Unresolved Problems and Questions

5a-edward-munch-lurlo-1893-oslo-munchmuseetAs many of those who have kindly participated in recent discussions surrounding the principles of an object-oriented philosophy I’ve been trying to articulate have noticed, a number of these principles remain highly underdetermined. I am deeply grateful for this participation and these criticisms– at least when they’re willing to acknowledge that I have a project under way rather than simply telling me that I should be talking about some other figure or that some other figure has already done this –because they greatly help me to enrich and develop what I’m trying to think through. Among these underdetermined principles and claims there is a question, in particular, as to just what I have in mind by the concept of “difference in itself”. Similarly, I have not said a whole lot as to just what I have in mind by Latour’s Principle or the principle that all transportation involves translation, and the Principle of Irreduction, which states that nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else. I draw both of these principles from Latour– primarily his books Reassembling the Social and Irreductions –though hopefully I’m sending them off in new directions. As I see it, Latour’s Principle follows from the Ontic Principle. That is, if there is no difference that does not make a difference, it follows that any interaction between two entities necessarily involves a contribution of difference on the part of both the entity acting on the other entity and the entity being acted upon. I hope to flesh out just what I have in mind by translation in this post.

On the other hand, I see the Principle of Irreduction as both a restatement and logical entailment of Latour’s Principle. That is, if it is the case that every entity both differs in itself (the Ontic Principle) and contributes difference (Latour’s Principle), then it follows that the difference of the entity being reduced to another entity or entities must also be accounted for. In other words, the Principle of Irreduction is not a nonsensical thesis designed to deny something like the ability of thought to be explained in terms of neurons. Not at all. All the Principle of Irreduction states, for example, is that even if thoughts are neurons firing in the brain, thoughts and ideas nonetheless themselves produce differences in the world. The Principle of Irreduction is thus a principle of accounting, not a principle affirming dualism and rejecting theoretical explanations. The Principle of Irreduction enjoins me to keep track of the differences being produced rather than obscuring the production of these differences. In connection with Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction, I’ve left largely unspecified just what it would mean for something to be a “mere vehicle” of some other object. This makes it very difficult to follow just what’s going on with Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction.

topsy-turvy-works-2Now, those who have kindly been following my recent posts and who know a bit of my background no doubt recognize that I’ve been particularly unkind to Lacan and Žižek. Not only have I been unkind, I’ve been resolutely unfair, misrepresenting their positions in a number of ways. I have, for example, continuously used Lacan and Žižek as examples of the sort of thought I’m trying to overcome and have accused them of reducing the world to the signifier. As Lacan remarks in Encore, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”. Clearly such a statement is unacceptable from the standpoint of any object-oriented philosophy insofar as object-oriented philosophy seeks to defend the reality of objects of all sorts, rejecting any metaphysics– and they are metaphysics –that would treat objects as product of the culture, the human, language, texts, power, mind, etc. There is, of course, an important and subtle qualification of this defense of the reality of objects; for, since texts, humans, minds, languages, forms of power and all the rest are objects too, these things too are real. A discourse is real and therefore both is difference and produces difference. But a tree is real as well and exists regardless of whether discourses exist. At any rate, my charges again Lacan and Žižek might be disconcerting given that I have both practiced as a psychoanalyst and have written so much on Lacan and Žižek.

read on!

Lacan and Freud as Thinkers of Translation and Irreduction

rmwknotsAs anyone familiar with Lacan or Žižek knows, while Lacan often makes remarks to the effect that the universe is the flower of rhetoric, while Žižek often portrays reality as an effect of the symbolic or the signifier, both later Lacan and Žižek nonetheless give pride of place to the category of the real. This marks one major difference between the Lacanian position and the position of linguistic idealists. On the one hand, for Lacan, there is the real as a sort of twist in the symbolic, as a distortion of the symbolic where the symbolic simply doesn’t work in the smooth and law-like fashion analyzed so ingeniously by Lévi-Strauss. This is a conception of the real that, while I find it fascinating, is of less interest for the object-oriented ontology I’m trying to develop. On the other hand, there is the Lacanian real as the pre-symbolic or that which is outside the symbolic. In this connection, Lacan’s thought– and psychoanalytic thought more generally –is highly resonant with both Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction. For what Lacan and Freud both explore so brilliantly throughout their work is the assembly of culture and biology. Freud’s great life’s work– the collected works of which sit handsomely behind me on my bookcase (please be envious!) –unfolds between the dual poles of the Three Essays on Sexuality (biology, though of a highly unusual sort) and The Interpretation of Dreams (the semiotic or the cultural). What Freud never ceases to repeat– and Lacan after him –is that transportation fails. The biological body in the real is never simply transported into the cultural, is never a mere iteration or perfect copy of the cultural that descends upon the biological body, and the individual never ceases to peturb or disrupt the smooth functioning of the social order.

In this regard, Freud and Lacan can both be taken as profound thinkers of both translation and irreduction. On the one hand, we get an account of how the subject perpetually fails to be a perfect copy, a repetition, of the cultural codes; while on the other hand we get a highly nuanced account of how translation between these spheres take place. We get an account of how biological instincts (instinkt) are transformed into drives (trieb). We get an account of how, in striving to integrate this foreign invader– the cultural or the symbolic –the drives perpetually displace various cultural representations giving rise to the formations of the unconscious. As Lacan so beautifully puts it, “…what the unconscious does is show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with the real” (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 22). fish_painting-219x322When, (about seven years ago) for instance, I dreamt that I was fishing and hooked a large fish of about five feet with which I struggled, this dream was an attempt on the part of the unconscious to translate a drive satisfaction, a desire, into the realm of the symbolic. This dream refers back to my years as an undergraduate, where my friends referred to me as “the fishermen” as I seemed to attract women without any effort (I assure you, my amorous skill is not that great), and the five foot fish refers to a woman of about that height who had spoken flirtatiously to me earlier that day. The dream strives to represent my drive, my desire, in a socially meritorious way, for it simultaneously refers to a deep see fishing trip with my very crusty grandfather where I caught a sword fish of about that size, thereby earning his respect and admiration for the very first time (he’s an old and weathered seaman). The dream is thus a push-back on the part of my drive, translating the symbolic into its own terms.

Just as my instinkts are translated into drives (trieb) by the encounter of my body with the symbolic, my drives, in turn, scramble the symbolic translating it in its own way, giving rise to new and surprising cultural significations that can only be described, to use Lacan’s term, as “linguistricks”… Linguistic formations of the unconscious that follow no ordinary linguistic laws. It could thus be said that the great question of Lacan and Freud is that of what happens when biological bodies and culture are assembled together. Rather than thinking in terms of pure transportations where the biological individual is nothing but a bearer and repetition of cultural significations, Freud and Lacan, each in their own way, both try to think the irreduction of the body to culture and the inability of the cultural to metabolize the individual without constant translation or transformation.

Rudiments of Lacanian Discourse Theory and the Sublime Virtue of Mathematics

Given that Freud and Lacan are both thinkers of translation and irreduction, it would thus come as no surprise to discover that they have a great deal to teach us about Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction at a more general ontological level of objects in general without any reference to the human at all. In particular, I think Lacan’s theory of discourse has a great deal to teach us about objects and relations between objects when this theory of discourse is translated in the appropriate way. For what is Lacan’s theory of discourse if not a theory of transportation and the failure of transportation, such that we get an account of both translation and irreduction writ large?

In discussing the greatness of mathematics, Whitehead remarks that, “[t]he originality of mathematics consists in the fact that in mathematical science connections between things are exhibited which, apart from the agency of human reason, are extremely unobvious” (Science and the Modern World, 19). If this is the case, then it is because in mathematics

We are merely thinking of those relationships between those two groups which are entirely independent of the individual essences of any of the members of either group. This is a very remarkable feat of abstraction; and it must have taken ages for the human race to rise to it. During a long period, groups of fishes will have been compared to each other in respect to their multiplicity, and groups of days to each other. But the first man who noticed the analogy between a group of seven fishes and a group of seven days made a notable advance in the history of thought. He was the first man who entertained a concept belonging to the science of pure mathematics. (20)

In other words, to think mathematically is to think, in this instance, any seven whatsoever, regardless of the entities that compose that set of seven (set theory will literally weave numbers out of collections of the empty set, for example). As a result, we develop the capacity to think the seven for itself, independent of any ontic differentiating features of its elements, and thereby gain the ability to discern patterns and relationships that would not be obvious were we examining specific entities defined by specific qualities.

principia_covert_scale_structure_paintingThis, then, would be one of the values of Lacan’s mathemes. Where Freud submerges us in a world of specific entities such as parents, siblings, bosses, etc., Lacan’s mathemes renders certain key terms in a manner similar to the way in which numbers are able to express any-entity-whatsoever, such that a distinction emerges between number, on the one hand, and what is counted on the other. We can thus begin to think number-for-itself independent of any specific entities counted. Likewise, Lacan’s mathemes allows us to discover certain structural relations or isomorphisms that are far from obvious if we remain at the level of any specific empirical entities.

It is in this spirit, I think, that the object-oriented philosopher should approach Lacan’s theory of discourse. As I explain in my recent article (warning pdf.), Lacan’s theory of discourse is not a theory of the content of discourse, but rather of the form of relations between an agent and the addressee of an agent, the Other. In each discourse there is an agent of discourse addressing another. Each discourse moreover produces something, but also excludes something. For any discourse, then, there are four places indicating relationships between these terms constituting a structure:

Agent → Other
↑———- ———–↓
Truth // Production

For those interested in a more detailed treatment of how Lacanian discourse theory works, I refer readers to the appendix of my article beginning on page 40 (don’t worry, the discussion only runs to page 43). cubist_dialogueThe first thing to notice about this four term relation is that it functions like a little machine or mechanism. On the one hand we have an agent addressing itself to an Other (some interlocutor). On the right we observe a downward arrow indicating what the discourse produces. Finally, on the left we notice an arrow pointing upwards from the position of “truth” indicating the manner in which the agent is driven by the truth. Truth, in this context, is not to be understood as a referential or representational correspondence between a proposition and a state-of-affairs in the world, but rather refers to the unconscious or that element that the discourse must exclude in order to function. The upper portion of our little machine is labeled with “impossibility” to mark the impossibility of an agent articulating its unconscious desire (truth) to its interlocutor. The lower portion of the machine labeled “impotence” indicates the disadequation of the response (product) produced by the Other or interlocutor and the agent’s unconscious desire (truth), i.e., I never get precisely what I asked for.

Impossibility and impotence thus function as machines or “energetic conditions” for Lacan’s theory of discourse. It is because I can’t ever successfully express my desire (truth) to the Other that the product produced by the discourse never accords with the truth or desire animating my discourse. And because the object produced by my discourse never corresponds to the desire that animates my discourse, discourse continues and grows increasingly elaborate at the level of content as it perpetually strives to surmount both this impossibility and impotence. In other words, it is an asymmetry or disequilibrium that keeps us talking rather than falling into a mute and satisfied catatonia. In this connection, readers might recall Kids in the Hall’s film Brain Candy where the wonderful psychotropic drug not only cures everyone’s illness but renders everyone catatonic. Likewise, readers might recall the second Matrix film where we learn that the first versions of the matrix created human utopias where, much to the surprise of the machines, things kept collapsing because humans couldn’t handle a perfect world. In other words, only a fundamental disequilibrium could keep the system functioning.

Now, what makes Lacan’s theory of discourse so interesting and useful is that he is able to distinguish different forms of discourse based on how variables are plugged into each of these four positions. There are 24 possible discourses in all forming 6 possible universes of discourse. Lacan only mapped one of these universes of discourse, while I have mapped another and deduced the four possible additional universes of discourse. Lacan’s four variables are objet a (the excess or remainder), $ (the divided subject), S1 (the master-signifier, master, or sovereign), and S2 (the battery of signifiers or knowledge). When these variables are plugged into the fourfold structure indicated above, we can then deduce or derive structural permutations between these variables allowing us to derive further forms of discourse.

Thus if we begin with the discourse Lacan refers to as the discourse of the master, we are able to describe three additional structural variants of this discourse:

Discourse of the Master
S1 → S2
↑ — — ↓
$ // a

For example, if we shift the position of each variable in this initial form of discourse one position forward in a clockwise direction, we are able to deduce what Lacan refers to as the discourse of the hysteric:

Discourse of the Hysteric
$ → S1
↑— — ↓
a // S2

In other words, all of the variables remain the same, but we now find that we have a very different agent addressing itself to a very different Other or interlocutor, producing a very different product, with a very different element in the position of the unconscious “driving” the discourse. Likewise, by shifting the variables yet again we can derive two additional discourses, allowing for only four possible discourses in all.

I will not here enter into an extended discussion of just how Lacan understands these discourses (for that refer to my article). At this point I simply wish to point out that these discourses provide me with the means of articulating the concepts of transportation, translation, irreduction, and perhaps the beginnings of an account of difference in itself. Thus, when Lacan articulates the discourse of the master, it can be read as a formalization of his famous definition of the subject: the signifier is what represents the subject for another signifier: S1 —> $ —> S2. Lacan’s point, in part, is that the signifier attempts to transport or represent the subject with respect to another signifier. For example, “Levi (a subject) is the kind of guy that gets annoyed (signifier or S1) by people that spit in public (another signifier S2).” Now the key point not to be missed is that this relationship between S1 and S2 causes the subject to fade or disappear. In other words, the two signifiers attempt to form a link that would nominate or define “Levi”, but insofar as these signifiers are perfectly general (not to mention diacritical), the singular Levi disappears behind these signifiers. Something fails to be captured. Or put differently, the subject recedes behind the signifiers that attempt to “transport” or express it.

For Lacan the subject ($) is this “receding” that is forever displaced by this play of language without ever being present in language. In other words, the subject is the failure of transportation between signifiers. In relating one signifier to another (S1 and S2) language would purport to say the subject, but something always fails or escapes. Or yet again, in logical terms, the predicates (S2) never quite capture the subject of the proposition (S1), but always contain a gap or receding element ($). It is for this reason that, over and above transportation there is translation (a), that remainder or excess produced by the discourse that exceeds or escapes what the transportation attempts to accomplish. The signifier fails to transport the subject, thereby producing an excess of difference or the objet a.

Here then we can think the difference between what Lacan calls the discourse of the master and the discourse of the hysteric. The discourse of the master would indicate the failure of transportation between (S1 and S2 or the ability of culture to represent the body) and therefore the principle of irreduction (objet a as the excess, waste, or remainder that is produced wherever a transportation between one signifier and another signifier striving to represent a subject takes place. By contrast, the discourse of the hysteric would be a formalization of Latour’s Principle or the Principle of Translation, whereby every discourse strives to translate difference (objet a) into a particular medium. Thus, in the discourse of the hysteric we now witness objet a (the excess of difference) in the position of truth which drives discourse, while we witness the symptom ($) (the failed or attempted transportation that produced the excess of difference) in the position of the agent. The symptom or difference now addresses itself to S1, another object, producing a variety of effects or qualities (S2) in response.

Lacanian Discourse Theory as a Scheme of Object-Oriented Philosophy

Now suppose that instead of treating Lacanian discourse theory as a theory of signifiers, the unconscious, and the subject, we instead treat these formal structures as formalizations of objects and relations among objects. Might we not now get something like what is posited by variants of object-oriented philosophy and a principle of both translation and irreduction? Let’s see.

Graham’s Object-Oriented Philosophy

Let us shift from Lacan’s theory of the discourse of the master to Graham’s theory of the object. Under Graham’s model of object-oriented philosophy the three crucial theses are 1) that objects are infinitely withdrawn from all relations (they’re “vacuum packed”), 2) objects are divided between their qualities and their status as infinitely withdrawn or vacuum packed substances, and 3) objects only relate to one another or interact with one another through their predicates in the medium of some third term (his account of vicarious causation). These three claims are perfectly exemplified in Lacan’s discourse of the master. On the one hand, at the level of truth we have the split object ($) that is divided between its being as infinitely withdrawn or vacuum packed, touching no other entity, and its qualities, attributes, or properties. On the other hand, we have the qualities, properties, or attributes belonging to an object (S1) which the split or divided object turns to the world. These qualities, properties, or attributes are addressed to qualities, properties, or attributes belonging to another object (S2), yet in relating to this other object, the first divided object always encounters the excess or division of that other object, such that something in this other object perpetually recedes or fails to be exhausted (objet a).

When we shift from the schema of the object to the schema of the other object, we get, in Graham’s model, the manner in which the second object in the schema of the object (S2 in Lacan’s discourse of the master) strives to “respond” to the first object (S1). Thus we now encounter what Lacan calls the “discourse of the hysteric”, where objet a now appears in the position of truth indicating the excess of the first object, creating a response on the part of the second divided object ($) in the position of the agent, generating predicates in the position of the Other (S1) or the excess of properties the second object produces in response, generating a set of relations in the position of the product (S2). In other words, in Graham’s position we get an account of objectile metabolism, where divided or split objects (infinitely withdrawn objects) both strive to “respond” to one another at the level of their predicates and strive to integrate or translate one another in their encounter with the excess of one another.

Levi’s Object Oriented Philosophy

In my version of object oriented philosophy I’m inclined to switch the functional positions of “truth” and “production” in Lacan’s formal scheme of discourse:

Agent → Other
↑———- ———–↓
Production // Truth

In other words, where Lacan sees truth as what drives a discourse, I’m inclined to see truth as the result of relations among objects. Here, judging by a number of remarks Graham makes in The Prince of Networks, he wouldn’t disagree. Truth or reality, under this model, would not be at the origin of a process, but would be a product or result of that process (hopefully I’ll have more specific things to say about this in the future). This shift aside, where would my version of object-oriented philosophy differ from Graham’s. Well, beginning with Lacan’s discourse of the master once again as a general scheme of objects, I’m inclined to treat the position of “truth” in this structure of objects ($), not as the infinite withdrawal of objects from relations to any other objects or from the predicates of an object, but rather as indicating fundamental disequilibriums, inequalities, or asymmetries within objects themselves.

It will be recalled [hopefully] that in my posts “Objectile and Agere” and “Brief Remarks on the Ontic Principle“, I defined objects as acts or verbs and articulated the Principle of Act-Uality. The Principle of Act-uality stated that entities only are insofar as they are act-ual. There I asserted that the hyphen in the term “act-ual” is of the utmost importance insofar as it indicated that entities are acts or that entities act. I claimed that this principle followed from the Ontic Principle by virtue of the thesis that if it is the case that there is no entity that does not make a difference it follows that being a being or an entity must be an activity rather than a static substance or noun. If difference must be made, then it follows that entities or beings cannot be inert.

On the basis of Lacan’s schema as formalized in the discourse of the master (and keeping in mind that this schema is no longer being restricted to discourse), I am now in a position to articulate a rudimentary and provisional notion of difference in itself or internal difference. If the objectile or act-uality is to be represented by the matheme “$” in the position of truth, then this is because the act-uality or objectile exists in a state of disequilibrium with itself, “causing” it to act or unfold rather than rendering it mutely inert and oblivious to the world. In contrast to Grant’s position, “$” does not indicate the infinite withdrawal of objects from any relation to other objects, but rather indicates disequilibriums, inequalities, or assymetries, at work in the depths of objects. These disequilibriums of objects, in turn, generate acts (S1), addressing other objects (S2), in turn producing excessive disequilibrums in those objects (objet a). What we have here is thus a rudimentary or provisional ground for the Principle of Irreduction. For in the production of acts with respect to other objects, one object is never reducible to another object insofar as the difference produced in the second object is always in excess of what the first object strove to produce, i.e., the second object creates differences in excess of the differences the first object attempted to transport. I am, of course, drawing heavily from chapter 5 of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition in this articulation of internal difference, though hopefully sending it shooting in a different direction.

When we shift from the Principle of Irreduction to Latour’s Principle or the Principle of Translation, we also shift from the discourse of the master (or the schema of the object) to the discourse of the hysteric (or the schema of objectile relation). Here the accent is no longer on how objects act or the disequilibriums that animate objects, but rather on how objects react to the acts of other objects in striving to translate these acts. Thus, in the scheme of translation, we now find objet a or the excess of difference that the first object strives to transport to the second object. Objet a or difference between now functions as an engine producing further splits in the second object ($), in the position of the agent, generating qualitative transformations in response (S1), that in turn produce a plurality of consequences (S2).

At this point my mind has fizzled and I can go on no longer. Hopefully readers will forgive me if I don’t edit this post this evening (I can’t stand to leave things waiting in que). Hopefully I have at least articulated the beginnings of what difference in itself and difference between might look like in this post. Moreover, hopefully I’ve provided a scheme that provides the grounds of both the Principle of Irreduction and Latour’s Principle, while also shedding light on why no entity can merely be the vehicle of another entity.

Night Folks!