July 2009


thingsBenoît of Idios raises questions as to whether Caesar crossing the Rubicon was the best choice of examples for illustrating object-oriented ontology. In the course of his post, he makes a couple of casual remarks that I believe are worth responding to. Benoît writes,

I’m not sure if a dissection of “Caesar crossing the Rubicon” was the best example to use, as I still don’t grasp the particular value OOP/SR brings to the table when all of the modes of analysis above are possible without dissolving the Kantian limit on epistemology(or, why they are obvious).

Another way to put this would be to say that a particular difference (say, language) could make most of the difference (because honestly, I’ve never heard anyone defend that a certain difference makes ALL the difference, at least in my experience of the Continental tradition), and I’d still get all the same toys.

What am I missing?

First, I think Benoît somewhat misunderstands my aim in “How Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?” That post was not designed to present a concrete object-oriented analysis, and therefore it comes as no surprise that it is rather uninteresting as a piece of analysis. If you’re looking for a good object-oriented analysis read Latour’s Pasteurization of France or Science in Action, Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism, or Bogost’s Unit Operations. What “How Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?” aimed to do was simply draw attention to the role that other other actors or objects play in a situation, beyond minds, signifiers, social structures, and so on. I think such simple illustrations are important because, by and large, we have been educated in an environment so pervaded by the primacy of the signifier that it’s often difficult for us to imagine anything else in the world of theory. I know this was certainly the case for me back in my orthodox Lacanian days. I was so accustomed to viewing the world in terms of texts and signifiers, that I was really unable to even imagine any other type of analysis. The only alternative I could see was phenomenology. In both cases, however, we have a subordinating mode of analysis. In the linguistic idealisms we get the subordination of objects to the signifier and texts, whereas in phenomenology we get the subordination of objects to intentionality. What is impossible, in these frameworks, is for nonhuman objects to surprise us or make any contribution of their own.

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metastaseis1Over at the OOP (why do I always start singing “are you down with OPP” whenever I say this?), Graham expands on my post about Caesar. I’m having tremendous difficulty articulating what I’m trying to get at in a way that is accessible to others who have predominantly worked within hermeneutic or meaning-centered orientations of theory (I use this term generically to refer to any predominantly semiotic, semiological, hermeneutic, deconstructive, discursive, or sociological approach to theory), so it’s nice to see him nailing the issue somewhat towards the end of his post. As Graham puts it,

The best way to see the importance of this is to compare any ANT-type [actor-network-theory] reading of some historical event with a more reductive reading. In the latter case you’ll see histories claiming that “the Crusades were all about economics,” or in the other direction, “Pasteur brought light to the darkness and gave birth to a new, enlightened era of medicine.” In the ANT’ish case, you’ll always find something much more interesting and surprising– actors displaced from their original goals due to chance material obstacles, forced to translate their progress along strange paths that they never intended.

There has been a lot of protest against Latour’s use of the term “actor” to refer to anything from pebbles to human agents. However, I think Harman nails it here when he draws attention to the manner in which goals shift as a result of aleatory encounters among differences in a multiplicity. This is not simply a question of unanticipated consequences, but also about the manner in which goals shift in unanticipated ways and begin to develop in unexpected ways as a result of bringing things together in networks. Here, perhaps, we could distinguish between smooth spaces and gnarled spaces. A smooth space is a space you move through without any sort of friction or resistance. As a result, nothing stands in the way of envisioning a goal and executing it. By contrast, a gnarly space is populated by all sorts of singularities or differences that gradually lead to a transformation of the goals themselves.

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mapofitalyI sometimes get the sense that when I make remarks about flat ontology and collectives of human and nonhuman actors the points I’m making are so simple, so vulgar, so obvious that others are often confused as to what I might even be referring to. Ghost, for example, remarks,

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s grateful for all the time you’ve spent explaining this stuff. I’m beginning to get a handle on it, but as you describe the differences between a flat ontology analysis and something Zizek might do, for instance, I realise I need to see this ontology in action. A detailed flat ontology analysis might dissipate the feeling for me that the old nature/binary is still there, but now together in a new container.

No doubt I’ve exacerbated the problem because I’ve developed a somewhat abstract vocabulary with mysterious expressions like “there are no differences that do not make a difference”, “there is no transportation without translation”, and “nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else”, all situated in terms like “objectiles”, “actors”, “exo-relations”, “endo-relations”, “attractors”, “phase spaces”, “endo-consistency”, and so on. Faced with this infantry of terms and expressions, it’s difficult to determine what I might be getting at. A good deal of this has been my fault as I seldom give very elaborate examples to develop my claims. Hopefully I can rectify some of this today through the question “how did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”

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X 3 13 SHORT CIRCUIT 1An old chestnut has it that if you are pissing everyone off you must be doing something right. This is especially the case if the charges against a position are themselves completely contradictory or diametrically opposed. In recent dust-ups surrounding my onticology and Harman’s object-oriented ontography, this has certainly been the case. On the one hand, there are the endless anti-realist critiques of onticology charging it with falling it into a sort of naive realism and naturalism, to the detriment of mind, culture, signs, and all the rest. Again and again you hear the charge that the human and all these formations are being banished and ignored. Of course, this criticism is baffling as Harman’s thesis is not that the natural world is the “really real” world and that we must exclude the human to get to it, but rather that the withdrawal of objects is not unique to human-object relations but holds for all inter-ontic or inter-object relations. In other words, there’s a very real sense in which Harman’s position can be read as a radicalization of Kant’s thesis about the unknowability of the thing-in-itself, holding that it is a general ontological proper of all relations among objects and not simply of human-object relations. The situation is similar in my case as well. My principle of translation has it that there is no transporation of a difference from one object to another object without a translation or a transformation of that difference by the second object. These sorts of processes of translation are what I’m principally interested in understanding. Since the human and cultural phenomena are counted among the field of real objects producing differences, there’s nothing in my account that excludes the human. I merely make the claim that the human isn’t included in all inter-object relations. Yet still, somehow, I get situated as a naturalist and a reductive materialist.

However, if this were not comic enough, from the other end I get the charge of rejecting naturalism and materialism, thereby falling into a sort of humanism. Thus, in a couple of truly obnoxious posts written by John (not to be confused with the great John Cogburn who has been sadly absent of late), ire is expressed because I am alleged to reject neurology, quantum mechanics, and relativity theory (here and here). Needless to say, I suspect I won’t be posting any further comments from John as I don’t particularly care for sarcastic assholes, especially those who remark, from the outset, that my project will not hold up under scrutiny. There’s little possibility of dialog with a person who dismisses you from the beginning. At any rate, John charges me with claiming that all things are real, seeming to miss the point that my thesis is not that everything is real, but that if something makes differences it is real. From John’s end of the spectrum I am thus accused of some sort of wild and wooly postmodern idealism where everything goes.

In the meantime, Glen, in a set of criticisms I don’t really understand as they seem to be making many of the very points onticology and ontography makes, charges object-oriented ontology with being profoundly humanist, despite the fact that everywhere speculative realism strives to dethrone the centrality of the human. Elsewhere, in a post also characterized by a rather obnoxious tone, he charges speculative realists with being entirely too pre-occupied with responding to Kant and not doing enough to develop an ontology. This is a curious claim given that I’ve written literally hundreds of pages on this blog alone developing the details of onticology, and there are literally thousands of pages worth of speculative realist writing developing various realist ontologies. The only time Kant ever seems to become a focus is in discussions with anti-realists, which comes as no surprise. Barring that, I think the speculative realists are by and large simply working through the details of their various ontologies. Even more ironic is the fact that this charge is made in the context of other charges where object-oriented ontology has been accused of not attending to Kant enough (usually accompanied by a number of lengthy posts explaining Kant to the poor speculative realists that just don’t get it).

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Aleatorist has been kind enough to draw attention to DARPA’s Big Dog robot in response to my brief post about the E.A.T.E.R Robot.

It just so happens that I watched a documentary on this very robot and others yesterday. Apparently the advantage of legged robots such as this is that they can go just about anywhere. Where robots that use wheels and treads get bogged down in mud and rocky terrain, legged robots are able to tackle just about any terrain. Just think about the billy goat, for example. Even billy goats that are a few days old are able to climb mountainous terrain with little trouble. The remarkable thing about Big Dog is just how biological its movements look. You get a sense of this when you watch it slipping on the ice in the film above, but the footage I saw yesterday was even more remarkable. There researchers kicked the robot from the side as it was walking and the manner in which it recovered was eerily organic. If the Turing Test were shifted from being a test for intelligence to a test for life, there would certainly be a sense in which it would be difficult to distinguish Big Dog from a living organism.

In a related vein, the learning robots are truly remarkable as well. This video talks about the basic principles behind the “programming” of these robots:

Heavily influenced by research in neurology, these robots do not begin with ordinary pre-defined programs with sets of rules for executing a set of activities, but rather begin with neural networks that evolve executable programs through trial and error imitation through which the robot comes to learn how to do certain actions. In other words, the system learns. The research in neurology indicating neural plasticity, coupled with these sorts of AI projects, is one of the major reasons I often find myself so reactive to models of mind such as we find in Kant’s first Critique, Fodor’s functionalism, or Chomsky’s deep grammar. In each of these cases we begin with a pre-defined and rigid “program” that simply subsumes input under a set of pre-existing categories, functions, and rules. The programming is not something that itself really develops or emerges. It seems to me that a revolution would take place in philosophical epistemology if we were to shift the questions of epistemology away from knowing to questions of learning, investigating the manner in which systems move from fuzzy and disorganized states to patterned and organized states. It is to his credit that Deleuze saw learning as being of greater significance than knowing in Difference and Repetition. Dewey was also similarly sensitive to the significance of learning over knowing throughout his work as well.

Well I’m relieved to hear this:

Inventors of a US military robot that powers itself by devouring everything in its path are trying to quash publicity that it will feed on human or animal flesh.

The Guardian says that the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot ploughs through trees, grass and even, according to reports, dead bodies.

Is there a more chilling example of what Latour calls “hybrids”? Perhaps when I am able to pick my jaw up from the ground I’ll figure out why I’m so amazed at the invention of robots that eat.

Michael Flower, a longtime friend of Latour’s, moves backwards along the chain of circulating reference, providing photos of the Boa Vista research site that prompted Latour’s “Circulating Reference” article. Great link!

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