October 2010

My thoughts are a bit scattered this morning as I got little sleep last night, but nonetheless I wanted to underline something with respect to my last post. There I suggested that every system– where “system”, in my thought, is a synonym for “object” or “substance” –is haunted by entropy. Entropy measures the degree of disorder within a system. The short clip below gives a sense of the nature of entropy:

When the particles are first shot into the box they exist in a highly ordered state (i.e., they are strongly localized in the box). As a consequence, the particles begin with a very low degree of entropy, which is to say that there is a high probability that they will be found in one particular region of the box. As the system evolves, however, the degree of entropy or disorder within the system increases. It becomes more or less equally probable that the particles will be found anywhere within the system.

The claim that every social system faces the problem of entropy is the claim that every social system faces the question of how to maintain its organization over time. The relations that constitute a social system or object 1) establish or produce a low degree of entropy such that it is improbable that social actors will be found anywhere within the social system, and 2) are relations between external or independent objects. Take the geographical distribution of wealth in the city of Chicago. On the South Side you tend to find rather poor individuals, while on the North Side you find wealthy individuals. These concentrations represent a low degree of entropy insofar as the probability is low that you will find poor people evenly distributed throughout the city, just as the probability is rather low that you will find wealthy people evenly distributed throughout the city.

The mystery, then, for social and political thought, is why entropy doesn’t increase in such systems. With the passage of time, why doesn’t the distribution of poor and wealthy people become evenly distributed throughout the system. Put differently, what are the mechanisms at work within the social order that maintain a low degree entropy? Gratton maintains that our disagreement over structuralism is merely a disagreement over nomenclature. In short, the social and political theorist should begin with the premise that every social order is improbable.

Gratton likes the word “structure”, I prefer terms like “regimes of attraction” and “feedback loops”. However, I don’t think these are mere differences over nomenclature. Nowhere, among the great structuralist thinkers, will you find reference to anything like the problem entropy. The reason for this is very simple. As Derrida reminds us in Differance when discussing Saussure, structural relations are differential relations without positive terms. The phoneme “b” is literally nothing independent of the phoneme “p”. Or rather, we should say that there is no phoneme “b” or “p”, only the phoneme b/p constituted by internal differential relations. Such a thesis also holds for how Levi-Strauss analyzes kinship relations and myths, or how Althusser analyzes social structures.

However, if you begin from the premise that social relations are differential relations without positive terms, then you’ve already erased the problem of entropy. Why? Because there are no independent or positive terms being related that constantly threaten to fly apart increasingly the probability of distribution throughout the system overall. Because the being of the terms is already constituted entirely by the differential relations there is no issue of how a system maintains an improbable organization over time. It is only when you begin from the premise of a strange mereology where larger scale objects are composed of smaller scale objects that are themselves independent of the larger scale objects that they constitute that the problem of entropy or why the smaller scale objects don’t fly apart destroying the larger scale objects emerges.

The debate, then, is not whether or not there are patterns that reproduce themselves in time, but rather whether or not relations relate positive terms, terms that could be detached, or whether there are only negative or differentially constituted terms. If you take the first route, then the problem of entropy comes into full view and you’re faced with the mystery of how low probabilities of equal-distribution are maintained. If you take the latter route, the problem of entropy doesn’t appear at all as there are no independent terms that could fly apart. As a consequence, the latter route leads you to look for a “supplement”, “event”, “subject”, “act”, etc., because it’s impossible to conceive an immanent entropic dissolution of systems as there are no positive terms for a system to dissolve into. I’m not being unfair to the structuralists here– with whom I’ve worked obsessively for over a decade now in my research –but am taking them at their word with respect to the ontology that they themselves embrace.

In response to my post the other day, Mel worried that my thesis that every system or object is haunted by entropy might strike others as pessimistic. However, I think precisely the opposite is the case. The entropic dimension of every system entails that, as a matter of principle, every system can be dissolved, can be otherwise, can fall apart. Ontologically, then, there is no such thing as a natural social order (nor a “natural” natural object, if by “nature” one means “incapable of being otherwise”). Rather, every social order is a temporary victory over entropy that is perpetually threatened by dissolution. If the essence of ideology lies in treating as natural and therefore inevitable a historically contingent social order, then the entropic dimension of every social system marks the ruin of any inevitable or ineluctable social order. As such, the entropic dimension of every social system marks the ontological ground for revolutionary hope.

In the after panel discussions, one of the key questions that came up was that of how I account for the work that the concept of structure is trying to do.  It was Peter Gratton that raised this important and perfectly legitimate question (both in the Q&A following my talk and in subsequent conversations throughout the remainder of the day).  If I understood Peter’s question properly, the worry here is that of how we’re to account for how certain social patterns iterate and reproduce themselves across time and geography if wen dispense with the concept of structure.

I very much like Peter’s way of formulating the question, but for me it’s precisely these sorts of concerns that lead me to reject the concept of structure.  In my view, the problem with the concept of structure is that it tells us that there are patterns that reproduce themselves across time and space while telling us little in the way of how these patterns reproduce themselves.  As a consequence, structure comes to be treated as an agency in its own right, somehow doing things, without giving us much insight into how precisely structure does these things.  And in the absence of an exploded view schematic of how structure reproduces itself, we’re left with little in the way of an account of just how to engage structure.

Structuralism gets it right in recognizing that these patterns exceed the intentions of individual humans, functioning according to it’s own immanent principles, and that these patterns reproduce themselves across time and geography.  The problem is that the concept of structure (as well as the theoretical practice that accompanies it) ends up being purely descriptive, failing to illuminate any of the causal mechanisms through which structure does this.

The history of subsequent French thought would have been entirely different had it followed the path of cybernetics, rather than the descriptive formalism of figures like Levi-Strauss.  Like structuralism, cybernetics recognized that patterns iterate or reproduce themselves across time and geography.  Moreover, like structuralism, cybernetics argued that these systems function in ways that exceed human intentions.  Take the form of psychotherapy known as “Family Therapy”.  Family Therapy is deeply indebted to cybernetics, seeing the symptom that a patient suffers from not as something localized to that individual, but rather as a product of the family system as a whole.  Treating the symptom thus requires treating not the individual, but rather the family.

I’ll use myself as an example.  Increasingly I’ve become aware of what a pissy little troll I am.  I might go about complaining about the trollish behavior I encounter in others in relation to me, but my posts and comments are littered with snide little offhands that not surprisingly provoke snide behavior in others.  I don’t do this consciously or intentionally, but almost as a sort of tick.  What we have here then is a sort of symptom and we can ask why is it that I behave in ways to provoke conflict with other people when I find these conflicts so distressing.  The family therapist would look at the family setting as a whole, not just at the individual.  Thus, for example, perhaps my parents, despite having a very good relationship, were nonetheless prone to bickering.  In this system, it could be that my unpleasant system functioned as a feedback mechanism that diffused this sort of conflict.  In other words, by behaving in trollish and troublesome behavior conflict was directed my way rather than unfolding between my parents.

Another way of putting this would be that I functioned somewhat as a safety valve within this system, playing a role in how the system regulated and achieved equilibrium.  Now there are two points to note in this analysis (and I only offer it as a crude example to illustrate a concept, and not even something that is necessarily true):  first, the functioning of this system is independent of anyone involved.  For example, it wouldn’t be necessary for me to actually behave in trollish and provocative ways to serve this function.  My sister might scream, as we played with our legos, accusing me of pulling her hair or something when nothing like this happened.  As an element in this system I am situated within a certain functional framework a priori, such that that function can become operative regardless of what I actually do.  It is not necessarily the case that I unconsciously enact a particular action.  The unconscious, as Lacan suggests in his seminar on The Purloined Letter, belongs to the system as a whole, not the individual.

Second, and more importantly, the emphasis here, in contrast to structuralism, is on the system as a dynamic system that undergoes all sorts of operations or activities to maintain and reproduce themselves.  Rather than a mere description of relations as in the case of structuralism, we instead get relations constantly haunted by the spectre of entropy and which must therefore undergo certain operations to stave off entropy or dissolution.  The abstract name for these operations is negative and positive feedback.  Negative feedback, somewhat counter-intuitively, refers to self-regulating mechanisms that return a system back to a state of equilibrium.  In the example above, the parents bicker threatening the family system with entropic dissolution, the child acts up redirecting marital conflict to the child as a problem, and the system returns back to equilibrium with everyone assuming their roles.  Here the acting up of the child occasions the negative feedback that allows the system to correct itself and stave off entropy for another day.  Positive feedback, by contrast, refers to sequences where systems spiral out of control, falling into entropy and ultimately destroying themselves.  A blog debate, for example, might get so intense and heated that it leads to the dissolution of relations between blogs that hitherto existed.  An old system dies, new ones are born.  Entropy has had it’s day.

Cybernetics has its problems and systems thought has progressed quite a bit since the early innovations of cybernetics, but its example, when contrasted with structuralism is still instructive.  Within the framework of cybernetics, systems are dynamic, entropy is a problem that faces any structure of relations, the emphasis is on the mechanisms and processes by which a system staves off entropy, and elements of a system can always be detached from the system (i.e., entropy can set in).  In my view, this conceptual space is far more valuable than structuralist orientations insofar as it doesn’t merely give us a description, but instead gives us what Bogost calls an “exploded view” map of processes and elements while perpetually recognizing the entropy that haunts every system.  The fact that every system is haunted by entropy, deflates the appeal of concepts like the Subject or the Event precisely because every iterating system of relations is already a multiplicity.

In my own work, I have thus proposed that we replace the rather crude concept of structure with the concept of “regimes of attraction”.  The concept of regimes of attraction does all the work that Gratton thinks the concept of structures does, without falling into abstract descriptivism that ignores mechanisms through which structure (re)produces itself and the constant threat of entropy.  By analogy to biology, structuralism is like vitalistic preformism that thinks a fertilized egg already contains the completely formed adult entity the egg will become, whereas the concept of refines of attraction is capable of explaining how pluripotent cells can take on determinate functions through their locality and interaction gradually building a body that was in no way there to begin with.  Open to an environment, constantly threatened by entropy, and composed of discrete and independent units, the concept of regimes of attraction draws attention to how structures are multiplicities of activity, how they are built, and above all where their weak points might reside.

What, then, is a regime of attraction?  A regime of attraction accounts for how discrete, autonomous, and independent entities are nonetheless drawn into basins of attraction that restrict the freedom of movement that virtually belongs to that unit.  A basin of attraction is anoint towards which an entity or process trends as a result of feedback relations to other entities or processes.  For example, if you roll a marble down the side of a bowl it will roll up and down the sides of the bowl until gravity finally brings it to rest somewhere in the bottom of the point.  The range of places where the marble can come to rest is the marble’s basin of attraction for this system (there will be other basins of attraction for the marble in different systems; hence my distinction between exo-relation, local manifestation, and virtual proper being).  Likewise if you are born poor it is likely that you will grow up to be poor, just as if you are born wealthy, it is likely that you will grow up to be wealthy.  Poverty and wealth are basins of attraction for individuals (and there are many, many other basins of attraction forming a virtual phase space for each of us), towards which individuals are drawn in their lives.  A regime of attraction is a field of feedback relations among entities and processes in an a network that organizes these basins of attraction drawing things in one direction rather than another.  The important point is that every regime of attraction is haunted by entropy, by the threat of dissolution, rendering it far from ineluctable and challenging every basin of attraction.  Mapping these regimes of attraction or feedback processes allows us to locate those weak links where an increase in entropy for a system is possible, thereby challenging basins of attraction.    

At the moment I’m sitting at the Albuquerque airport so I can’t go into too much detail on this question, but I did want to get some thoughts down in zeros and ones while they’re still fresh in my mind. The flat ontology of OOO already implies a very different form of theory and practice because it argues for the ontological equality, the equal-being, of all types of entities. Two things follow from this experiment: First, we can no longer treat “artificial” entities like groups, for example, as being less real than natural entities like trees are stars. If OOO is promiscuous, then this is because it argues that all of these entities are equally entities. Second, it follows as a consequence that we can’t speak of one type of entity overdetermining all others. The extreme poles of atomistic reductive materialism (Lucretius) or full blown linguistic idealism are both rejected by OOO. The point here is subtle. As I’ve argued in my last couple posts, one thing OOO aims for is the thinking of heterogeneous compositions. In response to this particular hypothesis, the fantastic Matthew Rigliano, who is, like myself, of a Lacanian bent, worried that I am rejecting the important role played by language or the symbolic in the social world. However, this is not at all what object oriented critical theory is up to. The point is not to exclude language, but to recognize that language plays only a role. Language remains as an important actor, but as one actor among many. The point then is to expand analysis.

OOO thus walks a razor’s edge between reductive materialism and hardcore culturalism. Itnearns the ire of the reductive materialists by arguing that therenare entities that simply aren’t material, but which are no less real for all that, while arguing that the materialists are right about the reality of atoms.. It earns the hostility of culturalists by arguing that there are entities that aren’t cultural constructions, while arguing that cultural constructions are entirely real.. OOO will clearly get it from all sides.

OOO wouldnargue that Jarod Diamond and Hans Enzenberger are both absolutely right and absolutely wrong. Diamond is right to point out the role that geography played in giving various cultures the flavor they have. He is wrong to ignore roles that actors, laws, texts, human decisions, etc, play in these assemblages. Enzenberger is right to point out that certain political decisions played a profound role in the undemocratic media environment to emerge around radio (the laws against citizen journalism), but wrong to ignore the manner in which radio itself is an actor that transforms humans and human relationships as well. In other words, OOO inconstantly emphasizing the heterogeneity of actors in these compositions and the need to think their interplay without subordinating one type of object to another.

Wouldntyis entail that OOO is dialectical, thinking the unity of opposites? No, because dialectical thought is premised on the internal relation of these entities, whereas OOO argues that entities are always detachable. Time to run.

In my view, one of the most boorish behaviors of academics in the humanities (at least among many of the Continentalists I encounter) is the tendency to transform every disagreement into misinterpretation. The move is ubiquitous. Person X says thinker Y is mistaken for reason Z. Respondent R then says X just hasn’t understood Y. What follows is then a long, patronizing lecture on what Y really meant that loses the stakes of the discussion altogether and which instead becomes a discussion about Y rather than about the issue. It is likely that this is one of the behaviors that partially accounts for the general disrespect theorists in the humanities receive, and indeed is perhaps one of the reasons humanities funding is drying up. It is not texts or thinkers that are important, but what texts are about that’s important. Too many of us, however, behave in exactly the opposite way. We lose the issue for the text and master.

Descartes is an exemplary model of what we should instead strive for. One might retort that Descartes was himself steeped in the history of philosophy as a result of his Jesuit training, and this would indeed be true. However, this makes my point. A commentary on that tradition doesn’t appear in his texts. Descartes assumes his audience is educated, that they are familiar with this tradition, and gets down to work. He forthrightly makes claims and it’s possible to directly argue against those claims.

In this ways Descartes proceeds like a scientist or engineer. He doesn’t give us a commentary on the works of great scientists or engineers, but simply proceeds to get down to work. In this regard it is perfectly legitimate to cite the work of others and to critically engage with that work, but the work itself shouldn’t be about these other thinkers. Instead, too many of us in the humanities behave as if the interesting project lies in showing how the fuel injected engine was made possible by the aerosol spray apparatus of the perfume bottle. We delight in showing how everything can be traced back to some previous thinker. For example, rather than addressing Descartes’ project we instead talk about how Augustine said “I think therefore I am” as if this is somehow relevant (hint, many recipes use the ingredients used in other recipes, but the recipes nonetheless produce very different things). For the engineer, by contrast, the interesting question is wether perfume aerosol sprays allow us to build good fuel injected engines. We’re all guilty of this sort of boorishness, myself included, but does it come as any surprise that so many are loath to talk to us when we’re continuously changing the subject by demanding extended exegesis only to conclude this detour to discover that the extended exegesis confirms the pithy summary we began with? If we’re to be relevant we need to stop this.

In yesterday’s post I discussed hetergeneous compositions as one of the key concepts of flat ontology. In many respects, this is one of the reasons that many of the object-oriented ontologists are hesitant, or outrightly hostile, to the appellation of “materialism”. Graham rejects the term altogether. Bogost and I are fairly willing to embrace the appellation with qualification. I’m not sure where Morton stands here. If there’s hesitation over this term, this is because materialisms tend to endorse the ontological priority of one type of entity over all others– for example, indivisible atoms as conceived by Lucretius –whereas the heterontology of flat ontology argues for the existence of a plurality of different types of entities ranging from atoms to fennel to institutions, signs, works, artistic artifacts and so on. OOO doesn’t wish to restrict the variety of entities we find in the world, treating all other entities as derivative of some foundational sort of entity such as atoms or language or intentions of a transcendental subject, but rather to expand the domain of what counts as an entity, a genuinely real being, and to think of interactions among these entities in a composition.

Ian Bogost underlines this point with his invention of the Latour Litanizer as a tool for generating heterogeneous lists of entities. Bogost’s Latour Litanizer draws on Wikipedia to generate random lists of entities. Of the Litanizer, Bogost writes:

In these lists we find people, places, organizations, ideas, fictions, groups, media, durations, and even other lists. By divorcing the author and reader from the selection process, the litanizer amplifies both the variety of types of units that exist and variety of alliances between them. The diversity and density of tiny ontology seeps out from these litanies, both individually and (especially) when taken together (Alien Phenomenology)

The value that Ian seems to discern in Latour’s lists lies in the manner in which it reminds us of “the diversity and density” of being. There’s thus a way in which Latour litanies function somewhat like Husserl’s transcendental epoche or, in a very different vein, Descartes’ radical doubt. Husserl’s epoche invites us to suspend believe in the independent existence of entities in the world so as to focus solely on how entities are given in sense-bestowing intentionality (the property of being conscious of something and the how of that consciousness). Likewise, Descartes’ radical doubt invites us to doubt everything so as to determine that of which we can be truly certain. Like a fantastic and bizarre work of fiction such as Ben Marcus’s sublime and inscrutable Age of Wire and String, the Latour Litanizer confronts us with bizarre assemblages of entities reminding us of the strangeness of being.

Here, for perhaps the first time in the history of philosophy, we have a non-human technology (which is, of course, bound up with humans) doing genuine philosophical work. By removing the theorist from the production of the list, our ontological prejudices or preferences, which focus on particular types of entities are suspended, and we are confronted with the disturbing density and variety of being. I hit the “generate” button and am rewarded with the following:

Achatinella abbreviata, Artificial immune system, Veselin Duho, Gampopa, Ubexy

I hit the button again and am confronted with the following impossible set:

Nice to Be Around (Maureen McGovern album), United States government role in civil aviation, Harald Nilsen, Winslow-Turner Carriage House, Ayapanopsis luteynii, Ragnar Larsen, Ptarmigan Island

Never before has thought been provoked or disturbed by such bewildering arrays of entities. Never before has philosophy been disturbed by such diversity.

The point here is not to suggest that all these elements belong together, to suggest that they can form a stable or consistent composition. No, the point is to force ourselves to confront the bewildering diversity of what exists. Us philosophers, us theorists, have a rather nasty habit of referring to things like “the object”, “the subject”, “matter”, etc. There are those, often of a Hegelian bent, that see the example as beneath the splendor of philosophical thought, as a failure to achieve “the concept”. However, the truth of the matter is that “the concept” is always, in its practical deployment, a disguised example. Adopting a pretentious rhetoric of the pure concept independent of all empirical or particularist contamination, the theorist claims to be thinking the “as such” of “the object”, “the subject”, “matter”, etc., claiming to get at that which is common to all objects, all subjects, all matter, and so on. Yet, lurking within the latent text of the theorist’s manifest text is always a privileged example of “the object”, “the subject”, “matter as such” that comes to serve as the prototype of all objects, subjects, and matter. The Latour Litanizer spells the ruin of this covert deployment of a prototype by confronting us with a heterontology.

Along these lines, Peter Gratton and I were yesterday discussing what we both see as a shortcoming of contemporary French social and political theory. Wouldn’t it be nice, we wondered, to see the disappearance of terms like “the subject” (Badiou, Zizek), “the event” and so on, instead returning to Sartre’s talk of groups, collectives, solidarities, groups in fusion, seriality, and subject-groups in the Critique of Dialectical Reason? Certain concepts inhibit thought and cause more problems than they solve. When Badiou evokes the concept of the subject, he, no doubt, wishes to evoke “the subject of history”. For example, the proletariat. The problem here is two-fold: First, the term nontheless draws thought ineluctably to individuals, drawing it away from the thinking of collectives. Second, talk of the subject tends to render the internal challenges of forming collectives, of forming consistent compositions that manage to exist in the world for a time opaque and invisible. Such practical challenges become entirely invisible.

The issue is similar with the recently fashionable turn to talk about the Event and Act. There is something messianic in this sort of talk, indicative of a yearning for a non-contaminated pure and free point within assemblages that somehow detaches or subtracts itself the messiness of the world and therefore attains an Archimedean point free of ideology. Again, the problem here is that it draws our attention away from the nuts and bolts of situations, how these compositions are structured and organized. Instead we fetishize an “evental declaration” or a Bartleby-like act and say to hell with any concrete analysis or understanding of situations. We sure as hell don’t engage in the sort of careful historical analysis that Marx develops in Capital or that Diamond develops in Guns, Germs, and Steel, or that Foucault develops in his later work.

What we need, by contrast, as a practice based on what Bogost, in Alien Phenomenology, refers to as an exploded view. We’re all familiar with exploded view schematics. Whenever you get a new piece of furniture from, say, Ikea, you get an exploded view schematic of the furniture that you’re to put together in the form of a diagram that shows how all the parts fit together. Exploded view schematics show how things are put together. And in knowing something about how things are put together you also learn both where the weak parts of that composition lie and what points need to be strengthened.

One crucial point to note is that exploded view schematics are absolutely specific. They don’t speak in generalities like “capitalism” or “racism” or “sexism” or “grills”, but rather of how this particular composition is put together. Like the Latour Litanizer, they thus draw us out of the scholars study where we speak like ignorant boobs about “capitalism” so that we might see how this capitalism is organized in, say, the city of Chicago. Peter Hallward’s exemplary Damning the Flood is an exemplary case of an exploded view of how capitalism function in Haiti. And because Hallward takes the time to map the Haiti situation in an exploded view diagram, we also become capable of what nodes within this assemblage need to be engaged and targeted. We don’t run around talking like apes saying “if you live here you’re from here!” (a nice sentiment, but what practical work does it do?), but instead target the nuts and bolts themselves in ways that allow us to really work to insure that if you do indeed live here it is guaranteed that you’re from here.

This brings me back to my talk about collectives with Gratton last night. As anyone who has ever done administrative work, organized a conference, or who has worked with others who share roughly analogous theoretical commitments in the work of movement building knows, collectives are hard work. The joke that’s been floated about for the last year is that forming collectives is like herding cats.

Collectives are assemblages of diverse actors, all milling about in different directions. These assemblages don’t simply consist of humans. No, they involve resources, materials, material infrastructures like power lines, buildings, staplers, paper, roads, etc. In this connection, a conversation during lunch yesterday made my jaw drop. Within the context of a heated debate about Levi-Strauss’s focus on the semiotic, on the domain of sense (and no, pointing out that he refers to nonsense is irrelevant to this point as nonsense is still a signifying determination in this structuralist model, i.e., a point about how language functions and generates sense), I remarked that when you look at live-time maps of internet traffic in the United States you notice that internet traffic comes almost entirely from the major cities and the coasts. In short, these maps also show us the distribution of internet infrastructure throughout the country. To this one of my dear friends remarked sarcastically “yeah, that’s the problem”. Well yes, I’m afraid, in part it is the problem. This exploded view map of internet infrastructure also maps on to political distributions in the United States. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels note that one of the key contradictions in the capitalism of their time is the opposition between the city and the countryside, industry and agriculture. This exploded view schematic teaches us much the same thing, showing us how particular forms of politics map on to particular forms of infrastructure. The absence of readily available internet technologies creates a structure in which the people of rural regions only encounter those who share their own views. The only access is to people in church, at school, in the workplace such as it is, the local bar, etc.

Am I suggesting that making wi-fii freely available to all and that providing the infrastructure where this freely available wi-fii is a reality and not just an abstraction suddenly solves all our political problems? No. These technologies are only a component in a complex assemblage. However, just as having a child completely transforms your previous patterns of life, generating all sorts of deterritorializations, the introduction of such infrastructure surely introduces all sorts of new deterritorializations in such a context. The point is that these actors in a collective are not a matter of ideology, the signifier, norms, etc., and that so long as we focus almost exclusively on these things, these other actors become invisible to us. Are they imbricated with norms, signifiers, ideologies, and so on? Yes. The garlic in your pasta is imbricated with tomatoes, oregano, wine, etc., etc., etc. But these other actors introduce their own specific differences that deserve their own mode of analysis.

The advantage of thinking in terms of collectives and composition is that we focus on the work involved in producing solidarity and alliances… Solidarities and alliances that aren’t just solidarities and alliances between human beings, but where we also have to think about very concrete and basic things like how persons struggling for similar things despite the fact of being separated by hundreds of miles can communicate, interact, and coordinate despite this distance so that something of a collective entity can iterate itself or reproduce itself through time. All of this becomes invisible with baboon talk about events, truth-procedures, acts, and subjects.

Check it out, Tim has the mp3 of our panel posted here.

The RMMLA in Albuquerque New Mexico has been fantastic this year. Of the many panels I’ve attended, there’s been discussions of OOO on each, which lots of terrific discussion after the sessions. In the responses to my paper (forthcoming, I believe, in the next issue of Speculations) I noticed that there was a strong tendency towards exclusionary binary thinking. I can’t go into too much detail at the moment as I’m heading out to meet Bogost, Morton and others soon, but one of the targets of my paper was forms of social and political analysis that focus on ideology, signifiers, representation, norms, and so on. In short, I was critizing the tendency of Continental social and political theory to privilege anything that has to do with text and meaning. In my experience, a number of my fellow Continentalists are not even aware that they are doing this, and have a hard time thinking about factors that don’t fall into the domain of the textual and meaning. I suspect this has something to do, as Ian argued in his talk and the brilliant forthcoming Alien Phenomenology, with the fact that we academics p in the humanities primarily deal with text and therefore come to experience texts, meaning, arguments, concepts, ideas, and so on as the only things that are real or important.

In some of the responses to my talk, I got the sense that others thought I’m dismissing texts, meanings, concepts, etc altogether. This, I think, misses the basic idea of flat ontology. Flat ontology is not an attempt to limit the types of entities we can appeal to explain things, but to Expand the types of entities we appeal to to explain things. The point is not to reject signs, texts, meanings, norms, and so on, but to make room for a discussion of the role played by other entities as well.

Flat ontology thus invites cultural theorists to think in terms of compositions. According to dictionary.com, a composition is,

1. the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole.
2. the resulting state or product.
3. manner of being composed; structure: This painting has an orderly composition.
4. makeup; constitution: His moral composition was impeccable.
5. an aggregate material formed from two or more substances: a composition of silver and tin.

In short, compositions are about mixtures of heterogeneous materials. The problem with so much contemporary social and political theory, it lacks this dimension of heterogeneous composition. For example, signifiers or ideology are treated as the sole glue that holds the social together. If you press the theorist, of course, they will concede that technologies, infrastructure like roads and power lines, availability of resources, weather patterns that influence harvest, etc, play a role. The problem, however, is that this acknowledgment does not appear in their theoretical practice.

To illustrate what I’m getting at, we might talk about race relations in the United States. It is notable that race relations are also reflected geographically in how populations of blacks and whites are distributed in terms of where they live. Statistically you find African-Americans concentrated in the cities, whereas you find whites in the suburbs. It wasn’t, however, always this way. If one wasn’t a farmer then he lived in the city, regardless of whether the person was white or black. What changed?

Theorists like Homi Bhabha or Spivake would tell us a story about the play of differance in the signifier generating discrete, oppositional identities and this is indeed part of the story. Here the signifier is the agency that accounts for these racial oppositions and therefore the most important target of critique. However, this story about the play of the signifier doesn’t give any insight as to why this statistical geographical distribution began to unfold at precisely this point in history.

For my part, I believe the refrigerator played an important role in generating new racial relations in the United States. Why? Prior to the refrigerator people faced the problem of the perishability of food. This necessitated living close to local markets so that you could go daily to get food. Unless you were a largely self-sufficient farmer, you therefore, by necessity, had to live in the cities if you were an office worker or industrial worker. With the advent of the refrigerator it became possible to buy perishable food for a week or more, thereby allowing for the birth of the suburbs. No doubt, racist ideologies played an important role in white flight, but notice that racism also begins to take on new forms and content as a result of these new geographical distributions.

I am not, of course, suggesting that this analysis is exhaustive or that the refrigerator is the cause of racism. The point of this example is to draw attention to the sort of complex interplays flat ontology wants to talk about and analyze. OOO wants to be capable of simultaneously engage in the sorts of analyses that theorists while Bhabha, Spivak, and Zizek engage in while also talking about technologies, resources, weather, biology, etc. OOO theorists think like cooks. Just as it would be absurd to say that the garlic causes the pasta sauce, it is absurd to suggest that it is the ideology or signifier causes racism. Garlic is a component in a composition that also includes the cook, temperatures, herbs, tomatoes, the stirring of the sauce, etc, all interacting with one another. Racism is a composition that involves signifiers, geographical distributions, infrastructure and how it restricts and enables access, technologies, persons, institutions, etc. We need a theory rich enough to think heterogeneous compositions in action that doesn’t produce counter-productive myopia arising from privileging one component of a composition to the detriment of a variety of other components. This means that we must become truly multi-disciplinary, learning about economics, geography, semiotics, history, technology, linguistics, etc. This is, to be sure, a lot of work, but it’s payoff is that it allows us to discern those key nodes and actors in networks where the introduction of new actants can have a profound impact on the composition as a whole. Critique and decoding is not enough. Sometimes simply building a road or making wi-fii universally available for free can initiate sequences of becoming that profoundly transform social relations.

Time to run.

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