May 2012


Harman and I have certainly had our difference and I think that my onticology differs quite a bit from his object-oriented philosophy in a number of respects.  Nonetheless, in light of David Berry’s rather unfair and ungenerous critique of OOO that I read this morning I thought I would take a minute or two to explain why Graham’s thought– despite my differences from it –has been of such importance to me.  I encountered Graham at a pivotal point in my intellectual development and he was incredibly generous with both his time and discussion with me.  While I had already been moving in a realist direction with the publication of Difference and Givenness, let’s face it; I was very much a high correlationist and social constructivist.  There were tensions there in my thought on this blog between my Lacanian-Zizekian-Badiouian tendencies and my Deleuzian tendencies, but more and more it was the signifier that was winning the day.  As Lacan puts it in Seminar 20, I was increasingly coming to hold that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” (56).  On the realist side of things, I was writing endlessly about Deleuze-Simondon’s theory of individuation– which I still write about and advocate in a modified form –holding that there is nothing but relations without positive terms.

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A common question arises with respect to OOO:  Does OOO have an ethics.  My initial response to this question is perplexity.

Well yeah, sure, OOO has an ethics.  Why wouldn’t it?  As a person I clearly make value judgments and think some things are right and wrong.  Why would that somehow change with OOO?  Do you think we’re saying that you should allow the shark to eat your child?

So I’ll keep this post very short as I’m really interested in hearing from all of you.  Here are a few things that occur to me:

1)  What is it about OOO that prompts this question?  Lurking in the question “does OOO have an ethics?” I hear the unarticulated worry that somehow OOO precludes an ethics.  What assumption is being made that might lead to this worry?

2)  Or maybe it’s that people think that OOO should generate a new ethics.  What is it about OOO that would lead us to think about ethical issues differently?

3)  What are the conditions for having an ethics?  Sometimes I get the sense that folks think that OOO fails to meet the conditions for having an ethics.  This worry seems based on an idea of what an ethics must be.  So what is the conception of what an ethics must be that OOO is supposed to meet?

I stop at these questions and hopefully others will be so kind as to say a word or two about their thoughts on these issues.

Over at stunlaw, David Berry presents a pretty scathing critique of OOO (h/t to Alex Reid), arguing that,

It seems to me that object-oriented ontology and speculative realism together reflect a worrying spirit of conservatism within philosophy. They discount the work of human activity and place it alongside a soporific litany of naturalised objects – a method that points less at the interconnected nature of things, and gestures more towards the infinity of sameness, the gigantic of objects, the relentless distanceless of a total confusion of beings (see Harman 2009a for a discussion of things and objects).

Although Berry doesn’t mention me much in his post and seems fairly unfamiliar with my publications and writings here on the blog– I think it’s rather difficult for someone familiar with my work to accuse me of conservatism or indifference to politics –given the amount of writing I’ve done here and in print on political issues I think it’s worthwhile to respond.  This is especially important, given what one of the respondents to his post goes on to say:

ooo completely ignores movements, forces and power structures (Deleuze, Foucault) that impact on the planet. They have nothing to say about networks, nodes, spheres (Sloterdijk). A very impoverished conservative philosophy. I stll can’t work out what Harman and his “objects” are trying to achieve. Great article David. We should get more radical in our critique

This is a very surprising claim given all Morton and I have written about ecology, as well as all I have written about networks, nodes, forces, movements, and power.  The question is that of how power is constituted and functions.

1)  Flat Ontology and Hierarchy:  From the very outset, Berry seems to get the concept of flat ontology wrong.  He writes:

they follow the other speculative realists in attempting to develop a notion of ‘flat ontology’. This flat ontology is one in which hierarchy is banished and therefore bears a striking resemblance to the universe described by science, albeit differing in not seeking reductionist explanations in terms of causation, etc. Nonetheless, there seems to be no World, in the Heideggerian sense, for the speculative realist, who, observing the relative position of philosophy vis a vis science within human culture, endeavors to replicate or supplement scientific inquiry without human culture, by providing a speculative and philosophical description of the universe through the notion of withdrawn or partially visible objects…

Flat ontology is neither the thesis that there is no hierarchy, nor is it an eradication of human culture.

a)  As Bogost articulates the basic thesis of flat ontology, “all objects equally exist, but not all objects exist equally.”  Let’s take the first half of this thesis, “all objects exist equally.”  This is merely the claim that if something exists it can’t be reduced to anything else– for example, to a social construction –but is a real being that, as I argue in “The Ontic Principle” (The Speculative Turn, 2011), that contributes differences to the world all its own.  Take the example of Zizek’s famous toilets in The Plague of Fantasy.  Zizek brilliantly analyzes French, German, and American toilets, showing how they are the embodiment of a particular ideology.  This is not a form of analysis that I wish to abandon and is a form of analysis that I believe has value (I say as much in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects).  However, what does Zizek’s analysis ignore?  Well it ignores the material difference that toilets make in social assemblages, or the power that they exert.  For Zizek, toilets are merely carriers or vehicles for human significations.  Here the difference is coming from humans (ideology), while the toilets are introducing no difference of their own.  My onticology does not deny that humans introduce differences through their significations.  What it tries to draw attention to is non-signifying differences made by other things.  What difference does a toilet make?  Is it possible that the absence or presence of a toilet plays a role in the forms power takes?  The point is that if we really want to understand how assemblages function we must avoid reducing the actors in assemblages to something else and must instead be attentive to the play of differences among different types of actants or objects.  This includes significations and also includes the bubonic plague.

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After a rocky start which is my fault– I really hate it when I behave like a jerk towards others online (unless, of course, they’re creeps) –Nick and I have been having an interesting discussion on whether or not incorporeals should be admitted into a materialist ontology.  As a materialist, I want to argue that only matter and the void exist.  Consequently, for me anything that is must be material in some way.  Symphony’s, for example, must have some sort of material embodiment whether it be in sound waves, pieces of papers, brains, computer data banks, etc.  I’m not suggesting that the symphony is identical to its transmission through sound waves– I think all sorts of other material processes and interactions have to be involved in order for a symphony to be a symphony –only that there has to be material embodiment and material processes for that symphony to be real.  Even the thought of the symphony later is, for me, a material process.

Nick thinks something important is lost in denying the existence of incorporeals; and here, admittedly, I’m very sympathetic to Nick’s concerns and want to take into account his worries.  I certainly don’t, for example, wish to reduce symphonies, signifying systems, etc., to neurological events.  As I’ve argued in our discussions and elsewhere, neurology doesn’t tell us a whole lot about a signifying system because it’s a different level of materiality.  It’s necessary to study material phenomena at their appropriate level.  Just as we can’t understand hurricanes by investigating individual water and ice particles, we can’t understand signifying systems by looking at individual brains.  At most brains put constraints on signifying systems.  They don’t get at the features of signifying systems themselves.  This is why theories of emergence are so important to me:  it is not just the parts that are important, but the interactions or relations between the parts that are important as well.

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Over at Footnotes2Plato, Matthew has written a post responding to some of my recent work that also outlines his own positions.  Since he mischaracterizes my positions in a few places, a few words of clarification might be worthwhile.  Matthew writes:

Levi and I have argued in the past about his materialism and its lack of formal and final causality. I’ve been claiming that ideas and purposes are real, while he continues to argue that only corporeal things, their causal interactions, and the void in which they interact constitute real things. From his perspective, what we call qualitative forms or deliberate intentions are either alternative names for what are really entirely material activities (gene transcription, electro-chemo-neural synchronization, economic exchange, information transfer, etc.), or they are nothing.

Matthew is correct in pointing out that I don’t believe in formal causality.  This is because I don’t believe that there’s such a thing as unformed matter.  The concept of formal causality only makes sense and is required if one advocates the view that there’s unformed passive matter awaiting form to give it structure.  However, in my view, all matter has form or is structured.  While matter is formable as a result of encounters with other entities, it is never without structure.  For this reason I don’t need a concept of formal causation distinct from matter.  A pile of clay is not a formless stuff awaiting structure.  It has all sorts of structure (its molecular structure, the contours of the pile, etc).  It just doesn’t have the form that the craftsman wants (that of a brick or a vase).  Wherever one speaks of matter as formless and awaiting form you can be sure that there’s anthropocentrism lurking in the background.  I’ve written about this issue in an earlier post on hylomorphism.

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In De Rerum Natura Lucretius teaches that all bodies are porous.  As he writes,

But not all bodily matter is tight packed by nature’s law, for there’s a void in things.  Were there no void, they would not only lack this restlessness of motion altogether, but more than that– they never could have been quickened to life from that tight-packed quiescence.  (Humphries translation, 29 – 30)

By “body” I just mean any thing or entity that exists.  Here are some examples of bodies:  an atom of iron, a tardigrade, a neutrino, a bonobo monkey or any hominid, Greenpeace, a hurricane, a tornado, Collin College, a cheese sandwich.  “Body” refers indiscriminately to any entity that exists.  Thus, while there are many differences among bodies, and while bodies have very different powers and capacities, any entity that is a unit from the smallest to the largest is a body regardless of scale.  Moreover, it’s clear that bodies contain other bodies and that the activities of the smaller bodies contained within a larger body can be very different than those of the larger bodies.  My genes might have “aims” very different than I as a hominid have.  Likewise, a cell in my body might have different “aims” than both my genes and my body.  And again, it is said that 90% of the cells that compose our bodies are not “ours” at all, but are in fact composed of microorganisms.  We could not live without this biological flora that composes us (each and every one of us is really a jungle ecosystem), but this is quite different than suggesting that these microrganisms dwell in us for our sake or share our aims.  At any rate, as Badiou might put it, every body is a “multiplicity of multiplicities”.  Every body is a heterogeneous and complex network of entities that is itself an entity or unit.

The claim that all bodies are porous is the claim that bodies are permeable.  Far from being impenetrable castles with well defined boundaries defining what is inside and what is outside, bodies are permeable down to their most intimate recesses.  Bodies are more like sponges than marbles.  Even marbles are a sort of sponge.  As quantum physicists have taught us, even atoms are mostly composed of void or space.  This is all the more true of larger scale entities like antelope or Occupy Wall Street activist groups.  All entities or bodies are characterized by a porosity that allows the outer world to flow through them.  Snow falls to the ground in Antarctica and carries with it traces of all the gases, dust, and pollutants that are in the atmosphere.  It is because of the porosity of ice crystals that we can know when a volcanic eruption or large asteroid hit the earth in our hominid pre-history.  An it is because bodies are characterized by this porosity that intimacy is an intimacy with a world beyond the boundaries of their membranes; or, as Michael of Archive Fire likes to say, entities are characterized by ontological intimacy with a host of other entities in the world.  Entities flow through each other, influencing and modifying each other in all sorts of ways.

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With too many talks to give in June and July, it’s likely that my postings here will be less frequent for the next few weeks.  Yet having finished the initial draft of my “Black Ecology” article for Jeffrey Cohen’s Prismatic Ecologies collection, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on “nature” of late.  Just as I consider myself a materialist (of a particular sort), I also consider myself a naturalist.  Now, as is often the case, I’m often surprised to find that I use words differently than others.  When I evoke the term “materialism”, for example, I mean that I’m committed to the thesis that there is only matter (whatever that might turn out to be), interactions, and void.  For me materialism just means that there are no incorporeal entities, nor any incorporeal interactions.  If an entity exists, then for me it must be material.  If there’s an interaction, then there must be some sort of material connection between the two entities.  This leaves completely unspecified what kind of entities exist.  All it says is that if an entity exists it will have the common ontological feature of being material as is the case with all other entities.

I was thus surprised to discover that others take the term “materialism” in a very different way.  It seems that the more common usage of the term– in the humanities and social sciences, anyway –entail reductionism.  To be a materialist is to be a reductionist.  Thus, for example, if you’re a materialist this means that you would ignore things like systems of signification or meaning, instead reducing these things to neuronal events and perhaps genes.  Well that’s certainly not a position I endorse, and the reason that I don’t endorse it is because I think it’s the wrong level of explanation.  I think it’s the wrong level of explanation because I don’t believe that signifiers– for example –are restricted to single brains, but that they are transpersonal entities defined by their relations to other signifiers and that can’t be reduced to any particular brain.  While signifiers can’t exist with brains (or computers) of some sort, they are social entities (meaning that can’t be restricted to any particular individual).  All I’m committed to is the thesis that if signifiers exist– and I certainly believe they do –they are material entities.  This is entirely different than claiming that they can be reduced to neurons or genes.  In other words, my materialism is firmly wedded to a theory of emergence.  Discussions like materialism discussion are one of the reasons I blog.  In discussing things with others I learn a lot and discover things and ways of thinking that would have never occurred to me in the solitude of my study.

After the materialism discussion, however, I find myself a little more cautious.  Naturalism seems obvious to me, but am I using the term in the same way others use it?  I don’t know.  Minimally, for me, naturalism means that 1) there is nothing outside of nature, 2) that everything is natural, 3) that, therefore, humans are a part of nature and “societies” (or what I prefer to call “hominid ecologies”) are a part of nature, 4) that there are no incorporeal entities (i.e., to be a naturalist is to be a materialist), and 5) that all causes are natural causes (whatever “nature” might turn out to mean).  To claim that there are no natural causes is just to say that there’s no magical causation, no supernatural causation, that there’s no causation through mysterious entities like “forms”, and that there’s no action at a distance.  For anything that takes place there has to be some sort of physical connection or relation.  In this regard, culture is not something outside of or other than nature, but is one more natural formation among others.  As Deleuze might put it, “there’s nothing out of field”.

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In response to my earlier post entitled Speculative Realism, the Commons, and Politics, a friendly poster asks,

Could the facing of “problems” be the universal here; a transcendent situation? Furthermore part of this situation is that where one group sees a problem another group sees no problem. Ethics and politics are the contingent discourses that the group, who sees the problem, uses to persuade the group who doesn’t see the problem. Although there might not be universal ethical and political principles, nevertheless, political and ethical discourses are grounded in the universal situation of human “problemhood” and its intersubjective struggle.

This is something I should have been more clear about.  As I remarked in the post, problems are not cognitive entities, but ontological situations.  This is to say that problems are not subjective entities based on how a particular person or group perceives a certain issue.  In this respect, it wouldn’t be possible for one group or person to see x as a problem, while another group does not.  In other words, its not minds or groups that pose problems, but rather entities find themselves enmeshed or thrown into problems and the nature they take on is a response to these problems.  Moreover, problems are not negative entities, but are fully positive; but on these points I’m getting ahead of myself.   Here I’m drawing on Deleuze’s concept of problems developed in Difference and Repetition.  Later– though already in Difference and Repetition –he would come to refer to problems as multiplicities.  In my own work, I refer to problems as “regimes of attraction”.

Perhaps the best way to get a flavor of the Deleuzian sense of what problems are is through a nonhuman example.  This will help us to get a sense of how problems are non-cognitive (though they can take place in thought as well), and why they are purely positive, not negative.  Problems are vectors of becoming for entities within assemblages.  Take the example of growing wine grapes.  What is it that the grape will become?  We might think that the answer to this question resides solely in the genetics of the grape, but this leaves unexplained why we buy wine by the year rather than by the label of the wine.  In other words, it fails to explain why grapes with the same genes nonetheless produce different grapes from year to year.

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Jeffrey J. Cohen’s edited collection on nonhumans is now out with Punctum Books and looks fantastic! I can’t wait to read this.

Animal, Mineral, Vegetable examines what happens when we cease to assume that only humans exert agency. Through a careful examination of medieval, early modern and contemporary lifeworlds, these essays collectively argue against ecological anthropocentricity. Sheep, wolves, camels, flowers, chairs, magnets, landscapes, refuse and gems are more than mere objects. They act; they withdraw; they make demands; they connect within lively networks that might foster a new humanism, or that might proceed with indifference towards human affairs. Through what ethics do we respond to these activities and forces? To what futures do these creatures and objects invite us, especially when they appear within the texts and cultures of the “distant” past?
Contents: Jeffrey J. Cohen (George Washington University): “Introduction: All Things” – Karl Steel (Brooklyn College): “With the World, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of the Wolf-Child of Hesse” – Sharon Kinoshita (University of California, Santa Cruz): “Animals and the Medieval Culture of Empire” – Peggy McCracken (University of Michigan): “The Floral and the Human” – Kellie Robertson (University of Wisconsin-Madison): “Exemplary Rocks” – Valerie Allen (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): “Mineral Virtue”  – Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville): “You Are Here: A Manifesto” – Julian Yates (University of Delaware): “Sheep Tracks: Multi-Species Impressions” – Julia Reinhard Lupton (University of California, Irvine): “The Renaissance Res Publica of Things” – Jane Bennett (Johns Hopkins University): “Powers of the Hoard: Further Notes on Material Agency”

Response essays: Lowell Duckert, “Speaking Stones, John Muir, and a Slower (Non)humanities” –  Nedda Mehdizadeh, “‘Ruinous Monument’: Transporting Objects in Herbert’s Persepolis” – Jonathan Gil Harris, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Twenty Questions”

Over at This Cage is Worms Cameron has a nice post responding to my recent post on ontology and politics and articulating his own meditations on the political within a speculative realist framework.  I truly wish that I had a better answer to the question of the political, but there are a couple of reasons that I’m hesitant to articulate positions (while simultaneously, I think, being pretty clear about my ethico-politico commitments).  First, as a flat ontologist and “Darwinian materialist“, I reject the thesis that there are transcendent values or norms that hold for all times and that would allow us to make judgments from afar.  Rather, as I tried to argue in my article “The Ethics of the Event:  Deleuze and Ethics without Aρχή” in Smith and Jun’s Deleuze and Ethics, much political and ethical thought gets things exactly backwards.  Ethical thought does not begin from abstract normative principles that are then used to evaluate situations, but rather– as Deleuze argues and as Bennett argues in her discussions of Dewey in Vibrant Matter –the norms we use to evaluate situations arise from problems that are, in their turn, collectives of nonhumans or collectives of humans and nonhumans.  We only begin to raise ethical and political questions in the face of a problem, a situation where a collective does not work, in those situations where new ways of relating are called for.  As Deleuze argues, these problems are not cognitive deficiencies that disappear in the presence of a solution, but rather are ontological realities that arise from collectives of nonhumans and humans and nonhumans that call for new forms of life.  Moreover, they are singular or responses to specific circumstances.  Ethical and political thought always arises in the midst of a crisis, of a lacuna in the functioning of a collective.  It is not a set of principles that precedes these forms of life.  It seems to me that this is the basic teaching of historical materialism:  our values arise from singular problems specific to those circumstances.

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