Over at An Un-Canny Ontology Nate weighs in on our recent discussion of Life After People. Nate writes:

In his response to Tim and to my problem with the TV show Life After People, Levi over at Larval Subjects remarked:

I think narrative is a way in which these things take place, but is not the way. This is what I referred to in a prior post (over at Philosophy in a Time of Error, I think) as an occupational hazard. The rhetorician spends his or her time analyzing narratives and thus naturally sees narratives and signifiers in everything.

And then a little later:

The whole thing that set off my original post was Nate’s rather snide remark that all the object-oriented ontologist can say is “objects act”. Hell no. We’re interested in how objects act and celebrate those modes of analysis that show how objects act and what differences they contribute.

I’ve made bold this last sentence because it draws out a larger question. What, if we are not creating narratives, does Levi mean when he makes this last statement? A narrative is story set up in an sometimes enlightening but often constructive format. It can take shape in variety of forms (novels, short stories, poems, TV shows, movies, anecdotes, even grocery lists, etc, etc.). The first order observation that Levi fails to see when watching Life After People is that he is watching a narrative – I am in no way adding this narrative, as Levi claimed, since as a TV show Life After People is automatically a structured way of relaying a story – and if the title and the obvious fact that it is a TV show want to be ignored, one can always point out the second glaring reason – Life After People has a NARRATOR. The show, the story of a world without people still needs to be narrated, significance needs to be given to the objects of this specific (and post-human) world. BUT, this significance is not placed onto the show by an outside viewer as a first-order observation. No. It is inherent in the show itself, which brings me back to the original problem I had with it. When stripped of all of its narrative aspects, what are we left with? I would argue, that what we are left with is something far more boring than the job of a rhetorician.

There’s more there so check out his post. A couple of points are in order. First, nowhere have I denied that narrative is at work in the show. I just argued that I don’t think this is what is crucial or interesting in the show (I provide a narrative analysis I would find interesting later in this post). This is the point, in my recent post, of the garlic example. Just as I wouldn’t deny that the garlic plays a role in the pasta, I would not deny that narrative plays a role. What I am thus objecting to is the manner in which Nate and Tim are treating narrative as a God-term that is the only important difference at work in the show, or the only element that plays a role.

read on!

Implicit in the thesis Nate is proposing, I take it, is the idea that narrative makes things what they are. This is like arguing that garlic makes all the other elements in the pasta what they are. Both are absurd theses. This is the only way I’m able to understand Nate’s suggestion that somehow all the other elements become trivial when narrative is taken away and that these elements don’t have ontological import of their own. What I am objecting to is the hyperbole of this thesis, all too common in a particular mode of analysis.

Now Nate has rightly suggested that there is narrative at work in Life After People. No disagreement here. However, let’s look at some other things that are at work in the show:

* Electro-magnetism is at work in the show. The show would not be able to be transmitted without radio waves or electric digital 0’s and 1’s to convey the show.

* Sound waves are at work in the show. The show would not be able to be heard were there not sound-waves conveying it.

* Televisions are necessary for the show because there wouldn’t be a show without the television.

* Radio towers or fiber optic cables and satellites are necessary for the show because without them the show wouldn’t be able to be transmitted.

And so on. Now these observations are trivial, and that is exactly why I cite them. What they reveal is the vacuousness of the Tim-Nate argument, and more broadly of the post-structuralist correlationist two-step in general. This two-step consists of 1) pointing out that x is a necessary condition for y (the signifier, narrative, signs, etc), and that therefore 2) there is no y (in the ontological sense), without x. Move 1 is perfectly legitimate. It’s move 2 where all the problems begin. And this is exactly what the trite necessary conditions conditions for the show I outline above is designed to disclose.

Nate wants to claim that because x is a necessary condition for y, it is the most important condition… So important that it becomes an ontological condition. But there are all sorts of necessary conditions, but they don’t become the most important for all that. No one– rightly –would think of suggesting that the content of the show is dependent on light-waves. But Nate is claiming the exact equivalent of this. Why is it that one dreams of treating the signifier or narrative as the glue that holds everything else together, as the difference that makes all the difference, when, in fact it is only a difference participating in an assemblage of a whole network of differences? By all means I’m for the analysis of these differences. What I’m not for is forms of analysis that place everything else in the shadows because they’ve treated this difference as the difference that trumps all other differences. When theorizing in this way the theorist comports herself like the Pentacostal depicted in the documentary Jesus Camp that attributes the working or lack of working of the projector to the good will of God. Replace “God” with “narrative” or “signifier” and you get the exact same thought process.

Now Nate goes on to write,

My second problem is that I’ve never said that narrative is the only way objects interact… But at the same time, when Levi in one of his comments suggests that what makes OOO interesting is that it doesn’t rely on 1990’s narrativity studies, I find myself saying “Yeah, go for it!” I’m just trying to understand how OOO is going to address these problems. You aren’t taking away my toys, as much as you are ignoring the fact that there are toys to begin with. So far, I’m unconvinced. From a rhetorical… standpoint if we only talk about the object we are the observer. If we talk from the object’s point of view, we run the risk of giving the object qualities it does not locally manifest. So it seems that we are to always talk about the object-with-other-objects without forgetting that we are ultimately the ones performing the narrative.

First, there’s no problem for OOO to respond to because OOO never denied that there are things like narrativity in the first place. What it rejected was an imperialistic idealism that would make this the only difference that makes a difference. Second, perhaps Nate has forgotten, but one of my key distinctions is between virtual proper being and local manifestation. Local manifestations are produced by one object interacting with another. One object that can provoke local manifestations is human observers. What did Nate think we were doing in science, for example, when we heat up a chemical compound to see what it does? What did Nate think the physicist was doing when he measures quanta actualizing a state? He is acting as an object that is locally manifesting qualities in another object. However the point here is that these local manifestations are local manifestations of the object. They aren’t creations of the signifier, narratives, signs, etc., etc., etc. This is the idealist conflation that’s being rejected.

As I have said, I don’t reject the thesis that there’s narrativity at work in the show. However, what I find deeply uninteresting in the Nate-Tim analysis is the way they seem to think they’re debunking the show through their second-order observation that reveals, wonder of wonders, that the show is for the sake of a human gaze. Wonders never cease! Of course it is. But please rhetoricians, one more effort for revolution! The really interesting question is not that of revealing some supposed paradox of the presence of a gaze when the gaze has become absent (this is about as mysterious as the question of whether I can see the tree outside my window when the shades are closed), but rather what is interesting at the narrative level is the question of why humans have suddenly begun obsessively narrating their own absence.

Throughout popular culture we have seen a whole slew of films and television shows either attempting to represent the absence of humans or represent the possibility of the absence of humans. These cultural artifacts would include Wall-E, Children of Men, novels like The Road, and, of course, Life After People. In the case of my good friend Tim, I think his theoretical commitments get in the way of posing the really interesting narrative-interpretive question. Just as nature abhors a vacuum (or some physicists, at any rate), Lacanians often abhor the absence of a signifier. And what Tim cleverly tries to effect is the re-situating of the signifier and the gaze back in the space of the show to occlude this vacuum. It’s pretty obvious that he’s merely lifted Zizek’s diagnosis of fantasy in abortion debate where you have all the aborted children on an island apart from their parents in Plague of Fantasy. In this way he can go his merry Lacanian way, having deftly defended against the trauma of the possibility of a world without humans. He’s reintroduced the gaze and the signifier back to where it purports to be absent.

The problem with Tim’s analysis is that this is more an articulation of his fantasy structure and traumatic relation to the real, than an analysis of the fantasy structure present in the paradoxical narrative of the show itself. Tim-Nate take themselves as having debunked the show. But the proper diagnosis of a fantasy does not debunk anything. The really interesting question at the level of the narrative structure of the show lies not in revealing that it is a spectacle for a gaze that renders significant what has lost all significance. The really interesting question is that of why this fantasy has become so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture. Put in Lacanese, what Nick-Nate should be asking is why the big Other has morphed in such a way that it is now struggling to represent its own radical absence. What transformation has taken place in the big Other such that it now encounters its own radical contingency and the possibility of a manifestation without manifestation?

An analogous example of this would be the music Clive Owen’s father is listening to when he visits him at his home in Children of Men. This music is more or less pure noise, the complete absence of human pattern and order, and is, as such, a fragment of the collapse of the symbolic order or big Other. In this respect it is like Life After People. How has this come to pass? What does it signify?

So perhaps an additional feature I find objectionable in the Tim-Nate analysis is that they are employing these rhetorical and Lacanian categories critically rather than analytically. What I mean by this is that the categories are being deployed as a way of debunking the symptom, rather than analyzing the symptom. Lacanians sometimes like to talk about the “new symptoms”. Back in the day, you had the spectacles of hysteria and obsession, with all their striking ticks and symptoms, and these were susceptible to treatment through speech. Talk of “the new symptoms” refers to the emergence of widespread anxiety and depressive disorders as the prime symptoms encountered in the clinical setting, rather than obsession and hysteria. An analytic approach to the new symptoms consists in raising the question of what new figures of subjectivity, of the symbolic order, of the real, and the big Other have come into being to account for the new symptom? A non-analytic approach to the new symptoms would consist in suggesting that although these disorders look like something entirely different, they’re really just hysteria and depression in disguise. And this is the whole problem with Nate-Tim’s analysis. They are erasing the symptom under the edifice of their theory, rather than treating the new symptom, this odd paradoxical attempt to see the visible in the absence of a gaze, as a theoretical opportunity to be analyzed such that theory itself becomes transformed. They’ve used these categories to make an aesthetic judgment, rather than to engage in analytic work.