cezannecorner-quarryNick of the Accursed Share has posted a compelling discussion of the difference between speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy over at Speculative Heresy. Throughout the post Nick provides some valuable criticisms of the position I’ve been developing that lean heavily on the thought of Laruelle. Despite having read Brassier’s discussions of Laruelle in Alien Theory (warning pdf.) and Nihil Unbound, as well as Nick’s excellent (and dense!) forthcoming article in Pli, I am still unsure as to just what Laruelle is up to, so I will limit myself to commenting on what I understand of Nick’s criticisms with the hope that he’ll be able to clarify matters in the future with respect to Laruelle. Hopefully Nick will forgive me if my thoughts are a little disorganized and scattered in this post as I am completely exhausted from beginning to exercise once again today.

Nick begins by drawing a distinction between the speculative realists and object-oriented philosophy with respect to relation.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that one of the main dividing lines emerging in speculative realism is between those who argue for an object-oriented position (Graham, Levi, and Latour being the exemplars), and those who argue that relationality is entirely on the side of ideality (Brassier and Laruelle).

glorious-tree-01The first question that emerges for me is why relationality would be characterized in terms of ideality. How is it that relation is being conceived such that it is treated as falling on the side of ideality? It seems to me that the interaction between the sun and a tree is defined by relation. Here, according to the Ontic Principle, we would have an example where one entity makes a difference on another entity. Yet it is difficult for me to see just why this relation would be considered ideal, assuming that ideality refers to the domain of thought and the human.

read on!

Nick goes on to observe that,

One of the crucial questions falls on the notion of difference. As Levi has stated, he has purposefully left difference unarticulated so as to be as inclusive as possible. A minimal ontological principle. Yet, for Laruelle, the key distinction between an idealist materialism and a real materialism lies precisely on the notion of difference. He asks, “how can we attain a concept of difference that would be real and genetic as well as a priori and transcendental without re-inscribing it once more, if not within the sphere of signification, at least within that of ideal sense, in the pure typos and topos of the Idea.” (”The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter”, 36)

The problem lies in the fact that “we will be reintroducing ideality … if we continue to say, as structuralism does, that ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’ are differential positions that are relative to one another, or if we continue to conflate, along with structuralism, Nietzsche, and idealism in general, Difference with a relation of reciprocal determination between two positions.” (35)

penetraint1I wonder if this characterization of materialisms and realisms as reciprocally determining and defining one another does not already presuppose too much at the level of ontology. That is, if I’ve understood Nick’s gloss on Laruelle correctly, this is a problem that emerges only if we adopt the structuralist thesis of language as composed of a set of interdependent differential relations, such that the “terms” composing a language can only be thought in terms of paired oppositions. However, as I’ve been at pains to show– or at least, as I’ve been trying to demonstrate –the issue changes markedly when we begin thinking in terms of assemblages or networks composed of actors that both enter into relation with one another and which are independent of one another. In other words, networks differ from structures insofar as the elements of a network are not reciprocally determined. Deleuze and Guattari illustrate this thesis nicely in terms of language in the “Postulates of Linguistics” in A Thousand Plateaus, where they give the linguist Labov pride of place in his articulation of linguistic change. Here language is not composed of reciprocal oppositional determinations, but is rather an assemblage of heterogeneous elements that can enter into a variety of different relations both within a single language and in relations with other languages.

Nick presents a more worrying concern when he notes that,

This criticism is perhaps most pertinent to Levi’s position (and likely Latour, although I’m not in a position to say with any certainty). In particular, Levi articulates his Ontic Principle as the idea that “There is no difference that does not make a difference”, which is to say that every being both is and makes a difference. But what is difference if not a relation of some kind? And it is precisely the priority of relationality that Laruelle and Brassier find problematic.

Granted, Levi has stated that he has “purposefully left the phrase “there is no difference that does not make a difference” vague and underdetermined to allow the greatest possible scope or plurality of differences. [He does] not wish to formulate an ontology that predelineates or predetermines what sort of entities there are.” Yet, some understanding of the notion of difference implicated here is required in order to at least escape from the possible Laruellean criticism. In fact, this requirement already stems from his Principle of Irreduction – if every entity is a difference, how is Levi escaping from reducing everything into Difference?

0d1f650fHere, I think, are a couple of points worth making. First, I am not convinced that difference is necessarily a relation. Clearly I have a lot of work left to do on this issue; however, as Nick notes, the Ontic Principle states that every entity both is a difference and makes a difference. Now, there is a certain plurality of senses in this principle that might spell significant problems for my position, but I will set these problems aside for the moment. What here needs to be distinguished are the three senses of this principle in terms difference in itself, difference between, and the production of difference in another. To say that every being is a difference is simply to say that in order to count as an entity something must differ in itself. Were this not the case, the entity would be swallowed up in an undifferentiated One-All where there was only one substance. To say that any entity contains difference in itself, that this is the condition for being an entity, is not yet to relate the being to any other being. Here we might think of Leibniz’s conception of the monad that continuously undergoes internal change produced by itself without this change issuing from anything else (however I hesitate with this characterization as it contains the seeds of vitalism). By contrast, the Ontic Principle also states that there is no entity that does not produce a difference in some other entity. I take it that beings are necessarily attached to the world and as such necessarily produces differences in other entities through their interactions with these entities. Here we would have difference as relation; yet, as I’ve already mentioned, I find it difficult to see why the relation between the sun and a tree should be characterized as an ideal relation. Finally, the signification of the Ontic Principle as “difference between”– the difference between two entities –might initially look like a comparative difference and therefore a difference that involves intellect or mind as distinguishing two entities; however, while I certainly agree that the intellect distinguishes things from one another, difference-between is an ontological rather than cognitive phenomenon.

It is not mind that distinguishes or makes entities– though mind is one entity among others –but rather entities differentiate themselves from one another. Entities resist one another, though sometimes unsuccessfully. The tree is not simply a vehicle of the sun, but rather transform the sun through photosynthesis, producing something all its own. This would be part of what is entailed by the Principle of Irreduction which states that nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else. Each entity, if it is an entity, resists in its relation to other entities and it is because of this resistance that we must think in terms of assemblages or networks rather than structures. A network is a story about entities acting on one another with all sorts of tensions, triumphs, submissions, etc. It is not a story of how entities are reciprocally determined such that they are only these reciprocal determinations. Here again I have a lot of work to do, for the dyad between relation and object forms something of an antinomy for object-oriented philosophy. This point can be illustrated by reference to a very generous response Bryan, over at the Velvet Howler, makes in response to my post entitled “Of Assembly“. Bryan writes,

I think your last paragraph really touches on something fascinating and it would be exciting to see it developed in more depth.

In regards to your remarks on signifiers, I’m not so clear you’re doing Lacan or Zizek enough justice here. I mean, for one, Lacan goes on and on about the “materiality” of signifiers, that they make up the “material” of the unconscious. Consequently, I’m not so sure if the symbolic can be equated with the kind of Idealism you’re hinting at. Would it not be possible to interpret the Symbolic as a kind of material?

Bryan is right. The signifier, for Lacan and Zizek, is material. However, my charge against Zizek and Lacan does not consist in the accusation that they are idealists, but rather pertains to the manner in which they commit the Hegemonic Fallacy by overdetermining all entities by the symbolic or the signifier. The problem with Zizek and Lacan is not idealism, but rather the manner in which all other entities fall under erasure in and through the symbolic or the signifier. If the Ontic Principle holds, then it follows that any entity involved in a network must make a difference. As a consequence, it would follow that no entity can merely be an effect, product, or result of the signifier. Rather, what we would instead have to think is assemblages of heterogeneous entities in a network all contributing their differences: assemblages of biological bodies, signifiers (for they make differences too), literal technology (i.e., machines like computers, telephone lines, etc), elements of nature, literal architecture (i.e., the way in which our homes and institutions are built and organized), etc., etc., etc. In other words, part of what I’m trying to think here is how all of these differences are woven together in networks, how they act and vie with one another, without reducing one to another. Whitehead observes that the cardinal failing of a philosophy is not so much errors in logic, a lack of argument, or mistaken facts– indeed, like Leibniz he holds that all philosophies and contain a grain of truth, such that no philosophy is ever refuted so much as it is abandoned –but rather exaggeration. For me the prime target is not so much Kant– though he’s a good example of what I’m targeting –so much as it is those contemporary forms of thought like Derrida’s, Baudrillard’s, or Zizek’s that tell me all is text, or forms of thought like Stiegler’s that tell me all is technology, or forms of thought like evolutionary sociology and psychology that tell me all is adaptation, or forms of thought like modern day materialism that tell me all is brain or atoms or whatever else, or those forms of thought that tell me all is economy, etc. When I read these orientations of thought I find myself saying “Yes! Yes! Yes!… But what about this?”

What I wish to avoid are these sorts of hegemonic operations that force me to choose, instead formulating a metaphysics robust enough to think how all of these differences are woven together, rather than reducing all other threads of a weaving to one another. One of the most important principles of my metaphysical project– a principle which sadly has gotten scant attention –is the Ontological Principle which states that being is said in a single and same sense for all that is. This principle is crucial for everything I’m trying to do, for what it affirms is an ontological pluralism that dictates that we must resist the urge to reduce one entity to another entity, but instead look at how differences are woven together, communicate, struggle with and resist one another, etc., in the formation of networks.

l_9ee72878069fe67009d99458d027e4d1This brings me to Nick’s second criticism in the passage cited above. Nick wonders whether I do not end up reducing everything to difference. In other words, my Principle of Irreduction states that nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else, yet my metaphysics begins with the principle that there is no difference that does not make a difference. Between these two principles there seems to be a contradiction insofar as I seem to be reducing everything to difference. This is a serious charge and I hope that, in responding to it, I do not fall into a sort of sophistry or sound as if I’m making a bad joke. However, it seems to me that a philosophical starting point premised on difference is a strange and paradoxical beginning point because it denies the possibility of any sort of foundation. If there is no difference that does not make a difference, then there cannot be a first difference from which all other differences are derived. Difference differs. Just as the old woman scoffed at Bertrand Russell’s discussion of modern cosmology, responding that the earth is on the back of a turtle and, when asked what that turtle is on, replied that it’s turtles all the way down, my metaphysics dictates that it’s objects all the way down and all the way up without there being any first or most primitive type of object. The Ontic Principle is thus anathema to any reduction because if it is the case that there is no object that does not make a difference, there cannot be any question of one object being reduced to another object. Objects can certainly be composed of other objects. They can depend upon other objects. But they cannot be reduced to other objects. My body is an object. My DNA in each cell is an object. My body depends on my DNA. But it cannot be reduced to my DNA. What the Ontological Principle demands is an ontology robust enough to both discern the interaction of these two objects as actors in a variety of struggles with one another and to see these as independent objects that both make a difference.

Thus, when Nick writes,

And while Levi has articulated a concept of networks that avoids the problems of the typical structuralist, in one sense, it seems as though the crucial difference between the networks and structures – that the elements of networks are actors rather than empty placeholders or ‘vehicles’ – merely pushes the problem back. For while a network may no longer be defined solely in terms of its differential relations, the elements themselves are ‘act-ors’ that differ from themselves, something that again invokes a yet to be articulated concept of difference. Put simply, the risk here is that in treating every entity as difference-in-itself and differential in relation to others, matter becomes relative to ideality, and realism again gets cordoned off.

It seems to me that this criticism misses the crucial point that act-ors (objects) are not differential relations among elements, precisely because actors differ in themselves and are not intrinsic elements of a structure or a system. Act-ors act on one another, they are not differentially dependent on one another. On the one hand, we still have here the contentious issue of why relations are being characterized in terms of ideality. On the other hand, there is a vast difference between the structuralist claim that the phonemes /b/ and /p/ exist only as the reciprocally determined relation or opposition b/p, and the object-oriented claim that a flame acts on water bringing it to act as boiling. The former claim holds that /b/ and /p/ only are as their relation or that their being is dependent on this relation, while the latter asserts that two distinct actors act on one another while nonetheless being independent beings that enjoy their own adventures.

I’d like to conclude this scattered post with a remark on Nick’s worries about how being must necessarily be independent of thought. Nick writes,

The basic point to be made against Latourian readings is that by making nature and culture, or politics and ontology (or any other fundamental dualism) relative to each other, or co-extensive, one invariably makes the Real dependent on some humanistic conceit. A truly realist ontology must eschew all such conceits and strive for the absolute indifference of the Real. This necessarily entails the separation of politics and ontology (this, I also believe, is an implicit argument against xenoeconomics where capitalism is presented as an inhuman presence.)

armaturehhk-myspaceHere, I think, we encounter a fundamental distinction between my object-oriented philosophy and, if I understand it correctly, speculative realism. First, it is not clear to me that Latour in any way makes nature and culture, politics and ontology, co-extensive or relative to one another. The whole point of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern is to collapse these sorts of distinctions or oppositions that characterize modernity. This is different than claiming, after the fashion of say Hegel, that nature and culture become relative to one another. Latour’s point isn’t that these realms are co-extensive or relative to one another in the way that Laruelle alleges that materialism and idealism are reciprocally determined. Rather, Latour’s point is that all of these elements enter into an assemblage with one another as act-ors in a network. Thus in science we have not only natural entities, but political discourses, economics, technology, religion, etc., etc., etc. The one is not determining the other or “making” the other, but rather all of these different act-ors are struggling with one another. One is not being reduced to another, nor is the claim that one cannot exist without the other. Instead, Latour’s sociological project is to think these associations and how they vie with one another, resist one another in a variety of ways, collaborate with one another, and so on. Such a view follows directly from the Principle of Irreduction and the Ontological Principle.

Second, I have strong reservations about the thesis that a truly realist ontology entails that we must strive for the absolute indifference of the real. This strikes me as a return to the old two world models where culture and nature are two entirely distinct realms such that the realm of nature is characterized by complete indifference whereas the realm of culture is the realm of spirit and values. In other words, what I implicitly hear in this characterization of realist ontology is the thesis that the really real is something like Lucretius’ domain of atoms independent of all cultural illusions. Here my rejoinder is subtle and nuanced. In my view, a genuinely realist ontology would be an ontology that acknowledges all of those differences that make a difference. And this is precisely where the problem emerges. For there are differences that make a difference that aren’t characterized by the indifference of the real to all things human. Insofar as humans too are objects or act-ors within being, it follows that we must recognize these differences as well. In my view, what we must seek in a realist ontology is an ontology robust enough to simultaneously think things like strings or atoms as real and indifferent to us, as not dependent on us in any way, and to think the differences produced by act-ors such as ourselves through our economics, our politics, our religion, our culture, our texts, our technology, and all the rest. For these things too are real insofar as they too make differences. In this regard, my shift is slight. My move is not to reduce culture to some indifferent real functioning as substratum of everything else such that culture is merely an epiphenomenon. Nor is it to reduce entities to effects of cultural differences. Rather, what I require is a flat ontology that thinks these heterogeneous differences weaving their relations with one another without any being reducible to the others. The real is not some elsewhere characterized by indifference whereas we are characterized by “concern”. Rather the real is in all manner of differences whether they’re indifferent to us or not.