March 2010


I’m experimenting here so hopefully the more mathematically knowledgeable among us won’t give me too hard a time. Perhaps one of the ways the argument of my previous post could be understood is in terms of mathematical categories. What mathematical categories allow us to think are functional morphisms or relations between sets. I’ll say more about this in a moment. In playful jab at my friend Nate, I wrote the following in my previous post:

Rhetorically Nate seems to think that it’s of no significance that his post was written on the internet, requiring fiber optic cables, a particular platform, news feeds, electricity, etc., that created the opportunity for our thoughts to be brought together and preserved despite the fact that we live an hour apart.

Drawing on the formal resources of category theory we can construct an external diagram of the point that I was trying to make, depicted in the upper lefthand corner of the post. In this diagram we notice that there are upper and lower case letters and arrows. The upper case letters are what are referred to as objects in category theory, and are essentially sets. Thus, for example, the set composed of Levi and Nate constitutes what category theory refers to as an object (not to be confused with what OOO refers to as an object). We can denote this set with the name “conversants” or communicants, or simple “C” for short. The lower case letters refer to rules defining relations, morphisms, transformations, or correlations between sets. The relation between f and g connected by a small circle (I can’t figure out how to make the symbol here) is referred to as a composition of functions or morphisms and is read “g following f”. Thus, if we follow the arrows we have X pointing to Y governed by the morphism f and we have Y pointing to Z governed by the morphism g. We note that there is an arrow pointing directly from X to Z with the composition of g and f (g circle f, read as g following f)) which is to be read as the composition of these two morphisms for the three objects or sets involved.

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For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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Scu of Critical Animal has a really interesting (and amusing) post up about certain forms of argumentation he often encounters in animal rights discussions. As Scu writes:

One of the more peculiar charges made against those advocating for the liberation of animals, particularly those who advocate for animal rights, is that we somehow hate humanity. That our desire for animal welfare, animal emancipation, etc., is based on an animus to humans.

Scu cites some pretty amusing passages from Roudinesco and Gasset, where the former tries to draw a connection between animal rights activists and Hitler’s vegetarianism, suggesting that to support animal rights is to support Nazism (Derrida, to his credit, proceeds to tear Roudinesco to shreds in this interview), and where the latter seems to argue that we properly respect the dignity of animals by hunting them.

I find all this interesting as I often encounter the same sort of argument in response to object-oriented ontology. Somehow decentering humans from the center of being, arguing that humans are among beings, not correlated to each and every being, or arguing that philosophy needs to move beyond its obsessive focus on the human-world gap or relation gets translated in the mind of some critics into the thesis that we should hate humans, that humans are of no importance, or, the claim that I find most baffling, that we’re abolishing humans.

How one arrives from such claims to these conclusions, I do not know. With all due respect to former governor Palin, there just seem to be certain issues or claims such that when people confront or encounter them they become retarded. I often reflect on this when we reach the chapter on emotional fallacies in my critical thinking courses. Here I think the Spinoza of book III of the Ethics is an invaluable guide. It would be a mistake to believe that, in most cases, people fall in to these sorts of fallacies intentionally or out of some sort of conscious malice.

Rather, when passionate attachments that organize a person’s cognition are endangered these distortions of thought seem to arise inevitably of their own accord. Here the situation is not unlike the bending of time and space that occurs in the vicinity of a massive object like the sun. You can’t approach a massive object directly– at least not without very powerful forms of propulsion –because of the manner in which the massive object curves space and time. Rather, these sorts of massive objects can only be approached asymptotically, through a curve. And the case is similar with these sorts of passionate attachments. Any attempt to approach them directly seems to encounter a curvature of thought in the audience that distorts what is being said like a funhouse mirror distorts an image beyond recognition. Thought just falls apart. Thus, at the level of form, not content, there’s no marked difference between Roudinesco’s reaction to animal rights discussions and the reaction of a conservative nationalist to criticism of the policies of his beloved nation. Just as Rudinesco equates the claim that we shouldn’t eat animals with hating people (two totally different and unrelated claims), the nationalist is likely to equate criticism of the French penal colonies with hating France.

Here the passionate attachment, the intensity of the affect, bends the structure of cognition, distorting the space of reasons and grounds, in much the same way that the massive object bends the structure of space and time. While this sort of a theory might help me to understand why thought becomes so distorted in the vicinity of particular issues and claims, I nonetheless find myself baffled as to why people have these sorts of passionate attachments in the first place. That, I think, is the real mystery. Why would a person as intelligent as Roudinesco nonetheless have such a passionate attachment to the idea of humans as being at the center of being, such that any extension of rights to nonhuman entities is seen not simply as sharing and extending rights, but as actively negating human value? As Scu remarks in his post, this line of thought is really no different than that of the person who believes that treating homosexuals as equals amounts to actively hating heterosexuals or taking away the rights of heterosexuals. What is it that leads someone to have such a passionate attachment to their nation that any discussion of the wrongs of that nation are equated with actually hating the nation? I can’t help but find these sorts of attachments bizarre.

An interesting article on why its a no brainer that academics are “liberal” in The Chronicle here. I always find it intriguing that conservatives that denounce liberal academia seem to believe that this political persuasion precedes the research of academics, biasing it, rather than seeing that it arises from this exact research and the historical, anthropological, and sociological awareness it engenders.

In discussions of French inflected Marxist political theory I often get the sense that democracy is treated as a dirty word or the contrary of Marxism. The subtext seems to be that somehow neoliberalism and democracy are one and the same thing, or that the concept of democracy is identical to the actually existing system of something like American “democracy”. I find this idea very odd. For me Marxism and communism are synonyms for democracy, and the issues that motivate Marxist activists arise from the fact that our actually existing governmental systems aren’t democratic enough. Equating democracy with American “democracy” is like equating socialism with Stalinist socialism. In both cases we have an utter perversion of the political concept and the precise opposite of what these things are supposed to be. What am I missing?

I’m still laid low by my cold, which oddly seems to only be getting worse, so this evening I found myself groping for something to read just to distract myself. There aren’t very many books that I find myself picking up now and then just for the sheer pleasure of reading them, but Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives definitely falls into that category. It is difficult to describe the pleasure of Burke. His writing is lucid and sparkles with wit and insight, has a deep rigor to it, yet is also strangely exploratory and meandering. A Grammar of Motives is one of those rare books that you find yourself flipping through just for the sheer pleasure of following the “grammar” he discovers or uncovers in this or that particular structure. Yet above all, I think, Burke’s works are the sort of things you read to learn how to think. In other words, you don’t really read Burke to understand Burke (at least I don’t), but rather you read Burke because he teaches you how to think and analyze the world about you. Where you might read Badiou, Derrida, Deleuze, Kant, etc., to learn what these thinkers think, Burke, rather, gives you tools for thinking for yourself.

In this respect, the tremendous value of Burke (for me), is that it provides a sort of “meta-philosophy” or a philosophy of philosophy. As Burke puts it,

We want to inquiry into the purely internal relationships which the five terms [act, scene, agent, agency, purpose] which the fiver terms bear to one another, considering their possibilities of transformation, their range of permutations and combinations– and then to see how these various resources figure in actual statements about human motives. Strictly speaking, we mean by a Grammar of motives a concern with the terms alone, without reference to the ways in which their potentialities have been or can be utilized in actual statements about motives. Speaking broadly we could designate as “philosophies” any statements in which these grammatical resources are specifically utilized. Random or unsystematic statements about motives could be considered as fragments of a philosophy. (xvi)

Gorgeous! What could be more beautiful than the idea of a random statement as a fragment of a philosophy. What Burke’s grammar does is provide a “meta-philosophy” that allows you to discern how a philosophy is put together, the transformations to which it is susceptible, and the aporia it encounters as a result of how the ratios between these five terms are structured. The book is quite literally a treasure trove of analytic tools. It always amazes me that he gets so little attention outside of rhetoric circles.

Nagel, Fodor, and Plantinga responding to Darwin. Plantinga is excusable because of his theology and the manner in which this requires him to reject the thesis that humanity is the result of random chance. There’s no compromise here in evolutionary theory: every species, including humans, is, within the framework of evolutionary theory the result of random chance, and could have just as easily not existed. I see no possible compromise here between anthropocentric theologies that attribute a privileged place to humans in relation to the divine and evolutionary thought. I am not suggesting that it is not possible to develop a non-anthropocentric theology that is consistent with evolutionary theory, but this would require ousting humans from their special place in the order of creation. When this type of theology is formulated I confess that I see little reason why this divinity would be worthy of worship or veneration. To worship such an entity makes about as much sense as worshiping gravity; then again, my cynical tendency is to think anthropocentric theologies and the religious worship that accompanies them as a rather oblique attempt to engage in economic or calculative exchange with the divine (as per Socrates’ suggestion in the Euthyphro). What is really disappointing in this article is the manner in which Nagel and Fodor reject evolutionary theory, placing normative considerations (a.k.a. wishful thinking) over what the evidence clearly suggests.

Hat tip to Cogburn.

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