February 2012


It would be easy to suppose that philosophical caution with respect to Plato, Aristotle, and Husserl and their emphasis on the unity and identity of things simply arose from seeing them as boring middle-agers who serve up retrograde ideas and from a desire to take fashionable cheap shots at these thinker so as to jump on the latest bandwagon. If this dismissal is particularly convenient, then this is because it treats criticism of these thinkers as arising from ad hominem motivations and therefore boils down to a series of fallacies of relevance. In other words, insofar as whether or not one is a boring middle-ager serving up retrograde ideas is irrelevant to whether or not these concepts are ontologically true, one could safely ignore these criticisms and continue as before. Unfortunately matters are not so simple.

As Deleuze and Guattari argue in What is Philosophy?, all concepts arise in response to problems that precede them, and this is above all the case with the concepts of multiplicity and difference. What is at issue here is not a simple desire to get with the latest fashion or youthful exuberance, but rather an attempt to develop an ontological discourse adequate to the real of being. If the concept of substance is to be retained– and I believe it should be preserved –this requires a significant reworking of this concept in light of these problems. Any ontology that fails to respond to these problems will prove inadequate to what we have come to know in our historical moment. Here it’s above all important to note that problems do not spell the ruin of a philosophical position, but rather are the motive force that leads to the genesis and formation of concepts.

In my view, the problems that motivate a criticism of Platonic, Aristotlean, and Husserlian orientations can be sorted into 1) intra-philosophical problems, 2) empirical problems, and 3) political problems. Here I will focus on Aristotle as he is the primary lineage from which object-oriented ontology draws its positions.

1:) Ontological Problems: Aristotle begins well. He makes a firm declaration that being qua being consists, in its primary signification, of what he calls “primary substances”. Aristotle’s primary substances are those things we refer to as individuals or objects. They are entities like rocks, trees, persons, cats, aardvarks, hammers, and so on. A primary substance will just be any individual thing that exists. Aristotle will argue that primary substances are subjects of predication that are not themselves predicated of anything else. Thus, for example, someone might predicate “brownness” of me when saying “Levi has brown hair”, but “Levi”, the person, is not predicated of anything else. Rather, I am an entity that exists as an individual in my own right and autonomously, rather than an entity that only exists in something else. Here a number of questions arise:

(a) Problems of Individuation: How are we to simultaneously think the being and becoming of substances? Substances both become yet persist as being that substance. What is it of substance that becomes and what is it of substance that persists? The Aristotlean conception of substance seems to fall into aporia insofar as it treats form as that which is identical in substance, while treating accidents as that which change. Due to this decision,

(i) The Aristotlean conception of substance is unable to account for the individuality of substances because forms are generically the same for all substances belonging to that type, e.g., the form of catness is the same for both Tasha and Tabbi. Form is thus unable to capture the individuality of a thing, yet we wish to claim that all substances are individuals. What concept of substance would allow us to capture the individuality of substances? Form won’t do it so we need a more refined concept of substance.

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Someone might remark that because a text has multiple layers there can be no flat ontology of the text. In other words, it is here asserted that where there is a logic of depths and surfaces there is necessarily a vertical ontology. However, this is precisely what flat ontology rejects. If we take seriously that texts are composed of multiple layers, then only a flat ontology can properly preserve the layered nature of a text. The claim that the text is flat is the claim that each of these layers is absolutely autonomy and irreducible to the others or that all of these layers are on equal ontological footing. That is, flat ontology refuses a logic of expression that would reduce one thread, series, or layer of the text to another. Instead, flat ontology would defend the dignity of each of these layers as a distinct multiplicity. What is hereby refused is the reduction of anything to anything else. There are instead only interacting substances.

The central error to be avoided is that of treating unity and identity as determinations that precede objects. While objects there are, these objects are neither unities nor identities. No, they are multiplicities. The object-oriented philosopher, in a desperate gambit to preserve identity, declares that identity and unity are withdrawn. This strategem arises from an act of recognition and a moment of disavowel. It is recognized that the unity and identify of an object is nowhere to be found in what is given. This recognition is greeted with horror and immediately leads to the operation of negation Freud referred to as disavowel. Like the logic of screen memories where the subject both recognizes that it is not there and then immediately disavows this recognition with an association to the last thing that was seen there (shoes, underwear, a dress, a flower, etc)., the object-oriented philosopher sees that unity and identity are not there and immediately covers over this absence with the thesis that, in fact, it really is there but only as withdrawn or absent. Like Little Hans who is convinced that his mother “has one” but he just can’t see it or that his sister will grow one given time, the object-oriented philosopher refuses to avow that objects have no identity or unity. Such is the phallic logic that haunts object-oriented philosophy. The phallic determinations of identity and unity must be preserved at all cost, even if under the bar of castration and presence through absence.

The onticologist, by contrast, declares that objects have no unity or identity. Rather, for the onticologist, objects are pure multiplicities. They are multiplicities without any higher order unity or identity and with no need of supplementary dimension to exist as multiplicities. If Husserl is unable to find the unity and identity of the objects of his intuition in intentionality then this is not because these determinations are withdrawn, but simply because they don’t exist. There are only pure manifolds. Leibniz says it best in the Monadology:

And the author of nature has been able to employ this divine and infinitely marvellous artifice, because each portion of matter is not only divisible ad infinitum, as the ancients recognized, but also each part is actually and endlessly subdivided into parts, of which each has some motion of its own: otherwise it would be impossible for each portion of matter to express the whole universe.

Whence we see that there is a world of creatures, of living beings, of animals, of entelechies, of souls, in the smallest particle of matter.

Each portion of matter may be conceived of as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fishes. But each branch of the plant, each member of the animal, each drop of its humors is also such a garden or such a pond.

And although the earth and air which lies between the plants of the garden, or the water between the fish of the pond, is neither plant nor fish, they yet contain more of them, but for the most part so tiny as to be imperceptible to us.

Therefore there is nothing fallow, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe, no chaos, no confusion except in appearance; somewhat as a pond would appear from a distance, in which we might see the confused movement and swarming, so to speak, of the fishes in the pond, without discerning the fish themselves. (65 – 69)

Such is the strange mereology of onticology: Every substance is a multiplicity. Or rather, every substance is such a pond composed of other ponds or substances. As such, substances are both assemblages of relations among substances and an organization distinct from those substances out of which they are assembled. If there is anything withdrawn here then it is not unity and identity– for a multiplicity or an assemblage just is, no matter how mishappen and poorly formed it be, this multiplicity or organization –but rather it is the other substances of which the substance is composed that are withdrawn. And if these other substances are withdrawn, then it is for the same reason that we do not discern all the plankton in the ocean when we look at it from a distance.

To be sure, objects are wholes, but these wholes are parts alongside the other parts. As Deleuze and Guattari put it,

…if we discover such a totality alongside various separate parts, it is a whole of these particular parts but does not totalize them; it is a unity of all these particular parts but does not unify them; rather, it is added [my italics] to them as a new part fabricated separately. (AO, 42)

Every object is a part added to the other parts from which it arises or from which it is assembled that never successfully manages to totalize or unify these parts. The parts out of which a substance arise remain as before and can indeed contest this new part. However, this does not entail that the whole that emerges out of the parts is a mere mist, surface-effect, or excrescence. The emergence of wholes as parts alongside other parts does, in fact, add something new that wasn’t there before. It adds paths of transit, communication, and constraint to the parts that were there before. If, for example, my college is a whole that is a part that arises alongside the other parts that were there before– students, faculty, administrators, employees, computers, paper, books, etc. –as a whole that is something that is other than these parts, then this is because my college as a multiplicity is now an actor in its own right that is capable of doing things none of these sub-multiples could do (it can levee taxes and grant degrees for example), but also because as a part alongside the other parts it can rebound on these other parts opening paths of communication or relation that weren’t there before: I am brought into contact with other substances such as faculty, students, books, etc., that I would not have been brought into contact with had this additional part not existed. There is thus a tension between the substances that belong to a substance and this substance.

Of all the presentations I’ll be giving in the next few months, the one that’s caused me the most consternation is Liverpool Hope’s Thinking the Absolute conference. As described in its announcement,

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 problem here is that I’m just not sure what I have to say on the topic of religion situated in these terms. I don’t want to engage in the rather mechanical exercise of elaborating what an object-oriented theology would look like and why such a theology would undermine any importance we might grant to theology altogether. Nor do I wish to go in with guns blazing as the atheist object-oriented materialist seeking to demonstrate why any and all theologies are mistaken. Nor, finally, do I wish to show how object-oriented ontology recommends a mode of sociology analysis that focuses on religious practices and objects rather than beliefs in the formation of religious collectives and forms of subjectivity.

It seems to me that the real question ought to be what it is about philosophy as it has historically unfolded that perpetually leads it to be haunted by the invitation of religion as an irresistible supplement. In other words, rather than raising the question of whether we should choose philosophy or religion (clearly we should choose philosophy), and rather than adopting the stance of the new atheists and asking whether the ontological claims of religion are true or false (from a factual perspective they are false), I would instead like to ask what it is about philosophy that almost ineluctably leads to the necessity of religion as a supplement that fulfills something that philosophy cannot itself fulfill. Why, in other words, does philosophy encounter the “eternal return” of religion as a necessary supplement that surmounts the limitations of philosophy?

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If, as I argued in an earlier post today and in a post entitled “Objectile and Agere” written long ago, to be a substance is to be an act, then Nietzsche’s conclusion follows as a matter of course. As Nietzsche writes in the third essay of On The Genealogy of Morals,

[T]here is no “being” behind the doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is simply fabricated into the doing—the doing is everything.

Objects don’t act. To say that objects act would be to say that there is something, objects, that either act or do not act. But if there is no doer behind or underneath the deed, then we must say rather that objects are acts. The substantiality of substance is the substance’s activity. Likewise, we cannot suggest that substances or objects are products of becomings as Massumi seems to suggest in Semblance and Event because the substantiality of a substance is not a product or outcome of becomings or activities, but rather the substances are their activity. There isn’t first one thing, becomings or activities, and then another thing, objects that are the result of these activities. There is just the one thing, these activities, that is the substantiality of the substance. The idea that the objecthood of a substance is a product of a becoming that precedes it is premised on an arbitrary and subjective cessation of activity on the part of one who observes a substance that is not itself reflected in nature. Rather, when activity ceases so too does substance cease.

It is because substances are acts, because there is no “doer behind the deed”, but only the deed itself, that substances are dynamic systems. A dynamic system is a unity that exists only in and through its activity. Where that activity ceases so too does the system. Where the system ceases, so too does the substance. I cease to be a substance at that point where operations of my body cease and no longer to continue to produce cells and vital functions necessary for life to sustain itself. I cease to be a substance when my body no longer acts. Likewise, it follows that if there is no doer behind the deed, then the individuality of the substance or system is not a subject that lies beneath accidental changes, that identity is not an abiding sameness that is invariant throughout change, but rather that identity itself is an activity on the part of the system. The identity of a substance is a performance on the part of the substance, an activity, that accomplishes itself from moment to moment until the substance dissolves.

Over at Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews John Protevi has published an excellent review of Nathan Jun’s and Daniel W. Smith’s Deleuze and Ethics with Edinburgh University Press. Here’s a snippet chosen absolutely at random for no particular reason whatsoever:

nstead of organizing this review by sequentially treating each essay, I will highlight three themes that recur across the essays. The first two are familiar to even casual readers of Deleuze: the productive ontological and the experiential; the third, which we can call the “static ontological,” is less well-known but receives welcome attention in two of the essays.

First, let us examine the productive ontological theme by which (subjective and institutional, but also physical and biological) identities are produced as the resolution of a differential or “problematic” field. This differential production licenses the critique of a “tracing” relation that posits transcendental identities as grounds of empirical ones. Among the essays to consider under this rubric are the ones by Bell, Bryant, Gilson, Jun, Daniel W. Smith, and Žukauskaitė. Let us consider the Bryant and Jun essays as exemplifying this theme.

Bryant focuses on the distinction between pre-set “dilemmas” with a closed set of pre-given answers and true open-ended “problems,” those resting on a differential field of social forces in tension with one another, such that any intervention into the situation (or “assemblage” to use the technical term) will change the conditions for future interventions. Problems thus arise and persist in response to the introduction of novel elements in an assemblage; Bryant exemplifies this with a case study of the introduction of Texas legislation concerning vaccination against HPV (human papillomavirus). Bryant’s treatment resonates with Latour’s notions of actants and with Badiou’s notion of the unforeseen, what isn’t countable as part of the assemblage. In addition to these continental references, a confrontation with the mainstream use of Trolley Problems (which would precisely not be “problems” in the Deleuzean sense) would have been useful here, but I do recognize word count constraints and don’t hold this missed opportunity as a fault of Bryant’s essay.

Read the rest here. If Protevi’s review doesn’t convince you to check this volume out I don’t know what will!

Recently I’ve been rereading Etienne Gilson’s brilliant Being and Some Philosophers. The book is difficult to get these days, but if you’re interested in understanding the basic questions of metaphysics, I can think of few better books to read. Not only is Gilson’s book exceedingly clear, but it is tightly argued and nicely explores the problems of metaphysics that have haunted various philosophers from Parmenides to present throughout the history of philosophy. Gilson is at pains to argue that 1) part of the reason metaphysics has developed as it has is that the term “being” has, in fact, two significations, depending on whether it is treated as a noun, “being”, or a verb, “to be”. Under the interpretation of being as a noun, philosophers are drawn to articulating being and reality in terms of an answer to the question “what is being?”, which, in turn, leads us to ignore being as existence, conceiving it instead in terms of a structure of abstract possibility. By contrast, if being is understood as a verb, the focus is on existence or actuality. 2) Gilson is at pains to show that because existence or being in the sense of “to be” cannot be represented conceptually (recall Kant’s thesis that “being is not a real predicate”), philosophers have tended to ignore the signification of being as “to be”, thereby being led ineluctably to ignore existence altogether. And finally, 3) he is at pains to argue that emphasis on being as a noun leads philosophers in the direction of idealism and correlationism, concluding that being and thought are identical to one another as conceptuality is identical in both instances.

I won’t detail Gilson’s arguments and analysis here– which are both compelling and impressive –but simply draw attention to a passage that appears as Gilson begins to articulate what existence might be. Speaking in the context of Aristotle’s metaphysics, Gilson writes,

The question is to know what there is, in an individual subject, that makes it to be a being. In our sensible experience, which is the only one we have, the most striking indication we have that a certain substance is there is the operations it carries and the changes which it causes. Everywhere there is action, there is an acting thing, so that we first detect substances by what they do. Let us call “nature” any substance conceived as the intrinsic principle of its own operations. All true substances are natures: they move, they change, they act. And this leads us to a second characteristic of substances. In order thus to act, each of them must first of all be a subsisting energy, that is, an act. If we follow Aristotle thus far, we are entering with him a world entirely different from that of Plato: a concretely real and wholly dynamic world, in which being no longer is selfhood, but energy and efficacy. Hence the twofold meaning of the word “act,” which the medieval disciples of Aristotle will be careful to distinguish: first, the act which is the thing itself or which the thing itself is (actus primus); secondly, any particular action exercised by that thing (actus secundus). Now, if you take together all the secondary acts which a given thing performs, you will find that they constitute the very reality of the thing. A thing is all that it does to itself as well as to others. In such a philosophy, “to be” becomes an active word, which, before anything else, signifies the exercising of an act, whether it be the very act of “being,” or that of “being-white,” or any other one of the same sort. (43 – 44)

Here, with wonderful clarity and brevity, Gilson sums up what a thing is. As I have argued elsewhere, to be a thing is to be an act. And this in two senses. On the one hand, the endurance of any entity is not a fixed given, but is an activity on the part of that thing. The existence of a thing only continues and endures through activity. On the other hand, any quality that an object happens to manifest is an act on the part of an object. Sometimes these qualities will arise from activities internal to the thing, while at other times these qualities will be how the thing responds to being acted upon by other objects.

In both cases, the core of existence lies in activity. Existence as activity enjoys both an epistemological and ontological priority. Epistemologically, it is only through the acts of a thing that we can ever come to know the being of a thing. Ontologically it is only through the acts of a thing that a thing endures. In both cases, however, it cannot be said that objects are static or unchanging things. To be is to act and to act is to move and change.

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