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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There have been a flurry of posts across the blogosphere discussing the issue of flat ethics. Over at Misanthropology, Craig has a pretty harsh rejoinder to my initial post on flat ethics. I find myself in a pretty interesting position, striving to respond to the humanists who are worried that OOO/NFM and flat ontology imply a denigration of humans and human political issues, while responding to critical animal theorists who are worried about anthropocentrism. My initial post on flat ontology and flat ethics was intended as a response to David Berry and Alexander Galloway. I tend to encounter Craig’s post as the perspective of a psychotic (in Lacan’s sense). But before that is taken pejoratively, maybe Craig is right. What would it really mean to say that Craig is psychotic? It would mean that he is no longer identified with the human perspective, with the human set of attachments and commitments, but has deterritorialized to such a degree that he is a creature that is able to participate in dialogue, while no longer being “one of us”. If this is the case, his perspective, arguments, and theorizations are indispensable to this discussion. Indeed, this is why we should be suspicious of categorizations like “psychotic”, that seem more designed to exclude and alienate, than to dialogue. Craig is the true animal in this debate. In response to Craig’s post and my post, Scu jumps in expressing his worries about discussions of conatus, to which I respond here. Today there have been a flurry of further posts. Over at Struggle Forever, ethographer Jeremy Trombley has a great post up arguing that the question of ethics only arises relationally (something I agree with) and making nods to an ecological conception of ethics where we have to attend to the ecological relations between entities in making judgments about what ought to be done. While not directly jumping into the discussion, both Adam Robbert of Knowledge Ecology and Andre Ling have written two terrific posts discussing politics and ethics, vis a vis OOO, Harman, Morton, Stengers, and Latour (here and here).

Finally, over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has a great post discussing flat ethics using the example of a soccer game. Alex reminds us that we can never treat human agency as arising solely from human beings, drawing attention to the role played by the soccer ball, grass, equipment, etc., in playing the soccer game. Alex’s observations are crucial, deserve to be the starting point of the discussion, and remind me of a passage in Serres I wrote about a year ago. In The Parasite, Serres writes:

A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it. Over there, on the ground, it is nothing; it is stupid; it has no meaning, no function, and no value. Ball isn’t played alone. Those who do, those who hog the ball, are bad players and are soon excluded from the game. They are said to be selfish. The collective game doesn’t need persons, people out for themselves. Let us consider the one who holds it. If he makes it move around him, he is awkward, a bad player. The ball isn’t there fore the body; the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun. Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it. It is the subject of the body, subject of bodies, and like a subject of subjects. Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance. The laws are written for it, defined relative to it, and we bend to these laws. Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves. (225 – 226)

What Alex and Serries remind us is that we’re never strictly the origin of our own actions, but that often we’re the object of the agency of nonhumans such as the soccer ball. If this point is so crucial and deserves to be the starting point of discussion on these issues, then this is because it significantly complicates our notion of agency and just who and what counts as an agent.

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The next few weeks will be extremely hectic, with me away between June 17th and July 7th.

First stop is New Orleans for Deleuze Camp and the Deleuze Studies Conference.

For Deleuze Camp I will be teaching a two day course on Tuesday the 19th and Wednesday the 20th entitled “Space, Territory, and Onto-Cartography”.  Here I’ll be doing some of the groundwork for my Onto-Cartographies project with Edinburgh University Press, outlining the structure of objects, issues of scale, the concept of territory and how territory is organized, issues of how consistency is produced among heterogeneous entities, Deleuze and Guattari’s subordination of space to movement and the two types of movement within space (smooth and striated), and the difference between State and Nomadic space-times/assemblages.  This will all be mapped on to my distinction between black, dim, bright, and rogue (nomadic war machines) objects.

For the Deleuze Studies conference I will be giving a talk entitled “Machinic Objects” on June 26th.  In this talk I’ll be outlining the differences between Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my onticology, and making the case that objects are best understood as machines.

From New Orleans it’s back to Dallas on the 26th and then off to Liverpool on the 27th.  At Liverpool Hope’s Thinking the Absolute conference (click on “events” at the link for info) I will be giving a keynote entitled “Black Ecology” based on my article for the Prismatic Ecologies collection edited by Jeffrey Cohen.  In this talk I critique spiritualist green ecologies such as those defended by Arne Naess, critique holistic concepts of being where everything is already interrelated (i.e., I emphasize the fragility of relations), make the case that all existence is ecological such that society/culture are not something outside of ecology but are both ecological through and through and imbricated with entities we refer to as “natural”, and develop the concept of black bodies– very close to Stacy Alaimo’s trans-corporeality –where entities are both withdrawn beings that harbor hidden depths and where they absorb the influences of other entities as in the case of oceans becoming saturated with fertilizers and our bodies absorbing pollutants in our food.  In this context I also touch on issues of race and social ecologies.  In this talk I also contest the idea that nature or existence naturally tends towards homeostasis, harmony, and balance– positive feedback is every bit as much a feature of nature as negative or self-regulating feedback –thereby attempting to emphasize the necessity of intervening to produce ecological relations that can sustain life and critiquing the idea that markets always aim for an optimal outcome for all.

From Liverpool I fly to Dublin on July 2nd to give a talk entitled “Two Ontologies:  Posthumanism and Lacan’s Graph of Sexuation” at the Independent College of Dublin on July 3rd.  You can read the abstract at the link.  Basically I argue that the feminine side of the graphs of sexuation is the side of being and truth, articulating an opening to a non-anthropocentric flat ontology characterized by relational being and alterity; while the masculine side of the graph of sexuation is the side of semblance and illusion, characterized by anthropocentricism, the primacy of the sovereign subject, the nature/culture divide, and phallocentrism.  Where the masculine side of the graph of sexuation is always characterized by a transcendent State apparatus that codes and sorts beings into fixed categories, the feminine side is the side of immanent relations and porous boundaries.  This talk is the foundation of my article for the Lacan and Posthumanism collection edited by Judith Roof and Svitlana Matviyenko.

Finally, on July 5th I’ll be giving a talk entitled “Denaturing Nature” in London at the Space art gallery.  Here’s the abstract:

Nature must be denatured, but without abandoning nature.  Rather than absorbing nature into culture and language, culture should instead be absorbed into nature in such a way as to show that there’s only nature.  This talk proposes a post-Galilean/Post-Darwinian conception of nature in which nature is understood as all that exists, including the cultural and social, and where nature is contingent, historical, and creative.  This account of nature is contrasted with the pre-Modern and Modern concept of nature, where nature is treated as something that is outside of culture and where it is rhetorically and ideologically used as a tool to legitimize various forms of oppression and prevent emancipatory projects.  The post-Galilean/post-Darwinian account of nature undermines such ideological gestures and defends an account of nature where societies are themselves understood as ecologies dependent upon a broader natural world and where social identities are natural constructions or inventions with a reality of their own.

Then, at long last, it’s back to Dallas.

For many years now I have tried to develop the thesis that “texts aren’t simply about something, but also are something.”  In trying to draw attention to the fact that texts, representations, and signs are not just about something, I’ve attempted to highlight the manner in which representations, texts, signs, and signifiers, are real entities in their own right that float about the world such that the enjoy greater and lesser population density, just like species of animals enjoy greater and lesser population densities in different regions of the world.  Ideas don’t simply have a content, meaning, or truth-value, but also have a spatio-temporal geography.  In other words, some ideas are more common in some places than others.  For example, in the humanities, Marxist ideas are very common such that one wouldn’t be making a bad induction if they reasoned that the next academic they meet from the humanities is likely to advocate some Marxist idea or other.  By contrast, in the broader American population these ideas are fairly absent.  Within a population of people, some ideas are hegemonic in the sense that they dominate the social field or are highly present in the social field, while others are all but invisible.  Just like species of animals in aparticular ecosystem where some animals are more numerous and dominant than others, some ideas and texts are more populous than others in the social world.

This is the material dimension of ideas, their status as beings or entities in their own right that more or less populate the world, rather than their being as meanings, representations, or true or false.  As I argued in a previous post on Object-Oriented Rhetoric (OOR), considering ideas in their material dimension brings to the fore a different set of considerations than if we consider them in their representational or meaningful dimension.  When we approach texts from the standpoint of representation and meaning, we seek to “decode” them, to determine what they signify, to interpret them, to determine whether they’re true or false, to determine what they’re ideological content is.  By contrast, when we approach texts as material entities that circulate throughout the world we proceed more as ecologists or epidemiologists than as interpreters.  In our materialist approach, we look at ideas as populations or actors in the world, we examine the ecosystems to which they belong, their spread throughout a population, and the mechanisms by which they exclude other ideas, thereby maintaining certain power relations.  The point is not to exclude interpretation and the evaluation of truth and falsity, but to recognize the way in which ideas have a reality, a material existence, of their own such that strategies must be developed for both weakening certain ideas and for promoting others and enabling the existence of others.  If a critic debunks an ideology in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it doesn’t do much good.  The truth and justice of an idea is not enough to give it reality in a population.

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