This evening is the first meeting of The Anarchy of Objects. Programmers are encouraged to visit the course homepage in google classroom for updates and information about the course. By all means, please take the time to post questions and comments prior to the seminar beginning so things begin with a roar! For those who have not yet signed up and are interested in doing so, there are still openings. Information can be found at The New Centre website. Come join us!
October 19, 2014
October 15, 2014
Inchoate thought emerging from ongoing discussions I’ve had with my friend Duane Rousselle over the last couple of years. It seems to me that anarchist/communist political thought– at least as I conceive it (I could be completely misguided as to what both anarchism and communism are) –pull in two distinct directions, one normative and the other practical. At the normative level, both anarchism and communism signify– to my mind, again, at least –a radical egalitarianism. I take it that “anarchy” signifies not “without law”, but without sovereigns, masters, kings, fathers, mothers, god, party, etc., because, in fact, anarchist collectives develop a number of norms to regulate interactions among their participants and how their participants relate to the world. Alternatively, we could say that anarchism is that political orientation that reject all forms of Oedipus, of paternalism, of sovereignty embodied in a figure or party, instead embracing a posthuman politics (as we don’t know what defines the boundaries of political agents or who/what counts as a political agent a priori) and a politics of fraternity and sorority… A horizontal rather than a vertical politics.
These “laws”, of course, are always subject to subsequent revision and abandonment. Here I should add that I am not a libertarian anarchist because I think an anarchy of individuals very quickly leads to various forms of exploitation and tyranny, but am, for lack of a better word, a “collectivist anarchist”. I take it that the thesis of anarchism is that collectives are fit to rule themselves; that they don’t need a vanguard such as the party to lead them.
For this reason, in a previous post I argued that anarchism is that variant of political thought that haunts all existing political thought in practice. It haunts other variants of political thought both as the promise of what genuine justice ought to be– egalitarian fairness and equality –as well as that form of political thought that reveals the lie of all hierarchical political thought and practice that masters and a vanguard party are needed. Anarchism, I think, is the “real” of all political thought and practice… A point that Badiou has articulated very nicely in his meditations on inconsistent multiplicities that haunt consistent multiplicities.
On the other hand, there is the practical/pragmatic problem. As political thinkers such as Jodi Dean and Bruno Bosteels have argued, it is very difficult to accomplish anything without some form of organization and leadership. Without this, it seems, nothing ever comes to fruition. In this regard, there’s a vantage from which the Party is a necessary evil. The exigencies of political engagement require a betrayal of the egalitarian idea because in the absence of this nothing is ever accomplished. There is both a normative and a practical problem here, however. Normatively, such a move seems to betray the inconsistent multiplicity that is the Truth or Real of all social relation. Politics almost seems to become messianic at this point. Rather than a realized or actualized multiplicity or egalitarianism, we instead seem to get a multiplicity and egalitarianism that is always-yet-to-come, but that never, in fact, arrives. At this point, signifiers like “multiplicity” and “egalitarianism” seem to become rhetorics in the pejorative sense that alienate collectives in the Party without ever delivering the egalitarianism that was promised. We end up with a bifurcation of the world into that of the animating rhetoric– one might think of certain institutions that claim to be revolutionary without ever changing hierarchy or addressing the problems they claim to address such as neoliberalism –and the actually existing collective. Of course, at this point, we no longer have a collective at all because the collective has been bifurcated into the Party and everything else.
On the other hand, there is the practical problem. The history of the Party or of parties is far from stellar. As Niklas Luhmann argues, when systems (the Party is an instance of system) reach a certain point of self-organization and become autopoietic, they function not to address the problems they claim to be addressing, but to reproduce themselves and their own organization. This can readily be discerned in the history of various leftist parties that endlessly seem to abandon the political aims for which they formed, instead focusing on their own reproduction and continuance, as well as in maintaining their own internal hierarchy. Revolutionary rhetoric is deployed, yet it comes to be the party that matters. The Party comes to coincide with the interests of the multiplicity– and not in a good way –such that what is in the interests of the Party is said to be what is in the interest of the multiplicity. Historical examples abound. Here we are often lectured about what the ideal party should be and why, because it is ideal, it wouldn’t fall into these problems; but really the ideal is always the problem. The ideal is that rhetorical lure that functions to efface the genuinely existing concrete reality.
Closely related to this practical problem is the problem of desire that haunts all attachments. Deleuze and Guattari taught us to look not solely at the avowed doctrine of a political orientation, it’s platform and its aims, but also to look at the micro-desires that inhabit its participants. It is possible, at the molar level, for a party to be egalitarian, but to nonetheless be fascist at the micro-level of the structure of its desire in that it encourages obedience, wrote adherence to an orthodoxy, and placement of leader and party over multiplicity. There is a sad desire that wishes to obey, exclude, dominate, and control that haunts even the most anarchist and communist of organizations. How to overcome these desires?
Perhaps what is needed is a new idea and practice of leadership that would accord with the egalitarian ideal of anarcho-communism. The real issue– and the Real issue (for those who speak Lacanese) –is that of how decision can be made in a way that doesn’t betray the dimension of inconsistent multiplicity that is the truth of social relation. Something towards this end is already suggested in Lacan’s framework of “cartels”. Lacan’s cartels were curious things. They were cells composed of four or five people designed to produce knowledge– in each case for an individual, not the group as a whole –pertaining to some problem, issue, or question. The most curious feature of the cartels is the so-called “plus-one”. Lacan recognized that discussion would go on forever in these groups– discussion over even which question should be explored –if there wasn’t some way to decide and finalize things (like the period of a sentence). What was needed was something to halt the endless discussion, the endless sliding of the signifier, the dominance of S2 without an S1. This was the function of the “plus-one”. One member of the cartel, Lacan advised, would occupy the position of the “plus-one”, engaging in an act that halted discussion, allowing a decision to be made and new things to commence.
The interesting feature of the plus-one– as I understand it anyway; I think a number of Lacanian organizations have betrayed this key feature –is that the plus-one is an empty place. The person that occupies the position of plus-one is not a participant in the discussion, but is rather a function that halts the endless sliding of discussion. S/he– or should we refer to it as f(x)? –is an empty master with no illusion to containing knowledge or wisdom. There’s nothing– to use Zizek’s early vernacular –sublime about the plus-one in his/her exercise of the act. S/he’s purely empty, a function. Compare, then, the plus-one to a Platonic Philosopher-King. The Platonic Philosopher-King is sublime in that he embodies a wisdom not shared or possessed by the rest of us. It’s precisely because of this that the Philosopher-King, according to Plato, is fit to rule. He is sublime, of course, because we attribute this wisdom to him, but because we don’t have this wisdom ourselves we don’t really know if he has it. He’s animated by agalma; at least with respect to dimwits like ourselves. The plus-one, by contrast, is abject, an idiot, containing no knowledge or special wisdom whatsoever. S/he is a function but not a father or master. S/he’s an empty performative point.
What Lacan effectively does with the concept of the plus-one is evacuate the position of the leader, the fantasy that lies behind our attachment to leadership, while nonetheless retaining the function of decision necessary for things to proceed and get done. The question is whether something similar is possible at the larger scale of social relations and organization.
October 14, 2014
When Speculative Realism appeared it quickly generated a firestorm of controversy. There was something about defending realism and critiquing correlationism that generated excitement in some and anger in others. To this day, I’m still not sure why these things generated so much heat and enthusiasm. It was as if the word “realism” violated some taboo, and like the violation of all taboos, some exalted in the violation while others seemed to feel that something sacred had been violated.
However, as I reflect, I wonder if the critique of correlationism might have a rather different message than that of realism? I wonder if the lesson of correlationism might not be the possibility of a renewed perspectivism. Sadly, at least in popular culture, perspectivism (let’s call it “vulgar perspectivism”) has become a worn concept that does more to support a certain reactionary ideology than to challenge it. Where perspectivism ought to be an encounter with otherness or difference, the lesson of perspectivism in popular culture seems to be something like the thesis that “everything has their own perspective and everyone is entitled to their own perspective, therefore I shouldn’t have to attend to the perspectives of others.” No, that’s quite not right. The vulgar perspectivist argues something like the following: “Because everything is a matter of perspective, I can only have my own perspectives on others. Therefore I can never really encounter others but am only ever really encountering myself. Therefore I shouldn’t even bother trying.”
The vulgar perspectivist is a sort of hyper-correlationist. Since everything, for them, is a matter of perspective and since each of us is forever trapped in our perspective, there shouldn’t even be an attempt to understand others. In this connection, the critique of correlationism would not so much bring about an encounter with a perspectiveless real, as open the possibility of an encounter with alterity. A lot of ink has been spilled talking about the anthropocentrism of correlationist thought. When the correlationist asserts the impossibility of ever thinking world and thought apart from one another, he isn’t simply talking about any thought, but rather the thought of a particular species: humans. Just consider, for example, phenomenology. Heidegger’s abbreviated analyses of animal umwelts aside, phenomenology subordinates all other beings to human thought. Nor is it just a species subordination that takes place, but a conception of normal human thinking that is being assumed (here Canguillhem as well as early Foucault are deeply relevant to the critique of correlationism; as well as Deleuze and Guattari’s writings on animal worlds, the worlds of people with different psychiatric “disorders”, the worlds of different artists and sexes and…”).
Correlationism isn’t just the thesis that we can never think being and thought apart, but is also a species specific conception of the world that makes deep assumptions about what a normal human being is. Now generally when this is pointed out, one of two objections are made: Often one denounces the critic of correlationism as somehow hating human beings. This is a rather peculiar charge. Pointing out that a position is incomplete or overlooks something doesn’t amount to hating human beings. Such a criticism also assumes a unicity to the term “human” that there is good reason to doubt. On the other hand, one concedes the importance of trying to think such alterity, while also arguing that it is impossible to think alterity because it is always us thinking the different and thereby reducing it to the same. This is always the core argument of correlationism: even as you’re trying to think that which is other than thought, you are still the one thinking it and therefore you can only think thought and never that which is other than thought.
However, we really should question this argument. In interpersonal relations there is a profound difference between the solipsistic narcissist that only ever hears their own meanings in the words of others and a person that marginally begins to understand the world of another person. We readily seem to grant that it is possible to understand something of another person’s world, to grasp them in their difference, and that there is a difference between only ever hearing yourself in another and in hearing another. To be sure, we never fully grasp another person, but isn’t there a difference between the man who only ever interprets women in masculine terms, in terms of his own experience, and the man that has some glimmer of understanding of what it’s like to be a woman in this particular world, and vice versa? If we grant this, then why is it such a leap to suppose that we might be capable of understanding something– not everything –of the world of other beings? Isn’t there a difference between thinking of cats in terms of what would motivate us if we were a cat and attempting to think about what might motivate a cat qua cat?
One way of understanding the critique of correlationism then might be as a pluralization of correlation and as a radical perspectivism. What we would get here is something like a non-reductive realism of perspectives. This would entail a posthuman phenomenology that both challenges the unicity of the term “human”, recognizing a variety of different phenomenological structures for different human beings, but also an exploration of the worlds of other species. It would be a world without Model, but that recognized an infinite variety of models in the plural. More to come.
October 11, 2014
Drawing on Ian Bogost’s terminology, I am committed to the thesis that being is composed of units and, in this regard, am an object-oriented ontologist. I take it that such a thesis about units is the minimal condition for characterizing a body of thought as “object-oriented”. However, the term “object-oriented ontology” is more like terms such as “idealism” or “empiricism” or “rationalism”, than something like Husserlian phenomenology. In other words, it doesn’t refer to a shared set of commitments beyond the thesis that being is composed of objects. Thus you can be committed to the thesis that being is composed of substances (Aristotle) or things (Bennett) or objects (Harman) or monads (Leibniz) or processes (Whitehead) or machines (me) or actants (Latour), etc. There are a variety of options and there are debates among these different positions. There are a number of positions I share, for example, with Harman– who has been crucial in the development of my own thought (Prince of Networks, in particular, was a watershed moment for me) –while diverging with him on others (vicarious causation, his particular take on withdrawal– I think objects do relate –his positions on meaning– I’m not sure everything is an object), just as there are a number of positions I share with Bennett while being critical of others (her vitalism if, indeed, she is a vitalist) or that I share with Whitehead (I gravitate towards his views on process) while rejecting others his strong relationism.
In the introduction to Democracy of Objects I discuss how philosophy begins by wishing to discuss the being of substances (broadly construed) and strangely finds itself discussing our relation to our ability to know objects instead. It’s easy to see why this might occur. We ask what objects are, but this first seems to presuppose that we know objects. Thus as a matter of methodological priority, we think that we must first address this question of knowledge before we can discuss the being of objects. While questions of knowledge are indeed important, the problem is that we never seem to get to a discussion of the things themselves. Instead we discuss objects for-us rather than for-themselves. Many, of course, would argue that it is impossible to do the latter as it will always be us analyzing the objects. I think there’s good reason to suppose that that’s not the case, but I’ll save discussion of that for another occasion. If you’re interested you can read the Introduction and first chapter of Democracy.
The question I struggle with is where the boundary is to be drawn between what counts as an object and what counts, for lack of a better term, as a phenomenon. By “phenomenon” I here mean something that exists only in and through a correlation with some sort of subject. Here it would seem that Harman and Latour are far more radical than I. I find it very difficult to claim that hammers are objects in Harman’s sense of the word. Harman (and Latour) wish to argue that hammers are genuine substances that have independent existence of their own irreducible to any correlation. I find such a claim very difficult to swallow because it seems to me that hammers are only hammers for beings that use hammers as hammers. I readily recognize that there’s something there in my hand and grant that it has independent existence, yet the hammerness of hammers strikes me as a meaning and meaning strikes me as a relational phenomenon that only exists for meaning givers. Were meaning givers such as ourselves to die out as a result of a global catastrophe, the things formerly known as hammers would continue to exist, but it’s hard for me to see how they would still have the quality of hammerness. Maybe the issue is a bit easier to see in the case of money. The moneyness of money, its value seems to be something that only exists for money users. If we give money to someone from a remote region of the world that is not a part of global economy, it has– I imagine –no value for them. It is merely paper. Money’s value therefore seems to be relational.
The point here is that the moneyness of money and the hammerness of hammers are relational properties. Consequently, if we have committed ourselves to the thesis that “substance” is synonymous with “independent”, then we won’t be able to count these things as substances because their being qua hammer and money is dependent on a relation.
Perhaps there’s another way to go about this, but it requires modifying some core tenets of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (his anti-relationism). We might recognize that there are a variety of substances that are relational yet no less substances for all that. Trees are relational beings. They can’t exist without certain soil and atmosphere conditions, and require sunlight and carbon dioxide to live. Trees are dependent in all sorts of ways. Entities within ecosystems are dependent as well. Brazil nut trees, for example, require the existence of a rodent with particularly strong jaws to reproduce because the bulbs their nuts come in are incredibly hard. So far farmers have been unsuccessful in domesticating these trees because they require a very specific jungle ecology to exist, and for this reason an entire politics arises around these nuts as different groups struggle over trees located in various regions of the jungle. These trees require a relational network to exist as they do. We can even make the argument that rocks have all sorts of relational dependencies in this way. If temperatures get too high they will melt and be destroyed. If we were to throw a rock in a wormhole to another universe with different laws of physics, they would fly apart as their being is dependent on the universe of our physical laws.
It would thus seem that there are a variety of ways in which beings or substances we refer to as “natural” are relational in their existence as substances. If this is true, I wonder, then why do we draw such a hard and fast distinction between cultural entities and natural entities. We seem to hold that cultural artifacts like money and hammers are less real than Brazil nut trees because they are dependent on subjects to exist. Yet wouldn’t dependency on a subject just be another ecological condition like the soil, light, and atmospheric conditions required for trees? Money is a strange thing. We might be inclined to call its value subjective because it arises from us. Money is valuable because we value it. Yet that value is not dependent on any one of us. I cannot simply will a dollar bill to be worth a million dollars, just as I can’t make words mean anything I might like. In this regard, there’s always something objective about things like money and the meaning of words. When looked at from this vantage, perhaps we can then make the claim that there is a realism where cultural artifacts emerge. We don’t suggest that a species is somehow less real because it can become extinct or did become extinct. Why is it that we suggest that because another culture does not recognize the meaning of a particular artifact like our imagined people living outside global economy, that somehow this artifact isn’t real? Rather, the artifact requires certain ecological conditions to be that type of thing and those conditions aren’t met in these other contexts.
October 3, 2014
All theory takes place within an ecology of debates, theoretical frameworks, and concepts to which it responds and engages; as well as the historical situation, social system, institutions, etc., in which it is articulated. Yet while theory is always embedded in a set of relations in which it emerges, theoretical machines are peculiar sorts of machines in that they also exceed all relations within which they arise. This is the power of writing as a material machine, as a type of object. While functioning as a mnemonic machine, writing is nonetheless a strange sort of memory machine. It is a machine that forgets its origins of inscription– or, more prudently, that always harbors the power of forgetting origins –erasing contexts and circumstances of inscription. Unlike voice which issues from mouth and is therefore embedded in a interlocutory circumstance– though increasingly this is changing with recording technologies –writing always harbors the power of forgetting the site of its inscription. Writing, of course, is the material substrate of theory.
The written therefore is that which wanders in and out of social ecologies and that always threatens to break from the site where it was produced. Writing therefore is an instance of what I have elsewhere (Onto-Cartography) called a “rogue object”. Like rogue planets that aren’t fixed within any particular solar system but which wander throughout galaxies, writings wander throughout various social assemblages without ever being fixed in one assemblage. We can read the Epic of Gilgamesh today and that reading can produce effects in us, though they will certainly be different than the effects this text produced in its site of inscription. There is thus something incalculable in all writing that can never be tamed or controlled, for writing perpetually falls into different ecologies, resonating with those ecologies in ways that we never expected. The Illiad becomes a commentary on the American South in the hands of the Coen brothers. Spinoza’s Ethics and Tractatus become tools of Marxist and Feminist criticism. Like the planet Melancholia in Lars von Trier’s film by the same name, writing, as a rogue object, harbors the power of being a destroyer of worlds. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, a writing can lay dormant, in a vegetative state, only to suddenly appear in the world once again, producing incalculable aleatory affects that could not have been anticipated. Writing is like the cane toad introduced into a foreign ecosystem, transforming that ecology in all sorts of unexpected ways.
October 1, 2014
Here are the course requirements for the Anarchy of Objects I Symposium:
The seminar will be composed of four 2.5 hour sessions. Each session will be composed of both lecture over the material and general discussion. This seminar aims to be a symposium in the fullest sense of the word. Although the general concepts and arguments of The Democracy of Objects will be discussed and outlined, the book will not be treated as a closed text embodying a set of theses to be dogmatically transmitted to participants. Accordingly—and in line with the theses of flat ontology –there will be no students in this symposium, but rather only programmers, carpenters, builders, poets (in the Greek sense of poesis), and philosophers. The Democracy of Objects will therefore be approached virtually as an open site that could be actualized in a variety of ways, not as a set of fixed claims to be conveyed, but as a site of problems and questions which may or may not be well posed, but which nonetheless pose occasions for thought, the genesis or production of concepts, the development of sequences of argument, and, above all, the invention of new forms of practice. The Democracy of Objects will thus be treated as a machine, and our aim will be to approach that machine as engineers, programmers, designers, and builders. We will seek to determine what the machine does, whether it does it well, whether it has been well engineered, how it might improved, what other machines might be made to serve similar ends, and to find ways that we might put the machine to work. Programmers, carpenters, builders, poets, and philosophers are encouraged to bring their critiques to the table, to outline ways in which problems and questions can be better posed, to engage in archeological and genealogical analysis of the regimes of attraction that generate these problems, questions, and solutions (and whether they are well formed), and to put concepts to work in their own practices whether they are political, artistic, spiritual, scientific, amorous, and so on. Programmers, carpenters, builders, poets, and philosophers (including myself) will write four mini-essays of 500 – 1000 words for each session in relation to the programmer’s chosen research focus. This will be presented online on Friday of each week by being posted on Google Classrooms for everyone to read and comment upon, providing some preliminary threads for collaborative or anarchic group discussion, engineering, and invention. It is hoped that programmers will use these mini-essays as opportunities and preparations for the production of their own philosophical, artistic, existential, and political machines. In turn, programmers, engineers, poets, philosophers, builders, and carpenters will give each other feedback, providing input on how to improve and refine the machines that have been produced for the purpose of engagement with the world, the production of art, political transformation, and new lines of speculative thought.
September 21, 2014
It’s difficult for me to articulate my thoughts about anarchism because in many respects I’m not entirely sure what it is. Perhaps this obscurity of anarchism belongs to its essence. In ordinary language anarchy generally signifies chaos and disorder. I do not think this is the case. In my mind, anarchism isn’t the absence of order, nor law, but is a question of where order and law come from. I’m not, however, firm on that hypothesis. Perhaps anarchism could denote a form of social and political organization without any law, but that would require a number of qualifications.
My thesis is that anarchism is the form of political organization that haunts all politics. However, this formula is liable to misinterpretation. “Haunting” generally has negative connotations. Someone might therefore take this statement to denote the idea that anarchism is a danger that threatens all forms of political organization. Under this characterization, anarchy would be something to be defended against.
This is not what I mean when I say anarchy haunts all forms of social and political organization. Rather, I mean something closer to Marx’s claim that communism is a specter that haunts Europe. To my thinking, anarchism haunts all political thought and all actually existing political institutions in two ways: First, there is the positive way. Anarchism is the political ideal– recognized as such or not –that all emancipatory politics aspires to. All truly just political organization strives to be egalitarian and without hierarchy, whether hierarchy be organized around a privileged leader, economic class, privileged institutions (such as corporations or parties), a privileged gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. When we think the concept of emancipation to its logical conclusion, anarchism stares back at us. Anarchism is what emancipatory and egalitarian politics strives to be without being it. It is the regulative ideal that both functions as the aim this politics strives towards and the standard it falls short of.