Over at Deontologistics, Wolfendale has posted part 1 of his response to me. I just wanted to mark a few quick points in response to this post. These remarks are abbreviated, so hopefully Wolfendale will be charitable with them, though he generally is.

1. Withdrawal. Within the framework of onticology, withdrawal refers to two things. First, it refers to the excess of any object over its local manifestations. In many respects, this is a very trivial point. All it means is that the being of any object is never exhausted by any of the actual states it happens to be in, such that therefore the being of an object cannot be equated with its qualities. For example, the water currently sitting in my glass is not boiling. Pretty trivial, right? If the water sitting placidly in my cup is a local manifestation, then this is because it occurs at a particular time and under particular circumstances. If local manifestation is a local manifestation, then this is because it is the actualization of a quality, property, or state in the world.

The lesson I draw from this is that the structure of substance must be different from any of the qualities it happens to embody. Put differently, substance cannot be equated with its qualities. As a consequence, I need an account of substance that accounts for its structured nature (thereby avoiding Locke’s critique of the bare substratum) without treating this structure as consisting of qualities. Such a structure is what I call virtual proper being. Virtual proper being, composed of the powers of an object and relations among these powers, is structured without being qualitative. Moreover, it disappears behind any qualities or local manifestations the object happens to embody.

read on!

Of course, at the level of knowledge, the concept of virtual proper being puts me in a pretty tight spot. We cannot directly encounter virtual proper being because all we ever encounter of objects are their qualities. The closest we can get to virtual proper being is an inference of what this structure might be like through varying the conditions of the object and observing how it behaves. In this way we can begin to map the singularities, powers, or attractors that inhabit the object through variations in the qualities of the object.
This aside, despite the triviality of the concept of local manifestation, the cash-value of this concept, I believe, is that it emphasizes the context dependency of local manifestations. The concept of local manifestation draws our attention to the way in which the properties or qualities of objects vary as a result of entering into different relations with other objects. In the context of epistemology, the concept of local manifestation thus draws our attention to the tools and instruments we use, as well as the environments we construct in observing objects, thereby enhancing our awareness of the ecology of objects, the contingency of circumstance, and encouraging us to vary environments to see if, whether, and how they change local manifestations.

The second sense of withdrawal pertains to, as Wolfendale notes, information. I argue that all objects are operationally closed systems. One consequence of this is that there is no information out there in the world, nor is information transmitted from system to system. Rather, information is a purely system-specific event, produced as a consequence of how a system is structured. Other objects can perturb an object, but the object that is perturbed transforms this perturbation into information according to its own structure. One of the central grounds for this thesis lies in the observation that one and the same perturbation can produce very different effects in different objects. Consequently, we must distinguish between information and perturbations. If this leads to the conclusion that objects are withdrawn, then this is because perturbations are never received by systems as identical, but are always transformed by the system that receives them.

2. Difference and The Ontic Principle. At one point in his post, Wolfendale alludes to our earlier discussions about difference that unfolded a year or so ago. For the sake of clarity it is important to note that since those discussions my position has developed substantially and I have largely abandoned the ontic principle as an ontological foundation. The Democracy of Objects will include “The Ontic Principle” (forthcoming in The Speculative Turn) as an appendix, outlining what I have abandoned from these earlier formulations, and what I retain. For those who missed these discussions, I had begun from the premise that “there is no difference that does not make a difference” or that “to be is to make a difference”. The more I developed this hypothesis, the more problematic I discovered it to be. On the one hand, the formulation suggested to readers that something must make a difference to something else in order to exist. Yet I do not think this is the case. On the other hand, this formulation made it extremely difficult to specify just what an object is. As a consequence of my meditations on information, I now think of difference as a relational term that is system-specific. In other words, difference is no-thing, but is a sort of relation and an event that occurs within systems or objects when perturbed.

3. Knowledge. I know Pete is probably exhausted by these points, but I feel compelled to point out once again that he is conflating questions of knowledge with questions of metaphysics. A representative example of this can be seen in the following:

The application of the metaphor of translation, or the idea of directness and indirectness of access, trades on a conflation of the notions of information and meaning. We can understand the idea that the meaning of what is said can modified through translation, because we have an idea of what the meaning is beforehand. We can understand the idea that we have failed to adequately convey something only because we can understand what it would be to do so properly.

To be clear, I do not discount questions of epistemology as some have suggested, but I do insist that questions of metaphysics and questions of epistemology are distinct. The example above presents a nice case of just why it is important to recognize this distinction. The issue of whether or not translation takes place is entirely distinct from the question of whether or not an entity knows that translation takes place. As a consequence, the issue of whether we need to know what a meaning is beforehand to know that a translation has taken place is really beside the point because translation is a metaphysical relation, not an epistemological relation. It is something that takes place in relations between entities whether they know it or not. For example, it is unlikely that plants have any idea that they are translating sunlight when they produce chlorophyll.

In many respects, the phenomenon of translation generates a sort of transcendental illusion for human beings. Because systems are operationally closed, relating directly only to their own internal system-states, they conflate these system-states with the being of beings themselves. Among the examples I use to illustrate this point in The Democracy of Objects is that of the Lacanian Clinic in section 4.5. The specific way in which the Lacanian Clinic is structured and the rationale behind how the Lacanian analyst conducts himself all arise from phenomena of closure pertaining to systems. Within the framework of neurosis, the entire structure of neurosis arises from the manner in which the analysand filters the remarks of others through the structure of his fantasy while simultaneously treating the utterances and actions of others as being identical to what these others intend and desire. In other words, the neurotic proceeds as if she had direct access to the other. In many respects, the trajectory of Lacanian analysis unfolds through a demonstration of the difference between how the analysand interprets the other and the Other itself. The analyst conducts herself as she does precisely to avoid reinforcing the neurotic’s believe that she knows the Other’s meaning. Through this practice, the analysand is gradually able to discover 1) that the desire she believed to be the Other’s demand was really her own desire all along, and consequently 2) is able to separate from the Other’s desire, affirming this desire as her own. The point here is that these ways of relating to the Other arise precisely because we don’t have foreknowledge of a shared or identical meaning. This difference in meaning is something that is discovered over the course of analysis.

Throughout his post Pete talks about the requirement that we have a concept of what direct access would be in order to understand the manner in which translation distorts perturbations from other objects. However, in such remarks Pete is conflating requirements of epistemology with what takes place metaphysically in the world. Pete might indeed be correct in claiming that this is necessary for a knowledge of translation, but the concept of translation within the framework of onticology pertains not to our knowledge of translation but something that really takes place out there in the world in relations between objects. As for how we know this, I believe that this knowledge arises from disadequation between input and output in our relations with other entities. For example, part of how I discover that Pete is a closed system that translates in the world in a particular way arises from how he surprises me in responses to remarks that I make. Such experiences of surprise and befuddlement create circumstances where second-order observation can set in and I can begin examining both the distinctions that Pete appears to employ in relating to the world around him and distinctions that I employ.

4. Grounds. Pete contends that I begin from a metaphysical standpoint and proceed to infer particular things about the nature of objects. This isn’t quite accurate. Rather, I begin from the standpoint of inquiry and then proceed to ask what the world must be like for inquiry to be possible. I have outlined these arguments here and here, and devote the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects to these arguments. The second post contains the core of my argument. Pete says that he plans to respond to Bhaskar’s arguments in his next post, hopefully he will have read A Realist Theory of Science by then (if he hasn’t already).

5. Information. Pete, I think, misses the key to the concept of information within onticology. Pete quotes my remark that information is an event that connects difference to difference. However, what is crucial to the concept of information as I deploy it is that information is an event that selects a system-state and that information is always system-specific (he does seem to capture this latter point at certain moments). Throughout Pete’s discussion of information, however, I notice that he seems to oscillate between recognizing the system-specificity of information and treating information as something transmitted between systems. For example, Pete writes:

Taking this into account, it shouldn’t be surprising that there is some common metaphysical ground between myself and Levi, given that we both have some debt to Deleuze’s metaphysical thought. The most interesting thing is that I’ve put forward an interpretation of Deleuze’s notion of sign-systems that is very similar to the account just outlined (see here). This also holds that all entities are systems, that they have virtual structure (understood in terms of capacities and tendencies) and that they transmitsigns between one another which select system states. I think there’s a number of ways in which my elaboration of Deleuze is more comprehensive than Levi’s approach (at least, in the cut down form he presented it). I think the most important one is that I provided a more detailed account of what I call link-systems, which are the information channels which signs are transmitted along. I think that it’s important to maintain that there can be no information transmitted between systems without such an information channel between them. Such channels can be both spontaneous and temporary, but it’s also possible for them to be more permanent and thereby to facilitate continuous exchanges of information between systems.

I’ve written pretty extensively on Deleuze’s signal-sign systems both here on the blog (Pete can do a search) and in Difference and Givenness. Indeed, one of the things I’m rather proud of in Difference and Givenness is that it was among the first books on Deleuze to draw attention to the importance of his concept of signal-sign systems. Of course, while I am deeply indebted to Deleuze, onticology is not simply a rehash of Deleuze’s ontology, modifies it in a number of ways, and abandons other aspects of Deleuze’s thought. Here I would suggest that the proper place to look for an account of how systems are linked is not in Deleuze but in autopoietic theory.

Setting all that aside, however, I note that Pete talks about information as something that is transmitted between systems. Yet I argue the exact opposite of this. My thesis, following Luhmann, second-order cybernetics, and autopoietic theory, is precisely that information is not something transmitted between systems. This is what I mean when I say that information is always system-specific. Information is an event that takes place only within a system. It is not something shared by systems or transmitted between systems. To be sure, one system can perturb or irritate another system, but a perturbation is not information. This is a pretty central and important point for understanding what I’m getting at when I discuss information.

Information is itself already a translation. In this connection, Pete accuses me of not having fleshed out the issue of channels of communication or interaction between systems, while simultaneously glibly passing over my account of channels of communication! As Pete writes:

He’s talked about this in terms of the structure of ‘indications’ and ‘distinctions’ but I don’t think the specifics of this are very important for the point I’m going to make.

But the discussion of distinctions is important to the issues Pete raises, precisely because distinctions are one of the ways in which translations take place. In every event of actualization or local manifestation, there are two translations that take place. The first translation is the translation of a perturbation into information or an event that selects a system-state. Now, I’m open to a discussion of details as to how this first translation takes place. I’ve been pushing Luhmann’s theory of distinction pretty hard, but this first translation could also take place through less binary features of a system’s organization. The point here is that whether we go with distinctions or more complex and non-linear forms of system-specific organization or some combination of the two depending on what type of system we’re talking about, these organizations or distinctions 1) constitute the “channels” by which the system is open to its environment, and 2) are the mechanisms that preside over the manner in which perturbations are translated into information. What marks this first stage of translation is that the production of information is an event that isn’t produced by the system itself. Some sort of perturbation, whether from the internal environment of the system or the external environment (remember environments are always other than the system, even when internal) has to set this process in motion.

The event of information sets a second phase of translation in motion within the system itself. In selecting a system-state, powers or potentials within the virtual proper being of the object are selected and set in motion, initiating a process of actualization that generates a new quality or local manifestation. This process involves all sorts mediations and processes navigating prior states of the system and influencing what form the quality will finally take at the level of local manifestation. In other words, in this second phase of translation the quality isn’t already there, just lying in wait, but is a creative process that generates something new. Here, for example, we might think of protein replication in cells. The form that the phenotype takes (local manifestation) is not pre-delineated by something like genes in the form of a “blueprint”, but involves a variety of factors including the genes, the immediately prior states of the cell, environmental factors, and so on.

Griffiths and Gray give a nice example of this in certain species of aphids in Cycles of Contingency. In certain species of aphids, mothers pass on the Buchnera bacteria to either their eggs or their developing larvae. Wondering what role the Buchnera bacteria might play in the phenotype of these aphids, biologists used certain anti-bacterial agents to prevent these bacteria from being passed on to offspring. Much to their surprise, they discovered that the aphids that did not get the Buchnera bacteria were stunted, sterile, and died rather quickly. The importance of this example– and examples can be multiplied, for example we can talk about the role played by ambient chemicals in ant development, determining whether the ant is a worker, soldier, or queen or the bizarre case of the “slave maker ant” that enslaves other ants –is that the local manifestation is not “already there” in the virtual proper being of an object, but rather is constructed along the way through the process of actualization. This process of translation involves a number of steps.

I can understand Pete’s disappointment in my failure to provide a more detailed treatment of translation in its two phases at the level of information and actualization, but all that I can plead is that I’m doing ontology and therefore can only present these claims abstractly because the precise nature of these processes will differ from object to object or from system to system. What takes case in the development of ants might be very different than what takes place in a social system. In the case of social systems, for example, it might be that binary distinctions play the key role in generating information-events. In the case of ant development it might be that a much more non-linear, complex, non-linear organization plays this role. These are questions that have to be taken up anew with each new system under investigation. They just can’t be answered in advance.

6. Marx. Early in his post, Pete glosses my response to Reid pertaining to Marx as follows:

I think he’s still misunderstanding the claims being made by myself and others regarding both the general importance and specific nature of normativity. I think this is evident in the most recent exchange between Reid (here) and Levi (here and here), over how to interpret Marx’s philosophy, where it strikes me that Levi has missed the point of the contrast Reid was drawing between Marx and Latour entirely. Reid was making points very similar to the critique of Latour’s a-modernism I’ve outlined before (here and here), and tying these in to Marx’s theory of fetishisation and ideology critique. Levi seems to have interpreted this as some form of correlationist gesture, wherein the natural is made dependent upon the cultural, rather than an attempt to rethink the relation between the natural and the cultural that does not fetishise (or hybridise, in my terms) cultural objects so that one can talk about them engaging with the natural directly, in the form of hybrid ‘networks’.

I have a hard time recognizing anything resembling my critique of Reid’s remarks in Wolfendale’s gloss here. Nowhere, as far as I can recall, was my criticism that Reid is falling into correlationism. My points about fetishism were quite different. For Marx fetishism consists in treating properties like value as properties of the object itself, rather than recognizing how they are products of social relations. For example, we might treat gold as being intrinsically valuable, rather than recognizing the value goal as a product of the social relations through which it was produced. In this connection, I charged Reid with a form of fetishism because he is treating norms as a priori and ahistorical, rather than examining the forms of social relation through which these norms are produced. In my view, this just won’t wash with Marxist modes of analysis. Rather, within a Marxist framework we need a historical analysis of how particular norms arise and come to regulate social relations.

My second criticism of Reid’s remarks was that he simply gets Latour’s concept of collectives wrong. Reid interprets both Latour and I as claiming that there’s no difference between cultural objects and natural objects. But that’s simply not true. The suggestion that there’s no difference between cultural objects and natural objects is equivalent to the thesis that all objects are cultural constructions. Latour levels withering criticism against such claims, and instead argues that natural objects play a key role in social relations that is occluded by the nature/culture distinction as it functions in Modernity. Because of how modernity has distinguished between nature and culture, when it comes to analyzing nonhuman actors, it treats them as mere vehicles of cultural significations, texts, discourses, signs, etc.

As a consequence, nonhuman objects qua nonhuman objects and the role they play in the social becomes entirely invisible. For example, modernist modes of cultural analysis are unable to account for the role that domesticated animals play in a society because they focus on these domesticated animals only as tokens of a narrative or discourse, rather than as real entities in their own right. Here’s something you would never hear in a cultural analysis at the MLA: That cultures that have more domesticated animals also generate more disease microbes and viruses and that, as a consequence, part of the reason that the domination of the Americas by the Europeans was so disproportionate and one way was that 1) populations in the Americas did not have as many domesticated animals and therefore did not have as many diseases, and therefore 2) European diseases were therefore able to wipe out tremendous numbers in the indigenous populations of the Americas, making military conquest far easier.

The point here is that the role played by these actants has nothing to do with significations, texts, narratives, signs, and so on, but with the role played by real nonhuman actors in human societies. The dominant way in which we currently conduct our cultural, social, and political analysis makes us largely blind to these sorts of issues because we’re busily focusing on texts, narratives, and discourses and ignoring factors like ocean currents, mountain ranges, the presence or absence of domesticatable plants and animals in a population, rivers, telephone lines, fiber optic cables or the lack thereof, and so on. In my view, this way of approaching social and political thought leads to an implicit racism, or, more moderately put, a deep ethnocentrism. For example, you get Heidegger explaining the difference of the West in terms of some fundamental cultural difference like the “Greek event” that revolves around thought and sendings of beings, ignoring all sorts of environmental factors like domesticatable animals and plants, geographical location, availability of resources, etc. Likewise with John Milbank and his pronouncements about the “Christ-Event”. One has to think about societies in a particular way– as composed predominantly of texts, narratives, discourses, and signs –to find these sorts of conclusions possible. I hasten to add here that I am not excluded texts, narratives, discourses, signs, etc., but am defending the parity of explanation where we take other factors into consideration without treating them as mere vehicles of discourse and texts.

Returning to the context of Marx, my point was that Marx is far more of an actor-network theorist than Latour lets on. Marx, in his later work anyway, does not resort to entities like class and society to explain the social world we see around us, but instead sees these as things to be explained. And in providing such explanations Marx evokes all sorts of actor-networks or relations between humans and nonhumans involving everything from how money, a nonhuman actor, comes to transform social relations, to factories and technologies, the availability of resources, and so on and so on.

7. Normativity. A final point about normativity. Honestly I just don’t have a desire to repeat these discussions, in large part because I just don’t find them very interesting. Hopefully Pete will take no offense at such a remark. Time is always scarce and thinkers have to make choices as to how they spend it and what they devote their time to. I simply don’t find much payoff in these sorts of questions, which is to say that I don’t think they answer the sorts of questions I want answered. I’ll leave it to my normativity focused friends to plumb the depths of these sorts of issues. Over at Grundledung Tom has written a nice post explaining why he believes questions of normativity are important. I find much to commend here, it’s just not my area, that’s all.

I did, however, want to zero in on one moment in Pete’s post. Pete writes:

Finally, Levi has said a bunch of stuff in his response, in comments, and elsewhere, about psychological character of those of us with broadly Kantian approaches to normativity. I must emphasise again that one can be a Kantian about normativity insofar as one takes the notions of obligation, permission, legislation, and autonomy to be the fundamental basis of all normativity, and nonetheless deny Kant’s own particular ethical views (e.g., the categorical imperative). I would also emphasise that rule-based approaches to normativity need not imply some kind of strict ethics of external enforcement as opposed to internal developement (a la virtue ethics). It’s totally possible to think that what needs to be developed is rational autonomy, and thus an internal recognition of rules one should rationally follow. However, these are side points.

The main point is this: whatever the psychological tendencies of the loose philosophical grouping to which I belong are, they are irrelevant to the truth of either our individual or jointly held opinions. Truth is indifferent to this kind of stuff. Feel free to assume that I am a creature of pure ressentiment, whose only pleasure comes from forcing others to bow to my own preferred rules for whatever. The question is still whether this has any bearing on whether the reasons I give for my positions are good ones. If you think the answer to this question is yes, then we’ve got a far bigger disagreement than anything else I’m going to talk about in this post.

I have never said anything remotely resembling what Pete here attributes to me. In other words, I have not made claims about Pete. What I have argued is that rule-based or deontological models of normativity tend to generate a certain psychology based on judgment. From the standpoint of ethical questions, I think this is problematic and therefore tend more in the direction of Aristotle, the Epicureans, and Stoics where questions of ethics are concerned. I base this critique of rule-based normativity on psychoanalysis and Nietzsche.

Second, I think Pete’s remarks about me worrying over “external enforcement” show just how little understanding he has of the critique that I’m advancing. My problem with Kant style ethical systems has nothing to do with generating external systems of enforcement. Whether or not such a system leads to a system of external enforcement is really beside the point. My distaste for Kantian style ethics has to do with the sort of psychology I believe it generates in subjects. Not only do I believe this sort of ethics is psychologically unhealthy for the individuals that embrace it, I also believe that it generates rather ugly social relations based on judgment and conflict.

As for whether or not Pete has good reasons for his position, he seems to miss the point that I find those reasons unpersuasive and that I, in turn, have good reasons for my positions (which he appears to find unpersuasive). In many respects, I think this has to do with the two of us asking very different types of questions. As the post above illustrated, Pete tends to focus on questions of knowledge, making points like we must know some standard meaning to determine whether that meaning has changed in translation. I’m just not impressed by these sorts of arguments because I’m not making claims about how we know whether or not something is translated, but about what takes place in translation. Pete seems to think this is a scandal as, I suspect, he seems to think we must first know something before talking about what it is. I think this trades on a conflation of metaphysical and scientific knowledge, and believe that I’ve provided arguments as to how we can know these ontological truths without knowing what is specifically going on in a particular translation. At any rate, where Pete is inclined to raise questions of how we know whether the meaning of a text has changed in translation, I’m inclined to raise questions about what’s going on in aphid and ant development. These are just two very different sets of questions and concerns. For Pete it always goes back to someone observing the ants, whereas I’m just interested in what’s going on with the ants themselves, regardless of whether anyone knows it or observes it.

Now, when I say that I fail to find Pete’s arguments persuasive, I’m also fully willing to admit that I might very well not be understanding Pete’s arguments. I tried to make my way through Pete’s essay on transcendental realism, but found that I just had a very difficult time following it. I got lost in a maze of distinctions and concepts that, I believe, require a background in the philosophical cannon he draws from. While I have passing familiarity with this cannon, I certainly don’t have it at any level approaching Pete’s knowledge of this background. As a consequence, it’s very difficult for me to evaluate his arguments because it’s very difficult for me to know just what he’s arguing or claiming. I would have to become a specialist in the literature Pete draws on to evaluate these arguments, and I just don’t find that Pete has really demonstrated the payoff of such work to me, how it would enhance my own project, and why I should devote time to immersing myself in the literature upon which Pete draws. Before others jump all over me for this, let’s also remember that Pete is similarly ignorant of my background. I don’t think he’s devoted nearly the attention to Latour that Latour deserves, focusing, it appears to me, on Irreductions alone, nor, I think does Pete have much, if any, background in Luhmann, second-order systems theory, developmental systems theory, or Bhaskar. Indeed, in his most recent post, Pete confesses that he hasn’t read Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics, nor even finished Tool-Being, both of which, I would argue, are key Harmannian texts.

I say this not to denounce Pete, though I do find it curious that he has written so many posts on Harman’s object-oriented philosophy without reading a key text like Guerrilla Metaphysics, but merely to point out that we all have our textual limitations. I do my best to articulate my concepts and arguments clearly here, but these lines of argument are, of course, abbreviated and do presuppose some minimal background in the theoretical orientations I draw on. At any rate, one of the things I find somewhat oppressive in my discussions with Pete and other people that work heavily on issues of normativity is that ultimately they seem to reduce to something like “you should be investigating the things we’re investigating!. In other words, I often get the impression that what we’re really being accused of is not talking about what they’re talking about. Obviously, if I find these topics less than interesting, then this is because I feel that they’re not talking about the things we’re talking about! While I’m more than happy to have discussions about the details of various metaphysical points, I don’t see any of us writing the sort of prolegomena to metaphysics Pete seems to think is so vital. A big part of this, I believe, is none of us are the sort of foundationalists that Pete seems to be, i.e., many of us, I think, believe that the quest for such a prolegomena is Quixotic at its core.