February 2011


Wow! Bruce Sterling has a post up on Wired talking about speculative realism!

For those are interested, you’ll find my Georgia Tech talk below. It seemed fairly well received and generated a lot of lively discussion, which is always nice. At any rate, here it is, “The Faintest of Traces: Objects and the Self-Organization of Social Assemblages”: fainttrace1.

At the heart of object-oriented ontology is something of a surprising paradox. Object-oriented ontology treats objects as black boxes. This is part of what it means to say that objects are withdrawn. To say that objects are black boxes is to say that neither we nor any other entity has any direct access to their inner world. That inner world is beyond representation. It is here that the paradox emerges. While object-oriented ontology treats objects as withdrawn from relations, it turns out that because of withdrawal knowledge of objects becomes thoroughly relational (is this really such a surprise?).

What we know in knowing is not the object per se, but rather the relation. Here knowledge shifts from the register of representation to performance. Because objects are black boxes they will always have the capacity to surprise. Representation is unable to predict the behavior of objects based on a representation of the object, but rather must set the object loose in the world to see what it does. As Pickering nicely describes it, “[t]his is the aspect of cybernetics that interests me most: the aspect that assumes an ontology of unknowability, as one might call it, and tries to address the problematic of getting along performatively with systems that can always surprise us…” (The Cybernetic Brain, 23). As Pickering goes on to remark, “[o]ne is more concerned with what entities do than what they are” (28).

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Recovering from an exhausting yet highly productive and exciting trip to Georgia Tech, I was excited to see that Alex Reid has a VERY INTERESTING post up on object-oriented rhetoric. In his discussion, Reid draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “collective assemblages of enunciation”. Deleuze and Guattari develop the concept of collective assemblages of enunciation most clearly in “The Postulates of Linguistics” in A Thousand Plateaus, but you’ll also find the concept deployed in Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. For me, this concept, along with the complementary concept of machinic assemblages is ground zero of flat ontology. Why is this and what’s going on here?

I’m always surprised that “The Postulates of Linguistics” hasn’t received more attention in the secondary literature. Perhaps this has something to do with the period in which Deleuze broke in the United States. Dominated by the linguistic turn, Deleuze and Guattari offered an alternative to the obsessive focus on the symbolic allowing us to think forms of being outside the domain of the signifier. As a consequence, perhaps their work on language fell to the wayside. Now that this tendency is beginning to change, it’s possible to draw attention to these areas of their thought once again.

Perhaps the best way to approach Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of collective assemblages of enunciation and machinic assemblages is in terms how the superstructure/base distinction functions in vulgar forms of Marxist thought. Here base can be roughly conceived as technologies, material conditions, natural resources, geography, etc., while superstructure would consist of laws, morals, the semiotic, art, philosophies, etc., etc., etc. For years now one standard critique of Marxist thought has been that it falls prey to a technological determinism by virtue of a simplistic understanding of how the base determines the content of superstructure. Beginning with theorists such as Gramsci and Lukacs, attention was increasingly drawn to the domain of the superstructure or the semiotic. This would intensify through Althusser and Zizek and Badiou until eventually we got a framework in which the symbolic had become the new base and the material domain became the new superstructure. In other words, what we seem to have is an inversion of the relation between these two domains. Where the old school Marxists saw transformations in the base as the condition for political transformation, new school Marxists seem to see transformations in the superstructure as the condition for political transformation.

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The last set of page corrections have been sent off to the editors. I’m told this means that the book should be available in .pdf form in the next few weeks, while the paper version will be available in the next six weeks or so. Exciting times!

Edinburgh University Press is now releasing a new book series devoted to speculative realism. Read about it here at Graham’s blog. Exciting news!

The question that really fascinates me is that of how social assemblages hold together. When we look at the world about us we notice that social assemblages are patterned, that they have a certain degree of regularity, and that they have a certain durability in time. Why don’t they fall apart? Why do human beings maintain regular and ongoing patterned relations in the way that they do? Why don’t they succumb to entropy? There’s a scene from the Travolta film Michael that gets at this point. The arch-angel Michael is talking about his contributions to human history, and among them he lists the invention of standing in line. “Before that”, Michael remarked, “people just kinda milled about. It was a mess.” So that’s really the question. Why don’t people just mill about? How do people come to routinely stand in line? How do regular patterned relations that endure in time emerge when, by all rights, the social world should just be a sort of chaos with people milling about in a sort of endless Brownian motion without order?

Social theory and the social sciences give us a lot of answers to these questions. Sometimes we’re told that it’s the domain of representation and meaning that holds people together. Representation is here treated as the glue of social assemblages. Here I use representation very broadly to include norms, laws, signs, beliefs, narratives, ideologies, myths and all the rest. While clearly these must be important components of social assemblage, I think we need only look at any online discussion list to see why it falls short. Even among discussion lists composed by people who have very similar aims– say a political discussion list devoted to a particular party –we encounter just how diverse the representations are that inhabit people. Endlessly we encounter just how different people are in their beliefs, their understanding of the world, the narratives that inform them, their interpretations of others, and so on. Doesn’t this reveal that the domain of representation is a pretty weak glue? Can representation really account for why people don’t just mill about in Brownian motion, in a high state of entropy? We are elsewhere told, in a similar vein, that society is held together by “structures”. Yet the concept of structure doesn’t really seem to tell us very much. In a way structure is like Newton’s concept of gravity. Newton’s told us that there are certain regularities in the motion of objects, but it did not tell us the mechanism by which gravity is exercised. For many centuries this was a question quietly brushed under the carpet. We also talk about power, yet here we face again the question of why people internalize power, how different people internalize it in a regular or similar fashion, and why we recognize it at all.

It seems that social theory needs a shift similar to that between the shift from Newtonian physics to Einsteinian physics. Newton conceived of gravity as a sort of force that somehow attracts bodies to one another. The big mystery was how such connections could take place between objects located vast distances apart in space. Einstein’s revolution consisted of seeing space-time as a sort of fabric that is bent, warped, and curved by the mass of the objects that populate it. Here there is no force that exercises gravity, but rather, there is a curvature of space along which objects “roll” in relation to one another. The manner in which the sun curves space creates a sort of curve along which the other planets “roll”, keeping them in the orbit of the sun. Likewise in the relation between the moon and the earth.

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