My dear gray friend (it really is glorious long hair, and I’m generally staunchly opposed to long hair on men, but he’s one of the few gents that can pull it off with style and gravitas) Jerry the Anthropologist has evoked Margaret’s Pepper Principle in the course of a discussion pertaining to the Hegemonic Fallacy. Although I have referenced this anecdote often here on the blog, I have never devoted a post to it, so here goes.
Every semester I begin every class by bringing in two peppers: a bell pepper and the pepper closest to a west African pepper. Long ago (in 1961 0r 1962) my mother, Margaret was asked to plant bell peppers in Kaduna, northern Nigeria by the US Department of Agriculture. The first fruiting led to sweet bell peppers just as you might expect. The second fruiting of the same plants produced very very hot peppers just like all the peppers for some considerable distance around. So something in the environment and something in the underlying system conjoined to produce something I call FORM. I take this to be a general principle pertaining to everything we can observe including ourselves.
When Jerry asked me if I had referenced Margaret’s Pepper Principle here on the blog, I mistakenly took him to be referring to the proper name “Margaret Pepper” (I’m not all here today, being a bit under the weather). I’ve often referenced Margaret’s Pepper Principle here on the blog and it’s actually a foundational principle of my own metaphysics. On the one hand, it is an excellent example of what I’ve been calling “Latour’s Principle”, which states that there is no transportation without translation. The Ontic Principle states that there is no difference that does not make a difference. In the case of Margaret’s Pepper Principle, perhaps the difference in question would be the DNA of the peppers. As the DNA unfolds in a new generation of peppers, it transports itself in the production of the pepper cells. However, this transportation requires translation of the material with which it works. Cells do not erupt in the world ex nihilo, but rather must draw on the body of the earth and sky about them, translating these materials in turn into a new configuration. Just as the carpenter carving a piece of work cannot simply impose the form he has in mind on the wood, but must take into account the grain of the wood, its knots, its density, its dryness or dampness, etc., the seeds brought by Jerry’s mother have to navigate the environment or field within which they’re planted.
In the case of the wood carving, the final product cannot be said to arise from either the carpenter or the wood. It often happens, as you’re carving or whittling, that you set out to carve something specific but as you work with the material something entirely different emerges. A particular knot might suggest an eye. The wave of the grain might suggest the contours of a bird’s head. The next thing you know, you’re carving the head of a duck on the end of a stick (I have vivid memories of precisely this happening on a camping trip with my father years ago). Graham and I have gone back and forth on whether object-oriented philosophy should be referred to as materialism or realism. I balk at the term “realism” because it evokes, to my mind, Platonism and the scholastic debate over universals. Graham balks at the term “materialism” because, to his thinking, it implies unformatted matter that simply receives form from the outside or from some other agency. However, I think the example of whittling provides a nice example of formatted matter from whence form is generated or arises, rather than matter that simply has an already established form imposed on it from the outside. The matter of the wood is formatted in the sense that it contains all sorts of singularities in the form of its grain, texture, knots, waves, and so on. These are points of force, resistance, density, potential, that do not prescribe or pre-delineate a final outcome in a process of actualization as in some classic notion of potentiality where the oak tree is already contained in the acorn. Rather, these singularities, these points of density, these knots, function as players, as agents in the unfolding of an entity when these singularities enter into dynamic relations with other singularities. The singularities don’t already contain the final form in reserve such that this form is simply waiting to be unleashed, but rather the singularities negotiate with one another giving rise to the form as a product. It is also notable that what counts as a singularity will be variable depending on the entities that come into contact with one another and the circumstances of that contact. In the case of the whittling, the other singularities would be certain properties of the knife (it’s shape, the sharpness of the blade, etc), coupled with singularities at work in the person doing the carving (elements pertaining to the physiology of the person, how their imagination is informed by their history, etc). In the case of Margaret’s Pepper (a stately, wonderful woman who is tremendously interesting and outspoken woman, by the way), the singularities involved would be the DNA of the seeds, the nutrients in the soil, the presiding weather patterns, and so on.
All of this allows me to illustrate the scope or breadth of the Hegemonic Fallacy in a couple of different domains. On the one hand, the Hegemonic Fallacy would be committed in the case of the theorist discussing the carved duck were that theorist to explain the final product, the duck carving, as the result of an idea in the whittler’s head simply being imposed on the brute matter of the wood. What this misses is the dynamic interplay of singularities in the production of something that couldn’t have been anticipated. The example of whittling also provides a nice analogy illustrating one aspect of what’s wrong with Kant. Kant thinks like the theorist of the carved duck, seeing the object of our experience as the result of a simple imposition of forms where the object upon which these forms are imposed contributes very little in the way of singularities. Rather than envisioning a pre-personal transcendental field of singularities caught up in dynamic interplay with one another in the genesis of, to use Jerry’s term, form, Kant sees the forms as already there and the matter provided by intuition as simply a raw material upon which this form is imposed. Evolutionary thought has gone much further. Evolution is not simply the evolution of species, but also the evolution, the creation, of forms of intuition. Evolutionary processes not only invent bats, mice, cats, and aardvarks, but forms of bat sensibility, mice sensibility, cat sensibility, and aardvark sensibility. While we cannot ourselves experience these forms of sensibility, we can certainly infer their reality and a bit of what they’re like. At any rate, the point here is that the production of these forms of sensibility is not the result of one form hegemonically imposing itself on something else, but rather a dynamic interplay of singularities involving DNA, the environment, other animals (natural selection), geographic isolation and much more besides.
The case is the same with Margaret’s Pepper. DNA is not a model that simply imposes itself on matter like a sovereign ordering troops about. Or, put differently, the DNA is not a model or blueprint but rather a set of singularities that must negotiate or translate itself in relation to other singularities like anything else. The Hegemonic Fallacy would be committed were the DNA treated as such a blueprint, as it so often is. Rather, DNA is a set of singularities or points of resistance and density that dynamically enters into relations with other singularities in the environment of the seed, unfolding in a tense struggle not unlike the manner in which true Jazz players riff off one another when playing in an ensemble such that it is impossible to determine who composes and who is being composed. This inability to determine from whence the composition comes is not an epistemic limitation, but is a positive ontological fact– No one particular person in the Jazz ensemble composes but rather the composition is an emergent property, a generated form, of that ensemble or assemblage. Likewise, no one factor composes Margaret’s bell pepper, but rather the final form of the pepper is the result of an ensemble or assembly of heterogeneous factors each contributing or making their differences. All of these singularities engage in the dance of translation with one another as they negotiate their various points of density or resistance, producing qualities (in the case of the pepper, its heat, color, size, etc). Graham, no doubt, will give me a hard time for evoking singularities and the whiff of the potential they contain. However, it will be noticed that the virtuality of these singularities is not something other than the actual. The knots of the wood are actual. The configuration of the DNA for a particular seed is actual. Nonetheless, these singularities are privileged differences, privileged points of tension within an ensemble where things heat up.
Here then we would find one reason for rejecting Kant’s model. As Graham has so nicely put it, the problem with Kant is that he privileges the mind/object relation over all other relations in the world. For Kant, whatever relation we might talk about– for example, the relation between the pepper seed and Margaret’s garden in Kaduna –necessarily includes the human in that relation as well. That is, for Kant we cannot talk about the relation between the pepper and the garden in Kaduna simpliciter, but rather the human is already included in that relation as what imposes form and structure on these elements. Of course, in the case of Kant, this is an epistemological point. The point made by the object-oriented philosopher, by contrast, is an ontological point. It is not a point about how we know or how things manifest themselves to us, but a point about how things are regardless of whether anyone is there to know them or experience them. Humans, of course, translate objects in their own way and are, in turn, translated by objects (i.e., the object isn’t simply passive in relation to our cognition but also modifies our cognition in significant ways just like the environment of Kaduna significantly impacts the DNA of the bell pepper). However, the point of object-oriented philosophy is that this is 1) this is not unique to human/object relations, but pertains to relations among all objects, and 2) that there are all sorts of object/object relations that don’t include the human in any manner, shape, or form, and that these relations can be talked about and inquired into, though only through a laborious and collective scientific effort whereby objects are made to reveal themselves.