three-hammerDrawing 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.

610_deepjungle_brazil-nutPerhaps 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.

IMG_7708All 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.

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.

tumblr_llgmterc1z1qgbm7jIt’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.

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PanopticonInstitutions are hybrids of corporeal and incorporeal machines.  Being can be roughly divided into corporeal and incorporeal machines, with further subdivisions on each side and a variety of combinations between them.  The distinction, however, is paradoxical.  Just as Freud said that both hysteria and obsession are subspecies of hysteriaboth corporeal and incorporeal machines are subspecies of corporeal machines.  In short, every incorporeal machines requires a body to exist.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet requires the paper upon which it is printed, the computer data banks within which it is stored, the neurons that retain it, or the sonic-bodies and physical bodies in which the play is realized through the voice of actors and their embodied movements.  What makes an incorporeal machine incorporeal is not that it is without a body, but that it is iterable, or capable of being instantiated in a variety of mediums.  Hamlet can be instantiated on paper, in a film, on stage, on a computer screen, on neurons, etc.  It is still Hamlet in all of these mediums, though the medium, of course, can significantly transform the nature of the play.  Here, for example, we might think of the variations of Beethoven’s Ninth in A Clockwork Orange.  While the score is the Ninth in each of versions, the instruments and technologies that produce these sonic bodies in these instances transform the music in a variety of ways.  There is both an identity and a difference here.  We are affected differently by the synthesizer version of the Ninth than the symphonic version.  The music produces subtly different affective and even signifying responses.

The corporeal dimension of an institution– a school, prison, hospital, government agency, library, etc. –is the architecture, place, or site in which it is housed.  It is literally brick, mortar, glass, wood, and wires configured in a particular way.  One will object that an institution like The New Centre has no building or site because it is online.  Alternatively, one could argue that it is purely incorporeal.  There are two ways of approaching this issue; both of which are valid.  First it can be noted that virtual institutions still need a site to exist.  They must have a web address, links, paths, a website, etc.  This is both an architecture and a geography.  The web design or configuration is its architecture, whereas its placement on the web through links and search engines is its geography.  Neither are without consequence and both generate real constraints and affordances.  We are all familiar with websites that are difficult to navigate and that affectively impact us in a variety of ways.  Script can be too small or large.  Color choices can be hard on the eyes.  Programming can be used that limits the technologies that can access it.  I can’t use About.com on my smart phone because it’s set up in such a way that I’m unable to navigate it.  It’s as if it’s a building without doors or windows.  I see that it’s there.  I can navigate to it.  But once there I can go no further.  I have the wrong key.  The architecture makes a difference.  The geography makes a difference as well.  A website can be a dim object by virtue of being difficult to find due to a paucity of links or a name that is shared by many other websites.  Perhaps there is a website entitled “X-factor” that explores the paradoxes and antinomies that haunt thought.  Whenever one searches for it a variety of porn websites come up and because the website is devoted to a rather specialized philosophical interest it doesn’t appear high in Google searches because few people visit it.  Such a website is like a remote city, beyond a desert, difficult to traverse mountain range, swamp, or turbulent river.

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Deleuze and Guattari coin the term “conceptual personae” in What is Philosophy?  My aim here is not to retain true to their signification of the term, though I am vaguely influenced by it.  In other words, I’m not interested in a discussion of what Deleuze and Guattari really meant by “conceptual personae”.  If I’ve gotten it wrong, so much the worse for them.   A conceptual personae is a type of subject that operates with concepts.  Here the term “subject” is misleading.  Subject does not refer to minds or psychology, but is closer to the concept of “offices” or “subject-positions”.  In the social world we talk about offices and occupations.  There are teachers, police officers, priests, managers, presidents, senators, etc.  Although these offices are always occupied by persons that have bodies and minds, the office itself is not a person.  The office is rather a set of duties, obligations, and capacities.  The duties, obligations, and capacities of a police officer are different than those of a teacher.  Moreover, the office of police officer and teacher relate to the world and others in very different way.  “Subject”, perhaps, isn’t the best word; but I don’t know another.

This is how it is with conceptual personae in philosophy.  The conceptual personae aren’t minds or persons or individuals.  Rather, conceptual personae are normative types that operate on concepts in particular ways.  It is a set of norms governing how concepts are to be operated on.  Philosophy is inhabited by three main conceptual personae, but there are others as well.  There is first the conceptual personae of the philosopher.  Here it’s important to proceed with caution, for all three conceptual personae are referred to as philosophers in ordinary English.  Moreover, hybrids of all three can be formed, where a conceptual operator is a philosopher in one matter and an anti-philosopher in another.  Perhaps I need a different word.  The philosopher operates on concepts with a set of normative premises:  reality, divinity (if it exists), and morality, the philosopher holds, are rational.  In claiming they are rational, the philosopher claims these things can be known through reason and observation, and that a demonstration is possible for each and every true claim.  They hold that there is a true reality, and that real truth exists.  The philosopher holds that we are capable of ruling ourselves because we are capable of knowing reality and moral law through our own reason and observation, and that therefore we do not need leaders to guide us.  That is, the philosopher thinks wisdom is available to everyone if they pursue it.  Philosophers don’t necessarily claim that they know reality, the moral law, or divinity, only that it can be known.  Hegel was a philosopher.  Spinoza was a philosopher.  Aristotle was likely a philosopher.  Surprisingly, it looks like Deleuze was a philosopher (if we take his Spinozism seriously).  Philosophers fell into disrepute in the 20th and 21st century.

Anti-philosophers argue something very different. I draw this term from Badiou, but again with no intention of representing his thought.  Where philosophers hold reality is rational and knowable, anti-philosophers hold that reality is fundamentally irrational and therefore is something that can ever be known.  Where philosophers argue that there are truths, that it’s possible to be mistaken about justice or the nature of reality, anti-philosophers argue that there is only opinion or doxa.  Where the philosopher argues that we can be persuaded by reason and that we can govern ourselves by reason, the anti-philosopher argues that there is only force or power.  If I’m convinced by something, the anti-philosopher says, it’s not because the reasons given entailed the truth of the claim, but because I’ve been seduced by a certain discourse and habituated to associate in this way.  I’ve been interpellated.  Where the philosopher argues that there is a reality (or a few in multi-verse hypotheses), the anti-philosopher argues that reality is a construction.  Where the philosopher argues that there are objective truths about morality and justice, the anti-philosopher argues that there is only custom and power.  The philosopher, using reason and observation (which is what makes her work philosophy) operates on concepts in an attempt to demonstrate these things.  Hume was an example of an anti-philosopher.  Nietzsche was another.  Late Wittgenstein was an anti-philosopher.  Baudrillard and Foucault were both anti-philosophers.  Derrida probably was an anti-philospher as well.  Kant was an anti-philosopher in the first Critique (though of a very unusual sort), and was a philosopher in the second Critique.

The mysterian is a sort of hybrid between the philosopher and the anti-philosopher.  The mysterian is a sort of point of indiscernibility between religion or myth and philosophy.  His mode of operation resembles that of the religious, yet he still uses careful argumentation to illustrate his claims.  Like the philosopher, the mysterian holds that there is a Truth (usually of a divine nature).  Like the anti-philosopher, he doesn’t think this Truth can be demonstrated through reason and observation.  Rather, the mysterian holds that a special encounter or intuition is required to know this Truth.  The mysterian traffics in gnosis not episteme.  The two most famous mysterians today are Levinas and Marion; Levinas with his encounter with the Other, Marion with his saturated phenomena.  Wittgenstein, at the end of the Tractatus, is mysterian.  Badiou with his doctrine of the event sometimes seems mysterian.  Plato is a mysterian in Book VI of the Republic when he talks of the Good beyond being and reason.  Heidegger often sounds like a mysterian when he speaks of sendings of being.  There are others.

It would be a mistake to think that philosophy should banish so as to side solely with the philosopher.  With Badiou, we can say that philosophy passes into terror whenever it attempts to banish the anti-philosopher and the mysterian.  Rather, these three subject operators are integral to philosophy.  The philosopher forever pushes us to provide good reasons for our claims and to take seriously that perhaps some claims are better than others, more sound than others, where reality, ethics, and divinity are concerned.  The anti-philosophy perpetually points out the pretensions of reason and those places where reason really hasn’t produced an argument for its claims but is instead just advancing a privilege, ideology, or myth.  Anti-philosophy reveals obscurantist roots at work in the philosopher and the philosopher, in response, is forced to become better.  There is no Kant (a philosopher) without Hume.  The mysterian perpetually points out the limits of reasons and raises the question of whether Spinoza and Hegel are conceptually possible (Goedel, a mysterian, for example) or whether there is a beyond that reason can never touch.  The three produce a tension with one another that everywhere propels thought towards inventiveness.

In my view, Badiou brings something valuable to the table with his concept of “truth-procedures”.  This can best be understood, I think, by looking at some of the United States and English political axioms of the 90s.  Increasingly, people on the center-left came to the conclusion that communism and socialism are impossible.  The failure of the Soviet state, coupled with the horrors of things like the Khmer Rouge and the Gulags, led people to believe not only were these forms of social organization impossible to realize in practice, but that any attempt to do so would end in catastrophic disaster.  As a consequence, we saw a rise of “political pragmatism”.  The political pragmatist– not to be confused with the philosophical school from which it derives its name –was a hard-nosed realist about what is and is not possible politically (we saw the rise of this rhetoric again following the election of Obama).  Arguing that these other political systems are impossible and lead to horror if pursued, the political pragmatist restricted his activism to promoting what is possible.  This amounted to working within the system of neoliberal capitalism, promoting policies that would still be slightly left leaning, while leaving that economic system intact.  Of course, the outcome of this politics is that policy has increasingly moved to the right, continuously eroding the rights, benefits, and salaries of workers, while also undermining the ability of workers to voice their grievances.  The political pragmatist defends a gradualism, arguing that if we do what is possible now, preventing the perfect from being an enemy of the possible, we will slowly establish a more worker-friendly economy and political system.  On the one hand, this politics is completely ineffectual in dealing with something like climate change which requires dramatic action that will clearly challenge neoliberal capitalism.  On the other hand, the track record of political pragmatism reveals the emptiness of its hypothesis.  Things haven’t moved left.  They’ve gone further and further to the right, eroding worker protections, jobs, salaries, and ceding disproportionate power and representation to big corporations.  Meanwhile, we’ve also witnessed the pervasive explosion of a police state, as well as a world characterized by perpetual warfare.

While issues of truth might seem remote from these political issues, political pragmatism is, in fact, based on a particular epistemology or theory of knowledge.  Representationalist and empiricist, political pragmatism derives the ground of its political prescriptions from the assertion of reality.  It appeals to the spectacular and catastrophic failure of the Soviet state as evidence of what is and is not possible.  When we reflect on this a bit, we notice that it’s a strange sort of argument.  Somehow an appeal to a fact (“the Soviet State was a failure that led to horror”) is supposed to generate a modal conclusion or conclusion about what is possible.  Clearly facts can allow us to deduce impossibilities in some circumstances because the properties of a thing will constrain how it can interact with other things, e.g., the properties of an atom like nitrogen will determine what it can and cannot interact with.  However, it’s hard to see how facts about Soviet socialism allow us to infer what is possible for socialism as such.  The claim is somehow that socialism inevitably leads to the Gulag, failed economy, and the Khmer Rouge.  Yet how can that follow from an instance?  We’re never told, nor does the centrist ever engage in an onto-cartographical analysis of the specific circumstances and conditions that led to the Gulags and Khmer Rouge.  No, it’s just the ideology.

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