May 2012


Peter Gratton of Philosophy in a Time of Error has a written a great review of Hasana Sharp’s Spinoza and the Politics of Naturalization. This sounds like an important book and will be among those I read for my research this summer. Thanks for the heads up Peter!

A couple months ago I wrote a post on Marx’s triad of production, consumption, and distribution.. When investigating “societies”, is in terms of production. Not only must societies be produced (they don’t come ready-made), but social subjects must be produced (beings that identify themselves as members of the assemblage and who are identified as members of the assemblage), and relations between these subjects must be produced. The advantage of the concept of “hominid ecology” as opposed to “society”, is that, in addition to semiotic components, beliefs, and norms, it draws addition to the nonhuman components that play a role in the production and continuation of these assemblages. Within many reigning social and political orientations, the role these agencies play in the production of hominid ecologies goes unrecognized. Recognizing them opens new possibilities for engagement and change beyond the dominant strategies of debunking and critique.

These agencies of production are obvious once you begin to think about them, but strangely we seem not to think about them nearly as much as ideologies, texts, and signifiers despite the tremendous role they play in sustaining power and certain types of repetitive social relations and hierarchies. A good example of such an agency is paths. No society or hominid ecology can form or sustain itself without paths that link one person to another, that link people and institutions to one another, and that link hominids to various natural resources. Paths take the form of dirt, gravel, and paved roads, ocean and river shipping lanes, flight paths, mountain passes, train routs, and so on.

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Somewhere or other Latour makes the remark that we’ll never do better than a politician.  Here it’s important to remember that for Latour– as for myself —every entity is a “politician”.  Latour isn’t referring solely to those persons that we call “politicians”, but to all entities that exist.  And if Latour claims that we’ll never do better than a politician, then this is because every entity must navigate a field of relations to other entities that play a role in what is and is not possible in that field.  In the language of my ontology, this would be articulated as the thesis that the local manifestations of which an entity is capable are, in part, a function of the relations the entity entertains to other entities in a regime of attraction.  The world about entities perpetually introduces resistances and frictions that play a key role in what comes to be actualized.

It is this aphorism that occurred to me today after a disturbing discussion with a rather militant Marxist on Facebook.  I had posted a very disturbing editorial on climate change by the world renowned climate scientist James Hansen.  Not only did this person completely misread the editorial, denouncing Hansen for claiming that Canada is entirely responsible for climate change (clearly he had no familiarity with Hansen or his important work), but he derided Hansen for proposing market-based solutions to climate change on the grounds that “the market is the whole source of the problem!”  It’s difficult to know how to respond in this situations.

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I’m in the middle of grading, so my remarks here will be brief.  I wanted, however, to draw attention to Christian Thorne’s recent post “To the Political Ontologists“.  Thorne raises an important set of questions, but I worry that he’s confusing distinct issues.  At the beginning of his post he writes:

The political ontologists have their work cut out for them. Let’s say you believe that the entire world is made out of fire: Your elms and alders are fed by the sky’s titanic cinder; your belly is a metabolic furnace; your lungs draw in the pyric aether; the air that hugs the earth is a slow flame—a blanket of chafing-dish Sterno—shirring exposed bumpers and cast iron fences; water itself is a mingling of fire air with burning air. The cosmos is ablaze. The question is: How are you going to derive a political program from this insight, and in what sense could that program be a politics of fire? How, that is, are you going to get from your ontology to your political proposals?

It is unclear to me why we should expect an ontology should make political proposals, or why we should believe that political proposals should derive from an ontology.  An ontology is a discourse about what is or is not, how beings are related to one another, how they become and change, etc.  It is not a theory of whether these beings are good or bad, just or unjust, emancipatory or oppressive, etc.  Consider an analogy.  A marine biologist discusses the biological make up of sharks, their behaviors, their habitats, their diets, and points out that sometimes sharks attack people.  We can imagine Thorne coming along and saying “how does the marine biologist derive a politics from her claims about sharks and why is he advocating sharks attacking people?”  But the marine biologist was never trying to derive a politics from her observations of sharks nor, in pointing out that sharks attack people, was she advocating sharks attacking people.  Rather, she was trying to understand sharks.  So it is with ontology.  An ontology is attempting to understand the being of beings, not make judgments about whether those beings are just or unjust, right or wrong.

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From this moment forward I’m going to make a concerted effort to abandon the terms “society” and “culture”, replacing “society” instead with “hominid ecology” (unless I or someone else comes up with a better term that contains the term “ecology” in it).  There are a few reasons for such a move.  First, as Latour has tirelessly argued in texts like We Have Never Been Modern and The Politics of Nature, modernity is premised on a split between nature and culture where both nature and culture are entirely distinct from one another and are governed by entirely different principles.  Nature, it is said, is governed entirely by brute matter (a now outmoded conception of matter) and mechanical causality (an outmoded notion of causality).  Culture and society, on the other hand, are governed by norms, beliefs, ideologies, language, signifiers, rituals, and so on.  The modernist framework is premised on keeping these two domains entirely separate.  When speaking of society or culture, the story goes, we will only speak of mental entities, norms, ideologies, and linguistic entities.  We will here only speak of texts.  When speaking of nature we will only speak of causes and so-called “material things”.

The problem is that this way of proceeding entirely distorts our understanding of society.  We speak as if the glue that holds people together were only beliefs, ideologies, norms, texts, language, signs, etc.  Yet as Latour argues in texts like Pandora’s Hope, societies wouldn’t hold together for a single moment were it just these things that held them together.  Groups are also held together (and separated) by rivers, mountains, various plants and animals (cf. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel), roads, telephone lines, waste and sewage systems, mediums of communication, microbes, parks, oceans, climate regularities, etc.  The problem with the modernist framework is that it renders these things largely invisible, and also renders the organizing and separating power or gravity they exercise invisible.  For example, you seldom hear an analysis in the social sciences but especially in the humanities of how the layout of roads alone in a particular city bring certain people together and keeps certain people elsewhere.  Instead, those working in the tradition of the early Frankfurt School (and primarily Horkheimer and Adorno), post-structuralism (Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Baudrillard), structuralism (Althusser, Levi-Strauss), and psychoanalysis (Zizek), tend to treat the social world as merely a text to be deciphered and power as residing in texts alone.  Althusserians can insist that ideologies are material, yet strangely they only ever seem to focus on ideologies imbedded in speech, laws, texts, ignoring the other material things– generally nonhuman –that exert power and that organize lives in particular ways.

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This is absolutely amazing.  Based on Tammy Lu’s cover art for The Democracy of Objects, choreographer Masha Gurina has composed a dance.  Here are the sketches.  Absolutely gorgeous!  What a wonderful example of the phenomenon of translation!

One of my worries about the new turn towards realism is that it will end up washing away all of the valuable social critiques that arose out of Marxist thought, the early Frankfurt school, structuralist, post-structuralist, feminist, queer, and race theory.  In particular, I worry that situating these discussions abstractly as debates between monolithic positions of “realism” and “anti-realism”, deeply risks ignoring the ontological specificity of the field out of which social constructivist positions arose and the political and ethical considerations that have motivated these positions.  It also, I believe, risks glossing over unique ontological features of humans and social systems, oddly shifting away from a “realist” position (i.e., one would think that realism is particularly attentive to the genuine ontological features of entities).  When I hear questions at conferences about where the place of feminism, post-colonial theory, and queer theory is in OOO responded to with the claim that “maybe we need to stop worrying about these things”, I find myself deeply disturbed.  I find myself disturbed because 1) I think variants of OOO are capable of addressing these issues in a satisfying way (I try to outline such a model in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects, though perhaps my account remains too abstract or too much at the level of “pure theory”), and 2) because I think we can’t ignore these issues.  The forms of oppression that arise from essentialist conceptions of human “types” continue to have very real consequences for human lives as well as play a key role in perpetuating capitalist systems of exploitation that both cause misery for billions of people and are destroying the planet.  If SR simply turns away from these things out of a zeal for defeating anti-realism, then it has little to offer for concrete struggles around the world.

Nonetheless, for me, at least, there were very real political and ethical reasons for turning to a realist/materialist position.  It wasn’t because I had suddenly abandoned the lessons I had learned during my anti-realist days from theorists such as Lacan, Zizek, Butler, Foucault, Adorno, Derrida, Baudrillard, etc., it was because I increasingly began to experience the limits of these positions with respect to the problems we face today.  Encountering the limits of something is quite different from rejecting that thing.  To reject something is to banish it entirely from ones theoretical edifice as in the case of the theory of the humors was banished as an explanation of sickness, or phlogiston was banished as an explanation for why things burn.  Encountering the limits of something, by contrast, entails that one retains the theoretical advances of that thing, while also recognizing that there are a broad body of things this theory does not explain.  In such a moment one recognizes that their ontology needs to be expanded to cover entirely new domains that exceed those of the field of investigation in the previous domain.  This is the moment where one recognizes that a new discipline needs to be forged (and no I’m not making the pretentious claim that I’m forging a new discipline).  This is what happened with me and anti-realism.  It wasn’t that I had somehow come to reject Adorno’s reflections on the culture industry, Foucault’s analysis of epistemes in the social sciences, Butler’s reflections on the construction of gender, post-structuralist accounts of the construction of race, Marx’s critique of commodity-fetishism, etc.  No, as I make clear in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects, I continue to endorse these accounts as I always did.  Indeed, one of the reasons I chose Luhmann’s account of the autopoiesis of objects was that it was the most radical account of constructivism I was familiar with and was therefore capable of integrating these lines of argument.

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Over at Struggle Forever, my friend Jeremy has expressed worries about materialism, instead opting for the broader term “realism”. When I remarked on how I believe my variant of materialism as well as the work of the new materialists can allay these concerns, he responded as follows:

my objection is really only semantic and practical in that, by calling attention to materialism as the basis of your ontology (even though there is much more to your ontology than that), I worry that you’ll cause people to pay attention only to the material aspects of being. To me the descriptor “materialism” is the problem and not so much your approach to it (or any other approach for that matter). “Realism” allows for more flexibility – I can call attention to the reality of an object (how it makes a difference) in terms of its ideal qualities or its material qualities or both, depending on the situation. Whereas, in a materialist ontology (even one like yours), I feel as if one would have to always go back to the material qualities as a ground for all of the ideal consequences of an entity – (why does Popeye make a difference to me? because my neurons fire in a particular way when a pattern of photons bounces of of an image of him and reflects into my eye…). Even though I know your ontology is clearly more nuanced than that, I’m afraid that in practice it would end up being reductionism (substituting the material for the real).

First, it’s important to note that for me there is no distinction between ideas and matter. For me ideas are material things, just as everything else is a material thing. They are material things inscribed in brains, pieces of paper, radio waves, fiber optic cables, computer data bases, and that take time to travel through the void or space. This is what I was trying to get at in my recent post on Lucretius and simulacra. Far from being incorporeal entities, simulacra or atomic entities are diaphanous material entities that must travel from node to node in networks, and this takes time and has limits depending on which medium transmits the simulacra. Societies based on speech (air, breath, sound-waves) will only be able to reach a certain size due to the random variation that snippets of speech enjoy when passed from person to person. Moreover, as theorists such as Walter Ong and his student Marshall McLuhan have noted, the medium of air or sound-waves will tend to favor certain ways of transmitting oral teachings: rhythmic poetry that can be easily stored and repeated in neurological memory. This will have a decisive impact on how these societies develop and what regimes of knowledge are possible for them. It is very difficult, for example, to imagine abstract mathematics, abstract philosophy, universal law, science, and so on developing in an oral culture because of the constraints of material, neurological memory. With simulacra conveyed by writing matters change. Societies become larger because we no longer encounter the “telephone” problem, and new regimes of knowledge emerge because the material features of paper remember for us allowing 1) us to engage in long chains of reasoning that would be impossible for biological neurological reasoning, and 2) allowing us to assign names to abstract entities like the number “1” without this entity referring to any particular entity such as “one cat” and begin to carry out operations on these entities. In each case the material medium of simulacra (speech, writing, the printing press, telegraphs, phones, internet, etc) will have a decisive impact on the form that social assemblages take, the sorts of knowledge possible within these assemblages, and the forms of political action possible within these assemblages. Materialism places these sorts of considerations front and center in a way that realism– that admits the existence of incorporeal entities free of the constraints of material finitude –do not.

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Of all the people working in the new materialist and realist orientations with which I am familiar (SR broadly construed), I probably feel the greatest affinity with the thought of Bennett and Bogost.  And here I hasten to add that I am only just now making forays into the work of the new materialist feminists, whose work was before unknown to me –so I suspect that my affinities will broaden as I explore their work more (already I’m blown away by what I’ve read by Elizabeth Grosz and am encountering in Coole’s and Frost’s New Materialisms collection.  These things feel like home to me).  Bogost’s claim that all units are simultaneously units and systems, coupled with his thesis that units continue their existence through operations appeals to the systems theorist in me as well as the process philosopher.  Bogost insists that operations aren’t processes, but I’m unclear as to why we shouldn’t call them such.  With Bennett the points of overlap are much more striking; so much so that at our CUNY roundtable last year Graham Harman suggested that perhaps there are too branches of OOO:  Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOP) and a Bennett-Bryant orientation.  Given that Bennett herself would probably be annoyed to call herself an “object-oriented ontologist”, we might instead refer to her work as “materialist-oriented ontology” (MOO) or “body-oriented ontology” (BOO); which are both terms I would gladly embrace for myself.  Here “BOO”, of course, shouldn’t be understood in the sense of just our bodies, but in Spinoza’s sense where all entities are bodies, whether they be human, animal, microbrial, quarks, or revolutionary groups.  To be is to be a body.

The points of overlap between our work run quite deep:

1) We share a very similar intellectual heritage deriving from Lucretius, Spinoza, and Deleuze and Guattari.  Indeed, I conceive of my work in OOO as a Deleuzian account of entities in contrast to Harman’s Heideggerian account.  Within this framework,

a)  Identity is a product of processes, activities, or operations in entities, not a withdrawn essence that underlies accidental changes.  Here entities are perpetually facing the threat of dissolution or entropy as they continue through time so it is necessary that they engage in operations to maintain their existence.  Whatever identity they have is a result of these activities, not something that precedes these activities.

b) Objects are therefore characterized by perpetual becoming or unfolding in the order of time.  For me there isn’t a choice that we have to make between being and becoming.  Rather being is becoming and becoming is being.  The being of an object is the becoming of that object.  It is for this reason that I also refer to objects as “objectiles“.

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In Holland, the fantastic Sjoerd van Tuinen and I got into an interesting discussion about constructivism.  Sjoerd insisted that constructivism is an anti-realist position, while I insisted that constructivism, at it’s best, ought to be a realist position.  In other words, I’m prepared to make the claim that everything is a construction and that all constructions are realOf course, this requires us to significantly revise our concept of what constructivism is about (in ways, I think, that return us to more common connotations of the term).

In the humanities, the discourse of constructivism arose out of a critical framework based on the nature/cultural binary.  Reactionary twerps (this should be a technical term, abbreviated as RT’s) would claim that such and such a thing is natural.  For example, they would claim that there is a natural place for women in society and that women innately have certain desires such that if they violate them– e.g., get a job outside the home –they will suffer severe psychological disorders, unhappiness, and society will collapse.  We see similar arguments in debates about homosexuality.  The story goes that men and women naturally desire the other sex and are therefore violating the order of things by desiring the same sex.  “Time is out of joint”.  Looking at these sorts of claims– and we find too many remnants of it among evolutionary sociologists and psychologists who are ignorant of ethology and history, it seems –we can infer that by nature the RT’s mean “unchanging”, “originating from within the thing as an essence”, and/or divinely ordained/designed.

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