November 2010


I recall, my final year as an undergrad, encountering Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? for the very first time. This was the first text I managed to finally read by D&G. I had tried Difference and Repetition and the Logic of Sense, but at the time I could get no purchase on their work. But with What is Philosophy? a deep feeling of content and satisfaction came over me. For years I had struggled with the question of just what philosophy is. In light of the tremendous success of the sciences both in physics and the other hard sciences and in psychology and sociology, I was haunted by the question of whether or not there’s any place for philosophy at all in the contemporary world. I started the study of philosophy early, around the age of fifteen or sixteen, starting with Husserl’s Ideas, moving on to Heidegger’s Being and Time, and then moving on to Descartes’ Meditations, Spinoza’s Ethics (which obsess me still to this day), James’ Pragmatism, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Yet still I found myself wondering just what philosophy is or whether or not there’s any place for philosophy in the world. I loved it but I didn’t trust it. Yet, in What is Philosophy?, I found an answer, for Deleuze and Guattari argue that philosophy is nothing more than the creation and critique, the invention, of concepts. And here, concepts precede, in their own way, any investigation of the world. Moreover, they made the strangest claim of all: concepts are not simply about something, they are something. For D&G, concepts are not ideas in the head, but are real things, real actors, real events, in the world.

If philosophy is the creation and critique of concepts, then the recent work of Timothy Morton certainly deserves to be called philosophical. This is one of the peculiarities of philosophy: philosophy seldom comes from the discipline of philosophy (though occasionally this happens), but most often comes from outside departments of philosophy. This can be readily verified by both the history of philosophy, but also contemporary philosophy as well. Until roughly the 19th century you would be hard put to identify philosophy as a “profession”. Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, and Locke certainly weren’t “professional philosophers”. Rather, they were people engaged with other things that were forced, by the necessity of their work, to engage in “meta” speculations to become philosophers. In the contemporary world, we seldom see philosophy coming from departments of philosophy, but rather see philosophy coming scientists in various fields, geographers, people working on literature, political activists, sociologists, media theorists, psychologists, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes, when I encounter fellows in the humanities, I’ll get the sense that they’re intimidated by the fact that I’m a philosopher. They simultaneously disdain us professional philosophers and seem to think us professional philosophers have a secret knowledge, a secret rigor, that they lack. Yet this always makes me chuckle to myself because philosophy doesn’t come from professional philosophers, but people who are engaging with an object other than the history of philosophy that come to necessitate metaphysical or metatheoretical inquiry that is at the core of philosophy. Philosophy is something that happens in the midst of revolution (whether social, political, or epistemological) leading to the genesis of new concepts, and therefore it is seldom professional philosophers that generate philosophers.

By contrast, professional philosophers are more like coroners. They are historians, forensic scientists, of traces of philosophy, who analyze, systematize, and critique philosophy that has happened without doing much philosophy of their own. Professional philosophers are more interested in talking about philosophers, than in doing philosophy. And if this is the case, then it is because philosophy, as such (to put a Derridean twist on it), is without an object. Here Badiou is absolutely right when he points out that philosophy articulates no truths. Truths always come from elsewhere, not from philosophy itself. At best, philosophy records and “compossibilizes” truths that come from elsewhere. Leibniz, for example, records the truth of the calculus, articulating what metaphysical implications follow from the calculus of which calculus is unaware. Dennett articulates the truth of evolutionary biology, articulating what metaphysical implications follow from it, but of which evolutionary biology is unaware because it is too busy working over its object. When philosophy does happen within the discipline of philosophy, it happens at the margins, in those small, “hickish”, frontier towns where the philosopher doing philosophy has the freedom to finally, at last, think and develop concepts without being a coroner of the history of philosophy, doing endless autopsies of bodies that are already dead. Because such thinkers at the margins have nothing to lose or gain by doing philosophy, they are freed of the obligation to be coroners to advance their professional career and can thereby discover objects, events, encounters, that provoke the invention of concepts. Rather than being tax auditors that are compelled to show that everything is in order within the framework of a reigning discourse, they can instead build. It’s not unlike gardening or poetry. If you haven’t traveled like Descartes or Lingis, been surprised by neurology, struggled with your sexuality, been exploited, seen the collapse of civilization or your life, suffered debilitating disease or psychic illness, or lived at the borders, been struck by the mystery of the Pythagorean theorem or the paradoxes of theory, encountered the circuits of a computer chip, or lived at the borders, it’s just damned hard to be a philosopher. As Roth’s novel American Pastoral suggests (yeah, I know, I hate him too, but sometimes he’s right), if your life is good, if it isn’t punctuated by encounters, you just don’t have much to think about and don’t have any impetus to invent concepts.

So back to Morton. Morton has been on a tear lately, and particularly so with his concept of “hyperobjects”. Often Tim frustrates the hell out of me. Where I strive to be a systematic and deductive thinker, showing how one thing follows from another thing, Tim is a poetic, allegorical, and intuitive thinker. He first gets an image, an intuition, a sort of privileged example, and then begins to embroider around that concept, gradually unfolding it, like origami in reverse, deepening it, and detaching it from its origins and conditions. Tim’s favored method is the poem and the quasi-koan, whereas mine is the geometrical deduction. It literally drives me up the wall– especially the playfulness and happiness of it all (I’m dark and pessimistic) –but the two of us often work quite well together, me feeding off his intuitions and poetic sparks, him, I hope (!), gaining something from my compulsive-obsessive need for deduction and systematicity.

One of the common criticisms of OOO is that it tends to privilege the objects of lived experience, mid-level objects like trees, pomegranates, coffee cups and stars, to the detriment of the very small and the very large. As this criticism runs, OOO thereby confuses objects produced by the synthetic activity of mind, with reality itself. Is there any reason, the criticism goes, to really consider a tree an object? This was already unfair for while, rhetorically, Harman often uses mid-level objects as his favorite example, he is adamant in the claim that objects exist at all levels of scale and that every object is an object wrapped in an object wrapped in an object. In other words, Graham’s mid-level objects are a rhetorical device designed to give us an intuition of withdrawn objects, they are not exhaustive of what objects are.

Enter Morton’s “hyperobjects”. Morton’s hyperobjects are borne of not, as he sometimes suggests, a “conversion” to OOO, but rather an encounter with his object of investigation: ecology. In a recent post, Morton writes:

In a previous post I argued that 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.

Morton’s encounter with OOO arises from the strangeness of an object like “climate”. Massively distributed in time and space such that they are everywhere and nowhere, objects like climate challenge the Lockean conceit– and I say this with trepidation as my variant of OOO can be described as “Lockean” –that objects are individuated by occupying a particular place in time at a particular place. Rather, hyerobjects are everywhere and nowhere. When we encounter weather, Morton argues or intuits, we are not encountering an object, but rather, to use my vocabulary, a local manifestation of climate. Climate as such, to put, once again, a Derridean spin on it, is forever withdrawn. Climate can be inferred, it can be deduced, it can be “abducted”, but it can’t be encountered. It is radically withdrawn. And, to make matters even stranger, objects that interact with climate are nonetheless independent of climate. Carbon emissions, for example, influence the local manifestations of climate, but are not themselves climate.

Morton’s hyperobjects are thus like our experience of a pool while swimming. Everywhere we are submersed within the pool, everywhere the cool water caresses our body as we move through it, yet we are nonetheless independent of the water. We produce effects in the water like diffraction patterns, causing it to ripple in particular ways, and it produces effects in us, causing our skin to get goosebumps and, if you’re a man, for parts of you to inconveniently shrink, yet the water and the body are nonetheless two objects withdrawn from one another interacting only vicariously.

Understandably, due to his research, Morton is focused on climate, yet, as he argues in The Ecological Thought, the concept of ecology is broader than that of climate. Climate is one object among other objects. What Morton’s concept of hyperobjects opens is the possibility of thinking the fraught interactions of a variety of different hyperobjects such as economy, technospheres (Stiegler), culture, language, and so on, and how they enter into both conflictual relations with one another while also locally manifesting one another in a variety of ways. We get a rich ecological concept of (non)-relations among different objects at all levels of scale without being able to reduce any one object to another. Along the lines of Althusser, we are assisted in thinking the interaction of a variety of different strata in relations of overdetermination, without any sort of reduction. Such is the genesis of a philosophical concept that opens the way to thinking the manner in which concepts are not simply about something but are something, or how concepts too acquire the capacity to act on a world of discrete substances by virtue of being one substance among others.

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I’ve been in the blackest of black moods for the last couple of weeks, basically feeling that everything’s pointless and not much caring to talk to anyone (fuck you all! Not really, I love most of you, but I am feeling a bit like a shut in these days, perhaps hibernating), but these panels warm my heart. Paul Reid-Bowen has posted the abstracts for the panels, while Bogost has the rundown. I was asked to be a respondent. Wish I could have mustered the money to be there. It looks like it was a real screamer.

This is neither here nor there, but this year my 3 and 9/10ths daughter and I went trick-or-treating with an old friend of mine and a group of his friends. My friend was a former student of mine that was so traumatized by my class (due to his religious beliefs… I was teaching Spinoza that semester and asked him questions, in response to remarks like “Christianity just makes sense to me”, like whether Hinduism would have made sense to him had he grew up in India) that he decided to pursue higher education in philosophy of religion and eventually became a very fine educator and professor himself. I hope and believe that he grew spiritually as a result of this encounter, even if I don’t share his beliefs, and am proud of the person he is today as I played some, small, part in that. I’m proud to count him as one of my closest friends. Among our crowd was another one of my former students from Australia, a wonderful and insightful woman who took my class for the hell of it. When going from house to house I ran into four or five other former students and their siblings. This is a common experience for me. I’m constantly running into former students at the grocery store, restaurants, etc. There’s something that is a bit overwhelming in this… Touching all these lives and helping them to better formulate their own thoughts and destiny, not through indoctrination, but simply through exposure and encouragement… Simply through dialogue, wherever the dice might fall and regardless of whether they ultimately come to agree with me (I try to keep “myself” out of the classroom as much as possible). I suppose this is to be expected when you engage in “industrial teaching”, working with 160 students a semester. I would miss this were I to leave Texas. It wasn’t what I thought it would be when I was still in Chicago. I went as a “professor” for Halloween. That’s not irony.

Minimally an object-oriented art would have to practice flat ontology and atrange mereolology. Unlike the old realism where human subjects were the real genuine actors, objects at all levels of scale and of all types would have to be treated as genuine actors. Perhaps an object-oriented art would explore the struggles and conflicts that emerge between these differently scaled objects, even when embedded within one another. So far teapots, stars and planets have been treated as objects, but what of cities, institutions, and galaxies. Do we have artists yet adept to truly define relations and conflicts at different levles of scale, treating these odd poltergeists as genuine entities and actors?

Recently I’ve seen a lot of interest in the question of what object-oriented literary criticism would look like. I have nothing particularly new to say here, though I do have a number of thoughts on the issues. It seems to me that there are a vast number of issues that object-oriented literary criticism (OOLC) would have to raise (and I’ll only approach one of them here), but above all, it seems to me that any OOLC worth its salt must attend to 1) texts as autonomous and independent objects in their own right (i.e., as real entities), and therefore 2) the withdrawn dimension of any text.

As is familiar by now, object-oriented ontologists argue that objects are withdrawn both from one another and from themselves. Within my onticological framework, this points is expressed in the claim that objects are split-objects, divided by the domain of their virtual proper being and their local manifestations. Virtual proper being refers to the potentials or powers of an object which are never actualized as such, while local manifestation refers to the actualized properties of an object manifested under certain conditions. In my current local manifestation, for example, my skin is rather pale. By contrast, during the summer, my skin becomes dark. In the latter instance, this is because I am spending a good deal of time outdoors and therefore my skin color changes as a result of sunlight. If I am able to change in these ways, then this must be because my body possesses a virtual dimension, a dimension of potencies or powers, that enables it to manifest itself in a variety of ways. These differing manifestations will be in part due to internal dynamics of an object, but also its exo-relations to other objects. I call the field of these exo-relations a “regime of attraction” because it plays a role in what qualities an object actualizes in the world. In the case of my tan, for example, the regime of attraction involves the sun among other things.

Among other things, an object-oriented literary criticism might be concerned with this withdrawn dimension of texts. Like any other entity, texts would be split-objects, divided between local manifestation and virtual proper being. The literary critic might thus wonder whether anything can be said about this withdrawn dimension of the text. Insofar as the virtual proper being of a text is necessarily withdrawn, this dimension of texts could only ever be sensed in traces indicating or suggesting another dimension at work in the manifest dimension of a text. Based on the “logic” of these traces, the literary critic might seek to form a “diagram” (always partial and incomplete) of the virtual text that haunts a manifest text. Drawing heavily on the psychoanalytic interpretation of symptoms, Althusser’s “symptomal reading” provides a promising means for thinking about the withdrawn dimension of texts. Althusser calls for a

…’symptomatic’ (symptomale) [reading], insofar as it divulges the unidivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same movement relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first. Like his first reading, Marx’s second reading presupposes the existence of two texts, and the measurement of the first against the second. But what distinguishes this new reading from the old one is the fact that in the new one the second text is articulated with the lapses in the first text. (Reading Capital, 29)

Althusser’s symptomal reading reads for the withdrawn text through the manifest text by treating lapses, omissions, lacuna, and contradictions as traces of the virtual text beneath the locally manifested text. The example that Althusser gives is of Marx’s reading of classical political economy. Classical political economy tellx us that “…the value of ‘labor’ is equal to the value of the substence goods necessary for the reproduction of ‘labor'” (RC, 22). Marx notes that this answer is correct, but, as Althusser puts it, that it is an answer to a question that was never posed! “…[I]t is the correct answer to a question that has just one failing: it was never posed” (RC, 22). We thus find that this proposed solution contains an ellipses or lacuna, referring to something absent yet strangely present. As Althusser goes on to remark,

The original question as the classical economic text formulated it was: what is the value of labour. Reduced to the content that can be rigorously defended in the text where classical economics produced it, the answer should be written as follows: ‘The value of ( ) is equal to the value of the substence goods necessary for the maintainance and reproduction of labor ( ).” (RC, 22-23)

If there is an ellipses here, then this is because the end of the proposition and the beginning of the proposition refer to two different things. The beginning of the proposition refers to the value of labor, whereas the end of the proposition refers to the labourer. Something new is introduced under this proposition, but only under the condition of erasure. Althusser will thus speak of these repressed elements as a “…theoretical problematic’s non-vision of its non-objects, the invisible [that] is the darkness, the blinded eye of the theoretical problematic’s self-reflection when it scans its non-objects, its non-problems without seeing them, in order not to look at them” (RC, 27). The invisible or withdrawn is thus a sort of blindness at the heart of vision that functions to render the visual possible. Alternatively, it would be a withdrawal at the heart of texts that functions in such a way as to render the local manifestation of a text possible.

In Althusser’s view, this reading for the withdrawn or virtual text haunting the local manifestion of the text allows for the genesis of an entirely new set of questions. In discovering the ellipses of labor-power as the missing term within the text of classical political economy, it now becomes possible to ask “what is the value of labour-power?” (RC, 24). Yet in posing the question of the value of labour-power, we now get the entire theory of the production of surplus-value and consequently insight into capitalism as a system of exploitation. A new manifest text comes to the fore in the margins or ellipses of the text of classical political economy.

So far there is really nothing new here. Through our acquaintance with thinkers such as Marx, Freud, Lacan, Althusser, and Derrida we have become deeply familiar with the idea of reading for ellipses, absences, lacuna, and contradictions as a technique for touching on a latent content, a sort of “textual dreamwork” behind the manifest content. However, what’s interesting, I think, arises from situating Althusser’s symptomal reading in terms of object-oriented ontology and the onticological distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation. The hypothesis of a virtual text behind or within manifest texts suggest that the text as such is independent of any of its manifestations, but also independent of its author or origin (after all, text is an object in its own right).

Along these lines, perhaps here it would be appropriate to distinguish between the text and the book along the lines of langue and parole, as Melanie suggested to me earlier today. The text of an author would be nowhere to be found in any of the books of an author, precisely because text is always withdrawn from any of its local manifestations. Just as langue is everywhere immanent in every instance of speech or parole without ever being present, the text of a book would forever be withdrawn. Driving this point home, Franz Kafka’s various books (The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, the short stories, etc) would all be a single text actualized or manifested under certain conditions. The aim of a critique, like a linguist, would be, in part, to reconstruct text on the basic of books (note the plural). By contrast, books would be local manifestations of one and the same text.

One of the ideas that fascinates me here is the possibility that texts do not need to be written by one and the same author (here I’m playing up just how strange the metaphysics of OOO is). Rather, the author of a particular book would be an object or element within a regime of attraction that actualizes the text in a particular way. As a consequence, it would be possible, in principle, for new books based on the text explored by Franz Kafka to be written despite the fact that the author, Franz Kafka, is now dead. In other words, Kafka wouldn’t have ownership of the text that he explored through his books but would be one agency of manifestation in a regime of attraction among others.

My thoughts peter out here, but I want to emphasize that these points aren’t exhaustive of what an object-oriented literary criticism might look like. Althusser’s concept of “overdetermination” for example, is particularly fruitful in the context of OOLC precisely because it allows us to explore historical, technological, economic, political, artistic, etc., conditions in which a book is locally manifest. Likewise, it should never be forgotten that books aren’t simply about something, but also are something. As a consequence, it becomes necessary to explore how, as material entities, texts circulate throughout the world, producing all sorts of effects as they enter into exo-relations with various groups, collectives, institutions, and people. That’s all for now.

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