October 2011

Yesterday a good friend and colleague of mine remarked,

I don’t understand people who valorize the Enlightenment, as if Cartesian rationality is the be all, end all of philosophy.

He then went on to wonder whether Jonathan Israel’s books are worth reading. The answer to the second question is an emphatic “yes!” I would especially recommend his book Radical Enlightenment. As for the first remark, Enlightenment, for me, does not mean Cartesian rationality, nor even necessarily a particular period in history, but something like a virtual tendency within human social collectives that exists, to use Badiou’s language in Logics of Worlds, with greater or lesser intensity or brightness at all times and places.

What, then, is the nature of this tendency and intensity? For me– and others will differ –Enlightenment is a synonym for immanence. This immanence unfolds along three axis and can develop unevenly, referring to the ontological, the epistemological, and the political. For this to be understood, immanence must be contrasted with transcendence. Transcendence, as an ontological orientation, refers to any orientation premised on vertical being where some being or entity stands above everything else, affecting all other things without itself being affected. The most obvious instance of transcendence would be something like Plato’s forms or certain conceptions of God, where the forms and God stand above all being, giving it form and structure, legislating being, without themselves being affected in return. In the domain of politics, transcendence is the transcendence of authority, of the sovereign, the transcendence of the father, the transcendence of the leader, where legislation issues absolutely from this being, where this being is above the law himself, and where absolute obedience is commanded. Political transcendence is de-libidinalized Oedipalism. Here we should think of Schmitt. Finally, epistemological transcendence is any thesis of knowledge based on revelation, special mystical insight, or the authority of sacred figures as in the case of how the Scholastics talked about Aristotle and the Bible.

read on!

I’m always surprised when i hear people attack open access publishing. There are no rational arguments as to why print based texts and journals are superior to open access texts, but there are plenty of rational reasons for open access publishing. Some seem to think that open access publications are less reputable and should count less towards tenure. Personally I think if you’re writing and speaking for tenure you might be in the wrong line of work, but that’s another matter. Such people seem to forget that Harvard went open access back in 2008. Perhaps Harvard is a second rate institution, but that seems like a difficult case to make. All that should matter is the peer review process. Are the editors qualified to peer review the material handed their way and do the directing editors only elect others to peer review articles who are qualified to do so? If so, there’s no difference or issues here. This is certainly a more rigorous process than the one involved in some of the vanity presses some academics publish their books with.

Others argue that digital print can easily be lost. This is an odd argument, as books can be burned (Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura was reduced to one copy by Christians that sought to destroy the book), and 2) most open access texts are released in both print and digital formats.

The arguments for open access publishing are obvious: open access books are ecologically friendly, reducing damage to trees and damage produced by carbon emissions due to shipping, they significantly reduce the cost of publishing, and they allow ideas to circulate freely, rather than be locked away in journals that are difficult for many to access either because they are extremely expensive or have small print runs. Opposition to open access publishing indicates both a lack of ecological awareness as well as an economic classism that approves those with little means (often graduate students, but also people outside the academy) being denied access to thought. In other words, the expensive price of print journals and articles is a material mechanism that re-produces certain class and social relations in knowledge production (those that have the means or a good library available get to participate, those that don’t don’t).

From a sales angle, however, I’ve been surprised to discover that open access publishing actually seems to increase sales. The Speculative Turn has been a wild success. It crashed Re.Press’s server the night it was released, and has hovered around the 40-60 thousand sales rank on Amazon consistently since it was released a year ago. This is extraordinary for an academic text, especially given that anyone can access it for free. Graham’s Prince of Networks has done similarly well. It’s difficult to yet say how The Democracy of Objects will do in print form, but so far the internet traffic has been very promising.

I’m very eager to see how O-Zone does once it is up and running over the next couple of years. Eileen Joy’s Postmedievalism, an open access journal, has been tremendously successful and is internationally recognized both in the field of medieval studies and outside of it. Some have griped about the advisory editors of O-Zone, expressing ire over the fact that the undergraduate Marisol Bate is on the team. First, they fail to realize that it was Marisol who first approached Kris and I with the idea of developing the journal. Second, the credentials of the editors both within the world of OOO and in academia as a whole are outstanding. All of the people involved in the journal are people who have made significant contributions to OOO in the form of publications, organizing conferences, and who have made significant contributions to “thingly” thought. In putting together the advisory board our considerations revolved around representing a number of different disciplines and practices, insuring good gender parity, and depth of accomplishment. We selected people with whom we have closely worked or whose work we are intimately familiar with.

Third, our philosophy seeks to honor a variety of different perspectives both from within academia and from a variety of different disciplines in academia, and outside of academia. In many respects, this goes back to the original disciplinary attude of Graham, me, Morton, and Bogost. Graham and I are philosophers, Morton is a lit person, and Bogost researches technology, video games, and digital humanities. All of us have worked intimately at conferences and online from a variety of disciplines and practices ranging across artists, ethnographers, architects, novelists, musicians, geographers, historians, lit people, activists, poets, etc, etc, etc. Moreover, in the blogosphere we have cultivated a space that sidelines academic rank or belonging to academia at all, and that instead engages other in terms of the quality of their thought, work, and contributions. We have sought to capture that spirit in our editorial board, including people from a variety of disciplines as well as artists and activists. Marisol, an extraordinary thinker and person, falls into this category of activism, and is someone who fights human sex trafficing (in ways that have actually caused risk to her life and damage to her person), figts on behalf of her indigineous Hawaiian people against colonial invasion, and is involved in fighting capitalist exploitation with OWS. That’s a pretty qualified person to comment, with others, on certain political and activist submissions that come our way.

As I’ve argued before, there’s a very nasty tendency among proponents of each discipline to treat their own discipline as a master-displine that is the foundation of all other disciplines and everything else. The rhetoricians cry that everything involves rhetoric and therefore rhetoric is “first philosophy”. The historians retort that everything involves history and therefore history is “first philosophy”. The philosophers claim that everything involves being and knowledge so therefore their discipline is first philosophy. And so it goes. Kris, Eileen and I are involved in trying to create something called post-disciplinarity where it is recognized that all of these disciplines are local knowledges, partial views on the world, where it is recognized that the artist, engineer, designer, and activist create knowledge and thought every bit as much as the scholar, and where a space can be opened where these divergent lenses can come to resonate with one another and generate new innovation in thought, art, design, and political engagement. We’re tired of talking with authoritarians that want their discipline or practice to be the master-science and who wish to subordinate everything else to their master narrative. Instead we want transversal forms of communication where delight and inspiration can be taken from the work, inventions, amd discoveries of others and where there’s no longer a question of foundational disciplines.

My own compulsions, tenacious in argument where I just won’t let it go, my tendency to over explain appearing like I’m lecturing the other person and think they’re stupid. Not getting enough sleep. Authoritarians that place leaders and prestigious figures over principles and good arguments. Cruelty. Stepping on beetles by mistake when I walk out on my patio (they weren’t doing anything). Bureaucrats. Rubrics. People who use words like “rubrics” as if they enhance things. People who think they’re entitled when they haven’t put in the effort. People who believe in rank not contributions. People who hate others based on race, gender, etc. People who think the truth is dangerous like advocates of abstinence only education. Fighting with others. Misunderstandings. My tendency to project and assume. Those that don’t think the world is enough but that it needs an otherworldly supplement. Consumer capitalism. The fact that I enjoy consumer capitalism. Hannity, Beck, and Limbaugh. Censorship in schools. Those that suggest that Enlightenment is responsible for the Holocaust, Gulags, and the ravages of technology and capitalism rather than human ego, continuing mythology, racism, nationalism, and greed. Adverserial, combative, confrotational, and unctious people. Testosterone fueled academia in the humanities. Difficulty in seeing the circumstances of other people that might render their actions rational. Hurtfulness. The indifference and cruelty that the inability to see context engenders in others. Cliches. Self-destructiveness. The inability for us to collectively act on climate change even though it’s in our self-interest. Men that kick down the sand castles that others build on the beach for no reason. Enslaving others through the creation of economic debt. That I don’t have more time to garden. Partisanship and misguided loyalty. The belief that one’s discipline is the foundation of all others and disdain/contempt for other disciplines. Contempt. Legalism. Selfishness. Sarcasm. The absence of sincerity. Those that are motivated by their resume rather than love of what they do. Classism. Elitism. Failure to recognize how one has benefitted by their privilege and connections, believing one is self-made. And, again, not getting enough sleep.

This week my students and I jumped in to Manuel DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Back in graduate school I remember the horror I experienced when I first read this book. At the time Difference and Givenness was under review. I was already obsessed with DeLanda’s earlier work in the form of his articles and A Thousand Years of Non-Linear Philosophy, but these works were largely concrete analyses of the world. Intensive Science, by contrast, articulated DeLanda’s generalized Deleuzian ontology in terms of chaos and complexity theory, developing a general ontological account of morphogenesis and individuation. This was the book I had wanted to someday write. As a consequence, I immediately hated it even as I loved it. To this day I find that I am every bit as much a DeLandian as I am a Harmanian.

At any rate, as we plunge into Intensive Science, I increasingly find myself asking “do attractors do anything?” Before I get to this, first a brief explanation of what an attractor or a singularity is, drawing on wikipedia. As the wiki article on attractors explains them,

An attractor is a set towards which a dynamical system evolves over time. That is, points that get close enough to the attractor remain close even if slightly disturbed.

Take a very simple and rather uninteresting fixed point attractor like that that belongs to a system composed of a bowl and a marble. To begin with, our marble sits on the edge of the bowl. We flick the marble setting it in motion. The marble now slides up and down the sides of the bowl until it finally settles at the bottom of the bowl and ceases moving. The singularity or attractor of this system is that point of rest at the bottom of the bowl. This is the fixed point towards which the system composed of the bowl and marble evolves over time.

read on!

For those who have asked when the paper/.pdf version of The Democracy of Objects will become available, the answer is soon! Final revisions were wrapped up last week, so I suspect it will be any time now. As for the delay, this is the first book released in the series so there’s been learning involved, they have an all volunteer team, and I caused them a number of headaches with how I composed the book. I wrote it first in open access software. That didn’t work for them, so I transferred it over to Word. This created all sorts of bizarre hidden code that they had to fix. The Open Humanities Press people have been absolutely fantastic and, as I understand it, there’s a boatload of future books to come out in the series.

Working with Bogost, Harman, and Morton over the last few years has been an amazing and intense experience. We interact almost daily and during this time we’ve edited books together (The Speculative Turn and The Democracy of Objects), organized conferences, formed editorial boards for presses and journals together, proofed a number of each others papers and various other things. We’ve encouraged each other, helped to develop each others ideas, fought with each other, and consoled one another. And during this time, we’ve seen something small and marginal expand all over the place and develop in directions that none of us ever expected. There’s now a journal devoted to object-oriented studies, and two presses deeply sympathetic to OOO and SR (OHP and Edinburgh), all of which we have built together. Before deciding to put The Speculative Turn together with Nick Srnicek, I never even imagined (literally) that anything like this would be possible. Indeed, when I proposed it to Nick, I initially conceived The Speculative Turn to be a Deleuzian rejoinder to speculative realist thought, pitching Deleuze as a realist and materialist. I conceived myself as primarily some combination of a Lacanian, Deleuzian, and Badiouian. I really had no idea that this would be a life and thought changing project, leading me to become something of a philosopher rather than a scholar of other thinkers. It’s been quite a ride, intellectually invigorating, productive of a sense that this work is meaningful (rather than just plugging away to pad the CV for jobs and tenure), and I expect bright things in the future. I’m especially pleased at how multi-disciplinary it’s all become. As saccharine as it sounds, when you reach out to the world in a kind, generous, respectful and enthusiastic way, it often reaches back. It’s vitally important to believe that constraints are never so set in iron that alternative ways of living and doing things aren’t possible. Absent that belief, no attempts to do things differently are ever made and action simply reproduces those iron constraints.

My Spinoza is a bit rusty but I recall that Spinoza, in Book II of the Ethics, says that the order and connection among ideas is the same as the order and connection of bodies. This would be Spinoza’s famous parallelism. For every event that takes place in the mind (thought, feeling, emotion, etc.), there will also be a parallel event that takes place in the body. This is mirrored later in Spinoza’s definition of affects in Book III. Upon hearing the word “affect” our tendency is to think “emotion”. Yet for Spinoza, this is not what an affect is. For Spinoza, affects are the capacity to affect and to be affected and all entities, whether living or not, possess affects. There is also an idea that accompanies affects. It is this that we usually refer to as feelings and emotions (it would be very different for nonliving things). Thus, on the one hand you have the bodily dimension of affect (the capacity to affect and be affected), while on the other hand you have the mental dimension of affect (feelings, emotions).

What fascinates me about all of this is the manner in which we can get confused about the causes of our affects. It is this confusion about causes that Spinoza is at pains to untangle in Book III of the Ethics. His thesis is that we’re often deeply mistaken about the causes of the mental dimension of our affects. It might be that you have to be addicted to something in order to understand what Spinoza is getting at. Fortunately I smoke far less than I used to, but I still chew nicotine gum. There will be days when I forget to chew any nicotine gum, going hours without the nicotine without realizing it. Now something curious happens to me in these circumstances. I will find myself getting angry and irritated with circumstances around me, lashing out at others or these circumstances. Now what’s interesting here is that when this happens I don’t associate my anger with the absence of nicotine at all. Rather, in these circumstances I am convinced that the other person or circumstances are the cause of my anger.

This is a perfect exactly of what Spinoza is getting at with his parallelism. There is a shared order and connection of events in the body and mind, yet at the latter level (which is all we have access to in our consciousness) we can be wildly mistaken about the cause of our feeling or emotion. I think that it is the other person that has caused my anger when, in fact, my anger is the result of poor neuro-conduction produced as a consequence of the absence of nicotine in my system. If I had nicotine in my system it would never occur to me to take the speech and action in an antagonistic way requiring a hostile response. The case is similar with anxiety. In many instances your anxiety might merely be the result of some current emotional imbalance in your neural system. Yet you know nothing about this. All you know is that you’re haunted by a horrible feeling in which you’re unable to sit still, where everything looks fearful, and where you feel the overwhelming need to escape. At the conscious level you then begin to cast about for the cause of this anxiety and center on things in your relationships with others, maybe your finances, your future, etc., despite the fact that your anxiety might have nothing to do with any of these things. How often have I had moments where, feeling this way, I pop a few vitamin B capsules only to have my anxiety disappear within half an hour? Would this be possible were my anxiety the result of the things I just listed? I don’t know.

I am not making the case that it is this way with all emotions and emotional reactions. There are certainly cases where the world provokes anxiety, where others provoke anger, and all the rest. Two things interest me here. First, it is interesting to note just how withdrawn we are from even ourselves. In many respects I find Spinoza’s thesis about the opacity of our affects terrifying. We never quite know whether it’s just some weird chemical response that’s precipitating our conscious affective states (a chemical imbalance, having eaten the wrong thing, etc) or whether it truly is these other things in the world (other people, our future, our circumstances). We can be certain that we are experiencing these particular emotional states– perhaps (how often are relations we tell ourselves are friendly or romantic really pervaded by passive aggressiveness?) –but it is extremely difficult to disentangle the causes of these emotional states (and all the more so because ideas can also cause changes in physical states of my brain, e.g., happy thoughts, perhaps, can generate the production of more dopamines producing more happy thoughts). This leads to a second point of interest, one that might lead me to find greater peace of mind: before jumping to any conclusions as to another person causing my dismay and before believing that I have any insight into their motives and psychic states, I should remind myself that reading the words and actions of other people is a bit like seeing images in a cloud or an ink blot. My interpretation of this other person might very well say more about what’s going on in me than anything going on in the other person, and could result from something as simple as what I ate last night or the absence of nicotine in my system. If I tell myself this then perhaps I will have better relations with others and be less inclined to jump to conclusions about them. This is part of what Lacan is talking about, I think, when he talks about moving beyond Imaginary mirroring relations. It’s not quite yet traversing the fantasy or discovering that the big Other doesn’t exist, but is nonetheless an important step.

A great interview with Graham Harman can be found here.

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