August 2011

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.

I’ll be teaching the following texts this fall:


Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter

Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy

Andy Clark, Being-There


Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life

Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil

Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves

Alfonso Lingis, The Imperative

Should be a fun semester.

I’ll be giving a keynote at Liverpool Hope University next Summer. I’ll probably discuss the commitment to absolute immanence or flat ontology by onticology. With any luck I’ll get the opportunity to do some talks in Ireland or elsewhere in Great Britain as well (hint hint, contact me to organize something… Especially Dublin folk!).

Thinking the Absolute: Speculation, Philosophy and the End of Religion

June 29th – July 1st 2012 Liverpool Hope University, UK
An international conference of the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion
Keynote Speakers: Ray Brassier, Levi Bryant, Iain Hamilton Grant and Catherine Malabou
‘The contemporary end of metaphysics is an end which, being sceptical, could only be a religious end of metaphysics.’ Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude. An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum, 2008)
Meillassoux identifies the ‘turn to religion’ in contemporary continental philosophy with a failure of thinking. The Kantian refusal to think the absolute leads to scepticism about reality in itself. Ironically, this lends itself to ‘fideism’, the decision to project religious meaning on to the unknowable beyond. According to Meillassoux, a philosophy obsessed with mystery becomes the accomplice of irrational faith. The solution is to find ways of once more thinking the absolute in its reality, severed from its dependence upon a knowing subject, or upon language and social norms. At the same time, new possibilities for thinking religion (exemplified by Meillassoux’s own Divine Inexistence) are emerging.

This conference invites proposals which critically consider this speculative turn in philosophy and its implications for thinking about religion. To what ‘end’ is speculation leading? Does it simply announce the closure of religion and its subordination to a philosophy of the absolute, nature or the ‘All’? Can it open new lines for a philosophy of religion which is not wedded to the Kantian horizon? Is speculation itself open to Kierkegaardian critique as yet another move to position and reduce ethical and religious claims, sacrificing the future on the altar of abstract possibility? Does renewed attention to the canon of speculative idealism offer a way beyond the impasse between relativism and dogmatism?

The organisers welcome proposals which examine the roots and extensity of recent speculative thinking, and which critically consider its impact – direct and indirect – on philosophy of religion. Relevant thinkers and themes might include Quentin Meillassoux on God and the absolute, Alain Badiou’s ontology, Catherine Malabou on Hegel and plasticity, Francois Laruelle’s ‘future Christ’, Iain Hamilton Grant on Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and the thinking of the All, Ray Brassier’s nihilism. However, we are particularly looking for contributions which creatively use or depart from the speculative turn to offer original insights into the nature and content of the field.
Abstracts of 300 words for 20 minute papers to or by end of February 2012.

The corrected page proofs for The Democracy of Objects have now been sent to Open Humanities Press. It shouldn’t be long now… I hope!

Over at The Pinocchio Theory, Steven has a post up discussing processes and powers. I confess that I’m a bit surprised by Shaviro’s remarks. He writes:

But I think that Whitehead lines up with Bergson and Simondon and Deleuze, and against Harman and OOO, in that all these “process” thinkers seek to account for how things come into existence, and how they endure; whereas OOO just seems to me to assume that its objects are already there.

I’m not sure where he gets this idea. I’ve written extensively both here and in The Democracy of Objects (which Steven’s read) on the emergence of objects, not to mention the processual nature of objects, their substantiality as consisting in powers, the manner in which they perpetually contend with the problem of entropy, the role that relations play in how they actualizes themselves in local manifestations, how objects evolve and develop, and so on and so forth. Indeed, I think one of the great ironies I find in the thought of the process-relational philosophers is that they use the words “process” and “relation” quite a bit, but generally, I find, say very little that’s concrete about process and relation! In other words, there’s a strange way in which they relate, at the level of the signifier, to the terms “process” and “relation” as substances! By contrast, we find rich discussions of the dynamics of both process and relation among the object-oriented ontologists.

We get a lot of lectures about Whitehead explaining Whitehead to us, but I think this misses the point that our differences with Whitehead are not failures to understand him (cf. my post on transference), but because of genuine disagreements with Whitehead. For me, there are three basic points of divergence. First, I believe that Whitehead is a complete non-starter so long as his account of God is not severed from his thought and his thought isn’t thoroughly severed from process theology. Following Donald Sherburne, I think that Whitehead’s account of God is incoherent and at odds with the ontological foundations of his own philosophy. Any engagement of Whitehead that doesn’t sever it from his concept of God and substantially modify his ontology is, I believe, a priori to be excluded.

read on!

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