May 2011


In a previous post I began developing an object-oriented account of love. Building on this, we can ask, what is the ontological and philosophical significance of love? I wish I could take credit in answering this question, but my thoughts here are deeply influenced by Badiou. Despite the heteronormativity of his account of love, I do believe his theory of love is among the finest aspects of his thought. It will be recalled that for Badiou there are four conditions of philosophy: a doctrine of science or the matheme, a doctrine of politics, a doctrine of art, and a doctrine of love. Badiou’s aim– one which I share –is to think that present of the present. He wishes to think that which is most vital, most true, in the present. What are those truths, Badiou asks, that characterize the present of the present, the eternity of the present? What bit of the eternal and the universal do we manage to grasp in our present? Such is Badiou’s project.

For Badiou the aim is to think the compossibility of truths in these four domains. Compossibility is among the most profound concepts we inherit from Leibniz. In Leibniz’s thought “compossibility” refers to the way in which entities an events in the world hold or cohere together. For example, the world in which Nero did not persecute the Christians is incompossible with the world in which I exist. Had Nero not persecuted the Christians, a series of other historical events would have not taken place that led to my existence. These events include the presence and absence of particular human beings, the form that culture subsequently took, the way the environment was influenced over the course of this history, etc., etc., etc. In short, my existence is “compossible” with the world in which Nero persecuted the Christians. Had Nero not done this it’s unlikely that Christianity would have become the dominant religion in the West and I would not exist as the peculiar critter that I am. Would my parents have even been brought together without this history?

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In the opening pages of Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett puts her finger on what I would call the central materialist aspiration of my own onticology. Bennett writes,

The political project of the book is, to put it most ambitiously, to encourage more intelligent and sustainable engagements with vibrant matter and lively things. A guiding question: How would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies? By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things– edibles, commodities, storms, metals –not only impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own. My aspiration is to articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans to see how analyses of political events might change if we gave the force of things more due. How, for example, would patterns of consumption change if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or “the recycling,” but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter? What difference would it make to public health if eating was understood as an encounter between various and variagated bodies, some of them mine, most of them not, and none of which always gets the upper hand? What issues would surround stem cell research in the absence of the assumption that the only source of vitality in matter is a soul or spirit? What difference would it make to the course of energy policy were electricity to be figured not simply as a resource, commodity, or instrumentality but also and more radically as an “actant”?

The term is Bruno Latour’s: an actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events. It is "any entity that modifies another entity in a trial," something whose "competence is deduced from [its] performance" rather than posited in advance of the action. (viii)

It could be said that there are roughly two types of materialism. There is, on the one hand, that materialism that sees “…matter as a passive stuff, as raw, brute, or inner” (vii). Conceived in this way, manner is purely passive and is thought in a matter akin to the relationship between wax and a signet ring. Here the wax, of course, is matter. The question is what is the signet ring? In this kind of materialism the answer is always the same: human intentionality and activity. Whether in the form of human concepts, language, signs, labor, etc., matter is seen as a passive stuff that merely receives the impress of the human. At most matter is treated as that which resists the human will to impress our form upon it. Matter is denied any agency of its own. Matter instead dumbly awaits our impress of form. Whenever we speak with Hegel of “objective spirit” or “externalized spirit” or with Marx of matter as “dead labor” we are implicitly endorsing this sort of materialism.

Of course, it is clear that this isn’t a materialism at all, but rather a crypto-idealism. If this is a crypto-materialism, then this is because it treats externalized human thought in matter as the only thing that is relevant. The matter is treated as if it were only a medium, a vehicle, carrying human concepts and intentions. Here our mode of analysis is one in which all of nature is but a reflection, a mirror, of us. We call ourselves materialists because we don’t merely analyzes concepts and thoughts after the manner of Hegel and Kant, but instead analyze institutions, practices, and “material conditions”. Yet oddly, in this “materialism”, we treat all of nature as an externalized reflection of our own aims, intentions, concepts, meanings, etc. In this “materialism”, the human somehow remains the central reference point and matter is like a canvas upon which humans externalize their own intentions. Lucretius would spin in his grave were it not for the fact that he’s dead and his consciousness has expired.

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I’ve often found myself returning to these lines from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus with wonder and admiration:

…we always make love with worlds. And our love addresses itself to this libidinal property of our lover, to either close himself off or open up to more spacious worlds, to masses and large aggregates. And isn’t it in this way that we must understand the famous formula of Marx?– the relationship between man and woman is “the direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person.” That is, the relationship between the two sexes (man and woman) is only the measure of the relationship of sexuality in general, insofar as it invests large aggregates (man and man)? (AO, 294)

To fall in love is to fall in love with the world of another person. In earlier writings I have distinguished between World and Earth. World is the particular manner in which an object is open to its environment. It is that which the transcendental idealists and phenomenologists are analyzing when they speak of “reality”. Earth is the field of that which exists, regardless of whether it is available for any being’s world. Deleuze and Guattari introduce the notion of “disjunctive synthesis”. A disjunctive synthesis is a “relation of non-relation”. In Deleuze’s technical vocabulary, a disjunctive synthesis is a synthesis of divergent series that do not converge yet somehow manage to communicate by virtue of a difference that passes between them like a spark. Consider the relationship between me and my cat. My cat and I share entirely different worlds even though we inhabit one and the same earth or heteroverse. There is no point where our worlds converge, yet nonetheless certain differential events flash across our distinct and divergent worlds, creating a relation in this non-relation. Somehow our worlds come to be imbricated and entangled with one another, even though they don’t converge on any sort of sameness.

Perhaps there are two types of love. On the one hand, there is perhaps the sort of love that Aristophenes describes in Plato’s Symposium, where love is premised on the same. Here love is a conjunctive synthesis, where the two lovers converge on identity, as they strive for the same. It seems to me that this love is always doomed to death. It is a machine that can’t work or function precisely because, as a result of a sterile repetition, it lacks the differential energy to perpetuate itself or continue itself. It ceases to have anything to talk about, much less any reason to make love. On the other hand, there is disjunctive love. Disjunctive love is a love that somehow occurs in divergent worlds that nonetheless occupy the same earth.

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In “The Ontic Principle” I argue that “…all objects are defined by their affects or capacities to act or be acted upon” (The Speculative Turn, 274). Affects refer to the powers or capacities of an object, and define the relational dimension of substances or how they interface or port with other objects in the world. As Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg put it,

Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more stained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passage or variations between these intensities and resonances. (The Affect Theory Reader)

Seigworth and Gregg go on to say that “affect is in many ways synonymous with force or forces of encounter” (ibid.). On the one hand, there are affects in the form of the acts of which an object is capable. These are active affects. My ability to play chess, use my body in particular ways, speak, etc., are all active affects. These are powers or capacities that reside in me. They are ways in which I can act upon the world around me. In the literature on affect it seems as if this dimension of affect is often ignored or de-emphasized. On the other hand, there are the variety of ways in which a body or object can be affected. These are the passive affects. The sounds and and frequencies of light I am capable of experiencing, the signs that I am capable of reading or interpreting (even without realizing that I’m doing so), the emotions that I experience, etc., are all forms of passive affects. They are ways in which other objects affect me.

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I received an email announcing this new journal this morning. Justin Shaffner, one of the editors, has always been pretty sympathetic to OOO so if there’s anyone doing ethnography in an OOO vein this might be a good venue to consider:

HAU, Journal of Ethnographic Theory, is an international, peer-reviewed, open-access and copyleft journal which aims to situate ethnography as the prime heuristic of anthropology, and return it to the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline. The journal aims to publish online suitable manuscripts within six months from their receipt.

The idea for the Journal arose from two concerns that we think have made anthropology partially stagnant in recent decades. The first relates to the increased relevance allocated in the discipline to philosophical and social theory at the expense of ethnography, and the second to the wider crisis in academic publishing and the possibilities afforded by the digital revolution and the recent open-access initiatives in the humanities.

The journal is motivated by the need to reinstate ethnographic theorization in contemporary anthropology as a potent alternative to its ‘explanation’ or ‘contextualization’ by philosophical arguments, moves which have resulted in a loss of the discipline’s distinctive theoretical nerve. By drawing out its potential to critically engage and challenge Western cosmological assumptions and conceptual determinations, HAU aims to provide an exciting new arena for evaluating ethnography as a daring enterprise for ‘worlding’ alien terms and forms of life, by exploiting their potential for rethinking humanity and alterity.

HAU takes its name from Mauss’ Spirit of the Gift, an anthropological concept that derives its theoretical potential precisely from the translational inadequations and equivocations involved in comparing the incomparable. Through their reversibility, such inferential misunderstandings invite us to explore how encounters with alterity occasion the resurgence and revisitation of indigenous knowledge practices. As an online journal, HAU stresses immediacy of publication, allowing for the timely publication and distribution of untimely ideas. Aiming to attract the most daring thinkers in the discipline, regardless of position or background, HAU also places no restriction on further publication of material published by the journal.

HAU welcomes submissions that strengthen ethnographic engagement with received knowledges, and revive the vibrant themes of anthropology through debate and engagement with other disciplines and explore domains held until recently to be the province of economics, philosophy and the natural sciences. Topics addressed by the journal include indigenous ontologies and systems of knowledge, forms of human engagement and relationality, cosmology and myth, magic, witchcraft and sorcery, truth and falsehood, indigenous theories of kinship and relatedness with humans and non-humans, hierarchy, materiality, perception, environment and space, time and temporality, personhood and subjectivity, alternative metaphysics of morality.

HAU will launch online in Fall 2011 with a special double issue on the Return of Ethnographic Theory, which puts forward the concept of the journal with original contributions from Jeanne Favret-Saada, David Graeber, Wang Mingming, Laura Nader, Marshall Sahlins, Gregory Schrempp, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Roy Wagner, and many others.

Alongside the online journal, Hau is coordinating two additional lines of publication:

1) An open-access monograph series, entitled Classics in Ethnographic Theory. By reprinting modern or forgotten classics in ethnographic theory, we hope to revive interest in seminal monographs and illustrate how the work of ‘ethnographic theorists’ such as Pitt-Rivers anticipated philosophical debates in Continental Philosophy (i.e. Derrida on ‘hostipitality’). Each monograph will be prefaced by a prominent contemporary anthropologist. This series will commence with a reprint of Prytz-Johansen’s superb yet virtually unknown study of Maori ontologies: The Maori and his Religion (1954), prefaced by Marshall Sahlins.

2) A Masterclass Series of important lectures and course notes. Vivieros de Castro’s unabridged Cambridge lectures on perspectivism, prefaced by Roy Wagner, will inaugurate this series.

Website: http://www.haujournal.org

In their extended mind article, Clark and Chalmers compare the beliefs of Inga, a woman who has ordinary bi-memory, and an Alzheimer’s patient, Otto, who suffers from memory loss. As they write,

consider a normal case of belief embedded in memory. Inga hears from a friend that there is an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and decides to go see it. She thinks for a moment and recalls that the museum is on 53rd Street, so she walks to 53rd Street and goes into the museum. It seems clear that Inga believes that the museum is on 53rd Street, and that she believed this even before she consulted her memory. It was not previously an occurrent belief, but then neither are most of our beliefs. The belief was sitting somewhere in memory, waiting to be accessed.

Now consider Otto. Otto suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and like many Alzheimer’s patients, he relies on information in the environment to help structure his life. Otto carries a notebook around with him everywhere he goes. When he learns new information, he writes it down. When he needs some old information, he looks it up. For Otto, his notebook plays the role usually played by a biological memory. Today, Otto hears about the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and decides to go see it. He consults the notebook, which says that the museum is on 53rd Street, so he walks to 53rd Street and goes into the museum.

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From time to time people have raised questions about why SR/OOO might have arisen at the time it did. I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive answer to this question, but I suspect that it has a lot to do with the unique experience of our generation, especially as it pertains to the new technologies. Folks like Graham, Morton, Bogost, and I lived through a fundamental transformation of culture. We saw the first Ataris, then the personal computer, transformations in the telephone involving call waiting, caller ID, multi-party calls, the rise of cable television, the invention of the cell phone, the rise of the internet, the transformation of grocery stores and food, etc., etc., etc. We have lived through and in a transition between two cultures. As Jameson suggests in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, such transitional lives between histories tend to generate a particular critical and speculative sensibility.

We have lived– as does the current generation that grew up in this ecology –in a world awash in objects of all sorts. Not only did we develop in a world of objects, we developed in a world awash in mysterious or withdrawn objects (here, for some reason, Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive and Christine both come to mind as they depict a world animated by all sorts of mysterious, frighteningly lively machines). And what we discovered, perhaps, as we began our studies in the world of theory was that that theory was deeply inadequate in helping us to understand this strange new world we were living in. Roughly we were presented with three options: the linguistic turn focusing on signifiers, texts, and signs, phenomenology focusing on the analysis of intentionality and lived embodied experience, and the new historicists with their focus on networks of power and discursive structures.

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