February 2012


A friend of mine sent an email containing the following meditations on my ontology:

I’ve been mulling over what you’ve said and while I agree there is a distinction between the ontological and rhetorical uses of agency, I believe OOR is in a unique position to discuss both. Because of its reliance upon an ontology to form its arguments, rhetoric is able to discuss things ontologically while at the same time not straying from a more traditional rhetorical discussion of how we *talk* about objects. So in a way, what I’m hoping to achieve here is a reworking of the way we talk about and recognize agency in any given rhetorical act; but, at the same time, add to the discussion of the ontological workings of agency as a property of an object.

That being said, my last email looked at agency as it related to other objects. When we have primary agents, these objects act as causal origins spreading their agency across a network of secondary agents. What your notion of regimes of attraction does (coupled, of course, with the object’s virtual proper being and local manifestations) is make this dispersal of agency a necessary condition of any rhetorical act – that is, no agent is ever in full control of the act or utterance. But this also means that agency is not an endo-quality of an object, but is an exo-quality. In other words, objects are only agents in relation to other objects. Since objects (as substances) are acts and there is no doer behind the deed (like you stated in a recent blog post), then this entails that there is no agent behind the act qua object – and therefore no agency in such endo-relations. But there is, however, an agent (and therefore agency) in an object’s relation to other objects, and this is where I want to go with OOR, to examine the role of objects in an event and the possibility for those objects to truly be agents.

I’m still thinking this through, but a couple of thoughts do come to mind. When I say that there’s no doer behind the deed I just mean that the doer is identical to the deed. Objects are four-dimensional such that their substantiality is temporal and processual. Contrasting my position with Harman’s might be helpful here. For Harman objects have a withdrawn essence that is self-identical and enduring beyond any action on the part of the object. In this respect, it’s as if, for Harman, there’s a crystal lattice withdrawn beneath manifestations of substances that remains the same and upon which events unfold or play without, in any way, changing that essence. So if we take Harman as a substance, when Harman reads a book there is, on the one hand, the Harman-essence that is self-identical to him and that is withdrawn and the Harman-act (reading) that occurs on the surface of this essence without affecting or changing that essence. There is something that both does the act (Harman-essence as doer) and the act (reading) that plays out on the surface of this crystal lattice; and, as such, a distance or gap between the doer and deed such that the essence of the doer remains the same in the act of reading.

read on!
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Viewed from one angle objects are machines. It should never be forgotten that objects are not objectified. No, objects are objectile. They are trajectories that dynamically unfold across time and space that never sit still long enough to be mere clumps awaiting actions. Substances don’t await action, they are action. Their being consists in their activity and their becoming.

As such, all objects, following Deleuze and Guattari, are factories. The term “machine” is both a noun and a verb. Both significations are true of every object: every object is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, a machine is “A device consisting of fixed and moving parts that modifies mechanical energy and transmits it in a more useful form.” While in the right ball-park, the dictionary’s definition– which is itself a machine –is somewhat imprecise. It properly captures the sense in which a machine draws from something else (in this case mechanical energy) and transforms that from which it draws, but it is far too restrictive, far to concrete, to capture the abstract essence of machines, objects, or substances. A machine is an entity that draws from something else and transforms it, full stop. That something else from which an entity draws can be mechanical energy, chemical energy, atomic energy, other energies yet unknown, other objects, protons, persons, words, thoughts, animals, microbes, and so on. There will be no limit, in principle, to what a machine can draw on. Moreover, the transformations produced out of that from which a machine or substance draws will be as varied as the machines that that populate the pluriverse.

read on!
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a-the-ol-o-gy /A-THēˈäləjē/

Noun:

1) The branch of onticology devoted to the study
of immanence.

2) The diagnosis and critique of illusions of transcendence
in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics.

A-theology is not a belief. It is not the belief that God, gods, and the supernatural do not exist; though it does lead to the conclusion that within the order of being or immanence, there is no God, gods, immaterial forms, or supernatural causation. Rather, a-theology is the science of immanence and the diagnosis and critique of all illusions of transcendence.

As the science of immanence a-theology comprehends being in terms of flat ontology. It seeks to investigate the nature of immanence, how it is organized, and what takes place within immanence. Flat ontology is not the thesis that all beings are equal for certainly some beings enjoy greater power and a broader scope of effects than other beings. Rather, flat ontology is the thesis that there are no beings that 1) stand above and outside of beings such that they condition other beings without themselves being conditioned in any way (transcendence and unilateral causality), and 2) that are there are no beings that are the source and origin of all other beings. Rather, all beings exist on a single plan, the plane of immanence, together.

read on!
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I’m truly humbled by this quasi-review of The Democracy of Objects. I don’t know that my book can live up to this sort of hype, though it’s certainly nice to hear.

For Joe Hughes

Today one of my students was kind enough to send this photograph of my lecture notes on Descartes and the project of Modernity:

A Model of Mind: Under my interpretation, Descartes invents an entirely new form of epistemological inquiry that I refer to as self-reflexive analysis. Where premodern thought held that we can proceed directly to an investigation of the world, for Descartes this epistemological skips a step: the analysis of the subject or self that investigates the world. Prior to investigating the world, we must first, Descartes contends, investigate the observer that observes the world to 1) determine whether or not this observer is adequate to knowing the world, and 2) what the limits of this observer’s knowledge might be. Descartes thus uncovers an entirely knew domain of inquiry. With Descartes, the self now becomes an object of investigation and knowledge. As such, Descartes opens the way to a new science that we today know as psychology. On the other hand, this self or subject is also understood as the origin and foundation of knowledge. Having discovered that the teachings of authority and sacred texts are unreliable, the subject will now come to fill the void as the foundation of knowledge.

This relation between subject as object of knowledge and subject as origin of knowledge will be what Foucault much later calls the “transcendental-empirical couplet”. Here the task of philosophy will no longer be knowledge of external reality or the world, but rather knowledge of the subject that knows the world. In other words, the task of philosophy now becomes not observing the world, but rather observing the observer. It is for this reason that we get a transcendental-empirical couplet. The observer becomes both that entity that observes the observer (the transcendental) and the entity to be observed (the empirical). Here all sorts of questions arise regarding the very possibility of such a self-reflexive analysis. Indeed, given the notorious paradoxes that emerge surrounding self-reference, we can ask whether or not self-reflexive analysis is even possible. Is it possible for an observer to observe herself and her activity of observation? Or will observation of observation necessarily distort observation?

To answer this question it proves necessary to model the mind and the mind’s relation to the world in the process of observation. I depict this model in the diagram in the photo above. On the one hand we have the external world which I there depict with a tree. On the other hand, we have the screen of consciousness, awareness, or mind upon which our representations appear. In Descartes consciousness is conceived as a sort of theatre in which representations, concepts, images, and perceptions appear. This is depicted by the square upon which we see a representation of the tree from the external world. If the metaphor of a screen is preferable to that of a mirror, then this is because a screen is both a surface upon which images are project and something that veils other things. Here we might think of Freud’s analysis of fetishism. According to Freud the fetish is a screen memory designed to veil the horror of castration. The young infant male crawling about on the floor looks up and discovers that his mother does not have “it” and therefore concludes that he can also lose it. To escape this terrifying discovery his mind thus blocks out the vision of castration by allowing himself to only recollect the last thing he saw before seeing his mothers genitalia: her shoes, stockings, dress, panties, etc. Hence the fetish is born. Through displacement the entity represented in the screen memory rather than the genitalia are eroticized. A screen is thus that which both reveals and conceals.

read on!
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Those familiar with my work and who have expressed criticisms of object-oriented ontology will, no doubt, be amused by the following dream that I today suffered and see in it confirmation of just why object-oriented ontology’s posthumanism is potentially dangerous. Today, after a satisfying lunch and as I indulged in my afternoon meditation– er nap –I awoke from a lingering nightmare in which I was, in reality, a rock that was conscious of itself as being a rock. This mineral being that I was knew itself to be a mineral being and knew that it would sit in this place– now frozen by the winter weather, now baked by the summer sun, now covered by earth, now the victim of sculpture –for all eternity, aware that it was a rock and that it would never be anything but this still, motionless rock. Curled into a fetal ball, I awoke, terrified that my mind had somehow chosen to transform myself into a rock and that I would exist in this way for all subsequent time. As the tendrils of the nightmare gradually dissipated, I got up and slowly stumbled about the house, seeking out the eyes of another person so that they might see me and reassure me that I really am a person and not a rock and that I am not, in fact, condemned to be conscious for all eternity without being able to move in any way. And just like in Lacan’s parable, in this brief instant I felt as if the entire world had disintegrated and that I was a rock dreaming about a person stumbling about his house rather than a person recovering from temporarily being mineral in his essence. This is certainly one of the most terrifying dreams I’ve ever had and I’m rather disturbed that my mind could produce such a bizarre fabulation.

I doubt I’ll get much of a response to this post, but here goes. Suppose you were designing a polis or city. What would your ideal city be like? In particular, what sorts of entities, human and nonhuman, would populate your city. Most importantly, what would be the mission and prime directives of your ideal city? What sorts of things would your city seek to guarantee and accomplish for its citizens, both human and nonhuman.

Aside from potentially being an interesting thought experiment, these questions are inspired by Exemplaria Symposium entitled “Surface, Symptom and the State of Critique”. On the one hand, I’m interested to see how people react to the very posing of the question. I get the sense that many, myself included, become very shy and uncomfortable when asked to make positive proposals and to “existentially own” a particular set of commitments (i.e., to be responsible for a commitment). What might this unease be a symptom of and what historical circumstances– assuming that this affect is a historical phenomena –might have lead to this hesitation?

On the other hand, I get the sense that while critique is a vital enterprise not to be abandoned– as Deleuze remarks in Nietzsche & Philosophy, “philosophy is nothing without critique –it seems as if there are significant problems with the project of critique where the project of producing social change is concerned. First, it seems that critique somehow ends up parasitically attaching us to that which we critique. Like the hysteric that requires his castrated master to sustain his desire, critique seems to require that which it attacks to sustain the existence and identity of the critique. How might this phenomenon of the beautiful soul– if that’s indeed the appropriate figure in Hegel –be overcome so that we we might get beyond the moment of destruction. Second, critique is skilled at tearing things down, yet once it has done so it seems ineffectual in replacing what it has torn down with something else. How might the project of critique overcome its constructive ineffectivity? Finally, third, critique often leads to a sense of paralysis as in the case of the radical pessimism of Adorno? In and through the critical enterprise we often become so overwhelmed by the mechanisms of power that we see functioning everywhere and that we discern as always recouping that which tries to escape that we come to feel as if no escape is possible whatsoever. Paradoxically, where we begin, de facto, in the project of critique from a stance that is unfree like Plato’s prisoners in the cave but that believes itself to be free, we end in a state that believes itself to be completely unfree, that believes itself to be completely dominated by power, and that therefore comes to believe that it is futile to act. How might we escape this overwhelming sense of impotence, pessimism, and powerlessness, that the critical enterprise seems to produce? How might we escape the sickness of critical paranoia where we come to believe that the gaze of the Other has everywhere already won? As I’ve argued elsewhere, critique is a necessary and indispensable moment of the practice of terraism, yet critique alone seems insufficient. We need construction as well. Might not construction be rendered possible through the development of a clear mission as to what the polis is supposed to accomplish and guarantee? Doesn’t this sense of what ought to be provide the telos that allows us to begin building?

It would be easy to suppose that philosophical caution with respect to Plato, Aristotle, and Husserl and their emphasis on the unity and identity of things simply arose from seeing them as boring middle-agers who serve up retrograde ideas and from a desire to take fashionable cheap shots at these thinker so as to jump on the latest bandwagon. If this dismissal is particularly convenient, then this is because it treats criticism of these thinkers as arising from ad hominem motivations and therefore boils down to a series of fallacies of relevance. In other words, insofar as whether or not one is a boring middle-ager serving up retrograde ideas is irrelevant to whether or not these concepts are ontologically true, one could safely ignore these criticisms and continue as before. Unfortunately matters are not so simple.

As Deleuze and Guattari argue in What is Philosophy?, all concepts arise in response to problems that precede them, and this is above all the case with the concepts of multiplicity and difference. What is at issue here is not a simple desire to get with the latest fashion or youthful exuberance, but rather an attempt to develop an ontological discourse adequate to the real of being. If the concept of substance is to be retained– and I believe it should be preserved –this requires a significant reworking of this concept in light of these problems. Any ontology that fails to respond to these problems will prove inadequate to what we have come to know in our historical moment. Here it’s above all important to note that problems do not spell the ruin of a philosophical position, but rather are the motive force that leads to the genesis and formation of concepts.

In my view, the problems that motivate a criticism of Platonic, Aristotlean, and Husserlian orientations can be sorted into 1) intra-philosophical problems, 2) empirical problems, and 3) political problems. Here I will focus on Aristotle as he is the primary lineage from which object-oriented ontology draws its positions.

1:) Ontological Problems: Aristotle begins well. He makes a firm declaration that being qua being consists, in its primary signification, of what he calls “primary substances”. Aristotle’s primary substances are those things we refer to as individuals or objects. They are entities like rocks, trees, persons, cats, aardvarks, hammers, and so on. A primary substance will just be any individual thing that exists. Aristotle will argue that primary substances are subjects of predication that are not themselves predicated of anything else. Thus, for example, someone might predicate “brownness” of me when saying “Levi has brown hair”, but “Levi”, the person, is not predicated of anything else. Rather, I am an entity that exists as an individual in my own right and autonomously, rather than an entity that only exists in something else. Here a number of questions arise:

(a) Problems of Individuation: How are we to simultaneously think the being and becoming of substances? Substances both become yet persist as being that substance. What is it of substance that becomes and what is it of substance that persists? The Aristotlean conception of substance seems to fall into aporia insofar as it treats form as that which is identical in substance, while treating accidents as that which change. Due to this decision,

(i) The Aristotlean conception of substance is unable to account for the individuality of substances because forms are generically the same for all substances belonging to that type, e.g., the form of catness is the same for both Tasha and Tabbi. Form is thus unable to capture the individuality of a thing, yet we wish to claim that all substances are individuals. What concept of substance would allow us to capture the individuality of substances? Form won’t do it so we need a more refined concept of substance.

read on!
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Someone might remark that because a text has multiple layers there can be no flat ontology of the text. In other words, it is here asserted that where there is a logic of depths and surfaces there is necessarily a vertical ontology. However, this is precisely what flat ontology rejects. If we take seriously that texts are composed of multiple layers, then only a flat ontology can properly preserve the layered nature of a text. The claim that the text is flat is the claim that each of these layers is absolutely autonomy and irreducible to the others or that all of these layers are on equal ontological footing. That is, flat ontology refuses a logic of expression that would reduce one thread, series, or layer of the text to another. Instead, flat ontology would defend the dignity of each of these layers as a distinct multiplicity. What is hereby refused is the reduction of anything to anything else. There are instead only interacting substances.

The central error to be avoided is that of treating unity and identity as determinations that precede objects. While objects there are, these objects are neither unities nor identities. No, they are multiplicities. The object-oriented philosopher, in a desperate gambit to preserve identity, declares that identity and unity are withdrawn. This strategem arises from an act of recognition and a moment of disavowel. It is recognized that the unity and identify of an object is nowhere to be found in what is given. This recognition is greeted with horror and immediately leads to the operation of negation Freud referred to as disavowel. Like the logic of screen memories where the subject both recognizes that it is not there and then immediately disavows this recognition with an association to the last thing that was seen there (shoes, underwear, a dress, a flower, etc)., the object-oriented philosopher sees that unity and identity are not there and immediately covers over this absence with the thesis that, in fact, it really is there but only as withdrawn or absent. Like Little Hans who is convinced that his mother “has one” but he just can’t see it or that his sister will grow one given time, the object-oriented philosopher refuses to avow that objects have no identity or unity. Such is the phallic logic that haunts object-oriented philosophy. The phallic determinations of identity and unity must be preserved at all cost, even if under the bar of castration and presence through absence.

The onticologist, by contrast, declares that objects have no unity or identity. Rather, for the onticologist, objects are pure multiplicities. They are multiplicities without any higher order unity or identity and with no need of supplementary dimension to exist as multiplicities. If Husserl is unable to find the unity and identity of the objects of his intuition in intentionality then this is not because these determinations are withdrawn, but simply because they don’t exist. There are only pure manifolds. Leibniz says it best in the Monadology:

And the author of nature has been able to employ this divine and infinitely marvellous artifice, because each portion of matter is not only divisible ad infinitum, as the ancients recognized, but also each part is actually and endlessly subdivided into parts, of which each has some motion of its own: otherwise it would be impossible for each portion of matter to express the whole universe.

Whence we see that there is a world of creatures, of living beings, of animals, of entelechies, of souls, in the smallest particle of matter.

Each portion of matter may be conceived of as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fishes. But each branch of the plant, each member of the animal, each drop of its humors is also such a garden or such a pond.

And although the earth and air which lies between the plants of the garden, or the water between the fish of the pond, is neither plant nor fish, they yet contain more of them, but for the most part so tiny as to be imperceptible to us.

Therefore there is nothing fallow, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe, no chaos, no confusion except in appearance; somewhat as a pond would appear from a distance, in which we might see the confused movement and swarming, so to speak, of the fishes in the pond, without discerning the fish themselves. (65 – 69)

Such is the strange mereology of onticology: Every substance is a multiplicity. Or rather, every substance is such a pond composed of other ponds or substances. As such, substances are both assemblages of relations among substances and an organization distinct from those substances out of which they are assembled. If there is anything withdrawn here then it is not unity and identity– for a multiplicity or an assemblage just is, no matter how mishappen and poorly formed it be, this multiplicity or organization –but rather it is the other substances of which the substance is composed that are withdrawn. And if these other substances are withdrawn, then it is for the same reason that we do not discern all the plankton in the ocean when we look at it from a distance.

To be sure, objects are wholes, but these wholes are parts alongside the other parts. As Deleuze and Guattari put it,

…if we discover such a totality alongside various separate parts, it is a whole of these particular parts but does not totalize them; it is a unity of all these particular parts but does not unify them; rather, it is added [my italics] to them as a new part fabricated separately. (AO, 42)

Every object is a part added to the other parts from which it arises or from which it is assembled that never successfully manages to totalize or unify these parts. The parts out of which a substance arise remain as before and can indeed contest this new part. However, this does not entail that the whole that emerges out of the parts is a mere mist, surface-effect, or excrescence. The emergence of wholes as parts alongside other parts does, in fact, add something new that wasn’t there before. It adds paths of transit, communication, and constraint to the parts that were there before. If, for example, my college is a whole that is a part that arises alongside the other parts that were there before– students, faculty, administrators, employees, computers, paper, books, etc. –as a whole that is something that is other than these parts, then this is because my college as a multiplicity is now an actor in its own right that is capable of doing things none of these sub-multiples could do (it can levee taxes and grant degrees for example), but also because as a part alongside the other parts it can rebound on these other parts opening paths of communication or relation that weren’t there before: I am brought into contact with other substances such as faculty, students, books, etc., that I would not have been brought into contact with had this additional part not existed. There is thus a tension between the substances that belong to a substance and this substance.

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