September 2009


As I have repeatedly remarked, the “foundation” of my ontology is difference. My basic claim is that if something makes a difference, then it is. Or as I articulate it in the ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference.” The first point to note is that when I begin from this hypothesis, I am not making a normative claim or a value judgment. “Making a difference” should not be understood as a synonym for “being important” or “being valuable”. Nor am I making the precious claim that everything is important or special or unique. There are very small and minor differences, but they are no less for this. All I am saying when I assert the ontic principle is that to be is to make differences. Note, when I say that to be is to make differences, I am taking no stand on whether or not a being makes a difference to you or me or any other living being in the universe. In short, the phrase “making difference” should not be elided into the phrase “making a difference to…” Even if a being is not observed, even if a being does not act on any other being, it nonetheless produces differences purely in and through its being. It is for this reason that I claim that objects are activities or doings.

The question, then, is what exactly is meant by “difference”? I am still trying to work this out. However, I think one key point to keep in mind is that difference should not be confused with distinction. In ordinary language we often say “x differs from y”. Or we say that to differ is to not be something else. Under this view, difference is treated as a comparative term, and is run together with the concept of distinction.

When I evoke the concept of “difference” I am not evoking difference in the sense of comparison between two entities, nor in the sense of distinctions. In my view, difference is a condition for comparisons, and is also a condition for distinctions, but difference as such is prior to comparisons and distinctions.

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I am pleased to announce the existence of a new blog, orbis mediologicus. For this onticologist, media studies holds a special and privileged place insofar as it often does in practice, what I’m trying to articulate abstractly. While I have a great love for my brothers and sisters in literary theory, media studies has been a privileged site for object-oriented ontology, as they have perpetually had to theorize the mess of interactions between new technologies and signs, placing them all on equal footing. Like the critical animal theorists, the media studies crew created object-oriented ontology before object-oriented ontology existed, carefully tracing networks of objects ranging from signs, to images, to technologies and economics, being forced to forge new concepts as a result, and increasingly drifting away from anything like eliminative idealism by virtue of the demands of their object. I eagerly look forward to what comes out of this blog.

One of the more idiotic charges that sometimes come my way is that if difference is made a criteria for existence, then we are no longer able to make distinctions. I am not sure whether people who advance such charges are idiots, lack the ability to reflect, or have simply become stupid as a result of their knee-jerk attempts to dismiss speculative realist thought and object-oriented ontology in particular. At any rate, I clearly find this to be one of the oddest charges leveled against differential ontology. On the one hand, what else could we possibly mean by “existence” than difference? What else could existence possibly be than the capacity to make and produce differences? More to the point, however, on the other hand, if difference is the ultimate ground well, that entails that differences differ! Differential ontology allows as many differences as we might like. We can examine the differences that compose a piece of technology. We can examine the differences that compose a city. We can examine the differences that compose fictions and signs. We can distinguish all these differences. We can examine how and in what way these various differences make differences in other things. We can examine degrees of strength and weakness, ranging from things that make very slight differences to things like the sun that make extensive differences well beyond their own being.

The only qualification is that if something makes a difference it is. That is all. It is not being suggested that all differences are equal, that all differences are identical, or that all differences impact the world as extensively as other differences. In a certain respect, it could be said that OOO is an attempt to reset the philosophical clock. Rather than accepted a set of rather bad distinctions that we have inherited from the history of philosophy and that have led to a number of deadlocks in thought, OOO instead wipes the slate clean and tries to begin anew. There are many grounds upon which the various forms of OOO can be criticized. The inability to draw distinctions or speak about differences is not one of them.

Over at I Cite Jodi Dean has written a gorgeous mournful post, nicely articulating many of my own recent feelings. In many respects, frustrated by the political situation we find ourselves in, I’ve found myself in a “tend your garden” mode, preferring to think of anything so long as it isn’t politics. Things are just too depressing at the moment, and I confess I feel deeply powerless, as if I’m a serf or a peasant tied to the land that has no power over my circumstances. As I watch the shenanigans of Congress and the administration, I can’t but come to the conclusion that government is simply an arm of the wealthy. I suppose I always knew this, but it’s really hit home for me recently. Moreover, as I observe the behavior of many of my fellow citizens, I can’t help but feel deep disgust at the hatred and resentment that seems to fill them, the superstitious irrationality, and feel deeply sad at the manner in which this pathos compels them to side with the real source of the problem. I thus end up tending my garden.

At any rate, in the comment section Aidan makes an extremely interesting observation related to the blogosophere and speculative realism. Aidan writes,

It’s a very strange and disquieting time in the blogosphere. The speculative realists have made Badiou and Zizek look a little like they belong to another era. Perhaps the most disquieting was how quickly that happened. Almost within the space of a few months. To me it was really momentous, and made me realise how contingent our attachments are. I don’t believe SZ and AB no longer have relevance, but I don’t think it is possible to approach anything now as if SR hadn’t happened. I just wonder about the politics that will arise from it. Perhaps that will be its biggest test.

While I’m far from believing that Badiou and Zizek belong to another era or have grown stale, I do think Aidan is right in observing that the dominant themes in the theory blogosphere shifted almost over night. It was as if a bifurcation point had been reached and a new form of organization arose or came into being. For me the question is why and how these sorts of shifts take place so suddenly. Another way of posing this question would be to ask what was brewing prior to this shift that rendered speculative realism an attractive “solution” or response to these sets of concerns and problems.

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My review of David Couzens Hoy’s The Time of Our Lives is now available through Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. All around an excellent book if you’re looking for an exceptionally clear analysis of basic theories of temporality since Kant.

A few have objected to my generalization as to what constitutes idealism, quoting a passage from my last post where I remark that,

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. …All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues…

The important point to make here is that the issue is not with whether or not one talks about signs or language or power, but with whether or not one believes that being can only be discussed in relation to some human related phenomena. If you endorse this thesis, then you are an idealist. It’s as simple as that. This doesn’t mean that you’re a Kantian idealist, a Schellingian, a Berkeleynian, or a Hegelian. Idealism is a genus with many species. You can be a linguistic idealist like Wittgenstein or Derrida. You can be an idealist of the sort that Foucault or Bourdieu is with respect to power. The distinguishing feature here lies in whether or not beings can only be thought in relation to the human.

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A very interesting discussion is shaping up between Harman and Shaviro concerning the ontological status of objects and relations in Whitehead. Shaviro’s latest post defending Whitehead can be found here. At the outset, it’s worth emphasizing that Whitehead is essential reading for OOO. Whitehead is perhaps the greatest realist and object-oriented philosopher of the last century. In many respects, Whitehead is the most resolutely anti-idealist thinker in the last two hundred years. Unlike those poor cowardly souls that advance arguments to the effect that the distinction between idealism and realism is meaningless (translation: they’ve sided with idealism), or that seek to escape idealism by deconstructing the self-transparency of the subject while still treating everything in terms of the signifier, power, signs, etc., Whitehead resolutely speaks of the objects themselves without conflating the ontological and the epistemological register, leaving the reader with no doubt that he’s perfectly happy to speak of the being of beings that have no relation to the human whatsoever. As Harman has recently noted, this is the litmus test of whether or not one is an idealist:

Stated differently, you can’t say: “I’m not an idealist. I believe the human subject is a passive recipient of the world, not its constitutor,” or “Human and world are co-produced,” or “world produces the human.”

Why does the human need to be involved all of these cases?

Even worse is when the game is played of replacing the human with falsely neutral-sounding terms such as “subject”, “thought”, “Ereignis,” or any equivalent thereof.

If people always have to be involved in any situation being discussed in your philosophy, then you’re an idealist. The problem is that it’s become such a reflexive assumption that the human must be one ingredient in any situation under discussion that people immediately scream “positivism!” as soon as you start talking about inanimate relations. So much contemporary continental philosophy has been built as nothing but a firewall against the natural sciences, and unfortunately Husserl (a truly great philosopher) is one of the worst violators on this front.

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. Whitehead passes this litmus test with flying colors. For Whitehead humans are one being among many others, one event among many others. All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues. They should know better. Everyone who teaches ethics knows how to debunk the students claim that values are purely subjective and whatever beliefs a person possesses within minutes. In other words, everyone who teaches ethics knows that the question of what values are, how we deliberate about right and wrong, etc., is independent of the question of our access to values and norms. Yet oddly this same simple insight isn’t carried over into the realm of ontology.

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