November 2011


In The Enchantment of Modern Life Bennett is pretty persuasive in arguing that formal ethical/moral rules are inadequate, in and of themselves, to motivate ethical action. Rather than focusing on the what of ethics, Bennett instead wishes to focus on the how. Her thesis is that formal ethical principles are unable to motivate ethical action in the absence of the right sort of affects. It is affects, as Rousseau argued long ago, not formal principles, that motivate action and our preferences for one alternative over another. In the absence of these actions we aren’t motivated one way or another. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is that of the psychopath. The psychopath is like a color-blind person with respect to affects. Where most of us regularly experience emotions of empathy and compassion with respect to others, for the psychopath these sentiments are entirely absent. The psychopath is not a “mad” person, like serial killer Ed Geins, incapable of reason. Indeed, perhaps psychopaths are more adept at reasoning in the formal sense than the rest of us because they are missing this component moralists often refer to disparagingly as “the passions”. Rather, the psychopath can understand formal moral commands perfectly well– they manipulate them in others regularly –they simply lack the affects that would motivate them to follow these ethical commands.

Of the affects, Bennett is particularly interested in the ethical potential of what she calls “enchantment”. As she remarks,

Enchantment, in the model I am defending, is operative in a world without telos. I have been suggesting not only that that an array of minor experiences in contemporary life enchant, but also that enchantment is a mood with ethical potential. More specifically, my contention is that enchantment can aid in the project of cultivating a stance of presumptive generosity (i.e., of rendering oneself more open to the surprise of other selves and bodies and more willing and able to enter into productive assemblages with them). (131)

For Bennett, enchantment or wonder generates a sort of generosity that is a condition for ethical comportment towards others (where “others” would include other people, animals, and the earth itself).

Throughout the history of ethical reflection there has been a distrust of affectivity. This, of course, isn’t to say that there hasn’t also been a rich tradition of ethical thought that has focused on affectivity. The Epicureans and Stoics, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, Nietzsche, and many others come to mind in this connection. Nonetheless, affect, by and large has been approached with suspicion by ethical theorists. One line of thought has it that we are controlled by our affects, patients of our affects, rather than being “self-directing”. As such, affect would provide an insufficient ground for ethics. Another line of thought– often raised in a Kantian context –has it that affect is too singular, too restricted to the individual, to provide a ground of universality required for ethics. Yet another worry might revolve around questions of the transmissability of ethical principles. We can readily imagine formal ethical principles being transmitted or taught to someone else and can even imagine someone being persuaded in discussion of the truth of these principles. It is much harder to see how an affect can be transmitted from one person to another or how one can be made to feel such and such a way. The proponent of the theory that “we cannot help how we feel, but can help how we reason” therefore ends up looking at affects as a ground of ethics with deep suspicion. The reasoning seems to run that we cannot persuade the psychopath to feel empathy and compassion, though perhaps we can persuade him to recognize formal moral principles (though evidence is mounting that this isn’t, in fact, the case).

I think this really gets to the heart of Bennett’s argument. She’s clearly on to something with the claim that affect marks the “how” of ethical action. Affect is the “energy” that motivates ethical action. Without the right sort of affects, we’re either entirely indifferent to formal ethical principles as in the case of the psychopath, or we end up as one of those twisted individuals so nicely analyzed by Nietzsche and Freud who formally follows ethical principles as a way of gratifying a very unethical will to power or set of desires. This would be the familiar figure of the person who follows the “letter of the law” without recognizing the “spirit of the law”, using ethical judgment to either punish others or establish his superiority over others. Such a person is pervaded by the spirit of revenge and resentment described so beautifully by Nietzsche.

The problem is that if Bennett is right such a theory perhaps puts us at a significant impasse where ethics are concerned. If it is affect and not formal principles that are the ground of ethics we risk finding ourselves in a situation where matters are hopeless where ethics is concerned. If it turns out that affects are just “givens” of our constitution, then we’ll find ourselves in a situation where there are simply those who have– innately –the capacity for the right sort of affects and then there are others that just don’t have the capacity for the right sort of affects. Those that lack the capacity for the right sort of affect would be forever incapable of ethical action and being– even when following formal ethical principles –and therefore would not be ethically responsible for their actions. Those that do have the right sort of affects would be capable of ethical action, but not in any sort of praiseworthy way, but rather simply by dint of having been born with these capacities. So the real question at the heart of Bennett’s work is not whether or not affect plays a key role in motivating ethical action, but rather whether affects can be cultivated or formed. Are affective capacities merely something we’re born with, or is it possible to cultivate the ability to experience certain forms of affectivity? Following the Stoics, Epicureans, and thinkers like Spinoza, I’m inclined to hold that we do, in fact, have substantial power to cultivate certain forms of affectivity. Not only are we able to erase certain affects that haunt us such as the visceral hatred and disgust Ed Norton’s character experiences towards other races in American History X, but we are also able to cultivate new ways of feeling and experiencing. For example, when we’re younger it’s likely that many of us experience Shakespeare as a dreadful bore, but over time we cultivate taste through working with the texts and plays and encounters with those who have spent more time with Shakespeare than us that lead us to take great enjoyment in reading him. Perhaps the same is in the ethical domain. Thus, while there might be limit cases between ethical idiots such as the psychopath that, by virtue of being “affect-blind”, can never experience certain affects and the affective genius to whom these things seem to come naturally, it’s likely that many of the affects most of us have are things that had to be learned and cultivated. If Bennett’s right, it is the cultivation of these affects, not the formal principles, that we should be focusing on. However, if we are to focus on this we need to know the mechanisms by which affects are cultivated.

I’m pleased to announce the release of Preternatural, published by Punctum Books and edited by Celina Jeffery. From the back cover:

Preternatural is the catalogue for a multi-site art exhibition (9 December 2011 through 17 February 2012, in Ottawa, Canada) that draws from the idea that art itself is a form of preternatural pursuit, in which the artists participating explore the bewildering condition of being in between the mundane and the marvelous in nature. It questions a world that understands itself as accessible, reachable, and ‘knowable’ and counters it with a consideration of this heterogenous proposition.

You will find an afterward by me entitled “Wilderness Ontology”.

I already linked to this earlier today, but I wanted to draw attention to Kris’s post on fictions over at Fractured Politics because what he’s up to is so cool. Here’s a taste:

To complement and politicize existing strains of object-oriented philosophy, it is necessary, in my view, to propose a comprehensive theory of fictional objects that not only accounts for such objects along an immanent ontological spectrum, but the manner in which fictional objects are instrumentalized as nonfictional for real objects. In my view, the sovereignty-security nexus revolves around the state’s capacity to regulate an aesthetic assemblage that the renders barbaric the finitude of nationalist fictions, such that the homeostatic organization of the state becomes predicated upon the maintenance of an infinite state of indeterminacy. Fictional objects, for me, are classified according to two contingent dichotomies: referential (fictions with real world referents, like the movie Frost/Nixon) and nonreferential (fictions without real world referents, like Harry Potter), as well as resonant (affirmative fictions) and desonant (negational fictions). Combining these two dichotomies yields four types of fictional objects: rational (referential + resonant), irrational (nonreferential + resonant), crepuscular (referential + desonant), and transfinite (nonreferential + desonant). From there, two processes by which fictional objects are manifested by, for, or within nonfictional assemblages may be detailed: vibration, through which a fictional object presents itself by entering into and dissociating from sets of relations according to its own agency, and superimposition, whereby nonfictional objects attempt to appropriate the agency of and redeploy fictional objects for their own instrumental purposes.

There’s a lot more there so be sure to read the rest. Following Kris’s line of thought, I would argue that any time we talk about larger-scale social entities– nations, states, groups, “cultures”, parties, classes, etc. –we’ve already entered the domain of fictions. To say “we”, “Americans”, “Egyptians”, “Mayans”, “Democrats”, “Object-Oriented Ontologists”, etc., is already to introduce fiction into the world because the parts that compose these objects or assemblages do not themselves share any identity such as is posited by the signifier. The fiction is not something that describes something, but that performs something. But here’s the twist. Far from entailing that these larger-scale entities don’t exist, this fictional component is a necessary element of these objects constituting the reality of those objects. In other words, the fiction is an actant that allows the social assemblage to establish itself as an object.

As I’ve argued in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects, objects come either as allopoietic machines or autopoietic machines. The term “machine” is not here a nice rhetorical flourish. Machines (and here I’m not trying to give an exhaustive definition) 1) do and produce something (they are activities and processes, closer to verbs than nouns), and 2) draw on something else to engage in this production. In the case of autopoietic machines, these machines draw on other elements from the world in order to produce their parts and their unity. The cells of my body, for example, produce themselves from elements issuing from other cells and the cells produce my body as a whole as an aggregate unity or substance. This is an ongoing process, not a terminal process that has a final finished product.

Every object contains an internal strife, an object-specific entropy, because it is simultaneously a unit or unity, an object in its own right, and a multiplicity or aggregate of other objects. As Harman remarks in Guerrilla Metaphysics, objects are both units and complexes of relations. They are units in that they are independent entities, while they are complexes of relations because they are built out of other, smaller-scale objects. The larger-scale unit and the smaller-scale objects that compose the unit can and do enter into relations of strife with one another. The larger-scale object, as it were, must manage and discipline (or less negatively, “draw on”) the smaller-scale objects to maintain its own unity and enduring existence. The cells of my body, for example, can “decide” to go their own way as in the case of cancer, or other cells– bacteria and viruses (yes, I know viruses aren’t “cells” –can enter the body and “pursue” their own ends. This entails that every larger-scale object must devise strategies and mechanisms for drawing on other smaller-scale objects in its self-constitution. This is the machinic dimension of objects. Objects always face the problem of how to continue and thus necessarily have a temporal dimension.

In the case of larger-scale social objects, fictions are one mechanism by which these objects institute and maintain themselves so as to maintain their existence across time. Every larger-scale social object faces the problem of herding cats. That is, these larger-scale objects must devise strategies for insuring that they are able to continue drawing on human bodies, resources, technologies, infrastructure, and so on so as to constitute themselves as a fractious unity. Key to these mechanisms are all sorts of “technologies” that produce identification, subjectivization, certain forms of affectivity and desired response-schema to certain semiotic cues and, etc., etc., etc. Moreover, these mechanisms must be produced from moment to moment. Identification with and belief in fictions is one of the key mechanisms by which this autopoiesis is accomplished.

Tim Richardson’s remarks responding to my post on myth this afternoon strangely have me thinking about a-theism and the end of analysis (and in the name of full disclosure, the two of us are very old friends and co-founded the Dallas Society for Structuralist and Post-Structuralist thought that hosts a reading group at University of Texas Arlington). The hyphen in the term a-theism is very important. Ordinarily atheism is taken to mean “without god” and to refer to any discourse that rejects all forms of the supernatural. Understood in this way you get discourses such as those found in Hitchens, Dawkin, and Dennett debunking the supernatural. I think this way of understanding a-theism simultaneously says too little and too much. On the one hand, I think it says too much because I think there are ways of thinking the divine and supernatural that are, paradoxically, perfectly consistent with a-theism. Episcopal minister Jack Spong’s theology, for example, would fit very well with a-theism in this sense. It is not Bishop Spong’s siding with science that makes his theology consistent with a-theism (though kudos for him!), but rather his thesis that transcendent God (the myth) literally dies with Jesus. The Jesus-event, under this reading, becomes the assertion of a theology of immanence, a rejection of transcendence, and the resurrection and ascension refer not to something literal, but rather to the emergence of a new kind of community no longer based on an essence stemming from kinship relations and without identity: a queer community not unlike the show Heroes. Jesus’s “resurrection” would lie in the work of this purely immanent community with no criteria for membership and no signifier or membership that could define it. It would be a community of fragments without law, kinship, or national guarantee. Paradoxically, the least Christian thing one could do under this reading would be to call oneself a Christian or join a Christian community as that would immediately set up a logic of membership defining an in-group and an out-group. Many variants of Buddhism, I think, fit with what I call a-theism. While I don’t throw in with theological variants of a-theism because they still posit the supernatural and I think the world is enough, it’s nonetheless the case that these theologies are consistent with a-theism as I’ll define it in a moment. On the other hand, this conception of a-theism says too little because it restricts a-theism to considerations of the supernatural, ignoring the fact that a-theism, to be thorough-going, refers to a particular structure of thought, not the content of a particular form of thought. In other words, a thorough-going a-theism would reject forms of thought that come in both secular and religious variants.

As I argued in my previous post– and in chapter six of The Democracy of Objects, this form of thought is that of transcendence:

Likewise, in the case of myth, it is not whether or not something has a supernatural dimension, but rather whether or not something possesses a particular structure. I have argued that all myths, whether pertaining to religion or secular systems, share the same structure of positing one term as transcendent to all others. I use the term “transcendence” in a very specific way: the transcendent, as I use the term, does not mean “to go beyond”, but rather refers to the postulation of any entity that is unconditioned and that conditions other things without itself being conditioned by other things.

When we think in terms of structures rather than content, any number of terms can therefore be theistic, regardless of whether the discourse is secular or religious. Transcendent terms can be Platonic forms, unchanging Aristotlean essences defining a species, the way we venerate a particular leader, party, or intellectual movement, transcendental signifiers, sovereignty, God as most commonly conceived in the monotheistic traditions, Laplace’s demon that is able to survey the entire universe and the position of all particles from perspective outside the universe, the subject conceived as an absolute origin of will, the neoliberal subject as thoroughly self-made, etc. This structure has many different variants at the level of content, just like the sentences “Jack kicks the ball”, “the dog eats the bone”, “Levi cooks split pea soup”, etc., have the same grammatical structure while nonetheless having different contents. Theism is the belief in an absolute and transcendent ground that conditions without itself being conditioned. As Nietzsche said, we have not really killed “God” (the transcendent) if were merely replace him with Man. The content has changed, but the structure remains the same. Likewise, we have not really replaced patriarchy if we simply take a biological man out of the position of power and fill in that position with a biological woman (ergo the reason that many contemporary Goddess religions are thoroughly patriarchal). It’s the structure that is patriarchal, not the organ between the person’s legs (assuming we can even speak in a clear cut way about male and female).

read on!
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Over at Intra-Being, the great Andre has continued the discussion of myth that took place over at this blog and at Knowledge Ecology and Footnotes2Plato. In his depiction, Andre presents the discussion as a debate over myth and ideology. For me myth is defined not by its content, but by its structure. For example, the fact that something contains reference to the supernatural does not necessarily entail that it is, as I understand the term, mythological. Likewise, the fact that something is secular through and through does not entail that it is non-mythological. When we speak of a structure we are not talking about the content of a thing, but of a set of relations that are shared among a variety of different things. Thus, for example, if we talk about a house, that house might have a brick or stone exterior, it might be painted in very different ways inside, it might have a carpeted interior or an interior composed of wood or tile floors, etc., but structurally houses can be identical despite these differences. That is, they can have one and the same floorplan despite all these differences in interior and exterior design. They share the same structure.

Likewise, in the case of myth, it is not whether or not something has a supernatural dimension, but rather whether or not something possesses a particular structure. I have argued that all myths, whether pertaining to religion or secular systems, share the same structure of positing one term as transcendent to all others. I use the term “transcendence” in a very specific way: the transcendent, as I use the term, does not mean “to go beyond”, but rather refers to the postulation of any entity that is unconditioned and that conditions other things without itself being conditioned by other things. Here are some examples of this sort of transcendence:

1) The concept of God as conceived by many variants of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and by philosophers such as Descartes, Augustine, Thomas, Jean-Luc Marion(?), Leibniz, etc.

2) The idea of an original being before the fall as depicted in the book of Genesis.

3) Roussea’s idea of “man” prior to being contaminated by culture (note that this isn’t a religious or supernatural idea).

4) The idea of a point that we can reach in history where we will fully coincide with ourselves and enjoy mastery over all of nature.

5) The idea that any community or group has a supreme, unchanging, and invariant essence as in the case of Nazi mythology when speaking of the Germans and Jews.

6) The Enlightenment idea of subjects standing apart from nature and mastering it and having the possibility of a view from nowhere.

7) “Laplace’s demon“.

8) The neoliberal idea of sovereign individuals that are self-made independent of their cultural and social circumstances.

9) Ontologies that conceive objects in terms of pure and complete presence.

10) Platonic forms.

11) The treatment of leaders, parties, and intellectuals as infallable and fully-self present rather than as divided or split ($).

I could go on and on with examples. Each one of these cases is premised on the idea of a transcendence that conditions other things, that is an “unmoved mover”, and that isn’t itself conditioned in turn. Each case denies the constitutively divided nature of beings, persons, communities, or things. Each one of these instances, secular or not, is what I refer to as a “religion” or a theology. Each one is also a necessarily patriarchal structure. What is it that authorizes me to call Stalinism, despite it’s supposed atheism and materialism, a religion no less than many variants of Christianity? The authorization arises from myth being defined by its structure, not its content. As we learn in topology, where two structures share the same relation they are the same structure. I outline this thesis in detail in the fifth chapter of The Democracy of Objects. Myth is not simply a narrative, but a specific type of narrative that has a very specific type of structure (the positing of the unconditioned, usually with an accompanying story of either an eschatology or a fall). With any luck I will also have an article coming out after January entitled “The Other Face of God” that points to the social, political, and ethical implications of this way of thinking. In my view, waging war against transcendence means waging war against the idea of an unconditioned in this sense, whatever form it might take. Not only do I think that ontologically belief in such an unconditioned is unsustainable (everything is characterized by finitude), but I also think that belief in the unconditioned, whatever form it might take, leads to very noxious social, ethical, and political formations.

It looks like the first few months will be pretty hectic and exciting. On March 9 and 10 I will be giving a keynote address at Louisiana State’s annual philosophy conference. It’s likely I’ll give an introduction to onticology. Between June 25 and 27 I’ll be giving a plenary talk at the 5th Annual Deleuze Studies conference in New Orleans. I plan to discuss Deleuze’s transcendental aesthetics and the interior of objects. From there I’ll fly to Liverpool to give a keynote talk for the Thinking the Absolute: Speculation, Philosophy, and the End of Religion conference. I’m still deciding whether to go a more ontological route outlining some elements that would have to characterize a genuine object-oriented theology (no transcendent God, only an immanent God insofar as such ontotheological transcendence erases the dignity of objects, and no designer but only immanent interactions among objects without goal or telos) or whether to go a more sociological route, contesting the tendency of the new atheists to focus on religious beliefs, ignoring networks of power structured around objects and rituals that produce certain forms of affectivity, obedience to authority and doxa, cognition, etc. (i.e., religious practice is less about beliefs– the Catholic church could continue just fine for centuries without the lay being able to understand mass or the Bible readings because they were in Latin –and more about networks of human bodies, rituals, various religious objects such as incense, organ music, robes, hats, pews, etc). From there I’ll be hopping over to the Independent College in Dublin to give a talk on Lacan, Sexuation, and the possibility of a posthumanist Lacan opened up by the feminine side of the graph of sexuation. A couple of other places have expressed an interest in me coming to speak, following Dublin, but we haven’t pinned things down yet.

For those who have been on the lookout for The Democracy of Objects, it should be coming very soon. The editorial team at OHP has received the upload from Amazon and just has to make a couple adjustments. I have really been stunned and gratified by the amount of work the volunteer team at OHP has put into this, striving to get things perfect at each stage of development.

O-Zone is coming along exceptionally well and we’re already receiving submissions. We’ve also lined up an amazing team of first round contributors. I expect the first issue will be very exciting. If you’re considering contributing, remember that we understand the term “ecology” very broadly and that we also accept submissions not related to the theme of the issue. If you have something thing- or object-oriented laying it around, show it to us! Also, we accept submissions of art and video presentations.

Finally, check out these two great links. Kris Coffield is developing a fascinating object-oriented theory of fictions over at Fractured Politics. He’s light-years beyond anything I’ve said on these issues, and I cannot wait to see books and/or articles by him developing this vector of thought. Also check out this contribution to the discussion of myth and Enlightenment over at Intra-Being.

Given some remarks I’ve encountered in email and conversations, some people seem to be reluctant to contribute to the first issue of O-Zone because they think they have nothing to say about nature. We understand the term “ecology” in a very broad way. For us, nature or green ecology is only a subset of ecological thought. By ecology we mean networks of interacting objects or objects in assemblages of relations. Thus, for example, Latour’s analysis of the laboratory in Science in Action would be an example of an ecological analysis. Likewise, there is an ecological dimension to Freud’s thought in the way he theorizes psyche in terms of the family setting. Likewise, in the first chapter of Technics and Time Stiegler presents us with a profoundly ecological picture of technology through examining how various technologies interact with one another and generate techical systems that cause the emergence of problems internal to the technical system playing a role in how technical systems evolve over time. So if you want to contribute to O-Zone but feel you have nothing to say about nature ecology, rest assured that you don’t have to discuss green ecology for this issue!

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