July 2011


Over at Fractured Politics, Kris has a truly excellent interview up with Morton. The majority of the interview is taken up with a discussion of Morton’s concept of hyperobjects. This is the clearest articulation I’ve yet seen of the concept. Once again it’s worth noting how great Kris’s blog is. Not only are the posts generally excellent, but the discussion that accompanies them tends to be outstanding as well.

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Graham’s Quadruple Object and The Prince and the Wolf are now available through Amazon. I haven’t yet seen the latter, but the former is excellent. It’s a lean and mean introduction to his thought with a lot of new material in it as well.

In response to my last post, Thomas asks a really interesting question:

I’m interested in how this works for the construction of history.

Levi, as a resident of Texas you are probably aware of the controversy last summer about the right-wing rewriting of US history and social studies textbooks by the Texas Board of Education. The new textbooks which come out later this year will be nothing short of propaganda. I’m working on a new project to create a wiki textbook that will let Texas high school students themselves research and write their own textbook with the collaboration of professional historians and amateur history buffs from around the world. You can see the beginnings of the project here:
http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/A_supplement_to_the_Texas_US_history_textbook

I’m currently trying to write something for the wiki about the relationship how our own values and historical facts get tangled up together.

What I would like to say is that historical facts get embedded in a kind of material history of their own. For example, one of the outrageous things that the Texas Board of Education tried to do was get rid of the word slavery from the US history textbook (they want to replace it with the “Atlantic triangular trade” whatever that means).

I’m embarrassed that I still owe Thomas an email. For the last few weeks I haven’t been very good at responding to people. I think I’m in a slightly autistic state right now. In Thomas’s case, I think I must be envious about what he related to me.

Anyway, Thomas’s question about history is really complex. I'm basically on board with what he’s saying about the materiality of history. One of the things I've repeatedly argued over the years is that texts aren't simply about something, they are something. In other words, texts are themselves material actors or entities that circulate throughout the world. Consequently, for any text that text will be both referential (referring to some other entity that does or does not exist) and a material entity in its own right. This would be the case with texts recounting history as well.

As I see it, history texts retroactively produce history. This is not to say that history texts don’t refer to events that did in fact take place. Rather, my thesis is that history is a bit like a hologram. You tilt a hologram one way and a little picture of a ship appears. You tilt a hologram another way and a frightening clown face appears. This is similar to what takes place in writing a history. My favorite example here is the Enlightenment thinkers. It’s often suggested that the Enlightenment thinkers broke with history, striving to inaugurate something new. I think something different took place. The Enlightenment thinkers “rewrote” history. Basically they used every trick in the book to diminish the importance of the medieval scholastic thinkers. They simultaneously resurrected Greco-Roman thought (especially materialists like Lucretius, but also the Sophists and the Roman rhetoricians). For an account of this check out Peter Gay’s gorgeous Pagen Enlightenment book that recounts all this.

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There’s a great interview with Morton up over at Figure/Ground. Check it out here!

Over at New Apps there’s been an epic discussion about constructivism and materialism. Over the course of the discussion there’s been a lot of talk about Foucault, developmental systems theory, discursive practices, and materialism. It all started with an offhand remark by Catarina Dutilh Novaes about social constructivism. I asked what exactly is meant by social constructivism and suggested, as I have in the past, that we should just talk about constructivism. What’s the difference? Social constructivism places all the onus of construction on signs, signifiers, narratives, norms, categories, discursive practices (i.e., all that pertains to the human). Constructivism simpliciter includes all of this, but also includes nonhuman entities such as tools, microbes, weather events, materials like wood and metal, animals, etc., etc., etc.

One of the things I’ve found striking in this discussion is the tendency for people to call themselves “materialists” so long as they are committed to the claim that discursive practices are material. I guess the idea is that idealism focuses on ideas and thought, whereas materialism focuses on practices. I’m all for focusing on practices and I agree that they’re material, but I don’t think this is sufficient for claiming the title of “materialism”. I even had one respondent claim that discursive practices literally bring entities into existence. In other words, for this person no entities existed prior to discursive practices and no entities will exist after discursive practices. Wow! I fail to see how such a position can, in any possible universe, be called a materialism. Rather, to qualify as materialist I believe a position must be reject anthropocentrism and be posthumanist. The rejection of anthropocentrism refuses to grant humans any privileged place in assemblages. Humans are certainly important to humans and clearly we’ll be talking about humans quite a bit when we do social and political theory, but they enjoy no ontological privilege. The world or being exists apart from humans, existed before humans, and will exist after humans.

A posthumanist position is a position that refuses to make claims like “discursive practices bring beings into being.” Humans certainly perturb entities in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they even invent entities as in the case of technologies, social institutions, and the creation of new atomic elements in the lab. However, this is a far cry from the claim that humans bring all other beings into being through their discursive practices. A posthumanist orientation treats humans as one more interactant among a variety of other nonhuman interactants such as animals, atoms, quarks, stars, meteors, various material substances, microbes, etc., etc., etc. Humans are participants among other participants, not godlike entities upon which everything else depends and which bring everything else into existence.

For me construction takes place everywhere in the universe, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. The fox and the hare busily constructed one another and continue to construct one another over the course of evolutionary history. There’s nothing discursive about this process. Stars are busily constructing all sorts of heavier atomic elements. Moreover, construction works reciprocally. Just as human norms and categories construct other humans and entities in the world in all sorts of ways, all sorts of other entities such as the bubonic plague, Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 virus, cows, the foods we eat, etc., are busily constructing humans in all sorts of ways. Construction is a general ontological feature of the world, not a feature restricted to the “social”.

Reading the harrowing blog What is it Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy, I find myself wondering whether there isn’t something at the core of philosophy that doesn’t generate these attitudes. These don’t seem to be simple stories of sexism produced as a lack of awareness, but rather seem to be represent outright misogeny. Could there be something about the philosophical project itself, as it has historically been conceived, and the philosophical concept of reason that generates this sort of misogeny? Historically, of course, the major philosophemes have been gendered within philosophy. The masculine side has been treated as the domain of reason, intelligibility, form, the subject, activity, autonomy, logic, moral duty, normativity, and the concept. The feminine side has been treated as the side of matter, the body, the object, emotion, affectivity, empathy, compassion, passivity, heteronomy, irrationality. Philosophy, historically, has sided with the former chain, calling for the domination and mastery of the latter. Does this persist today in philosophy even though these terms aren’t excplicitly conceived as gendered anymore? Does this lead to certain systematic ways of relating to women? Here philosophy would be “phallosophy” and this sort of misogeny would follow from certain unconscious axioms internal to the nature of philosophy as currently conceived and practiced. If there is anything to stereotypes about differences between how men and women communicate, this would certainly seem to follow. All too often masculine dominated philosophical communication is characterized by combativeness, the fight, a logic of victor and vanquished, etc. This would a priori exclude feminine styles of communication– if such exist –and would lead to unconscious attitudes towards women wherein they embody all the qualities that philosophy is supposed to vanquish. The most striking thing about the stories related at this blog are just how downright creepy so many men are in philosophy. These are truly bizarre attitudes and behaviors.

For many years I’ve been fascinated with Deleuze and Guattari’s triad of deterritorialization, reterritorialization, and territory. Truth be told, when I first encountered these concepts I was repulsed. I found the language to be trendy and understood “deterritorialization” to refer to some romantic notion of “escape” from a territory. While there are indeed elements of this in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought, the concept, I believe, is much more profound. For me, the concept was really driven home when, somewhere in A Thousand Plateaus, I came across Deleuze and Guattari’s remark that “a club is a deterritorialized branch.” The territory of a branch, is, of course, a tree. The branch serves the function of extending leaves across an area so as to capture sunlight. Perhaps the best definition of deterritorialization is the decontextualization of something or a theft of a bit of code that then resituates that thing elsewhere. Here “code” is to be understood as formed matter that serves a particular function. When code is stolen it is separated and isolated from its original milieu or territory, liberated from its original function, and then resituated in a new territory. When the branch is separated from the tree it becomes something else, it takes on different functions, such that it has been deterritorialized from its original territory (the function of gathering sunlight in the process of photosynthesis) and reterritorialized elsewhere (the function of warfare or violence). Deterritorialization thus proceeds through subtraction. As Deleuze and Guattari remark in their famous rhizome essay, deterritorialization “…begins by selecting or isolating…” (13).

Thus, for example, Deleuze and Guattari will write that “[t]he crocodile does not reproduce a tree trunk, any more than the chameleon reproduced the colors of its surroundings. The Pink Panther Imitates nothing, it reproduces nothing…” (11). What the crocodile and chameleon do is steal a bit of code– formed matter –the former stealing the texture of tree bark, the latter bits of color. Codes are always functional. The tree bark serves a particular function for the tree, the greenness of leaves serves a particular function for leaves or is a bi-product of functions like photosynthesis. In stealing a bit of code, quality is divorced from function and takes on a new function for these animals. There is not representation, resemblance, or imitation, but rather the formation of a new set of functions.

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