June 2009

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.

Nina Powers has a terrific interview with Badiou in The Philosopher’s Magazine. See the uncut version here.

For those not familiar with Badiou, this interview presents an excellent summary of his thought.

I worry this might sound really vulgar and naive, but what if we were to raise certain questions about Badiou’s ontology in relation to the Barber of Seville paradox. Among Badiou’s most famous claims is the thesis that ontology belongs not to philosophy, but rather mathematics. Maths, and, in particular, Cantorian set theory, articulates all that can be said of being qua being. I remember the excitement and pleasure I took in this thesis when I first encountered it in graduate school. Not only did I already have a deep and abiding love of mathematics, but there was also something marvelously perverse in a Continental philosopher championing mathematics. Who can forget the title of Heidegger’s lecture course The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, his claim that maths doesn’t think, or the generalized hostility towards maths one finds everywhere in Continental philosophy with the notable exception of Deleuze. What could be more contrary to Heidegger’s thesis than the Mathematical Foundations of Ontology? Moreover, in a field of philosophical alternatives dominated by obsessive meditations on the human, the body, language, and power, few things could be as “other-worldly” and inhuman as the elevation of humble mathematics… A humility that paradoxically is coupled with the most acrobatic conceptual innovation, daring to think spatial configurations, multiplicities, topologies, and all the rest remote from anything like the “everydayness” we experience in our intuitive relations to the world.

I suppose you could say that I took an impish pleasure in how Badiou must stick in the craw of my fellow Continentalists. I will never forget having coffee with a very well known Continentalist in his own right, my face, words, and gestures animated by my enthusiasm for Badiou like a child having at it with a new toy, only to hear him despairingly say “it’s kinda like analytic philosophy, though.” Kinda, but not quite. Badiou had really hit a symptom at the heart of contemporary Continental thought. Where Derrida and the others were endlessly talking about free play and dissemination, Badiou put his finger on the remarkable univocity of mathematical prescription. But this is not all. Where everyone was endlessly talking about difference, Badiou took this one step further, developing a radical articulation of difference. Many of us had become accustomed, through Heidegger, to thinking of maths as the most extreme form of enframing and identity thinking. What Badiou showed, through his deployment of set theory, was that far from the valorization of identity, maths give us the resources to think multiplicities qua multiplicities without one, or absolute difference and dissemination. Similarly, where many were celebrating the accomplishment of Derrida’s thought and the aporetic undecidables it acquaints us with in every domain, Badiou dared to declare that we must decide the undecidable, and articulated a rigorous account for doing so through his discussions of forcing and the generic with respect to truth-procedures. Indeed, the very fact that he said truth at all, and in such an interesting way, was a shock to the system within that intellectual context.

Yes, Badiou had hit a symptom. For those of us who had cut our teeth on the intricacies of Lacan and thinkers such as Laclau, reading these figures in the happy days following the advent of the beautiful work of Zizek and Fink where Lacanian thought had been freed from the endless rut of the imaginary and cinematic accounts of suture, where the late Lacan was finally, slowly, so slowly, becoming readily available, and who were already acquainted with the intellectual atheleticism required by set theory, topology, and all the rest, Badiou arrived at just the right time and just the right moment. Badiou arrived as the philosopher of these formalisms. Those of us intoxicated by Lacan and Zizek, worried, as philosophers, at how we might escape the rut of literary and cultural criticism. The question that haunted the time was that of how psychoanalysis might be put to use philosophically. Badiou provided precisely the answer to this question, not by virtue of being a psychoanalytic thinker, but by mobilizing all of these set theoretical and topological structures we had been exploring in Lacan but with respect to questions of ontology, ethics, and politics. And above all, Badiou arrived at a moment where interpretation, philosophy as interpretation, had largely exhausted its potency, becoming a dreary and oppressive activity, appearing daily to be more a way of insuring that everything remain in place and that the tradition be preserved against any and all change. The potency of Badiou lay not so much in his explicit declarations and theses, as in his invitation to think again and his reminder of what philosophy ought to be. Indeed, he went so far as to denounce doxa. Who, in our Protagorean age, in our age dominated by simulacra of Gorgias, in our age where rhetoric had come to trump philosophy (i.e., the triumph and primacy of ethos or local custom over logos), had dared denounce doxa? Badiou did.

read on!

The always brilliant Asher Kay has an interesting post up on the whole dust-up surrounding Badiou’s Logics of Worlds over at Spoonerized Alliterations. Picking up on my almost obsessive critique of the confusion of epistemological and ontological questions– what I call, following Roy Bhaskar, the “Epistemic Fallacy” –Asher writes:

As I noted before, this providential trap – this luxurious cage with its limitless supply of ‘Nilla Wafers – is not the same thing as what Badiou is being accused of. Badiou is being accused, as Levi says in one of the linked posts, of “conflating questions of epistemology with questions of ontology”.

Why would someone consider this a bad thing? After all, concepts play a central role in doing ontology, and any ontology worth its salt will be able to explain its concepts.

One possible reason is that one believes that epistemological questions are – ontologically – different from ontological questions, and that conflating them (or outright claiming that they’re the same) is simply getting the ontology wrong. Also, if one believes that ontology is different from epistemology, then the person who is conflating them isn’t really even *doing* ontology.

As it turns out, I am about half-finished with an article outlining the principles of my Onticology that deals heavily with these issues. In the course of my preparation for this article, I came across a terrific set of distinctions in Zubiri’s magnificent On Essence that helps, I think, clarify the problem in question. Aristotle distinguished between three different types of ἀρχή or principles, two of which, I think have largely been lost in the last 300 hundred years. When we speak of ἀρχή, we are speaking of the “whence” of things. According to Aristotle there are three different ways of speaking about the whence of things: ἔστιν, γίγνεται, and γίγνώσκεται. ἔστιν refers to the principle whence something is, γίγνεται refers to the principle whence something becomes, and γίγνώσκεται refers to the principle whence something is known.

I’m in a hurry at the moment so I’ll only make a few remarks. Beginning largely with 17th century thought, philosophy became increasingly preoccupied with ἀρχή of the third sort, and specifically questions of certainty and skepticism. While we can raise these questions with respect to principles pertaining to knowledge, the epistemic status of the ἀρχή pertaining to ἔστιν and γίγνεται have a very different status. Nothing prevents us from claiming that claims about principles in this domain have a hypothetical or speculative status, subject to further revision and development. More importantly, when we speak of ἔστιν and γίγνεται, the issue isn’t one of knowledge or how we can know, but of the principles or ἀρχή pertaining to the things themselves. This I think, is a very simple point. The question of ontology is not a question of being qua subject or being qua language or being qua Dasein or being qua body or being qua power and social forces. No, it is a question of being qua beings. Yet endlessly we mix up these questions of the principles from whence knowledge comes and the principles whence things are and become. They are two distinct issues.

It might seem that such a conflation is perfectly innocent and without importance, but really it makes quite a difference. Take Husserl’s famous Principle of All Principles. As a result of his restriction of claims to what can be presented in intuition to consciousness, he unwittingly ends up excluding all non-presentable (for us) differences from the domain of philosophical speculation. I think that’s a big mistake. When I object to certain elements of Badiou’s ontology– and I genuinely have a deep and abiding admiration for his work –it is because I see him implicitly introducing some form of consciousness into every ontological relation. Thus, for example, when Badiou talks of the “count-as-one” as the condition under which consistent multiplicities are forged out of inconsistent multiplities or the infinite abyss of being, I think we should exercise tremendous caution with respect to this use of the term “count”. Counting implies someone who counts. If Badiou wishes to adopt a realist account of being, then he should avoid the use of this sort of subject-centered language. Yet we find it all throughout his work and, to add insult to injury, we find that with very few exceptions, the only consistent multiplicities he ever talks about are cultural in character. This suggests to me that for Badiou there isn’t a world independent of humans. One can object that Badiou calls himself a realist and a materialist, that he excludes anything like the transcendental subject, etc., but this issue is to be judged in terms of the content of his position, not his declarations about his position. Merleau-Ponty makes similar claims about his own position on the grounds that it is the body not a cogito, transcendental subject, or ego that presides over manifestation, yet his position is no less anti-realist for all that.

There is far more to be said here, but I have to scoot.

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