January 2011

Somewhere or other Henry Louis Gates says something like “racism is a failure of the imagination”. I’m not sure why I find myself meditating on this aphorism this evening, except for the fact that such failures of the imagination seem to be at the heart of much human cruelty and evil. Not only is there the common inability to imagine the psychic life of other persons and creatures, but there is also the inability to imagine their circumstances. The Gestalt theorists teach us about the relationship between foreground and background that is characteristic of every phenomena. Background withdraws. I see another person, reduce them to foreground, and then think them in analogical terms to my own life and circumstances. For example, during the heat wave in France a couple years ago Elizabeth Hasslebeck wondered why people didn’t just turn on their air conditions. During Hurricane Katrina others wondered why people just didn’t get a cab out of the city (seriously, I heard many people say things along these lines here in Texas). Yet others described the behavior of people as looting, rather than as desperate attempts to fight starvation and dying of thirst. These are instances of analogical thinking and are failures of imagination.

In many respects, one of the highest vocations of the social theorist and scientist is to fight failures of imagination by rendering imagination possible for others through their research. Among other things, social theorists and scientists bring worlds into relief. They help that which is otherwise withdrawn to be brought out of withdrawal so that others might see. This is one of the things that great art can accomplish as well. Great art can function as a sort of window allowing us to enter the worlds and subjectivities of other people, allowing us to walk with them as they walk and have lived. As such, it creates imagination. Part of the study of ethics consists not simply in the study of ethical philosophies, but in the study of art, literature, poetry, and well-written history so as to encounter that which is withdrawn through allusion. As Alex Reid argues today, the field of ethics is relational, yet nonetheless is a relationality with that which is withdrawn. Social theorists, scientists, and artists are great cartographers of fields of relation or circumstance, creators of allusion to that which can never be directly experienced, and constantly remind us of the withdrawal of other humans and creatures. That is, they endlessly combat analogical thought which leads to thoughtless cruelty and evil.

I am not adopting the stance of the beautiful soul here, suggesting that if only we understood the world would suddenly be filled with peace and love. Of course, imagination certainly doesn’t hurt in promoting peace and love. There are real antagonisms in the world and these can’t be erased simply through imagination. Nonetheless, failures of imagination intensify these antagonisms even more.

Gallagher’s translations of a number of Lacans unpublished seminars can be found for free here. Enjoy!

Every once in a while you come across a concept that puts in words something that’s been on the tip of your tongue for years but which you’ve never quite been able to articulate. Ian Hacking’s concept of interactive kinds is, for me, an example of such a concept. In his discussion of social construction talk in The Social Construction of What?, Hacking is careful to emphasize that such talk generally refers to the construction of our categories (kinds), not the individuals or entities that are grouped under these categories. It is not, for example, my cat Tabby that is constructed, but the kind or category “cat”.

What is interesting here is not the construction of categories or kinds themselves, but rather the relationship between the constructed kind and the entities that fall over them. Hacking distinguishes between two different kinds: indifferent kinds and interactive kinds. In the case of indifferent kinds, the entity or individual falling under the kind is indifferent to the categorization that, for lack of a better word, names the entity. Take the example of trees. In his Prolegomena to Linguistics, Hjelmslev teaches us, in good nominalist fashion, to discern how different languages classify trees and shrubs in different ways (cue Monty Python). What is classified as a tree in one language might be classified as a shrub in another language. The important point, however, is that the entities being so classified are indifferent to the classification. The classification makes no difference to them. This doesn’t mean the entities are passive. Plants are active in all sorts of ways. It only means that plants take up no stance with respect to how we classify them.

Read On!

It looks like some debates about Derrida are emerging once again. I don’t wish to ignite that fracas all over, but I was interested in something James over at Critical Animal says. James writes:

But still, this idea that Derrida was never invested in creating his own philosophical positions seem to either come from too narrow of a reading of Derrida, or too narrow of an idea of philosophy, or both. If you look at the ‘late’ Derrida, he is clearly trying to work out ideas of cosmopolitanism, friendship/fraternity, and hospitality. Frequently in a non-anthropocentric register. He did so both through recourse to other texts, but also through a profound number of insights of his own that were not mere textual glosses.

I haven’t read most of the posts in the current round of Derrida debates, but I was surprised by James’ remarks here. Are people really claiming that Derrida develops no philosophical position or that he only gives textual glosses? I’ve never thought such a thing. It’s always seemed to me that Derrida is making rather strong philosophical claims. To me it seems that Derrida’s core thesis is that reality is structured by the signifier for humans. At the heart of this claim are the two central theses of structuralist linguistics that 1) signifiers are differentially constituted (hence all the stuff about differance and the trace), and 2) that signifiers only refer to other signifiers. As Lacan articulated the latter point, “the signifier represents the subject for another signifier”. Within this framework, then, the referential function is undermined as language only refers to language, never to world. Derrida constantly explores the limits of language– hence his interest in Levinas –but only, it seems to me, as opening on to an Other that exceeds all possibility of being articulated in language.

Methodologically, the conclusion that follows from this is that talk about the world can only ever be talk about talk or language. This can take the form of the analysis of texts, of speech, of the semiotics of clothing, etc. But working in the background is always the thesis that reality is a signifying construction. To talk about an object such as the telephone on my desk is thus not to talk about my telephone, but about a signifying construction (here reference should be made to Derrida’s discussions of manifestation and phenomena vis a vis Peircian semiotics in Of Grammatology). So sure, Derrida talks about hospitality, cosmopolitanism, friendship/fraternity, etc. (whoever suggested otherwise), but isn’t this always on the horizon of a nominalism where reality is linguistically constructed and where we are inextricably trapped within language? Put a little bit differently, of course Derrida talks about objects all the time (coins, cats, dogs, weapons, etc), but he can do this because all of these objects are texts. His dialectic thus unfolds perpetually around a play between the trace of an Other perpetually withdrawing from language and unreachable and the text of being that’s a signifying construction. One operation consists in demonstrating how attempts to fix reference or presence are always undermined by the play of the signifier (“Parergon”, his reading of Kant’s third Critique is an exemplary example of this), while the other operation consists in marking the place or site of the always undetermined Other (the gift might take place, but if it does it will always be an event that takes place behind our backs, that can’t be anticipated, that can’t be known if it does happen, and that can’t be pinned down). The former operation ceaselessly reveals the manner in which signifier refers to signifiers, rather than a transcendental signified (a concept, form, essence, or universal apart from language) or referent (entities that exist independently of language). As a consequence, manifestation or phenomenality is an effect of this differential play of language or the signifier, not a being apart from language itself. The caveat, of course, is that there is always the possibility (which is simultaneously impossible) of a withdrawn Other. This really isn’t what Derrida is arguing?

Ian has written an interesting post discussing computer languages. Here he’s riffing on Morton’s post discussing whether or not computer language should be taught in humanities departments. All of this brings to mind Guattari’s idea of “a-signifying semiotics”. Over the last couple of years I’ve become increasingly critical of the focus on meaning or signification in the humanities and social and political thought. My point is not that meaning and signification aren’t important components of the social world, but only that they are only components or part of the story. This is the point, in part, that I was trying to convey in my recent post on relation. There the idea was that there are all sorts of entities that bring people together and organize social relations that aren’t directly about meaning. Meaning plays a role, but it isn’t the entire story.

However, within the framework of much social and political thought and humanities, the implicit thesis seems to be that it is meaning that holds society together. The glue of society, as it were, is meaning or signification. Take the example of Zizek. For Zizek, it seems, the social world is held together by ideas (ideology). This is why, in his work, critique of ideology is ground zero of political engagement. There the social relations that exist are the result of the ideas or ideology that holds the social together. If you wish to dissolve or change these relations you must dissolve the ideas. My point is not that things such as ideology aren’t a part of that glue, but that there are many other factors besides and that we need to attend to these factors.

Returning to the discussion of computer languages, Guattari’s concept of a-signifying semiotics would be an example of extra-signifying factors that play a role in forming social relations. If I understand Guattari correctly (and I always find him challenging) when he evokes a-signifying semiotics he is referring to forms of operation that manipulate elements in ways that do not involve signification or meaning. The way in which DNA and RNA interact would be an example of, for Guattari, an a-signifying semiotic. However, of greater interest to those of us engaged in social and political thought would be the role that computers increasingly take in our lives. Take the example of book recommendations on Amazon or personalized radio stations such as Pandora on the iPhone. These things function not through signification or meaning, but through a-signifying semiotics. The way in which they select books that you might be interested in or music that you would probably like is through a computer algorithm that has nothing to do with meaning but which, rather, calculates probabilities based on what others have bought and listened to. Other examples of a-signifying semiotics would be the manner in which grocery store purchases are used if you make your purchases using discount cards, credit card ratings, the way your social security number functions in computer banks, etc.

Meaning and signification, of course, gets imbricated in these a-signifying semiotics when we encounter their results, but these operations do not in and of themselves function according to meaning or signification. In the contemporary world, a-signifying semiotics play a growing role in sorting and structuring the destinies of human lives, in forming communities or groups of individuals (Amazon’s book recommendations play a role in forming something like a community of readers with a shared hermeneutic horizon), in bringing people together in particular ways, and in enabling and preventing certain forms of association (all sorts of things are rendered possible or impossible based on credit card ratings). There is a rich domain of research to be done in how operations that proceed through a-signifying semiotics play a role in organizing social relations. So long, however, as we begin from the implicit premise that meaning is the sole glue of the social, all of this remains invisible.

On a whim I downloaded The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris this evening. There’s an interview at the link which gives a sense of what he’s arguing. Harris argues that “ethics is an undeveloped branch of science” and that sciences such as neurology and various social sciences can reveal genuine and objective moral truths. In this respect, Harris is a descendent of thinkers such as Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Deleuze, and many others besides. For him ethics appears to be about living well (and notably he doesn’t restrict this to humans, but to all conscious beings). His thesis seems to be that through neurology and various social sciences we can discover objective facts about forms of practice conducive to these aims and those that tend to undermine these aims. I doubt this will end well, but I’m left wondering how or why he’s wrong. Why is this untrue? We’re all familiar with the normative fallacy and the is/ought fallacy, yet are these genuinely fallacies? Why would it be false to argue that facts about the nature of our being entail truths about how we should live our lives?

Increasingly I find myself reading books on my iPad through the Kindle app. Generally these are pleasure books or books that I don’t plan to use in a scholarly way (such as Michael Pollan’s Botony of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma). But really that’s just it: I would like to use my iPad for scholarly purposes. Not only are electronic books cheaper, but I also believe they are more ecologically friendly. It requires energy to ship books. It requires energy to print books. It requires energy to cut down trees. It requires energy to make paper. It seems obvious to me that eBooks reduce our carbon footprint.

The problem is that in their current format eBooks are nearly useless for scholarly purposes. Because they don’t include paper pagination it’s impossible to cite them. Surely there is an easy way to solve this problem. If we can provide German pagination for Sein und Zeit in English translations, why can’t we make this standard practice for eBooks? I really wish publishers would get on this.

UPDATE: Graham wrote me the following this evening:

I’m not sure why you think I don’t believe that dreams can’t be made real through transformations such as recording them. I’ve said the opposite many times.

It would thus appear that we’re in broad agreement and were talking about distinct issues. It’s always gratifying to discover that a disagreement isn’t really a disagreement at all!

Today, in a thread on Reza’s Facebook page, Robin wrote:

OOO=popeye riding a unicorn, reading a pop science book, with a lava lamp on his head.

I’m not sure if Robin intended this as a mocking criticism or not (it certainly seems that way), but it is an issue worth discussing. Rhetorically Robin’s point seems to be that OOO endorses the existence or reality of fictional entities (and that we engage in pop science). The idea would be that we don’t draw any distinction between fictional and mythological entities such as Popeye and unicorns and material entities like stars or neutrinos. Over at Object-Oriented Philosophy Graham responds to this characterization as follows:

In my position there’s an absolute difference between real and sensual objects. Popeye riding a pink unicorn with a lava lamp on his head would almost certainly not be a real object. (You never know, of course. We’re not omniscient. But I agree that such an entity almost certainly doesn’t exist.)

However, this same Popeye must be accounted for by any ontology worth its salt. Why? Because imaginary things are not utter non-beings. They don’t have independence from the one who is conceiving them as real objects do, but they’re not just nullities or holes of nothingness. I don’t think Raskolnikov is a real object either, but millions of people have read Crime and Punishment and been influenced by it. Raskolnikov needs to be accounted for by ontology.

There’s more, so make sure you read the whole post. As Graham notes, we differ on this issue. I have mixed feelings about Graham’s position here. In my view, the capacity to produce differences is an index of the real. If something can produce differences then it is very likely real. Note, when I claim that the ability to produce differences is an index of the real, I am alluding to an epistemological criteria for counting something as real, not an ontological criteria for what makes something real. Why is this important? This is important because ontologically something can be real or exist without producing any differences with respect to us or anything else. In other words, it is not the production of differences that constitutes the reality of a thing. Rather, the production of differences is merely how we determine whether or not something is real.

read on!

In my view, one of the most attractive features of object-oriented ontology is that it 1) allows us to precisely investigate the forging of relations, and 2) that it therefore introduces the dimension of time into our analysis of collectives of entities. Such an assertion might come as a surprise as the most basic ontological thesis of object-oriented ontology is that objects are independent of relations. Under a superficial reading, this would thus seem to entail that OOO is indifferent to relations or that it wishes to ignore relations, instead focusing on objects sans context. However, this misses the whole point. The thesis that entities are independent of relations is not the thesis that entities don’t enter into relations, but is rather the thesis that relations are variable.

Entities pass in and out of relations and are often indifferent to a number of relations. As Deleuze famously put it, relations are external to their terms. Where, for example, Saussurean linguistics argued that phonemes are constituted by their relations, that they are nothing apart from their relations, this thesis holds that entities are independent of their relations. Entities can enter into relations. Relations can have effects on entities. But nonetheless, entities are not constituted by their relations. To underline this point I use the term “exo-relation” to denote external relations between entities. The point is not that there are no relations, nor that we should ignore those relations. For me, what takes place when entities enter into exo-relations is, in many respect, my primary interest. Rather, the point is that entities can always be detached from these relations. In other words, in one dimension being can be thought as what takes place in both the forging of associations or relations, and what takes place in the breaking of associations or relations. What new manifestations come to the fore when relations or associations are forged and broken? However, if we’re to properly think such things we must begin with the premise that entities are anterior to or independent of their relations. For those of you who might have missed it, that’s an argument. If it is possible for relations to be formed and broken, made and unmade, then it follows that entities must be independent of their relations. Without this we’d be at a loss to understand how any relation can be made or unmade.

read on!

Daniel has written a lengthy post responding to my remarks about objects yesterday. I can’t possibly respond to all of it and remain true to my parental duties, teaching duties, and other projects, so I wanted to restrict myself to commenting on a particular passage. Daniel writes:

My next problem resides particularly in Levi’s account in the apparent epistemological consequences that seem to follow from these metaphysical thesis. Particularly, the consequences that follow given the epistemic inaccessibility of how real objects must correspond to their real powers, as inferred through their local manifestations; and how many real objects correspond to local manifestations(quantity). We are thereby left in the dark about how local manifestations are suitable indexes to infer integrate real objects as their causal, virtual anchors. For example, the redness in the billiard ball is by implication the redness of a virtual power in a real, virtual object. But this doesn’t help us in determining the qualitative identity of this virtual object, or indeed about whether the local manifestation corresponds to a virtual power in one virtual object or many.

Levi seems perfectly at ease with accepting this result. He claims that indeed we have no resources to attain certainty about the qualities or integrity about the real counterparts to the local manifestations we perceive, and so that construing knowledge around certainty appears an incommensurable demand. Yet I think my worries are not so much about certainty as a condition for knowledge, but about the possibility of degrees of adequation. If there are no epistemic criteria to distinguish which descriptions/perceptions/actions might be better suited to coin their real counterparts than any others, then it seems we are delivered back into a form of correlationist agnosticism about the real, where the latter is thinkable, perhaps even as the necessary anchor for our experience, but never known in its ontic specificity. Therefore, the virtual powers we take to be manifested in actuality might correspond to anything our verbal stock might want to stipulate is in the ‘great outdoors’. There might be a theory about how experience or experimentation isolates objects in a way that restricts the scope of individuation, but this is a tricky issue for OOO given the irreductionist thesis.

In my view, an obsession with how we represent the world or how propositions hook on to reality is a endemic to a great deal of philosophy of science and epistemology. In this model of philosophy, we begin with a proposition– say, “bacteria cause fermentation” –and then seek to determine how this proposition hooks on to the world or represents it. All the emphasis is placed on the truth-conditions of the proposition or those conditions that would determine its adequacy to what it purports to represent. There are a variety of reasons that I find this approach problematic, but I above all believe that such an approach suffers from beginning with results (propositions purporting to count as knowledge) rather than the process by which these results are produced.

read on!

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