October 2012

Over at An und Fur Sich, Adam Kotsko has written a response to my defense of naturalism and materialism (here and here), accusing me of everything from believing that science gives us unmediated access to reality, is capable of explaining everything, and seeks to reduce everything, to advocating totalitarianism.  Anyone familiar with what I argue in my ontology and epistemology will find this to be a peculiar set of charges, but so it goes.  I posted a lengthy response there, but I’ll post it here as well:

I’m hesitant to respond here as Adam has already said he didn’t want to lure me over and that he’s found discussion with me unedifying, but I feel compelled to say something as I have difficulty recognizing myself in what is described in this post.  Nowhere do I make the claim that science explains everything, that we have an unmediated access to the real, that everything should be reduced to elementary particles, genes, or neurons, or that we should ignore our knowledge producing practices.  In fact, the ontology and epistemology I propose, the opposite is entailed.  I argue that nothing has direct access to anything else.  This would include scientific researchers in their relationship to the world.  My central argument for the independence of objects– drawn from philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar –revolves around the experimental setting and how knowing requires us to carefully construct closed systems in which we perturb objects in a variety of ways to determine how they respond under these conditions.  Here I would disagree somewhat with Adam.  Science is not just conceptual.  It involves instruments and practices as well and these contribute as much to our knowledge of beings as concepts.  Indeed, often the way in which entities respond to our instruments and actions upon them ends up undermining concepts.

The philosophy of science and epistemology I’ve defended is based on the work of sociologists of science such as Pickering and Latour.  As others have noted in this thread, these philosophies of knowledge are perfectly in accord with what Adam argues here.  They are sensitive to the political and social contexts in which knowledge is produced, they emphasize the way in which knowledge is constructed, and they are attentive to how the history of ideas inform how we see the world.  Their difference from hardcore social constructivists such as Luckmann and Berger in The Social Construction of Reality is that they refuse to treat construction as issuing from power, concepts, narratives, and discourse alone.  The entities investigated, the materials used, the instruments used, etc., play a role that cannot, in their view, be reduced to the conceptual, social, and semiotic.  Latour and Pickering’s constructivism is closer to what takes place in building a house and spinning out being from ideas and signs.  Part of building a house will involve conceptual elements such as ideas found in engineering and architecture, part will involve social and political elements such as laws and cultural traditions in architecture, part will be real materials used such as the tools, the wood, nails, etc., and part the techniques or practices that construction workers have learned.  Their point is that we need to avoid social constructivism that sees only ideas, power, signs, concepts, etc., as constructing being and also take into account the role that nonhuman entities play.  I suspect many here– including Adam, I hope –would see this as a perfectly sensible proposal.

read on!

It is not unusual for people to respond to claims I make such as the thesis that Continental thought has tended to systematically ignore naturalistic and materialist orientations with rebuttals to the effect that “thinker x is a naturalist and materialist and works in the Continental tradition!”  In other words, the idea seems to be that a few counter-examples are sufficient to rebut claims about what is dominant in a population.  This is a very curious thing for people to say coming from a philosophical tradition that’s been so significantly influenced by Foucault’s account of power and Althusser’s theory of ideology.  Both of these thinkers, in their own ways, teach us that power and ideology function to systematically suppress other orientations of thought on behalf of dominate structures of power and ideology.  It’s as if these theories are to be applied to every discipline and set of cultural practices except ones own favored terrain.

To even begin discussing these issues, I believe one has to start within an ecological framework that things in terms of populations.  An ecological orientation focuses not in discrete, individual entities, but rather looks at the existence of these entities in a network of relations to other entities defined by interdependencies, feedback loops, and hierarchical relations between what is dominant and subordinate within that ecology.  In other words, the fact that something exists is not, within an ecological framework, as important as how that thing is situated in a network of interdependencies to other entities and questions of how much influence that type of entity exercises.

read on!


Recently I had the privilege of reviewing a brilliant article on Deleuze and Lucretius that, I believe, pretty much nailed it regarding certain issues pertaining to the whole, the one, and totality.  Among other things, the article challenges the tendency throughout the philosophical tradition to equate the whole and the one, or to treat the whole as a totalization.  The standard and ancient philosophical thesis is that the whole forms a one that is also a totality.  We see this in Plato, we see it in Parmenides, and also see it in Hegel, for example.  Lucretius’s argument is very simple.  When we claim that a whole is a totality, we’re saying that nothing escapes the whole.  We’re saying, as Hegel tried to argue, that everything is actual.  This is the meaning of totality.  Lucretius, by contrast, argues that while being is always a whole, it is never a totality or one.  Why?  Because while there are a finite number of types of atoms, there are an infinite number of atoms that can be composed in an infinite number of ways.  As a consequence, any whole of atoms that happens to form will never form a totality because atoms in this whole will never exhaust all possible combinations.  As Lucretius is careful to note, it is difference that is primary, not identity defined by forms, essences, or concepts.  No two entities are ever exactly alike and no thing ever exactly repeats by virtue of the infinity of atoms.  For this reason, no whole forms a totality because every whole is only a local arrangement of atoms that actualizes some possible combinations and not others.  As a result, every whole is an open and creative whole.  There is no combination that could totalize the combinatorial possibilities.

What holds for Lucretius’s thought holds even moreso for OOO and MOO (machine-oriented ontology).  (M)OOO rejects the thesis that some fundamental being like atoms is somehow more real than all other types of beings, such that larger scale entities like atoms (as conceived in contemporary physics), molecules, animals, trees, rocks, institutions, galaxies, etc. are mere epiphenomena.  As a consequence, there are combinatorial logics at all levels of scale and these combinatorial logics never manage to form a totality.  Like Lucretius, (M)OOO argues that no combination never manages to form a totality and argues that new combinations form new entities irreducible to lower-level scales.  Being is creative.  Combinatorial logics might manage to form a whole– though I don’t think so for reasons of the rate at which information can travel –but they never manage to form a totality.

Here it is worth noting that it has traditionally been theology and idealisms that have defended the identity of the one, whole, and totality, not naturalism.  There are notable exceptions here as in the case of the theology of Derrida, if he has one (I tend to side with Hagglund on these issues), but a drive towards totality and the one has been the rule of theological orientations, not the exception.  By contrast, naturalism, whether in its physicalist variants (evolutionary theory, cosmology) or its mathematical variants (Badiou’s deployment of set theory) has defended the open-endedness of nature and its inability to reach closure.  Thus, on the theological side we have thinkers like Hegel, Leibniz, and Thomas that defend the idea that everything in being has a reason and is divinely ordered in such a way as to form a necessary totality– even if only eschatologically –while on the naturalist side with thinkers such as Lucretius, Galileo (yes, I know he was a priest but he exploded all constraints of his theology), Darwin, Freud, Cantor, etc., in the thesis that nature is profoundly open-ended and never manages to totalize itself.  This is not simply a thesis about biological evolution.  In cosmology, for example, we learn that natural laws themselves were formed in the initial, infinitesimal seconds of the big bang, that various elements are formed in stars and depend on the size stars can achieve (what would be achieved at larger sizes?), and that there are good reasons to suppose that there are universes with very different physical laws.  We encounter something similar in the mathematics of the 20th century.  What we’ve discovered is that being is far closer to cultural, historical, and poetic creativeness than the rigid laws of a godlike sovereign designing and structuring being (Spinoza’s God excepted here).

It is naturalism not theology and “transcendence” that allows us to think the ungroundedness of being and its infinite fecundity.  Theology and discourses premised on purpose, meaning, design, and transcendence have always striven to tame this infinite fecundity and its power to generate new local “laws” and forms of being.  It has perpetually striven to transform contingency– read “creativity” –into plan and necessity.  Theological orientations perpetually strive to transform logoi (contingent and open pluralism) into logos (theological necessitarianism).  If Melancholia was such a profound film, then this was because it recognized that there’s no necessary reason for us to exist and that there’s no destiny of being that necessarily involves us.


I can’t believe I somehow missed this new releasefrom Open Humanities Press by Iris van der Tuin and my friend Rick Dolphijn; especially since I was one of the consulting editors!  From the back cover:

This book is the first monograph on the theme of “new materialism,” an emerging trend in 21st century thought that has already left its mark in such fields as philosophy, cultural theory, feminism, science studies, and the arts. The first part of the book contains elaborate interviews with some of the most prominent new materialist scholars of today: Rosi Braidotti, Manuel DeLanda, Karen Barad, and Quentin Meillassoux. The second part situates the new materialist tradition in contemporary thought by singling out its transversal methodology, its position on sexual differing, and by developing the ethical and political consequences of new materialism.

“In New Materialism four prominent theorists who have grappled throughout their careers with crucial issues of materiality, embodiment and subjectivity present their latest thinking in lively and engaging dialogues. In their follow-up analysis Dolphijn and Van der Tuin expertly contextualize the discussions in relation to the current debates around speculative realism and process thought. New Materialism‘s contribution to the discussion will be highly appreciated by all those concerned with the current renewal of interest in realist perspectives respecting the autonomy of the nonhuman.”Brian Massumi, Université de Montréal

New Materialismis a title intended to provoke. The authors concede that the book’s various arguments are not exactly new, and further, that certain expressions of materialism are uncannily immaterial. And yet it is precisely here, in this muddling of conventional analytical terms and oppositional co-ordinates that the book offers a fresh and lively intervention. If the error of binary and hierarchical thinking can be corrected and dispatched through diagnosis and negation (because such responses inadvertently reiterate and entrench the problem), and if past, historical arguments can appear strangely contemporary, then the authors encourage us to revisit every detail of our practice and its routine justifications. This collection of essays embarks on such an exercise, and it does so with an honest and eager curiosity that is both refreshing and useful. Interviews with luminaries such as Rosi Braidotti, Karen Barad, Manuel DeLanda and Quentin Meillassoux make for compelling reading, especially as their collective voices are only sometimes in unison. Indeed, it is the uneasy frisson between these different visions that underlines the book’s aims and rhythms; namely, to find wonder, again and again, in the complex nature of being”Vicki Kirby, University of New South Wales

Author Bios

Rick Dolphijn is assistant professor at the Department of Media and Culture Studies and senior fellow at the Centre for the Humanities, both Utrecht University, the Netherlands. In 2004 he published Foodscapes, towards a Deleuzian Ethics of Consumption. He publishes on continental philosophy, art and new materialism in journals like Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Deleuze Studies, Collapse: Journal of Philosophical Research and Development and Inflexions: a Journal for Research Creation (to which he is a contributing editor).

Iris van der Tuin is assistant professor of Gender Studies at the Department of Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. In 2011-12 she was visiting scholar at the Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, the USA. Her work on new feminist materialism has appeared in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Australian Feminist Studies, European Journal of Women’s Studies, and Women’s Studies International Forum.

As always, the artwork for the cover by Tammy Lu is gorgeous.  The article and interviews in this collection are excellent.  Check it out now!


A busy few weeks ahead of me.

On November 6th, I’ll be giving a talk at Brown University entitled “Machinic Ontology” around 7 PM.  I’m not sure whether this event is open to the public or not, so I’ll give an update once I have more information.  The following night I’m doing a round-table with the English graduate students, responding to questions about The Democracy of Objects.

On November 14th, I’ll be giving a talk at The Artist’s Institute (affiliated with Hunter College) in New York entitled “Difference Engines”, in conjunction with an exhibition of the work of artist Haim Steinbach.  I’m particularly excited about this trip as I’ll get to see Reza Negerastani speak the next day.

On December 6th I’ll be heading to Rice University to talk to Cary Wolfe’s class.  The next day I’ll be giving a talk entitled “Machinic Ethology” that discusses the machinic ontology I’m developing and the role that Bogost’s alien phenomenology, Luhmann’s second-order observation, and von Uexkull’s ethology plays in the project of onto-cartography.  Again, I’m not sure whether this second event will be open to the public.

It’s been an insane, but very good year.  Not only was The Democracy of Objects released, but I gave 17 talks, including three keynote addresses and a plenary.  Now I just need to finish Onto-Cartography:  Machinic Ontology and Media Ecology.  At present I’m four chapters in and nearly finished with part 1.  That leaves two more parts to complete by the end of January.

I’m pleased that my last post on naturalism has generated some interesting discussion– pro and con –about naturalism.  As I reflect on that discussion, it occurs to me that “naturalism” is one of those nebulous terms that means a variety of different things.  For some naturalism seems to mean eliminativism, of the variety advocated by the Churchlands.  For others naturalism means reductionism of the type advocated by evolutionary psychologists such as E.O.Wilson.  There, all social phenomena are explained in biological terms pertaining to reproduction and survival.  For others, naturalism means positivism.  I do not advocate any of these positions, though I do think that theorists like E.O. Wilson shed important light on human behavior.  I just don’t think they tell the entire story and that there are other causal factors involved that can’t be reduced to reproductive and survival aims.  I take it that this is part of the importance of meme theory.  There are a number of problems with meme theory, but one thing I think it does underline well is that there are replicators besides genes– cultural units –that contribute every bit as much to why humans are as they are and these replicators have “aims” other than biological reproduction and survival.  Here, for example, we might think of soldiers facing almost certain death as they storm the beach at Normandy.  They are acting on behalf of memes not genes, and are acting on behalf of aims that can’t be reduced to biological survival or reproduction.  I think Lacan’s theory of desire nicely outlines these sorts of motivation.

For me, naturalism has a very broad meaning and is an open-ended project.  I think there are three basic axioms one must endorse to count as a naturalist.  First, one must hold that there is no supernatural causation, only natural causation.  Put differently, there is nothing outside of the world.  Note that this thesis says nothing about what natural beings exercise causal force in the world.  Reductionists, for example, seem to hold that only atoms, genes, and neurons have causation.  I believe that things like signifiers, narratives, discourses, institutions, objects (what I now call machines), atoms, neurons, genes, etc., all have causation.  In other words, I reject that form of reductionism that only treats atoms or genes or neurons as having causation.  I just don’t think that one has to privilege the agency of one type of being– say atoms –to be a naturalist.

read on!


The central failure of Continental philosophy has been the rejection of naturalism. With few exceptions, Continental thought, since the 19th century, disavowed the naturalistic revolution that began in the 16th century. Rather than choosing nature– which is to say materiality and efficient causation –as the ground of being, again and again it has made obscurantist gestures based on a recoil to the naturalist revolution: subject or lived experience as the ground of being (phenomenology), spirit as ground of being (Hegel), economics as ground of being (Marx), signifier as ground of being (structuralism and post-structuralism), power as a ground of being (Foucault), history as a ground of being (Gadamer), text as a ground of being, ect. We even get romantic visions of nature evoking the will to power and élan vital.

In Freudian terms, these are so many responses to the narcisstic wound of nature and materiality. It is not the subject, lived experience, history, intentionality, the signifier, text, or power that explains nature, that explains nature, it is nature and materiality that explains all of these things. If these things aren’t treated as natural phenomena, then they deserve to be committed to flames. The point is not that these other orientations have failed to make contributions to our understanding of the natural world, but that they have mistakenly treated these things as grounds of the natural world, rather than the reverse.

It’s difficult to escape the impression that these rejections of naturalism and materialism are a massive reaction formation on the part of the humanities. On the one hand, the humanities still suffer from a theological prejudice, and fear the dislodging of human privilege or exceptionalism that naturalism and materialism betokens. Great apes such as ourselves cannot stand the thought that we are contingent beings among other beings and, in our narcissism, cannot bear the thought that everything else isn’t for us and dependent on us. On the other hand, the humanities are terrified by the thought that our areas of inquiry might be usurped by the natural sciences. We worry that physics, biology, chemistry, will steal our work. In typical narcissistic fashion, we then try to argue that some specific to what we inquire into is the ground of everything else: the subject, politics, text, the signifier, culture, lived experience, will to power, élan vital, etc. We do everything to evade the truth of our age, to preserve our privilege.

The truth of the matter, however– and I won’t even bother to make arguments here –is that naturalism and materialism are the only credible philosophical positions today. If you find yourself explaining being in terms of the signifier, text, rhetoric, culture, power, history, or lived experience, then your thought deserves to be committed to flame. If you don’t begin from the premise that we are evolved to get around in the world and reproduce– and that we are put together to do this in particular circumstances –then your thought deserves to be committed to flames. Your thought is a reaction formation to the narcissistic wound of the fact that your existence is contingent and that you are only the third of the three great apes.

This does not entail that what you’ve said is entirely useless. Nothing entirely misses the truth, including your secularized theological conception of being. There’s even a bit of truth in Christ, Paul, and Buddha. All you need to do is abandon the notion that humans aren’t an animal, that somehow being is dependent on humans and culture, and that somehow we have ends like knowledge and transcendence. All you have to do is re-interpret the entirety of your claims about lived experience, the signifier, culture, power, etc., in naturalistic terms. Then you might make a real contribution, rather than engage in one more reaction against the narcissistic wounds of Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, and neurology. Absent this, you deserve to be treated as apologists suffering from narcissistic denial.

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