July 2010

The other day my friend Carl the Rhetorician completely stunned me by offhandedly presenting me with an entirely different concept of “commonplaces” or locus communis, far richer and more interesting than anything I had heard before. In my own case, I had always thought of the commonplace as a synonym for the cliche. Indeed, many of us who teach spend a good deal of our time fighting the commonplace in student papers. Apparently in traditional rhetorical theory, however, the concept of commonplace has a very different meaning. If I understood Carl correctly, commonplace does not refer to the cliche, but quite literally to a common place. And here, rather than writing the concept as a single word, we should write it as two words to underline its topological dimension.

When taken in this sense, the concept of common place would refer to sites where relations between heterogeneous actors can be forged. These sites, of course, can be of a literal spatial nature, or they can be of an incorporeal semiotic nature. With respect to the former, I’m reminded of my adventure with my daughter a couple weeks ago at the Taste of Dallas. The Taste of Dallas is a large festival where local restaurants present some of their signature dishes and where there is great live music all day long. Now ordinarily, I can be somewhat reserved in real life. Unlike my father who is the master of the random, warm conversation with strangers, I have a very difficult time striking up conversations with strangers. In fact, I tend to loath small talk because it makes me extremely anxious. However, for some reason, in this situation, I found myself talking to all sorts of strangers. Why was that? In part, I believe, it was because my daughter created a common place. Rather than being a strange and potentially dangerous man alone, I instead became a harmless and beleaguered father walking about with his highly energetic three year old daughter and was therefore capable of entering into wry conversation with strangers without posing a threat to the bubble of their security. A topological site was formed where network relations could be forged.

read on!

As I mentioned in my last post, Nate over at An Un-Canny Ontology is doing some interesting stuff attempting to splice my onticology together with Burke’s pentad. In the Grammar of Motives Burke develops the pentad as a way of talking about what motivates people. The pentad contains five dimensions: act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose. Moreover, these five dimensions exist in different ratios with one another. Marx, for example, is a scenic philosopher. According to Marx, it is the scene or milieu that motivates people to act as they do. By contrast, philosophies like existentialism or Kant’s moral philosophy are agent based philosophies. Motive arises not from scene or milieu, but rather from the agent and the agent alone. In Kant, for example, the categorical imperative arises from reason alone and is completely determined by the spontaneity of the agent. Indeed, Kant goes so far in this that we’re even to ignore any “pathological” influence in our formulation of the categorical imperative (bodily inclinations, passionate attachments, etc). If this is so, then it is because such motives are scenic in character (for Kant, at any rate).

Nate has been kind enough to read the ms of The Democracy of Objects. In this connection, one of his formulations gave me pause, revealing a dimension of OOO that hadn’t occurred to me before. In his most recent post, Nate writes:

I realized that my last post might be read as if I see the receiving object as having the choice to translate however it wants. This is not so. Instead every object exists in an environment for Onticology. And this environment constitutes the scene of the object’s act of translation.

In many respects, this is the exact opposite of what I am arguing. Objects, as I theorize them, cannot be said to exist in environments. Were this the case, objects would be relational and it would be impossible for them to be withdrawn. Indeed, in a sort of pseudo-Lacanian aphorism we can say that “the environment does not exist”. As a consequence, environments, as understood within the framework of onticology, cannot be understood as equivalent to Burke’s concept of scene.

read on!

Over at An Un-canny Ontology, Nate has a great post up splicing object-oriented ontology (and my onticology in particular) with Burke’s rhetorical theory. Nate believes that four aspects of Burke’s pentad mesh well with OOO (agent, act, scene, and agency), whereas the fifth, purpose, fits uneasily. I’m of two minds here. First, it’s entirely possible that things like purpose are unique to the human and the animal. That is, nothing in OOO forbids attributing unique powers or capacities to certain objects. Second, I confess that I have a deep rooted suspicion of teleological concepts and thus find Burke’s fifth element in the pentad to be the least interesting.

A good deal of this suspicion comes from my background in biology and autopoietic theory. Within a Darwinistic framework, “adaptation” (a horribly misleading term) has nothing to do with purpose or a goal. Adaptations take place not because entities strive to survive in an environment, but through random variation and natural selection. Organisms “adapt” not to fit with their environment, but because some “random” mutations proved favorable in a particular environment. Insofar as these mutations prove favorable, they increase the likelihood of reproducing and thereby passing on their genes.

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In response to my recent post on correlationism, Alex Reid raises a number of critical questions. Alex begins by remarking that,

I’m interested in that final line: “only when you abandon the thesis that any entity constructs another entity that your position is deserving of the title of realism.” This post focuses on issues of symbolic behavior, so I understand this statement in that context as meaning that objects are not constructed through their relation to humans and language. However, if a chemist says water is constructed of hydrogen and oxygen, does she become a correlationist? Perhaps the answer is to say that such a statement isn’t the whole story. That is, water may be H2O but it is also demonstrates characteristics in excess of those attributable to hydrogen and oxygen on their own (e.g. it can fill a swimming pool). Of course those characteristics are also dependent on water’s relations with other objects. Water can’t fill a pool without gravity (or a pool).

The term “construction” is bound, I think, to be misleading. There are two senses in which the term “construction” is used in these discussions. On the one hand, there is the somewhat rare Latourian sense, where we’re literally talking about things being built. When Latour talks about construction he is talking about the composition of something out of heterogeneous materials. For example, the building of a bridge. On the other hand, the most common usage of the term construction in the humanities today is that of social construction. Generally the thesis here is that things are constructed by either language or social forces.

read on!

A friend of mine and reader of The Democracy of Objects recently expressed displeasure over the harsh treatment I give to Lacan over the thesis that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric.”. My friend’s rejoinder was that Lacan maintains a place for the real and is merely pointing out that we must relate to the world through language. This point is so fundamental and so basic that nothing about what motivates the new realisms can be understood without understanding it. The new realisms are not charging correlationisms with not believing in and independent real. With the exception of Berkeley who claimed that being is perception and Hegel who claimed the identity of substance and subject, such a thesis is exceedingly rare. Rather, correlationisms argue that we can only speak of the being of beings in terms of our modes of access to beings. In this regard, Lacan is an arche-correlationist. What Lacan teaches is that we cannot speak of being as such, but only of signfiers that express beings. Indeed, Lacan repeatedly refers to any reference to the pre-symbolic as mythological and Zizek refers to the idea of the real apart from the symbolic and the subject as a fetishistic illusion. While Lacan clearly endorses the existence of a real apart from language (and is therefore Kantian), Zizek goes all the way with Hegel’s absolute idealism. Both positions are correlationisms.

Rorty famously said that a number of philosophical problems are never really solved, but rather we just cease asking these questions. No philosopher has yet refuted the solipsist, nor has anyone ever refuted Berkeley. If you’re worried about how we can escape language perhaps you should just stop asking the question and move on. More importantly, you should attend to the methodological consequences that follow from a gesture like Lacan’s. If it is the signifier that falls into the marked space of your distinction, you’ll only ever be able to talk about talk and indicate signs and signifiers. The differences made by light bulbs, fiber optic cables, climate change, and cane toads will be invisible to you and you’ll be awash in texts, believing that these things exhaust the really real.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I’ve learned a lot from Lacan and wish to retain a rich place for talk about talk and the analysis of texts. However, Lacanianism and it’s linguistic idealist cousins needs to be castrated. We need forms of theory and practice capable of both talking about talk, signs, the signifier, narrative, and discourse capable of indicating the non-semiotic and approaching the non-semiotic on its own terms as best we can. Absent this we are missing a massive dimension as to why our social world is as it is. If your first instinct is to talk about talk, text, narrative, signifier, and discourse, it’s likely you’re a correlationist. If you speak of the real as resistance or a twist in the symbolic, it’s likely you’re a correlationist. What we need is a realist rhetoric. For me, it’s not so much Kant that is the enemy, but the linguistic and semiotic turn. I wish to retain a place for these things, but to overcome the hegemony they currently have in the world of Continental theory. Reference to the real does not a realism make. It is only when you abandon the thesis that any entity constructs another entity that your position is deserving of the title of realism.

Below I’ve posted a talk by Tim Morton discussing what he calls the “beautiful soul syndrome” and outlining a bit of his dark ecology. On the surface of things it seems that my position and Morton’s are quite far apart. After all, Morton is the author of The Ecological Thought which argues for the interdependence of all things, whereas us object-oriented ontologists argue that objects are withdrawn from all relations. Morton and I are currently working through these differences. In a number of respects, as paradoxical as it may sound, my advocacy of the withdrawal thesis is designed precisely to think the sort of ecological relations Tim wishes to think. Let me explain.

Ecological and dialectical thought has worked hard to draw our attention to the relational. In many respects, the central enemy of ecological thought could be said to be what Hegel called “abstract thinking“. The abstract thought, Hegel argues, is the thought that divorces entities from their relations and placements in a whole. This leads to a truncated and partial conception of being. Dialectical and ecological thought has struggled mightily against this tendency, seeking to demonstrate both the interdependence of phenomena and our implication within this web of relations or what Morton calls “the mesh”. Only in this way, it is argued, can we understand the impact of our actions on the environment. Given the stakes of these issues– our very existence is bound up with them –it comes as no surprise that the dialectically and ecologically inclined get touchy when the primacy of relations is questioned.

In this regard, object-oriented ontology is likely to appear as a reactionary retrograde move, for in its thesis that objects are autonomous and withdrawn it appears to divorce objects from their relations, turning us away from an investigation of systemic relations and interdependences and diminishing our ability to articulate the manner in which entities are implicated in one another. This, however, strikes me as a superficial understanding of what object-oriented ontology is up to.

Within the framework of my onticology, the distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation draws our attention to what takes place when relations between beings emerge. There are not two terms here, but three terms: Virtual proper being, local manifestation, and exo-relations. Virtual proper being refers to the powers and capacities of an object. These powers and capacities are always withdrawn, they are never present in what Harman calls “sensuous objects”, and they are always in excess of any of their local manifestations. Local manifestation refers to the actualized qualities of an object. In biological terms we could think of local manifestation as the phenotype of an object. Exo-relations are relations of exteriority between objects. Exo-relations play a key role in the production of local manifestations, determining, in many respects, the phenotype that a withdrawn object will come to embody in the world. In other words, the concept of exo-relations draws our attention to what happens to objects when they enter into a mesh of objects or what I call a “regime of attraction”. This concept invites us to be attentive to how contexts play a key role in accounting for why objects take the form they take.

Ecologists and dialectical thinkers are quite right to draw our attention to the relational, however I think they’re on shaky ground both at the level of both ontology and ecological practice when they argue that objects are their relations. Ontologically, because a great deal of ecological thought advocates the thesis that relations are always internal to objects– i.e., that nature is a harmonious and relational whole –they find themselves caught in something of a pragmatic contradiction. The ecologist (not Morton) wishes to say that being is this mesh of internal relations, while simultaneously arguing that the intervention of foreign objects disrupts this order (e.g., the introduction of the cane toad into the eco-system of northern Australia or the burning of fossil fuels).

Here it is entirely appropriate to ask the following question: What are the conditions under which the ecological can be disrupted? The only possible answer to this question is if relations are external to objects. It must be possible for objects to enter into new relations and for them to be separated from other objects if the disruption of collectives is to be possible. Indeed, without something like this autonomy from relations it is impossible to think Darwin’s strange hypothesis. Without something like the externality of relations how are we to think speciation through geographical drift? Without something like the externality of relations, how are we to think the role played by the intervention of actors foreign to a collective such as what is currently taking place with the cane toad or what occurred when a large asteroid hit the earth millions of years ago?

To my thinking, what really interests ecologists and dialectical thinkers is not internal relations, but rather the exteriority of relations in which local manifestations are produced through contingent, aleatory, and external relations. At the level of practice, it will be noted that ecotheorists are extremely attentive to relations of exteriority and the local manifestations these produce. When, for example, ecotheorists analyze drilling for natural gas through a process known as “fracking”, what interests them is the production of new phenotypes and local manifestations in streams, fish, wildlife, water supplies, and human bodies (the cancers and neurological disorders such drilling is currently causing on a massive scale throughout the United States). The entire premise of such an ecological analysis is that objects are withdrawn. Howso? Precisely because such an analysis is premised on the possibility of the carpentry of objects (Graham’s gorgeous expression) being otherwise; or, in my terminology, objects undergoing different local manifestations.

Here we encounter the importance of this line of thought for practice. While I hate this analogy, there are a number of respects in which object-oriented ontology amounts to good book keeping or accounting. What onticology refuses is the reduction of entities to their local manifestations. Entities can always be manifested differently under different conditions. There is thus an emancipatory dimension to this thought. Because objects cannot be equated with their actuality or local manifestation, because they are always in excess of their local manifestations, it is possible to create other worlds and other ways of living. Where “the environment” is surreptitiously unified and treated as a harmonious whole we are led to a sort of tragic view of the world where it is impossible to change anything because everything is treated as internally interrelated and interdependent. This is what Morton calls “over-thereism”. Nature is treated as a unified whole that is “over there”, outside of us, rather than something that we’re entangled in.

Throughout Morton’s thought, I think, it’s possible to sense a tension. On the one hand, Morton wants to emphasize the synchronic or interdependence of things. Yet on the other hand, he emphasizes the diachronic, the developmental, and the manner in which entities are “strange strangers”. The concept of strange strangers refers to the manner in which entities are withdrawn or the manner in which they can never simply be reduced to their actualizations. By contrast, the diachrony that Morton emphasizes already departs substantially from Saussurean and even Derridean diachrony/deferral. Where Saussurean diachrony is strictly guided by synchrony, Darwinian diachrony is punctuated by events, contingencies, arrivals of outsiders, encounters with strange strangers that push development in entirely new and surprising directions. In other words, it is a diachrony of interacting withdrawn objects that forge relations but which cannot be said to be relational through and through. Such is the diachrony of OOO, where the carpentry is always a work and a becoming, generating of new objects and where the sensuous manifestations of objects are always a contingent surprise.

At any rate, on to Morton’s talk.

Scott Barnett has published a review of Harman’s Tool-Being and Guerrilla Metaphysics over at Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture, arguing for the relevance of object-oriented philosophy to rhetoric. I eagerly look forward to seeing where this all leads. I’d be particularly interested in seeing someone giving a detailed treatment of what Latour has in mind when he speaks of nonhuman objects speaking.

Marshall and Eric McLuhann manage, I believe, to sum up everything Ian Bogost and I are trying to accomplish with our own object-oriented media work. In the opening pages of Laws of Media, McLuhan writes,

It makes no difference whatever whether one considers as artefacts or as media things of a tangible ‘hardware’ nature such as bowls and clubs or forks and spoons, or tools and devices and engines, railways, spacecraft, radios, computers, and so on; or things of a ‘software’ nature such as theories or laws of science, philosophical systems, remedies or even the diseases in medicine, forms or styles in painting or poetry or drama or music, and so on. All are equally artefacts, all equally human, all equally susceptible to analysis, all equally verbal in structure. (3)

The first thing to note is just how weird McLuhan’s concept of media is. Ordinarily when we think of media– or, at least, when I think of media –we think of artifacts that are transmitted through various devices such as film, television, books, and radio. McLuhan thoroughly explodes the myopia of this conception of media. McLuhan’s famous thesis is that media are “extensions of man”. Anything that extends man is, according to McLuhan, a medium. Already we sense that what constitutes media is not whether a medium transmits content, but whether or not it extends man in some way or another.

Four additional observations follow from this first pass. First, media are objects thought in relations of exteriority. An object becomes media when it extends another object in some manner or other. Put differently, a medium is an object coupled to another medium. This coupling creates new phenomena, new effects, that would not otherwise come into being. Second, McLuhan’s conception of media is thoroughly ecological and directed at what Morton calls “the mesh“. McLuhan wishes to draw our attention to what I call “exo-relations” or relations of exteriority that come into existence when objects are coupled with one another. He asks, as I did in my earlier work on onticology, what difference does this object make when it is coupled with other objects?

Third, and perhaps most importantly, despite McLuhan’s thesis that media are extensions of man, his concept of media thoroughly contests the primacy of the human or even what the human is. On the one hand, insofar as couplings of the human and various mediums produce something new, there is no longer any single index to what the human is. At best we can speak of local manifestations of the human produced as a result of these couplings and the practices they render possible. Moreover, the “causality” here is not one way. It is not simply that media extend man, but rather humans often extend media. Take the example of lawn grass. Does grass extend the human? Certainly we see children playing in the grass, laying in the grass, having picnics in the grass, etc. However, isn’t it equally true that grass uses humans to extend itself? From a Darwinian perspective– and especially from the perspective of sexual selection in the Origin of Species –isn’t it true that grass has seduced humans so as to get itself reproduced? Isn’t the softness of grass, its rich verdant color, its pleasant earthy smell, the satisfaction it provides when being mowed, etc., a sexual strategy to get itself reproduced? Is it at least not partially true that contemporary Western civilization is an effect of grass’s drive to get itself reproduced? Has not grass carefully cultivated local manifestations among humans (primarily male humans) that take pleasure in neat lines on their lawn, the sound of a lawn mower, the luster of a thick lawn, and so on? Have we not been engineered by grass? Moreover, we could even say that in its race to domesticate man, grass generates an antagonistic war against not only weeds, but rather different varieties of grass, all using humans as queer sexual organs to get itself reproduced and to get achieve the hegemony of its particular species or variant.

This leads to a fourth observation. If there’s some plausibility to the analysis in point three– and I confess there’s hyperbole here –there is no reason to suppose that media are extensions of man. Rather than being extensions of man media are extensions of any other object. What McLuhan thus offers is not a technique or method for analyzing media in the restricted sense, but a general ontology of translation or what takes place when objects couple with one another. Mediology, to use Vitale’s term, is the analysis of queer couplings and the effects they produce, regardless of whether or not humans are involved.

This leads to my second main observation: McLuhan’s conception of media displays both a flat ontology and a deep ontological promiscuity. Note the manner in which McLuhan places both “hardware” and “software” on equal footing, treating them promiscuously as objects on equal footing. For McLuhan, semiotic entities like theories and styles– and dare I say, signs and fictions? –are no less actors than entities such as writing, telegraphs, and rivers. What we get here is a highly complicated ecology that allows us to think extensions of objects in a non-linear fashion radiating in all directions like rhizomes. Indeed, we even get the strange mereology of objects that simultaneously belong to entirely different objects by extending these objects in entirely different ways.

Contemporary critical theory is divided, in broad strokes, between two schools of thought and practice. On the one hand, we have those variants of theory focused on content and the analysis of the semiotic. On the other hand, we have that school of theory that focuses on historico-material conditions such as the role played by new communications technologies, by writing, by the factory, etc. What McLuhan’s weird, promiscuous, conception of media offers is a way of thinking the ecology of these objects together. And here, above all, we encounter Bogost’s concept of the unit, where it becomes possible to think these media not simply as couplings of different objects, but as genuinely productive of new units or objects. For in the interplay of these queer couplings what we get are the emergence of new objects such that semiotic actors rebound back on the technologies that engender them, producing new units and pushing these units to overturn themselves becoming something else, and technologies and nonhuman actors generating unheard of social and semiotic units in the form of new forms of thought, new theory, new signs, new styles, new collective, and so on. Chinese rice production generates an entirely new form of human collective, as does Final Fantasy. This promiscuous and weird ecological ontology of weird couplings thus provides us with a new critical theory directed at composition rather than critique.

Tim Morton and I are currently forging together our respective positions. Where this will lead, I don’t know and I think Tim provides structural reasons as to why I can’t know in advance where it will lead. Right now I’m tentatively thinking of my own position as something akin to an eco-Marxism. Eco-Marxism wouldn’t simply be a Marxism that takes into account “the environment”, but rather would significantly expand the domain of Marxist thought. On the one hand, eco-Marxism would include nonhuman actors such as animal, mineral, and quantum beings within its scope. Put differently, the index wouldn’t simply be to human emancipation. I’m still thinking through this. On the other hand, drawing on Morton’s concept of the mesh, such a Marxism would focus on the imbrication of humans with all sorts of other media (in McLuhan’s sense) generating local manifestations that prevent us from strictly dividing the human from the nonhuman (think of Latour’s and Stengers’ networks or Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic assemblages). While this aspect of eco-Marxism would be thoroughly relational in character, it would emphasize that relations are always relations of exteriority. In other words, no entity can be reduced to its relations and the local manifestations it produces, but rather every entity harbors within it a withdrawn being in excess of its local manifestations (this approaches the diachronic dimension of Tim’s thought). This withdrawn dimension is the promise of forming collectives otherwise. Where an internalism of relations tends to lead to the conclusion that we’re stuck because all terms are caught in reciprocal relations with one another, the exteriority of relations gives us the resources for thinking change. Here the focus is not so much on critique, but rather, as Latour puts it, composition. That is, the work of politics and ethics is the composition of new collectives of humans and nonhumans opening the possibility of new ways of living. That’s just where my thought is leading. Tim might very well be on a different page.

At any rate, Tim has some great discussions of his mesh up over at youtube. I reproduce them here for those who are interested.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about objects in the function of what I call “daimons”. In Greek mythology a daimon was an intermediary between the gods and humans that often influenced human affairs in subtle and invisible ways. One need only think of all the mischief caused by Cupid, for example. Within the framework of onticology, a daimon is not a supernatural entity, nor is it any different than other objects. Rather, what makes a daimon a daimon is the role it plays with respect to other objects.

Daimons are objects that bring other objects together, while themselves more or less withdrawing from view in the relation between other objects that has been brought into existence. When Cupid shoots Apollo with his arrow for insulting him about playing with bows and arrows, Apollo falls passionately in love with Daphne. Cupid shoots Daphne with another arrow, causing her to fall passionately in love with hunting. Cupid or Cupids arrows play the role of daimon, bringing Apollo and Daphne together in this paradoxical relation where he perpetually pursues her and she perpetually flees. The important point, however, is that it is very likely that Apollo and Daphne know nothing of the daimon that has brought them together in this way. All they know is their relationship to one another. Cupid’s role in the whole affair (sic.) withdraws from view.

Daimon’s are all over the place, though generally, because of the manner in which they withdraw, they are very difficult to discern or notice. As a rule, they aren’t noticed at all until things stop working. In their role as withdrawn intermediaries between objects, daimons play two crucial roles. First, daimons both afford possibilities of relation within a structural coupling and constrain possibilities of relation. Second, daimon’s play a key role in the genesis or production of new objects by bringing objects together in a structural coupling that gradually takes on the status of operational closure or systematicity such that this new object builds a distinction between itself and its environment and becomes capable of producing information-events of its own in relation to that environment.

read on!

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