February 2009

fn3ontoOne of the most attractive, problematic, and astonishing features of Badiou’s ontology is his strictly extensional understanding of sets or multiplicities. A set is not defined by its members sharing a common predicate or quality, nor by the relations among members of the set. Rather, a set is defined strictly by its extension or the members that belong to that set. From the standpoint of 20th Century French and German Continental philosophy, this thesis cannot but be a heresy, for the predominant trend in Continental thought has been a relational conception of entities. Whether we are speaking of language as a diacritical set of negative oppositions as defended by the structuralists and the post-structuralists, or Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where entities, the ready-to-hand, are defined by the relational networks to which they belong, the predominant trend has been to treat beings as bundles of relations such that the entity is nothing apart from its relations. In a spirit similar to Deleuze’s declaration that relations are always external to their terms, Badiou will have none of this. For Badiou entities are not defined by their relations and there are no intrinsic or internal relations that define the being of the entity. Rather, they are simply defined by their relations.

From the standpoint of both Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where each entity is thought as a “being-in” belonging to the worldhood of the world defined by an ensemble of relations defining meaning, or from the standpoint of structuralist and post-structuralist thought where the entity is an ensemble of internal relations from which it cannot be detached, or from the standpoint of Hegelianism where, as Hegel painstakingly shows in the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic, where the entity simply is its relations or mediations, this move cannot but appear stunning. For what this extensionalist conception of sets authorizes is combinations of subsets in whatever order we might like. This, in short, is what the axiom of union tells us. What the axiom of union allows– if I understand it correctly (I’m sure Dominic will educate me if I don’t, thankfully) –is the construction of whatever sets we might like based on those elements belonging to our initial set. Thus, if I have a set composed of an umbrella, an apple, and the moon ({umbrella, apple, moon}), I certainly have a set composed of the apple and the moon ({apple, moon}), or a set composed simply of the apple ({apple}).

equalizer_category_theoryNow all of this sounds silly and unremarkable so long as we don’t contrast Badiou’s extensional notion of sets with the relational ontologies that have predominated during the 19th and the 20th century. If to be an entity is to be a bundle of internal relations, it follows that entities cannot be grouped in any way we might like. Rather, a model of the world based on internal relations dictates that each entity necessarily has a place within an Order and that the entity is nothing apart from this order. Thus the phoneme {c} is nothing apart from other phonemes such as {p}, {b}, {f}, etc., by virtue of the differentiality that allows it produce different senses at the level of the signifier: cat, pat, bat, fat. Insofar as these phonemes take on their value (in the linguistic sense of “value”) differentially in relation to one another, they are nothing independent of their relations to one another. This is what it means to say that each entity takes on a place within an Order. The Order is the totality of internal relations defining a system or structure, whereas the places are locations within that Order relative to the other terms. Because the relations are internal to the various beings in the Order, there is thus a Law that governs these beings and exhausts their being, legislating how they can and cannot act.

In proposing that sets are defined purely by their extension or their membership, Badiou undermines the thesis that to be is to be a bundle of internal relations. At the level of ontology, there is thus no intrinsic Order that defines entities. Rather, in their stark independence, the elements that make up a set not only can be decomposed into infinite subsets (through a recursive process of taking the power set of each power set), but the elements of each set can be related in a variety of different was or simply taken as singletons, thereby abolishing the notion of intrinsic or internal relations as in the case of Hegel’s logic of essence.

read on!


I’m a bit behind the curve on this one:

The Theory Reading Group at Cornell University invites submissions for its fifth annual interdisciplinary spring conference:

“Particularity, Exemplarity, Singularity”

Featuring keynote speaker Ian Balfour (York University)

Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
April 17th-18th, 2009

The place of the particular, the exemplary, or the singular in contemporary philosophical practice has yet to be decided. While much of the critical thought of the last fifty years has focused on affirming the rights of ephemeral experience or the singular instance by refusing grand narratives or universal systems, more recent years have seen the rebirth of a rationalism that, at least in one of its forms, again relegates particularity to the debased realm of illusion, solipsism, and doxa. At stake in the tension between these two positions is the possibility that there exists some form of specifically artistic or empirical truth, or even a non- phenomenalizable reality of the singular, even if this truth or this reality are not of the order of propositional knowledge.

This conference is guided by the following question: what is the role of the particular, the exemplary, or the singular in critical thought today? Alternatively, how might these terms mark an impasse within systematic knowledge? We understand these questions to accommodate and encourage original reflection on a wide range of topics within philosophy, aesthetics, and literary theory. We invite participants to consider such issues as the relation between literature and philosophy, the status of history or materiality with regard to aesthetic objects, and the contemporary inheritance of the critique of representation as it has been elaborated in continental philosophy since Kant.

Suggested paper topics include (but are not limited to):
Singularity and Event
Literature and its Outside
The Persistence of the Dialectic: Particularity and Universality
The Sublime Limits of Representation
Rhetoric and Philosophy
The Rebirth of Rationalism
The Future of the Linguistic Turn
Taste and Community
Poetics and Aesthetics
Literature and Epistemology, Literary Ways of Knowing
The Literary Absolute
Example, Instance, Case, Sample
Genre, Archetype, Paradigm
Origin, Originality
The Concept of Criticism
Literature and Disenchantment
The Transcendental and the Empirical
The Literal and the Figurative
Problems of Inscription
Symptomatic Reading
Bad Examples
The Genesis of the Singular

Please limit the length of abstracts to no more than 250 words. The deadline for submission of 250-word abstracts for 20-minute presentations is February 28, 2009. Please include your name, e-mail address, and phone number. Abstracts should be e-mailed to theory@cornell.edu. Notices of acceptance will be sent no later than March 5, 2009. For more information about the Cornell Theory Reading Group, visit http://www.arts.cornell.edu/trg.

Having picked up Brassier’s dissertation once again, I find myself thoroughly delighted and exhilarated by the hymn he sings to modern science in contrast to reactionary correlationism and phenomenology. This remark by Husserl sums up the entire problem and underlines just why phenomenology is so reactionary: “The existence of Nature cannot be the condition for the existence of consciousness since Nature itself turns out to be a correlate of consciousness: Nature is only as being constituted in regular concatenations of consciousness” (Ideas I, 116). Such, in a nutshell is the entire problem with correlationism. Read pages 10 – 22 of Ray’s dissertation (after the chronically obscure discussion of Laruelle; drop the language guys, it doesn’t advance the argument and doesn’t seem necessary to what’s being articulated) and see if you don’t find yourself electrified.

spinozaFor the last two semesters I have been teaching, after previous failed attempts, Part 1 and Part 3 of Spinoza’s Ethics in my Intro to Philosophy courses. Much to my surprise compared to previous experience, it has been a pleasure to teach this text this time around. In the past, I think, the failure of my attempts to teach it was due to starting at the very beginning. Jumping straight into the Ethics from page 1 is very likely doomed to failure as Spinoza gives no overarching account as to what he’s attempting to do, but rather simply assaults his reader with a series of definitions and propositions without explaining why he’s beginning where he’s beginning or what he wishes to demonstrate. The trick is to instead begin with the appendix to Part 1. On the one hand, the first sentence of Part 1 summarizes what he believes he has demonstrated about the nature of God, while the remainder of the appendix– a beautiful critique of superstition –outlines the consequences that follow from this understanding of God and God’s relationship to its creatures. In this way the reader is given something like a thesis, helping to guide him through the text.

This semester, rather than teaching Spinoza at the end of the semester, I chose to begin with the Ethics. In part I chose to do this because Spinoza– even where he fails –give such a gorgeous model of deductive argument coupled with careful explanation. One of the things I find about my students is that they simply don’t know what an argument is. Beginning with Spinoza would therefore give me the opportunity to discuss the nature of argument, the distinction between inductive and deductive arguments, the relationship between premises and conclusions, what it means to make inferences, and so on. Spinoza’s thought is particularly suited to this end not only stylistically (his famous “geometric method” where the relationship between premises and conclusions is clearly laid out), but also in the sheer integrity of his thought. By “integrity” I am here referring to something like “deductive fidelity”, where one sides not with intuition or “common sense”, but with what is deductively entailed by the premises of ones arguments. Take the example of Spinoza’s infamous parallelism. Clearly parallelism or the idea that the order and connection among thought is the same as the order and connection among objects is a deeply counter-intuitive view. However, Spinoza is led to this position by claims he has already demonstrated in Part 1, namely the lack of anything in common between different attributes. Rather than hedging and claiming that thought can affect bodies and bodies can affect thought, Spinoza squarely accepts the implications of his claims about attributes and develops its implications (I do not, of course, endorse Spinoza’s parallelism, but nonetheless admire his deductive fidelity).

read on!

I couldn’t have said it better myself:

The supposed neutrality of Badiou “not saying what does the counting” does not get him off the hook. He does not deserve the benefit of the doubt here. We all know that humans can assemble things in sets, and we all know that Badiou’s examples of events that go beyond the state of the situation are all things experienced by humans. (And it seems pretty clear to me that they are also generated by humans. What’s the point of a militant philosophy like Badiou’s if you’re going to claim that “Being” is responsible for the Chinese Cultural Revolution? That’s Heidegger, not Badiou.)

Read the rest here.

One of the things I’ve found very difficult as I’ve worked through Badiou on this blog and elsewhere is that often there seem to be a set of normative commitments that cloud discussions of just these sorts of very basic issues. On the one hand, there seems to be so much excitement and fascination surrounding Badiou’s account of events, the subject, and truth (which I think are largely solutions to a poorly posed problem, stemming from an underdetermined, yet fascinating, ontology), that scant attention gets devoted to how Badiou proposes to account for the structuration of what, in Being and Event he called “situations” and in Logiques des mondes he now calls “worlds”. Certainly we deserve a robust account of the transition from inconsistent multiplicities to consistent multiplicities.

Badiou’s discussion of the count-as-one seems designed precisely to give such an account (pardon the pun), yet this solution, regardless of whether Badiou describes it as “materialism”, seems doomed to lead us into idealism. Badiou’s discussions of materialism appear to be based on a sort of equivocation or sophism where a position is described as “materialist” if it mathematizes the world, yet is there not a difference between the material and the mathematical? More worrying, it seems impossible to treat the count-as-one as doing the work of structuring situations without presupposing a counter. Now Badiou can, following Husserl and Frege in their critique of Mill and psychologism, make noises about how this counter is not human; but ultimately he must still be talking about some version of a transcendental subject. All worlds then get shackled to the activity of this transcendental subject as what structures situations through the count-as-one, undermining the possibility of entities that are as they are regardless of the presence of any subject. What we thus seem to get in Badiou– amply confirmed by his turn to “the transcendental” in his most recent work –is a new variant of Kantianism or correlationism sans the categories of the understanding and the role played by intuition and finitude.

newssmokeThe word “object” derives from the Latin prefix ob, meaning “against”, and the word jacere, meaning “to throw”. Presumably there is a relationship between objects, on the one hand, and existence on the other hand. To be an object is also to exist. The term “existence” comes from the Latin term existere (ex and sistere) meaning “to stand forth”. It would thus seem that to be an object is “to be thrown against” or “to stand forth”. Here, then, would be a first reason for conceiving objects in relation to difference. If to be an object is to stand forth or to be thrown against, then it follows that to be an object is first and foremost to differ. On the one hand, we here see why objects must always be attached to a field. If objects stand forth or are thrown against, there must be something from which they stand forth or against which they are thrown. Minimally, then, it must be said that there are not just objects, but object-field relations. There is nothing for the object to stand-forth from if there is no field against which the object stands. This field could be anything and the question of what constitutes a field would be a central question of ontological speculation. Is the field in question the void, as in the case of Lucretius? Is it other objects? Is it a background-foreground relation as in the case of the Gestaltists? Is it the One substance of Spinoza? The question is open. All that can be said is that minimally objects are a differentiating. For this reason objects are necessarily attached to a world; or rather, there are no worldless objects.

125The second notable feature of the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” is that both contain verbs. “Object” contains the verb jacere, meaning to throw. “Existence” contains the verb sistere, meaning “to stand forth”. The term “object”, of course, is a noun. When we think of nouns we tend to think of something fixed and established. Something that presides. Yet the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” suggests a verb or action at the heart of objects and existence. If objects stand-forth or are thrown, then there is an activity at work in the object or the existent. In this respect, the Greek concept of φύσις or phusis as that which emerges, grows, or is born would be at the heart of objects. When the Ontic Principle claims that there is no difference that does not make a difference, we get one sense in which objects are. The difference of an object is a difference that is made and constantly remade, emerging from out of a field. Consequently, objects should be thought as events.

g002_pllck2_she_wolfIt is unfortunate that we so often use “difference” as a noun. The differences that constitute an object should not be understood as the properties by which an observer distinguishes two objects from one another, but should instead be understood as difference internal to the object, presiding over the process of how it stands forth from a field or throws itself. Difference should be understood in the sense of “to differ” or “differing“, as the activity by which the objects unfolds, blooms, or emerges against a field. Perhaps the term “differentiating” would be preferable to “difference”, so long as differentiating is understood as what objects do, not what minds do in distinguishing objects from one another. While we do indeed make distinctions, so long as difference is understood primarily as distinction, difference becomes a negative term describing relations between identicals. When we speak of difference as distinction, we here speak of difference in terms of what something is not, rather than affirmatively as the differentiating taking place in the heart or volcanic core of objects. “This cat is black, that cat is not.” Hence Deleuze will remarks that,

The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, Columbia University Press, 28)

As I argued in a previous post, the epistemic and the ontological are deeply intertwined due to the philosophical tradition, such that we must perpetually struggle to untangle the two if we are to get anywhere. Difference-between is a relation between three terms where, on the one hand, we have two objects that differ from one another (black and white cats) and a mind contemplating that difference or distinguishing these two terms. Such would be difference epistemically conceived. Implicitly this form of difference would involve an observer or mind distinguishing the two objects. However, difference as Deleuze here conceives it would be ontological and strictly an affair of the object itself, regardless of whether any minds were about to distinguish the object from other objects. Here we would have the object distinguishing itself through some sort of internal force or power– an internal difference –rather than objects being distinguished.

read on!


In physics, thermodynamics (from the Greek θερμη, therme, meaning “heat” and δυναμις, dynamis, meaning “power”) is the study of the conversion of heat energy into different forms of energy (in particular, mechanical, chemical, and electrical energy); different energy conversions into heat energy; and its relation to macroscopic variables such as temperature, pressure, and volume. Its underpinnings, based upon statistical predictions of the collective motion of particles from their microscopic behavior, is the field of statistical thermodynamics, a branch of statistical mechanics. Roughly, heat means “energy in transit” and dynamics relates to “movement”; thus, in essence thermodynamics studies the movement of energy and how energy instills movement. Historically, thermodynamics developed out of need to increase the efficiency of early steam engines. Typical thermodynamic system, showing input from a heat source (boiler) on the left and output to a heat sink (condenser) on the right. Work is extracted, in this case by a series of pistons.

The starting point for most thermodynamic considerations are the laws of thermodynamics, which postulate that energy can be exchanged between physical systems as heat or work. They also postulate the existence of a quantity named entropy, which can be defined for any system. In thermodynamics, interactions between large ensembles of objects are studied and categorized. Central to this are the concepts of system and surroundings. A system is composed of particles, whose average motions define its properties, which in turn are related to one another through equations of state. Properties can be combined to express internal energy and thermodynamic potentials, which are useful for determining conditions for equilibrium and spontaneous processes.

With these tools, thermodynamics describes how systems respond to changes in their surroundings.

From Wikipedia.

When the Ontic Principle, Latour’s Principle, the Principle of Irreduction, and the Hegemonic Fallacy are taken together, they can be understood as making the case for the introduction of something like thermodynamics into ontology. The Ontic Principle states that there is no difference that does not make a difference. Latour’s Principle states that there is no transportation without translation. The Principle of Irreduction states that nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else. And finally the Hegemonic Fallacy states that it is illicit to reduce all difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference. While the thermodynamic dimension of the Ontic Principle does not exhaust the signification of this principle, it nonetheless captures one important aspect that follows from this principle. Insofar as, ontologically, there is no difference that does not make a difference, it follows that difference requires work both for the entity making the difference and the entity upon which the difference is made. Both of these differences are involved in the interactive process of those objectiles entering into an assemblage with one another.

read on!

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