March 2012

My gratitude and thanks goes out to Russell Manning and the high school students of Yara Valley Grammar school in Melbourne, Australia for meeting with me today and chatting about onticology. What wonderful and challenging questions you asked!

I guess I’m “on tour” for the next few months:

* Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands, Philosopher’s Rally, “A Logic of Multiplicities: Deleuze, Immanence, and Onticology”, April 15th – 20th. I’ll also be teaching a class on onticology and conducting a roundtable with Didier Debaise.

* New Orleans, Deleuze Camp, 3 day class, “Space, Territory, and Aesthetics”. Readings: “Of the Rhizom”, “Becoming-Animal”, “The Smooth and the Striated”, “Nomadology”. June 18 – 22.

* New Orleans, Deleuze Studies Conference, “Machinic Objects: Deleuze and Onticology”, June 25th.

* Liverpool Hope University, Thinking the Absolute, Keynote Address, “Of a God That Is Withdrawn”. June 29 – July 1st.

* Independent College, Dublin, “Two Ontologies: Lacan, Posthumanism, and Sexuation”, July 2nd – 4th.

* Space Art Gallery, London, “Transcendental Aesthetics and Onticology”, July 5th.

I still distinctly remember discovering Badiou’s work during my fourth year of graduate school. He was unlike anything else I’d read. Not only was his style characterized by rigor and clarity, but there was a deep passion that ran throughout all of his work. I couldn’t get enough. The context of Continental thought at that time was deeply depressing. Nearly everything you came across seemed to speak the impossibility of doing anything. Throughout all the work I read, there was a deep pessimism and cynicism. The reigning thesis seemed to be that behind any pronouncement there was some ugly ideological secret. One could say nothing lest it contain something that was unconsciously offensive or lest it unconsciously promoted oppression. Or we were endlessly told that nothing could be pinned down, that it was all constructed, that there was no statement that wasn’t already the result of a language game. No doubt this thesis led to the primacy of “philosophy as interpretation” dominant in Continental thought, for where all truth is interpretation it becomes impossible to make any pronouncements: better to focus on the pronouncements of others in that case. At any rate, the dominant strains of theory seemed to engender a deep sense of paralysis. Moreover, all theory seemed organized around showing that we were passive victims, that we were hurt and harmed. There was no affirmation of anything, no utopian imaginary, only endless inventories of harm.

For other reasons, the phenomenologist– who came to dominate US Continental thought –were the worst. With the possible exception of Sartre (and maybe Merleau-Ponty)– both of whom were largely ignored anyway –one perpetually sensed a deep conservative streak. Despite my fascination with phenomenology (I began philosophy with Heidegger and wrote my master’s thesis on the later work of Husserl), I could never quite shake the feeling that it was deeply reactionary. How could it be otherwise? Focusing on origins and lived experience, it could not but privilege the givenness of the lived lifeworld. And in privileging the lifeworld, it could not but see things like Galileo, mathematics, and revolution– all of which depart from the lifeworld of Black Forest paths and the simple life of peasants –as an aberration and violence doomed to lead to disaster. The lesson of phenomenology seemed to be “lassen sein“, let things be, never question the wisdom of tradition (for tradition was somehow closer to the more authentic origins). Building on McCumber’s thesis in Time in a Ditch— but for Continental thought, not Analytic thought –was it any surprise that phenomenology came to dominate departments devoted to Continental philosophy? There was nothing offensive about phenomenology, it challenged nothing about our reigning order; it’s message was “return to traditional values”.

But with Badiou everything suddenly seemed different. Badiou dared to say Truth. Truth had been the major enemy of the reigning discourses in Continental thought. It was seen as both necessarily naive and oppressive. To state a truth was seen as necessarily oppressing other “language games” where the statement might not obtain. Again, we were all led to paralysis and left feeling as if we were potentially elephants in china shops if we dared affirm anything. But Badiou’s Truth was not the ordinary “correspondence” theory of truth, it was not representational. No, Badiou’s theory of Truth was really a theory of commitment. A truth was, for him, not a representation or correspondence, but an activity that transforms the world. It is not so much the details of his thought that mattered. No, what mattered was the message. What Badiou was daring us to do was commit and commit passionately. Commit passionately to rapturous love even if it leads to your ruin. Commit passionately to scientific discovery, even if it departs from dominant paradigms. Commit passionately to artistic invention, even if it departs from tradition. Commit passionately to political transformation, even if that work seems unrealistic and to desire impossible outcomes. Badiou said commit, live passionately, and continue. Badiou said risk, risk everything for a Truth. Badiou said wager. What dominated Continental thought at the time was a series of meditations on why it is unreasonable to wager, risk, and commit. Badiou said commit and continue. Suddenly the air felt very different.

Big congratulations to Tim Morton who has landed an endowed chair at Rice in Houston.

I’ve accepted an endowed chair at Rice University. I’ll be building a theory and philosophy school with Cary Wolfe–someone whom I hugely admire for several different reasons. It’s exciting to think I’ll be working alongside him.

Read the rest here.

Riffing on my post from yesterday, Daniel of Being’s Poem with an extremely thoughtful post on the analytic/continental divide here. One of the things I’ve found so refreshing about SR is that it seems to be a move beyond the Continental/Analytic divide. I know Graham has been highly critical of this suggestion, but when I say this I don’t mean that Continental and Analytic thought have somehow been reconciled. What I mean is that SR seems to be neither. I don’t feel like an analytic or continental. I just feel like a philosopher. SR has features of both, but it’s a different way of doing philosophy than what we find in either domain. But above all, as Daniel suggests with respect to Analytic thought, SR seems profoundly more democratic than Continental thought. We aren’t mired in endless interpretation and submission to master-figures, but rather everyone can take up positions, critique positions, and even critique the positions of the master-figures. I think this is a huge improvement.

A few years ago I saw John Caputo give a keynote at the North Texas Philosophical Association where he defended religion and argued that it was no different than great literature and comic books. My thought was that if this is true, why retain the category of religion and why not just go with comic books and literature (after all, they’re often better)? Recently I’ve heard people argue that Zizek is redeeming Christian theology. I find this very strange. He’s quite clear that he sees Jesus as a rather irrelevant figure who is– if memory serves me correctly –“a dime a dozen sage performing petty magic tricks”. He expressly says that Jesus literally dies on the cross and that there is no resurrection. The importance of Jesus dying on the cross, he says, is that god is dead and we now know it’s up to us. He then proceeds to give a rather standard Hegelian interpretation of Christianity based on Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, where the Holy Spirit is nothing more than the activity of the community. He argues that Paul is where it is at, and that Paul is a psychoanalytic-political thinker. Paul is theorizing, he argues, a community without law and the work involved in forming such a community. Faith is not, in this framework, belief in the absence of evidence, but continued work even though the project looks impossible. This is his interest in Chesterton as well, I take it… Not Chesterton’s theology, but commitment even where things seem impossible. In short, Zizek’s project is thoroughly atheistic (and I mean that in a quite literal sense). He is Feuerbachian and understands himself as articulating what religion is really about (politics), when the fetish of religion is taken away.

I suspect that were we to talk to believers we would find that the vast majority of them would be deeply offended by these claims and see them as deeply wrong. So to the intellectual, religious apologists, this is what I’m wondering: Do you think Jesus walked on water, raised a man from the dead, turned water into wine, cured the blind, drove out demons, and himself rose from the dead? And I’m asking if you believe this literally. Do you believe there’s a transcendent God that can suspend the laws of nature to perform miracles? Or is it that you just believe that Jesus is just a potent myth with a powerful ethico-political philosophy? Do you believe that humanity has any special place in nature, that somehow evolution had to “culminate” in us, that evolution has “culminated” in us? And if this is what you believe, why call this religion at all (as religion necessarily involves the supernatural), why call it Christianity (which will only feed those supernaturalist pretensions and the ugliness that has stemmed from them), and why privilege Jesus when he’s not saying much that’s different from countless other ethical philosophers that made no claims to divinity or the supernatural? Why keep religion in the mix?

Now don’t get me wrong. Jesus and Paul are tremendously important figures for me. I can read them, enjoy them, and find valuable things in them. But I can read them, enjoy them, and find valuable things in them in the way I read, enjoy, and find valuable things in Hesiod, Homer, Kafka, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, etc. But I don’t organize a religion around Homer, or claim that we have to defend Homer as a social institution.

I get the strong sense that there’s a deep cynicism to some of the religious turn we’re encountering in folks like Eagleton. The idea seems to be that “the rubes find religion is important so we should present a leftist version of religion to get them on board.” If that’s what’s going on I find this idea absolutely atrocious and to indicate a deep lack of faith (yes, I realize the irony of using that word) in people and what people are capable of. The central problem with religion is that it ties us to authority— the authority of texts, figures, priests, and institutions –as the condition of political organization and what is right and good. As such, it inscribes servitude in the very structure of political action. Even in a leftist variant, such a structure is still, to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, organized around micro-fascist desires. Why not instead envision community, collectivity, and action that arises from people themselves? I honestly don’t get it and am sure I’ll be beat up for asking whether such people literally believe the things two paragraph above. There will be weasel words, rationalizations, gymnastics, and all sorts of contortions as to how there’s something more going on here. But for the life of me, if you don’t believe there’s something supernatural here, why call it religion and why associate yourself with such a thing? The same goes for talk about “spirituality” too. Newsflash. I think things are interconnected too. I’m filled with wonder and joy at the beauty of this. I wonder at the vastness of the universe. Yet I wouldn’t describe any of this as “spiritual” or “religious”. So what’s this all about?

Sorry about the flurry of posts over the last couple of days. This often happens when I’m grading. At any rate, one of the key theses of Luhmann’s autopoietic systems theory is that systems distinguish themselves from an environment. This is necessary for systems to exist. The environment is always more complex than the system, so there can’t be any one-to-one mapping between system and environment. The environment, of course, is whatever is outside the system. A number of claims are related to this:

1) It is the system that draws the distinction between system and environment: The distinction between system and environment does not exist in the environment of the system. Rather it exists only in and for the system that draws the boundary (in a previous post I referred to this boundary as the “membrane” or “film” of a system. Systems define their own boundaries. These boundaries aren’t out there in the world. A number of things follow from this:

1a) The distinction between system and environment is self-referential: This in two senses. First, insofar as the distinction between system and environment is drawn by the system, the distinction necessarily refers to the system in being drawn (this is a weird ontological condition where the condition for an autopoietic system comes from the system itself!). Second, the distinction between system and environment is therefore necessarily paradoxical. Because the distinction between system and environment does not exist in the environment of the system, and because the distinction between system and environment is necessarily inside and outside each system (the paradox of all boundaries), the status of the distinction is necessarily paradoxical. Every system, Luhmann contends, must find ways of navigating this paradox. Que connections to deconstruction here. Additionally, there’s all sorts of fertile connections with Hegel’s account of Dasein in part 1 of The Science of Logic here. I’ve written about this before, but not in this connection.

read on!

In response to my last post, Tim of Fragile Keys makes some interesting remarks. Tim writes:

I think you’re overestimating the power of the system to perpetuate itself and underestimating the actors who disrupt it from within and prevent it from having the self-perpetuating effects you’re pointing out. Or rather, in terms of autopoetic social systems, how do you account actors that disrupt the self-perpetuating mechanisms from within? I’m talking about the student who was a student (say, of Buddhism) before he entered college; once there, he finds a sympathetic professor in Religious Studies who introduces him to Augustine and Nagarjuna, who agrees with him that the college system is flawed and somewhat invested in churning out degrees, but nevertheless leaves room for students like him to design a specialized course of study, etc. Obviously, the college system “filters” and “distorts” the incoming student insofar as he has to take certain courses, fulfill certain requirements, etc. But when the student reflects on his experience there, that is not what he thinks of. If anything, he thinks of how that system, in the end, had nothing to do with his experience. Or take the example of the non-dogmatic priest who, according to doctrine or not, spends his time with the downtrodden in his parish, or the dying, etc. Here, the church may be perpetuating itself through him, but that’s not the only thing it’s doing, or making possible.

I ask because while I can understand how objects (inanimate things) would operate qua closures, boundaries, atomic maintenance, etc., I’m skeptical that social systems ever really accomplish the closures they purport. Isn’t that a bit like ignoring the drunk people that walk out of the bar, saying that bar-owners don’t care about people having a good time, watching sports, and getting drunk, but only with keeping the bar open and profitable? I don’t think, at the very least, that persons (conscious things, free things, thinking things) are so easily absorbed by these social system.

With the exception of the claim that I’m underestimating something, I don’t disagree with any of this. In the post, I explicitly point out that every system suffers from entropy both from within and without. This is all very abstract, but that’s because these categories are designed to generally describe the common features of a broad number of systems. The example of the Buddhist student Tim gives is an example of the educational system encountering entropy in its attempt to produce a certain kind of element. And here’s the key point, the elements that compose a system (in this case, “students”) are created out of nothing. They have to be built out of parts. And what are these parts? They are other systems (in this case, a person). And just as the educational system is operationally closed, this person that the educational system draws on to constitute its elements is operationally closed. This entails that no system can ever fully dominate another system or object. There will always be remainders and these remainders will always introduce entropy into the larger-scale objects that try to enlist and form them.

I find that through my autopoietic framework I’m able to integrate most critical theory (though always with modifications). My discussion of element-formation, for example, could just as easily be discussed in Foucaultian terms in terms of power and subjectivization. Subjectivization and forming an element are one and the same thing. However, there’s a major difference. Take Foucault’s example of “docile bodies” in Discipline and Punish. Foucault talks about body/minds as if they were a purely passive clay that can be formed sans remainder. Yet if I’m right in my claims about operational closure, this can’t be true. Because the bodies being formed are themselves operationally closed systems, no subjectivization will ever be complete or successful (here Foucault can be supplemented by Lacan’s theory of objet a and jouissance as that which evades element-formation). In the first volume of History of Sexuality Foucault mysteriously observes that power is responded to with counter-power. We’re given no real account of how this is possible, we’re just told that it always takes place. The autopoietic framework I propose explains why this takes place: the person’s a larger-scale system strives to enlist as elements are themselves operationally closed, interpreting interventions from these systems in their own way, and thereby are never quite reduced to the status of being an element.

This is the broader point I’d like to make: Entropy is not a negative term. So many of us think of entropy in negative terms as “heat death” and similar phenomena. But while this is one form of entropy, entropy is also the possibility of revolution, revolt, resistance, etc. Entropy is that (un)ground that allows devouring and destructive systems to be resisted. It is the reason that we are never thoroughly duped. Entropy is also the condition of creativity and evolution. It is because systems are always contending with entropy both from within and without, it is because systems exist in environments that are ever changing and who’s behavior can never fully be anticipated, that systems change, create new organizations, create new elements, and that invention takes place at all. There is no system so thorough and successful that it manages to achieve zero entropy or perfect order/structure. This is a good thing.

Apropos my last post and this post by Tom over at Plastic Bodies, I happened to run into my colleague Carl Clark (a rhetorician) who is applying the principles of autopoietic theory that I develop in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects. His aim is to develop an autopoietic theory of rhetoric. This leads to some pretty startling and disturbing conclusions (not to mention brilliant ones). It will be recalled that I argue that objects are 1) dynamic, processual systems, 2) that they come in two flavors: allopoietic objects and autopoietic objects, and 3) that “size does not matter” with respect to objects. Just as an atom is composed mostly of space and is an assemblage of particles like electrons and neutrons, the fact that something like say my college is composed mostly of air, that it is spread out in space, and that it is assembled out of ever changing components (students, faculty, administrators, facilities management, books, buildings, computers, etc) does not undermine the college as being an entity or substance in its own right.

Here I’m focused on autopoietic objects. One major difference between allopoietic and autopoietic objects is that the latter reproduces its parts and maintains its structure, while the former does not. If an autopoietic object like a salamander loses its tail, that tail grows back. If I get cut, my wound heals. The college perpetually replenishes its students, and when faculty move on their positions are often filled. When a professor or a student steps out of line, administration steps in to push them back in order (discipline them). Autopoietic systems actively produce their elements and relations between their elements. A college does not have students, it makes students. This isn’t the case with allopoietic objects. If an allopoietic object such as a rock is chipped, this wound doesn’t heal. Moreover, rocks do not produce the elements of which they are composed, but draws elements together from elsewhere in the world through forces (the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity, electro-magnetism, and a variety of chemical processes). To be sure, there are gradations between autopoietic and allopoietic objects, but it’s sufficient for our purposes to keep these two flavors of object in mind.

read on!

Something peculiar happened at the Louisiana State University Philosophy conference I attended last week. Despite the fact that most of the participants and attendees were analytic philosophers, I felt more at home among this bunch than I’ve ever felt at a conference (aside from the SR and psychoanalysis conferences). Here I felt that we were discussing issues, problems, and positions rather than figures. To be sure, we all discussed figures, but it was the way figures were discussed: They were subordinated to problems and issues that one could take a stand on, a position on, rather than being involved in interpretive disputes. The frustrating thing I encounter among continentals again and again is that all too often (a statistical claim), it seems impossible for there to be a genuine disagreement over positions. If one says “I disagree with X on Y because of Z”, the general response is “you’ve misinterpreted X.” In other words, it seems as if the texts of figures are endlessly transformed into Midas’ labyrinth, where the figure being discussed is granted sovereign authority and is the only one permitted to articulate positions and where any evaluation of positions is infinitely deferred behind interpretive disputes.

At the conference, I didn’t get this at all. People took positions and discussed positions. After my paper one attendee even asked me “where’s the Continental philosophy in your work?” I responded that I don’t think the difference between Continental and Analytic philosophy is a philosophical difference, but a socio-geographical difference. The audience gasped. I then outlined my Continental influences.

At any rate, after all of this I found myself reflecting on why I don’t read more Anglo-American philosophy. After all, I do get a lot out of the Anglo-American thought I do read, so why not read more? And if I’m being entirely honest, I think I’d have to say that it comes down to style. The fact of the matter is that when I do read Anglo-American philosophy I often feel as if I’m reading tax law or a congressional bill. I literally find it mind numbing. It’s style– for me –is all too often just plain offensive.

read on!

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