December 2010

Apparently The Speculative Turn crashed Re.Press’s system! The head editor tells me that over 2000 copies were downloaded in a single night, which is a years worth of sales for most academic books. The site should be up and running again now. Alex Andrews has also kindly posted a pdf. of the book here.

In other news, I’m nearly finished with the editing of The Democracy of Objects. It should head off to the publisher in the next couple of days.

Gerry Canavan has written a generous and gracious follow up to my last post. Gerry writes:

Sorry, that was glib to the point of unfairness.

My problem with the post I linked is the difference between the claim in the first version that we must “think unilaterally” to the far weaker claim in the second post (which I hadn’t seen before now) that your project “merely tries to draw attention to the role played by nonhumans in the development and construction of humans and their societies.”

I see that you now describe the first version as “strategic hyperbole” –asking, “how else do you draw attention to an important point?” — but I would suggest first that this hyperbole is perhaps not as successful a strategy as you might have hoped. The assertion of object-oriented unilaterality, and the call for an ontology that is literally flat as opposed to simply flatter, is a poor advertisement for your ideas insofar as it distorts reality in the inverse direction.

You actually speak in terms of strategy quite a bit in that “Context Matters” post: strategies to draw attention to, or draw attention away, various propositions. That’s also how I read the demand that we “think unilaterally” in the first post: “Cultivating this sensibility requires, paradoxically enough, first surrendering bilateralization for a time and thinking unilaterally.” But this “for a time” seems to significantly undercut what I understand to be the central claims of OOO, which (I thought) was about ontology and not about rhetoric. Are we to pretend to believe in the unilateral determinative capacity of objects “for a time” to make a point — or are we to actually believe in it? And to the extent that it is the second — which I do accede to some extent, certainly, though never unilaterally — why then should we be so eager to abandon concepts like (to take your list) mind, intentionality, language, and power? Surely such things “play a role in the development of humans and their society” as well!

I honestly don’t know of many people working in the humanities today who would deny the importance of (to again take your list) geography, technology, animals, plants, weather, and microbes. I know the object of critique but I don’t recognize the critique as being a fair one. Consequently I just don’t see the urgency of “thinking unilaterally” when (as you seem to concede) it produces a picture that is just as distorted as the straw-philosopher of pure reason at whom you want to take aim.

I know you all have been talking and arguing about this for a while so I’m sure the answers to these objections seem obvious. But I haven’t been convinced. I’ll certainly read the book before commenting again — which (you may remember) is precisely what I was encouraging my readers to do.

Sorry again for being rude.

I see Gerry’s point about rhetoric, but I also don’t think anyone can say everything at once. It could be that the difference in what we see has to do with our respective backgrounds. Gerry comes from, for example, a heavily Marxist background and ecologica thoughtl. I don’t see this as a problem in a lot of Marxist theory (including Jameson), and certainly ecological thought, by virtue of the very nature of its questions, has engaged with nonhuman actors in their own terms from the getgo. My thought largely developed in the context of French post-structuralist thought (especially Lacan, Zizek, and Derrida) where language is given a disproportionately important role to the detriment of other factors (Deleuze, I think, doesn’t suffer from this).

However, for me the point of flat ontology is not to reject things such as signifiers, signs, humans, etc., but to make room for other sorts of nonhuman actors in their own terms and as irreducible to the status of being vehicles for signs and social/mental contents. Here I’m in agreement with McLuhan. McLuhan argues that media are “extensions of humans”. A fork, for example, would be an example of a medium for McLuhan because it extends us in a particular way. In Laws of Media McLuhan remarks that,

It makes no difference whatever whether one considers as artefacts or as media things of a tangible ‘hardware’ nature such as bowls and clubs or forks and spoons, or tools and devices and engines, railways, spacecraft, radios, computers, and so on; or things of a ‘software’ nature such as theories or laws of science, philosophical systems, remedies or even the diseases in medicine, forms or styles in painting or poetry or drama or music, and so on. All are equally artefacts, all equally human, all equally susceptible to analysis, all equally verbal in structure. (4)

Ian Bogost and I are currently writing a book on McLuhan’s theory of media, porting it into an object-oriented framework. In the passage above, there are two points we find objectionable, though the core thesis remains sound. First, McLuhan restricts media to extensions of humans. We, by contrast, argue that a medium is any object that extends another object, regardless of whether the object being extended or doing the extending is human or animate. For example, wind is a medium for sand. Humans are a medium for grass insofar as we plant them all over the planet. Second, we object to McLuhan’s thesis that mediums are primarily verbal in nature. The core feature of any medium is that it extends another object. The verbal and semiotic is only a subset of the different types of media that exist.

With these two caveats in mind, McLuhan gives a nice picture of what a flat ontology looks like and how it can simultaneously take into account the role played by cultural objects like signs and nonhuman objects like cane toads. In other words, within the framework I’m proposing, a signifier, a sign, laws, etc., are no less objects and actors than quarks, stars, cane toads, and so on. The Domestication of Objects simply focuses on how certain nonhumans such as wheat, lawn grass, microbes, cows, cereals, etc., have “used” humans as mediums to extend themselves and the impact this has had on the structure that various societies have taken. As Braudel notes in Capitalism & Civilization, for example, Chinese agriculture was largely based on rice from the fourteenth century on (and prior to that as well). The advantage of rice is that, unlike other cereals such as wheat, it is an extremely reliable crop and you are able to get two to three harvests out of it a year. Rice, however, is extremely labor intensive to produce, requiring collective effort. This had a significant impact on the social structures that emerged throughout Asia. Likewise, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond notes the large role played by domesticated animals in their agriculture. Because of the close proximity of humans to domesticated animals, there was a lot of cross-over in diseases in livestock and human diseases. Europeans built up a strong immunity to these diseases as a result, but people’s in the Americas did not as they did not have nearly as many domesticated animals. This led to tragic results that significantly contributed to the sorts of social structures that emerged in contact between these different groups.

In my view, continental theory has been dominated by a strong focus on the analysis of representations, norms, signifiers, signs, contents, meanings, and so on. Here we might think of Barthes’ semiological thesis that language is a primary modeling system for everything else in the world. The point is not to reject mediums like signs and how they extend and change other things, but to draw attention to these other sorts of entities and the role that they play. As someone who is deeply influenced by Marx and presumably Marx’s discussion of machines and the working day in Capital, I’m sure Gerry can appreciate why such analyses might be important and why, in our time, dominated as it is by all sorts of technologies and ecological transformations, it might be valuable to de-emphasize focus on cultural artifacts and their meanings for a time so as to draw attention to these things.

At any rate, I appreciate Gerry’s link and his follow up. Back to putting the final edits on The Democracy of Objects!

It looks like there’s another person freaking out about The Domestication of Humans. Gerry Canavan writes,

I consider myself extremely skeptical about the overall theoretical usefulness of object-oriented ontology (see Vu’s excellent Polygraph review for a primer)—frankly I consider claims like these to be so preposterous as to be self-refuting—but nonetheless I’ve downloaded the PDF for new anthology The Speculative Turn at the terrible risk of someday having to writing a conversion essay.

Canavan’s outrage is particularly amusing as it comes from an ecotheorist. Apparently he’s an ecotheorist who has little familiarity with evolutionary theory and the concept of co-evolution. He might wish to check out The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by the appropriately named Michael Pollan that goes some of the way towards developing the sort of argument I’m developing. At any rate, it’s amusing to see an ecotheorist who wishes to treat humans as somehow above and outside of these dynamics. I’m not quite sure how that works.

It’s been a long time coming, but the .pdf for The Speculative Turn is now available online. Many thanks to my co-editors Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman, as well as to Ben Woodward for his excellent interviews and Taylor Adkins and Stephen Muecke for their outstanding translation.

In his by measures, sublime, bizarre, amusing and profound Circus Philosophicus (perhaps the most amusing and accessible introduction to Graham’s thought published yet), Graham writes the following of yours truly:

Even a friendly critic of my philosophy such as Levi Bryant (you know of his blog and his struggles with ignorant trolls) rejects this asymmetry, though he concedes that nothing exists but translation. In agreement with Latour’s philosophy, Bryant contends that no thing makes contact with another without transforming it. Yet he still holds that my theory of withdrawn objects and vicarious causation is too extreme. As I see it, what Bryant and Latour both miss is that translation is also a starting point, not just a result. That is to say, the point is not that fire makes easy contact with cotton, or a horse with a meadow, and that they then translate or distort these entities in accordance with their own perspectives. This would imply an initial direct contact, with a sort of indirect translation then pasted on as a supplement. Instead, I claim that even the initial contact between two entities is only the contact of a real entity with a translated or phenomenal one. (49 – 50)

Perhaps no element of Graham’s thought has been more maligned than his doctrine of vicarious causation. Indeed, of all of Graham’s concepts, his concept of vicarious causation has been the most difficult for me to accept. Nonetheless, I was surprised when I read this passage as, a few months ago, Graham wrote me with great excitement after reading the MS for The Democracy of Objects, exclaiming that I do, in fact, endorse a variant of his account of vicarious causation. And indeed, after reading Graham’s discussion of vicarious causation, I’m hard put to see where we diverge or differ from one another.

read on!

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So it seems that I’ve drawn the attention of the luminary Brian Leiter. In response to my gloss on The Domestication of Humans, Leiter writes a post entitled “I’m Not Sure if This is a Joke”. Leiter writes:

I am hoping it is. An excerpt:

Inverting the way we commonly talk and think about domestication, the book will explore how grasses, grains, various animals such as wolves, cows, cats, goats, and microbes, as well as technologies have conspired to domesticate human beings for their own ends. Throughout North America and other parts of the world, for example, grass cultivated humans to be beings that love lawns and large grassy areas for their sports so that humans would spread grass all about the world, thereby getting itself replicated. Likewise, cows, in a sinister plot against other herd animals, cultivated humans to have a particular love of beef so that they might get replicated and spread across the globe, cornering the market on prime pieces of grazing land.

(Thanks to a pseudonymous reader for sending me to this, shall we say, unusual blog.)

Alas Brian, it’s not a joke, though I will confess to a bit of strategic hyperbole. In what context does such a project make sense? Well, in the context of continental theory where my work is primarily situated. What might motivate such a project within the framework of continental theory? Well, the fact that most continental theorists argue that humans in some way or another construct reality. Among the continentals we have the Kantians that argue that the mind structures reality, the phenomenologists that argue that intentionality structures reality, the linguistic and semiotic idealists that argue that language and signs construct reality, those that argue that power and discourse constructs reality, and the hermeneuts that talk about how history constructs reality. Everywhere we have continentalists arguing, in a manner that repeats the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, that humans are sovereigns that construct reality.

My little project, which perhaps suffers from hyperbole (but how else do you draw attention to an important point), merely tries to draw attention to the role played by nonhumans in the development and construction of humans and their societies. What role did grains play in human development? How did it influence the structure of our societies? What role did the bubonic plague play in the development of humans and society? What role have domesticated animals played in the development of humans and our societies? What role have technologies and modes of communication like writing and the internet played in the development of humans and society? In other words, my project tries to draw attention away from the obsessive focus of continental philosophers on mind (as construed by Kant), intentionality (as construed by the phenomenologists), language and power (as construed by the French crew of ’68), to the role played by geography, technology, animals, plants, weather, and microbes in the development of humans and their society. Therapeutically (and as a Nietzschean I’m sure Brian can appreciate the idea of philosophical therapy), such a project hopes to draw attention to extra-human factors in the development of humans. Moreover, as a staunch defender of Darwin, I’m sure that Leiter can appreciate my attempt to treat humans as among other entities in evolutionary processes, rather than granting them a privileged theological place.

In an update, Brian shares an email he received from one Mohan Matthen who is a philosopher of mind and biology at University of Toronto. Matthen writes,

It’s a wacky idea, but not without a sane and sober (and brilliant) precedent.

Grasses coevolved with humans: certain grasses became nutritious so humans would consume them and excrete their seeds all over so that the grasses themselves prospered. (Jared Diamond discusses this case in Guns, Germs, and Steel. He also observes that natural selection acts oppositely on fruits and seeds: fruits evolve to be good-tasting to attract animals to eat them; seeds within the fruits evolve to be hard or bitter or even poisonous so that they are not chewed up, but are rather spat out or excreted whole, to reproduce.) Fruits coevolved with old world monkeys: the fruit developed colour so that they are easily visible to these monkeys; the monkeys developed colour vision so they could spot the fruit. The monkeys found a source of nutrition; the plants that grew the fruit got propagated wherever the monkeys went. (J. D. Mollon has developed the co-evolution thesis for colour vision.)

Of course, in the above cases, there is natural variation on both sides, from which the mutual benefit can evolve. Some plants of a species have attributes that make them apt to be taken up by humans in a way that aids their reproduction; others have these attributes in lesser measure. Similarly, among humans there are some who are prone to eat the grass and fruit with such attributes and others who do not. The former of each kind prosper. That’s co-evolution, and if it can be described as the domestication of plants, then the opposite description is equally apt. But I didn’t see much about co-evolution in the blog that you linked.

Quite right. Matthen is right that in my post I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to co-evolution (the book will), but otherwise his observations get right at the heart of the project I’m proposing. While there are glimmers of light here and there, an analysis of these dynamics in the development of humans and human societies are glaringly absent in the linguistophilia of contemporary continental theory. Is the title of my book a provocation? You betcha! Is it a necessary move in a body of decadent theory that’s so blinded by narcissistic love of the human that it is unable to recognize that humans are among the rest of beings and that we don’t rise above those beings? Absolutely! I’m flattered by the attention that I’ve received from a celebrity like Leiter today and impressed that he did the update. This has been a banner day for a blog that ordinarily only receives between 1500 and 3000 hits a day. I’m glad to have the attention and hope Leiter will follow the project as it develops over the next year or so.

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