September 2010


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!

Over at Eidetic Illuminations, Jeremy Trombley discusses how he’s viewing DeLanda through a more critical lens. Alex, over at Digital Digs, discusses genre as an assemblage. Circling Squares discusses DeLanda’s realism, the reflexivity of the social, and real relation. If I’ve missed anyone please post here so I can update!

The Art History of Games talks are now available on youtube. I’m fascinated with how they talk about and theorize games.

In this post my aim is just to outline the general features of DeLanda’s assemblage theory as presented in the first chapter of A New Philosophy of Society with little in the way of critical commentary or questions. Here I want to get a clear picture of what he sees as the central features of assemblage theory and how it differs from other social theories.

1. Relations of Exteriority versus Relations of Interiority:

DeLanda begins chapter 1 with the declaration that we must removed the entrenched metaphor of society as an organism. Within the organismic metaphor, society is compared to the human body, such that 1) all parts are dependent on one another, and 2) all parts (institutions) work together like organs in an organism to promote the harmony of society as a whole. Here it is notable that this conception of relations between parts is not restricted to organismic conceptions of society, but also to structuralist conceptions of society. The key thesis shared by these orientations is that parts have no existence or being apart from the whole to which they belong. Thus, for example, when we talk about a sound in language, we cannot say that “b” has an existence of its own independent of other sounds in language, but rather that “b” exists only in a phonemic relation with other sounds: b/p. The concept of structure is such that elements have no independent existence apart from their relations. As a consequence, elements are their relations within an organismic or structuralist conception of the social world.

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In the comments section to one of my earlier posts, Dana expresses some reservations about my recent references to happiness in the context of Freud and Lacan. As Dana writes in her/his insightful and generous comment:

I’m confused by your insistence on the promotion of happiness in relation to psychoanalysis, only because I’ve encountered so many instances of Freud, Lacan, and analysts I’ve actually spoken with explicitly stating that this is NOT the goal of psychoanalysis. Lacan often associates it with (American) egoism and I’m sure you remember Freud’s famous definition of the ‘cure’ of neurosis as granting the ability to experience common misery. Perhaps ‘happiness’ is referred to here in a different context?

This is all quite right. Psychoanalysis does not promise or promote happiness as its therapeutic end. However, I do think it’s important to ask some questions as to what psychoanalysis might be getting at in rejecting “happiness”. Central, I think, to psychoanalysis’ rejection of happiness as a therapeutic goal would be the insight that what dominant culture proposes as “happiness” is often a source of great suffering, indeed the origin of a variety of symptoms, for the subject. In part, this would be because what the social world we live in proposes to us as a source of happiness can often involve a betrayal of desire. For example, consumerism and settling down in the suburbs, starting a family, and devoting one to creating the most beautiful lawn on the block might very well amount to a betrayal of the ethical core of the subject’s desire. At the level of the pleasure principle, these things might all be very “enjoyable”, providing a number of gratifications, but insofar as they involve a betrayal of the subject’s desire, they can lead to overwhelming guilt and the production of all sorts of symptoms (and here we might think of the compulsive nature of the consumerist lifestyle, the manner in which it often seems to be searching for something it can never find, as well as the low-grade alcoholism and depression that seems to haunt this way of life).

In this connection, I’m reminded of the title of Lacan’s nineteenth seminar, …ou pire. …or worse. Part of the point of Lacan’s title seems to be that a repression of desire– in the specific Lacanian sense not to be confused with appetite –is that the outcome of this repression is worse than an acknowledgment of the desire itself. Living one’s desire might entail great hardship, suffering, and struggle, it might entail all sorts of grief and sacrifice, but Lacan’s point seems to be that the alternative is worse. That which is repressed always returns. Consequently, within a Freudo-Lacanian framework, a life characterized by arete or excellence, a life characterized by eudaimonia— which we inadequately translate as “happiness” –would be a life that, as Lacan will put it in his later seminars, “identifies with its symptom”. (And here I should add that a number of Lacanian analysts have very little patience with Zizek’s romantic picture of desire, traversing the fantasy, and above all his characterization of the Kantian moral law. They see the ravages of this sadistic moral law every day in their consulting room).

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