April 2011


This is probably obvious, but if you’re not revealing your public or “meatsphere” identity in blog and internet discussions, then you have no business participating in these discussions. I’m pretty lax with this rule. So long as you’re civil, respectful, and play above board, I care little about whether or not you reveal your identity. However, if you wish to engage in any sort of critique, snark, insult, or attack, I take it as a basic principle that you’re obligated to reveal your identity. Why? Because you should have an existential stake in what you say. The rest of us do insofar as we speak through and in the name of our own meatsphere identities, so there’s no reason this shouldn’t be requested of the rest of you who would like to participate. The very fact that anyone speaks without revealing their public identity reveals that they are either ashamed of what it is that they are claiming or that they realize what they are claiming violates norms of civility and public discourse. Just as Kant recognizes that the person who wishes to tell a lie recognizes that they would like to make themselves an exception to a rule such that they want others to recognize that truth telling is a readily recognized condition of honesty, those who participate online in an abusive and combative fashion without revealing their identity would like everyone else to recognize norms of civil discourse without themselves obeying those conditions. You would like to attack the credibility of others without putting your own credibility on the line (and oddly those who have contested this obvious principle have often been among the strongest defenders of deontological Kantian ethics in this domain… this begs the true psychological and political motives of such people). So hey, critique and attack all you want, but at least have the guts to put your own name on the line professionally. What are you hiding? Why are you ashamed of what you say? In the meantime, if you are a coward and have no stake in the game, if you are only concerned with my stake in these communications or dialogues without putting yourself in them, then I feel no obligation to post your comments. What is it, again, that you’re hiding? C’mon folks, fess up, let’s see you put yourself on the line. Oh that’s right, you had nothing to offer to discussion in the first place. If you did you wouldn’t be hiding who you are. Your secretive identities reveals the truth of the position from which you argue.

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For anyone who’s interested, my summer book project will be The Domestication of Humans: A Prolegomena to Posthumanist Sociology. This will be something of a sequel to The Democracy of Objects, working through the positive implications of OOO for social and political analysis. To date, OOO and SR have remained mired in a merely negative stance towards humanism embodied in its critique of correlationism. The positive correlate (pardon the pun) of anti-correlationism is posthumanism. Posthumanism, unlike antihumanism, does not abolish the human-world correlate, but rather pluralizes correlation, such that human-world correlation no longer enjoys pride of place, but where, rather, we must now theorize a variety of different and distinct systems in examining the social world. Put a bit differently, the social world, artificial life, under this model, can no longer be thought as consisting exclusively of humans, but rather includes a variety of different agencies above and below the human, ranging from microbes to animals, climates, topo-geographies, economies or markets, media systems, technologies, corporations, political movements, etc.. Unfortunately, “posthumanism” carries the implication that somehow humans have been surpassed (and in a way they are), suggesting that humans can be abolished. A more accurate characterization of this form of thought would be “alien theory”, following Bogost’s “alien phenomenology, where the alien is taken into account and treated as a genuine actant in situations.

Drawing heavily on Luhmann, von Uexkull, and first- and second-order cybernetics, I will argue that any form of social and political thought that fails to take into account this pluralism of agencies involved in collectives is doomed to pose questions of ethics and politics in a distorted manner due to the absence of these other actants in our analysis of situations and deliberations about situations. The “domestication of humans” thus has two valences or significations within the scope of this project. On the one hand, it refers to the theoretical domestication of humanism run amok in philosophy, social, and political theory that has led to an entire series of poorly posed questions resulting from the privileging of the human-world correlate. For too long entire sets of actants or agencies have been entirely invisible to our social and political thought due to our correlationist and humanist assumptions, thereby preventing us from properly analyzing the social assemblages that populate the world. Second, the domestication of humans refers to the manner in which agencies other than the human have formed the human in a variety of ways so as to further their own ends (their own reproduction and conquest of the world). These agencies include things such as microbes, many plants and animals, economies or markets, technologies, media systems, etc. When we abandon the non-immanent approach to, for example, machines, where we treat machines as mere tools that humans use for their own ends, we discover an entire domain of hyperobjects and systems that have their own aims and ends that use and mold humans in the furtherance of these ends. Failure to properly take this into account entails that our social and political questions will be hopelessly confused as they will be haunted by all sorts of missing masses or variables… That is, they will be haunted by covert and hidden actors of which we’re scarcely aware.

For me the concept of entropy is a key concept of my OOO, if not the key concept. Yet I often find myself surprised by the response when I discuss entropy. Apparently, the immediate association many in the humanities have to this concept is that of decay and heat death. This, of course, is an important feature of the conception of entropy but is, in many respects, its most superficial aspect. Entropy, rather, is a measure of the order present in a system. A high entropy system is a system in which there is equal probability that an element will be located anywhere in the system. Such a system is characterized by having a high degree of information. This entails that such systems have low message value. By contrast, a low entropy system (what I call an “object”) is a system in which given the position of any particular element, the position of the all the other elements is readily determinable. Such systems have high message message value due to the low probability of their elements being organized in this way.

These concepts are of profound significance for social and political theory. All of social and political thought is, in one way or another, meditations on entropy. Societies are low entropy systems in which, across time, relations among elements composing society are highly regular and structured. Given the position of one element in such a system such as a black person or a working class person, the position of the other elements can be discerned. In “The Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception” von Foerster distinguishes between “trivial machines” and “non-trivial machines”. A trivial machine is a machine in which there is one-to-one correspondance between input and output. Given a particular input you will get a particular output. Press the button on your remote and the TV turns on. Such is what is ultimately meant by the “State” (“State” is not government, but rather government is a second-order system redundantly supervening on the State that regulates State when high entropic elements intervene. In this regard, government always marks the insufficiency of the State insofar as it implies the need for second-order mechanisms to intervene and steer the state. This is what Badiou means by “the state of the state”.) By contrast, a non-trivial machine is a machine in which the previous output of the machine modifies subsequent outputs.

All societies aspire to be trivial machines, such that given any inputs their elements will produce certain outputs. Such is the nature of despotic and oppressive regimes. This is what Foucault meant by power. Every regime or diagram of power is a mechanism for producing a trivial machine. Every diagram of power is thus a way of fighting entropy. Social and political thought investigates trivial machines or those machines by which entropy is minimized in societies. Hopefully, in the investigation of these machines, the aim is not to strengthen them, but to discover the machines by which oppressive regimes or machines function so as to target them. All questions of change and revolution are questions of how to introduce entropy into low entropy systems. This, however, is not a celebration of entropy for the sake of entropy, but rather is a question of producing other, more egalitarian, more just, more universal low entropy systems.

Between Lovecraft and Kafka we get two very different sci-fi, horror genres of withdrawn objects. Mel likes to joke that Lovecrafts stories and novels always involve men going in arctic mountains. Lovecraftian horror is not simply weird, but rather is a form of horror that depicts an encounter with absolute alterity. The Lovecraftian monster is a monster that is such a strange stranger (in Morton’s terminology) that it elides all possibility of being a neighbor. For this reason this form of horror deserves to be called, drawing on Jaques-Alain Miller’s term, extimate horror. Extimate horror spells the ruin of Kantian synthesis. The madness experienced in Lovecraft’s arctic escapades results from an encounter so foreign, so thorough, so extimate that it cannot be synthesized by any categories, meanings, signifiers, codes, etc. Lovecraft’s monsters are thoroughly other, non-related, beyond domestication, and thoroughly unheimlich. These monsters are beyond any sort of relation or synthesis. It is, no doubt, here that we encounter the link between Lovecraft’s sci-fi/horror and his deep xenophobia.

In Kafka we encounter a very different sort of sci-fi/horror and its accompanying withdrawal, born not of extimacy, but rather of intimacy. Where Lovecraft’s monsters are thoroughly other, the horror of Kafka’s monsters lies in their claustrophobic proximity. This proximity is strange because the characters are simultaneously entangled in it while the monster is nonetheless withdrawn. While there is an absolute separation and distance in the relation between Lovecraft’s monsters and the adventurous scientists, the horror of Kafka is that distance and separation is not possible. Lovecraft’s monsters are the “Great Old Ones”. Kafka’s monsters, by contrast, are purely anonymous entities that have names like “Law” and “Castle” that we nonetheless inhabit somewhat like a members of a Borg collective without techno-telepathic communication. Like an insect in a spider web, Joseph K. is entangled in these monsters, yet the threads of these monsters are terrifying in that they are simultaneously intimate, pervading every and all aspects of interiority or psychic life, bodily life, and social life, yet are thoroughly invisible and withdrawn. The presence of these monsters is suffocating and oppressive because traces of them are everywhere ubiquitous, yet these monsters are perpetually withdrawn and impossible to capture. Here we have a very different failure of synthesis. Such is the lesson of the parable of the law in The Trial.

The excruciatingly painful horror of Kafka’s monsters is that we are part of them, that we are entangled within them, yet in such a way that we are simultaneously independent and forever unable to determine what, precisely, it is that we are entangled in. This is one of the reasons that Kafka’s sci-fi/horror has evoked so many poor theological readings. One might suggest that Kafka’s literature is a humanist literature due to the manner in which novels like The Trial and The Castle revolve around the figure of Joseph K. Yet as we read these novels we sense that we’ve entered an atmosphere very different than the one breached by Montaigne and Descartes.

In Kafka’s universe we encounter all sorts of figures, apparently human, that are gears and cogs in a machine rather than persons in their own right. This comes out with special clarity in the open of Amerika with the figure of the stoker. We encounter institutions and entities that are agencies in their own right like the Law and the Castle that aren’t remotely human in their organization, functioning, or experience. No doubt Kafka, in his profession and his peculiar historical moment, was particularly positioned to discern the existence of entities or autopoietic machines that could no longer be comprehended as mere accretions of human intentions and meanings. We also encounter endless explorations of machines and animals throughout his work. In Kafka what we encounter is the story of a human entangled in a posthumanist universe. And if Kafka’s horror is deeply terrifying, then it is precisely because some of these machines draw on humans as sources of energy to perpetuate themselves without us ever being able to determine the precise nature of the vampiric machine (yet another theme in Kafka’s early letters) that devours us.

For anyone who’s interested, there’s a free .pdf of Heinz von Foester’s Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition here. This is a great find as it is both a seminal text in second wave cybernetics and a very expensive text (ordinarily costing $129).

Next Fall I’d like to organize my intro to philosophy course around cybernetic and ecophilosophical process-relational themes. Does anyone have suggestions for accessible books for first year students? Morton’s Ecological Thought would probably be a good choice. Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings is a possibility. I’m toying with Johnston’s Allure of Machinic life. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World might be a possibility. Any other suggestions?

In an amusing facebook post Creston Davis remarks that “ideology is closer than our underwear”. In light of the demoralizing discussion I’ve been having with Ross in comments (not because of Ross, but just because of the situation), this got me wondering whether the left wouldn’t do better to produce ideology rather than critique ideology. Ross writes,

The only realistic path to fundamentally transform society lies in reconstituting a strong international Leftist (Marxist) current in the most advanced capitalist countries (i.e., Europe, North America).

I don’t know if I agree with the restriction of such a project to the most advanced capitalist countries, but I largely agree with his sentiment overall. The question is one of how, precisely, it is possible to do this. Insofar as, following Creston, ideology is closer than our underwear, how precisely do we go about creating a strong leftist current? The right worked for decades to create strong rightwing consensus. They accomplished this success by capturing a number of media outlets, forming think tanks, and seeding the world of social communication with all sorts of memes that became unconscious common sense or “obvious” throughout the world.

There’s a way in which the critique of ideology, while having an important place, is doomed to be reactive, such that ground is perpetually ceded to the right. The right proposes, the left disposes. As a consequence, the left perpetually follows behind the right because it must await the “proposals” of the right before it can dispose. Meanwhile, in the ever receding logic of objet a or a game of “hunt the snipe”, the right is always elsewhere once critique has done its work. As a consequence, the terrain of battle becomes perpetually defined by the right. The right ends up defining the contours or parameters of discussion such that we get a rightwing sensus communis structuring the social field.

As both later Sartre and Badiou recognized, the only way to produce change is through the production of collectives or subject-groups capable of lifting us out of seriality. Yet the only way to produce collectives is through the formation of a sensus communis. This means that questions of the distribution of meanings, of ideological sequences, is crucial to any leftist project. It means that questions of “the sense of the world”, to quote Nancy’s term, are central to leftist political engagement. A recognition of this, I believe, is why thinkers like Badiou and Zizek have, of late, been so interested in the figure of Saint Paul. Yet such questions of distribution cannot simply focus on what senses are distributed, but must also focus on strategies of distribution. Enough for now.

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