March 2009


20050716-019-pennsylvania-camping-cracked-mud-along-susquehanna-tracksI remember, with wonder, the mud along the shores of the James River down the street from me in Richmond, Virginia. I couldn’t have been more than four or five. My father would take me fishing for catfish and like any boy of that age, I would play in the water and the mud. We would catch a few fish and then return home. Often there would be a bushel of oysters waiting at the house and we would shuck them while preparing the fish, with their writhing whiskers, awaiting the feast to come.

If the mud of the river would fill me with such wonder, then this is because it would crack and harden in the hot sun, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I can still hear my father singing:

When the work is done
and the sun goes down
We all get together to have a little fun,
Down in the Mississippi mud

I would try to preserve these little pieces of earth, to put them together as a puzzle, but they all fell apart. What filled me with wonder, I think, was that earth could take on this form when evoked by the sun. Here was a sort of transformation of the elemental. Grains of dirt, otherwise loose such that it would fall from your fingers, could, after becoming wet, turn into this solid substance with a distinct pattern that couldn’t otherwise be discerned in the grains of dirt. A qualitative transformation. An interaction between substances– dirt, water, and photons of light –produced this new substance.

The idea, then, would be that substances reveal themselves, disclose themselves, in their interactions with one another. One substance draws something out from another substance, a new quality, a new arrangement, new properties.

I feel as if I only exist in being drawn out. In monadic isolation nothing takes place. I hibernate and remain still. It is only in relation to others, others who see differently than me, others that are hostile to me, others whom I love, others whom I hate, that thoughts take place in my mind. I discover my being relationally through a conjugation with other substances, other persons, such that I’m led to undertake involuntary adventures in aleatory encounters with these others that function like perturbations, informational interventions, that produce within me the revision of everything that I thought. This is the beauty of the internet… Such a strange field of aleatory encounters with such unsavory characters; yet nonetheless, despite all the frustration and misunderstanding, a cross fertilization of substances drawing oneself out of oneself, becoming, as a result, other. Sand for oysters everywhere. What a disaster for civilization!

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Given how much I have written about Deleuze and how much Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari I have read, I confess that I am a bit embarrassed when I come across claims/charges that Deleuze is a vitalist. When I compare the references to vitalism I come across in the biological science and history of science (this wiki are a passable account of what I understand by vitalism) that I read with my understanding on Deleuze’s ontology, I have a difficult time seeing how Deleuze fits the bill. This leads me to wonder if I’m not missing something deep and obvious about Deleuze’s ontology or what counts as vitalism, or both. As it stands, it seems to me that charges that Deleuze is a vitalist are more ways of sidestepping arguments against Deleuze’s ontology than accurate interpretations of his position. That is, they strike me as ad hominem attacks on his position designed to dismiss through the association of his ontology with a position rightly regarded as noxious today rather than real arguments against the claims that he’s actually making. Someone help me out here. What am I missing?

UPDATED (Ask and ye shall receive): Michael, over at Complete Lies (a blog I’m just now discovering… Sorry Michael!), has a post up discussing vitalism. In a comment responding to Kvon, he further clarifies the manner in which he understands vitalism:

I think the key is the distinction between “machinic” and “mechanistic.” Mechanism is the old Newtonian physics that we all grew up with, which the romantics (like Schelling) and later vitalists (like Bergson) rebelled against. I think it’s safe to say that Deleuze and Grant are both steering clear of any sort of mechanistic causality as well as any Cartesian dualism with a causal “outside” and a non-causal “inside.” From my understanding of Deleuze, when he speaks of machines, he does not mean the same thing as when Descartes speaks of automata. That’s the difference.

Under this model, mechanism would be Newtonian mechanistic causality and vitalism would be the presence of some other force or activity within the depths of things. I wonder, however, whether this opposition isn’t a bit dated. Rather than giving ourselves two options about the nature of objects (mechanistic causation versus vitalistic agency), why not instead bite the bullet and argue that Newton-Laplace et al got it wrong, and that mechanistic causation as conceived by these thinkers is an exceedingly abstract, limited, conception of matter. Here, I think, we get the transition from the physics of certain types of objects to the sciences of chemistry, biochemistry, and biology. When evoking chemical reactions, biolochemistry, and biology we don’t need to evoke occult agencies like vital forces, but are instead talking about certain physical processes that obey time’s irreversible arrow and which are iterative (especially in biochemistry and biology) in nature. Under this thesis, rather than setting up an alternative between mechanism and vitalism, the claim would instead be that we have a lot to learn about how matter works.

One of the issues that’s repeatedly come up in debates surrounding various camps of speculative realist thought is the issue of whether or not the category of “object” should be retained within realist orientations of thought. Thus, in a recent post, Alex of Splinteringbonestoashes writes,

In using “object-oriented philosophy” as the term for any realist (anti-correlationist) position, isn’t there the danger of absolutising the object as realist ontological unit? I’m uncertain that, say, Brassier would want to limit himself in such a way for example, especially given recent critiques of metaphysical schema which rely upon objects as their basic structural component (I’m thinking particularly of Ladyman’s “Who’s Afraid of Scientism” in the latest Collapse). Indeed whilst it makes perfect sense to talk on a folk-metaphysical level about giving objects their proper attention (as you and Graham Harman do), to think at least as much about the interactions between inanimate non-human actants as human ones, does this not remain overly wedded to the very level of correlated folk-knowledge any realist must attempt to escape from? If the crucial component of science for realist philosophies lies in its anti-intuitive findings, leading to a continual disenchantment of the manifest image, why ought we to continue to think in terms divorced from these findings (i.e.- to remain at the level of “objects all the way down…”). Ladyman’s “Ontic Structural Realism” for example strikes up a radically eliminativist approach to objects tout court, in contrast OOP seems to remain overly in hoc to the visualisable structure of the objectal.

Before commenting further on this remark, it’s first important, I think, to point out that while all object-oriented philosophies are necessarily realist philosophies, not all realist philosophies are object-oriented philosophies. In order to qualify as an object-oriented philosophy the ontology in question must minimally argue that objects are 1) the minimal units of being (paraphrasing Whitehead in the first chapter of Process and Reality, “‘Actual entitites’– also termed ‘actual occasions’ –are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real” (PR, 18)), and 2) that these objects exist in-themselves or are not dependent on mind or the human to be what they are. Examples of object-oriented philosophies would thus be Aristotle, Lucretius, Leibniz, Whitehead, Latour, Graham, Harman, and myself. Note, all of these philosophies are wildly different, but they all share the common claim that objects are the minimal unit of being and are independent substances.

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