In response to my earlier post entitled Speculative Realism, the Commons, and Politics, a friendly poster asks,

Could the facing of “problems” be the universal here; a transcendent situation? Furthermore part of this situation is that where one group sees a problem another group sees no problem. Ethics and politics are the contingent discourses that the group, who sees the problem, uses to persuade the group who doesn’t see the problem. Although there might not be universal ethical and political principles, nevertheless, political and ethical discourses are grounded in the universal situation of human “problemhood” and its intersubjective struggle.

This is something I should have been more clear about.  As I remarked in the post, problems are not cognitive entities, but ontological situations.  This is to say that problems are not subjective entities based on how a particular person or group perceives a certain issue.  In this respect, it wouldn’t be possible for one group or person to see x as a problem, while another group does not.  In other words, its not minds or groups that pose problems, but rather entities find themselves enmeshed or thrown into problems and the nature they take on is a response to these problems.  Moreover, problems are not negative entities, but are fully positive; but on these points I’m getting ahead of myself.   Here I’m drawing on Deleuze’s concept of problems developed in Difference and Repetition.  Later– though already in Difference and Repetition –he would come to refer to problems as multiplicities.  In my own work, I refer to problems as “regimes of attraction”.

Perhaps the best way to get a flavor of the Deleuzian sense of what problems are is through a nonhuman example.  This will help us to get a sense of how problems are non-cognitive (though they can take place in thought as well), and why they are purely positive, not negative.  Problems are vectors of becoming for entities within assemblages.  Take the example of growing wine grapes.  What is it that the grape will become?  We might think that the answer to this question resides solely in the genetics of the grape, but this leaves unexplained why we buy wine by the year rather than by the label of the wine.  In other words, it fails to explain why grapes with the same genes nonetheless produce different grapes from year to year.

read on!

Within a Deleuzian framework and the framework of my onticology, the answer to this question is found in the problem or regime of attraction to which the grapes are a response.  The grapes arise not from a pre-delineated blueprint defined by their genes, but rather are responses to a problem or regime of attraction.  Within the field of this problem or regime of attraction, the genes are only one actor among others.  What, then, is this problematic field or regime of attraction?  The problematic field consists not only of the seed and its genes, but also the amount of rainfall that growing season, other plants that grow in that region, insects, microbes, worms and other wildlife in the region, the pesticides and fertilizers used, the nutrients in the soil, the amount of sunlight that the growing grapes receive, various gases and pollutants in the atmosphere, etc.  The assemblage of all these actants is the problem or regime of attraction, and the characteristics that the grape comes to embody will be the solution.  Because these assemblages change from year to year the grapes actualize themselves in different ways from year to year.  Moreover, if we took a vine from one place– say France –and planted it elsewhere such as Napa Valley, we would still get very different grapes because the problematic field, regime of attraction, or assemblage are different in the two places.

A number of points can be drawn from this example.  First, problems are not subjective, they do not indicate the absence or lack of something, but are rather fields of tension that arise from relations among entities within which entities find themselves enmeshed.  That assemblage just is the problem.  The growing wine grape must navigate this problem, assemblage, or regime of attraction to become what it will be.  Moreover, problems aren’t fixed entities but are constantly shifting as a result of shifts and changes among elements in the assemblage.  Finally, each change in the assemblage arising from the manner in which one entity responds to another changes the assemblage as well.  Second, it is not individual entities that pose the problem, but rather entities are posed by the problem or regime of attraction.  Entities don’t choose their problems but are enmeshed in problems, thrown into problems.  The grape vine doesn’t choose the regime of attraction or problem, but rather finds itself embedded in these circumstances and that it must navigate these circumstances.  Third, there is no one entity that presides over a problem, but rather problems are transindividual.  Problems are assemblages of many entities interacting with one another, not of one entity trying to “solve” a problem.  Finally, fourth, problems areevents that are absolutely singular.  They are events because they are a “happening-together” of entities.  They are singular because the entities that compose that assemblage are contingent to this event.

Now clearly when we talk about assemblages involving more complex entities such as certain animals, humans, institutions, and perhaps certain computer technologies, the becoming of entities in response to problems will differ because these entities are both able to reflect on a past as well as imagine various futures.  The dimension of the past as well as the ability to imagine the future function as elements in a problem or a regime of attraction much like soil conditions are elements of the problem for the wine grape.  A major difference, however, is that these systems will be less deterministic in their actualizations.  The difference between the organic and the inorganic is not whether or not entities are material– for me all entities are material –but rather the degrees of freedom an entity possesses with respect to its circumstances or the problematic field within which it is enmeshed.  Nonetheless, the general contours of actualization with respect to problems are the same.  What an entity will be is a response to a problematic field or a regime of attraction.

When I call for an “ethics of the event” in my article “The Ethics of the Event:  Deleuze and Ethics without Aρχή” in Jun and Smith’s Deleuze and Ethics, I am making a statement pertaining both to what ethics is about and about the origin of norms.  In my view, much of traditional ethical or moral thought suffers from not attending to the phenomenology of when ethical or moral questions arise, treating ethics very abstractly as a set of questions for determining how we should live and what we should strive for in ordinary situations.  We treat ethics as an investigation of principles— in the contemporary context usually of a utilitarian or deontological sort –that allow us to decide how we should live and what we should strive for.  Yet if we look at the actual phenomenology of ethical deliberation, I think we find that ethical questions arise not in response to ordinary situations, but precisely as a response to those situations where our habitual ways of doing things and relating to one another and the world break down.  In our day to day lives we get along on the basis of habit, seldom feeling the need to reflect on how we should or ought to do things at all.  It’s only in response to crises that ethical reflection seems to emerge; it’s only when assemblages have changed or no longer function smoothly that the ethical question poses itself.  This suggests that ethics is both an event and a response to a problem.

So my criticism of traditional ethics and its focus on principles— whether of the categorical imperative variety or the greatest happiness principle variety in utilitarianism –is that it tends to obscure the singularity of problems that cause the eruption of ethical thought.  Take the following example.  Traditional ethical approaches might ask “is pre-marital sex right or wrong?”  The deontological ethicists– especially if Kantian –are likely to give one answer, while the utilitarians are likely to give another.  What they both presuppose is that this question is an ahistorical question independent of circumstances and that we will be able to come up with an answer that addresses all circumstances.  By contrast, the approach that I am proposing asks “how did this question arise at all?  What is the problem that generates this problem?”  Here, it is above all important to remember that the term “problem” is not being used cognitively.  The archeology of the problem– and here I am indebted to Foucault and Badiou –such as the question should I have pre-marital sex or not?”  This is not the problem, it is a question.  Rather, the problematic field in which this question is generated lies in an assemblage of entities in which the person posing the question is enmeshed where old habits or norms no longer function as they once did.  In other words, the problematic field is not subjective, but is a mesh– to use Morton’s term –a situation, that people find themselves enmeshed in.

What might this problematic field consist of?  What shift in circumstances gives rise to a question such as this?  Often the problematic fields that precipitate ethical questions consist in shifts in hominid ecologies through either the introduction of new entities in that ecology or the subtraction of entities that once populated the ecology.  In the case of the question “is it okay to have pre-marital sex?”, it is likely that the shift in hominid ecology that precipitates this question arose from the invention of the birth control pill, the ready availability of other contraceptives, as well as women entering the workforce.  What is really being asked– and this question is completely invisible from the standpoint of deontological and utilitarian ethics –is the question of what domestic and sexual relations should be given that 1) we now have this new technology, and 2) we no longer live in a predominantly agrarian society where women preside over the home and men work outside the home?  The whole reason the ethical question arises at all is because the assemblage or problematic field structuring the hominid ecology has changed.  Not only will this problematic field consist of working women and various contraceptives, it will also consist of bodily dispositions of men, women and all the genders in between, the norms that arose from previous problematic fields, economics, children, ideologies, religious beliefs, secular beliefs, texts, institutions, etc., etc., etc.  The question will be “what new forms of life are called for in response to this new assemblage?  how ought we to navigate the heterogeneous entities that populate this assemblage?”  And clearly different people and different groups are going to respond differently to this transformed assemblage:  that’s part of the problem presiding over how things will eventually be actualized!  The question will be that of how all these elements can be brought together into a flourishing public or collective in this assemblage– and this will often involve the exclusion of certain elements such as religious reactionaries that fail to recognize how the assemblage has changed –but also will involve the formation of new teloi or goals for people.  For example, in a society where we now have control over when or if we have children, and where men aren’t the dominant breadwinners but where women can support themselves, does it still make sense to make marriage a goal of all relationships?  Given that we still experience loneliness and that children must still be raised, how do we navigate a new assemblage where marriage isn’t the telos or goal of all relationships?  These are all still very much open questions.  They are, I would argue, some of the key ethical questions we are working through today.

One of the most interesting aspects of Deleuze’s ontology of problems and solutions is that we shouldn’t evaluate the truth and falsity of solutions, but rather should evaluate the truth and falsity of problems.  Here Deleuze is partially following Bergson who develops a method for critiquing false problems (cf. Bergsonism), but in Difference and Repetition he remarks, quoting Marx and Althusser, that “society always gets the solutions it deserves based on the problems that it has posed”, and that some solutions, by virtue of being based on false problems.  He gives examples such as the “Jewish Solution” proposed by the Nazis, which he describes as a “grotesque solution” to a “false problem”.  Here, I think, Deleuze is guilty of a sort of “amphiboly”.  He tells us that problems are ontological entities that are “posed by ‘being’ itself” (they are a contingent assemblage or regime of attraction), yet simultaneously seems to be suggesting that society poses problems, when the form societies take should be a response to a problem, not posed by society.

The question here lies in how we are able to distinguish true and false problems?  What is it that makes the “Jewish Solution”.  This question, I believe, is the most difficult of all and is the one I have the most trouble thinking through (I believe it was one of the central failings of my article; though in my defense I’m still very much thinking through these things).  Here, I think, Deleuze’s remarks must be understood in the context of Spinoza, not Bergson.  For Spinoza, to understand something is to understand it through its causes.  Yet for Spinoza the imagination is perpetually getting in the way, leading us to believe that x is a cause, when it’s really y (and here Parts III and IV of the Ethics are absolutely indispensable).  For example, I think that this person is the cause of my misery, when in fact this person has nothing to do with my misery, but rather the real cause of my misery has to do with a memorial imago from my childhood of a person that really did affect my conatus or will to persist in my being as a result of affecting me in all sorts of ways that diminished my power of acting.  I have mistakenly transferred those deleterious affects on to this person.  For Spinoza we must pierce through the confusions of the imagination produced by resemblance, association, and happenstance association to find true causes.  If the “Jewish Solution” is a grotesque solution, then this is because it doesn’t understand true causes or the real problem that generated the suffering of the German people.  Hopefully we can see why this is of crucial importance to ethical and political thought.  We need to develop an entire critical methodology– and thinkers such as Marx, Freud, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Adorno, etc., have very much helped us in this –that allow us to distinguish true from false problems and surmount the lures of the imagination.  There is still much work to be done.

I’ll leave off here, but I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about problems and questions of individuations as can be seen here, here, and here.  In addition, readers can consult my first book, Difference and Givenness (yes, I know, I’m shameless), or chapters 3 and 5 of The Democracy of Objects.