January 2012


In a previous post I argued that politics necessarily deals with questions of relations. There can be no coherent politics that does not deal with relations because the field of political engagement is always a field of conflicts or antagonisms between different entities. For example, the struggles of adjunct professors revolving around issues of job security, pay, benefits, the courses they can teach, etc., is a field defined by relations between adjuncts, tenured and tenure track professors, administrators, the manner in which institutions of higher learning are funded by the state, and hence legislatures, tax payers, and government. There simply is no coherent way of understanding these political issues without understanding these networks of relations.

In this regard, the real distinction in an onticological politics is not between relational and non-relational politics, but rather whether relations are treated as external or whether they’re treated as internal. The internalist sees relations as “organic”, such that all entities are internally related to one another in such a way that the position of any particular part is natural within that collective and other forms of social organization are not possible. The externalist sees relations as extrinsic such that there is no natural ordering of entities and such that it is possible for collectives to be organized in other ways. Historically externalism has been the position of leftist political theorists whether we’re speaking of thinkers such as Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Marx, Foucault, Butler, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on. Again and again there is a demonstration that the organization of a particular social order is contingent and that therefore it is possible for it to be otherwise. There is a perpetual focus on the analysis of relations not for the sake of demonstrating that everything is a product of relations, but rather for the sake of showing that these relations are contingent and can be changed. The aim is to understand the mechanisms, the relational processes, by which certain oppressive orders are produced precisely so that those mechanisms can be contested and changed.

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In response to my last post, Paul Bain’s remarks that it will be interesting to see where this new concept of withdrawal goes. Over at Speculum Criticum, Skholiast has an interesting post up, remarking that,

for Harman and Bryant, the problem arises on the side of the (real) object–it withdraws, so how does it interact with anything else?

I suppose I should have been more clear in my last post, but first, the concepts of withdrawal are not the same for me and Harman, and 2) the concept of withdrawal I propose at the end of my last post is not a new conception of withdrawal for me, but one I’ve advocated for quite some time. Harman’s thesis is that real objects are withdrawn from all relations and that they can only relate to one another vicariously. I’ve never understood the thesis that objects can’t touch and the idea that they only relate vicariously. If objects are relating vicariously then they are affecting one another and touching. That’s a relation. While I can certainly see the epistemological problem of causality vis a vis Hume’s skepticism, I don’t understand the ontological property of causality. I take it that causality is just a primitive ontological given and that we don’t need any special account of how objects can relate. To be sure, objects can break with relations and share no relations to all sorts of things, but this is very different than claiming that objects are withdrawn from all relations. I assume that because my friend Harman is quite brilliant, I am simply somehow misunderstanding him, yet he does repeatedly remark that objects can never touch and that they are unable to relate to one another. I simply can’t figure out how this is possible if objects are not affecting one another in some way.

In my work I’ve tried to theorize “withdrawal” (maybe I need a different term) in terms of 1) the manner in which objects are split between their virtual and actual half, and 2) autopoietic theory’s concept of “operational closure” (in Whitehead the term would be “subjective form”). In the autopoietic framework framework, the thesis is not that objects cannot touch but that 1) entities only maintain selective relations to their environment (e.g., I’m unable to sense light in the infrared spectrum), and 2) that entities structure perturbations from their environment in terms of their own internal organization. In other words, the cause or perturbation doesn’t predelineate the effect. Obviously it plays an important role, but the effect will be a function of the perturbed object’s internal organization. I outline all of this in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects. Not incidentally, it allows me to retain most of critical theory and post-structuralist thought and critique, albeit in a modified form.

For me, the important thing about the virtual/actual structure of the object is that we can’t reduce an object to its current qualities. On the planet earth, for example, I weigh, unfortunately, about 195lbs. A naive approach to objects might treat this quality (what I call a “local manifestation”) as an intrinsic feature of my body. Here the thesis would be that a body, substance, unit, or object is nothing more than the some of its qualities. However, when I go to Mars I very quickly discover that seemed what so apparent and obvious– that I am intrinsically 195lbs; thank God I’m 6’1″! –is, in fact, an event on the part of my body. Qualities are not something an object has, but something an object does. On Mars my weight would be quite different because Mars is about half the mass of the planet Earth. In other words, the relations an object entertains to other objects play a tremendous role in its “local manifestations”, generating very different qualities under different networks of relations. I call these networks of relations “regimes of attraction” because these relations among objects draw out different qualities. These claims are dealt with in chapter 3 and 5 of The Democracy of Objects.

So here is what I was trying to diplomatically suggest in my last post. It’s difficult to see how objects thoroughly withdrawn from all relations and incapable of affecting other objects can make any practical difference in our dealings with the world. Such a thesis seems to lead to something akin to the claim that the world doubles in size every 30 seconds. By contrast, the thesis that the qualities of objects are variable under shifting conditions and that objects only relate to other objects under conditions of operational closure has profound implications for inquiry and practice. On the one hand, the thesis of operational closure entails that we can’t just assume that other entities (including other humans and social organizations) do not encounter the world in the same way, but rather that they encounter the world selectively and in terms of operational closure. Off the top of my head, this has massive implications for both pedagogy and political theory. It’s rather difficult to educate a kid if you’re unable to communicate with him at all (i.e., you’re using speech acts that don’t fall in the field of his selectivity) and it’s difficult to act on social institutions if you’re not engaging them at a level they can register. We need to map the internal organization and fields of selection in these other entities.

Second, the thesis that qualities are events resulting from a regime of attraction entails, at the level of practice, that we shouldn’t just reduce objects to a list of qualities (the old Aristotlean species/genus sortings), but that in investigating entities we need to vary their regimes of attraction to see what differences are produced. To see this point concretely, take the Humboldt squid. The Humboldt has a reputation for being extremely aggressive. In other words, we treat aggressivity as an intrinsic quality of the Humboldt’s essence. But what if Humboldt behavior results not from an internal essence of the Humboldt, but rather from features of the regime of attraction in which it is studies? Marine biologists investigating the Humboldt often do so around fishing boats throwing all sorts of discarded bits of fish in the water and that inadvertently capture Humboldt’s in their nets. What if the behavior of Humboldt’s we’re witnessing is the result of being under assault, and not the result of some sort of intrinsic essence? I’m not suggesting that this is the case. My point is that the distinction between the virtual dimension of objects as powers, potentialities, or capacities, and the actual dimension of objects consisting of local manifestations makes a real difference in how we investigate things. Rather than locating qualities in the object as intrinsic features, we instead see them as events that refer to a context of relations (a regime of attraction). In doing so, we come to conclude that the investigation of entities requires 1) acting on them in controlled ways to see how they’ll respond (this is what takes place in a super collider, for example), and 2) requires varying their regime of attraction or environment to see what differences these variations elicit. Such variation gradually allows us to build up a diagram of the object’s virtual powers or a concept not of what an object is, but of what it can do.

In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, Peirce proposes his infamous pragmatic principle:

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. (Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 31)

While I don’t accept the highly positivistic reading of this principle that Peirce proposes– for him it must make some difference to our five senses –I do nonetheless think he here articulates a good rule of thumb for evaluating concepts we should entertain and concepts we should just ignore. Here are a couple of examples. Suppose someone approaches me with the claim that everything in the universe doubles in size every 30 seconds. While this is certainly a provocative and interesting thesis, it is not clear that it’s something that we should entertain for long. If everything in the universe doubled in size every 30 second, then this “phenomenon” would be undetectable because everything, relative to everything else, would be exactly the same size. Thus, for example, while my ruler at T2 would now have inches that are two inches long compared to my ruler at T1, I would have no way of knowing this because all of the relative sizes of everything would be the same. Consequently, while it might be true that this is happening, there’s just no way anyone can know anything about it and thus it makes no difference in our thought.

Now, it’s likely that there aren’t many people arguing that everything is doubling in size every 30 seconds, but we do find philosophical debates that are analogous to this. One debate that comes to mind is the debate between free will and determinism. The determinist argues that insofar as we are a part of nature, all of our actions are predetermined such that we have no say in them. If I commit murder, for example, it wasn’t that I chose to commit murder. I no more chose to commit murder than the ocean tides choose to rise or ebb. Rather, this action was ineluctable given causal chains that begin with the beginning of time (if time has a beginning). Following Peirce’s principle, it is likely that even if this thesis is true, we’ll be inclined to simply ignore it. Why? Because even if it is true we will still experience our actions and the actions of others as actions we chose and that we’re responsible for. I simply cannot escape the impression that I’m the one that chooses to walk across the room.

It is these kind of claims that Kantian, post-Kantian, Anglo-American, and scientists denounce as “metaphysical”. A metaphysical claim is a claim that makes no difference. Consider the arguments that some conciliatory religious believers try to make. The scientists are right, they say, to claim that the account of creation depicted in Genesis is untrue, and that species evolved through a process of evolution. However, they continue, there is no contradiction in the claim that God fulfills his plan through evolution. Quite right! There is no contradiction in the suggestion that God fulfills his plan through evolution. However, the problem is that the introduction of supernatural agency into evolutionary processes produces no difference in how we investigate evolutionary processes. In other words, the supernatural supplement adds nothing to our account of evolution and therefore we’re left wondering why we should include it at all. This is a perfect example of a metaphysical thesis in the derogatory sense.

It seems to me that one of the single greatest challenges that proponents of withdrawn objects face is this charge of proposing an empty metaphysical abstraction that makes no difference. I resolve to treat the object as withdrawn from all relations such that we have no access to it whatsoever (this is not, incidentally, my concept of withdrawal). In this way I seek to preserve the object form all erasure under relation. Yet in doing this, what has happened? Have I not won a Pyrrhic victory? Insofar as I’ve claimed that the object is withdrawn from all relation and access, I’m also led to the claim that nothing can be said of the object qua object because the object is withdrawn. As a consequence, the object becomes, at the level of concepts, an empty point. As thoroughly withdrawn, I am unable to say anything of the object. Any quality that I might attribute to its reality is necessarily a quality for me (in relation), and not a quality of the object itself. And this is true both metaphysically (in the non-pejorative sense) and epistemologically. It’s not just that the object is empty for me, the person seeking to know the object. No, it is also that the object is empty for any other object, because the real being of the object is withdrawn from each and every object, existing in a self-contained vacuum, unable to touch any other object.

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One of the most controversial theses of object-oriented philosophy is the claim that objects are withdrawn from all relation. No doubt, this claim has caused particular consternation among those who are politically inclined, for it is difficult to see how there can be anything like a coherent politics that isn’t concerned with relations. Putting it crudely, when we raise political questions we are raising questions of relations. OWS, for example, is raising questions about relations between the 99% and unjust privilege enjoyed by banks and corporations. Striking workers are asking questions about their relation to the products of their labor, the surplus-values they work with, the machines they work on, etc. Environmental activists are exploring relations between the natural environment and industry. Everywhere the political is a question of relations and a question of what sort of relations are just and right. Moreover, in the ontological register, it is not clear what it might mean to claim that objects are withdrawn from all relations. One might argue that I only ever encounter my object as a “sensual object”, and never encounter the real cat, and that therefore I share no direct relation to my cat. Yet in order for me to encounter my cat as a sensual object, my cat must affect me in some way, and an affection is a real relation. No affection, no direct encounter with a real cat, no experience of a sensual cat. Nothing about suggesting that my cat directly affects me need lead to the conclusion that somehow I have a full and complete representation of my cat. All it entails is that my cat must touch or interact with me in some way for me to have this experience of a sensual cat. As a consequence, whatever else withdrawal might mean, it certainly does not seem coherent to treat it as severance from all relations.

These points are not nitpicking asides. The suggestion that objects are withdrawn from all relations has led to a dismissal of relational politics on the ground that objects are independent of relations. When people rightly raise concern about such a thesis, their position is characterized as a facile view that relations are leftists and that anti-relationism is conservative (i.e., their position is characterized as bowing to a matter of taste or a flavor: “If you’re a leftist you’re a relationist”), and they are given the counter-example of Burke versus the Jacobins. Within this framework, Burke the conservative opponent of the French Revolution, was a relationist that held that all of society is organically related in a natural order (e.g., the aristocrats have a natural place, the peasants a natural place, etc). By contrast, the Jacobins are characterized as anti-relationists insofar as they held that society could be reconfigured and that it is possible to break with the existing order.

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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?

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