November 2010


In A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, Joseph Catalano writes:

For Sartre, the reality of class is more than a subjective awareness that we are united with others and less than a supraconsciousness in which we all already share… We… experience [my emphasis] our membership in a class, because our class structure already exists as a fundamental structure of our world. (135 – 136)

From an object-oriented perspective, this is already the wrong way to theorize the existence of class. If class exists, it is not an experience or the result of an experience (though it can, perhaps, be experienced), nor is it dependent on individual persons identifying with a class. Rather, classes are entities in their own right. In mereological terms, classes would be larger scale objects that are autonomous or independent of the smaller scale objects from which they are composed.

As such, class would be an example of what Timothy Morton has called a “hyperobject”. As Morton puts it,

…hyperobjects are viscous—they adhere to you no matter how hard to try to pull away, rendering ironic distance obsolete. Now I’ll argue that they are also nonlocal. That is, hyperobjects are massively distributed in time and space such that any particular (local) manifestation never reveals the totality of the hyperobject.

When you feel raindrops falling on your head, you are experiencing climate, in some sens [sic.]. In particular you are experiencing the climate change known as global warming. But you are never directly experiencing global warming as such. Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events—which will increase as global warming takes off—will you find global warming.

As a hyperobject, classes are massively distributed in time and space, having no precise location. Moreover, classes are withdrawn from other objects– e.g., the people that “belong” to a particular class –such that we can be entirely unaware of the existence of classes without this impinging, in any way, on the existence or activity of class. Indeed, it is precisely because classes, like any other object, are withdrawn, precisely because they are hyperobjects massively distributed in time and space, that ideology is able to convince us that classes don’t exist or that there are only “individuals” (mid-scale objects of which persons are an instance) that create their own destinies. Here, of course, the term “individual” is placed in scare quotes not because individuals don’t exist, but rather because the term “individual” all too often functions as code for persons, ignoring the fact that individuals exist at a variety of different levels of scale. In other words, a class is no less an individual than Jack Abramoff.

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From an object-oriented point of view, one of the most valuable concepts in Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is that of antipraxis. As Joseph Catalano describes it in his Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason,

One of the distinctive aspects of praxis is that it acts in the face of an authorless counterpraxis. Thus, Sartre here examines: (1) how matter becomes totalized by receiving human finalities; (2) how totalized matter then has finalities of its own; (3) how one aspect of the distinctiveness of our history is that these new finalities are counterfinalities, that is, they act against our original intentions; and (4) how certain powerless groups suffer from these counter-finalities and how others use them for their own finalities. (121)

One of the central questions of Sartre’s Critique is that of how societies emerge as entities in their own right from and through individuals. That is, why is it that collectives of people (to be distinguished from groups) take on the specific form and organization they take on at a particular point in history. From an object-oriented perspective, this would be the question of how larger scale objects emerge from smaller scale objects. Part of Sartre’s answer to this question resides in the concept of antipraxis.

Put simply, antipraxis refers to results of our praxis, products of the manner in which we have worked over matter, that then take on a life of their own escaping our own intentions and aims. Latour will make a similar point later on in his “sociology of associations” developed in Reassembling the Social. There Latour will point out that it is not signs and intentions alone that account for the fabric of society, but rather that people are held together in particular ways through nonhuman objects that come to structure our action, field of choices, aims, intentions, and so on. This thesis is developed with particular clarity in Pandora’s Hope in the article entitled A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans. Like the trail left behind by a snail, antipraxis is a residue of praxis that comes to transform the nature of praxis, introducing new aims that were not our original aims.

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In the first section of his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant remarks that “[n]othing in the world– indeed nothing even beyond the world –can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will” (393). What, then, is a good will according to Kant? Later Kant goes on to remark that,

…the first proposition of morality is that to have genuine moral worth, an action must be done from duty. The second proposition is: An action done from duty does not have its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim whereby it is determined. Its moral value, therefore, does not depend upon the realization of the object of action but merely on the principle of the volition by which the action is done irrespective of the objects of the faculty of desire…

The third principle, as a consequence of the two preceding, I would express as follows: Duty is the necessity to do an action from respect for law. (399 – 400)

For Kant, then, it is the intention that animates an action that determines whether or not the action is an action of a good will, not the consequences that follow from the action. Regardless of whether or not the action produces happy consequences the action is an action of a good will if it is done for the sake of duty alone. Likewise, it is not my desire to produce a better world, insure that my daughter has opportunities, etc., that determines whether or not the action is an action of a good will, but rather whether the action is done for the sake of duty alone.

It is crucial to understand that for Kant we do not arrive at our duties extraneously (or in Kant-speak, “heteronomously”) through education, sacred texts, etc., but rather through reason. Our duties both arise from reason and are given to us through reason. Our duties thus do not come to us from the outside as in the case of a monarch giving his people certain laws. Rather, our duties are given to us by our own reason. We are both the authors of the moral law, the legislators, and our own judges. For Kant, the vocation of reason lies in the formulation of such moral laws. To demonstrate this thesis, Kant presents a rather dated argument from design. As Kant writes,

In the natural constitution of an organized being (i.e., one suitably adapted to life), we assume as an axiom that no organ will be found for any purpose which is not the fittest and best adapted to that purpose. Now if its preservation, its welfare, in a word its happiness, were the real end of nature in a being having reason and will, then nature would have hit upon a very poor arrangement in appointing the reason of the creature to be the executor of this purpose. For all the actions which the creature has to perform with this intention of nature, and the entire rule of his conduct, would be dictated much more exactly by instinct, and the end would be far more certainly attained by instinct than it ever could be by reason. And if, over and above this, reason should have been granted to the favored creature, it would have served only to let him contemplate the happy constitution of his nature, to admire it, to rejoice in it, and to be grateful for it to its beneficent cause. But reason would not have been given in order that the being should subject his faculty of desire to that weak and delusive guidance and to meddle with the purpose of nature. In a word, nature would have taken care that reason did not break forth into practical use [moral use] nor have the presumption, with its weak insight, to think out for itself the plan of happiness and the means of attaining it. Nature would have taken over the choice not only of ends but also of the means, and with wise foresight she would have entrusted both to instinct alone. (395)

In the preceding paragraphs Kant shows all the ways in which reason is poorly suited for achieving happiness, and how it even generates unhappiness when exercised (Kant will make this point even more forcefully in the Critique of Practical Reason, where he suggests that the more we obey the moral law the more demanding it becomes, thereby anticipating the Freudian concept of the superego and pointing the way to an account of why those who strive to be moral are often wracked with the greatest sense of guilt). The argument is thus that because every organ is designed for a purpose that is well suited to exercising a particular function, and because reason is poorly suited for producing happiness, the vocation of our faculty of reason is not happiness, welfare, or survival, but rather morality.

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One way of reading a philosopher is not so much in terms of the letter of what the text says, but rather in terms of the problem to which that text responds. This was the reading method that Deleuze prescribed. Many are familiar with Deleuze’s description of the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery, but elsewhere he says something, I think, far more profound. In his interview “On Philosophy”, Deleuze remarks that,

The history of philosophy isn’t a particularly reflective discipline. It’s rather like portraiture in painting. Producing mental, conceptual portraits. As in painting, you have to create a likeness, but in a different material: the likeness is something you have to produce, rather than a way of producing anything (which comes down to just repeating what a philosopher says). Philosophers introduce new concepts, they explain them, but they don’t tell us, not completely anyway, the problems to which those concepts are a response. Hume, for example, sets out a novel concept of belief, but he doesn’t tell us how and why the problem of knowledge presents itself in such a way that knowledge is seen as a particular kind of belief. The history of philosophy, rather than repeating what a philosopher says, has to say what he must have taken for granted, what he didn’t say but is nonetheless present in what he did say. (Negotiations, 136)

While a “problematic reading” of a text everywhere grapples with the letter of the text, such a reading nonetheless looks for something that is everywhere present in the text but which the text does not itself say. Put a bit differently, a problematic reading seeks the horizon, the problematic field, that render the concepts invented by a philosopher as solutions. Such a reading strives to reconstruct the problem that renders a particular constellation of concepts intelligible as solutions.

This point cannot be repeated or emphasized enough. The problem to which the concepts of a philosophical text respond nowhere is articulated in the text. Even when a philosophical text says something like “the problem to which this essay responds is…”, the problem that the text articulates, the “intra-textual” articulation of the problem, is not the problem to which the constellation of concepts inhabiting the text intra-textually responds. The problem is not that. Or, put differently, a problematic reading must even account for the problematic field that leads the philosophical text to articulate its problem in this way. Put in terms of object-oriented ontology, then, the problem that inhabits a text is always withdrawn from the text.

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In my last post I mentioned that Joe Hughes, Jeff Bell and I are drawing up plans for a book on social and political philosophy and ontology. It seems to me that Sartre poses the nature of the question we’ll try to address. In the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre remarks that “…man [sic.] is mediated by things to the same extent as things are ‘mediated’ by man [sic.]” (79). In this regard, Sartre repeats, in his own way, Marx’s famous thesis that “men [sic.] make history, but not in conditions of their own making.” Sartre provides a gorgeous example of how things mediate humans to the same degree that humans mediate things later in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Is Sartre remarks,

In his excellent book, Mumford says: ‘Since the steam engine requires constant care on the part of the stoker and engineer, steam power was more efficient in large units than in small ones… Thus steam power fostered the tendency toward large industrial plants…” I do not wish to question the soundness of these observations, but simply to note the strange language– language which has been ours since Marx and which we have no difficulty in understanding –in which a single proposition links finality to necessity so indissolubly that it is impossible to tell any longer whether it is man or machine which is a practical project. (159 – 160)

Is it humans that define the telos of producing large industrial plants, or is it the specific properties of steam engines that generate the aim of producing large industrial plants? In a manner that will later be repeated by Stiegler in Time and Tecnics, Sartre will suggest that the technological realm takes on a teleology of its own.

In this connection, Sartre will set up a dialectic between praxis and antipraxis. Antipraxis refers to the inertia of the nonhuman realm and the manner in which it comes to structure human relationships and possibilities. One of Sartre’s questions, according to Joseph Catalano in A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles is the question of “…’the condition for the possibility’ of human relations” (22). Because Sartre advocates a metaphysical nominalism in which only individuals exist, he’s obligated to account for how social relations emerge. Among Sartre’s answers is the concept of antipraxis.

How is this to be understood? Through human praxis we create artifacts or products that come to condition subsequent human activity. Take the example of agriculture. Within a hunter-gatherer framework, it is likely that the growing of plants and the raising of livestock was not an aim in itself, but was a causal activity that supplemented what could be hunted and gathered. However, with time the products of agriculture (tilled land and domesticated animals) comes to take on a life of its own. Humans now find themselves existing in a field of inherited products of agriculture, new social relations begin to emerge. For example, people now begin to get tied to particular locations, rather than wandering all over the place, women no longer enjoy the egalitarian position they often enjoyed in agricultural society, paternity becomes important in determining labor and inheritance, time comes to be structured in a different way around the harvest and the rationing of grains over the year, and some form of military becomes necessary to defend against invasion and pillage. This is what Sartre refers to as the “practico-inert”, which consists of the products of human praxis that have now taken on a life of their own, structuring human relations in a particular way.

Those that engaged in agriculture did not intend these new social relations, but rather found themselves in a field– what I call a “regime of attraction” –that produced these new forms of relations. The situation is very much similar to a particular moment on a chess board. Occasionally one of your pieces end up in a position with respect to the other pieces where a particular moves is more or less necessitated by the positions of the other pieces. In Heideggerian terms, we find ourselves thrown into a world that is not of our own making and that structures our movements, ways of relating, even our very subjectivity and ways of feeling in a variety of different ways. Sartre raises questions, for example, as to whether we can univocally say that “primitive man” is anything like modern industrial humans, or whether they even belong to the same species or type. In this regard, he repeats the claims of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto.

The question that Sartre raises so admirably is that of how praxis is possible in a world where humans are mediated by things as much as things are mediated by humans. Put in terms of political thought, how are self-directing collectives or groups possible? Here I think that we should abandon the term subject within social and political theory and follow Deleuze and Guattari’s or Sartre’s advice of talking in terms of collectives or “subject-groups” because “subject” implies an individual or person, whereas the question of politics is always a question of collectives. Contemporary social and political theory is characterized by an opposition between what might be called, on the one hand, Spinozists, and on the other hand, Kantians. On the Spinozist side we have thinkers like Foucault, perhaps Deleuze and Guattari, Althusser, McLuhan, certain variants of Marx, and so on that emphasize the determination of collectives by impersonal forces that exceed the intentions of agents. On the Kantian side we have theorists such as Badiou, Ranciere, and Zizek that defend a sort of volunterism that subtracts itself from any sort of contextual determination.

The Kantians correctly pose the question by asking how self-directing praxis of collectives are possible, but too often end up completely underdetermining context or situations, showing little or no interest in their organization and how they overdetermine action in a variety of ways. As a result, they’re too often left with any nuanced or well developed analysis of what needs to be addressed in situations. Their position remains abstract. The Spinozists correctly pose the question by emphasizing how regimes of attraction structure our possibilities of action and engagement, transforming us into puppets beyond our control, but too often leave unaddressed the question of how any sort of agency or self-direction is possible within a field where we are products of these fields. I am not suggesting that Sartre has the answer, but that he has properly posed the question by asking how self-directing collectives can emerge within a field of antipraxis governed by its own intentionality. This is the squaring of the circle that needs to be worked out: one that is capable of doing justice to the structuration of the contextual or regimes of attraction, while theorizing the emergence of subject-groups capable of acting on situations rather than simply being puppets of forces beyond their intentions. How can we simultaneously think humans making history but not in conditions of their own making?

Keith Woodward has organized two panels on Speculative Realism, Object-Oriented Ontology and Geography at this years meeting of the Association for American Geographies (AAG) in Seattle (April 12 – 16). I’m presenting the following paper:

Tangled Geographies: Object-Oriented Ontology and Topological Space-Times

Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) argues that being, at its most fundamental level, is composed of discrete objects or units, whether these units be natural or cultural. Insofar as substances, whether cultural or natural, constitute the ground of being, it follows that they cannot be contained in a more fundamental milieu such as space or time. Rather, OOO, following Bruno Latour, argues for a conception of space and time arising from and out of objects. In light of this ontological constraint, this paper develops a topological account of space-time based on real relations between substances. Because space-time cannot be thought as a container of substances, relations such as proximity in common sense space and time cannot be treated as establishing genuine space-time relations. For example, while the person in the office next to me might be very close in ordinary space, it does not follow that they are closer to me in space-time than Graham Harman in Cairo, Egypt. This conception of topological space-time leads to a rethinking of cartography and geography that maps real material space-time relations are forged at a variety of interacting scales despite apparent spatio-temporal distances in apparent metric space.

I’m looking forward to this tremendously.

On December 1st I’ll be presenting a paper entitled Ontotheology and Withdrawal: Sexuation and the New Metaphysics, at the Hello Everything: Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology symposium hosted by UCLA’s Program in Experimental Critical Theory.

From there, I turn around and head off to Claremont Graduate School to present at the Metaphysics & Things: New Forms of Speculative Thought symposium (December 2 – 4), where I’ll be giving a talk entitled The Time of the Object: Towards the Ontological Grounds of Withdrawal. This paper attempts to make a case for withdrawal drawing on Derrida’s account of differance, the trace, and iterability. With any luck it should also come out in article form in the next issue of Speculations

In other news, Joe Hughes, Jeff Bell and I are beginning to draw up a plan for a book on political philosophy and ontology that would attempt to square the circle by simultaneously thinking the role of context (social fields, texts, culture, economics, technology, “nature”, language, biology, etc.) and how self-directing agencies or subject-groups are possible. This won’t happen for about three years, but we’re at least beginning to formulate the issue. Think of something along the lines of Negri & Hardt, Marx, Latour, McLuhan, Deleuze, DeLanda, Spinoza, etc., meet Badiou, Zizek, Kant (of the Second Critique), and later Sartre.

Over at Pagan Metaphysics, Paul has posted a couple of great quotes from Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Hopefully he won’t mind if I reproduce his post here. Paul writes:

I was reading through Dennett’s Breaking the Spell again yesterday and came across an endnote that raised a laugh. Dennett is reflecting on the value and uses of incomprehensibility, mystification and paradox in religion, specifically as mechanisms for bedazzling the mind (effective marketing strategies or tools of transmission), when he notes in a side comment his first secular experience of this phenomenon.

My introduction to this somewhat depressing idea came in 1982, when I was told by the acquisitions editor of a major paperback publishing company that her company wasn’t going to bid for the paperback rights for The Mind’s I, the anthology of philosophy and science fiction that Douglas Hofstadter and I had edited, because it was “too clear to become a cult book.” I could see what she meant: we actually explained things as carefully as we could.

OK, not funny so far (although perhaps evoking a knowing smile). Dennett then proceeds to explain a related story.

John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: “Michel, you’re so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?” To which Foucault replied, “That’s because in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.” I have coined a term for this tactic, in honor of Foucault’s candor: eumerdification.

Brilliant.

I don’t know if Foucault actually said this or not, but it’s the sort of thing I strangely want him to have said and to be true. Nor am I denouncing such style, as I think such “eumerdification” is a rhetorical technique that functions to produce an effect within the reader. All of this reminds me of an allegory that Lacan relates when discussing the nature of gaze as object a. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Lacan writes,

In the classical tale of Zeuxis and Pharrhasios, Zeuxis has the advantaga of having made grapes that attracted the birds. The stress is placed not on the fact that these grapes were in any way perfect grapes, but on the fact that even the eye of the birds was taken in by them. This is proved by the fact that his friend Parrhasios triumphs over him for having painted on the wall a veil, a veil so lifelike that Zeuxis, turning towards him said, Well, and now show us what you have painted behind it. By this he showed that what was at issue was certainly deceiving the eye (tromper l’oeil). A triumph of the gaze over the eye. (103)

The secret of the veil is that it causes us to wonder what is behind us. And, of course, Lacan’s example here is particularly delicious as it is a painted veil, and therefore veils nothing. There is nothing behind this veil, but rather the veil produces the effect of something hidden. The veil here functions as objet a, the object-cause of desire, becoming the engine of desire. Objet a is not the object of desire, but rather that which causes or occasions desire, that which evokes desire. In this connection, I remember a friend from graduate school who was obsessed with the Girls Gone Wild commercials. Finally, at a certain point, he broke down and decided to buy one of the videos. To his great surprise and disappointment, the videos evoked none of the desire the commercials elicited precisely because the black bars screening the women’s breasts were absent in the videos. It was precisely the censorship of the veil, of the black bar, that evoked or caused his desire, not the object of desire itself (the breasts). In the absence of the object-cause of desire, my friend could no longer desire the object of his desire.

This seems to be what Dennett’s editors were getting at with respect to the issue of whether or not to buy the rights to Dennett’s early book Minds Eye I. Because the book was written so clearly, the editor contended, it was unlikely to become a cult or classic book. Our initial reaction to this anecdote might be anger or outrage. “How dare they reject a book because it’s clear! Isn’t clarity a virtue to be admired?!?!” However, the editor has a point. Part of what allows a book to endure, part of what gives a book the power to last, is precisely a sort of opacity, a presence of the veil, that allows, over time, all sorts of heterogeneous meanings to be projected on to the book as we endlessly wonder what it is that is behind the veil. The veil here functions like an engine or productive device that ensures that the text continue to produce meaning for readers and that we return to it again and again.

I’ve always thought that Lacan’s parable of Zeuxis and Pharrhasios was the core of his analytic teaching, perfectly exemplifying the aim of psychoanalytic treatment. We’re all familiar with the Lacanian thesis that the end of analysis consists in traversing the fantasy and discovering that the big Other does not exist. But what does that really mean? With Lacan the point that should always be borne in mind is that the three different subject positions– neurosis (hysteria/obsession), psychosis, and perversion (there is no “normal”) –are structures of intersubjectivity or ways of relating to the Other. The neurotic relates to the Other’s demand, trying to repress the enigma of the Other’s desire, the pervert relates to the Other’s jouissance, and the psychotic has foreclosed the Other altogether. The neurotic suffers from desire. Here we should recall that, according to Lacan, “desire is the desire of the Other”. The ambiguity of the genitive in this little aphorism drawn from Kojeve allows us to interpret desire as the desire of the Other as simultaneously signifying that the subject desires the Other (that the Other is an object of the neurotic’s desire) and, more fundamentally, that the neurotic desires to be desired by the Other. The neurotic therefore suffers from a persistent and frustrating question: “what am I for the Other?” “what does the Other want from me?”

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