andy-warhol-marilynOver at the inaccurately named Struggleswithphilosophy, Edward proposes the sort of analysis necessary for avoiding the Hegemonic Fallacy and demanded by object-oriented philosophy. Meanwhile, Carl, over at the amusingly named Dead Voles (why this name, Carl?), chants “object-oriented philosophy, what is it good for?” As Carl puts it,

Among the various things ideas may be for, what they’re nearly always for is constituting discourse communities, conversations and like minds. For ideas in the present, then, that I don’t have a professional obligation to backtrack through all their assembled agendas and contexts, the questions for me are first: whether they’re getting anything done I see a need to get done; and second, whether I find the conversation and/or conversants compelling. In the case of the new philosophy I’m solid on the latter, which is why I’ve been engaging with it. But I’m really shaky on the former, which is why I keep feeling so dissatisfied. What the hell is this stuff for?

To this, Edward, without realizing that he’s responding, remarks,

The main objective of hybrid model analysis is to construct an object-oriented approach for researchers that avoids what Larval has termed the “Hegemonic Fallacy.” Instead of the researcher relying on one style of analysis, the hybrid model forces the researcher to explain the object of analysis in its diversity. For example, when the researcher is examining the object of cars in the world, the hybrid model would not allow the researcher to select one particular dimension of cars to explain their existence. The problem of selecting one dimension is that it would only reveal and prioritise one aspect of cars and neglect other factors. Imagine if I analysed the discursive construction of cars in various discourses. While the analysis of these discourses would prove invaluable, its language bias would fail to capture the hybrid nature of the object in question. The result of examine the discursive construction would be to remained traped within the hegemonic fallacy. The hybrid model would not neglect the importance of discourses disseminating meaning about cars, but it would claim there are other dimensions (political economy, environmental factors, technological capability, and so on) that construct the object. The challenge for the researcher is to conceptualise how all these dimensions interconnect and influence one another in the object of analysis.

Quite right. My particular version of Object-Oriented Philosophy arises primarily from a dissatisfaction with the social and political theory that has been my bread and butter for over a decade. Here it’s important to keep in mind, as Harman has repeatedly emphasized, that there is no entity floating about called “Speculative Realism”, such that all Speculative Realists share these positions. Between Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, and Quentin Meillassoux there is no discernible shared position to be found. Indeed, there is a great deal of conflict among these positions, such that each of them is making very distinct ontological claims about the nature of the world. If, as Graham argues, there is some unity among the Speculative Realists, this is not to be found among their shared positions but rather in what they are against. That is, the common thread linking the Speculative Realists is a dissatisfaction with correlationist and anti-realist paradigms of thought. In this respect, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to claim that there are a number of “Speculative Realists” that don’t refer to themselves as Speculative Realists. For example, Deleuze, under one reading, could be classified as a Speculative Realist. DeLanda certainly fits the bill, as does Alfred North Whitehead. Harman argues that Latour fits the bill, and I would add Stengers to this list as well.

read on!

psAt any rate, back to my particular path to Object-Oriented Philosophy or Speculative Realism. As I remarked, I arrived at this position due to dissatisfaction primarily through the sort of social and political theory I was immersed in. My background is primarily characterized by an engagement with Deconstruction, French Post-Structuralism, Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology, and German Idealism. In fact, my master’s thesis, written paradoxically after my dissertation, was on Husserl, Derrida, Peircian semiotics, and semiology. There I proposed a semiotic conception of objects (it was entitled “The Sign-Structure of Objects”) drawing heavily on Peirce, Derrida, and Saussure. And, of course, I later became heavily involved in Lacanian psychoanalysis, both practicing as an analyst and going through analysis myself, and have published a modest number of articles working within a Žižekian and Lacanian framework.

glasMy way to Object-Oriented Philosophy arose primarily out of a growing sense that these modes of analysis are inadequate tools for approaching social and political philosophy. Although thinkers like Derrida or Žižek commit what I call the Hegemonic Fallacy when the former claims that there is nothing outside of the text or the latter treats the real as a twist in the symbolic (rather than something independent of the symbolic), the issue is not that these modes of analysis lack value, truth, or importance. Quite the contrary. Rather, the issue is that these modes of analysis impoverish those elements belonging to the social, restricting it to cultural formations such as texts, pop-cultural artifacts, etc. Drawing on my recent article on Žižek and discourse theory, these forms of analysis can only target the domain of immaterial labor, missing the other crucial dimensions of social assemblages.

In my view, this myopic approach generates a series of false problems and ineffectual forms of practice. Readers of Adorno and Horkheimers’s “Culture Industry” will, perhaps, readily recognize the false problems this “culturalism” generates. The cultural comes to seem like a monolithic entity that is completely closed and without avenue of escape, such that agents are thought as mere products of the cultural. This is a common vein in a variety of culturalist forms of theory. Thus, in Althusser, there is no subject, but rather we are always-already interpellated by the ISAs. In Derrida, of course, we get the endless play of textuality from which there is no escape, such that while the text never achieves the closure it seeks it is nonetheless perpetually haunted by the specter of ontotheological assumptions lurking within it. Similarly, in Foucault, we are products of assemblages of power and knowledge. To repeat, all of these forms of analysis are valuable and worthwhile. The problem emerges when we treat them as the ground of everything else. It is here that bad solutions emerge. Because of this conception of the social, thinkers like Žižek, Badiou, and Rancière contend that we must conceive a pure subject, a subject that is nothing but a void, such that this subject is completely undetermined by the social and therefore capable of agency, resistance, or escape. In other words, we have a dialectic between the cultural that overdetermines everything else and the subject that is completely free and undetermined, thereby offering a point of leverage where engagement might become possible.

adorno_3Under this model– and I’m painting with a broad brush –the primary site of engagement becomes culture. Derrida and his followers place their money on the deconstruction of texts, hoping to open the space where something beyond philosophy, beyond ontotheology, might become possible. Žižek focuses his analysis on cultural artifacts, endlessly revealing the workings of ideology deep in their depths, hoping to effectuate a separation of the subject of the void from the subject in the imaginary or the field of ideological interpellations. Badiou envisions his subject of truth as recoding the elements of culture in terms of the event heterogeneous to the encyclopedia of the situation, and goes so far as to claim that economy is outside of politics, that it doesn’t belong to politics. I contend that, in one way or another, all of these solutions result from the Hegemonic Fallacy where it is held that culture overdetermines everything else, or rather that all entities (persons, objects in the world) are merely vehicles of cultural significations.

These are substantial ontological claims. As K-Punk recently noted, it is not that disputes over ontology are disputes over politics, but rather that disputes over politics are disputes over differing ontologies.

My instinct would be to reverse this, i.e. it’s not that ontology is always constructed through a political battle, but that politics is always constructed through an ontological battle. Politics certainly presuppose ontology – to take a glaring example, the key slogans of Thatcherite capitalist realism, for instance (“There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families” and “There is no alternative”) were explicitly ontological claims, claims about what sort of entities can be said to exist in the world. But that isn’t to say that all ontologies presuppose a politics.

simcity-fullThe social and political theories I have gestured to, perhaps unfairly, above presuppose a particular ontology: an ontology where objects and persons are vehicles of the cultural, whether in the form of the signifier or language or some other cultural agency. Those working in the fields of social and political theory should take a break and play SimCity. The reason that SimCity is so instructive for the social and political theorist is that it reveals the importance of non-discursive, non-signifying differences in the morphogenesis of the dynamics of groups. The absence of a road or a power plant in a particular portion of your city will cause the utter decay of that portion of the city. The population begins to rally, calling for the mayor’s head, crime rises, etc. Placing a road in a particular portion of the city suddenly becomes the occasion of homes being built, businesses coming into being, etc. Natural disasters and events lead to shifts in the dynamics of the population, becoming the occasion of new political trends, and so on. It will be objected that, with the exception of natural disasters, things like roads and power plants are cultural in character. This is true. They are cultural in character. However, they are not discourses. Rather, they are avenues of connectability around which discourses come to be woven, but without being reducible to these discourses. Yes, a hurricane leads to the weaving of all sorts of discourses. A student from New Orleans told me, yesterday, how many in Dallas informed her that God was punishing the sinful people of New Orleans. However, Hurricane Katrina was not itself a cultural difference, but it was an occasion for massive shifts in social dynamics among both the people of the southeastern coast, and arguably throughout the country.

When it is declared, through the Ontic Principle, that there is no difference that does not make a difference, or, through the Hegemonic Fallacy that it is a mistake to treat one form of difference as overdetermining all other differences, what is being said is that we must learn to think assemblages of differences in a network, how they are woven together, and how they function to (re)produce certain forms of relations. This requires, as Edward, following Latour, has put it, a hybrid form of analysis that is capable of shifting between the semiosphere or the empire of signs, technology, nature, individual persons, social systems, etc., without one of these domains overdetermining the rest such that all the others are mere vehicles of this one overdetermining difference. By “vehicle”, of course, I mean relating to an entity in such a way that it merely carries another difference– say a signifier –without contributing a difference of its own. Thus, for example, I treat clothing as a vehicle when, like Barthes, I reduce it to its semiotic dimension without asking what difference the clothing itself introduces. It is certainly valuable to ask what semiotic system burkas belong to; however, we can also ask what difference this form of clothing itself introduces into the life of a person independent of its function in a signifying system.

galleriariotThis way of thinking requires substantial ontological shifts in how we think about the world. On the one hand, it requires us to shift from thinking of in terms of their relations to thinking of them in terms of their independence as entities. If we are to think of Hurricane Katrina as a difference that makes a difference, then we must grant Hurricane Katrina the status of an individual or autonomous actor or entity that exists in its own right, rather than reducing it to a vehicle for a system of semiotic relations. This is not to suggest that Hurricane Katrina does not enter into relations with other actors such as signs and discourses. It does. Rather, as opposed to the structuralist and semiotic idea that holds that a sign is defined by its diacritical relations to other signs, this move instead argues that entities have an independence and autonomy that is not exhausted by their relations. Entities always contribute and contain their own differences. Not how liberating this thesis is in relation to, say, Althusser’s notion of interpellation. Interpellation takes place, yes. But the person interpellated is never exhausted or summed up by their interpellation, and interpellation is never entirely successful because the person interpellated is not simply a place holder in a system like a quarter placed on a chess board to serve in the stead of the missing pawn.

If, then, entities are not products of their relations but have some autonomy or independence from their relations, it follows that we must shift from thinking in terms of an ontology of systems or structures where all terms are interdependent and cannot exist apart from from that system, to assemblages where elements of an assemblage both are related to one another in the assemblage and are independent of relations in that assemblage. At the ontological level, assemblage thinking invites two things: First, assemblage thinking invites us to pay particular attention to how a) relations are put together, b) what is put together, and c) the processes by which an assemblage produces itself, reproduces itself, and maintains itself in time. Because the individuals entering into an assemblage are autonomous, assemblages constantly face the risk of falling apart or dissipating into thin air like so much mist. Anyone who’s formed groups and organizations is aware of just how precarious and fleeting these assemblages can be; or how much work these assemblages require to be maintained. The difference between assemblage thought and system or structure thought is that the former is aware of just how precarious assemblages are, whereas the latter treats structure or system in an ontologically reified way that explains, rather than needing to be explained. Where the assemblage theorist thinks the real miracle is that some assemblages manage to persist through time or stay together, the structural or system theorist thinks the real miracle is that change manages to take place. The assemblage theorist says “the social does not explain, but must be explained”, whereas the structural or systems theorist says “the social is that substance which explains and individual actors are what need to be explained”. The assemblage theorist is interested in connectability and connections, how they are made, what is connected, and how they maintain themselves.

Second, the assemblage theorist is, above all, interested in the heterogeneity of the elements associated in an assemblage. Connections must be made or built. The connections made or built are connections among heterogeneous entities that come from very different ontic domains. Where the structuralist reduces the social to a single ontological strata (language), and where the systems theorist reduces the social to a single type (communications), the assemblage theorist discerns connections between signs, language, technology, persons, natural entities, media, etc., etc., etc. In other words, there is not one ontic domain that is privileged over all the others, but rather a heterogeneous where very different ontic domains must be woven together in ways that never quite work out. This ontological pluralism significantly broadens the possibilities of political engagement, while also shifting us to a hybrid mode of analysis that is happy to concede that often we artificially limit what is analyzed for the sake of research, while also recognizing that there are many other differences that make a difference and that are irreducible to the difference being analyzed.

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