July 2010

Now that I’m finished with the second draft of The Democracy of Object I have the opportunity to return to McLuhan’s Laws of Media for the book Bogost and I are writing on media. In my view, McLuhan is a privileged figure for developing an object-oriented theory of social, political, and cultural studies because he’s rather on the fringe of Continental theory, places all entities on equal footing (technologies, natural objects, theories, texts, etc., are all media for him), and is himself something of an object-oriented philosopher. McLuhan, I believe, will thus provide us with the means of unifying both the expressive dimension of cultural formations (contents, representations, signs, meanings, theories, etc) and the role of nonhuman entities such as technologies, nonhuman animate and inanimate actors, and so on.

McLuhan’s famous thesis is that media are “extensions of man”. Ian and I, no doubt, will quibble with this this thesis, questioning its focus on man while not excluding the human, but I suspect we both embrace the basic idea. Here, I believe, media must be understood in relative terms. Every media is an object. However, a media is the manner in which one object extends another object. This is the relativity of media. An object becomes media when it extends another object in a particular way. In this regard, every media also simultaneously withdraws because the manner in which one object “uses” it to extend itself is such that it only plays on certain powers embodied in the object, “ignoring” the rest. McLuhan’s four laws of media help to illustrate this thesis. Each medium 1) enhances some aspect of an object, 2) displaces, obsolesces or diminishes other powers, 3) retrieves other modes of relation from the past, and 4) reverses into its opposite when taken to the limit. Taking up the first two of these laws, take the example of the telescope. The telescope obviously enhances the power of vision, while diminishing the role of touch and sound. Touch and sound fall into the background, while vision is foregrounded.

The relation between foreground and background is tremendously important in McLuhan’s thought. One gets the sense that for McLuhan the background always rumbles with hidden potentials that threaten the integrity of forms that appear in the foreground. In this connection, McLuhan’s analysis of the genesis of geometrical space is particular interesting. McLuhan’s striking thesis is that geometrical space came into existence with the rise of phonetic writing. Where acoustic and tactile space are always characterized by foreground/background relations where the background rumbles with hidden potentials, the visual space of phonetic writing tended to abolish background altogether as a result of transforming sounds into fixed units (phonemes) that were divorced from meaning and that could be repeated again and again as the same. Indeed, with writing we can always return to what has been written once again as identical, whereas speech disappears or falls away.

McLuhan’s thesis– and I’m not nearly doing him justice here –is that these features of written language were the ground for a conception of geometrical space as featureless, static, unchanging, infinite, a container, and identical. This space, in its turn, is deeply wedded to the sense of vision as writing is closely connected to vision and vision is that one modality of sense that detaches and isolates their figures from their background (just as a written sentence is detached from all background). McLuhan argues that the development of this concept of space is also deeply connected to the rise of philosophical discourses of Being that tended to treat objects and beings as static figures.

McLuhan’s analysis of the origins of visual, geometrical space and the relation between this type of space and writing, are, I believe, of great significance for object-oriented ontology. The conception of objects that arises based on this unconscious conception of space is that of objects as fixed and self-identical entities that are fully present. In other words, geometric space leads to a conception of being where withdrawal is erased. For example, for the geometer all points on an infinite line are fully present, simultaneous, and actual even if we can’t directly perceive this line. Visual spatialized thought thereby “objectivizes” entities in the bad sense of erasing their withdrawal.

However, what makes McLuhan’s critique of visual spatialized thought so interesting is not that it repeats, in many respects, something akin to Bergson’s critique of spatialization or Whitehead’s critique of misplaced concreteness and simple location, but rather that it attaches this way of thinking to text and phoneme. The really interesting implication of such an analysis is that those who work primarily with the medium of texts– e.g., scholars –will be susceptible to a whole host of “transcendental illusions” arising from the primacy of vision and the manner in which vision detaches figure from foreground generating an abstract conception of space as a continuum. These illusions would extend throughout one’s ontology at all levels, generating a host of errors that have little relation to the real. McLuhan, for example, goes so far as to argue that logic itself is based on a metaphor that derives from geometrical space, e.g., connection between propositions is really a metaphorical expression of containment, a relation of which is only possible in non-dynamic geometrical spaces. And indeed, wouldn’t claims about ideal norms governing all else be transcendental illusions produced by the iterability of texts or propositions that we can return to on a piece of paper? Moreover, the focus on content, propositions, and meanings to the detriment of practices and involvements with various matters would arise from the manner in which texts detach persons from doings. However, above all, the spatialization that arises as a result of phonetic writing would erase all withdrawal as a consequence of generating the illusion that all is present and simultaneous.

The first volume of Isabelle Stengers’ Cosmopolitics is now available in translation. This is an exciting moment, especially since my own epistemology is more or less embodied in her work and Latour’s. You’ll have to read The Democracy of Objects to discover the difference between epistemological realism and ontological realism and why my advocacy of the latter lets me reject the former. Moreover, to get Latour’s epistemology you have to read something other than Irreductions, such as Science in Action and especially Pandora’s Hope. With any luck, her book on Whitehead will be available in the next year or so as well. It looks like the realist hordes are upon us! For a nice write up on Stengers’ philosophy of science check out Shaviro’s blog here.

The Democracy of Objects is now finished, coming in at around 107k words or about 330 pages. There’s lots of new stuff here, and with any luck it is a nice contribution to OOO and realist thought. Now it’s on to copy editing. At any rate, party time!

Hat tip to Gratton for drawing attention to Mark Taylor’s New York Times piece on abolishing tenure. Apparently Taylor, a philosopher of religion, believes that universities and colleges should be run like corporations and that we should fire older professors because they’ve been around too long and are therefore too expensive. As Taylor writes:

Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible. The fundamental problem is liquidity – both financial and intellectual.

If you take the current average salary of an associate professor and assume this tenured faculty member remains an associate professor for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years, the total cost of salary and benefits alone is $12,198,578 at a private institution and $9,992,888 at a public institution. To fund these expenses would require a current endowment of $3,959,743 and $3,524,426 respectively and $28,721,197 and $23,583,423 at the end of the person’s career. Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments at the precise moment more flexibility is required.

If I’m following Taylor’s calculations correctly, he’s saying that professors at private schools receive a yearly average salary and set of benefits of $406,619 and that public school professors annually receive salaries and benefits amounting to $333,096. Who knew academia was so lucrative!

I really have no dog in this fight as I neither have tenure nor the opportunity to get tenure. I work on contract and can have my position terminated at any time without any reason even having to be provided. I work in what is known as a “Right to Work State“, which is basically Orwell speak for a set of laws that cede all power to employers and that prevent employees, under threat of law, from organizing or going on strike. This is what some conservatives call “freedom”. After all, it’s the employers money right? Therefore the employer should be able to fire you at any time and for any reason. And, after all, the employee can always find work elsewhere so she’s free. Ah how I love the American concept of freedom. Never mind that the employers enjoy disproportionate power, access, and representation within our government due to their money and that they also benefit disproportionately from the various services our government provides in the form of infrastructure, law enforcement, and military. Remember, those employers are self-made Randian super-heroes that have never relied on anyone else to get where they are. Like the moment of creation when God brought the universe into existence from the void, these self-made capitalists did not benefit in any way from family connections, excellent school, stable and flourishing living environments, or greater governmental access.

Nope, they’re self-made damn it! Therefore they are entitled to everything they’ve made and are having their freedom violated by having limitations placed on when and how they can terminate positions, whether they should pay more in taxes, whether they should provide benefits, stable pensions, etc., etc., etc. Oh, and let’s not forget that for every five dollars that employer pays out to any employee they get a return with profit. The capitalist might argue that they put up the money for the implements used to produce their goods and so therefore they’re justified in skimming surplus-value off the top of the workers production of value. However, isn’t there a point at which the worker creates enough surplus-value or profit to pay for that equipment? And didn’t Locke– a hero of liberal conservative economists –say something about property being formed or coming into existence as a result of human labor giving form to matter? Hmmmm? Hmmmm? I sense an inconsistency here.

But I digress. The outcome of Taylor’s proposal is pretty predictable. As in all other cases where the business model is adopted, you get declining wages, unreliable pensions, and tremendous job insecurity. Indeed, if we follow Taylor’s proposals we can look forward to a future where the halls of institutions of higher learning are populated with adjunct professors living in terror of whether or not they’ll be called back the next semester and trying to make due on a pittance of a wage. Nice.

For anyone who’s interested, the object-oriented philosophy collection Bogost and I are putting together will contain the following contributors:

Ian Bogost
Levi Bryant
Jane Bennett
Graham Harman
Steven Shaviro
Katherine Hayles
Timothy Morton
Melanie Doherty
Joseph Hughes
Karen Barad
Katherine Behar
Adrian Ivakhiv

I think that covers all the contributors. Ian, I’m sure, will remind me if I’ve forgotten anyone.

For those who are interested, here’s the table of contents for The Democracy of Objects:


Introduction: Towards a Finally Subjectless Object

1. Grounds for a Realist Ontology

1.1. The Death of Ontology and the Rise of Correlationism

1.2. Breaking the Correlationist Circle

1.3. The Onto-Transcendental Grounds of Experimental Activity

1.4. Objections and Replies

1.5. Origins of Correlationism: Actualism and the Epistemic Fallacy

1.6. On the Alleged Primacy of Perception

2. The Paradox of Substance

2.1. Introduction

2.2. Aristotle, Substance, and Qualities

2.3. The Paradox of Substance

3. Virtual Proper Being

3.1. The Mug Blues

3.2. Deleuze’s Schizophrenia: Between Monism and Pluralism

3.3. Virtual Proper Being

3.4. The Problem With Rabbits and Hats

3.5. Žižek’s Objecting Objects

4. The Interior of Objects

4.1. The Closure of Objects

4.2. Interactions Between Objects

4.3. Autopoietic and Allopoietic Objects

4.4. Translation

4.5. Autopoietic Asphyxiation: The Case of the Lacanian Clinic

5. Regimes of Attraction, Parts, and Structure

5.1. Constraints

5.2. Parts and Wholes: The Strange Mereology of Object-Oriented Ontology

5.3. Temporalized Structure and Entropy

6. Flat Ontology

6.1. Two Ontological Discourses: Lacan’s Graphs of Sexuation and Two Ways of
Thinking Being

6.2. The World Does Not Exist

6.3. Being is Flat

Conclusion: A Democracy of Object

The Democracy of Objects is nearly complete now. I’m working on chapter 6 at the moment, and then just have the conclusion and intro to write. Word has it that I should be receiving the proofs for The Speculative Turn in a week or so, so that shouldn’t be too long before reaching print as well.

The Democracy of Objects is coming along at a nice clip and I should have the initial draft completed in the next couple of weeks. Right now I’m working on chapter 5, and am right around 73k words. Depending on whether or not I decide to write a chapter on space and time, the book will be six or seven chapters, coming in, I believe, around 100k words. The chapter breakdown is as follows:

Introduction– Towards a Finally Subjectless Object

1. Grounds for a Realist Ontology– Here I draw heavily on Roy Bhaskar’s arguments for transcendental realism and develop the basic framework for the structure of objects.

2. The Paradox of Substance– Drawing on Burke’s critique of substance in The Grammar of Motives I argue that the structure of substance is such that it simultaneously withdraws and self-others itself in qualities. There’s a lot here on Aristotle, Locke, and Kant as well.

3. Split Objects– This chapter develops the relationship between virtual proper being and local manifestation and draws heavily on Deleuze’s account of actualization while revising his concept of the virtual in such a way as to treat individuals as more basic than the virtual and arguing against the thesis that the virtual is a whole or one-All that is then split up into discrete objects.

4. The Interior of Objects– Drawing heavily on Luhmann’s autopoietic theory, I here develop an account of how objects are operationally closed and how they relate to one another through selectively open relations to their environment. There’s also a nice section on the Lacanian clinic in this chapter, showing how it can be understood in terms of object-oriented ontology.

5. Regimes of Attraction and Parts– This chapter tackles the question of constraint or how objects can be constrained by other objects when they are operationally closed and also fleshes out issues of object-oriented mereology. Additionally there’s a nice section in here on temporalized structure that shows how the autopoietic conception of structure allows us to move beyond structuralist and post-structuralist conceptions of structure while maintaining their best features. There are lengthy discussions of developmental systems theory, Luhmann, and Badiou in these sections.

6. Flat Ontology– Here I outline what is entailed by the concept of flat ontology, drawing out my mereological points and working heavily with Lacan’s graphs of sexuation to make the case that objects are essentially “feminine”.


Appendix: Principles of Onticology– The appendix will include my article for The Speculative Turn with a brief discussion of how my ontology has evolved since I formulated the ontic principle (which I’ve now abandoned as a foundational starting point).

If anyone is interested, I could really use some help with the thankless task of putting together the bibliography and/or the index. The latter project won’t come until I have the offprints for the book, but it should be possible to write up a bibliography once the initial draft is completed.

Graham has a great interview up over at Figure-Ground Communications. Particularly interesting are Harman’s remarks about McLuhan. Hopefully I won’t be upsetting Bogost here, but after Alien Phenomenology and The Democracy of Objects we’ve been kicking around the idea of co-authoring a book on McLuhan so any remarks about the connection between OOO and McLuhan are particularly interesting for me.

Wolfendale has posted his second discussion of onticology here. Just a few brief points:

1. Translation. Pete writes:

He thinks that my claim is something like: we must in each particular case be able know what is being translated in order for the notion of translation to make sense. He then claims that this argument illegitimately places epistemological criteria on a metaphysical point, and that the whole point of translation is that we can’t know what something is like prior to translation.

I think Pete here mischaracterizes my point here. My point wasn’t about understanding translation or whether or not we can know something prior to translation. My point was that insofar as translation is a metaphysical process, the issue of whether anyone knows or understands translation is irrelevant to whether translation is taking place. This should have been clear from my example of how a plant translates sunlight transforming it into chlorophyll. A translation takes place here, but I suspect that the plant has no “understanding” or “knowledge” of sunlight.

Pete goes on to remark that,

This is not the claim I made though. My claim was that we must have a general understanding of what is being translated in order for the notion of translation to make sense. We must be able to make sense of the very idea of direct contact between entities in order to make sense of the very idea that they can only encounter one another indirectly. I take the last post to have shown why the ‘translation’ of perturbations into information, and of information into system states, doesn’t provide us with the resources to think such directness in general, and thus why all talk of indirect access is at best metaphorical. This has nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with the coherence of metaphysical concepts.

I don’t think I’m in disagreement here, but I also think this is a rather trivial point. I’m not sure how closely Pete has been following my posts, but he might recall that I have been making a lot of the distinction between first-order and second-order observation. It will be remembered that within the framework I’m drawing on, no indications are possible without there first being a distinction. Once a distinction is drawn, it now becomes possible to observe or indicate something within the marked space of that distinction. Among the interesting features of first-order observation is that the distinction that allows the indication or observation to take place becomes invisible while it is being used.

read on!

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