The Democracy of Objects is now listed at the Open Humanities Press Website. The picture to the right is a bit of the gorgeous cover that Tammy Lu designed. Somehow she managed to perfectly capture the affect of what I’m trying to think, weaving motifs that are simultaneously cultural, natural and that have an Asian feel in a tangled network. As I was growing up, our Korean, Chinese, and Japanese friends would always remark that our house was more Asian than theirs. Perhaps this aesthetic comes out in my writing or perhaps it’s just Tammy Lu’s work. Either way I’m delighted.
A number of people have written me asking when it will finally be released. The answer is that I don’t know. At this point, we’re very close. There are a few editorial changes to be made and some formatting issues to be fixed, but overall it’s ready to go. Remember, this is the first open access book that University of Michigan Press has put together and that it’s all been done through volunteer work. I like that. I like all of it. I like it that it’s democratic in the sense that no one will have to buy it if they’re not so inclined and that they’ll still have access to it if they want that access. I like it that it will leave a minimal ecological footprint. I like it that it will be able to circulate throughout the world in both digital and paper form. I like it that we all did this together. I hope that others will also follow in my gesture and contribute to the New Metaphysics Series with Open Humanities Press. It will come out in three forms: HTML for easy reading online, .pdf so you can download it on your readers, and in a paper form with that beautiful cover.
I like this book and I like myself much more in this book. The tone is my own, but it is far less antagonistic and polemical than the tone that inhabited Difference and Givenness. Difference and Givenness was the book of a graduate student. I don’t mean to demean graduate students by any means. Yet reflecting on my own experience, I think our work is often characterized by a certain tone and set of concerns. Insofar as we then exist in a certain unpleasant social circumstance (joblessness and namelessness) we often enact what might be called “prison logic”. It is sometimes said that the person newly incarcerated in prison should pick a fight with the biggest guy in the yard so as to establish respect for ourselves in prison. This is often how it is with early writing. You want to take on everyone, pick fights, to establish your place in the prison yard. You puff your chest up to show how big you are (and, of course, you don’t know you’re doing this) so as to establish a place for yourself. On the other hand, youthful writing is often motivated by a desire to gain mastery of the field and tradition. Thus the tendency is to trace everything in a thinker or a discussion back to the work of others that have come before. The graduate student is to be forgiven for these ways of relating to others and philosophy because they’re in their own milieu of individuation that generates its own singular problems specific to that form of social life and the problems it faces, but this is not an attitude or form of relation that should be celebrated, encouraged, or reinforced.
The tone of Difference and Givenness, much to my embarrassment now, manifests both of these tendencies. I implicitly take on the secondary literature on Deleuze, trying to police Deleuzians (it’s a work filled with microfascist desires) and I am constantly trying to domesticate Deleuze in terms of the history of philosophy by reterritorializing him on his influences. I am not proud of this, though hopefully I managed to say something of value. The values embodied in the connotations of my tone are definitely not values I wish to instill or promote in others. There is a form of this book, I believe, that stands in contradiction to its content.
The Democracy of Objects, I think, is a different style of book. There are arguments to be sure. There are polemics as well. But I believe it’s a much kinder book. My hope is that there will be a lot of surprises here for readers of this blog. It’s not simply a repetition, regurgitation, or summary of themes I’ve discussed here. I think there are a lot of new things. Where Difference and Givenness sought to appropriate uses of Deleuze, my ardent hope is that this book will be more of a “workbook”. It’s systematic and organized, but the concepts I develop here are arrows that I want others to put to work in their own unexpected ways. These are things that I want to be used, not to restrict use. And here, above all, it should be borne in mind that use is never rote application but genuine invention and surprise. Entities always become otherwise and inventions always take place in their use. We become otherwise in our use. And here I possess no special authority over my work, but am as much an interpreter as anyone else… Especially under the circumstances in which this book was composed.
I am also terrified by this book. Those who have been gracious enough to read it have been especially positive about the fourth chapter which deals heavily with Luhmann. Going back through the text last week– a strange experience as it had now become an object in its own right and an alien one at that –I was both filled with loathing at the fact that I didn’t develop the arguments of the fourth chapter with greater clarity (it will be hard going for those with no background in autopoietic theory and Luhmann) and with the enormity of what this chapter commits me to in social and political analysis. How can we even begin to pose the questions of social and political theory if we don’t yet know the entities that compose “the social”. That, in certain respects, is the lesson I draw, as a reader, from this fourth chapter… That we don’t yet know the actors that compose a society. With that said, I am deeply pleased that there’s a strong social and political content to this book.
Today, as I was writing my post on quasi-objects, I came across this post by Eileen Joy. It made me think this: metaphysics, ontology, has never died, but has rather shifted form. Those of us that followed the Kantian critical tradition resolutely abandoned metaphysics on the grounds that it asked questions beyond the scope of our experience. Yet interestingly, metaphysics came to lead a subterranean life. It wasn’t, in other words, eradicated, though we all said it was. On the one hand, the theoretical physicists, in their popular science writings, began to take up the banner of metaphysics, even if they didn’t use that word. On the other hand, we heirs of Kant began to cheat. We no longer wrote directly about metaphysics, but instead wrote monographs on others that did write about metaphysics: Books on Aristotle, Plato, Leibniz, Spinoza, Ockham, Scotus, etc. We wrote metaphysics from one step removed. We said we were simply writing studies of these things (thereby protecting ourselves from the charge of being “naive metaphysicians”) while all the while writing metaphysics in the form of these studies. We secretly committed while overtly or publicly remaining “critical”. Metaphysics, ontology, in its non-correlationist form, lived on, but as commentary.
Today it feels like things are changing. I few years ago I credited Deleuze and Badiou with the possibility of this change. Badiou dared to raise the question of Truth. Deleuze refused to dissolve metaphysics in the social sciences in the form of a discourse about economics, linguistics, history, etc. I’ve written a lot criticizing the culture of commentary that inhabits SPEP. But we shouldn’t think of commentary as an essence that is functionally identical in all historical constellations. Commentary did real work in the opening pages of Aristotle’s metaphysics, or in the way in which Islamic thought appropriated Aristotle (and then in the way European scholastic thought appropriated Islam). The culture of commentary is changing. Harman writes page after page on Heidegger, Zubiri, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Lingis. You’ll find much commentary by me in The Democracy of Objects. Eugene Thacker returns to the tradition of medieval thought in his meditation on life. What has changed, I think, is the function of commentary in the SPEP culture. There was a bad faith that accompanied the culture of commentary throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties. One wished to claim that they still adhered to the critical Kantian tradition, that they were not practicing metaphysics, that they were merely doing scholarly work on these metaphysical thinkers, thereby refusing to avow the claims they were making. “This is what Spinoza says, not me!”
Now it feels as if commentary is becoming more “Aristotlean”. It is no longer the bad faith of the scholar that wants to embrace metaphysics while disavowing that embrace, but rather is an “existentially committed” engagement with those texts where one takes actual positions. The point is not to abandon the venerable and important tradition of commentary, but rather to acknowledge what and why we’re really engaging in these activities… And to acknowledge that we’re talking about something more than the sense or meaning of texts. The point is to recognize, avow, and realize that we’re truly making claims about the world, that we’re truly realists, and that we cannot escape this drive to metaphysics. This seems to be what’s taking place in the New Metaphysics series… A mode of metaphysical thinking that readily recognizing and embraces the restrictions that Kant placed on speculation– that we can know nothing of the soul or God –but that speculates nonetheless.