The only error would consist in believing that one or the other strata described in my post on food overdetermines all the others. Everywhere, it seems, we want a single ground that accounts for all other beings. If it is not the semiotic that structures everything, we say, it must be the material! If it is not the material that structures everything, then it must be the social! If it is not the social that structures everything, then it must be the economic! If it is not the economic that structures everything, then it must be the historical! And so it goes. Always, like good obsessionals– and let’s face it, the world of theory is mostly populated by men –we want a final interpretant, a final ground, a sine qua non that overdetermines everything else.
What we abhor, to use John Law’s apt term, is a mess. Everywhere we think in terms of relations between form and content, form and matter, where one key term functions as the ultimate form (which for Aristotle was the active principle and associated with masculinity) and where all else is treated as matter awaiting form (which for Aristotle was the passive term and was associated with femininity). In short, our theoretical framework tends to be one massive metaphor for fucking and the sexual relationship. Of course, it’s always a fucking where the men are on top in the form of an active form inseminating a passive matter. And again, that active form can be the signifier, signs, economics, the social, form, categories, reason, etc. What’s important for masculinist ontology is that form always be straight and one. I’ll leave it to the reader to make the appropriate phallic jokes here.
What the masculinist passion for ground abhors, however, is the idea of a multiplicity of heterogeneous actors acting in relation together. It is not economics that determines all else. It is not biology that determines all else. It is not neurology that determines all else. It is not signs and signifiers that determines all else. It is now cows and roads that determine all else. It is not history that determines all else. No, the world is populated by chairs, cows, neurons, signs, signifiers, narratives, discourses, neutrons, chemical reactions, weather patterns, roads, etc., all mutually perturbing one another in a mesh. In other words, we have all sorts of negative and positive feedback relations between these different spheres functioning as resonators for one another.
When the trees of Easter Island began to disappear and the rats that overtook the island ate all the seeds, the people of Easter Island began to starve to death. The art of Easter Island then took on a macabre cast, portraying sad and frightful people with exposed ribs, inflated bellies, and fearsome grimacing expressions. The humanist will now cry “ah ha!, he’s admitted it! He’s an environmental determinist! He’s saying that the scarcity of resources determined the art of Easter Islanders!” But wait, that’s not the whole story. For those representations, the semiotics of those artifacts, also played its role in how the Easter Islanders responded to the scarcity of these resources. Recent archeological evidence suggests that there were wars between tribes and that those that dwelled on Easter Island resorted to cannibalism. But there’s more. The semiotic played a large role in the depletion of the trees that trapped the people on the island because trees were cut down to transport the massive stone heads that “great men” erected for the glory and the glory of their particular tribe.
What we have here is a mesh of non-linearities without ground. What we have here are all sorts of agencies and objects feeding back on one another, modifying one another, perturbing one another, translating one another. And this, of course, is just a vignette, not a complete analysis. Recently I’ve learned that the Earth’s axis wobbles every twenty thousand years and that this has a tremendous impact on our climate. The last time this happened was 6 – 8 thousand years ago. At the time, the Sahara was a lush area full of life. Yet in the space of perhaps a single generation the Sahara turned into a wasteland. Is this the origin of the genesis story in the Koran, Torah, and Bible? If it is, the story of the Fall might have an environmental origin, but look at the repercussions of that story throughout history. That is semiotic. It is not one or the other. Yet we need to be capable of speaking about both. We need to comprehend both.
My good friend Nate complains to me on the phone for rejecting Lacanian discussions of fantasy, narrative, discourse, etc. But I’ve done no such thing. What I’ve tried to formulate is an ontology without phallus in the Lacanian sense of the term; or rather an ontology where phallus is recognized properly as the masquerade that it is (here an analysis of projective identification in the portrayal of woman as masquerade is an appropriate critique of psychoanalysis). The point is not that the signifier and fantasy do not play a role, but rather that we must see the role that these things play as a role among other actors in a complex network of feedback relations. An ontology without phallus is an ontology where there is no fundamental interpretant, no ground of all else, no final explanatory term. In this regard, the idea of nature as Goddess is every bit as much a phallic fantasy as the idea of the signifier overdetermining all else. We need to learn how to think in terms of amongstness rather than beneathness (or aboveness, returning to the analogy to the missionary position?).
Here I cringe in shifting from a critique of phallic thinking to Ian Bogost’s concept of unit operations. Moreover, I find myself in a peculiar position in analyzing this relation, for as Ian wrote in response to a recent post,
I’m trying to devote all my philosophical time this month to completing Alien Phenomenology, but let me just say that I’m not sure I really care about the genesis and perishing of objects, or at the very least, that I don’t see why one would need to answer such a question to deliver an interesting and meaningful philosophy of things. Maybe that’s just a simpler way of saying that I’m less interested in the virtual than is Shaviro.
I immediately had to call Ian, expressing my surprise, because when I read his Unit Operations I read a profound account of the formation of objects. In Unit Operations, Ian contrasts unit and system. As Ian writes, “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems… I contend that unit operations represent a shift away from system operations, although neither strategy is permanently detached from the other” (3). However, it would be a mistake to suppose that Bogost’s unit operations are purely semiotic, for as Ian goes on to remark, “In software technology, object technology exploits unit operations; structured programming exhibits system operations. In human biology, DNA nucleotide bonding displays unit operations; the Darwinian idea of acquired characteristics illustrates system operations” (ibid.).
In other words, the moment that Bogost treats unit operations as meaning-making units, he suddenly jumps off into the domain of the non-semiotic, the non-intentional, the asignifying. Where systems operations strive to exhaust the unit in a system that would account for it without remainder in a grammar or syntax, Bogost celebrates the autonomy of the unit as that which enters into assemblages while maintaining the ruin of all systems. System is an effect of the unit, not the ground of the unit. Or, rather, we get reciprocal relations of feedback between the two. The point for Ian, I believe, is that the unit can always explode the constraints of system, or that systems are always occasional, local stabilities from which units can escape to create a new surprise.
However, what I want to focus on in Bogost’s rich concept is not the unit of unit operations, but rather the operation of unit operations. In his early work (I suspect we’ll find that he’s of a different view once Alien Phenomenology comes out), Bogost is deeply influenced by Badiou’s concept of the count-as-one (which has been a longtime fascination of mine as well). The count-as-one is, in Badiou, an operation that transforms an inconsistent multiplicity into a consistent multiplicity, literally counting it as one, or transforming it into a unit. The count-as-one is an operation, something that takes place, not something that is already there. Thus, as Ian goes on to write,
In systems analysis, an operation is a basic process that takes one or more inputs and performs a transformation on it. An operation is the means by which something executes some purposeful action. Mathematical operations offer fundamental examples, especially the function as outlined in Leonhard Euler. Other kinds of operations include decisions, transitions, and state changes. I use the term operation very generally, covering not only this traditional understanding but also many more. Brewing tea is an operation. Steering a car to avoid a pedestrian is an operation. Falling in love is an operation. Operations can be mechanical, such as adjusting the position of an airplane flap; they can be tactical, such as sending a regiment of troops into battle; or they can be discursive, such as interviewing for a job. In their general form, the two logics that interest the present study are the logics of units and the logics of systems. In the language of Heidegger, unit operations are creative, whereas system operations are static. (7 – 8)
In short, unit operations produce, they generate a new entity, whereas system operations re-produce, they iterate an already existing pattern or object. This, really, is what to be thought in the mesh of exo-relations among the heterogeneous actors populating the heteroverse of flat ontology: What are those exo-relations that reproduce existing units and relations and what are the operations that produce entirely new entities or agents? And if we are to think this, we must think a complex interplay of a variety of different types of entities, how they contribute to the production of new entities, and must avoid our phallocentric inclinations that would erect only a single ground of being. In contrast to Ian’s confession in comments, we must think processes of unitzing without abandoning objects.