February 2010


For some reason Bogost’s post today got me thinking about what perfect object-oriented and flat ontological horror would look like. This, in turn, got me thinking about two science fiction/horror films I found particularly unsettling or uncanny: The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In fact, to this day I still occasionally have nightmares about War of the Worlds, though oddly I can’t resist watching it whenever it’s on and actually own it (why I derive so much more pleasure from watching a film when it happens to be on rather than simply popping one in my DVD player is a mystery I won’t plumb this evening). Both films, I think, share a common characteristic, hinting at something like a new theme in the science fiction/horror genre. Of the two, War of the Worlds comes closer to embodying this theme, while there are certain respects in which it is more overt in the first half or two thirds of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In both cases there’s a way in which humans are ontologically de-centered or ousted from pride of place in these films. And it is this, perhaps, that accounts for the unsettling and uncanny feeling one has when watching these movies. There is a sort of unconscious correlationist assumption that pervades nearly all horror films and alien invasion science fiction films: That humans are the addressee. “Of course”, the narrative seems to say, “any aliens that invaded planet earth would focus on the humans.” The unsettling sense produced by The Day the Earth Stood Still, before it degenerates into the usual pap of how we’re intrinsically worth preserving, is that the aliens are not there for us, but rather to save all other creatures on the planet. The centrality of the human is here deeply devalued. If War of the Worlds is, of the two, the superior film (apart from the obvious reasons… The Day the Earth Stood Still is, overall, a poor showing), then this is because the invading aliens are more or less completely indifferent to us. We, like everything else on the planet, are more or less furniture that has to be cleared away for their occupation. They hold no hostility towards us, nor any particular esteem, and do not see us as arch-rivals to be defeated. Rather, we’re just like cows and trees: something that’s in the way. Indeed, unlike anthropocentric films like Independence Day where the issue is one of establishing the superiority of the human against any other intelligent lifeform, it is bacteria that ultimately defeat the aliens. Much of human import (the father renewing his relationship with his children) occurs in War of the Worlds, but it is certainly not a triumphalist yarn about “man as a prosthetic god”.

There are, of course, precursors to this ontological vision. Readers might recall Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the aliens are destroying the planet in a desperate attempt to communicate with whales. Here we have a similar dethroning of the centrality of the human. I make none of these remarks to suggest that this de-emphasis of the human is a good thing or to imply that the human should be treated like something that’s merely in the way to be cast aside. No. Rather, what interests me is the effect of the uncanny that this quintessentially anti-humanist cinema seems to produce in the viewer (at least, to produce in this viewer). One reels before the jaw-dropping flatness of such a universe, where humans are treated as one other being among others, rather than a privileged center to which all other entities must necessarily address themselves. Who knows, perhaps there’s even the possibility of renewing the genre of horror through the exploration of the flat and a-human, where humans are caught up in events beyond themselves but are not at the center. Yet perhaps there is also an enlightening social and political message in this rejection of any narcissistic comfort and centralization of the human. Can readers cite other films that are structured in similar ways?

One of the more compelling themes that punctuates Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is the linkage between the rise of certain mental illnesses and post-Fordist capitalist modes of production, identifying it as a key site of the political (at least virtually). Now, for readers familiar with French inflected social theory, this thesis will not, in and of itself, appear new. In An Introduction to Marcel Mauss Levi-Strauss had argued something similar with respect to schizophrenia and psychosis, going so far as to suggest that in certain “primitive societies” this phenomena doesn’t exist. Canguilhem suggested something similar, as did Foucault. But in each of these instances the emphasis was put on the social and discursive production of mental illness. If one adopted these accounts of mental illness, then it became necessary to reject materialist or neurological accounts of mental illness. The story goes that either one adopts the neurological account and is thus subject to an ideological illusion that de-politicizes something that is in fact social (mental illness), or you adopt the social account of mental illness and reject anything having to do with the neurological or psychotropics as ideological mystifications. Fisher’s analysis, by contrast, is far more subtle. As Fisher writes,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

In many respects, Fisher’s analysis of affectivity here mirrors Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Just as commodity fetishism treats relations that are truly between person’s as if they were relations between or to things (when I buy a diamond I think I’m just relating to that commodity and not enmeshed in a set of social relationships), “affectivity fetishism” could be construed as treating relations that are, in fact, social and political, as relations to mere neurons. The instantiation of certain neuronal structures and relations is here confused with the cause of these instantiations. Here I would express what I take to be Fisher’s point a bit differently by referring to Aristotle’s four causes. The problem with neurological accounts of mental illness is that they confuse what Aristotle referred to as the material and formal cause of a thing with its efficient cause. Depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are all certain structures of mentality (formal cause) that are embodied in a certain stuff (material cause), but this in and of itself does not account for why these particular embodied structures come to exist as they do (efficient cause).

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Towards the end of Capitalist Realism Fisher puts his finger on the central reason for my reluctance to discuss issues of normativity. In the chapter entitled “There’s no central exchange” Fisher compares contemporary capitalism to the bureaucratic universe depicted so well by Kafka.

The supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there– it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility. (65)

What we have here is a sort of “transcendental illusion” that emerges when mereological relations are crossed in such a way that it seems as if we’re dealing with one object when, in fact, we’re dealing with quite a different object. Fisher deftly illustrates a similar point with respect to bureaucracy. Like Kafka’s famous Castle or Law, you never directly encounter the castle or the law. Rather, we only ever encounter spokespersons or surrogates of the castle or the law. Many of us will be familiar with this is the case of bureaucracy. Suppose you’ve just been promoted and that this promotion was a very public affair, announced before all the staff and faculty at the bi-annual beginning of the semester meeting (our version of this event here at Collin is called “All College Day”). Perhaps you’ve been appointed Provost of your campus or Dean of Student Affairs. Whatever.

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As I read Fisher’s (aka of K-Punk fame ) brilliant Capitalist Realism, I find myself wondering just what constitutes radical theory. And the conclusion that I come to is that radical theory is not so much a body of political propositions as it is a repudiation of actualism of that being and the actual are identical to one another. Radical theory is any theory that treats being as in excess of what I have called “local manifestation“. Wherever being is treated as identical to local manifestation we have thought serving as a handmaiden of the State. It is only where local manifestation is treated as fissured by an excess where the possibility of the new, only where the actuality of local manifestation is actively sought to be fissured– a question so vital to Fisher’s analysis of hedonic melancholia –that something like radical theory is possible. Here it matters little whether the thinker makes determinate political prescriptions. Rather what matters is that demonstration of the contingency of the actual, that it could, in principle, be otherwise, that is important. And in this respect, Fisher punches a hole in the real and speaks truth. The aim of theory is not to provide the answer but to rigorously establish the possibility. Read this book.

My mind is more or less fried this evening from editing articles for The Speculative Turn, but I wanted to draw attention to this post by Jon Cogburn on Brandom, Hegel, and idealism. Because my background in Anglo-American thought is pretty rusty these days, I’ve had to reread Cogburn’s post a few times now to understand what he’s getting at with the distinction between sense and reference dependency. I don’t feel ready to address his questions about pantheism, but I do think the criticisms of anti-realism he draws from Brandom get to the heart of the matter.

In this connection, I think that while Meillassoux has done an important service in naming a pervasive phenomenon in Continental thought with his term “correlationism”, there’s an important sense in which his explanation of this term does more to obscure than illuminate what is at issue. Setting forth the concept of correlation he writes:

By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never either term considered apart from the other. (After Finitude, 5)

Meillassoux goes on to remark that,

Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object ‘in itself’, in isolation from its relation to the subject, but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object. (ibid.)

Whenever I read Meillassoux’s definitions of correlationism, both in After Finitude and his Collapse talks, I get the sense that he’s circling around the issue without quite putting his finger on it. When Meillassoux expresses the issue in terms of a subject relating to an object, he is constructing a concept– to employ Deleuze’s famous description –that is too baggy for what it tries to put its finger on. Additionally, as he’s formulated the issue it becomes clear that the realist can give nothing but an incoherent response to the correlationist; for if it is true that the problem is the mere relation of a subject to an object, then it is clear that the realist can give no coherent rejoinder to the correlationist because it is both clear and obvious that in any claim we make about objects, in any knowledge of objects, we must relate to objects to know them.

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I’ll make these questions brief as I haven’t eaten yet today, am coming down with a cold, and am generally worn out. The model of objects I’ve been working with recently has basically focused on very simple physical objects where the attractors inhabiting the virtual dimension of the object are relatively fixed. Here I think it’s important, however, to distinguish between what, for lack of a better word, might be called recursive objects and non-recursive objects (if someone has a better term for what I’m trying to get at, let me know). When I refer to recursive objects, I have in mind objects whose outputs evoked by inputs (i.e., local manifestations) have the peculiar property of, in turn, functioning as inputs for subsequent states of the object. In addition to the outputs of these objects functioning as inputs for new objects within the endo-relational structure of the object, these objects are historical in the sense that not only do they have a past, they reflexively relate to that past. Thus all objects have a past, no matter how brief that past might be, but not all objects reflexively relate to that past such that that past can function as an input for subsequent states of the object.

I can think of no better representation for this sort of object than Bergson’s famous “cone of memory” from Matter and Memory (depicted to the left above). The point of Bergson’s cone of memory can’t really be represented in a diagram, because what the cone expresses is not simply that there’s a past that trails out behind an object, but that the object perpetually relates to different strata of that past. In the diagram above “S” can be taken to represented the most contracted point of time or the specious present (what I would call the most instantaneous of local manifestations). The cone itself represents the past.

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I came across this terrifying robot on a documentary a while back. In a nutshell, researchers have spliced neurons from a rat brain to a computer-chip. The computer then transmits signals to the robot controlling its movement. As the neurons “experiment” with the movements of the robot, the neural network actually evolves or develops (learns), developing its own behavior. This is a rather terrifying example of the sort of strange mereologies I’ve been talking about. Ordinarily we don’t think of neurons as entities or objects in their own right, but as parts of another object (a body) that are unable to exist in their own right. Yet here we have a rather terrifying example of stratified objects where we have objects wrapped inside of other objects. The neurons, when transplanted to the chip, become something other than they were and new powers not present in the rat itself become manifested. The truly horrifying question for me is that of whether these neurons continue to have some form of consciousness when transplanted in this way. Is there some highly confused sentient being in this assemblage that is thoroughly bewildered by the assemblage in which it finds itself and which is living an existing of shrieking pain? Here’s the video:

Just a quick post working through ideas here, so take this with a grain of salt. I confess that I’m uncomfortable with the thesis that every relation generates a new object. It is not enough to simply ask what an object is, but we need an account of when an object is. It seems to me that there are relations that are external in the traditional ontological sense where no new objects are formed, and that there are relations that are genuinely generative of new objects. My last post on attractors, I think, goes part of the way towards resolving these questions of individuation. If it is conceded that the proper being of an object consists in its virtual attractors, then the metaphysical condition for the possibility of the genesis of a new object will spin on whether or not new attractors emerge as a result of the relation. Where two objects relate without generating new powers or attractors we get no new object. Where new powers or attractors emerge as a result of the relation, we get a new object. Objects, then, are individuated by their powers or attractors.

Setting aside my own proposal here, I’d be interested to hear what Harman has to say on this issue. In Guerilla Metaphysics he often speaks of genuine relations as the condition under which a new object is produced. This suggests that he holds that there are relations where no new objects are produced. What, for Harman, distinguishes object-generative relations and relations that generate no new objects?

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For some time now I have evoked the concept of attractors and points in phase space to describe the structure of objects. Since these are somewhat foreign concepts in philosophy and I am using them, I suspect, in idiosyncratic ways, it would be worthwhile to clarify just what I have in mind and, more importantly, clarify what problem these concepts are designed to respond to. In a nutshell, the concepts of attractor and phase space are designed to account for the relation between what I call the local manifestation of objects and objects in their proper being. Attractors and phase spaces belong to the proper being of objects and are virtual, while points in phase space belong to the local manifestations of objects and are actual.

To understand these concepts it is necessary to understand the problem to which they respond. So why am I evoking these concepts? What philosophical work do they do? Objects are substances. Before Continentalists coming out of a Nietzschean and process oriented tradition begin to twitch, it is necessary to understand that the question of what a substance is is very much open. There is no a priori reason, for example, to suppose that substances can’t be processes or events. I won’t get into the details of this point here, but in my view process metaphysics critiques of substance are way overblown. They are right to critique the concept of substance as a bare substratum, but nothing about this critique suggests that we should throw out the concept of substance altogether. It only entails that one proposal as to the nature of substance is mistaken or wrongheaded.

Setting all this aside, it will be recalled that one way in which Aristotle defines substance is as that which is capable of sustaining contrary qualities at different points in time. One and the same substance, say a piece of paper, can have the quality of being smooth at one point in time and wrinkled at another point in time. Being-wrinkled or being-smooth are what I call local manifestations of an object. They are manifestations of an object because they are actualizations of the power of a substance. In other words, they are actualizations of what a substance can do.

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This post by Graham made me do a Scooby-Doo double take, letting out a deep confused, yet high pitched, “huhr?”, wondering why he is attributing these claims to me:

I’ve encountered this claim from others before, and often even Levi tends in the same direction (despite the fact that Shaviro presents my position and Levi’s as basically the same; there are similarities, but this is a point where I think Levi and Shaviro are actually a closer match than either of them is with me).

Namely, there is sometimes a willingness to agree that knowledge is a form of translation that inevitably shapes, molds, or transforms whatever it encounters– but then these same people shy away from agreeing that causation is also such a form of translation. They say that causation is total without withdrawal, and the problem is simply that knowledge is never able to match this total causal contact.

Perhaps I’m just reading the post wrong, but there’s nothing in my position that draws a distinction between cognitive acts and relations between other objects not involving other objects. Within the framework of my onticology whenever any two objects interact it involves translation. Translation always involves transformation. This is not unique to minds relating to objects, but to any inter-ontic interactions. As I argued in my last post, this entails a withdrawal of objects from one another. This is what I was getting at with the concept of information being not something that comes from the world or another object, but something constituted by the object itself. Here information, following a number of trends among the physicists, is an ontological concept, not a cognitive concept. Cognitive systems are only a subset of information systems. Rocks, plants, stars, planets, etc., would essentially follow these same principles and, in each case, insofar as the object in question is reflexive, each system constitutes its own information, it does not receive information from something else.

Additionally, my distinction between the virtual dimension of objects and their actualization strives to make precisely the point Harman is making about causality. The virtual dimension of objects, characterized by an endo-relational structure and set of attractors or potentialities, is always in excess (or withdrawn) from any of its local manifestations in the world or any of its causal interactions with other objects. In other words, there is never, within the framework of onticology, a total causal interaction between objects– this is the fallacy of actualism –but rather only local and limited interactions between objects where both objects are behind “firewalls” or are withdrawn (by virtue of the reflexive closure of objects with respect to their endo-consistency). In other words, I’m sure I’m guilty of a lot of things, but certainly not of holding that cognition and causlity differ in kind or that there are total causal interactions among objects. I find it especially perplexing that such a claim could be attributed to me given the post I recently wrote on mereology and relations. This post fully endorses Harman’s remark that:

My position is much simpler: all relations are relations. All relations transform that to which they relate. Hence, there is only a difference of degree between cognitive and purely causal relations.

Consequently I’m just perplexed that anything I’ve argued in recent months could be taken to assert a difference in kind between cognition and causality.

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