June 2012


In the Prolegomena Kant speaks of a form of difference, intuitive difference, that is not of the order of an opposition between concepts. These are felt differences, differences that can only– as Deleuze says in chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition –that can only be sensed, and that cannot be inscribed discursively in a concept. Kant gives the examples of handedness and enantiomorphs (images in a mirror). Conceptually the image in the mirror is identical to what it reflects, yet try as we might we cannot superimpose the image over what it reflects because the image is inverted. Yet this inversion, this reflection, is a difference that can only be felt or sensed. It was features like this that led Kant to claim that there must be a transcendental aesthetic, to claim that the aesthetic is irreducible to the conceptual, or that there is a domain of differences that are outside the conceptual and that must be lived to be known.

In this spirit, it is perhaps the case that there is an affective dimension to every philosophy. Philosophy, as the invention of concepts, is always populated by a discursive or a conceptual field; yet perhaps there is also an affective field, a field of affective or sensible volumes, that haunt every philosophy as well. Is there maybe a way there is a dimension of sensible volumes in philosophy that can only be felt? These volumes of affect would be intertwined with the concepts that populate a philosophy, but would not themselves be of the discursive order.

If this were true, to visit or inhabit a philosophy would be to occupy a field of affects. Here there would be an attractive dimension of philosophies that is not derived from the rigor of its arguments or persuasion, but rather the affects or jouissance that the thought fills us with. Did we first have this form of jouissance and then find a philosophy appropriate to it? Or is it that we inhabit the concepts of a philosophy and then come to have this sort of jouissance or affectivity? I don’t know. It is likely that there is a feedback loop here, with dispositions of jouissance we already have drawing us towards particular philosophies, and with philosophies cultivating and intensifying a particular sort of jouissance in us. However it is, it’s difficult to escape the impression that different philosophies are also different forms of jouissance.

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I’ll have to be brief as I’m heading out the door soon for Liverpool, but since my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist and I are hashing my machine talk out in comments with respect to my previous post on machine-oriented ontology, I thought it might be timely to say a word or two about my theory of writing.  The poet Artaud famously said that the most difficult thing of all is to engender thought within thought.  Thought is not something that comes immediately and automatically to us.  Rather, it is the result of an encounter and it requires a genesis.  This, I guess, is the theory behind my own practice of writing and my unfortunate word choices (“object”, “machine”, “existential ecology”, etc.).  I have an imp of perversity in me.  I intentionally choose words that I know will provoke.  That provocation is not just a provocation towards whatever readers I might happen to have, but towards myself as well.  How can I manage to think?  How can I engender thought in myself?  It doesn’t come naturally or automatically.

My theory of writing and thinking here is based on a hybrid of Deleuze’s theory of the encounter and Lacan’s theory of the analytic act.  Lacanian psychoanalysis perpetually struggles with the sedimentations of the analysand’s discourse or what Bruce Fink calls “ego discourse”.  The analysand thinks that he knows what he’s saying, that he knows what his intentions are, but there’s another discourse, the discourse of the Other or the unconscious, lurking behind this belief in the transparency of his ego-discourse and speech.  Lacanians don’t really interpret.  We never say “x means y” or “this is what your forgetting of the umbrella really meant.”  It is always the analysand, not the analyst, that gives meaning.  Rather, Lacanians instead interrupt.  When they speak, they do so in a way that attends not to the conscious intentions of the analysand’s discourse, but to the polysemy, the homonyms, the equivocations, the gaps, the contradictions, etc., within that discourse.  Their acts, not interpretations, both suggest that some other desire might be speaking here, one contrary to your ego discourse, and open the possibility of that other discourse speaking rather than being smothered in narcissistic self-image and the purported transparency of communicative ego discourse.  The aim is to upset the unity of discourse so that desire might shine through and began to articulate itself.

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When I was a young child my days were spent in the woods, wetlands, and creeks of the places that I lived.  I would collect barks, lichens, leaves and mosses.  I was fascinated with salamanders, tortoises (they were my favorites), toads, and snakes.  In the creeks I would explore the worlds of all manner of fish, tadpoles, crawfish, turtles (I loved the painter and snapping turtles), tadpoles and frogs.  I delighted in the insects that skimmed across the water, weaving in and out of cattails on long legs, and the dragon flies that flew like acrobats at break neck speeds.  My room was filled with aquariums of my specimens– poor things –and my joy was to immerse myself in their beautiful patterns, shapes, colors, and behaviors.  There was no purpose to any of this beyond sheer delight and curiosity.  I don’t know why I was curious in this way.  I just loved the woods, swamps, creeks and rivers.  I was immersed in them.

As I grew older, my curiosity turned more towards social, political, psychological, and historical questions.  I was a painfully shy child, nervous about how the movements and shape of my body were seen by others about me, deeply aware that I was seen by others, nervous about my smile, my teeth, unsure of how to talk to other people.  When I was around the age of fourteen, a conservative fundamentalist religious revival swept through the small town where I lived, New Philadelphia, Ohio.  Everyone suddenly became born again, and the fascisms began to sweep through the town.  People that got along were now at each other’s throats.  They got rid of evolution in the biology curriculum, switched to abstinence only sex education, banned the teaching of Orwell’s 1984 because of it’s sexual content.  Indeed, they actually burned copies of 1984 in oil drums outside the school.  I found this deeply traumatic and wanted to understand it and do something about it.  I became obsessed with the holocaust and the sad and horrific fate of the beautiful communist dream in the Soviet Unions.  The histories of this period, Orwell, Primo Levi, Soltzhenitsyn became my bibles.  I found Durkheim and Freud.  Anything to understand why this was happening.  I also discovered philosophy during this time:  Above all Spinoza, Sartre, and Heidegger, but also Whitehead, Dewey, Peirce, James, and Husserl.  These questions would be my obsession for the next fifteen years, and are still my obsession.

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The initial draft of my plenary for the Deleuze Studies conference next Tuesday.

What we need is not a conception of being composed of objects, but rather of machines.  Nor is it a pan-psychism, organicism, or vitalism that we need, but rather a pan-mechanism.  To be is to be a machine.  Rocks are machines, stars are machines, trees are machines, people are machines, corporations are machines, revolutionary groups are machines, tardigrades are machines  And if a generalized machinism is so necessary, then this is because it brings precision to what we’re doing when we analyze substances, entities, and how things interact.  Pan-mechanism is not simply the claim that being is composed entirely of machines, but that all interactions are machinic interactions.  We do not yet know, of course, what this means.  Clearly there is an entire zoology of machines that must be intensively investigated.  Just as in zoology a mushroom is not an ardvaark and the two belong to entirely different genera, a rock is not a computer nor a mantis shrimp and automobile.  Everything is a machine, yet there are very different types of machines.  Most objections to the thesis of pan-mechanism will arise from treating one type of machine and machinic interaction as capturing the essence of machinism as such, ignoring the broad zoology of machines.  Or rather, since “zoology” is still too vitalistic, we should instead refer to a “mechanology” composed of different genera and species of machines.  Zoology studies only one genre of machines.  Of course, being the perverse imp that I am– “evil” is, after all, an anagram of my name “Levi” –I have chosen the terms “pan-mechanism” and machinism not simply to mark my continuing debt to Deleuze and Guattari, but to get under the skin, to prickle, to generate some irritation and discomfort so that some thought might take place both in myself and perhaps others.  Pan-mechanism is simultaneously an ontology, theory of interactions or relations, a methodology, and a very concrete empirical research project.

1)  Functionalism:  The dictionary tells us– at least on Google –that a machine is “an apparatus using or applying mechanical power to perform a particular task.”  This definition is a fair initial step, but remains too anthropomorphic and specific to capture the essence of machines.  First, mechanical energy is only one type of energy machines use to function or perform.  A flower is a machine, yet it does not use mechanical energy to machine, but rather chemical processes.  Institutions are machines that often have mechanical components, but primarily machine utterances and other signs.  We must thus abandon the thesis that the use of mechanical power is an essential feature of machines.  Mechanical power is only used by one genera of machines in the mechanosphere.

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Increasingly the sorting of types of objects or things has become important to me.  In the past I’ve suggested that there are dark, dim, bright, and rogue objects.  Speaking of these as types of objects is a bit of a misnomer.  It is not so much that these are types of objects, so much as these are ways in which objects are related or not related.  In this respect, whether an object is dark, dim, bright, or rogue is not an intrinsic feature of the object.  An object that was dark can become bright, and so on.

It is difficult to understand this sorting of objects without understanding the concept of gravity I’ve been developing.  Gravity is the way in which one object influences other objects, playing a role in what movements and actions are and are not possible for that object.  I arrive at my concept of gravity through analogy to Einstein’s theory of relativity.  It will be recalled that despite allowing us to comprehend gravity, Newton was nonetheless faced with the question of how two entities can affect one another from a distance.  How is it that the sun can hold the earth in its orbit despite the fact that the sun and earth don’t directly touch or interact with one another?  This led to a sort of crisis in physics where we were told to no longer ask questions about causality.  “It’s enough that all bodies follow this law, don’t ask what causes that obedience!”  One of Einstein’s great achievements was to show how this works.  Einstein’s thesis was that objects bend space-time as a function of their mass.  The reason that the earth orbits the sun is that the mass of the sun bends space-time in such a way that the earth, falling and moving in a straight line, moves along the curve of space-time produced by the sun.  It is not that the sun is exercising a force on the earth, so much as it is bending the space-time in which the earth moves.  Rather than spinning off into space, the earth thus is caught in the spider-web of the sun’s curvature of space-time.

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Over at This Cage is Worms, Cameron has a post up discussing OOO, flat ethics, and politics.  There are a few misrepresentations of my position there, so I thought it would be worthwhile to say a word or two in response.  In his post, Cameron suggests that I hold that humans are ethically privileged over all other beings because I’m skeptical of the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethics.  In other words, Cameron seems to think that I hold that humans are the sole entity of ethical regard and concern.  Yet I am not claiming this at all.  As I argue in my post entitled “The Question of Flat Ethics“, ethical consideration can be extended to all sorts of nonhumans.  Where traditional ethics tend to treat ethical duties and obligations as only pertaining to humans, OOO, SR, and NMF’s expand the domain of ethical regard to nonhumans.  Indeed, this is at the core of my own position.  So why do I nonetheless express skepticism at the possibility of a posthuman or non-anthropocentric ethics?  Not because I think we’re only concerned with humans or that we should only be concerned with humans, but because it is still humans making the ethical judgments and setting the values in this framework.  That is still an anthropocentrism, even if it is one that extends ethical regard to nonhumans.

Cameron goes on to suggest that I hold that every entity must be counted within an OOO politics.  As he writes:

I’m deeply disturbed by this desire to account for every possible actor in assemblage. Talk about “effective intervention” makes me worried about ways in which we understand who, and what, counts in that intervention. OOO would obviously say that everything counts, but practical politics can’t possibly account for all actors. I am worried that this is symptomatic of a much larger trend in the OOO sphere that desires a count before action, which will always allow for a critique of ethics and politics; it means that there will always be someone who can say “you got your count wrong” or “you didn’t wait for the full count.” Between this and the “hands in the air” model, I am concerned that there is a political paralysis that accompanies the current OOO way of doing things.

In my view, Cameron is here confusing two very different types of political questions:  normative political questions and, for lack of a better term, analytic political questions.  What’s the difference?  Normative political questions ask questions like “how should society be constituted?”, “what should we do?”, “what is justice?”, etc.  Normative political philosophy is interested in judging the situation and determining what should be done.  “Should we support the workers or the wealthy?”  “What would a truly free society look like?”  This is the sort of political philosophy you see in thinkers– very different amongst themselves –like Plato, Rawls, Habermas, Badiou, Ranciere, and so on.  These thinkers all, in very different ways, attempt to provide criteria for distinguishing between just and unjust social formations.  In claiming that I hold we should count everything, Cameron seems to think I’m making a normative claim about what a just ethical and political philosophy would look like.

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Over the years I’ve written on this question obsessively, coming back to it again and again.  I draw the term, of course, from Deleuze.  It is a key one within his ontology; every bit as important as concepts such as multiplicity and virtuality.  In onticology, singularities are part of what constitute the virtual proper being of things, their unique being, their haecceity or thisness.  Yet the concept of singularity is extremely elusive.  The singularities that populate a thing are something that can be alluded to without it being possible to represent them.  Deleuze is careful to distinguish singularities from individuals.  As he repeatedly states throughout Difference and Repetition, “individuation is not the individual”.  Individuation refers to those processes by which an individual is produced.  Singularities are central actors in that process of individuation.  They are not something outside of things– they are strictly immanent in things –but neither are they the qualities (such as color, texture, taste, etc) or shape of things.  Rather, they are that within a thing that will generate qualities and shape when a thing enters into a particular field of forces.  Other fields of forces would lead to the genesis of other qualities and shapes.

In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze gives us some provocative examples of singularities.  He writes that, “[s]ingularities are turning points and points of inflection; bottlenecks, knots, foyers, and centers; points of fusion and condensation, and boiling; points of tears and joy, sickness and health, hope and anxiety, ‘sensitive’ points” (63).  From these examples, we get the sense that singularities are points of tension and potentiality within matter or a thing that are absolutely unique to that thing.  As in the case of the wood to the right above, examples of singularities would be the knot, the grain of the wood, its wetness and density, etc.

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