September 2011


Given the loathing people seem to have of vitalism and animism it’s likely that I will regret this post, but as I work through Bennett’s thought again with my students and encounter the metaphysics of indigenous Hawaiians as articulated by Marisol, I increasingly wonder whether I shouldn’t make room for a concept like “strategic vitalism” in my own thought. Like Gayatri Spivak’s concept of strategic essentialism, the concept of strategic vitalism is an “as if” way of talking. Just as strategic essentialism does not claim that there are national, ethnic, sexual, class, etc., essences (there aren’t), but nonetheless holds that it is productive to deploy such essences strategically for certain political aims, strategic vitalism would not make the claim that all beings (including non-living entities) are animals, but would hold that treating all beings as animals has certain positive political, ethical, and analytic effects. So what might these effects be?

The whole point revolves around the thesis that how we think and talk about the world has effects on how we relate to the world and other things. In developing her key concept of “thing-power”, Bennett remarks that she “…will feature the negative power or recalcitrance of things [their resistance]. But I will also seek to highlight a positive, productive power of their own. And, instead of focusing on collectives conceived primarily as conglomerates of human designs and practices (“discourse”), I will highly the active role of nonhuman materials in public life” (Vibrant Matter, 1 – 2). Bennett seeks to treat nonhumans, including non-living beings, as agencies (actants) in their own right, akin to animals.

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Over on Twitter, sdv_duras, joepdx and I have been having an interesting discussion about OOO and human emancipation. For me, my interest in OOO revolves around what I believe to be its potential for social and political thought. Thus, while OOO is a posthumanist ontology that seeks to decenter the primacy of humans and, especially, the place that correlationism or the subject-object correlate enjoys in theory, this posthumanism aims not at the banishment or exclusion of humans, but out of a reflection on the very practical inadequacies of correlationist social and political thought. On the one hand, I believe that correlationist social and political thought (ideology critique, cultural Marxism, discursive and semiotic constructivism) is inadequate to explain why social systems hold together as they do and therefore to effectively strategies ways of changing oppressive regimes. In my view, the failure to take nonhuman agencies into account as part of the glue that holds social systems together dooms us to ineffectual critique and practice. The point is not that semiotic and ideological elements aren’t part of that glue, but that they don’t exhaust the glue that accounts for why social systems hold together as they do. On the other hand, I want an account of being that is robust enough to make room for a viril ecological theory. The tendency of much cultural theory over the last sixty years –and there are notable exceptions among folks like Deleuze, Latour, Haraway, Barad, Bennett, certain Marxists, Serres, the Whiteheadians, etc; yet they have, overall, enjoyed rather marginal status in discussions –has been to treat the things of the world as mere screens upon which humans project their meanings. In other words, there’s a tendency to treat nonhuman entities as contributing nothing save their status as vehicles for the transport of human meanings, intentions, aims, goals, signs, etc. Just as the value of the dollar bill resides nowhere in the paper and ink of that dollar bill, but is rather projected by us, just as there’s nothing intrinsic to the “Mens Room” and the “Ladies Room that makes it a mens room or a ladies room, but rather it is our language that diacritically produces this difference in things, much of the project of “critical theory” (broadly construed) has consisted in following Feuerbach and Marx in showing how the “sortals” of the world are really our work and not from amongst the things themselves. In my view, a robust eco-theory and politics cannot rest content with this thesis, but must also recognize the agency and independence of all manner of nonhuman entities.

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Today my students and I began working through Bennett’s account of thing-power and assemblages as developed in Vibrant Matter. For Bennett, every thing that exists possesses a conatus or a “will” to persist in its own being. This conatus is defined by its affects. Following Spinoza and Deleuze, affects are capacities to act (active affects) and to be acted upon (passive affects). The active affects are what a thing can do. For example, the ability to play a piano would be an active affect. By contrast, the passive affects define the receptivity of an entity or the manner in which it is open to interaction with other things in the world. Within the framework of my own thought (and I’m very much on the same page with Bennett on all these points), the passive affects define a “transcendental aesthetic”, defining the field of receptivity entities have to other entities. Thus, for example, a great white shark’s passive affects consist of things like it’s olfactory powers, the ability to sense the world through the electro-magnetic fields of other entities, etc., whereas my passive affects consist of things like vision, scent, smell, touch, the ability to discern desire in certain slips of the tongue due to my psychoanalytic training, and so on. If there is a transcendental aesthetic at work here, then this is because a certain “distribution of the sensible” must precede empirical sensings to be possible. Each thing has its modes of openness to the world.

The affective conatus of things fluctuates and can be enhanced or diminished as a result of encounters with other things. My power of vision, a passive affect, for example, is enhanced through my glasses. My voice (active affect) and ear (passive affect) are enhanced through my smart phone. The large Texas meal I ate yesterday diminished my passive and active affects, drawing me into a catatonic state where my powers of acting and of being acted upon were reduced (I passed out for two hours), but which might nonetheless increase the power of my active and passive affects by either increasingly my gravitational pull on other objects (i.e., it perhaps made me fatter) or by increasing my strength and ability to perceive and think in a variety of ways.

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If there is one thing I aspire to in my inner life it is to live without fear or shame. I’m not suggesting that I actually accomplish this, but it is something I strive to accomplish. The fear and shame I’m talking about, in particular, is the fear andnshame of our own ideas and values. So many of us whittle away at out thoughts in private, or cannot manage to whittle at all, because we are ashamed of our ideas, because we fear others will reject them, that others will mock us, that we’re not original, that we haven’t read enough, and so on. It’s a horrible way to live and experience ourselves. I aspire to be absolutely nude. This is not because I believe my ideas are original, that they are great, that I have read enough, and so on. No, it’s because this is all that I am. I can’t be otherwise than what I am and think except through processes of becoming and I can’t become without going throu that process. As Hegel said “fear of error is error itself”, and as Lacan repeated “le non-duped-pere” (a particularly nice formulation as it captures both the necessity of erring, the folly of striving “not to be duped”, and how all of this is attached to belief in master-figures or fathers without lack (transference). You can’t do anything before you do it (belief that you can is the disease of all foundationalist aspirations), but must traverse in order to do anything. Fear of error is error itself.

Over at Agent Swarm Terence Blake has a fantastic post recounting his experience in a graduate program in Australia dominated by Althusserians and Lacanians. Responding to my post on Ranciere’s Althuusser’s Lesson, Blake discusses what happened in his Althusser dominated department. This post is an absolute must read. Here, I think, it’s always worth recalling that theoretical positions are never just ideas, but are always also institutional apparatuses or dispotifs that relate people together in particular ways.

In my view, every philosophy and theory must be approached at four distinct levels. First, of course, there’s the gnomic dimension of texts as deterritorialized ideas that often are the focus of our analysis as workers in the humanities. Here the text and theory consists of a body of claims, arguments, and concepts; as a constellation that has its own internal consistency. This level of theory breaks down, I believe, into two dimensions: the theory and the meta-theory. In my experience, theory and meta-theory are constantly conflated with one another. The meta-theory of a theory– here one should think of De Man’s model of reading –consists of the thinkers theory of his or her theory or account of what they are trying to do in the theory. Blake does a nice job alluding to the dimension of meta-theory in Althusser. The Althusserian meta-theory presents its theory as radically democratic and egalitarian. The theory of the thinker, by contrast, can be deeply at odds with the meta-theory. This is what allows for the possibility of surprising and unexpected readings and deployments of thought in further domains. Take the example of Heidegger as Harman reads him. At the level of Heidegger’s meta-theory of his own work, Heidegger understands his account of withdrawal or aletheia to be restricted to the manner in which Dasein opens the world. At the level of theory— against the grain of the thinkers own intentions –however, Harman tries to show how Heidegger’s aletheia exceeds all constraints and restrictions to Dasein, escaping the limitations of Heidegger’s meta-theory, opening the way towards a generalized post-correlationist ontology. Likewise, Althusser is a master of reading for the tension between meta-theory and theory in Marx’s work, just as Lacan constantly exploited this tension in Freud.

At another level– one which many people in the humanities seem to resist –there is the level of thought as dispotifs. Here the inflection isn’t on the ideational or conceptual content of a thought, but rather on how the thought is also a material dispotif lodged in material institutions, organizing relations between persons in particular ways, structuring curriculum in certain ways, etc. This is what Ranciere is getting at in his critique of Althusser, and what Blake brings out so well in his discussion of how the Althusserian-Lacanianism of his department marginalized feminist thought (even while giving it lip service at the level of its meta-theory of itself, and marginalized other vectors of Continental thought. Here we get thought not as a set of ideas, concepts, sequences of argument and claims, but as a disciplinary network embodied in institutions. This dimension of thought, I think, is often ignored.

Finally, the fourth way of approaching a sequence of thought is in terms of its effects on the world. Here theory is approached in terms of questions of who its audience is (too many of us seem to only conceive our audience as other academics) and what effects, if any, the sequence of thought produces on the world outside of its disciplinary dispotif and the systems of training, journals, presses, and conferences.

All of this aside, for me the true spirit of Marxism resides in radical democracy or egalitarianism… Indeed, not just for humans but for nonhumans as well (see Bellamy’s work on Marx’s ecological thought). This entails that at heart Marxist thought must be premised on the belief in the capacity of the masses. Any orientation of Marxist thought that betrays this radical egalitarianism in either the content, form, or material practice of its thought (ie., dispotifs) betrays all that’s valiable in Marx.

In response to The Democracy of Objects, Marisol, of Fractured Politics fame, asks an interesting question. Marisol writes:

Oh no, I’m going to be the first person to ask a specific question about the contents of the book! But here goes! Over at fracturedpolitics.com, Kris Coffield posted a discussion question about change within an ‘OOO’ framework. Here’s my response, which I hope doesn’t bastardize your ideas too heavily: “I actually like where Levi Bryant goes with this, with regard to his discussions of entropy and autopoiesis (coming from his blog and the HTML version of his new book). He argues that every substance must deal with its own internal entropy, or ability to break apart. Defining entropy as a measure of order over time, he argues that highly ordered systems have a low degree of entropy, while highly disordered systems have a high degree of entropy. For entities to exist, they must sustain their order through processes of self-differentiation.

From here, Bryant distinguishes between allopoietic and autopoietic objects-as-systems, where the former are produced by something else (inanimate, manmade, etc.), while the latter are self-reproductive. Two key points come into play: First, the operations of an autopoietic system relate only to themselves, and second, receive information from their environment in a manner that is based on their constitutional organization. This second point is still a little difficult for me because when the term “environment” remains ill-defined, though I think a basic distinction can be made between “environment” as objects and conditions external to a substance and “objectworld” (Kris’s term from prior posts) as the inner, constitutional, organizational system internal to an object.

With regard to change, one of Levi’s many points, is that to being is difference, is differing. That active process never ceases because of entropy. I’m not sure if the identity of an object can be said to be the local manifestation of self-differentiation or is simply the processes themselves, but the point is that the question is reversed; difference precedes existence ontologically. Change, in the sense of difference, is unceasing. And I’m pretty sure this is what Kris is getting at, though he’s being sneaky about it.

Social systems, like a state, are autopoietic objects (see previous posts on this site and over at Larval Subjects) that deliberately maintain their organization – boy do they ever! For change to occur within a social system (like, for example, when disenfranchised populations gain visibility), objects comprising the system (I almost want to say “caught within” the system) assume a different identity or position than the one dictated by the system, increasing the system’s degree of entropy. This could cause the system to collapse or be overthrown, but I think we need to acknowledge that system can adjust to accommodate the new “rogue” objects(s), having the effect of bringing the degree of entropy back down to a manageable level, or a level that allows the system to survive. Slavery is a good example here – slaves were freed, but the government withheld rights from black citizens, maintaining some degree of homeostasis.”

And here’s my question: I understand the self-sustenance autopoietic systems, but how do these systems ensnare objects that pose a challenge? In other words, how would your systems analysis account for things like Jim Crow laws enacted to politically marginalize a newly emancipated people, or should this be obvious to me already?

In my view, laws are second-order protocols that arise within social systems to introduce redundancy into the ongoing autopoisis of those systems. Like the regulators of steam engines invented by Watts (?) that prevented the steam engine from flying into positive feedback where the engine keeps increasing in speed until it is destroyed, laws function like regulators that strive to keep autopoiesis functioning in a particular way.

At the level of first-order autopoiesis there are no laws but only habits. Take four-way crossings on roads prior to the existence of traffic laws. It would be silly to suppose that prior to traffic laws there was a pure chaos when people drove on these roads and encountered each other. Rather there were, it is likely, habits. People slowed down, perhaps stopped, looked both ways, etc, based on a set of habits the system had developed. Laws intervened at a later point, formalizing these habits, so as to introduce a level of redundancy into the operations these habits evoke. In other words, the traffic laws did not invent these habits, but now provided a mechanism wherein those elements (drivers, riders) that happened not to act according to the habit (entropy) either through fatigue, lack of attention, myopia, or ignorance could be steered into the particular functioning of the system. Laws, in addition to this, provided a means for assigning blame through a system of inscriptions in the social system, i.e., the laws are less about ordering a social system than of assigning blame and debt in a system where the habit breaks down.

At the level of first-order autopoiesis, the production of elements takes place through the interaction of all sorts of parts producing and being produced by one another as elements. Like stem cells that are pluripotent such that they can become any type of other cells (liver cells, muscle cells, bone, nerve cells, etc), humans as parts begin as pluripotent such that they can become a variety of different elements in a particular social system. They become a particular type of element through interactions with other elements in the social system in which they find themselves. As Marx taught us, production is never simply production but is always a reproduction of social relations as well. Different gendered, racial, class, etc., elements are produced as these elements through the interaction of these elements. This reproduction of social relations will also involve all sorts of nonhuman elements such as where different places of life and work are located, how roads and communication paths are configured, etc., etc., etc. Prior to Jim Crow laws, there is thus a system of Jim Crow habits in these social systems that consists of how people performatively relate to one another thereby reproducing social relations.

The introduction of Jim Crow laws becomes a second-order moment in the social system designed to catch those events in the system that fail to conform to these habits and steer those elements back into structured patterns of interaction. As such, something like Jim Crow laws serve a dual function: On the one hand, it introduces redundancy into the system so as to regulate and diminish entropy in that particular system. On the other hand, laws themselves participate in autopoiesis, becoming an additional material component that intensifies development in system along a certain trajectory or vector, foreclosing other developmental possibilities in the system. The whole question becomes one of how to produce differences in massively redundant social systems where the system is actively organized to prevent certain events from resonating or being anything more than noise.

Last night I was pleased to discover that Ranciere’s first book, Althusser’s Lesson is now available. Ranciere is the political theorist that comes closest to the Lacanian spirit and flat ontology that informs my own political thought. When I refer to a “Lacanian spirit”, I am referring to how Lacan conceived the relationship between analyst and analysand in the actual praxis of analysis. What makes Lacanian analysis so unique is that the analyst is not conceived as a master who knows, such that the analysand is placed in the subordinate position of being a pupil that must come to internalize the superior knowledge and understanding of the analyst. Rather, the only subject that knows in Lacanian analysis is the analyzand’s unconscious. The analyst functions as a midwife of that knowledge that has no knowledge or mastery of his own.

This is very much in line with Ranciere’s conception of politics. Althusser’s Lesson is a lesson in a theory of what politics shouldn’t be and of the type of politics that shouldn’t be followed. In other words, Althusserianism is the villian in this book. In a new preface written for Althusser’s Lesson outlines his own project, remarking that,

From the very beginning, my concern has been with the study of thought and speech where they produce effects, that is, in a social battle that is also a conflict, renewed with each passing instant, over what we perceive and how we came to name it. From the beginning, I have confronted the philosophies of the end of history with the topography of the possible; indeed, we can see the contours of this project appearing beyond the theses specific to Althusser, the book has its sights trained on the much broader logic by by which subversive thoughts are recuperated for the service of order. The principle of this process of recuperation is the idea of domination propogated by the very discourses that pretend to critique it. These critiques in fact all share the same presupposition: domination functions thanks to a mechanism of dissimulation which hides its laws from its subjects by presenting them with an inverted reality. The sociology of ‘misrecognition’, the theory of the ‘spectacle’ and the different forms assumed by the critique of consumer and communication societies all share with Althusserianism the idea that the dominated are dominated because they are ignorant of the laws of domination. The simplistic view at first assigns to those who adopt it the exalted task of bringing their science to the blind masses. Eventually, though, this exactled task dissolves in a pure thought of resentment which declares the inability of the ignorant to be cured of their illusions, and hence the inability of the masses to take charge of their own destiny. (xvi)

In other words, this style of theory– common to ideology critique, must Frankfurt school thought, and so on –recapitulates the very form of domination by characterizing the dominated as ignorant dupes in need of knowing masters inescapably in need of the academic theorist to overcome their chains. Ironically, this style of theory ends up being based on the very premise that oppressive forms use to justify their privileged place: that because the masses are ignorant they are in need of a leader to organize their existence. Ideology critique, for example, is premised on the idea of a constitutive and essential inequality of the masses with respect to the master theorists. In The Philosopher and His Poor Ranciere carefully tracks this logic throughout the history of political theory.

To this Ranciere opposes his own position.

My book declared war on the theory of the inequality of intellegiences at the heart of supposed critiques of domination. It held that all revolutionary thought must be founded on the inverse presupposition, that of the capacity of the dominated… The prevailing view of the Cultural Revolution at the time, and it is a view the book shares, was that of an anti-autoritarian movement which confronted the power of the state and of the Party with the capacity of the masses. (xvi – xvii)

A form of “revolutionary” theory that merely recapitulates form of domination is, in the end, not much of an egalitarian or revolutionary theory. Indeed, as Ranciere will disdainfully suggest later on in the book (11 – 12) that the real aim of these intellectuals is to justify the necessity of their own academic positions and jobs rather than anything revolutionary at all.

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