August 2009


Open Humanities Press finally has a page up for the New Metaphysics Series:

Open Humanities Press is pleased to launch a new series in continental philosophy published in conjunction with the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office. Each New Metaphysics book will be freely available as an electronic book (open access) and as reasonably priced paperbacks.

The world is due for a resurgence of original speculative metaphysics. The New Metaphysics series aims to provide a safe house for such thinking amidst the demoralizing caution and prudence of professional academic philosophy. We do not aim to bridge the analytic-continental divide, since we are equally impatient with nail-filing analytic critique and the continental reverence for dusty textual monuments. We favor instead the spirit of the intellectual gambler, and wish to discover and promote authors who meet this description. Like an emergent recording company, what we seek are traces of a new metaphysical ‘sound’ from any nation of the world. The editors are open to translations of neglected metaphysical classics, and will consider secondary works of especial force and daring. But our main interest is to stimulate the birth of disturbing masterpieces of twenty-first century philosophy.

The series is edited by Graham Harman and Bruno Latour. Rumor has it I’m to be one of the consulting editors, but I’m not sure what happened with that. At any rate, it looks like I really need to get cracking with The Democracy of Objects as it is to be published in this venue.

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A number of questions have emerged surrounding just what I might have in mind when evoking a “flat ontology”. To be honest, I am myself still working through just what a flat ontology might be. I draw this concept from Manuel DeLanda’s Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy. There DeLanda writes that while,

[c]leary, there are many differences between species and organisms, the most obvious ones [are] differences in scale. Sptially, a species has a much larger extension than an organism since it is typically comprised of several reproductive communities inhabiting geographically separated ecosystems. Temporally, a species also operates at much larger scales, its average life span being much greater than the lifecycles of organisms. But the fact that species are constructed through a historical process suggests that they are, in fact, just another individual entity, one which operates at larger spatio-temporal scales than organisms, but an individual entity nevertheless. One philosophical consequence of this new conception of species must be emphasized: while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. On the other hand, the new approach demands that we always specify a process through which a whole emerges, a process which in a Deleuzian ontology is characterized as intensive, first of all, because its description involves the basic ideas of population and heterogeneity, two fundamental concepts which chracterize a mode of biological explanation known as population thinking. (47)

Object-oriented ontology faces a decision where the ontology of objects is concerned. On the one hand, OOO can choose the route of treating universals and individuals as real objects, which are nonetheless ontologically distinct. This move could be called “Platonist” or “Husserlian”, insofar as it would affirm the existence of essences or universals as distinct from objects. The Platonist approach would thus agree that there is one type of object such as the “horseness of horses” that exists independently of another type of object, all those individual horses.

By contrast, there is DeLanda’s radical nominalism which argues that only one type of entity exists: individuals. If DeLanda’s ontology is flat, then this is because it consists entirely of individuals and nothing but. Species and genera, for example, are not some sort of entity that is other than individuals, but are rather individuals at a different level of scale. Lest one immediately exclaim that this thesis is absurd, it’s worth noting that it has a strong pedigree. Stephen J. Gould, for example, argues exactly the same thesis in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Where pre-Darwinistic theory treated the species as a type (an essence) distinct from individual tokens (individual instances of the type or essence), Darwinistic theory treats a species as a population, located in time and space, at a larger scale than individual organisms. A species is, under this model, a thing, albeit a very strange thing, that exists in time and space.

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For those who have been following the zombie discussion spawned (pardon the pun) by my buddy Nathan, it appears to have gone, again pardon the pun, viral. Over at the promising new blog Hyper Tiling, Fabio weighs in with ruminations of his own. Ian Bogost weighs in with too terrific posts, the first riffing on Nate’s thesis that the zombie is a cultural symptom arising from a set of discontents similar to those driving the speculative realist movement, and the second responding to some worries in my post in the context of Ian’s own work with object-oriented ontology, technology, and some of the ire it’s generated among his colleagues. I especially like Ian’s reference to Bartleby in the context of this discussion. Nate has since clarified and expanded upon his original remarks. If I’ve missed anyone, please let me know.

All of this has gotten me thinking that perhaps a conference and/or an edited collection is in order, treating the zombie in the context of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. zer0 press might be a nice venue for such a collection. I’m still gathering my own thoughts on the figure of the zombie, but it does seem to hit something central. It would be great to get Reza on board as well. Perhaps Nate could edit and organize such a project.

In a recent post over at An Un-canny Ontology, Nate argues the object-oriented ontology must necessarily confront the figure of the zombie.

Because of this need to place all things on an equal playing field, Object-Oriented philosophy and ontology (hereto referred to as OOP/OOO) is forced to deal with its own creature.

Where, according to Nate, postmodernism encountered the figure of the cyborg, object-oriented philosophy necessarily finds the figure of the zombie at the center of its meditations. As Nate puts it,

Zombies are the uncanny kernel of the Real, they are not the object which leaves a remainder, they ARE the remainder. Zombies are Das Ding, the Thing, human qua object. And because of this, OOP/OOO must deal with the zombie much in the same way Postmodernism (especially in Haraway and Lyotard) had to deal with the cyborg. However, instead of talking about how humanity will have become, OOP/OOO will have to talk about in what ways humanity is not unique – how we are all zombies. They must take up the zombie as a human representative since only in the zombie do we find the human as it “really” exists, without any obfuscation.

First, the zombie IS – of this there can be no mistake. The zombie is just as real as the computer in front of me. For OOP/OOO all objects are as real as all other objects. Second, the zombie exists as pure desire, it moves with a single purpose and without known agency. And finally, every zombie is the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog. But essentially the zombie is an empty desire, an object with no name except pure existence. Why do they hunger for brains? Who knows. Will they ever stop looking for brains? No. And in a world where all objects are on the same level playing field, stripped away of our agency as subjects, we find ourselves in an awkward position, as non-human humans alive in a world of networks and alliances. We are all zombies. And the only question that remains in a this philosophy that deals with fidelity and allegiance is, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”

While I am extremely interested in the figure of the zombie as a cultural symptom, I confess that I am deeply perplexed by Nate’s meditation on zombies in relation to object-oriented ontology. How did I or Graham for that matter, ever give the impression the object-oriented ontology sees humans are zombies? First, I think there is some confusion here as to just what flat ontology entails. Flat ontology is not the thesis that all beings are on equal footing– which would be a normative thesis –but that insofar as a being makes a difference it is. Nonetheless, among beings there are all sorts of inequalities. Deleuze articulates this point nicely in Difference and Repetition:

The words ‘everything is equal’ may therefore resound joyfully, on condition that they are said of that which is not equally in this equal, univocal Being: equal being is immediately present in everything, without mediation or intermediary, even though things reside unequally in this equal being. (37)

If something makes a difference then it is, but the degree to which a being makes a difference on other beings can range from nil to perhaps infinity. A being in some remote corner of the universe busily plods away making its difference in being itself, but insofar as this entity is unrelated to other entities, the difference this entity makes is rather sleight. It is thus necessary to distinguish between making a difference simpliciter and making a difference in relation to other entities. Insofar as an entity is, it necessarily makes a difference simpliciter, even if that entity is unrelated to any other entity. To be is to simply be this difference in the way that it is. By contrast, what we’re generally interested in when speaking of differences are those relational differences or the difference that one thing produces in another thing. In this latter case, not all differences are equally relevant as they range from rather minor differences that make little impact on other entities, to the extensive differences that tend to make up the object of investigation.

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Red Leaves on the Mountain, Modern Painting by Singapore artistA recent discussion over at Another Heidegger Blog with Ghost has gotten me thinking about what, precisely, it is that I hope to preserve through onticology. The discussion did not start out in these terms. Rather, Ghost had asked why the clinician should be interested in object-oriented ontology. By this, I take it, Ghost was asking what relevance object-oriented ontology might have to the clinic. This discussion morphed into the question of what relevance the clinic might have to philosophy.

The interesting thing about the Lacanian clinic is the absence of theory in that setting. One might imagine that, upon entering analysis, talk would be punctuated by references to objet a, transference, the diagnostic categories and so on. After all, Lacan’s work is among the most elaborate and intricate psychoanalytic theories about. The surprise is that all of this disappears, at least in my experience. There is no talk of “the symptom”, transference, objet a, the diagnostic categories, the Other, the imaginary, symbolic, and real, castration, the name-of-the-father or any of the other categories that make up the bestiary of Lacanian theory. No. Instead the clinical setting completely revolves about the speech of the analysand. In my own analysis, for instance, I was never once situated in one of the three diagnostic categories. And why would such a subsumption be relevant anyway. The entire experience consisted of babble.

And this, ultimately, is, I think, the greatness of Lacanian practice. Rather than subsuming analysand’s under the technology of a category– categories too are technologies even if they seem to contain no machines –instead the clinic attends to the rustle of the analysand in the analysand’s singularity. If there is any word to characterize this experience, whether from the side of the analyst or the analysand, it is that of surprise. Not only is the clinical setting in which the analysand is surprised by her own speech, it is a setting in which the analyst is surprised by her speech and by the speech of the analysand. It is a lumpy, knotty space, where language no longer has univocal sense, but instead practices the art, as Lacan puts it in Seminar 22, RSI, of the equivoce, where certain moments in speech, whether on the side of the analytic act or where the analysand manages a moment of full speech, spiral out in a plurality of different directions without the ability to pin down sense and where, like Borges’ famous garden of forking paths, different destinies are present without being actualized. Above all it is a space where the subject can never be subsumed under a category or type. As I argued over at Paul’s blog, analysis is a “working through” of correlationism, where the analysand begins as a correlationist without knowing it, and ends up as an object-oriented subject that respects the rustle of subjects.

If onticology seeks to preserve anything, it is this rustle of being, its excess over all categorizations, language, history, social forces, power, mind, and all the rest. It wants to attune the ear to this rustle, its singularity, and the capacity for surprise. Far from wishing to capture being in a grand metaphysical system that puts everything in its place (here the homonym should be observed), it instead wishes to know nothing and stay stupid in the sense described by Dany Nobus and Malcom Quinn as described in the book by the same title. It is not by mistake that the central chapters of Difference and Givenness are punctuated by a discussion of the encounter or that which shatters the coordinates of correlation and which functions as the true “transcendental epoche”. It is often said, following Aristotle, that there can be no science of the individual. Alternatively, this statement could be translated as the statement that there can be no science of existence. If being and existence are opposed to one another, then this is because the former is the domain of the category, of what is knowable through reason as Meillassoux puts it in describing his own project contra Harman, whereas existence is always singular and therefore subsumable under any category or concept. Granted. But while existence may not be knowable, there is nothing to prevent it being thinkable. And all too often those that would seek to preserve the singularity of existence against the tyranny of the concept end up forgetting that very singularity. It is this rustle of existence, however, that is to be preserved.

If I am indebted to Lacan, then this is with respect to the incompleteness of every system, the objet a as that object that cannot be integrated or swallowed, the distrust of totalizing systems, but above all the analytic stance that respects this singularity of the analysand’s speech. It is an ontology that strives to keep its ear close to this rustle of being, maintaining the space of uncertainty and surprise, rejecting the pacifying or dominating tendencies of correlationisms that always strive to make us at home, to render the world heimlich, by subordinating it under something human.

For those who have online access to Project Muse, Ronald Bogue’s review of Difference and Givenness is now available volume 16 of Symploke. From the final paragraph:

His argumentation is dense, yet pursued with rigor and systematic coherence. His reading of Difference and Repetition is one of the finest now available and a significant contribution to the growing body of serious engagements with Deleuze as a philosopher. Bryant’s study will be difficult going for anyone unfamiliar with the Deleuzian corpus, but for those who have struggled with Deleuze’s complex works, this book will prove an invaluable guide and an essential stimulus to further discussion of his thought. In every way, Difference and Givenness is a major achievement.

This is a truly gratifying review, not only because it was Bogue that first introduced Deleuze to the English speaking world and because he has done so much excellent work on Deleuze (particularly his three volumes on Deleuze and the arts), but also because Ronald Bogue’s work has been so influential in my own thought. Difference and Givenness would not have been possible without his book Deleuze & Guattari, and especially the chapters on Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense.

David1-744682.gifPaul Ennis has a terrific post up on his experience reading psychoanalytic thought, the dis-ease it generates in him, and how he encounters something similar when reading the speculative realists:

Reading psychoanalysis generates a sense of uneasiness in me. To borrow Zizek’s voice for a moment ‘I mean it quite literally’. When I’m sitting there reading about gaps and Others and Fathers I feel anxious. What is Metaphysics style anxiety.

There seems to be a direct psychological impulse behind what speculative realism wants to do. If my more informed readers will allow me to make a crude analysis: speculative realism wants to ‘allow’ the real in. It wants to collapse some symbolic order that we are not supposed to collapse.

Read the rest of the post here. Paul hits on something fascinating with his observation about collapsing something in the symbolic order that is not supposed to be collapsed. In the subsequent discussion in the comments revolving around the “heimlich” or “being-at-home”, I think the point of the unheimlich is somewhat missed in the discussions that somehow it is constitutively impossible for us to not be at home.

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