June 2009

I am very tired this morning as I stayed up far too late watching first season episodes of Dexter and had to get up very early this morning to get blood work done, so hopefully I make some sense in these remarks. For some time now I’ve pondered the issue of what precisely accounts for the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment. In many instances I have no doubt that Lacanian psychoanalysis does produce substantial transformations in symptoms and, in a closely related vein, the manner in which a person relates to and experiences others. This was certainly true in my own case, and, I believe, in the case of a number of patients I worked with back when I was still practicing.

Setting aside the aim of analysis as traversing the fantasy and identifying with the symptom, the core Lacanian thesis is that the unconscious is structured like a language. Under this model, the symptom, understood from one angle, is a coagulation of unconscious language that speaks, as it were, that which has fallen underneath the bar of repression. As both Freud and Lacan liked to say, there is no repression without a return of the repressed. What is repressed are therefore signifiers. The symptom is a return of those signifiers in disguised form. In the Rome Discourse Lacan remarks that all speech is addressed to someone. Thus the symptom can be seen as a disguised speech to someone.

My favorite example of this from my own analysis comes from my early teaching experience. At Loyola we still used chalk. When I first began teaching I found myself constantly breaking chalk. This little tick became very noticeable, such that not only was I deeply embarrassed by it, but my students began to chuckle over it and even gave me a chalk guard with a declaration from the citizens of “Chalkville” asking that I clothe their citizens in this fine suit of armor so as to put an end to my carnage. While touched by this little gesture, I was also very bothered by the breaking of the chalk. I remember obsessively talking about it one day in analysis, words flying out of my mouth a mile a minute. At one point I said something like “I don’t know what my problem is, I just seem to put too much pressure on the chalk at the board.” My analyst flatly intoned something like “pressure at the board” and I responded with something like “yeah that’s right, too much pressure on the board.” I thought nothing of it at the time and continued rambling. I didn’t notice until a couple weeks later that I had stopped breaking chalk after that session. The breaking of the chalk was a sort of micro-symptom and a rather minor one at that, though certainly linked in with my global or structuring symptom. I encountered the breaking of the chalk as a problem of technique, a mechanical problem, an inability I have to modulate the amount of pressure I put on the chalk. What my analyst did with his monotonic phrase was transform this bungled action into a condensation or a bit of speech, situating it not as a problem of physics, but as a way of speaking the pressure and anxiety I was experiencing at the board. Perhaps this symptom was even a message to the other situating myself as inept, as bungled, as incompetent, so that I could prop up the Other as complete (a role I had played with respect to my father as a child). The point is that in being articulated, the symptom disappeared. It no longer had to manifest itself in my flesh and activity because it had now been articulated.

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Image3It looks like I’m writing a lot of posts responding to others today, but I can’t express how helpful these comments are in assisting me in the development of my own thoughts. In response to my last post, NrG writes:

First, I would love to read something other than Lacan for our groups. And second, I would enjoy it even more if it were Graham’s new book! So, to answer your question, I’m definitely on board.

Now, to my (seemingly unending series of) questions. When you comment that:

“Rather, the body is an endo-relational unity anterior to whatever matter might compose it, wherein the elements related interdepend on one another through time.”

Could you possibly describe the differences between a sum, a composition, and a unity? As I see it, there seems to be more to a composition than a simple sum, but in what way(s) does a unity differ from either or both?

Also, I am struck by the fact that there seems to be something “anterior” to the object-whole. I’m not disagreeing with you, per se, but am intrigued by this notion that before multiple objects become a whole, there seems to be a preset or pre-constructed form by which the objects (eventually, but not always) come to take.

My favorite example is the two garages, one with a pile of parts and the other with a similar pile but fully constructed into a working motorcycle. Now, you’re right; for if the whole was merely the sum of its parts, then the pile would be the same object as the working motorcycle. However, there is something quite drastically different between the two. It is only because the parts are composed in such and such a way that the working motorcycle comes to be. Parts can be replaced, but only if the new parts maintain the same function in the composition. (Another example would be that given the sentence, “Bob wrote a paper.” I could easily replace the word Bob with the pronoun he, with little to no change in the sentence’s meaning – “He wrote a paper.” Yet, the more complex the sentence/object, the harder it is to make such replacements.)

What most fascinates me about form, then, is that it seems to exist as part of the object-whole, but is not essentially a proper part in the sense that it, itself, cannot be taken as an independent object. For, what object is “the body”, or “the motorcycle” minus all of their respective parts?

First things first: I am absolutely stoked at the prospect of readings Harman’s Prince of Networks for reading group. In my view it is his finest work to date, though this might just be a function of my abiding affection for Latour. It would be terrific to start sooner rather than later, i.e., over the Summer. Maybe we could send something out to the group list this week with the proposal and see when folks are available.

Now onto more metaphysical issues. I think NrG’s intuitions concerning the difference between sums and compositions are similar to my own. I take it that a sum is a collection in which the parts do not depend on one another. A sum can thus be thought as a simple set. The elements of a set have no relations of dependency with respect to one another defined merely by membership in the set. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that we are authorized to take the sub-multiple of any set without that multiple being changed in any way as a result of its subtraction from the set. For this reason I’m inclined to say that sets aren’t objects. I think Badiou comes to realize this himself in the trajectory of his thought from Being and Event to Logics of Worlds. If he comes to the conclusion that we require category theory to think objects and worlds, then this seems to be because he recognizes that you don’t get an object or a world out of a mere set extensionally defined. I differ from Badiou on this point in rejecting the thesis that objects are necessarily indexed to a world and a transcendental, and in my distinction between endo- and exo-relations. If I reject Badiou’s thesis that objects are necessarily indexed to a world, then this is because I am committed to the independent substantivity of objects. I confess that I might be unfair to Badiou on this point as Badiou does argue that objects can move from world to world while remaining the same object in Logics of Worlds.

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russiandollIn response to my post on endo- and exo-relations, my friend NrG writes:

But how can such a distinction (between endo- and exo-relations) be at all possible, since even if we believe to be discussing the endo-relation of one object, aren’t we at the same time also talking about the exo-relation of other objects? So for example, when we discuss our circulatory system in the vacuum of space, true, we are discussing an endo-relation with regards to our body. However, we are discussing an exo-relation with regards to our blood cells.

It seems, then, that any discussion of endo-/exo-, or part/whole relations needs to maintain the thesis that to change one side of the binary is to also change the other side. Therefore, to throw our bodies into space (a purely exo-relation with regards to our bodies) means that our endo-relations will also have to change. For the opposite is also true. If we contract a disease that produces massive boils on our skin, or that leads to the loss of use of an appendage, we could say that our endo-relations caused our exo-relations to change – and not just physically. People might stay away from us, or we may not be able to move around our physical environment as easily as before, therefore limiting our encounters with other objects.

I guess in a way, what I’m getting at is, who’s to say that an object’s endo-relations have to compose an objects exo-relation? Why not the opposite, as well? Can multiple objects’ exo-relations eventually create another object’s endo-relations? And, is it wrong for me to think of endo-relations as part-relations and exo-relations as whole-relations?

I think that this is a really fascinating series of questions and that it gets at the core of one of the central theses of Object-Oriented Ontology. Graham Harman does an excellent job addressing these sorts of issues in his own work. Tim, Adam, and I have been talking about reading Harman’s Prince of Networks for reading group later this Summer or in the Fall. Hopefully NrG will enthusiastically agree as well. At any rate, as developed in the magnificent third chapter of Tool-Being, two of Harman’s central claims are that objects withdraw from all of their relations as analyzed by Heidegger with his notion of veiling, and that objects are multiples of other objects. With respect to the first thesis, the idea is that when one object relates to another the relation never exhausts the being of the other object. In other words, there is something of the volcanic core of objects that always exceeds any relation that it enters into, such that the substantivity of the grasped object is never exhausted in being grasped.

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Stem_cell_embryo_20x_01In a terrific response to my post on exo-relations, Caemeron writes:

I wonder if people are scared to comment on this? The topic here does get pretty obscure and daunting, but I would like you to say more.

I remain unconvinced by your claim that there are objects that aren’t related to any other object.

To begin, I’ll take your example of yourself in relation to planet earth. Isn’t planet earth the way it is because of its gravitational relations with the rest of the solar system, and the solar system with the galaxy and so on?

Secondly, what is your take on “the butterfly effect”, or the idea that miniscule events on the other side of the world can create large impacts through a serial progression? To the point, perhaps: by relation do you mean only direct relation?

you say:

This is one reason that we are able to claim that two objects can be spatially unrelated. If enough time has not elapsed for light to travel to the other object, then there is no gravitational relation between these objects.

Could we not add the word ‘yet’ to the end of this? doesn’t that give us a temporal relation?

Insofar as you want to say that objects create spatiotemporal relations rather than vice versa, I’m with you, but I simply find the notion of an object which is unrelated to anything else to be unthinkable (wouldn’t thinking about it place it into a relation?) And, if it is thinkable through Gaussian manifolds, which I know woefully little about, I don’t see how that might justify us in claiming that there actually are such objects (to throw your criticism of Badiou back at you)

‘Relation’ seems to me to be a very broad term. A number like 47 may not be in space or time, but is certainly related to many things conceptually, metonymically, mathematically, etc. It seems to me that we can even conceive of non-relation as a form of relation.

Is your claim that 1) an object is not necessarily related to every other object or 2) there are objects which are not related to any other object?

I think Caemeron here raises a number of points that are worth briefly expanding upon and clarifying. First, my thesis is not that objects are unrelated to anything else or that there are objects that are unrelated to anything else. Like Caemeron, I hold that objects maintain a variety of exo-relations with other objects. My body, for example, has the shape, height, and consistency it possesses because of the exo-relations it has with other objects like the planet earth, the molecules presiding over air pressure etc. Consequently, there are a number of qualities belonging to my body that would not exist as they do without exo-relations or relations to other objects.

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There is something deeply disgusting in the publication of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s love letters. There is something loathsome in the mockery of these love letters. Yes, Sanford is guilty of negligence and dereliction of duty with respect to his responsibilities as Governor. Yes, it is very likely that Sanford stole from the citizens to South Carolina to fund his trips to Argentina. Yes, Sanford is a cynical hypocrite who used the mantra of “family values” to manipulate stupid conservative values based voters to support him and who participated in legislation designed to oppress women and LBGT folk in the name of “family values” (the show True Blood has the proper take on what these conservative religious groups are really about).

Despite all this, there’s absolutely no reason to publish these letters and the mockery of these letters is even worse. Last night I watched with thorough disgust as the gasbag Keith Olbermann adopted a mocking voice and read the letters to Bridges of Madison County music. Him and his guest ridiculed the style of the letters, their inept references, and various grammatical and spelling errors of the letters. However, in reading these letters it is clear that something of deep significance had happened in his encounter with this woman and that he had, no matter how poorly expressed, genuine tenderness for her. Whatever else Sanford should be condemned for– and he really should step down or be impeached –he should not be condemned for love. Indeed, if anything redeems Sanford to some degree, it’s these letters. Indeed, given his actions over the last few days– his bizarre disappearance without notifying any of his staff –it’s pretty clear that at some level he was trying to blow up his life.

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My contribution to the Graham Harman grant for his groundbreaking work here. You should contribute too. For just a few cents a day you can help lift a suffering Latour and Harman out of obscurity and promote their philosophical vision. It’s less than the price of coffee! Can you live with the knowledge that Harman and Latour are suffering while you buy your expresso? Support the Graham Harman grant now! Not only will you be helping Harman, but you’ll be getting a great book!

Alright, I can’t contain my childish glee at this news, but Tim Burton is filming Alice in Wonderland. This brings a few of my favorite things together: Tim Burton, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway (yeah, I know, I’m lame but she’s so Victorian… too bad she’s completely facile in interview), and Helena Bonham Carter. I am not sure why I like the cinema of Tim Burton so much. Between the years of 9 and 13 I lived in a small village outside of Boston, MA, named Sudbury. These were tremendously formative years for me. But over and above this there was something almost magical about Sudbury, primeval and pervaded by a sort of singular essence that I can only refer to as a “style of being” or a “sense”. Of all the directors I’ve ever watched, only Burton manages to capture this essence or what is “in the original 13 colonies more than themselves.” This is especially the case with the atmosphere of Sleepy Hollow. When discussing Kafka’s literature Zizek criticizes the thesis that Kafka writes about the fantasy underlying bureaucracy, instead claiming that Kafka captures the real of bureaucracy, it’s essence, what is it beyond any and all fantasy. This is what Burton somehow manages to do with the Northeast. In many respects, this place, Boston, has always remained my essence. I still remain haunted by its greening, its rocks, its moss, its ferns, its mist, its history, and stories of Colonial soldiers, jack-o-lanterns, different gourds, lobster, steamed clams, hills, pines, apple trees, concord grapes eaten fresh off the vine, boxer turtles, wild asparagus found like a surprising gift, salamanders, musket balls, Colonial uniforms and parades, split rail fences along which you would walk like an acrobat, stone fences piled haphazardly, strange green sea glass worn smooth and opaque by the action of Boston Bay evoking thoughts of old ale bottles from hundreds of years ago, Quincy Market with all its smells, its raw oysters on the half-shell freshly shucked, its vegetables and so many other things like frightening and pathos filled Halloweens that are not genuinely understood anywhere else outside the country, and meaningful Thanksgivings with their gnarled gourds, massive piles of snow covered with ice from Winter storms, Fall, brown haired girls with their sensitive, deep blue or brown eyes, accents, wild turkeys singing their song as they run through the underbrush where I fished in the creek for bass, catfish, and bluegill, and all the rest. Burton makes me ache for home, the chill air of my little house in Winter that was heated with only a wood burning stove upon which we would heat our socks as oil was too expensive, and the pleasures of fresh lobster right from the sea and corn on the cob. He fills me with with memories of moss covered granite rocks where I would have picnics with my sister and parents, eating cheese, French bread, sliced apples, and summer sausage.

NrG poses a very difficult and vexing set of questions. NrG writes:

You stated in your response [to my question] that:

For example, nothing in my position precludes the existence of a humble and completely isolated object in a far off region of the universe related to nothing else at all. This is possible because objects have both their endo-differential structure and their exo-relational structure. At the level of endo-differences and relations, the object still produces differences, but these are differences that remain, as it were, internal to the system of the object.

I guess my question is simply this: “How can we not have something exo- for every object?” Or to put this another way, how can we have a closed set without something exterior to the set itself?

I think this simple question gets at something fundamental pertaining to issues of space and time– issues that I haven’t fully worked out –so a few remarks are in order.

read on!

In response to some of my posts in a diary entry by Mikhail over at Perverse Egalitarianism, Tom, of Grundledung, has written a nice post on my Principle of Translation and what I call, following DeLanda, “flat ontology”. The Principle of Translation states that “there is no transportation without translation”. By this I mean that no object functions as a mere vehicle of the difference of another object, but rather, in receiving the differences of other objects, it translates these differences, transforming them, producing something new. By “flat ontology”, I mean that being is said univocally or that it is said in a single and same sense for all that is. To properly understand this thesis, it is necessary to refer back to the Ontic Principle. The Ontic Principle states that there is no difference that does not make a difference. In claiming that there is no difference that does not make a difference, I am not making the “precious” claim of the beautiful soul that all differences are important. That is, I am not making a normative claim. Rather, I am making the claim that the criteria for being something consists in making or producing differences. If something is, then it makes differences. I think this thesis is trite, which is why it’s good as a starting point for thought.

While trite, it has, in my view, striking consequences. Among these is the Ontological Principle or the univocity of being. In short, if there is no difference that does not make a difference, if to be means to make a difference, then it follows that anything that makes a difference is. Such is the thesis of my realism. Under this construal, ontology becomes “flat”– rather than “vertical” –insofar as being is not said differently of beings, but rather all beings are equal insofar as they produce differences. In other words, there is not one form of being for reality and another for appearance. Half-Cock Jack in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is every bit as real as a quark. As a consequence, it becomes necessary to think meshworks of differences, rather than attempting to reduce all other differences to a finite set of differences such as matter or physical reality.

I have described the Principle of Translation as a radicalization– or to use Nate’s language, a “deflation” –of Kant’s correlationism. Where Kant privileges the mind-world relation, emphasizing the manner in which minds translate the objects of the world, I, following Graham, instead argue that what Kant says of mind-world relations is true of all object-object relations. All objects translate one another. Some of these processes of translation are of the simple causal variety. Some involve signs. Others involve emotions. Others involve signifiers. There are a variety of ways in which translation takes place. What Kant says of mind-world relations is simply a subset of a more general ontological principle and as a result Kant is engaged in a regional ontology, rather than a general ontology (and so too of all forms of correlationism).

It is in relation to this thesis that I think that Tom implicitly mischaracterizes the issue or my position. At the end of his post, Tom writes,

Even with these difficulties in mind, I think that some of the aspects of Levi’s attempt to construct a flat ontology ought to be resisted. There is something distinctive about subjects which makes some forms of flat ontology problematic. We can talk both about objects translating objects and about subjects translating objects. But the translations of the subject include those of a unique kind, which are not adequately addressed by simply increasing the complexity of a unitary flat ontology. So, there is no objection to saying that objects are active and possess affections which translate influences upon them in particularised ways. But there is a highly significant type of activity which subjects engage in, which the Kantian tradition characterises as spontaneous. It is in virtue of their spontaneity that subjects are responsible for the translations which they undergo: and this brings with it many of the traditional distinguishing traits which have been used to mark out subjects, namely freedom, normativity, rationality and intentionality. In the next post, I shall say more about how we should understand the spontaneity of subjects and how that impacts upon metaphysical issues.

If I read Tom correctly, then he is suggesting that flat ontology somehow ignores the differences of individual entities, treating humans as equivalent to rocks. While the Ontological Principle affirms equal-being or that all beings are insofar as they produce differences, it nonetheless maintains the differences among beings. One of the central aims of Onticology is not to assert that everything is the same, but rather to infinitely open the field of ontology so a proliferation of different forms of translation become open to investigation. In this respect, to use Nate’s language again, Onticology is deflationary. What it objects to is the posing of all philosophical questions– and especially ontological questions –in terms of one form of translation. Kant is committed to the thesis that mind is included in every inter-ontic relation, thereby subordinating or shackling all beings to mind. Likewise with all other correlationisms.

Onticology does not reject the thesis that minds translate objects– how could it given that minds are by the Ontic Principle and by the Principle of Translation? What Onticology objects to is the thesis that mind is somehow special in this regard or that minds must be included in every relation. But in point out what should be a rather obvious point, Onticology is in no way diminishing culture, mind, language, economics, history, or whatever other system of translation one might like to evoke. In asserting the inclusion of mind or culture in every objectile relation, correlationisms confuse regional ontologies with general ontologies, treating a subject of interest, for example of how humans experience time, with a generalized form of translation for all objects. Onticology seeks to open a domain where systems of translation can be investigated in their own right– including those pertaining to the human –without requiring the inclusion of the human in every relation.

The last few days have been fairly busy. I’ve completed the initial draft of my article for the Speculative Turn anthology, and am fairly pleased with the results. Hopefully a number of my positions will be clearer as a result of this article. I do, however, realize how much more I have to do. At the moment I’m sketching the arc for my next book. I suspect that it will consist of three parts entitled “Essence”, “Genesis”, and either “Societies” or “Networks”. In this respect, I am attempting to address four inter-related issues. First, with respect to questions of essence or that without which an individual object would not be the object that it is, I am examining the object in its internal constitution, independent of its relations to other objects. In my article I have argued that we must necessarily presuppose substances of this kind to render relations intelligible or to understand ontologically how they are possible. However, while objects have their internal constitution or essence that persists throughout time, they also have their outward face pointing towards other objects. The issue of objectal relations to other objects– what I call “inter-ontic relations” or “exo-relations” –falls under the heading of networks or societies. Here the issue is that of how selective relations emerge between objects and also how relations to objects evoke properties in objects. Not all objects can relate to one another. The issue of whether or not an object can relate to another object is an issue that points back to issues of essence or the affects or internal constitution of an object in its singular being. However, in relating to other objects, new properties are evoked in the object. My skin turns brown as I toil in my garden pulling out the weeds. Finally the question of genesis is the question of how objects emerge from other objects and attain closure or totality, or a status as independent objects in their own right. There is a difference, for example, between an aggregate of people on a subway and a group of revolutionary activists. How is this difference between aggregates and individuals, collections and objects, to be thought?

The first part will be something like a “transcendental analytic” of objects treated in their independence from or isolation from other objects. Here I will lean heavily on Zubiri’s account of essence as a system of notes constituting that which is in the object that makes it what it is, as well as Deleuze’s account of multiplicities and individuation as articulated in Difference and Repetition, and accounts of systems drawn from autopoietic theory and developmental and dynamic systems theory. The chapter on networks or societies– “communities of objects” –will draw heavily on Latour, Deleuze’s account of intensities, and Whitehead’s account of nexes. This part will be something like a “transcendental dialectic” insofar as it deals with relations among objects, rather than objects taken “analytically”. This will set the groundwork for the third part on genesis, which I am still very much working through. At any rate, it’s nice to have something of a sense as to where I’m going.

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