August 2011

H/T to Morton

The Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium,
The New School, September 14, 2011

9:45–10:00 Welcome/Introduction
McKenzie Wark

10:00–11:00 Graham Harman, “The Four Most Typical
Objections to OOO”
Aaron Pedinotti, “Occasions, Decisions, and the
Given: Some Remarks on the Technical
Underpinnings of the Harman–Shaviro Debate”
(Ken Wark, moderator)

11:00–11:30 Break

11:30–12:30 Steven Shaviro, “Panpsychism And/Or
McKenzie Wark, “P(OO): Praxis (object-oriented)”
(Katherine Behar, moderator)

12:30–2:30 Luncheon w/ Jane Bennett (hosted by Carin Kuoni)
Ken Wark and the Vera List Center for Art and

2:30–3:30 Shannon Mattern, “Everything is Infrastructure”
Levi Bryant, “Strange Substances: On the Nature
of Objects”
(Eugene Thacker, moderator)

3:30–4:00 Break

4:00–5:00 Tim Morton, “Objects, Aesthetics, Causality”
Mabel Wilson, “Object Lesson — A Pedagogy for
Teaching Architects”
(moderator TBA)


6:00–8:00 Opening, And Another Thing exhibition,
Co-curated by Katherine Behar and Emmy
The James Gallery, CUNY Graduate Center

One of the things that fascinates me about Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is the strange history behind the work. We know very little about Lucretius’ life. He lived sometime between 99BC – 55BC, but as to the details of his life things are shadowy. Saint Jerome claims that he went mad from a “love philter” and committed suicide in the middle of his life, yet this is most likely an ugly rumor made up by the church to say “if you study this philosophy you’ll be driven mad and dominated by your passions!” Among the most interesting things about the history of De Rerum Natura, it appears that with the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the Christian/Catholic church, there was a concerted efford to destroy all existing copies of the text. It appears that the church was highly successful as the text entirely disappear during the Middle Ages. Then, in the fifteenth century, one remaining copy was discovered, it was quickly copied into a variety of European languages, and, if Greenblatt is right, it had a decisive impact on art, the newly developing science, and the newly emerging political sensibility. What a history!

What is it, then, I wonder, that makes this such a dangerous book? There are the obvious things: Lucretius was among the first materialists and naturalists, arguing that all things are composed of matter and that there are only natural causes (as opposed to supernatural causes). There is the anti-teleologism of his philosophy. Where, in the Medieval Christian view, teleology rules the day, and works according to the premise that there is always something things ought to be, Lucretius’s materialist naturalism only admits of “causes from behind”. The consequences of this are profound. Consider the difference between how the Medieval Christian mind thinks about a two-headed chicken and how a materialist naturalist thinks about a two-headed chicken. For the Medieval Christian a two-headed chicken is a monster because, by “nature”, there is something chickens ought to be and the occurence of a two-headed chicken is a violation of this divinely designed order of nature. By contrast, for the Lucretian, the two-headed chicken is merely the result of the causes that produced it and is therefore entirely natural. Within this framework, you cannot, to cite the Love & Rockets song, go against nature because when you do it’s nature too.

read on!

I’ve finished the initial draft of my article for the journal Identities. It’s entitled “Politics and Parts: Onticology and Queer Politics”. It’s a Frankenstein construction melding Luhmann, Maturana and Varela, Ranciere, Deleuze, Badiou, and OOO. I hate to ask this, but I received a lot of responses to my last post. For those who are interested in seeing an initial draft please email me and I’d be happy to send it along.

It’s hard not to simultaneously feel crushed and filled with wonder and joy when reading Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, all morons. I jest, of course, but truly, in De Rerum Natura, it’s all there. Beautiful poetry, a profound understanding of nature, a beautiful ethical vision and project of emancipation, an account of emergence, a thoroughgoing posthumanism, a [rather misguided] sex manual replete with meditations on love; it’s all there. All too often we get the sense that many philosophers are civil servants acting on behalf of the state, superstition, and ideology, yet with Lucretius we get the sense that we are before truth– or at least the germinal hypothesis that would lead us truth –and the seeds of a genuinely emancipatory project. That emancipatory project unfolds at the psychological level striving to free us from fear and to lead us to peace of mind, that unfolds at the social level, emancipating us from superstition and ideology, and that unfolds at the political level emancipating us from despots and unjust systems.

Yet perhaps most of all the wonder that Lucretius instills lies in the way he transforms the ordinary and familiar into a question. For Lucretius there is just atoms and void. With this hypothesis all things are to be explained. We take it for granted that wind can bend trees, yet with Lucretius’ hypothesis we must now ask how wind, which seems like nothing at all, can have this force. We take it as obvious that sound can be heard through walls, but now we must ask what it is that travels through walls and how one entity can pass through another that is solid (all things no matter how apparently solid, Lucretius will teach, contain void). We will now need a theory as to how water is able to change colors with wind and waves (the patterns and relationships among the atoms are reconfigured). As I write this my daughter lays on the couch watching Beetlejuice. What is it I’m seeing as I regard her? She is in a diffferent position in the void, so how is it possible for me too see her? This too will need explanation and Lucretius will argue that bodies emit films or simulacra that impinge upon our bodies. To see something else is to be affected by an emanation, not the thing itself, such that whatever we do see is an effect of what took place in the past is films or simulacra take time to travel in the void.

read on!

This is brilliant.

In an earlier post I write that I admire:

Those that refuse to be victims or to fall prey to the narcissism of victimhood and the creation of guilt in others, but who rather strive to transform their wounds into something universally emancipatory, the world and who affirm their own value despite being wounded.

I go on to remark that I admire:

Those that do not allow their wounds to develop into festering resentment towards themselves, life, and others, but who transfigure their wounds into something beautiful and just in the form of great art and egalitarian politics.

There’s already too many I’s here, but nonetheless these remarks touch on what I believe to be one of the fundamental vocations and tasks of philosophy, art, science, politics, and life: the erasure of self and particularity. Of course, it is true that all good science, art, and philosophy will preserve particularity, the singular, the inexchangable, and so on. The point is that those modes of engagement and thought that try to work at this level betray the singular and particular and erase it. The paradox here is that in trying to articulate the particular, singular, and individual, they become fixated on identity, self-sameness, their circumstances, thereby betraying the singular.

read on!

A number of people have balked at talk of objects or substances, wishing to oppose them to processes. The worry seems to be that the concept of object or substance presupposes some fixed and unchanging core of identity in which qualities inhere. Within the framework of onticology, however, I have tried to argue that objects are dynamic systems that produce their identity across time. The identity of an object is not something that lies beneath change such that change and activity is a surface-effect of an unchanging core; rather, identity and persistence are activities and processes on the part of substances. This is why I perpetually emphasize the phenomenon of entropy when discussing objects. Entropy is a measure of the degree of order embodied in a system in terms of probability (for me “system” and “object” are synonyms). The more entropy a system possesses the less order or organization it has. The less entropy a system has the higher degree of order and organization it has. In terms of probability, the higher the degree of entropy within a system, the more probable it is that sub-elements can occur anywhere in the system. By contrast, the lower degree of entropy a system has the less probable it is that a sub-element of the system will be in a particular place.

My thesis is that objects are ontological improbabilities. If objects are improbabilities, then this is because objects are forms of organization and order. The elements that make up any object exist within the object in such a way that their structural placement is improbable. To see this point, contrast the difference between a crowd of various types of people (men, women, people of various faiths and ethnicities, rich, poor, etc) and a Roman legion. What is it that entitles us to call a Roman legion an object and a crowd of people a collection of objects (plural)? Our crowd of people is characterized by a high degree of entropy insofar as the sub-elements that make up the crowd have an equal probability of occurring anywhere in the crowd. Like particles in Brownian motion, each type of person can occur anywhere in the crowd. By contrast, a Roman legion can be thought as an object because the occurrence of the elements has a low degree of probability indicating a high degree of organization and order. Each soldier has a defined position with respect to the others and moreover, the soldiers receive the placement they have based on different ranks and skills. As a consequence, these smaller scale objects (the persons) combine together to form a unit that functions as an object.

read on!

Today we begin with Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. As I reflect on what she’s articulating in her key concept of “thing-power” few things seem to better capture this strange and inarticulate power better than Disney’s Fantasia:

Early in Vibrant Matter Bennett writes, “…objects appear as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible too the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics” (5). Earlier she remarks that she “…will try, impossibly, to name the moment of independenncce (from subjectivity) posssessed by thhings, a moment that must be there, since things do in fact affect other bodies, enhancing or weakening their power” (3).

The mischevious Mickey steals the sorcerer’s hat and enchants the broom, commanding it to do his work of cleaning. Confident that his work is being done for him, he falls off into sleep and dreams of absolute mastery over the forces of nature, controlling even the very stars themselves. Yet when he awakes he discovers that the broom has maniacally been bringing water into the sorcerer’s laboratory, flooding the place. He attempts to destroy the broom, only to have it’s splinters turn into brooms bennt on bringing water into the lab. Dancing brooms, floods, and buckets of water are the stuff of thing power. Thing-power consists of things unleashed on the world, acting in ways irreducible to human intentions and meanings, behaving as if they had their own will. This, I believe, is one of the key themes OOO is striving to articulate.

Passion, or commitment to causes and projects even when these things appear impossible, ridiculous; indeed, especially when they seem this way. Great feats of athletic, artistic, and intellectual strength and accomplishment. Generosity of spirit and openness to otherness, rather than impotent sneering and a desire to assimilate to ones own locution. People that hate the police and all variations of police rather than those that desire to be police or to be in the good graces of police. Those that prefer politics to governance. Those that refuse to be victims or to fall prey to the narcissism of victimhood and the creation of guilt in others, but who rather strive to transform their wounds into something universally emancipatory, the world and who affirm their own value despite being wounded. Those that refuse to accept the lesser evil or who refuse to be the person that in accepting the lesser of two evils always chooses evil. Intense criticism and insurrection that arises out of a sense of justice and commitment to equality. Those that don’t become overly attached to charismatic figures and causes such that they lose their ability to evaluate and criticize these figures and their movements. Those that despise conversions. Those that are suspicious of any club that would want them as a member. Kindness towards small things, guilt about stepping on insects, and generosity towards others. Those that do not blame others. Those that do not allow their wounds to develop into festering resentment towards themselves, life, and others, but who transfigure their wounds into something beautiful and just in the form of great art and egalitarian politics. Those that refuse to torture others to compensate for their own suffering, wounds, and insecurity. Heights of abstraction as seen in works like Plato’s Sophist and Parmenides, Spinoza’s Ethics, Hegel’s Science of Logic, Husserl’s Logical Investigations, Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Marx’s Capital, Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, or Badiou’s Being and Event. These are the shores of human thought. Lucretius and all those who follow the path he opened. Humor that reveals the ugliness of an unjust world, rather than “humor” that strives to wound and humiliate. Irony. Self-skepticism. Those that hold cliches like “communism is good in theory but not in practice” in disdain. Work that does not stink of personalistic and saccharine narcissism that publicly wallows in its own suffering to gain sympathy. Those that don’t punch back. Those that can concede a point. Revolution and those that desire revolution. Invention. Love. People who are not lackeys to leaders, dogma, churches, or parties. Brutal honesty as in the case of Rousseau’s Confessions. Those who do not hide behind honesty to be hurtful. Those who do not believe existence requires a supplement by the divine to justify itself or have value. Those who can discern intrinsic value in something even where it’s not useful or something to eat. Those who refuse governance or the characterization that alternatives are impossible such that everything must be played in terms of the rules dictated by oligarchs. Those who believe the rules can be changed. Those who hate hall monitors. Those who do not believe that there is something intrinsic to great people such that they should just be obeyed and never questioned, but who see themselves as equal interlocutors. Those who do not pray or show their piety in public. People who find a way to wake up every day and keep going even when things seem hopeless. Those that remember others. Those that believe everything is contingent and that therefore it’s possible to make things otherwise. Weirdos and cranks. Those that do not confuse their expertise with superiority. Good sex. Thoughtful gifts and those that give thoughtful gifts. Romantics. Those that serve others. Those that side with the underdog rather than oligarchs.

I’m about half way finished with my article on politics, queer theory, onticology, body, and affect for the journal Identities. There’s a lot here from Luhmann, Ranciere, and Badiou. Basically I conceive the political as an event that emerges as a relation between elements belonging to larger scale objects and parts or smaller-scale objects that are included in these larger scale objects without being members of these larger-scale objects. I argue that things are not in and of themselves political– though they can be social –but rather that politics is an event that takes place with the appearance of the in-apparent (parts) that discloses the anarchy bubbling beneath the organization of any larger scale object. This allows me to draw a distinction between governance and politics. Governance consists of those operations that strive to regulate and reproduce elements constituting a larger scale object. Politics is that event and the activist procedures that follow from it that reveal the contingency of these organizations and that set about producing and inventing a new form of organization. Much of what we call “politics” (for example, the “incrementalism” and “pragmatic realism” of ardent Obama supporters), is not politics at all but regulatory governance designed to manage the entropic parts of systems, reducing them to elements that have a “proper” and non-disruptive place. For example, we might think of the “eco-activists” that nonetheless sides with state based strategies (i.e., ardent Obama supporters) for dealing with climate change, arguing that there are no alternatives, thereby placing all the burden on workers and refusing to recognize the manner in which capitalism and the ecological crisis are intertwined. Such a person fails to recognize that parts are distinct from elements, or that objects and their possible relations cannot be reduced to their status as elements for a particular system. In Badiou-ese, these subjects are what are called “reactive subjects”. The work on behalf of governance that refuses to recognize the volcanic anarchic possibilities that result from the withdrawal of objects from one another or the fact that parts (objects in their own right and withdrawn from the larger scale objects within which they’re erased) are always in excess of elements.

This framework allows me to do two things. On the one hand, I am able to develop an onticological account of the subject. Subject is the appearance of the in-apparent or that which is not counted as an element within the system in which it appears. Subject thus simultaneously reveals the contingency of that higher order object (that other relations are possible, and that there are always entities uncounted as elements within any particular system or object) and is the procedure that sets about either 1) destroying a particular higher-order object, 2) de-suturing itself from this higher order object and forming a new collective object, or 3) reorganizing the endo-consistency or organization of the higher order object. Many of us, of course, dream of the absolute annihilation of certain higher order objects or systems like global capitalism. This is possible precisely because 1) parts are never identical to elements, 2) objects are withdrawn from one another, and 3) every object is a struggle against entropy or the possibility of extinction. Revolutionary politics dreams of extinction or an introduction of entropy into certain objects so profound that it brings about the extinction of that object.

Second, because politics is an event that marks the appearance of the in-apparent or parts within an object, I argue that it follows that all politics is queer politics. Here I return to the original etymology of the term “queer”, extending its signification beyond the domain of the politics of sexual orientation and gender. Queer refers to the strange, the odd, that which twists, and is out of place. Insofar as politics only occurs in those sites where parts contest their status of elements, revealing the volcanic anarchy beneath every system of counting, disclosing the contingency of every object or system’s way of counting or producing elements, it follows that all politics is essentially queer. If queer theory initially stumbled upon questions of sexual orientation, gender, etc., then this is because these are mechanisms by which larger-scale objects govern parts and constitute elements for themselves (thereby erasing the bubbling chaos upon which they stand). It matters little whether the politics is what we ordinarily refer to as “queer politics”, whether it is Marxist insurrections of the proletariat as universal motor of history, whether it be women, people of color, or whether it be genuine eco-activists asserting the truth of spotted owls, in all cases the political moment is the moment where the queer or odd as in-apparent appears and challenges systems of constituting elements, governance, and the erasure of parts. This is my first foray into the arguments of The Domestication of Humans. If anyone is interested in reading an advance copy of this article once it’s completed, please email me. I’d love your feedback.

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