June 2012


There have been a flurry of posts across the blogosphere discussing the issue of flat ethics. Over at Misanthropology, Craig has a pretty harsh rejoinder to my initial post on flat ethics. I find myself in a pretty interesting position, striving to respond to the humanists who are worried that OOO/NFM and flat ontology imply a denigration of humans and human political issues, while responding to critical animal theorists who are worried about anthropocentrism. My initial post on flat ontology and flat ethics was intended as a response to David Berry and Alexander Galloway. I tend to encounter Craig’s post as the perspective of a psychotic (in Lacan’s sense). But before that is taken pejoratively, maybe Craig is right. What would it really mean to say that Craig is psychotic? It would mean that he is no longer identified with the human perspective, with the human set of attachments and commitments, but has deterritorialized to such a degree that he is a creature that is able to participate in dialogue, while no longer being “one of us”. If this is the case, his perspective, arguments, and theorizations are indispensable to this discussion. Indeed, this is why we should be suspicious of categorizations like “psychotic”, that seem more designed to exclude and alienate, than to dialogue. Craig is the true animal in this debate. In response to Craig’s post and my post, Scu jumps in expressing his worries about discussions of conatus, to which I respond here. Today there have been a flurry of further posts. Over at Struggle Forever, ethographer Jeremy Trombley has a great post up arguing that the question of ethics only arises relationally (something I agree with) and making nods to an ecological conception of ethics where we have to attend to the ecological relations between entities in making judgments about what ought to be done. While not directly jumping into the discussion, both Adam Robbert of Knowledge Ecology and Andre Ling have written two terrific posts discussing politics and ethics, vis a vis OOO, Harman, Morton, Stengers, and Latour (here and here).

Finally, over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has a great post discussing flat ethics using the example of a soccer game. Alex reminds us that we can never treat human agency as arising solely from human beings, drawing attention to the role played by the soccer ball, grass, equipment, etc., in playing the soccer game. Alex’s observations are crucial, deserve to be the starting point of the discussion, and remind me of a passage in Serres I wrote about a year ago. In The Parasite, Serres writes:

A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it. Over there, on the ground, it is nothing; it is stupid; it has no meaning, no function, and no value. Ball isn’t played alone. Those who do, those who hog the ball, are bad players and are soon excluded from the game. They are said to be selfish. The collective game doesn’t need persons, people out for themselves. Let us consider the one who holds it. If he makes it move around him, he is awkward, a bad player. The ball isn’t there fore the body; the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun. Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it. It is the subject of the body, subject of bodies, and like a subject of subjects. Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance. The laws are written for it, defined relative to it, and we bend to these laws. Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves. (225 – 226)

What Alex and Serries remind us is that we’re never strictly the origin of our own actions, but that often we’re the object of the agency of nonhumans such as the soccer ball. If this point is so crucial and deserves to be the starting point of discussion on these issues, then this is because it significantly complicates our notion of agency and just who and what counts as an agent.

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The next few weeks will be extremely hectic, with me away between June 17th and July 7th.

First stop is New Orleans for Deleuze Camp and the Deleuze Studies Conference.

For Deleuze Camp I will be teaching a two day course on Tuesday the 19th and Wednesday the 20th entitled “Space, Territory, and Onto-Cartography”.  Here I’ll be doing some of the groundwork for my Onto-Cartographies project with Edinburgh University Press, outlining the structure of objects, issues of scale, the concept of territory and how territory is organized, issues of how consistency is produced among heterogeneous entities, Deleuze and Guattari’s subordination of space to movement and the two types of movement within space (smooth and striated), and the difference between State and Nomadic space-times/assemblages.  This will all be mapped on to my distinction between black, dim, bright, and rogue (nomadic war machines) objects.

For the Deleuze Studies conference I will be giving a talk entitled “Machinic Objects” on June 26th.  In this talk I’ll be outlining the differences between Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my onticology, and making the case that objects are best understood as machines.

From New Orleans it’s back to Dallas on the 26th and then off to Liverpool on the 27th.  At Liverpool Hope’s Thinking the Absolute conference (click on “events” at the link for info) I will be giving a keynote entitled “Black Ecology” based on my article for the Prismatic Ecologies collection edited by Jeffrey Cohen.  In this talk I critique spiritualist green ecologies such as those defended by Arne Naess, critique holistic concepts of being where everything is already interrelated (i.e., I emphasize the fragility of relations), make the case that all existence is ecological such that society/culture are not something outside of ecology but are both ecological through and through and imbricated with entities we refer to as “natural”, and develop the concept of black bodies– very close to Stacy Alaimo’s trans-corporeality –where entities are both withdrawn beings that harbor hidden depths and where they absorb the influences of other entities as in the case of oceans becoming saturated with fertilizers and our bodies absorbing pollutants in our food.  In this context I also touch on issues of race and social ecologies.  In this talk I also contest the idea that nature or existence naturally tends towards homeostasis, harmony, and balance– positive feedback is every bit as much a feature of nature as negative or self-regulating feedback –thereby attempting to emphasize the necessity of intervening to produce ecological relations that can sustain life and critiquing the idea that markets always aim for an optimal outcome for all.

From Liverpool I fly to Dublin on July 2nd to give a talk entitled “Two Ontologies:  Posthumanism and Lacan’s Graph of Sexuation” at the Independent College of Dublin on July 3rd.  You can read the abstract at the link.  Basically I argue that the feminine side of the graphs of sexuation is the side of being and truth, articulating an opening to a non-anthropocentric flat ontology characterized by relational being and alterity; while the masculine side of the graph of sexuation is the side of semblance and illusion, characterized by anthropocentricism, the primacy of the sovereign subject, the nature/culture divide, and phallocentrism.  Where the masculine side of the graph of sexuation is always characterized by a transcendent State apparatus that codes and sorts beings into fixed categories, the feminine side is the side of immanent relations and porous boundaries.  This talk is the foundation of my article for the Lacan and Posthumanism collection edited by Judith Roof and Svitlana Matviyenko.

Finally, on July 5th I’ll be giving a talk entitled “Denaturing Nature” in London at the Space art gallery.  Here’s the abstract:

Nature must be denatured, but without abandoning nature.  Rather than absorbing nature into culture and language, culture should instead be absorbed into nature in such a way as to show that there’s only nature.  This talk proposes a post-Galilean/Post-Darwinian conception of nature in which nature is understood as all that exists, including the cultural and social, and where nature is contingent, historical, and creative.  This account of nature is contrasted with the pre-Modern and Modern concept of nature, where nature is treated as something that is outside of culture and where it is rhetorically and ideologically used as a tool to legitimize various forms of oppression and prevent emancipatory projects.  The post-Galilean/post-Darwinian account of nature undermines such ideological gestures and defends an account of nature where societies are themselves understood as ecologies dependent upon a broader natural world and where social identities are natural constructions or inventions with a reality of their own.

Then, at long last, it’s back to Dallas.

For many years now I have tried to develop the thesis that “texts aren’t simply about something, but also are something.”  In trying to draw attention to the fact that texts, representations, and signs are not just about something, I’ve attempted to highlight the manner in which representations, texts, signs, and signifiers, are real entities in their own right that float about the world such that the enjoy greater and lesser population density, just like species of animals enjoy greater and lesser population densities in different regions of the world.  Ideas don’t simply have a content, meaning, or truth-value, but also have a spatio-temporal geography.  In other words, some ideas are more common in some places than others.  For example, in the humanities, Marxist ideas are very common such that one wouldn’t be making a bad induction if they reasoned that the next academic they meet from the humanities is likely to advocate some Marxist idea or other.  By contrast, in the broader American population these ideas are fairly absent.  Within a population of people, some ideas are hegemonic in the sense that they dominate the social field or are highly present in the social field, while others are all but invisible.  Just like species of animals in aparticular ecosystem where some animals are more numerous and dominant than others, some ideas and texts are more populous than others in the social world.

This is the material dimension of ideas, their status as beings or entities in their own right that more or less populate the world, rather than their being as meanings, representations, or true or false.  As I argued in a previous post on Object-Oriented Rhetoric (OOR), considering ideas in their material dimension brings to the fore a different set of considerations than if we consider them in their representational or meaningful dimension.  When we approach texts from the standpoint of representation and meaning, we seek to “decode” them, to determine what they signify, to interpret them, to determine whether they’re true or false, to determine what they’re ideological content is.  By contrast, when we approach texts as material entities that circulate throughout the world we proceed more as ecologists or epidemiologists than as interpreters.  In our materialist approach, we look at ideas as populations or actors in the world, we examine the ecosystems to which they belong, their spread throughout a population, and the mechanisms by which they exclude other ideas, thereby maintaining certain power relations.  The point is not to exclude interpretation and the evaluation of truth and falsity, but to recognize the way in which ideas have a reality, a material existence, of their own such that strategies must be developed for both weakening certain ideas and for promoting others and enabling the existence of others.  If a critic debunks an ideology in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it doesn’t do much good.  The truth and justice of an idea is not enough to give it reality in a population.

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This post will remain on the front page for the next few weeks.  New posts can be found below it.

This is just a reminder that the deadline for submitting articles to the first O-Zone is approaching in September.  We have a great line-up of contributors, including interviews with science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, Andy Clark, Cary Wolfe, John Protevi, and Henk Oosterling.  For this first issue we’re looking for short contributions between 2,000 – 3,000 words.

If you’re worried that you have nothing to say about OOO, don’t.  O-Zone is not a specifically OOO journal, but a platform designed to promote discussion between the various emerging streams of realism and materialism.  Here’s the journal description:

O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studiesis a peer-reviewed, open-access, and post-disciplinary journal devoted to object-oriented studies, both situated within and traversing the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the arts. The journal aims to cultivate current streams of thought already established within object-oriented studies, while also providing space for new pathways along which disparate voices and bodies of object-oriented knowledges might encounter, influence, perturb, and motivate one another.

Located within a post-Kantian philosophical outlook, where everything in the world, from the smallest quarks to lynxes to humans to wheat fields to machines and beyond exist on an equal ontological footing, O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies invites new work that explores the weird realism, thingliness, and life-worlds of objects. Possible methodological approaches and critical modes might include: actor-networks, unit operations, alien phenomenology, agentic drift, onticology, guerrilla metaphysics, carnal phenomenology, ontography, agential realism, cosmopolitics, panpsychism, insect media, posthumanism, flat ontology, dark vitalism, prosthetics, territorial assemblage, vibrant materialism, dorsality, distributed intelligence, dark ecology, hyperobjects, realist magic, post-continuity, and other paradigms for object-oriented thought still coming into being and yet to be articulated.

Here’s the CFP:

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in ecology in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, with exciting new conceptual innovations and critically reflective returns to the work of earlier ecological studies. If ecological thought, in its most broad definition, investigates the interrelations and interactions of entities with one another, then the concept and domain of ecology can be expanded significantly, referring not simply to the natural world apart from social structures and configurations, but rather to relations between entities of any kind, regardless of whether they are natural, technological, social, or discursive. In short, culture and society are no longer thought of as something distinct from nature, but as one formation of nature among others. Increasingly, a sensibility has emerged that views as impossible the treatment of society and nature as distinct and separate domains, and instead sees the two as deeply enmeshed with one another. Similarly, ecological and posthumanist developments have increasingly come to intersect with one another, jointly conceptualizing humans not as sovereign makers of all other tools, beings and meanings, but as beings (or objects) among other beings (and objects)—animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman—entwined together in a variety of complex contingencies.

The inaugural issue of O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies seeks to expand current ecological dialogues and open new trajectories for ecological engagement vis-à-vis the world of objects, or even world(s)-as-object(s). Authors are invited to contribute SHORT meditations, thought experiments, riffs, ruminations, rants, broadsides, etc. — of approximately 2,000 to 3,000 words — on any object-oriented ecological turn or (re)turn percolating through their current work, OR, on any aspect of the relationship (or non- or frictional relationship) between the two terms. Artworks are also encouraged. Authors might consider the following questions when composing their contributions:

  • How do the post-correlationist, post-Kantian, realist, and materialist turns transform our understanding of the systems, operations, objects, and/or ontology of ecology?

  • What is an ecological politics, and what might certain political considerations bring to object-oriented and new materialist trends of ecological thinking? Conversely, how might an intensive focus on the singularity and autonomy of objects revise our conceptions of political domains?

  • Object-oriented theorists have proposed a number of new critical modes to expand ecological inquiry, like dark and black ecology. In what ways do these new approaches challenge the traditionally “green” orientations of ecological investigation? Further, what other new modes of ecological thought might we propose now, beyond green?

  • Ecology has traditionally been defined as the study of systems of inter-dependent relations, often with respect to natural environments. How might certain strains of object-oriented thought that take as a given the withdrawn nature and independent reality of objects give rise to new ecological thinking? Further, what would it mean to think the non- or para-“natural world” ecologically, such as new media, machinic and other technologies, artificial life, bioinformatics, cloning, and the like?

  • What is the relationship between posthumanism and ecology? Can there be a post-ecology, and how might that relate to the “life” of objects?

  • What might be some of the productive tensions, inter-relations, attractions, oppositions, alliances, dialectics, etc. between the two terms, “object” and “ecology”?
  • What would it mean to retrieve earlier ecological and materialist voices, especially from feminist, gender, and queer studies, and what might these voices contribute to object-oriented and new materialist modes of thought?

These questions are only suggestions for possible meditations. Authors are also invited to develop their own topics.

For its inaugural issue, O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies will also consider submissions on topics unrelated to ecology, but still within the orbit of object-oriented studies. These contributions might take the form of short essays, longer articles (of no more than 10,000 words), or digital media. In addition, we are accepting reviews of recently published works on object-oriented and new materialism subjects. Queries about the relevance of a given topic or potential review are welcome.

Deadline for submissions is August 1 – September 15, 2012. We will accept submissions at any time from May through September 15th, but the dates above sketch out the absolute last period of review for the inaugural issue. Please send all submissions and queries to editors.ozone@gmail.com.

Come join us!

The new issue of Analectica Hermeneutica is now out. All of the articles are freely available in .pdf form. I have an article in there entitled “A Logic of Multiplicities: Deleuze, Immanence, and Onticology”.

Over at Critical Animal, Scu has a great post responding to my earlier post on flat ethics.  There he criticizes me for evoking conatus or our endeavor to persist in our being as a ground for ethics.  Before getting to that, I wanted to clarify some remarks I made about the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethics.  When I expressed skepticism towards the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethics, all I meant was that even when we talk about ethical regard for animals– something I advocate –we’re still working in an anthropocentric framework.  We’re talking about the attitudes we should adopt towards nonhumans, rather approaching nonhumans as seats of value making themselves.

To see this, let’s return to the fraught example of the shark we discussed in comments in my post Flat Ontology/Flat Ethics.  Suppose we say that we shouldn’t kill the shark because the shark has a right to live (something I also believe).  Here I hasten to add that I’m very nervous about talk of “rights” because of how the concept functions in neoliberal thought, but let’s run with the example.  In making such a claim we might believe that we’ve entered the domain of a posthuman and non-anthropocentric ethics.  After all, we’re extending ethical rights to nonhumans, whereas traditional ethics tends to only see humans as having ethical duties and rights.  For example, as Kant says “always treat humans as ends in themselves and never as means to an end.”

While I think it’s a positive development to extend ethical regard to nonhumans, I nonetheless fail to see how this constitutes a posthuman ethic or a non-anthropocentric ethics.  Why?  Because we’re still treating humans as the seat of value in evaluating the world.  We’re talking about the way in which humans ought to relate to sharks, rather than exploring the manner of valuing engaged in by sharks, seals, killer whales, bacteria, coral reefs, etc.  This is still an anthropocentrism.  It’s a positive extension of anthropocentricism, but an anthropocentrism nonetheless.  In this regard, it’s difficult to know what it would mean to extend ethics to nonhumans– though I suspect it might work in the case of some nonhumans like primates, dolphins, octopi, etc –because ethics seems to involve choice of some sort.  I’m ethically culpable because I can choose.  The reason that we can judge the moral worth of my action with regard to the shark is because I’m capable of deliberating as to whether or not to kill the shark.  It’s much harder to see how this could apply in the case of sharks.  Would it make much sense to treat sharks as ethically culpable?  That would seem to require the shark having the ability to deliberate and choose between eating or not eating the seal.  I find this very hard to imagine.  This could either mean that a non-anthropocentric ethics is impossible, or that we need to significantly revise our understanding of what ethics is about.

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By SR I mean “speculative realism”, by “NFM” new materialist feminism, and the rest.  I get the sense that people miss the whole point of the debate between the anti-realists and the new realists and materialists.  There seems to be some impression that this is a debate between whether science is right or whether the social constructivists are right.  And believe me, I sympathize with the social constructivists and wish to preserve their discoveries.  I fully understand that having encountered discourses like eugenics, having seen the way the term “nature” is mobilized in oppressive ideological discourses, having seen the devastation of the ecosystem, the ravages of global capitalism, the atomic bomb, DDT, and a number of other things, people would be suspicious of the term “real”.  But “defending science” against “social constructivism” has never– insofar as I understand it –been the point of the new materialists and realists.

I don’t wish to put words in the names of others– so take this as a testament of how other theorists have influenced me –but for me the point has always been the recognition of the role that nonhumans play in the world.  The point has never been to show that sciences show us what is really real ™, and that the social constructivisms are full of shit.  How would that both I and the new materialist feminists advocate an ontological constructivism where construction and contingency appear at all levels of being?  I believe things are constructed at all levels of being, regardless of whether or not humans exist.  That makes it pretty difficult to defend the existence of something like “essence”.

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