October 2011


Yesterday I did a talk at University of Minnesota for their Textual Bodies series. I’ll be posting the clip next week, but I have to say this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It was really more of a discussion than a talk as unfortunately, being approached on such short notice, I wasn’t able to prepare very much with everything going on. My talk was entitled “The Text is a Factory: On the Thingliness of Fictions”. We had a fantastic discussion and it helped to cultivate a number of my thoughts. This is the sort of thing I would very much like to do again in the future. Now that we have skype there’s no reason we can’t organizing these sorts of discussions and symposia around the world. They’re calling them “skypinars”. That seems like a good name. Many thanks to Joe Hughes and the people that attended for making this possible. I was humbled by their generosity.

In chapter 3 of The Democracy of Objects I argue that objects are split between their virtual proper being and their local manifestations. The virtual proper being of an object is the object’s powers or capacities. The local manifestations of an object are its actualized qualities or properties, that which become present in the object. I call these manifestations “manifestations” because they are the becoming-actual of a property. I call them “local” because the properties that an object comes to actualize are the result of local circumstances in time and space. In other circumstances other manifestations would take place. For this reason 1) the qualities of an object are acts on the part of an object, not something an object simply has (they are events), and 2) an object cannot be identified with its properties or qualities because properties or qualities are variable events that arise from local circumstances. I refer to these local circumstances as “regimes of attraction”. Regimes of attraction are the external relationships an object shares to other objects in the world that play a role in the local manifestation of properties. Local manifestation can occur in one of two ways. They can result either from internal dynamics of the object or body such as the thumping sound my body makes from the beating of my heart, or from relations that an object shares to other objects in a regime of attraction leading to the actualization of a property as in the case of the production of rust in metals due to oxidation. My thesis is that objects are individuated not by their local manifestations but by their virtual proper being or powers.

The four pictures of flowers in this post are beautiful examples of local manifestation. In fact, these are only two flowers even though the one flower in the picture in the first paragraph appears quite different in its left and right depiction, just as the flower to the left appears quite different in its left and right depiction. Nonetheless, one and the same flower is depicted in the picture in the first paragraph and one and the same picture is depicted in the picture to the left.

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I’m extremely pleased to see that Andreling of Intra-Being is posting once again as, given his fascinating work in ethnography and the field, he’s always sorely missed when he’s away. Today he has a great post up riffing on his work in the field, object-oriented ontology, political processes, and my discussions of rice. Here’s a taste:

While humans can clearly play a significant role in shaping how these powers are expressed, it is clearly not a simple matter of humans imposing their will on the rice plant. The rice plant does not – indeed cannot – just do what humans want it to do and, for the most part, humans – even farmers – still don’t know everything about the ins and outs of the rice plant (despite having cultivated it for so many years). Yes, rice has been cultivated and modified by humans over thousands of years but at the same time, rice has shaped human societies reciprocally because of its own very specific needs (in terms of water, nutrients, etc.) and qualities. But despite this ancient structural coupling between humans and rice, neither has the human involvement with rice exhausted rice’s powers, nor has rice’s involvement with humans exhausted the humans’. Rice is an actant along with humans, warring tribes, language, irrigation systems, tools, families, weather systems, religious ceremonies, economies and geological formations and can lend itself quite comfortably to myriad other forms of ‘social’ organisation besides the hierarchical ones that happen to have emerged historically.

But changing practices is no simple feat. The farmers’ powers or capacities are themselves expressed in a selective manner as a result of the way that they are entangled with diverse other objects, both human and non-human, such as those listed earlier. These constellations of objects constitute a regime of attraction, essentially an autopoietic system or larger-scale object, which exerts its own gravitational pull on those partial parts (i.e. elements) that make it up. This larger object (we could call it ‘farming system’) is different and distinct from its parts (families, rice plants, soil, droughts, etc.) even though they compose it. Each part, therefore, exceeds (is withdrawn from) this larger object, just as the larger object exceeds (withdraws from) these parts.

There’s a lot more so be sure to read the rest here. The big gripe I have with what I call “paradigmatic critical theory” is that it often behaves as if it is enough to change ideological beliefs by debunking them to produce social and political change. I am by no means suggesting that pardigmatic critical theory should be abandoned and that ideology critique doesn’t have an important purpose and value, but I don’t think it is enough. There is a stickiness to the things of the world, to the regimes of attraction in which people live, to lives dependent on these things that functions to hold certain social patterns in place. People might be entirely aware that their social and material circumstances stink to high heaven, but they must live, eat, provide for their children, etc. In other words, they’re stuck as if in a spider’s web. Consequently, in addition to ideology critique real social and political change requires the painstaking formation of other assemblages of nonhuman entities that allow people to live in new and different ways and relate to one another in new and different ways. If these alternative assemblages are not created– and again I emphasize that I’m talking about the nonhuman here: geography, resources, food, plants, water resources, technologies, etc, not human collectives –then that change simply cannot come. This is what I have called political “terraism“: the practice of actually building and creating new assemblages of nonhumans coupled with demolishing the flows of energy oppressive assemblages need to continue functioning.

As I read my student’s Ethics exams (not bad, the kids are alright), I’m brought back to Dennett’s compatibilist conception of freedom developed in Freedom Evolves (and despite loving him remind me never to teach his books again, they’re an organizational mess). Early on Dennett suggests that those that believe they have free will actually have free will and those that do not believe they have free will do not have free will. His point here is elusive but, I think, very simple. A belief is not nothing but is one causal factor among others. Here Dennett seems to repeat a variation of the joke Lacan tells towards the beginning of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, where he recounts the tale of the boy who said “I have three brothers. Paul, John, and myself.” Okay, this joke isn’t that funny, but Lacan’s point is that the boy counts well because he includes himself as one of the entities to be counted. Thus, for example, when, in a correlationist frame of mind, we treat objects as things opposed to a subject, we count poorly because we forget that we too are one of these objects in the world (this is one reason I never get suggestions that somehow OOO hates humans and wants to eradicate them because it champions the existence of objects. Er, humans are beings or objects too!). But I digress. My point is that Dennett is arguing that when we ask ourselves questions like “am I just a clockwork mechanism determined by mechanical rules and from the outside?” we forget that our beliefs are also causal factors in our action and that they make a difference in that action.

So this is the basic idea: if I believe that I am free, then I will be free because I will at least try to influence my circumstances and my own potentials. If I believe that I am determined, by contrast, I will be unfree because, believing myself determined, I won’t bother to try to change my circumstances. If I believe that it is possible for me to learn how to play guitar, I will actually put the effort in towards learning the guitar. I may not become Jimmy Hendrix, to be sure, but I will certainly learn something of guitar (can you tell I feel guilty that I haven’t tried to learn guitar… I’m looking at you Troy Doucet!). If, by contrast, I believe that through, say, some genetic disposition I am constitutively unable to learn guitar I will never try and therefore really will never learn how to play guitar. My belief here plays a crucial causal role in whether or not I change my circumstances and abilities.

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Over at Object-Oriented Philosophy Graham has an interesting post up discussing the Analytic/Continental divide. As Graham writes,

Most of what gets said about the analytic-continental divide is, in my opinion, completely wrong. Two major mistakes are as follows:

(a) To deny that the difference exists, and end up replacing it with a difference between high-quality and low-quality philosophers, with all the supposed high-quality people found in what we could call the analytic camp. This is roughly the tactic of Brian Leiter, who first tells us that all the best continental philosophy is being done in high-ranked departments (basically, analytically trained people writing about Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger) and then denies that such a thing as analytic philosophy even exists. “You cannot attack the Empire. The Empire does not exist.”

(B) Premature declarations of the end of the gap. Certainly, more communication would be desirable, but I don’t think it should take the form of pretending that we’re all one big happy family of philosophers. We’re not. In order to be fruitful, the communication should be highly targeted and based on limited areas of overlapping concerns and methods.

Quite right. To this I would add that I think the analytic/continental divide is not simply about different styles of philosophy, methodologies, canons, or ideas, but is also about power. In other words, I think any serious discussion about the analytic/continental divide has to, in addition to the conceptual and philosophical, approach this divide sociologically. When I evoke power I have in mind Latour’s network assemblages, Foucault’s systems of micropower, Bourdieu’s systems of symbolic and material power, and, of course, Marx. Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World is a magnificent book, but the issue here isn’t simply one of two camps speaking different languages, but is also about how institutions, presses, journals, rankings, conferences, and hiring practices are organized. These are networks of power that function in such a way as to insure the dominance of certain epistemes and the obscurity of others. In my view, the real issue of overcoming the analytic/continental divide consists not in creating a conceptual bridge between different styles of philosophy, but in addressing these very real material assemblages and the inequities they engender. When an analytic lambasts continentalists or continental institutions, he is not simply attacking ideas, but jobs, opportunity, and the ability for people to live. He’s quite literally vying for the extinction of these other orientations of thought.

The videos of the CUNY Speculative Realism talks are now available!

Here’s Patricia Clough and Jane Bennett (my talk begins at the end of this clip):

And here’s me and Graham Harman:

This week my students and I are beginning Jane Bennett’s Enchantment of Modern Life. Despite my occasional grumbling about Bennett, I always feel as if I am at home when I read her work, that I’m encountering a profoundly like-minded person, and as if she’s asking exactly the right kinds of questions. I find that her work is always pervaded by a profound generosity and kindness, coupled with a wonderful fascination with the bizarre (her discussions of rotting garbage heaps, worms, and smart parrots are unforgettable) that mark a true love of the world.

In The Enchantment of Modern Life Bennett addresses some of the less attractive problems that emerge from the project of secularization, enlightenment, and disenchantment. As Bennett writes,

I tell my alter-tale because it seems to me that presumptive generosity, as well as the will to social justice, are sustained by periodic bouts of being enamored with existence, and that it is too hard to love a disenchanted world. Affective fascination with a world thought to be worthy of it may help to ward off the existential resentment that plagues mortals, that is, the sense of victimization that recurrently descends upon the tragic (or absurd or incomplete) beings called humans. (12)

Bennett’s worry is that the project of disenchantment generates a sense of meaninglessness (so nicely described by Nietzsche in The Gay Science when he discusses the death of God) where it becomes impossible to be ethically and politically committed to anything. What she seeks is a form of secular enchantment, of captivation with the world, that might propel and motivate us to ethically and politically engage with the world. In short, her idea is that ethical and political engagement require certain affects to be efficacious. Even Kant, in the Critique of Practical Reason had to appeal to a peculiar sort of affect (respect for the moral law) to account for our obedience to that law.

For Bennett, these affects are enchantment, joy, and love. As she powerfully writes:

If popular psychological wisdom has it that you have to love yourself before you can love another, my story suggests that you have to love life before you can care about anything. The wager is that, to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others. (4)

Look at how worked up people get trying to save a particular mountaintop from mining or a particular animal from extinction. Look at how much fire is generated by the Wall Street protestors and how much fervor animates the new type of social relation they’re trying to forge. Lurking behind these things, I think, is a certain way of being enamored and enchanted with something (an idea, a thing, an animal, etc) such that we become powerfully driven to either preserve that thing even where it serves no utilitarian or consumptive function or where we be become powerfully driven to bring a new form of being-together into existence. The question then becomes one of how this enchantment, wonder, and love can be fostered. People will say it’s impossible to produce affects and that this is precisely why we must rely on abstract moral laws. It’s strange that they don’t seem to notice that we have just as much difficulty getting people to embrace formal moral laws, if not moreso.

It seems to me that one of the greatest ethical challenges for thought is to encounter the world as being enough. While ontology ought not be evaluated on ethical grounds (i.e., we shouldn’t let a set of ethical and political commitments determine what is or isn’t ontologically true), it is nonetheless the case that how we think about the world has practical consequences for how we relate to the things of the world. And like James Bond, one of the repeated trends throughout the history of philosophy is to treat it as if it were not enough.

This treatment of the world as not being enough can be situated in terms of Graham Harman’s concepts of undermining and overmining. As Harman writes,

1. Undermining. You can say that objects are a shallow fiction of common sense, and that the real action happens at a deeper level: whether it be tinier components discovered through the sciences, some sort of “pre-individual” realm, an outright blob-like apeiron, a vaguely defined mathematical “structure”, or some other variant of one of these options.

2. Overmining. You can say that objects are a falsely deep and reactionary holdover from olden times in philosophy, based on superstitions generated by noun-verb Western grammar, or whatever. What is real is not individual things, but processes, events, dynamism, surface-effects.

With few exceptions, philosophy repeatedly traffics in overmining and undermining. Thus, for example, Plato is one of the great overminers, treating the things of the world as mere appearances and these appearances as requiring a supplementary existence in the case of the forms. Certain variants of atomists (I do not count Lucretius in this category as emergence is all over the place in his thought) are underminers of objects, treating objects as mere cognitive abstractions on our part from elementary particles as in the case, as Lukas reminds us, of Van Ingwagen. Likewise, despite his respect for the existence of a plurality of substances, Leibniz, in his “best of all possible worlds” thesis and design argument is a sort of overminer insofar as he rejects the thesis that interactions among substances is enough and instead argues that we must appeal to a divine plan to account for the order and lawfulness of the world.

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A great interview with Paul Ennis over at Fracture Politics here. Lot’s of good discussion about Meillassoux in this one.

Growing up one of my great passions was biology. Indeed, as a child my ardent wish was to be a marine biologist. Towards this end my days, much to the dismay of my mother, would be spent in the creek behind the house observing wildlife and catching the unfortunate critters that came my way. My bedroom was filled with aquariums that stank to high heaven from the stench of the tadpoles, crawfish, frogs, fish, and turtles that I had caught. I loved all wildlife– and for no reason one way or the other, I was just, for inexplicable reasons fascinated with all things that walk, fly, swim, and slither –though, in retrospect, I see that I wasn’t particularly loving to wildlife (the cruel act of imprisoning it in aquariums).

Not surprisingly, my first encounter with Darwin was love at first sight. In one way or another, I have maintained a lively interest in biology since my childhood, with Darwin, contemporary versions of evolutionary theory, and various theoretical works in biology continuing both as a constant area of research and to inform every aspect of my life. It is my background in biological theory, for example, that has made me suspicious of the structuralists, siding instead with the cyberneticians and systems theorists. I felt, for example, that the cyberneticians and the systems theorists could do everything the structuralists could do and could do it better.

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