November 2012

For those who are wondering, my lack of responses lately is the result of the number of talks I’ve been giving as well as the writing of Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media for Edinburgh University Press (the initial draft is due by the end of January).  Above all, it’s important to remember here that the onto of “onto-cartography” matters.  Onto-cartography is not geography or a mapping of space, but is closer to what Foucault described under the titles of “archeology” an “genealogy”.  It is a mapping of relations and interactions between machines or objects, not a mapping of geographical space.  It looks more like Marx’s mapping of capitalism and class relations.  In short, while Onto-Cartography inevitably discusses spatio-temporal issues (four different forms of space, in fact), it is not a contribution to geographical thought nor intended as such.  The term “cartography” does not mean “geography”, but “mapping”.  Anatomy and the space of mathematical thought are as much mappings as what’s investigated by geography.   I just hit the 150 pg, 50,000 page mark and am pleased by what I’ve written so far.  Nearly everything here is new.  While some of the language of The Democracy of Objects is retained, this is a very different conceptual universe than the one found there (though building on that universe).  There’s a method to this madness that pertains to reasons both peculiar to me and theoretical points.

First, this is just the way my mind/brain works.  I draw things together that are disparate, working by a method of “pastiche” and “collage”, because this is how I think and also because I believe that this is how being itself unfolds.  Being always pulls together disparate and heterogeneous scraps, things that don’t fit together, things that are divergent, etc.  Witness the relationship between our cellular structure and mitochondrial DNA.  Observe how evolutionary processes always build on the scraps of previous “designs”.  Just as it is true in nature, I think this is true of all theory.  This is how our brains are structured.  Any theorist that tells you that they are engaged in a pure unfolding according to conceptual restraints is a liar.  They are always building out of scraps and detretus of disparate experiences, texts, media, thought, etc.  This is what I described under the title of “theory as bricolage” in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects.  There is no theory that doesn’t bother from elsewhere, decontextualize, detach.  This generates problematic fields for the bricoleur.  How to mesh these things together?  It’s no different than trying to form an alloy between different types of metals.  It’s no different than trying to build a table out of scrap wood.  The materials themselves exert their own exigencies that must be responded to and that make the final result aleatory.

Second, there is an ontological point being made here.  Following on Harman’s point that all objects are withdrawn from one another such that every object “distorts” and “caricatures” other objects, it follows that every theoretical articulation– itself a machine or object –caricatures beings.  As Harman argues in Guerrilla Metaphysics, the best we can do is allude to objects.  This needs to be reflected in the style of theory.  Theory must perpetually change its style, it’s mode of articulation, to underline the point that no theory– as is the case with all thought, discourse, perception, and relations between objects –ever manages to represent being.  Shifts in styles and vocabulary mark the withdrawn nature of objects or machines and perpetually remind us that machines are “operationally closed and selectively open” to other objects.

So what will you find here?  Lots of talk about machines, different types of mappings, entropy, events, ecology, and above all a much more enriched discussion of signs or semiotic machines with what I call corporeal machines.  In this way I’m able to retain much Marxist theory, Frankfurt school theory, semiotic, and post-structuralist thought, without reducing corporeal bodies or machines to how they’re signified by expressive machines.  In addition to this, the social and political is foregrounded much more.  What I want to produce– and we’ll see if I’m successful –is not a representation of the world that people repeat and provide commentary on, but rather a manual, workbook, guide, or tool that people take up in their own way and with their own projects producing surprising machines of their own.  That’s the aim anyway:  something to be used and put to work, not represented.

The new issue of Umbr(a) is now available with contributions by me, Badiou, Harman, and Stiegler.

Returning to an earlier conversation with a friend, I argued that OOO is valuable because it draws attention to non-cultural agencies that play a key role in why social assemblages take the form they do, while she insisted that everything is cultural through and through.  In short, Aprell was arguing that culture is universal.  I evoked my usual arguments.  “Look at the role that ocean currents play in the formation of trade routes and where cities subsequently come to form!  Look at the role that the availability of domesticatable animals play in the formation of societies and which societies come to dominate other societies.  Look at how climactic events affect culture, or how diet affects the way our bodies form and the nature of our affects and cognition.  Etc.  Etc. Etc.”  I reiterated that my aim is to think the “plane of expression” (the semiotic/cultural) together with the plane of content (the field of material entities) without reducing one to the other or treating on as, to use Barthes’ language in The Fashion System, as the “primary modeling” system of the other.

Aprell, by contrast, made very compelling arguments that while these things did involve material causes (or rather efficient causes in Aristotlese), these phenomena were nonetheless cultural in character.  Take the relationship between sex and diet I’ve been discussing recently.  A 2008 study conducted by Exeter and Oxford with 721 first-mothers found that women with high energy diets such as Atkins are 56% more likely to have biologically male children.  It’s important to note that diet is here only being presented as one factor in the determination of sex.  Nor does it address the sorts of points that Judith Butler raises in the formation of sexual identity, or the variety of different sexes beyond the XX/XY binary.  This is just one case where we see material causes– the biochemistry of our diets —possibly playing an important role in the genesis/development of our being.

In response to this example, Aprell argued that this phenomenon, while involving material causes, is nonetheless cultural.  And from a certain vantage she’s right.  While the biochemical interactions of different types of foods in actualizing genes in a particular way and in interaction with the cells of a developing embryo are material/organic processes, the diet itself is an incorporeal machine of the order of signifiers belonging to the plane of expression (culture, signs, meanings, among other things).  The diet qua incorporeal machines is cultural.  In this instance, we thus get an intertwining of the plane of content or plastic material machines in the form of the foods themselves, their biochemical properties, cells, genes, etc., and the plane of expression or culture in the form of incorporeal machines like the Atkins diet.

read on!


I dream of a Lacanian philosophy. The Lacanian philosophy I dream of would not be modeled on his theory of the subject, signifier, desire, drive, unconscious, language, etc, so much as on the ethics of the Lacanian clinic. That ethics outlines how the analyst should position herself with respect to the analysand or patient.

The analyst is not a master, nor an authority. She does not tell the analysand what her symptom means or is “really” saying (given the singular nature of every unconscious, how could she?). She does not reveal a diagnosis like “hysteric”, “obsessional”, “phobic”, etc in the clinical setting, alienating her analysand in a generic category. The point is to discover the singular desire of the analysand, not subsume under a generic type. She is not a guru that dispenses knowledge of how to achieve happiness, success, wealth, health, a good relationship, etc.

Rather, an analyst is a sort of truth-attractor for the analysand’s desire. The analysand’s symptom is expressive of a desire. Through the enigmatic way in which she conducts herself, the analyst helps the analysand to articulate this desire in speech, to avow it, rather than to live it through symptoms and parapraxes. All analysis offers is a more direct and honest relation to the unconscious desire that animates ones life.

But above all, an analyst does not conduct herself as a master. She does not act as if she knows the meaning of her analysand’s symptoms and parapraxes, but rather asks questions and gives interpretations that assist the analysand in articulating that meaning and truth. She does not claim to have answers to the pain and misery of life (gurus). She does not set herself up as a moral tribunal, praising or condemning the analysand’s desire. No, she just functions as a locus of the analysand’s speech. In operating as an analyst, she sets her own desires to the side.

The Lacanian clinic, then, is based on a profound respect for the singularity of each subject. It attempts to open a space where that singularity might speak itself. Given the lures of the imaginary and our will to mastery, this is a very difficult space to maintain and endure for both analyst and analysand to endure. Analysands often want a master to tell them the way and are terrified that they will be condemned or “do it wrong”. Analysts can’t help but harbor desires as to what their patients will decide, what life they will pursue, but must set these aside as the aim is for the analysand to articulate their being, what animates them, for perhaps the first time in their lives.

A Lacanian philosophy, of course, would be different than the clinic as it is not dealing with the desire that animates a subject. Rather, if there is a parallel between a Lacanian philosophy and a Lacanian clinic, it would lie in both refusing to occupy the position of master. Just as the Lacanian analyst refuses to comport herself as a master that knows the truth of her patient, a Lacanian philosopher would refuse to present herself as a judge and tribunal of other practices and disciplines. It would refuse the position of legislator.

This is what I take from Badiou and Deleuze and Guattari. Badiou argues that philosophy has no truths of its own, but that truths always come from elsewhere: art, science, politics, and love. Philosophy’s vocation is to think the compossibility of these truths as they appear in the present. Deleuze and Guattari argue that philosophers create concepts, but are careful to point out that while these concepts are inventions unique to philosophy, they are nonetheless extracted from encounters with non-conceptual modes of thought such as art (which makes precepts and affects) or science (which makes functives). Each of these practices can influence one another, but in a way proper to their own medium. Thus, for example, science can be influenced by philosophical concepts, but in such a way as to create functives. Deleuze is transformed by cinema, but where directors invent new images, Deleuze creates concepts proper to those images. Those concepts can then, in turn, produce effects in other practices: literature can write like Hitchcock directs, politics can devise political strategies like Aronofsky develops with his images.

In all of these thinkers there is a profound respect for other practices and disciplines. Rather than setting themselves up as masters whose vocation is to regulate other practices, they instead listen to these other practices, take them as competent in their own terms, and try to extract something from them that pertains to their own philosophical practice. They refuse to be Socrates interrogating the slave boy. To be sure, like the Lacanian analyst that points out slips of the tongue, bungled actions, polysemy in speech, etc, the Lacanian analyst can draw attention to knots or symptoms in other practices, but always with the aim of intensifying those practices. Such would be a Lacanian philosophy.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Aprell and I got in one of those “what is the point” discussions about object-oriented ontology over at my friend Tim Richardson’s house at dinner.  I gave my standard spiel.  In my view, Continental theory and philosophy has been overly dominated by a focus on text and the lived experience of human beings, ignoring the role played by nonhuman entities in social assemblages.  This, at least, was the conclusion I had reached by the end of my graduate education at Loyola University of Chicago.  My courses were dominated Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, as well as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Gadamer, Lacan, and Zizek.  There was also a strong ground in the history of philosophy focused on Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.  Some of my classmates would joke that I was permanently living in the “transcendental epoche” bubble, as I was, after an obsession with Heidegger, intoxicated by the thought of Husserl.  Later that obsession shifted to Derrida, Lacan and Hegel, and I spent a tremendous amount of time exploring the French structuralist semioticians as well as the semiotics of Charles Sanders Pierce (the latter, much to the dismay of my Continental colleagues).  Among these thinkers, Deleuze was the only outlier, the only thinker that didn’t seem solely focused on the signifier and the lived experience of the subject, exploring vistas beyond the human and culture such as the world of the tick and the morphogenesis of crystals.  Occasionally, when no one was looking, I would read Dennett, Dewey, Andy Clark, and Lucretius under my sheets with a flashlight.

Deleuze and Lacan were my master-figures throughout all of graduate school, and remain my master figures today alongside Luhmann who I discovered in my third year when exploring systems and complexity theory.  I read Lacan through Deleuze and read Deleuze through Lacan.  I still remember discovering Zizek in my first year.  He felt like the holy grail of theory.  I had struggled with Lacan’s Ecrits, making little headway, had made a little more progress with Encore, but devoured Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology like a pulp horror novel, suddenly feeling as if I was “getting it”.  My axioms during this time were “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” (Lacan, Seminar XX), and “there is nothing outside the text”.  In other words, I was a thoroughgoing structuralist semiotician that believed that language diacritically structured everything, and deeply impressed by Lacan’s analysis of the structuring function of language in “The Agency of the Letter” in Ecrits.  I believed that it was solely the signifier that introduced difference into the world, that partitioned the world, not anything in the world itself.  Hjelmslev was an important influence here as well, as was Levi-Strauss.  And, of course, there was Blanchot.  Just as Derrida said at the beginning of Of Grammatology, and as Foucault said in his own way in The Order of Things and The Archeology of Knowledge, I believed the world could be read as a fabric of signifiers, as an effect of discourses and Heidegger’s “language as the house of being”.  To be sure, there was the Real, that which always escapes the signifier, but as Zizek argued, this was itself an effect of deadlocks inherent to attempts to totalize the universe of signifiers.

So what happened?  First there was my encounter with DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy and A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, both of which brought non-signifying differences and material processes to the fore and led me to read Deleuze in a very different way.  I was spitting mad and simultaneously fascinated when I encountered these books.  Was he really arguing that ocean currents and wind patterns (non-diacritical, a-signifying differences) played a key role in where European and American cities developed?  Preposterous!  But he got me reading the historian Braudel and his dry as dirt yet magnificent Capitalism and Civilization.  I then encountered Harman’s Prince of Networks, which attuned me– contra Koyre and Bachelard –to the importance of lab equipment and the materials worked with, the experimental setting, etc. (again things that were not of the order of the signifier).  Meanwhile, another friend had me reading Havlock (Preface to Plato), Kittler, Ong, McLuhan, and Haraway, all of whom emphasized the materiality of media, its non-signifying dimension, what a monumental difference writing technologies and inscription systems make, and what differences technologies contribute.  Later there would be encounters with the “poor-man’s” Braudel in the work of theorists such as Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, who would thoroughly demolish biological and cultural racisms through their analysis of geography or the material features of the environment in which people lived, as well as other historians like William McNiell.  I add cultural racism, because text-based/signifier-based theorists are thoroughly unable to explain why certain cultures rose to prominence in the world without appealing to something “superior” in the signifying-systems of those cultures that rose to dominance.  We see it, for example, in Zizek’s claim that there’s something superior in the European, Christian legacy that gave them dominance.  Theorists like Diamond, McNiell, and Braudel are thoroughly able to demolish this cultural racism, this idea that there was something “special” about the Greeks, by analyzing geography, the prevalence of domesticatible animals and plants, available metals, growing seasons, etc.  For them it wasn’t the culture, but the geography; and this based on the axiom that peoples always make maximal use of the resources available to them because, well, folks are smart wherever they live.  Again, non-signifying differences, non-rhetorical differences.  These were material differences that were more Marxist than the Marxist (Marx himself excepted).

So my universe, my universe structured by the fabric of the signifier, was collapsing.  I could no longer claim, as Barthes’ claimed in The Fashion System, that language, the signifier, was a “primary modeling system”, i.e., a system that diacritically structured everything else.  I had learned many truths from the Marxist critical theorists, the semioticians, Lacan, Barthes, Pierce, Levi-Strauss, etc.  I wanted to and want to preserve these things.  But I needed a theoretical framework strong enough both preserve these things and take account of these non-signifying entities such as writing technologies, ocean currents, satellites, microbes, the growing cycles of rice, high energy diets, etc.  That required realism and a flattening of the world.  The problem with my earlier orientations wasn’t in the recognition that the signifier produces the difference between a men’s room and a lady’s room, but in believing that the signifier functioned as a hierarch or sovereign that structures everything else.  The problem lay in the refusal to recognize that sometimes the placement of a river or a mountain range makes a tremendous social difference.  In this respect, only a realist/materialist approach that simultaneously recognized the reality of the signifier and a-signifying entities would give us the analysis required.  It’s never been a question of rejecting analysis of the point of view from which a claim is made, text, narrative, and signifier, but always been a question of multiplying the factors that go into producing a social assemblage.

Some of you have been complaining about your comments not being posted.  My comment policy is simple:  if your comments are rude, sarcastic, snarky, accusational, or insulting they don’t get posted.  It has nothing to do with not tolerating disagreement.  If you poke around the blog you’ll find plenty of disagreements, often very heated.  It has everything to do with incivility.  It’s always boys that behave this way in their comments.  They behave like obnoxious, insulting idiots, and then when they’re comments are rejected they say “you can’t tolerate debate!”, blind to all of the debates that have taken place on this blog.  Sorry, the problem is obnoxious, insulting attitudes.  If you want to debate, be civil.  If not, go to hell.  If you want your comments posted, keep them civil and don’t accuse the participants on the blog of being stupid, ignorant, or of wanting to eat babies.  It’s not hard and it’s entirely possible to articulate a disagreement without being disagreeable.  Life’s too short to deal with those lacking in civility and who don’t address others with dignity and respect.  The basic lesson is don’t be a masculinist, ape-like, asshole.

I’m told that The Artist’s Institute is not taking reservations for seats on Wednesday.  Since it’s a small venue, it’s important to get there early before things fill up.  I’m told seats are often full by 6:45PM.  You’ll find the information for the talk here.

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