Ian Bogost


Having responded to Pete’s critique of the concept of translation in my previous post, I now move to his other criticisms. Insofar as I’ve provisionally laid the groundwork for some of my major claims this post should, hopefully, move a bit more quickly. After ridiculing the idea of translation that has, on this blog, been written about in great detail, as a mere metaphor, Pete goes on to remark that:

This is not in accord with Kant’s account, because Kant has a complicated transcendental machinery that establishes what objective representation is and how it can be prone to error. Inference plays an important role within this story, insofar as concepts are inferentially articulated for Kant. Precisely what I was accusing Graham of here was that he doesn’t have anything resembling this transcendental machinery (and I suspect he can’t), and something like it is necessary in order to give an adequate account of the structure of thought and the possibility of error it involves. There’s a question as to whether Graham is capable of providing anything like this given the meagre (and ontologically loaded) resources he’s given himself, and there’s a further question about whether he’d even want to, given that this would make his panpsychism far stronger than he’d like it to be (at minimum he’d definitely not want to say that all objects are capable of making inferences).

I cannot speak for Graham’s object-oriented philosophy, but only for my own onticology, but already two points are worth noting in connection to Pete’s point: First, as I already mentioned in my last post, the critique of Kant is not that Kant is mistaken, but that he is limited. What Pete refers to as Kant’s “complicated transcendental machinery” is what onticology would refer to as a particular machinery of translation. In other words, if Kant’s account of mind is fairly accurate– I’ve said that I don’t think it is, but all the same… –then onticology and object-oriented philosophy can fully integrate Kant’s account of the mind’s mechanisms of translation as depicted by Kant. In this respect, Pete is barking up the wrong tree. OOO’s thesis is not that Kant is mistaken about the nature of mind, but rather that what Kant says of mind is more or less true of all substances. Put a bit differently, Kant’s analysis of mind is system-specific and therefore fails to reach general ontology. Kant is engaged in a transcendental anthropology pertaining to how minds of the human sort translate objects. OOO’s point is that every substance has its own endo-consistency that translates the world in its own particular way. Nothing, therefore, prevents OOO from observing how observers such as minds observe or translate the world.

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Over at Jon Cogburn’s blog, Pete Wolfendale has written a lengthy response to one of my comments. I’ve decided to respond here as, for some reason, I’m unable to blockquote comments over at Jon’s blog, making it more difficult to formulate responses. Pete writes:

The idea of translation is a nice metaphor, but that’s what it is – a metaphor – and it needs cashing out. The simplest way to cash it out is that the effect the affecting object has upon the affected object is in some way dependent upon the affected object, i.e., that the same object will produce different affects upon different things. However, this is something that everyone accepts, and they can accept it without having to talk about ‘real objects’ or ‘proper being’ that withdraws. Maybe you can enlighten me as to the correct stronger way to cash this out, and how this solves any of these issues.

Hopefully Pete will be happy to discover that I “cash” this concept out in great detail in chapter four of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Interior of Objects”. Before proceeding to briefly discuss how I cash this concept out, it’s necessary to make two points. First, it’s necessary to note that there are a number of ways in which Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology differ. Second, it’s necessary to explain why I hold that these questions can only adequately be comprehended in terms of a model of withdrawal. The simplest way of explaining why objects must be thought in terms of withdrawal goes back to Aristotle’s concept of substance. In his account of primary substances in the Categories and Metaphysics Z, Aristotle is careful to note that substances are not identical to either their qualities or their parts. I discuss this in detail in chapter 2 of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Paradox of Substance”.

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In response to a previous post responding to Christopher Vitale and my post on OOO and Epistemology, there’s been some interesting discussion of precisely how objects are individuated. Responding to a remark by Graham Harman, Mitsu lays his cards on the table and remarks that,

In response to your question about why I don’t want to go so far as individual objects, I would reverse the question and ask, why bother going so far as individual objects? The idea that there is some sort of ground with properties or patterns which are in some sense independent of perception or perspective it seems to me gets you everything you need to have a speculative realism without the complication and bother of positing independent objects.

The first question that comes to mind in response to Mitsu is that of how patterns differ from objects. In Mitsu’s comment I note that he pluralizes the term “pattern”, suggesting that he believes that there are a multitude of different patterns in the world. Are these patterns different from one another, or are they all the same pattern? If Mitsu suggests that patterns are different from one another, he’s already come very close to conceding the existence of objects. If Mitsu holds that there is only one pattern, I would like to know how closed settings in the experimental setting are ever formed. For if everything is one and interconnected, then it seems that it would be impossible for anyone to ever isolate things in the way we do in scientific experiments.

Mitsu goes on to argue that,

Again I want to make it clear that what I am objecting to is not so much the idea of independence as the idea of objects. (1) The most fundamental objection (no pun intended) I would have is that there doesn’t seem to me to be any objective (again, no pun, etc.) criterion for establishing the boundary of an object, or a way of dividing the world into these supposed objects. (2) An “object” it seems to me is by definition a separated out part of the world which has some kind of boundary defined in some way… but how do we define such a boundary, except in reference to a perceptual convention of some kind? I might consider this aggregate over here to be a “drum kit” as an object, but the amoeba certainly doesn’t interact with a drum kit as an object. In some sense, the whole idea that the world ought to be thought of in terms of objects brings us back to the human-centric fallacy which I understand SR to be critiquing in the first place.

The first point to note here is that Mitsu’s concept of pattern is no less immune to the sort of criticism he’s advancing in point 1, than the concept of object. It’s difficult to see how the concept of pattern avoids the sort of problem of cognitive individuation Mitsu is leveling at OOO than the concept of object. I make this point not to reject the notion of patterns, but to point out that if Mitsu is evoking the existence of patterns, he must do so on ontological grounds, not epistemological grounds. This point is of such vital importance that nothing in OOO can be understood absent a clear grasp of this argument. I have outlined this argument in two previous posts (here and here) and invite Mitsu to read these posts carefully, especially the second one.

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I’ve just begun Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism?. So far, despite its interest from the perspective of debates surrounding post-structuralism and second-order systems theory, I can’t say that it is getting off to a very auspicious beginning. Here’s the problem: Cary’s argument seems to proceed by way of the signifier, signs, information, and second-order systems. In short, he proceeds by way of phenomena that are nonetheless human. His introduction, for example, makes a lot of Foucault’s Order of Things announces the end of man. But how does Foucault do this? Foucault does this by championing discursive structures and power in history. Yet these are still human phenomena. Here we’re still within a correlationist framework that pitches the issue in terms of specifically human phenomena.

In my view, the claims of anti-humanism, post-humanism, and those forms of theory that claim to be overcoming anthropocentrism are all too often highly overstated. Until you have an ontology capable of thinking objects without any reference to the human or human phenomena, you still remain in an anthropocentric and humanist orbit. Foucault in his discussions of power and discursive structures, Lacan in his discussions of the signifier and the real, Derrida in his discussions of the play of the signifier and the trace, Luhmann in his discussions of social systems as communication systems, all remain nonetheless all too human in their focus on the primacy of human phenomena with respect to everything else. Of this group, Luhmann is probably the best of the bunch insofar as he at least recognizes the existence of other systems that are not human or social in nature. But still he insists on tracing everything back to the distinctions our systems make in observing these systems.

The point here is not to reject Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, or Luhmann. Not at all. The point is to recognize that they conflate regional ontologies with ontology as such, treating modes of access as determinative of what things are. But the questions of how we have access to entities and the question of what things are are entirely distinct and are not to be confused with one another. Until we overcome our tendency to make that confusion we have not attained a posthumanist philosophy. But like I said, I’ve only just begin reading Wolfe’s book so perhaps I’ll be surprised as it proceeds.

UPDATE: As I get further in Wolfe’s book I’m finding that it’s much more interesting and complex than I initially thought. In the introduction Wolfe writes:

To return, then, to the question of posthumanism, the perspective I attempt to formulate here–far from surpassing or rejecting the human –actually enables us to describe the human and its characteristic modes of communication, interaction, meaning, social significations, and affective investments with greater specificity once we have removed meaning from the ontologically closed domain of consciousness, reason, reflection, and so on. It forces us to rethink our taken-for-granted modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes and affective states of Homo sapiens itself, by recontextualizing them in terms of the entire sensorium of other living beings and their own autopoietic ways of “bringing forth a world”– ways that are, since we ourselves are human animals, part of the evolutionary history and behavioral and psychological repertoire of the human itself. (xxv)

Towards this end, Wolfe deploys the second-order cybernetics of Luhmann, Varela, and Maturana. Luhmann, especially, is one of the undiscovered gems of theory. If you’re interested in his work start with The Reality of Mass Media, and then proceed to Social Systems. In discussing “different perceptual modes” of humans and animals, Wolfe is simultaneously quite close and exceptionally far from object-oriented ontology.

First Wolfe’s proximity to object-oriented ontology. One of Harman’s most significant contributions to contemporary debates has been to note that the difference between the mind/object gap and any other object/object gap is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In other words, the gap pertaining to relation is, for Harman, ontological, not epistemological. As Harman so nicely puts it,

…there is no object at all, whether animal, floral, or mineral, capable of caressing the skin of another object so perfectly as to become identical with it or otherwise mirror it perfectly. When a gale hammers a seaside cliff, when stellar rays penetrate a newspaper, these objects are no less gulty than humans of reducing entities to mere shadows of their full selves. To repeat, the gap between object and relation is inherent in the nature of things, and not first generated by the peculiarities of the human mind. The fact that humans seem to have more cognitive power than shale or cantaloupe does not justify grounding this difference in a basic ontological dualism. (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 81)

In evoking different modes of perception in different critters and in drawing of the second-order cybernetic theory of Luhman, Maturana, and Varela, Wolfe appears to make a very similar point. Indeed, in chapter 4 or 6 of The Democracy of Objects (I haven’t yet decided where to place the chapter), I draw on similar resources to discuss the “interior of objects” and their relations to other objects. My move here is to ontologize Luhmann’s and Maturana’s essentially epistemological claims about systems and their environments, information, and self-referentiality. This strikes me as a direction Varela is moving in as well. What Wolfe wishes to draw attention to are the unspoken anthropocentric biases that govern our discussion of a host of issues. He argues that second-order cybernetic systems theory significantly challenges a number of these assumptions and allow us to discuss modes of perception that aren’t human.

However, if Wolfe’s thought is nonetheless remote from object-oriented ontology, this is for two reasons: First, Wolfe still seems to think these issues in epistemological terms. Rather than seeing selective relations entertained towards other objects as a general ontological feature of each and every object or as a fundamental feature of the world itself, Wolfe seems to adopt the pessimistic thesis that this marks the impossibility of our knowledge. Yet this thesis only follows if one worked from the premise that knowledge is a matter of representation or adequatio intellectus et rei. If, as Harman has argued, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world, this model of knowledge was mistaken from the outset and we need to significantly rethink our epistemology as a consequence. Here the skepticism that has characterized post-structuralist thought is ripe for a Zizekian “healed by the spear that smote you” move. Far from being a limitation of specifically human knowledge, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world. It’s the very nature of being. This Wagnerian move is at the heart of Harman’s ontology.

Second, while Wolfe indeed makes advances by extending thought to the domain of the animal and those with disabilities (he has an inspired reading of Temple Grandin), nonetheless he suffers from illicitly restricting these claims to the living. That is, a non-living/living dyad still seems to function in his thought, restricting these “modes of perception” to the living. Yet if Harman is right, these points are every bit as true of rocks and cotton as they are of aardvarks and humans. Here, I suspect, Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology will be especially interesting. For if I’ve understood Bogost correctly, Alien Phenomenology wants to raise questions like “what is it like to be a rock or a computer circuit”, thereby opening discourse to nonhuman and inanimate domains.

Over at Amazon I notice that Wolfe’s book has received some negative reviews. It appears that one of two (or maybe both) things are going on here. Either Wolfe’s reviewers lack a background in theory and are frustrated with a book that presupposes some knowledge of theory, or Wolfe’s reviewers harbor anthropocentric sentiments and are irritated at his dethroning of humans from the center of being. At any rate, if you’ve read his book and received it favorably consider writing a positive review to offset these unfair reviews.

Ian has posted his talk on Rorty presented at the “Time Will Tell, But Epistemology Won’t” conference at UC Irvine. Check it out!

Over at CineMadeson Dan Sullivan has a brief yet INTERESTING POST up on the significance of Object-Oriented Ontology for film theory. Dan writes:

As I’ve mentioned here before, I think the recent work of Bryant and Graham Harman contains the seeds for a conceptual framework capable of engaging with the non-human aspects of cinema, something that I think film theory will have to address sooner rather than later. So check the posts out (Bryant is an excellent and very lucid writer, so they’re hardly tough-sledding); they inspired me to scribble the following in my notebook after a brief bout of meditation on my fire escape:

“All of the elements of a shot’s mise en scène, all of the non-relational objects within the film frame, are figures of a sort. The figure is the likeness of a material object, whether that likeness is by-design or purely accidental. A shot is a cluster of cinematic figures, an entanglement. Actors and props are by no means the only kinds of cinematic figures—the space that they occupy and navigate is itself a figure. The cinematic figure isn’t just an image of the human body, a translation of the body’s form from spatio-temporal materiality to the ambiguous cinematic mode of being: the cinematic figure is, in Bryant’s terms, a local manifestation of an object situated among other local manifestations of other objects within the film frame. The relations between the figures situated in the frame are also objects in their own right, but these objects aren’t themselves figures. The figure—cinematic or otherwise—is nothing uniquely human; a breast framed in close-up is no less figurative than a cherry red Alfa Romeo Spider framed in long shot. Furthermore, no representation is necessary for figuration—a process that always precedes the presentation of a shot—to take place.”

While I very much appreciate what Dan here proposes, I think it still remains too closely wedded to the domain of what Deleuze and Guattari call the plane of expression. Dan’s references all pertain to what takes place within the frame, the scene, and the shot. That is, the analysis is dominated by what takes place on the screen.

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One of the interesting things that took place during the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Philosophy Symposium was ongoing tweets as people presented their papers (they can be found at #OOO). One of the key terms I used throughout my paper was that of “entanglement”. I’ve lifted the term from Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, though, given my disagreements with certain aspects of her epistemo-ontology, I suspect that I use it in a rather different way. At any rate, my proposal is that one thing flat ontology should allow us to think is entanglements of objects without one type of object, such as language, overdetermining the other objects. In this connection, the marvelous, loquacious, and brilliant Barbara Stafford, who gave closing remarks for the symposium, was kind enough to remind us that “entanglement” refers not only to folded and arranged drapes such as one might find in a nomads tent, but also threads that are entangled with one another while retaining their identity. Needless to say, I rather liked these associations. The key point to be drawn from the concept of entanglement is that no one entity or thread (I think of objects as four dimensional space-time worms) overdetermines all the others. Rather, each thread or object instead contributes differences in its own way.

With the concept of entanglement I thus hope to challenge the form/matter logic drawn from Aristotle that still dominates, in a largely unconscious fashion, much of the discourse of philosophy and theory. Within the framework of this logic, form is the active agency that bestows structure on passive matter. We see this logic at work, for example, in how Kant’s a priori categories of the understanding are deployed in the Critique of Pure Reason. Here the categories are active agencies that bestow form and structure on the passive matter given in sensations. The sensations merely receive form. A similar logic is at work among the semiologists coming out of the Saussurean tradition. In Lacan’s earliest formulations, the real is treated as a sort of amorphous plenitude without gap or lack and the signifier comes to give structure or form to this plenitude. It is this point that Lacan sought to illustrate with his famous example of the doors in “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”. It will be noted that the two doors are identical or that, beyond their spatio-temporal position, there is nothing to differentiate them. If, then, a fundamental difference is introduced between the doors, this vertically descends from the agency of the signifier– Ladies and Gentlemen –that bestows a new form on this matter of intuition. The matter of intuition, in and of itself, contributes no difference. For a critique of this form/matter logic, Susan Oyama’s Ontogeny of Information is indispensable. Once you notice it you see it everywhere.

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Speaking of Bogost, here’s his interview with Peter Gratton. There are some nice sneak peaks at the alien phenomenology he’s currently developing.

I am just now discovering Ian Bogost’s Latour Litanizer which he created back in December of 2009. Bogost’s Latour Litanizer generates random lists of objects drawn from wikipedia. Now, it seems to me that there is something philosophically important going on with the Latour Litany. Latour litanies are not simply amusing lists of objects, but do important philosophical work by performing a sort of object-oriented epoché. Often when philosophers speak of objects– including object-oriented ontologists –we use the blanket term “object” without referring to any specific or concrete objects.

The danger here is that discussions of objects are implicitly governed by a prototype object that functions as the representative of all objects. Cognitive psychologists treat prototypes as specific examples that function as representatives of abstract concepts. Think back to the 80′s and the dire Reagan revolution. Many readers will recall all the talk of “welfare queens” that continues down to this day in discussions of social programs. Welfare queens were mythological single women on welfare who had multiple children (to get larger welfare checks, the story goes) and who used their money to buy expensive things like cadillacs. In short, the non-existent welfare queen came to function as a prototype or exemplary instance representing all people on welfare. This prototype caused much mischief in welfare debates and subsequent legislative reforms.

Here then we encounter the importance of Latour’s litanies. What Latour’s litanies effectively accomplish is an annulment of prototypes that come to stand for the being and nature of all objects. Through the creation of a litany of heterogeneous objects, the object theorist is forced to think that heterogeneity as such rather than implicitly (and often unconsciously) drawing on one prototypical object that functions as the representative of the nature of all objects. Here we might think of Borges’ entry from a Chinese encyclopedia discussed so brilliantly at the beginning of The Order of Things. The Latour litany is a technique for thinking this a-topos, this heterotopia, that follows from the central claims of flat ontology. And this task is accomplished all the better with a randomizer such as Bogost’s Latour Litanizer which confronts the thinker with heterotopic configurations of objects not of her own making, demanding the thought of this heterotopia. I’ve placed Bogost’s important piece of philosophical technology– and it is a piece of philosophical technology, not unlike a microscope for the biologist –in my blogroll. Experiment with it. Bogost’s Latour Litanizer might be the first genuine piece of laboratory equipment ever created for philosophy.

The quote of the day goes to Graham Harman who formulated this zinger in critiquing the correlationist. Paraphrasing Graham:

A Chinese proverb states that that when a wise man points at the moon the fool looks at the finger. The correlationist and anti-realist is a fool that says the moon is made of fingers

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Ian had a number of great one liners as well… Can’t wait for the audio recordings to get up so I can pick’em out.

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