If there’s anything that SR and OOO have led me to appreciate, it’s genuinely materially embedded relations. Nearly everyone claims to be a materialist these days in the world of theory, but usually these claims amount to some vague gesture to “practice” rather than ideas, or, in the worse case scenarios, the claim that “the whole is not” (I’m not sure how one gets from Democritus to this). While I find much that is suggestive and important in works that characterize themselves (vaguely) as materialist, I still feel that they are largely materialist in name only. Central to these problems, I think, are the absence of the following three things:
1. Real Connection: The concept of “real connection” seems to be almost entirely absent in the world of theory and philosophy. In my view, the absence of attentiveness to real connections lead to systematic distortions in social and political theory. This point is so basic, so rudimentary, so obvious, that it’s difficult to notice. So what do I mean? I mean that in order for any two systems or objects to interact they need to form a connection between one another. Take the following example from Benjamin Franklin:
One of Franklin’s first recorded observations of weather patterns occurred in October of 1743, when he planned to observe an eclipse of the moon. As Franklin prepared to watch the eclipse in Philadelphia, a storm moved in and clouds obscured the moon. Later he learned that people in Boston, hundreds of miles northeast of Philadelphia, were able to see the eclipse because the storm didn’t arrive there until several hours after the eclipse. Franklin became intrigued and continued gathering observations and eventually determined the direction of movement for storms. He was the first to observe that storms can move in an opposite direction from the direction of the wind. In other words, although the winds in a nor’easter blow from the northeast, the storm is actually moving from the southwest. In trying to explain how this weather pattern worked, Franklin accurately theorized about the existence of high and low pressure and proposed one of the first correct explanations for storm movement in the northern hemisphere.
“Later Franklin learned..” In fact, Franklin learned this from people in Boston from a letter from his brother. It’s difficult for us to imagine what Franklin’s world must have been like, as perhaps prior to this whether was understood as a purely local event coming from out of nowhere, or maybe as an event that blanketed the entire world. In order for weather to be “invented” a real connection needed to be forged between Franklin and people elsewhere in the Thirteen Colonies. This real connection involved horses, paper upon which letters were written, regular routes of transmission, as well as weather measuring devices (thermometers, weather vanes, barometers, etc) situated throughout those colonies. Relatability had to be forged in order for weather to become the thing we know it to be today.
I feel stupid pointing these elementary things out, but in work after work of critical and social and political theory I see them ignored. Like Heidegger’s glasses described in Being and Time, these obvious things seem to be so close that they are far. We forget that in order for many of the phenomena in which we are most interested to exist, real connections must be forged. As a consequence, we speak as if ideas immediately saturate the world, as if they travel everywhere faster than light, or as if to articulate a thing is to immediately bring it into being throughout the social field. As I have argued in a variety of places, but especially The Democracy of Objects, this is because academics are particularly prone to idealism as a result of dealing primarily with texts and ideas (and as a result of the position of privilege we enjoy, largely freed from manual labor, supported by the labor of others that do all the “dirty” work for us). As a result, we restrict ourselves to a critical analysis of ideas, ideologies, texts, etc., as if these things were a fabric that covered the entire world immediately faster than the speed of light. As a consequence, our critiques and discourses lack any specificity as we really have no means of determining whether these ideas populate this population or not as we’ve never bothered to determine whether or not there are real connections that have allowed them to create a population, a world, a field of visibility, or not. The result is that we end up talking about our own population distributions and fields of connections, rather than those that may or may not exist in the world. And here I cannot but commend the geographers and international relations theorists as being among those who recognize these problems. Sadly no one seems to be listening. At any rate, I would say that most of us in the world of theory and philosophy need a healthy dose of information theory and always need to remember the aphorism “worlds must be built.” A lot of us seem to enjoy talking about how worlds must be built, yet we never seem to do the real work of, as Latour would say, tracing the networks to see whether or not the world we’re addressing actually exists or not.
2. Work: It’s a scandal that philosophy and critical theory has next to no concept of work. And here, when I mention work, I am not only speaking of labor, but work in the full thermodynamic sense of the term. Oh sure, we critical theorists like to talk about labor, to analyze labor, yet somehow we never manage to talk about real work. What is it that does work for us academics: It’s always beliefs, ideas, concepts, texts, signifiers, and ideologies. We speak as if ideas, beliefs, concepts, signifiers, and ideologies were enough to hold things together. And again, we speak this way because for us it’s texts, signifiers, concepts, and ideologies that are important. We’re fascinated with whatever we can discuss from the comfort of our offices and whatever we can find in a written text.
Yet we should all know better. Many of us have sat on hiring committees as well as a variety of other committees, and so we know how hard it is to make anything hold together. It is absolutely bizarre that we don’t apply the same experiences to larger scale social collectives, trees, the planet, economies, and all the rest. We are blind to work. We like to wax moralistic about the injustice of labor, yet everywhere we ignore the mechanisms of work and the real nature of work. Work is invisible to us. For us it’s all ideas, signifiers, categories of the understanding, etc., that somehow function as the glue that allow things to hold together. Yet oddly we never look at the messiness of real work and how it allows things to hold together. I take it that this is part of what Ian Bogost is trying to accomplish in some of his recent forays into the carpentry of being. For Ian we should take carpentry as a verb.
In his discussions of the discourse of the master in The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Lacan argues that philosophy (which he equates with the discourse of the master; I’d call it “phallosophy”), is that discourse that divests the slave from his knowledge. What does Lacan mean by this? He means that the philosopher 1) ignores the work/labor of the “slave”, 2) reduces the slaves results to propositional contents or ideas, ignoring all dimension of labor, and then 3) inverts the order of things making the idea/signifier/concept/ideology appear as if it is the cause rather than the effect. For all of us theorists talking about labor and work vis a vis Marx, has any of this really changed? No. We still continue to treat the idea as if it preceded the labor/work. We do this metaphysically with a theory of universals that treats the intelligible as more real than the material (the material being treated as a passive medium awaiting the idea), and we do this in so much of our political theory treating ideologies as causes rather than effects. Nietzsche, Marx, and Deleuze and Guattari knew better in their theories of force, production, and intensity respectively, but in our narcissism us academics refuse to hear them. Better to analyze a text.
3. Entropy And then there’s entropy. Philosophers and theorists seem to know nothing of entropy. Oh sure, there were some bright and shining moments in poststructuralism and the dialogistic thought of Bakhtin where we briefly recognized the fact that everything must resist dissolution, that entropy haunts everything, yet it never quite caught on. Closely related to the theme of work, we never quite recognized that the world is always resisting, that things are always breaking down, and that all sorts of activity is required to deal with this. Again, I believe that this is a result of the privileged position of the academic within the socio-materio-economic structure that allows it all to become invisible. At the end of the day, the question becomes, “who are we talking to?” And the sad conclusion seems to be, following Luhmann, each other. I’ll end my rant here.