I’ve been rather hard on Adorno lately, so it is high time I discuss the other side of the coin. Opening Adorno’s Negative Dialectics is always like listening to a jarring and brilliant symphony or enjoying a fine bottle of wine. In his conception of negative dialectics I think he gets at precisely what I’m trying to articulate, though not nearly as well, in my critique of representation and development of onticology. At the outset of Negative Dialectics, Adorno writes,

The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder, that they come to contradict the traditional norm of adequacy… It indicates the untruth of identity, the fact that the concept does not exhaust the thing conceived. (5)

If object-oriented ontology is anything it is an attempt, I believe, to bear witness to, to tarry with, those remainders that elude the manic drive to identity embodied in conceptualization. If I itch, experiencing an almost allergic reaction whenever questions of representation, truth, and norms arise, then this is precisely because I encounter a sort of drive to identity, a reduction of alterity and heterogeneity, an eradication of queerness, nascent in all discourses that focus on these questions. The point is not that we don’t represent, make true and false claims about the world, etc., but rather that discourses focused on these things tend to erase the remainder, the different, the heterogeneous. Here I’m reminded of a passage from Augustine’s De Ordine I wrote about long ago in 2006, before OOO came along in my thought. There Augustine writes:

The soul therefore, holding fast to this order, and now devoted to philosophy, at first introspects itself; and– as soon as that mode of learning has persuaded it that reason either is the soul itself or belong to it, and that there is in reason nothing more excellent or dominant than numbers, or that reason is nothing else than number– soliloquizes thus: ‘By some kind of inner and hidden activity of mine, I am able to analyze and synthesize the things that ought to be learned; and this faculty of mine is called reason.’… Therefore, both in analzying and in synthesizing, it is oneness that I see, it is oneness that I love. But when I analyze, I seek a homogenous unit; and when I synthesize, I look for an integral unit. In the former case, foreign elements are avoided; in the latter, proper elements are conjoined to form something united and perfect. In order that a stone be a stone, all its parts and its entire nature have been consolidated into one. What about a tree? Is it not true that it would not be a tree if it were not one? What about the members and entrails of any animate being, or any of its component parts? Of a certainty, if they undergo a severance of unity, it will no longer be an animal. And what else do friends strive for, but to be one? And the more they are one, so much the more they are friends. A population forms a city, and dissension is full of danger for it: to dissent– what is that, but to think diversely? An army is made up of many soldiers. And is not any multitude so much the less easily defeated in proportion as it is the more closely united? In fact, the joining is itself called a coin, a co-union, as it were. What about every kind of love? Does it not wish to become one with what it is loving? And if it reaches its object, does it not become one with it? Carnal pleasure affords such ardent delight for no other reason than because the bodies of lovers are brought into union. Why is sorrow distressful? Because it tries to rend what used to be one. (chapter 18, paragraph 48)

The implication is clear. In its drive to the one, to identity, that which is heterogeneous and different is to be destroyed, eradicated, erased. In a similar vein, we find Plotinus remarking that “If a man has been immersed in filth or daubed with mud, his native comeliness disappears and all that is seen is the foul stuff besmearing him: his ugly condition is due to the alien matter that has encrusted him, and if he is to win back his grace it must be his business to scour and purify himself and make himself what he was” (Ennead I, sixth tractate, paragraph 5). At the psychological and social level, of course, we see exactly how this will play out. Here “dirt” is the remainder or that which refuses to be integrated as one or under identity. While cleaning the body of dirty is a fairly innocent thing– although cleaning the soul of “dirt” will psychologically be another matter entirely –cleaning society of dirt often leads to grotesque and brutal results. In society dirt will always be the Jew, the immigrant, minorities, people who live alternative lifestyles, etc., etc., etc. We get a disciplinary matrix that implicitly strives to reduce to the same and erase the remainder.

read on!

And perhaps, at least within the framework of OOO, this is what the critique of correlationism is all about. Adorno characterizes the essence of thought as the thinking of identity. As such, thought erases the remainder or difference. Such is the lesson of Lacan’s discourse of the master:

In Lacan’s four discourses the upper left hand position is the agent of the discourse, the upper right is the other of the discourse (to whom the discourse is addressed), the lower right is the product of the discourse, and the lower left is the unconscious truth of the discourse or what the discourse seeks to veil or cover over. In the discourse of the master we have a master-term (S1) addressing an other (S2) producing a remainder (a), the discourse of which clothes, veils, seeks to hide, or disguise lack of identity or self-mastery ($). Given that this discourse describes a structure (i.e., it’s positions can potentially be filled with a variety of variables or is not based on their substantiality, but rather relationality) we can, in this discourse, treat the position of the agent (S1) as the concept or representation, the other (S2) as the entities of the world falling under the concept, and the product (a) as the remainder. The problem with discourses of representation is that they attempt to domesticate, consume, or eradicate this remainder, treating it as a contingent feature of the world, rather than recognizing it as an intrinsic feature of being. Such is the essence of correlationism where entity is reduced to a correlate of thought without remainder.

OOO seeks, I believe, to mark this place of the remainder and bear witness to it as that which evades identity, correlation, identification, representation, and mastery. This is part of what it means to claim that objects withdraw. As Harman recently wrote:

There’s nothing magical about this word. Remember, my whole position comes out of an attempted radicalization of Heidegger’s tool-analysis, and I’ve simply retained his term Entzug while trying to extend it to purely inanimate interactions.

Tim is right that withdrawal is not merely temporal or spatial. It’s not something you can fix by going to a different time or place. It simply stems from the fact that no model or representation of a thing is itself that thing.

Theories that are obsessed with epistemologies of representation never come close to accounting for this fact. They always fall back on some sort of structural isomorphy between representation and thing, and in so doing they always fail to provide a good theory about what the difference really is between a tree and an excellent scientific theory about a tree.

This isomorphy doesn’t exist and it is for this reason that truth can only ever be alluded to. What’s more, this remainder is central to the process of knowing and inquiry because it’s precisely these remainders, precisely these aconceptualities, precisely these things that manifest themselves outside of language and concepts in material practices that orient our concepts and put them on the right track. This is what renders Brandom’s concept of reason so perverse and a prime example of what it means to erase the remainder. In Articulating Reasons, Brandom is quite clear that he understands reason in terms of discursive practices and that these discursive practices are linguistic in character. As Brandom writes, “[t]he master idea that animates and orients this enterprise is that what distinguishes specifically discursive practices from doings of non-concept-using creatures is their inferential articulation. To talk about concepts is to talk about roles in reasoning” (10 – 11). A moment later, Brandom continues, “[w]hat makes something a specifically linguistic (and therefore, according to this view, discursive) practice is that it accords some performances the force or significance of claimings, of propositionally contentful commitments, which can both serve as and stand in need of reasons. Practices that do not involve reasoning are not linguistic or (therefore) discursive practices” (14).

Apart from the fact that Brandom gives us no account of the origin or genesis of norms (he says the “community” defines them; yikes!, think of the concrete social implications of that!), for Brandom reasoning is synonymous with discursive practices and discursive practices are synonymous with the linguistic. What takes place in material practices– the surprise a scientist experiences when getting an unexpected result in an experiment, for example, or Galileo seeing moons around other planets) when he looks through his telescope –are, for Brandom irrelevant to reasoning because they fall outside of language. The only doing for Brandom is conceptual doing where we infer other propositions from a particular proposition. The residue of the existent, the stubborn being of the world, the remainder, is eradicated. Everywhere we hear high school students cheering as they’ll no longer have to do biology, physics, and chemistry labs as it’s only language, not doing, that matters. One wonders where Brandom stands on the position of holocaust denialists because, as Lyotard observed, the victims of the holocaust are not here to articulate what they saw and experienced, while the denialists can certainly provide, in language, all sorts of inferentially “valid” relations among propositions to support their denial.

What OOO wishes to do, I believe, is attend to the remainder. It is for this reason, as Adorno writes, that it shifts to a discourse about objects, things, substances, individuals. As Adorno writes,

The matters of true philosophical interest at this point in history are those in which Hegel, agreeing with tradition, expressed his disinterest. They are nonconceptuality, individuality, and particularity– things which ever since Plato used to be dismissed as transitory and insignificant, and which Hegel labeled “lazy Existenz”… A matter of urgency to the concept would be what it fails to cover, what its abstractionist mechanism eliminates, what is not already a case of the concept. (8)

OOO refuses the hegemonic drive of the concept to identity wherein the remainder or alterity is erased. As Adorno remarks, “…no philosophy can past the particulars into the text, as seductive paintings would hoodwink it into believing” (11). Adorno continues, “[i]n truth, all concepts, even the philosophical ones, refer to nonconceptualities, because concepts on their part are moments of the reality that requires their formation, primarily for the control of nature” (ibid). And here we encounter another problem with the mania for norms, for what it refuses is a recognition of how these norms are generated from the extra-conceptual world of society (no doubt this is part of what leads Brandom to foreclose, as Dennett has noted, questions of how the community generates these norms). Nonconceptuality, the eradication of the remainder, the erasure of objects is the constant mark of these modes of theorizing. What onticology seeks is a differential ontology that refuses this reduction and erasure.

For another take on the overlap between OOO and Adorno see Lukas’s recent post.