Sometime around July 3rd, following the Liverpool Thinking the Absolute conference I’ll be speaking at the Independent College before the psychoanalysts. This seems like a perfect opportunity to address a set of concerns and motivations that led to the rejection of substance and identity among the philosophers of difference and the post-structuralists. Here I think it’s crucially important to remember that with the exception of Deleuze, the philosophers of difference and post-structuralists were not addressing a set of metaphysical issues in arguing for relationality and in critiquing the notion of substance, but were responding to a set of social and political problems. Working in the wake of the nationalisms of WWI, the anti-semitism of WWII, the persecutions of the Stalinist Soviet Union, and in the midst of a growing awareness of the systematic nature of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, it seems that the philosophers of difference noticed something like a structural law in which the more an individual or social system asserts an identity, the more a structure of paranoia seems to emerge in which the group or individual 1) experiences itself as under assault from the outside, and 2) seeks to persecute or eradicate this offending group. Noting that there was little reality because either of these claims– the manner in which the Nazi’s represented the Jews and their alleged crimes had no foundation in reality, just as the manner in which Christians represented the Jews during the plagues of the Middle Ages had no foundation in reality –the philosophers of difference wished to understand why these sorts of antagonistic relations emerged structurally and necessarily around identity, and to devise strategies for escaping this problem that had generated so much human misery. And here it bears noting that this structure is not unique to nationalisms, racisms, religious centrisms, etc., but that it is a perfectly formal structure that can appear in both right and leftwing orientations and that can characterize identifications with particular figures, movements, political parties, etc. Again and again hyper-identification seems to ineluctably generate a sort of friend/enemy distinction and logic characterized by a paranoid sense of being persecuted or assaulted by some other and by the necessity of eradicating or destroying that other.

It is this phenomenon that Deleuze and Guattari had in mind when they speak of “micro-fascisms” (i.e., those instances where a movement might be leftwing and egalitarian yet still have a fascist structure) and it is this phenomenon that the philosophers of difference had in mind when they critiqued representation and substance. They were not engaged in an abstract metaphysical debate about the nature of true reality, but rather were striving to understand this logic in the social world and devise strategies for escaping it. And it is in this connection, I think, that many working in the traditions of post-structuralism and critical theory see object-oriented ontology as a step backwards due to its emphasis on substance and identity. In other words, among other things, object-oriented ontology is seen as both unable to address or even recognize this very real phenomenon and is seen as actually providing ammunition that exacerbates these sorts of problems. I don’t think OOO is such a step backwards, but I certainly see– especially given the silence on these issues and what has motivated these theorizations among the philosophers of difference and the critical theorists, coupled with a tendency to treat these orientations as arid metaphysical debates over what enjoys primordial status, substance or relation; rather than recognizing these theoretical orientations as highly situated in terms of social phenomena –why one might get this impression and have this worry.

The question, then, is what onticology might have to say about these sorts of issues. Does it have the resources to both theorize this well documented phenomenon and of responding to it. Or is an ontology that defends identity necessarily doomed to fall into this very logic, increasingly leading to a space of social engagement in which it experiences itself as persecuted, under attack, and as needing to go to war with dissidents?

read on!

I believe onticology does have a way of at least theorizing these issues. I refer to this as the paradox of two entities. Here it’s worth noting that for me, identity is not a primitive feature of objects, but is something that must be enacted and reproduced across time. Identity is an activity on the part of objects, not an abiding substrate lying beneath accidents. The paradox of identity consists in the thesis that the identity of substances functions in two ways in every autopoietic substance (the second form of identity is not operative in allopoietic substances and is probably absent in a number of autopoietic substances such as fire or bacteria as well). The first strata of identity is the ontological identity of substance that exists as enacted. The key point not to be missed about this dimension of identity is that it is withdrawn. It is not merely withdrawn from other entities, but it is withdrawn from the entity itself that enacts this identity. Just as Metzinger talks about an “ego tunnel” that we are but that we know nothing about because it is transparent or withdrawn from us, this identity is unknown to the entity itself by virtue of being “transparent” (Metzinger uses the term “transparent” idiosyncratically to signify not infallible access to the contents of our consciousness, but to refer to that which we can’t discern in ourselves but which is nonetheless operative).

We can refer to this ontological identity as enacted using a Lacanian term: This is identity in the Real. Lacan uses the term “Real” in a variety of different ways, but in two of its significations it refers to that which is impossible to represent and that which can never be formulated in language or expressed. The Real is thus, in these significations, a nice synonym for withdrawal.

The structural phenomenon described above seems unique to certain autopoietic systems (psychic and social systems, perhaps some computers) and seems to arise when a system strives to represent its identity. The representation of identity is very different than withdrawn ontological identity. Drawing on the autopoietic theory of Niklas Luhmann, every autopoietic system necessarily presupposes the existence of a distinction that it draws that distinguishes between itself and its environment. Autopoietic systems must necessarily draw such a distinction to exist because the environment of a system is always more complex than the system itself. No system can maintain point for point relations with all elements in its environment due to this complexity and the necessity of making decisions or executing operations in a temporally limited framework. As a consequence, the distinction between system and environment is both foundational to systems or the formation of the system as a unit (object) and necessarily involves risk due to the way in which the environment is simplified for the system. However, it’s also noteworthy that the distinction between system and environment is paradoxical in that it is self-referential. Like the liar’s paradox where the Creten whose people always lie says “I am not lying”, the distinction between system and environment is paradoxical because it purports to refer to something other than the system (the environment), while nonetheless it is a distinction that is drawn by the system and that does not exist outside the system. As Luhmann somewhere puts it, “the distinction between system and environment does not exist in the environment of the system.” It exists only for the system. There is thus an important sense in which the environment from which a system distinguishes itself is itself a part of the system.

At this point, we do not yet get the structural phenomenon described above, though we do get the seeds of this phenomenon. The structural phenomenon that generates antagonistic identity relations occurs when what we might call “second-order” identity forms within a system. Second-order identity is what takes place when a system strives to represent its identity to itself. In other words, there is first-order identity that an autopoietic system just is as enacted, and then there is second-order identity where a system strives to represent its identity to itself. Second-order identity occurs– using Luhmann’s and Spencer-Brown’s language –when a distinction “re-enters itself”. A distinction re-enters itself when that distinction strives to represent its activity of distinguishing itself. This is dense, so I’ll try to clarify. Systems are founded on the distinction between system and environment, but the autopoietic system that founds itself on this distinction need not represent that distinction to itself. At this first-order level, the distinction can simply operate without representing itself. In this way the paradoxical and self-referential nature of the distinction remains veiled or hidden. However, when a system strives to represent its distinction between itself and its environment paradox begins to come to the fore. Here the distinction has re-entered the system. The system not only distinguishes itself from its environment, but now represents the fact that it distinguishes itself from its environment. For example, I do not simply exist in the contentment of “being the set of operations that is Levi”, but the question of what Levi is as distinct from everyone else now re-enters me as a system and I try to represent the Leviness of Levi.

So why do certain autopoietic systems generate second-order identity? It is likely that second-order identity serves a regulative and selective function within systems. In striving to represent the Leviness of Levi (in psychoanalysis we call this narcissism), I am not simply trying to get at what the “true essence” of Levi is, but rather this attempt to represent my Leviness both strives to regulate first-order Levi and to select operations and events that take place in first-order Levi so as to repeat them and accentuate them. For example, my second-order identity as Levi says I want to be a nice guy, so in my cognitive activities and actions I try to select those operations taking place within me that accord with “being-a-nice guy” and to exclude or eradicate those elements that don’t. As Judith Butler argues in Giving an Account of Oneself, my second-order self is striving to fashion myself. I become a fold between these two processes.

So why is it that second-order identity tends to generate a sort of antagonistic struggle between second-order self and other? There are two reasons for this. First, as Lacan noted, the folded nature of the self between first- and second-order identity is inherently conflictual in nature. First- and second-order identity can never quite coincide, entailing that second-order identity perpetually experiences itself as precarious from within. At the first-order level events inside the system keep popping up that don’t fit with the regulative second-order identity. The second-order identity therefore necessarily experiences itself as perpetually in danger of disintegrating. At this point, projective identification kicks in and the odd elements that threaten second-order identity are projected outwards on the environment as things that come from without that must be eradicated or destroyed. This is why, as a general rule, the more narcissistic a person is, the more conflictual they will be with others. This has nothing to do with the others per se, but rather is a sort of effect that necessarily arises from the internally fraught folded nature of identity between first- and second-order identity. It was this Lacan sought to describe under the Imaginary. The Imaginary refers not to “imagination” or “imagining”, but rather pertains to the sort of paradox that emerges between the first- and second-order identity as the subject strives to form itself in terms of an idealized second-order depiction of itself.

The second source of the antagonistic nature of identity has to do with the paradoxical nature of distinction when a second-order distinction re-enters a system and strives to represent itself. In striving to represent itself, the system becomes hyper-vigilant about boundary maintenance. The system must now maintain the boundary between inside and outside. However, as thinkers such as Hegel, Lacan, and Derrida have taught us, wherever we strive to represent a boundary or membrane, we must represent both sides of the boundary or membrane. A membrane or boundary can exist without representing its partition, yet where it does strive to represent its partition it necessarily ends up representing both sides of the partition. This aspect of second-order identity thus leads to a phenomenon in which every boundary is experienced as precarious both it encounters itself as both including what it treats as outside and as excluding what it treats as outside. As a consequence of this– as Zizek argues in For They Know Not What They Do –second-order identity experiences itself as perpetually contaminated from within by that which falls on the other side of the distinction its trying to maintain and establish.

The diacriticality of second-order identity insures that second-order identity will always be contaminated from within insofar as the paradox of distinction comes to the fore in representation. To say that something is diacritical is to say that it’s existence is purely relational, that it has no independent existence apart from the system or object in which it exists and its relations to other elements within that system. It is an element, not a part. A classic example would be a phoneme such as b/p in the English language or the famous hammer in Heidegger. Unlike parts which are objects in their own rights, elements, insofar as they are diacritical, always refer to other elements in their relation because their existence is purely relational. For example, while I am certainly something, my identity as a father is diacritical in the sense that I am only a father in relation to my daughter (and biological lineage has nothing to do with this). As a father I exist as an element in a higher order or larger scale object, namely the relation between myself and my daughter. Severed from that relation I am no longer a father. I am something– qua part –but no longer have this existence as element.

Diacritical relations are important in that they necessarily refer to other elements insofar as their existence is relational and not purely discrete. These relations are external rather than internal. As a consequence, to use Derrida’s term, an auto-immune response emerges in relation to that which falls on the outside portion of the distinction in which the system strives to eradicate that which is supposed to be without. But unlike auto-immune responses of a biological body that might successfully eradicate the invading microbe, the strategies of this auto-immune response are necessarily doomed to failure as the other side of the distinction cannot be eradicated at the level of representation. The distinction is self-referential in the sense that it necessarily includes both sides of the distinction. Thus, as Zizek somewhere observes, the Nazi’s became increasingly paranoid as they approached successful eradication of the Jews because the paradox of distinction became increasingly apparent, revealing that the contamination they experienced in their identity was not the result of some invading contingency like another social group, but a structural feature of their own attempt to represent their own identity. In other words, their experience of contamination, of something disturbing their identity and threatening it, had nothing to do with the Jews at all. This is why we see the same structural phenomenon occurring in a variety of different ideologies despite their political orientations. It is not the content of the ideology that generates this conflictual and antagonistic relation, but rather the form, the structure of second-order identity that ineluctably generates this sense of persecution and project of eradicating the other. The tragedy is that real others become the object of this eradication, when, in fact, this phenomenon has nothing to do with them but results from the diacritics of the second-order functioning of distinctions.