Analysis


Responding to my post on Diamond, Yant writes:

One way of approaching the, I think, quite legitimate reservations that Johan raises is to recognise (and this should be quite obvious really) that just because we’ve got a noun for something doesn’t mean we should take it to be an object!

To use words like ‘European, Inca, Maya, European maritime technology’ do not necessarily make a work ‘object oriented’ – this is too hasty a conclusion. Whether a ‘culture’ or a ‘nation’ or a ‘state’ can be legitimately referred to as an ‘object’ at all I think is a very important point.

I study international relations and it is of the utmost importance to the theory of this discipline whether one accepts the state and thus the international system to be closed, black-boxed ‘objects’ (as the dominant, mainstream neo-positivist theories hold) or whether it is actually necessary to insist on opening up this black-box and actually denying it closure (both for ontological and ethical reasons). Similar concerns are routinely raised about Diamond’s histories and I think an OOO driven social science needs to address these problems as problems head on not just accuse critics of correlationism.

I think the problem with Diamond’s work is not that it is oriented towards objects (which is good) but that it is (like Braudel and McNeill certainly) overwhelmingly macro-oriented; this is not necessarily a bad thing but it is certainly something with a lot of problems attached to it.

If we are to advance object oriented theory into the humanities and social sciences further (and this is very much my intention) we need to square some circles. For example, are not the histories of Diamond et al. not the absolute anti-thesis of Latour’s ANT? (And is not Latour’s ANT somewhat the cause celebre of object oriented approaches in the social sciences so far?)

Being ‘object oriented’ doesn’t necessarily forgive one all other sins. I don’t think one need be ‘correlationist’ to recognise the problems of macro-history. That isn’t to dismiss its relevance, however, just to insist on the recognition of its problems.

I initially misunderstood the problem that Jonah was alluding to (here and here). My mistake. Yes, this is all absolutely correct. We cannot assume that just because there is a noun for something that something is an object.

With that said, I think it’s important to exercise some caution where Latour is concerned. OOO and Latour are not identical. Graham already shows some major divergences in Prince of Networks, where Latour falls into the internalist camp pertaining to relations, while OOO is externalist. To this, I would add that Latour, in my view (Harman need not be guilty of this criticism) is often confused with respect to mereology.

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Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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A central aim of Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is to diagnose what he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. In a nutshell, the epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis, often implicit, that ontological questions can be reduced to epistemological questions. The idea here is that ontology can be entirely resolved or evaporated into an inquiry into our access to beings, such that there are no independent questions of ontology. As an example of such a maneuver, take Humean empiricism. As good Humean empiricists, we “bracket” all questions of the world independent of our mind and simply attend to our atomistic impressions (what we would today call “sensations”), and how the mind links or associates these punctiform impression in the course of its experience to generate lawlike statements about cause and effect relations.

Note the nature of Hume’s gesture: Here we restrict ourselves entirely to our atomistic sensations and what can be derived from our sensations. Questions about whether or not our sensations are produced by entities independent of our mind are entirely abandoned as “dogmatic” because we do not have access to the entities that might cause or produce these sensations, but only the sensations themselves. Consequently, the order of knowledge must be restricted to what is given in sensation. Hume’s epistemology is thus based on a thesis about immanence or immediacy. Insofar as our minds possess and immediate relation to our sensations, we are epistemically warranted in appealing to sensations as grounds for our claims to knowledge. We are not however, warranted in appealing to objects, powers, selves, or causes because we do not have sensations of these things. Consequently, all of these ontological claims must be reformulated in epistemological terms premised on our access to being. If we wish to talk of objects, then we must show how the mind “builds up” objects out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of powers, then we must show how the mind builds up powers out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of causality we must show how the mind builds up an idea of cause and effect relations through impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of selves and other minds we have to show how mind builds up our sense of self and other minds out of impressions and cause and effect associations.

At the level of the form of the argument, not the content, nearly every philosophical orientation since the 18th century has made the Humean move. While the content of these positions differ, the form of the argument remains roughly the same. That is, we perpetually see a strategy of attempting to dissolve ontological questions through epistemological questions. This move always proceeds in two steps: First, one aspect of our experience is claimed to be immanent or immediate. Second, the furniture of our ontology is then dissolved through an analysis of those entities with reference to this plane of immanence or immediacy. The immediate can be impressions as in the case of Hume, the transcendental structure of mind as in the case of Kant, the intentions of pure consciousness as in the case of Husserl, or language as in the case of late Wittgenstein or the thought of Derrida. Other examples could be evoked. In each case, the gesture consists in showing how the being of beings can be thoroughly accounted for in terms of our access through this immanence or immediacy. The point is that we no longer treat the entities in our ontology as existing independently of this field of immanence or immediacy, but now see them as products of these modes of access. Whether the world is really like this independent of our chosen regime of construction is a question that is abandoned as dogmatic.

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Over at I Cite Jodi Dean has written a gorgeous mournful post, nicely articulating many of my own recent feelings. In many respects, frustrated by the political situation we find ourselves in, I’ve found myself in a “tend your garden” mode, preferring to think of anything so long as it isn’t politics. Things are just too depressing at the moment, and I confess I feel deeply powerless, as if I’m a serf or a peasant tied to the land that has no power over my circumstances. As I watch the shenanigans of Congress and the administration, I can’t but come to the conclusion that government is simply an arm of the wealthy. I suppose I always knew this, but it’s really hit home for me recently. Moreover, as I observe the behavior of many of my fellow citizens, I can’t help but feel deep disgust at the hatred and resentment that seems to fill them, the superstitious irrationality, and feel deeply sad at the manner in which this pathos compels them to side with the real source of the problem. I thus end up tending my garden.

At any rate, in the comment section Aidan makes an extremely interesting observation related to the blogosophere and speculative realism. Aidan writes,

It’s a very strange and disquieting time in the blogosphere. The speculative realists have made Badiou and Zizek look a little like they belong to another era. Perhaps the most disquieting was how quickly that happened. Almost within the space of a few months. To me it was really momentous, and made me realise how contingent our attachments are. I don’t believe SZ and AB no longer have relevance, but I don’t think it is possible to approach anything now as if SR hadn’t happened. I just wonder about the politics that will arise from it. Perhaps that will be its biggest test.

While I’m far from believing that Badiou and Zizek belong to another era or have grown stale, I do think Aidan is right in observing that the dominant themes in the theory blogosphere shifted almost over night. It was as if a bifurcation point had been reached and a new form of organization arose or came into being. For me the question is why and how these sorts of shifts take place so suddenly. Another way of posing this question would be to ask what was brewing prior to this shift that rendered speculative realism an attractive “solution” or response to these sets of concerns and problems.

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kochOne of the things that absolutely fascinates me about discourse, and, in particular, Lacan’s theory of discourse is that it has a fractal nature that seems to iterate itself at all levels. Thus, to the same degree that you can have interpersonal or speaker to speaker relations that have the same formal structure outlined by Lacan with many different contents, you can have entire social structures that are organized around these formal relationships. And indeed, there’s a strange way in which the appearance of one discourse structure somehow generates the appearance of all the other discourse structures. For those interested in a brief introduction to Lacan’s theory of discourse you can consult my article on discourse theory here, beginning with page 40. Formally we can see why the other three discourses emerge “a priori” wherever there is the appearance of one discourse. If this is the case, then it is by virtue of the fact that discourses form what mathematicians call a group. That is, through a simple clockwise permutation, you are able to generate the other three discourses simply by rotating the symbols in each position one position forward. 180px-MadisThus, if you begin with the discourse of the master, you are able to generate the discourse of the hysteric, the analyst, and the university through a simple clockwise rotation of the terms in each of your initial positions:

180px-Hysdis
Anadis
Unidis For those unacquainted with Lacan’s discourse theory, look carefully at the succession of these four discourses, you will note that beginning with the discourse of the master and then shifting to the discourse of the hysteric, then moving to the discourse of the analyst, and finishing with the discourse of the university, the relations among the terms remains invariant. The terms change their position in each of the four positions they can occupy, but with respect to one another they always maintain a constant position. In this particular universe of discourse (again, see my article for the concept of a “universe of discourse”, which you won’t find in Lacan, but which is a logical extension of his own thought regarding discourse), for example, a can never appear, to put it metaphorically, before the term S2. Consequently, given one discourse, you already have the other three.

As Deleuze put it speaking in the context of Levi-Strauss, “In whatever manner language is acquired, the elements of language must have been given all together, all at once, since they do not exist independently of their possible differential relations” (Logic of Sense, Handsome Continuum Edition, 58). So too with Lacan’s discourse structures. Even if each discourse were to appear diachronically in the order of history in such a way that the others were absent or not present in the social order, nonetheless these other discourses would be virtually there or would exist virtually, simply “awaiting” their opportunity to manifest themselves. What is remarkable, however, is that the discourses don’t seem to arise sequentially with the establishment of a single discourse. Rather, the moment one discourse is instituted you get the sudden actualization of the other three discourses within that universe of discourse.

Take the discourse of the master. What is it that the discourse of the master does? Does it master, dominate, control? No, not really. If you refer back to the discourse of the master you note that on the upper portion of the discourse there is a relation between S1 and S2. S2 refers to the battery of signifiers. We might think of this as a disorganized, chaotic mass of signifiers that float about willy nilly, almost at random. What the discourse of the master does is provide a master-signifier, loosely something like what Derrida referred to as a “transcendental signifier”, that organizes this chaotic mass of signifiers into a unified structure. Thus, for example, when Kant formulated the position of “transcendental idealism” he was situated in the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he provided a signifier that unified philosophy in a particular way, generating a coherent structure or organization. Similarly, when an activist characterizes a series of conflicts as a revolution, he is occupying the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he is unifying a mass of disconnected acts and events under a single signifier that render them capable of generating a sense or an organization.

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I am very tired this morning as I stayed up far too late watching first season episodes of Dexter and had to get up very early this morning to get blood work done, so hopefully I make some sense in these remarks. For some time now I’ve pondered the issue of what precisely accounts for the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment. In many instances I have no doubt that Lacanian psychoanalysis does produce substantial transformations in symptoms and, in a closely related vein, the manner in which a person relates to and experiences others. This was certainly true in my own case, and, I believe, in the case of a number of patients I worked with back when I was still practicing.

Setting aside the aim of analysis as traversing the fantasy and identifying with the symptom, the core Lacanian thesis is that the unconscious is structured like a language. Under this model, the symptom, understood from one angle, is a coagulation of unconscious language that speaks, as it were, that which has fallen underneath the bar of repression. As both Freud and Lacan liked to say, there is no repression without a return of the repressed. What is repressed are therefore signifiers. The symptom is a return of those signifiers in disguised form. In the Rome Discourse Lacan remarks that all speech is addressed to someone. Thus the symptom can be seen as a disguised speech to someone.

My favorite example of this from my own analysis comes from my early teaching experience. At Loyola we still used chalk. When I first began teaching I found myself constantly breaking chalk. This little tick became very noticeable, such that not only was I deeply embarrassed by it, but my students began to chuckle over it and even gave me a chalk guard with a declaration from the citizens of “Chalkville” asking that I clothe their citizens in this fine suit of armor so as to put an end to my carnage. While touched by this little gesture, I was also very bothered by the breaking of the chalk. I remember obsessively talking about it one day in analysis, words flying out of my mouth a mile a minute. At one point I said something like “I don’t know what my problem is, I just seem to put too much pressure on the chalk at the board.” My analyst flatly intoned something like “pressure at the board” and I responded with something like “yeah that’s right, too much pressure on the board.” I thought nothing of it at the time and continued rambling. I didn’t notice until a couple weeks later that I had stopped breaking chalk after that session. The breaking of the chalk was a sort of micro-symptom and a rather minor one at that, though certainly linked in with my global or structuring symptom. I encountered the breaking of the chalk as a problem of technique, a mechanical problem, an inability I have to modulate the amount of pressure I put on the chalk. What my analyst did with his monotonic phrase was transform this bungled action into a condensation or a bit of speech, situating it not as a problem of physics, but as a way of speaking the pressure and anxiety I was experiencing at the board. Perhaps this symptom was even a message to the other situating myself as inept, as bungled, as incompetent, so that I could prop up the Other as complete (a role I had played with respect to my father as a child). The point is that in being articulated, the symptom disappeared. It no longer had to manifest itself in my flesh and activity because it had now been articulated.

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