September 2010


In my metaphysics courses, I am currently teaching Buddhist thought. I find Buddhism powerfully attractive due to its emphasis on living a life characterized by non-hurtfulness, compassion, and the diminution of suffering. While one might be able to do all sorts of conceptual contortions to show that such concepts are present throughout the history of Western thought, it’s my view that these concepts are almost entirely absent. The closest one comes is the thought of the Epicureans and the Stoics, yet even there, while we get an emphasis on diminishing suffering (though not in that language), we don’t encounter much in the way of discussion of anything resembling a discussion of either compassion or non-hurtfulness. And here it should be understood that the diminution of suffering, and the pursuit of compassion and non-hurtfulness is restricted not simply to the human, but to existence in general. In my view, we need to make a place for these values. This is the way it is with most ethical philosophies: They boil down to the exhortation or imperative “don’t be an asshole!” It’s a shame that generally moralists are the biggest assholes of all. So it goes with the narcissism that ethical thought often invites despite itself.

Now, I’m just easing my way into various strains of Eastern thought (I’m nearly a complete virgin), so please go easy on me. However, my hunch is that the ethical system of Buddhist thought follows almost directly from the metaphysical of conditioned genesis. What, then, is conditioned genesis? The term “conditioned” should be understood, I think, as a verb, “to condition”. Something conditions something else when it affects that way through some sort of action. “Genesis”, of course, refers to the production of something. Thus, for example, when you cook dinner at night, you are engaged in an act of genesis that produces a meal. When the two terms are put together, you get the thesis that all entities are a product of their interactions with other entities. Contrast the wine grape approached in an Aristotlean manner from the wine grape approached in a Buddhist way. The Aristotlean would focus on the qualities of the grape: it is purple, round, has such and such a taste, etc. The Buddhist wouldn’t reject these qualities, but rather than drawing our attention towards the object taken in isolation would instead direct our attention outward, focusing on the relationships and interactions of the grape. Hence the Buddhist would attend to the soil conditions, the sunlight, the weather conditions, the other plants in the region, the smog of California, the animals and the insects that contribute to producing these particular qualities.

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The other day it occurred to me that rather than referring to thoughts and mental states as something that we have or that are predicates of our mind, it would be better to think of them by analogy to metereology or weather events and patterns. If the brain is, as Metzinger elegantly argues (though I’m not sure why he believes this is contrary to the concept of substance), or units are, as Bogost argues, a set of operations, then it seems that we should think about mental states as not being properties or states, but rather as processes. The problem with saying, for example, that “I am depressed” is that it gives the impression that depression is a sort of fixed property of the brain, rather than a process or activity on the part of the brain. Just as we might say “the ball is red”, treating red as a fixed quality of the ball rather than an event that occurs to the ball, we treat depression as something that we just are. Far better, I think, to compare or analogize depression to a storm or a hurricane that takes place as an unfolding process. As the hurricane travels across the waters of the ocean it becomes more and more powerful from the heat of the water and increases in humidity, becoming an organized system that takes on a life and substantiality of its own. Likewise with depression. It begins as a tiny swirl within the brain, a mere murmur, a “tropical depression” (pardon the pun), but through a confluence of events in both life and drawing on other mental events (not unlike drawing on the heat of the water) becomes stronger and stronger, more and more pervasive, until it overshadows everything else. Were we to think of thoughts, affects, mental states, etc., as being akin to metereological events how might this change the way we pose questions about cognition, mental “disorders”, and the sort of practice we adopt in the clinic. I’m not sure.

I’ve been behind the curve for the last couple of weeks due to encountering my finitude. I’ve been extremely sick, spending about sixteen hours a day in bed, unable to do much of anything. Hopefully I’m beginning to get better, although I still feel rather weak and scattered.

At any rate, Michael, over at Archive Fire, has two excellent posts up discussing the first chapter of DeLanda’s New Philosophy of Science (here and here). In the first post, Michael questions whether all relations, as DeLanda suggests, are external to their terms. Here I am more or less in agreement with Michael’s suggestion that we need a continuum between internal and external relations. I attempt to capture such a continuum in my distinction between endo-relations and exo-relations. Exo-relations are relations between distinct objects. Thus, for example, Michael and I are only “exo-related”. If I am destroyed, Michael does not cease to exist. To be sure, Michael can influence my local manifestations in all sorts of ways, but my existence is not dependent on Michael’s existence. By contrast, endo-relations are internal relations that constitute the structure of an object. In the case of endo-relations, the terms cannot be separated from one another. Endo-structure can thus be thought as the essence of an object, so long as essence is not thought as what is common to many different objects, but rather what is absolutely unique to one and only one object (perhaps Scotus’ term “haecceity” would be better here).

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This looks like it will be a terrific conference! Hopefully I’ll be able to attend, as I’d love to work out some of my thoughts on topological network geographies. We’ll see. Unfortunately I’ve used up most of my conference funding at this point, though this conference looks like it would be worth digging into my pocket.

via Progressive Geographies:

Call for Papers: The Difference of Things

Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, 12-16th April 2011, Seattle, USA.

Session organised by Deborah Dixon, JP Jones, Sallie Marston and Keith Woodward

If difference in the world is not a remainder from or a bad copy of Identity, Ideas or Essences, but is rather the immanent force characterizing all materialities, including words and meanings, affects and perceptions, things and thoughts, then how do we go forth in the world to think and speak in terms of things and their qualities?

In this session we wish to bring together those interested in working though what is being loosely termed ‘object-oriented philosophy,’ or ‘object-oriented ontology’, in emerging areas such as ‘speculative realism.’ Whilst geographers have long sought to ‘ground’ their objects of inquiry in the validating power of the Subject-perceiver-expert, recent years have seen a concerted effort to ask object-orientated questions in ways that neither presuppose such a subject nor presume that ‘things’ conform to the conditions or constraints of human perception or understanding. In the process, such reflections have engendered sympathetic but also at times difficult relations with, for example, Badiou’s subjectless objects, Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblages (agencements), Serres’ Angels and quasi-objects, Simondon’s pre-individual fields and singularities, Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy and Bryant’s ‘onticology’, Latour’s ‘democracy of things’, Bennett’s ‘vibrant matter’, Heidegger’s tools, and things ‘in-themselves’ existing before, beyond or beside the metaphysical solipsism of Kant’s ‘Copernican Turn.’

We are especially interested in how geographic terms such as space, place, distance, proximity, differentiation, localization, mobility, and stillness might be re-imagined in this work. What are the implications for technical objects, objets d’art, and ‘assemblages’? How do we attend to and account for the difference of ‘natural’ objects or things-in-themselves? What do notions such as ‘ecology’ mean for object-oriented approaches? What is the refined role of the senses and/or cognition in an approach that seeks to comprehend the mind-independent status of objects? And, how does such an enquiry change or challenge the stakes for theories of emergence?

Thematic objects may include, but are not limited to:

The arche-fossil
Vicarious causation
The democracy of objects
Distinctions between Objects and Things-in-themselves
The changing statuses of the commodity and the money form
Techné
Bios
Ontography
New treatments of phenomena and understanding
The return of the transcendental

Abstracts should be sent to both Deborah Dixon (dxd@aber.ac.uk) and Keith Woodward (kwoodward@wisc.ed) by October 15, 2010.

Aristotle’s weirdness is not a mark against him, but rather an indication of his greatness as a philosopher. However, things do not start out being weird. Every science investigates a specific object distinguished by the properties unique to that object. Thus, for example, economics investigates exchange and exchange is distinguished from all other phenomena by a specific set of qualities or properties. However, when we abstract from all differences between specific types of objects, we are nonetheless left with the insight that all of these objects are. Consequently, we can ask ourselves what is the “beingness” or the “existenceness” of being? What is it that is common to all these beings, despite their differences, such that they are beings? Such is the question of metaphysics or ontology. Aristotle’s answer to this question is the rather common sense conclusion that being is composed entirely of primary substances. I’ll say a bit more as to what primary substances are in a moment, for now, while Aristotle begins with a common sense hypothesis, things very quickly become weird when we begin to work through just what a primary substance might be.

Although being is said in a variety of senses (quality, quantity, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection), the primary sense of being, and the one upon which all these others are dependent, is that of primary substance. Take the example of a quality such as the color of my hair. If qualities like the color brown are secondary substances, then this is because they cannot exist in their own right, but can only ever exist in primary substances. Brown has never been encountered floating about as a being in its own right. Likewise, a relation like “being-a-student” does not exist in its own right, but only exists in and through the primary substances that enable it to exist (institutions like schools, teachers, etc). Consequently, when asked “what color is Levi’s hair?” or “what is Jordan?”, it is perfectly appropriate to answer “brown” (quality) and “student” (relation), so long as we understand that these senses of being are dependent on a more primary and fundamental sense of being: primary substance.

By now what a primary substance is becomes obvious. A primary substance is just any individual thing. Here are some examples of primary substances: that tree, Ian Bogost, my glasses, the sun, the planet earth, this tardigrade, a burrito, my coffee cup, the United States of America, a corn thresher, etc. A primary substance is just any individual thing or entity. Within the Aristotlean orientation, the primary sense of being always refers back to things or objects, such that all other senses of being are rooted in, and dependent upon, this primary sense of being.

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David E. Bell has a terrific review of Taylor’s book on tenure and the university over at The New Republic. It seems to me that Taylor is a victim of a certain ideology commonly found in popular science books devoted to complexity theory, chaos theory, and network theory. Pick up nearly any of these books and you’ll straight away be treated to a distinction between hierarchialized systems under centralized control and distributed networks with no centralized control. What begins as a descriptive distinction very quickly becomes a value laden distinction where networks are equated with all that is good, whereas centralized systems are all that is bad. Very quickly the narrative (which is very theological in character) becomes that if we were to just let systems unfold according to their own immanent processes everything would be well as distributed systems without centralized control are wisely self-regulating and internally harmonious. By contrast, the story goes, bad system effects arise from attempted centralized control that interfere with the natural functioning of non-linear, distributed networks. Somehow the phenomenon of positive feedback gets ignored in all of this, despite the great debt much of network theory owes to cybernetics.

It seems that this is precisely the narrative that Taylor has fallen for in his analysis of the modern university. How anyone could, with a straight face, make such an argument after the global financial collapse of the last few years is beyond me. After all, the financial system has all the marks of an unregulated, non-linear distributed network that Taylor is defending but certainly did not behave in a wise, self-regulating fashion or yield the harmonious, creative results that Taylor seems to think arise spontaneously from such systems. At any rate, read the review. Of course, the damage is already done here. Bell will be portrayed as a parasite of the university system out to save his privileged place in that system (i.e., we’ll be treated to another round of “blame the professors and teachers”) and Taylor’s piece in the NYT and his book will be trumpeted far and wide by free market reactionaries interested in dismantling the universities and turning them into profit making machines. In this connection, isn’t it curious that Taylor doesn’t target the bloated salaries of many administrators. I suspect that he is currently the toast of the town and has a lot of opportunities coming his way as a result of all this.

It seems my last post has raised some eyebrows, suggesting that I don’t care about politics. What a strange conclusion. What is the valuable lesson to be gleaned from the Tea Party? Through their militancy they’ve been able to push the Republicans to the right. In their unwillingness to compromise and their capacity to organize and put forward candidates, they’ve forced establishment Republicans to the right. Their ideology is terribly wrong, but their tactics are right. And here I’m not saying anything that Zizek hasn’t said about the Act or Badiou about truth procedures.

At present Democrats are holding the American left hostage. For the last three decades the argument has been the same: ” yeah we suck, but if you don’t vote for us the Republicans will take power!”. To this day, Nader is used as a constant cautionary tale for the 2000 elections… Despite the fact that far more Democrats went over to vote for Bush than for Nadar. The result of this Stockholm syndrome is that American leftists end up continuously put Democrats into power that promote neo-liberal, pro-corporate agendas. Short of violent revolution, how is it possible to change this dynamic?

I don’t claim to be saying anything profound or original here, but so long as progressive votes can be taken for granted there’s no hope of change. It will be the same old story: we donate our labor, campaign contributions and votes only to have all that work usurped by a plutocratic political establishment that assumes office. The only way to change this dynamic is through the formation of political forms (in large numbers) that are willing to assume risk and loss. This means 1) refusing to vote for and support establishment candidates that will promote a corporate agenda, and 2) putting forward our own candidates that might not win.

This is the brilliance of the Tea Party. I doubt they expect a nut like Christine O’donnell to win, but while they might lose the battle they win the war. They win the war by forcing the Republican establishment to become more conservative and by very likely forcing them to put up a conservative presidential candidate. They are thus more likely to get more of the sort of legislation they would like to see supported. So how do leftists go about doing that? They don’t do it by getting behind existing Democrats. With health insurance reform and the financial reform we’ve already seen that Obama and Rahm are more than willing to sell us out. So long as we don’t put the fear of god in them none of this will change. But that fear of god can only be produced if people are willing to organize in large enough numbers and assume risk, giving up on the politics of incrementalism and compromise that perpetually moves American politics to the right. Again, nothing original here but it still is worth repeating.

Update: Circling Squares and Jeremy over at Eidetic Illuminations further riff on these themes pertaining to mereology and emergence here and here. I especially like Circling Square’s Latourian point about how flimsy entities like “Muslim Culture” are, i.e., how much work is required to maintain their existence. This, I think, is one of the problems with an over emphasis on the signifier. The signifier is treated as an all powerful entity that, of its own accord, brings entities into existence through an act of nomination. The point here is not that signifiers aren’t components in many assemblages, but that this power of the signifier is way overblown. It takes a lot of work, for example, to hold an organization or social assemblage together. The name alone doesn’t do it, though it does contribute.

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As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been getting over a rather brutal cold and have therefore been behind on discussions taking place in the blogospheres. Now I’m finding myself feeling extremely depressed, pervaded by a sense of hopelessness and overwhelmed by cynicism as I look at the political situation in the United States and the disappointment of the Obama administration (especially on issues pertaining to the environment, political economy, and GLBT politics). Hopefully this is just a residual effect of the cold and it will soon pass. For the moment I’m finding it difficult to motivate myself to do much of anything, wishing I didn’t know certain things, and could just happily turn my back on the world and tend my garden. Right now it increasingly seems to me that the only solution is for the left to abandon the democratic party and form its own version of the tea party (without the ignorance and hate) that refuses compromise (compromise that, incidentally, always seems to benefit corporations). Top on the list here would be the abolition of private funding for elections. So long as leftists in the United States continue to be held hostage to the idea that any vote for a third party is a vote for republicans there will be no way to halt the endless tilt towards the right in the democratic party. The really irritating thing is that it’s pretty clear that the administration and its apologists are setting up the left to be the fall guys and gals for the coming losses in November. The narrative will be that the left talked down the policies of Congress and the Administration, depressing voter turnout. An alternative theory would be that pro-corporate policies in health insurance reform and an economic team packed by Wall Street shills did far more to depress voter turnout than anything the nearly non-existent left did.

At any rate, over at Eidetic Illuminations Jeremy Trombley has a terrific post up raising questions about the strange mereology of OOO and DeLanda. There’s much in Jeremey’s post that I’m sympathetic to, though I wonder if he isn’t being somewhat unfair. Jeremy begins by remarking that,

Whenever we get into discussing mereology – the relation of parts to wholes – I get confounded. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but let me explain. Whenever we start talking about how wholes affect their parts I start to feel as if the explanations become magical in a way, as opposed to causal. For example, when De Landa says that social assemblages constrain and enable their components or that they can be thought of as creating a “space of possibilities” I ask, how do they do it? By what mechanism? De Landa himself says that he’s interested in causal explanations, but I can’t seem to find the causal mechanism for the kind of relationship between part and whole that he’s discussing.

Here I’m in agreement with Jeremy that discussions of the relationship between parts and wholes are underdetermined in DeLanda. DeLanda, like OOO theorists, wants to argue that wholes cannot exist without their parts, but that there’s an important sense in which they cannot be reduced to their parts. The trick is to formulate a theory of emergence that isn’t magical. In other words, when it’s argued that higher scale objects cannot be reduced to their parts what is to be avoided is the idea that something magical is taking place in the transition from smaller scale objects to larger scale objects.

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I’ve been behind the curve this week because I’ve been fighting a brutal cold and have barely been able to get out of bed. In the meantime some terrific posts related to the DeLanda reading group have appeared. Over at Digital Digs, Alex has a post up on chapter two of NPS. Over at Arhive Fire, Michael has introductory remarks up on his take on DeLanda. I’m really excited to see what Michael does with his later post. When I regain some of my cognitive capacity I hope to write a post expanding on what Alex and Michael have done in their posts. Next up is Mark over at Struggles With Philosophy.

On a somewhat related note, last night it occurred to me that DeLanda allows us to think about economy in a different way. Here I have in mind not only DeLanda, but McLuhan, Walter Ong, Bruno Latour, and Friedrich Kittler. As I argued in a prior post, for DeLanda relation always requires some sort of real connection or relation. It is necessary to show how things are genuinely related to treat them as genuine social organizations or structures. Again, this can be illuminated with respect to OOO. One way of approaching OOO (the traditional hermeneutic/deconstructive approach) would just look at the major claims of OOO as a philosophical theory or ontology. By contrast, an OOO approach to OOO would emphasize real connections among OOO theorists in the genesis and development of OOO. It would look at the networks formed, the technologies that allowed those networks to be formed, conference events, the circulation of certain books that influenced various thinkers, etc., etc., etc. Just as we might think of geographical drift and reproductive isolation in biology when seeking to understand the formation of a species over time, we would approach analysis of intellectual, political, styles, etc., as involving real material or “objectile” connections.

At any rate, the other day I found myself teaching Plato’s analogy of the divided line. I focused a great deal on the lowest level of Plato’s divided line (images), articulating the manner in which reflections in ponds, images in clouds, echoes, etc., all fall under the title of images in Plato, but also media of all sorts. Somehow I ended up talking about economy and it occurred to me that economy as we understand it in a modern context is impossible without communications technologies. The only reason that anything like “an economy” can exist is because there are communications technologies that link together diverse geographical regions around the globe, practices, forms of production, etc., allowing what takes place in China to have an impact on a small village in South America. Put differently, economy as we know it today has to be constructed. As is always the case, whenever the word “construction” is used in the context of OOO, assemblage theory, Latour, etc., we need to be careful to understand that this is not a synonym for “unreal” or “fictional”. Construction should resonate more with what engineers, carpenters, and computer programmers do, than with the idea of imaginary fabrication in a completely smooth space. I don’t yet know where to go with this idea that economy is constructed, but it seems like this should be an important or valuable insight in how we think about economic issues. At the very least, thinking about economy as a phenomenon where real relations must be built would go some of the way towards demystifying economy and avoiding any thought of economy as being akin to something like the “Holy Spirit”.

In other news, in the midst of my flu misery and fever induced ravings I picked up Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Calcida Jetha this week. I’m almost embarrassed to mention that I’ve been reading this book, but it is truly one of the most brutal critiques of contemporary sociobiology I’ve ever read and is leading me to rethink a number of my own (Hobbesian) assumptions about the nature of social relations (and by extension, some of my Lacanian assumptions about society as inherently riddled by antagonism). Ostensibly the book is devoted to refuting the thesis that monogamy and the nuclear family are “natural” and universal human institutions. Read the book description and you might get the impression that it’s a book making a case for free love (which it isn’t). However, the book is really about far more than this. A good deal of the book is devoted to the analysis of the impact that the shift from hunter/gatherer society to agriculture had on us collectively. This was already an issue that interests me deeply as a consequence of my forays in to Jared Diamond and Braudel (and here I think Scu needs to extend his indictment of meat production to agriculture in general). Ryan and Jetha really drive home the impact of the shift to agriculture on every aspect of society home.

Other great aspects of the book? It does a terrific job debunking misogynistic myths about female sexuality and patriarchy, as well as homosexuality. The authors see the function of sex not as reproduction, but rather as the formation of social relations or community (you have to read it to see how they arrive at this conclusion). From this perspective, homoerotic behavior loses its mystery from an evolutionary perspective. They also do a wonderful job tracing the strange diminished role of the bonobos in the sociobiological literature, the privilege of chimpanzees, and the manner in which Jane Goodall’s conclusions about the inherently violent nature of chimps might have resulted from some of her own research practices in relation to chimps. At any rate, if you have the opportunity to pick this book up, please consider doing so. It’s written in a gorgeous, easy going style, full of humor, and is well referenced with respect to sociobiology, evolutionary theory, and above all ethnography. It’s a book about sex, a book about relationships, a book about economics, a book about war, a book about who and what we are, and a book about many other things besides. It’s been a while since I encountered anything that caused me to rethink so many assumptions. It’s a bit expensive yet, but you can download it for 12.99 through iBooks or Kindle.

Steven emailed me this morning, reminding me of a post he had written on NPS a few years back. I agree with most of what he says here, with the exception of him lumping Luhmann into the group of thinkers that see the world in terms of relations of interiority. I’m less clear as to why DeLanda is unable to account for becoming and events (does the absence of a particular vocabulary preclude thinking these things?). I do, however, emphatically agree with Shaviro’s points about DeLanda and Marx. I’ve never quite understood DeLanda’s hostility to Marx as Marx strikes me as fitting very nicely with assemblage theory. As always, Shaviro’s post is a masterpiece of close reading and incisive critical commentary. Enjoy!

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