have to other entities. Thus, for example, a great white shark’s passive affects consist of things like it’s olfactory powers, the ability to sense the world through the electro-magnetic fields of other entities, etc., whereas my passive affects consist of things like vision, scent, smell, touch, the ability to discern desire in certain slips of the tongue due to my psychoanalytic training, and so on. If there is a transcendental aesthetic at work here, then this is because a certain “distribution of the sensible” must precede empirical sensings to be possible. Each thing has its modes of openness to the world.

The affective conatus of things fluctuates and can be enhanced or diminished as a result of encounters with other things. My power of vision, a passive affect, for example, is enhanced through my glasses. My voice (active affect) and ear (passive affect) are enhanced through my smart phone. The large Texas meal I ate yesterday diminished my passive and active affects, drawing me into a catatonic state where my powers of acting and of being acted upon were reduced (I passed out for two hours), but which might nonetheless increase the power of my active and passive affects by either increasingly my gravitational pull on other objects (i.e., it perhaps made me fatter) or by increasing my strength and ability to perceive and think in a variety of ways.

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