May 2012


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.

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Jeffrey J. Cohen’s edited collection on nonhumans is now out with Punctum Books and looks fantastic! I can’t wait to read this.

Animal, Mineral, Vegetable examines what happens when we cease to assume that only humans exert agency. Through a careful examination of medieval, early modern and contemporary lifeworlds, these essays collectively argue against ecological anthropocentricity. Sheep, wolves, camels, flowers, chairs, magnets, landscapes, refuse and gems are more than mere objects. They act; they withdraw; they make demands; they connect within lively networks that might foster a new humanism, or that might proceed with indifference towards human affairs. Through what ethics do we respond to these activities and forces? To what futures do these creatures and objects invite us, especially when they appear within the texts and cultures of the “distant” past?
Contents: Jeffrey J. Cohen (George Washington University): “Introduction: All Things” – Karl Steel (Brooklyn College): “With the World, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of the Wolf-Child of Hesse” – Sharon Kinoshita (University of California, Santa Cruz): “Animals and the Medieval Culture of Empire” – Peggy McCracken (University of Michigan): “The Floral and the Human” – Kellie Robertson (University of Wisconsin-Madison): “Exemplary Rocks” – Valerie Allen (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): “Mineral Virtue”  – Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville): “You Are Here: A Manifesto” – Julian Yates (University of Delaware): “Sheep Tracks: Multi-Species Impressions” – Julia Reinhard Lupton (University of California, Irvine): “The Renaissance Res Publica of Things” – Jane Bennett (Johns Hopkins University): “Powers of the Hoard: Further Notes on Material Agency”

Response essays: Lowell Duckert, “Speaking Stones, John Muir, and a Slower (Non)humanities” –  Nedda Mehdizadeh, “‘Ruinous Monument’: Transporting Objects in Herbert’s Persepolis” – Jonathan Gil Harris, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Twenty Questions”

Over at This Cage is Worms Cameron has a nice post responding to my recent post on ontology and politics and articulating his own meditations on the political within a speculative realist framework.  I truly wish that I had a better answer to the question of the political, but there are a couple of reasons that I’m hesitant to articulate positions (while simultaneously, I think, being pretty clear about my ethico-politico commitments).  First, as a flat ontologist and “Darwinian materialist“, I reject the thesis that there are transcendent values or norms that hold for all times and that would allow us to make judgments from afar.  Rather, as I tried to argue in my article “The Ethics of the Event:  Deleuze and Ethics without Aρχή” in Smith and Jun’s Deleuze and Ethics, much political and ethical thought gets things exactly backwards.  Ethical thought does not begin from abstract normative principles that are then used to evaluate situations, but rather– as Deleuze argues and as Bennett argues in her discussions of Dewey in Vibrant Matter –the norms we use to evaluate situations arise from problems that are, in their turn, collectives of nonhumans or collectives of humans and nonhumans.  We only begin to raise ethical and political questions in the face of a problem, a situation where a collective does not work, in those situations where new ways of relating are called for.  As Deleuze argues, these problems are not cognitive deficiencies that disappear in the presence of a solution, but rather are ontological realities that arise from collectives of nonhumans and humans and nonhumans that call for new forms of life.  Moreover, they are singular or responses to specific circumstances.  Ethical and political thought always arises in the midst of a crisis, of a lacuna in the functioning of a collective.  It is not a set of principles that precedes these forms of life.  It seems to me that this is the basic teaching of historical materialism:  our values arise from singular problems specific to those circumstances.

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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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