Boring Stuff About Me

I look with longing from afar at the Bennett reading group that is now afoot, led by Peter Gratton. Check it out, and above all participate in comments! I get the sense that Bennett is vacillating a bit with respect to her own claims from certain aspects in the tone of her book. I, for one, ardently wish to see her continue in this path of thought and develop it further (which isn’t unlikely given what a creative and acrobatic thinker she is). In other news, Adrian already has an excellent post up to kick the discussion off. I am myself unable to respond at this time due to writing The Democracy of Objects, but Adrian’s thought and critiques are never far from my own thought. Enjoy!

In other news, The Democracy of Objects is coming along nicely with lots of new material. Today saw 18 pages of text developing chapter 3 on “split-objects”, dealing heavily with Aristotle’s concept of primary substances (who I believe has been mistreated by contemporary philosophy), Locke, Hume, and Kant. I’m surprised at how nicely everything is coming together and pleased by the arguments I’m developing. It’s painful not to post it all here as it comes out, but hey, I have to surprise y’all with something! Nonetheless, given how quickly things are coming together I expect that I’ll have a complete draft in the next month or so. Blogging is not wasted time.

I wanted to thank all of those who wrote me offering to edit The Democracy of Objects. I have selected three people from among the many of you. With any luck OHP will have a final draft in hand by the end of August or September.

My interview with Peter Gratton is now available over at Philosophy in a Time of Error. In response to Graham’s question, yes, the interview was conducted last Wednesday, prior to attending the Georgia Tech symposium.

For the last week or so I’ve been in the grip of a rather nasty Spring cold, so it was a nice respite and surprise to be approached by Cogburn to contribute to the collection he’s putting together on Dungeons & Dragons and philosophy. When I ran this by Mel it actually generated some sparks between us. “I made a solemn vow”, she said, “to never be involved with someone who can explain the intricacies of Hit Points.” Poor dear, she has no idea how bad it is. Not only can I explain the intricacies of Hit Points, but I know all about THAC0. I suppose our friendship will find some way to endure this great betrayal brought about by my hidden nerdiness. Of course, I’m probably not helping matters much by publicly announcing my inner nerdiness. However, in my view this should be something endearing, not off-putting. Then again, gamers have always been challenged where the ladies are concerned.

When Jon first approached me about contributing I got that “deer in the headlights” look. After all, it’s been about twenty years since I played. What would I possibly have to say about this game that was so formative for me?

However, the more I think about the game in the context of my current work, the more I see that Dungeons & Dragons is a marvelous example of a flat ontology where all objects are actants. Unlike vertical ontologies characterized by a sharp divide between agency on the one hand and lifeless matter on the other, the world of D&D is a pluralistic universe, a pluriverse, pervaded by actants of all sorts, both animate and inanimate. There is, of course, the obvious anti-anthropocentric bent of the game, characterized as it is by all sorts of humanoids ranging from humans to elves to dwarves to gnomes to orcs and so on. Yet the pluriverse of D&D is not simply a pluriverse characterized by a vertical gap between humanoids on the one hand and animals and inanimate objects on the other. Rather, the critters that populate the bestiary of D&D themselves have their own aims, intelligences, and powers. These critters are not simply less than the humanoid or fodder for humanoid sustenance. They are genuine agents or actors in their own right that human actants must think and respond to in much the same way that they must think and respond to other humans.

Yet the radicality of the D&D ontology, it’s profound anti-anthropocentrism, does not end there, for even the inanimate and the dead are actants in this pluriverse. Who could forget artifacts like Baba Yaga’s Hut that walk about on their own on two chicken legs? The inanimate nonhuman actants of this world are imbued with powers and activities of their own, thereby undermining any thesis that nonhuman inanimate actants are mere “matter” to passively take on human intentions. They act and often deeply at odds with the aims of those that wield them. Here we need only think of the enchanted sword with a curse upon it. What is the curse if not an inanimate object using its wielder as an artifact for its ends rather than being used for the ends of the humanoid wielding it?

And so too, in this strange universe, even the dead refuse to rest. There are, for example, those entities like the lich that refuse to rest, that refuse to die, and that continue to walk the earth as something other than the human. What we find in this strange universe is a truly flat world where all objects are genuine actants and where the human is not at the center of being, but is one being among other actants, vying with those actants.

Weighing in at a whopping 509 single spaced pages or 253,000 words, here are the initial notes and sketches for The Democracy of Objects that I’ve put together over the last year or so. Next comes the process of winnowing and organizing, getting this monster down to between two and three hundred pages or 80,000 – 100,000 words. It shouldn’t be long now. And if anyone was wondering, yes that’s the blue coffee mug I’m always waxing poetic about.

For some reason Bogost’s post today got me thinking about what perfect object-oriented and flat ontological horror would look like. This, in turn, got me thinking about two science fiction/horror films I found particularly unsettling or uncanny: The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In fact, to this day I still occasionally have nightmares about War of the Worlds, though oddly I can’t resist watching it whenever it’s on and actually own it (why I derive so much more pleasure from watching a film when it happens to be on rather than simply popping one in my DVD player is a mystery I won’t plumb this evening). Both films, I think, share a common characteristic, hinting at something like a new theme in the science fiction/horror genre. Of the two, War of the Worlds comes closer to embodying this theme, while there are certain respects in which it is more overt in the first half or two thirds of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In both cases there’s a way in which humans are ontologically de-centered or ousted from pride of place in these films. And it is this, perhaps, that accounts for the unsettling and uncanny feeling one has when watching these movies. There is a sort of unconscious correlationist assumption that pervades nearly all horror films and alien invasion science fiction films: That humans are the addressee. “Of course”, the narrative seems to say, “any aliens that invaded planet earth would focus on the humans.” The unsettling sense produced by The Day the Earth Stood Still, before it degenerates into the usual pap of how we’re intrinsically worth preserving, is that the aliens are not there for us, but rather to save all other creatures on the planet. The centrality of the human is here deeply devalued. If War of the Worlds is, of the two, the superior film (apart from the obvious reasons… The Day the Earth Stood Still is, overall, a poor showing), then this is because the invading aliens are more or less completely indifferent to us. We, like everything else on the planet, are more or less furniture that has to be cleared away for their occupation. They hold no hostility towards us, nor any particular esteem, and do not see us as arch-rivals to be defeated. Rather, we’re just like cows and trees: something that’s in the way. Indeed, unlike anthropocentric films like Independence Day where the issue is one of establishing the superiority of the human against any other intelligent lifeform, it is bacteria that ultimately defeat the aliens. Much of human import (the father renewing his relationship with his children) occurs in War of the Worlds, but it is certainly not a triumphalist yarn about “man as a prosthetic god”.

There are, of course, precursors to this ontological vision. Readers might recall Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the aliens are destroying the planet in a desperate attempt to communicate with whales. Here we have a similar dethroning of the centrality of the human. I make none of these remarks to suggest that this de-emphasis of the human is a good thing or to imply that the human should be treated like something that’s merely in the way to be cast aside. No. Rather, what interests me is the effect of the uncanny that this quintessentially anti-humanist cinema seems to produce in the viewer (at least, to produce in this viewer). One reels before the jaw-dropping flatness of such a universe, where humans are treated as one other being among others, rather than a privileged center to which all other entities must necessarily address themselves. Who knows, perhaps there’s even the possibility of renewing the genre of horror through the exploration of the flat and a-human, where humans are caught up in events beyond themselves but are not at the center. Yet perhaps there is also an enlightening social and political message in this rejection of any narcissistic comfort and centralization of the human. Can readers cite other films that are structured in similar ways?

Yep, as of midnight last night, I’m now 36 years younger. Aging seems to be accelerating more quickly now. More gray hairs, oddly localized in one part of my beard, etc., and other things I don’t think I noticed last year. No doubt this is the result of having to perpetually deal with Paparazzi as a consequence of blog, OOO, and SR stardom. I can hardly get out the door anymore without someone trying to take a picture (those topless beach pictures that made their rounds in the tabloids last year were mortifying). The life of the proponent of OOO and SR isn’t as glamorous as outsiders might think, even with all the Parisian supermodels throwing themselves at you and the huge piles of wealth. Don’t even get me started about the tabloid rumors that constantly whirl about you. All this aside, I wonder when I’ll ever feel “grown-up”. Within the lived internal space of my body I still feel like some sexy twenty year old. And I’m sure some about these parts would say I act like a twelve year old. Yet my body as an image tells another story.

As the year draws to a close I find myself looking back at this crazy year and those texts that impacted me the most. For me 2009 has been one of those years in which everything changed, where all sorts of old assumptions and fixations dissipated like so much mist, and where I’ve found myself having to rebuild everything from the ground up. Building, of course, always requires materials out of which things must be built. Consequently, it is not so much that all of those old influences (phenomenology, Deleuze, structuralism, semiotics, Lacan, Freud, Marx, Kant, Spinoza, Lucretius, Hume, etc., etc.) disappeared, it is that my relationship to these forms of thought shifted and suddenly I was asking different questions, dealing with different problems, resituating what was important and unimportant in these earlier influences, while also abandoning a number of the problems that motivated these movements and thinkers. This year has felt like an event in the Deleuzian sense of something that fundamentally splits time between a before and an after where everything is different with respect to the after.

The most fundamental encounter of 2009 was certainly my encounter with Graham Harman. When rumblings about Speculative Realism began, I was inclined to find Harman’s work the least interesting among the big four. This was not out of any familiarity with that work. I hadn’t yet read it. What I had heard about it through Nick Srnicek did not strike me as particularly interesting or far reaching. He was working on Heidegger. He was a phenomenologist. His work did not resonate with what I took to be the most important trends in contemporary Continental thought: Lacan, Zizek, Badiou, and Deleuze and Guattari. Nor was my confidence in his work inspired when I came online papers of his on Latour. “Latour?!? Really? Latour? Does this man have any philosophical taste? Doesn’t he know that the real philosophy is taking place with figures like Badiou, Lacan, and Zizek? Isn’t he interested in formalization and mathematics? Isn’t Latour a sort of crank or the worst sort of ’90s’ postmodern sophist?”

read on!

One of the central theses of psychoanalysis is that the manner in which we interpret others says more about the structure of our own desire than the desire of the other person we’re interpreting. I am not sure one even has to be an advocate of psychoanalytic theory to endorse this thesis. Given that we don’t have access to the minds of other people our attributions of motives to others must proceed by analogy to ourselves, such that we attribute motives to others based on what motivates us. It is with this thesis in mind that I’ve found myself amused by a certain claim that has been floating about the blogosphere lately. Here the thesis is that I and a few others are forming relationships with other academics such as Harman simply for the sake of promoting our own academic careers. In other words, the suggestion is that I do not blog as much as I do for the reason that I’m genuinely engaged with the things I blog about, nor because I genuinely appreciate the philosophical positions of folks like Harman, but because somehow these relationships will advance my academic career.

This is a truly peculiar and baffling thesis. First a little reality check. I am a Continentalist. If there is one thing Continentalists almost viscerally despise, it is any form of realism. Whenever the signifier “realism” is evoked, one of the first charges you hear is “naive positivism!” or “reductivism!” If one is truly looking to land a plum position in a Continental philosophy department, hanging your hat on the peg of “speculative realism” is hardly a wise strategy for doing so. Similarly, it would be no exaggeration to say that Continental philosophy departments are dominated by Heideggerians and phenomenologists. Harman’s work, as admirable as it is, has generated a tremendous amount of hostility from Heideggerians and phenomenologists as a sort of sacrilege. Working on the premise that job committees in Continental departments are very likely to have at least one scholar representing this movement, one is certainly not doing themselves any favors by siding with object-oriented ontology. Additionally, Latour’s work is often looked down upon in philosophy departments as either a relativistic postmodernism as depicted by Sokal, or as that of a second string French thinker trailing far behind big daddies like Derrida and Deleuze. One certainly isn’t doing oneself any favors by taking Latour seriously.

Second, the way to advance yourself in your career is to publish in the most prestigious journals and with the most prestigious presses. You don’t exactly do yourself any favors publishing in obscure journals that aren’t recognized as the primo journals in your field, nor do you do yourself many favors by publishing with currently unknown presses as I will soon be doing with The Democracy of Objects. Moreover, for the non-established academic the simple fact of blogging, I think, can be a black mark against you. On the one hand, blogging remains suspect for many old school academics. This is especially true in philosophy where attitudes tend to be somewhat provincial and luddite in character. In addition to this, blogging leaves a long trail of comments where your less than stellar moments, your poorly thought out ideas, your weird ticks and passions, etc., are there for everyone to see.

No, if anything, hanging one’s hat on the peg of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology looks more like an act of career masochism than a way of advancing your career. I am not holding my breath for DePaul, Villanova, Penn State, Memphis, etc., to come knocking on my door. If I do these things things then this is because I am passionate about philosophy and ideas and believe there is genuine merit and importance in these positions. What is intriguing is an interpretive frame that suggests that advancing one’s career is the most likely and most plausible motivation for writing a good deal or interacting with other thinkers. This is especially absurd when said writing is on a blog rather than in publications in prestigious peer reviewed journals that count on your CV. Such an interpretation seems to say more about one’s own relationship to philosophy and writing than the motivations of others. I also find myself surprised that folks who were patronizingly and insultingly criticizing others for “beating up” on a “poor defenseless grad student” are suddenly beating up on a grad student who has taken the initiative to start an academic journal. Then again, these things never make sense.

The time has come for my posts here to become far less frequent. I really need to get cracking on The Democracy of Objects: An Essay in Object-Oriented Ontology and believe that the major contours of my position are outlined and ready to be worked through in written detail. At present this is what the general structure of the book, chapter by chapter, looks like. It will, of course, change as I work through it in more detail. So without further ado:

The Democracy of Objects: An Essay in Object-Oriented Ontology

Projected Table of Contents

1. Introduction– What is the relation between relations and relata? The relation between relations and relata as a key problem in contemporary epistemology and ontology as a result of the anti-realist turn which argues that philosophy should interrogate our mode of cognition of objects rather than objects themselves (i.e., our relation to objects); The problem with relational conceptions of being; realism as a four letter word, the difference between realist epistemology, anti-realist epistemology, anti-realist ontology, and realist ontology; not your daddy’s realism; a respectful nod to Lee Braver; outline of the book.

2. Copernican Revolutions– What is humanism?; A diagnosis of the Ptolemaic orientation of contemporary philosophy; the call for a true Copernican ontology, arguments for a transcendental realism; the difference between transcendental realism, empirical realism, and transcendental idealism; the problem with epistemological and ontological relationism. Here I will rework a number of Bhaskar’s arguments for realist ontology while distinguishing my ontology and, more broadly, object-oriented ontology from Bhaskar’s position. In addition to this I’ll probably take up some of Harman’s critique of the arguments of transcendental idealism as well. What is a transcendental argument? Transcendental realism and transcendental idealism; blackboxes. Surprise.

Part I: The Onticological Analytic– Doctrine of the Endo-Relational Structure of Objects

Preface– The question of what must belong to beings or objects by right (quid juris) in order to render our praxis or relation to the world intelligible, i.e., the need for an analytic of objects in isolation from their relations. The difference between a knowledge of objects, questions of access to objects, and a philosophical ontology of objects. Why ontological questions are not exhausted by epistemological inquiries or questions of access.

3. The Principles of Onticology– The Categorical Scheme: Whitehead and the idea of a categorical scheme, the principles of onticology (the ontic principle, the principle of translation, the principle of irreduction, etc) along with their deduction.

Intermezzo– The ontological grounds of anti-realist epistemology (follows directly from the principles of chapter 3). How anti-realist epistemology nonetheless leads to a realist ontology of objects.

4. Spectral Objects– The Endo-Relational Structure of Objects: Here I try to rehabilitate a version of substantial forms and distinguish the proper being of objects from material or physical being. A critique of Locke’s and Kant’s critique of substance. Roughly this is where I treat the being of objects as systems of notes composed of attractors in a phase space. This allows me to articulate the relationship between substance and qualities as well as what persists in objects changing across time.

Intermission– Platonic Reminiscences: For a pluralist ontology, i.e., the domain of being is broader than the domain of natural or material objects. The role that time has played in our conception of what counts as real; Plato’s ontological levels in the divided line and how these grades of reality map on to temporal determinations ranging from the eternal and unmediated to the fleeting and mediated; the problems with equating being with eduring; in defense of “artificial” (i.e., produced) objects and their autonomy.

5. Strange Mereologies: Basically the arguments I’ve been making about mereological relations of parts to wholes, objects containing other objects, the independence of objects from one another, the meaning of the term “independence”, and the necessity of this sort of mereology; a friendly response to Shaviro on becoming.

Part II: The Onticological Dialectic: Doctrine of Exo-Relations Between Objects

Preface– The question of how, in light of the arguments and analysis of Part I, we must conceive relations among objects; the idea of ontological dialectic; Kant’s transcendental dialectic; objects are independent of their relations but this does not entail that objects do not enter into relations, nor that through entering into relations objects are not affected in a variety of ways.

6. The World is Flat: The case for flat or immanent ontology that refuses overmining and undermining explanations (against both reductivism and anti-reductivism); a single plane of being ranging from the least powerful or consequential to the most powerful and consequential in which signs and minds have no less a status to the real than stars and planets and where stars, planets, DNA, etc., are not reduced to minds.

7. Objects of Interpretation: Latour’s thesis that all objects interpret one another, not just humans interpreting the world about them or texts interpreting texts; the theory of translation among split or withdrawn objects; Doctrine of black boxes; the “withdrawal” of objects. Basically an account of what happens when objects interact with one another and how no object is a vehicle for other objects in-forming another object through a transparent, frictionless medium; entropy and work; the problem of ports and firewalls or how do objects communicate?; the doctrine of selectivity or “not all objects communicate!”

Intermezzo 2 Remarks about anti-realist epistemologies again and ontological confirmation of these positions; critique of their excesses and detrimental impact on inquiry. Why anti-realist epistemology nonetheless requires a realist ontology.

8. Networks, Assemblages, and Categories: (I need a better title here) The distinction between an object and a network of objects (the question of when we shift from separated objects to a new object); dependency relations between networks where objects nonetheless remain independent; and the theory of categories I’ve developed in terms of Lacanian discourse theory and Badiou’s understanding of categories; networks as dynamic and ongoing systems. Note on where both Badiou and Lacan go wrong in reducing objects to their categorical or dialectical relations.

Conclusion: The end of nature and culture; implications for epistemology; keeping track of work; asking better questions, the end of narcissism and the affirmation of the wound; the re-construction of the history of ontology with realism as its guiding clue.

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