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.
I quickly conceded Aprell’s point and then cited examples like the impact that air quality has on the development of our bodies, and the size of people’s lungs who live in the Andes. In the former case, it’s likely that people who live in areas that suffer from a high degree of industrial pollution– say Gary, Indiana –are likely to have different bodily development than they would have had they grown up in, say, a remote region of Canada. Likewise, in the latter case I suspect that the larger lung size of people that grow up in the Andes mountains result not from having genes that code for larger lungs, but rather from growing up in an environment with thinner air due to their high altitude. Just as we would probably grow much taller if we were born on Mars because its gravity is about half the size of the earth’s gravity, people who grow up in a thin oxygen environment such as this probably develop greater lung capacity because there’s less oxygen available. To this Aprell retorted that the pollutants in Gary, Indiana are nonetheless products of human culture even if this sort of “air diet” is not a prescribed incorporeal machine like a food diet, and pointed out that it was a series of cultural factors that lead the peoples of the Andes to live where they do. Basically she was kicking my ass. For every example of a material cause I could give in the formation of human bodies, cognition, and the shape of social assemblages, she could retort by giving a cultural explanation.
I was not, however, perturbed by any of this because my claim is not that it is “really” material causes that determine things and that cultural causes are an illusions. Rather, my coda is overdetermination. What I’m trying to think– along with many others –is multiple causation or how a variety of different causes interact with one another from both the plane of expression and the plane of content. My gripe with a theorist like Lacan, for example, is not that he’s wrong in pointing out that the signifier– another example of an incorporeal machine –plays an important causal role in human subjectivity and social assemblages. My gripe lies in the way in which he tends to treat language as a “primary modeling system” for everything else– “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” –treating it as structuring an unformatted matter (everything else), without exploring the causal contributions (“difference contributions”) made by non-signifying entities. It’s not that Lacan is wrong, but that he is not sufficiently thinking in terms of overdetermination. This is why much in Guattari’s work represents a significant advance over Lacan. So basically, without sharing her thesis that culture is universal, I’m on the same page as Aprell.
Nonetheless, she did get me thinking about when we can claim that culture is universal. In the history of philosophy there are roughly two concepts of the universal. On the one hand, there is the traditional concept of universality we get from thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Medievals. Here a universal is conceived as an incorporeal machine that holds for all times and places, regardless of whether this universal is realized in the material world. The thesis that all triangles have angles that add up to 180 degrees is a universal of this sort. As everyone learns in their geometry classes, no material triangle or circle ever manages to perfectly embody “triangleness” or “circleness” as such because all are imperfect, but nonetheless it is true that there are invariant features of triangles that hold for all times and places regardless of whether anyone knows them or whether they are ever realized in the material world. This is the sense in which Plato talks about Justice in The Republic. Even if, Plato contends, the world is a thoroughly unjust place and no one knows what justice is, there’s nonetheless a universal form of justice that holds for all times and places that functions as the very condition for the possibility of us recognizing this universal injustice and ignorance of justice.
We really had to wait twenty five hundred years until we got an original concept of the universal. With Marx we get what can be called a “material universal”. A material universal differs from traditional universals in two ways. First, material universals are not, as their name implies, incorporeal. Material universals are really existing universals; which is to say that they are universals that span the globe. For example, there was a time in terralogical history when single celled organisms were universal in the sense that they transformed the very fabric and atmosphere of the planet. As a consequence, second, material universals do not hold for all times like the Pythagorean theorem, but rather arise at a particular time and have the capability of passing away. Material universals are material phenomena that dominate and structure the becoming of all other entities in a particular milieu. For example, today capitalism is an example of a material universal. It has not existed at all times and places, but in the current formation of terra, it is that process that spans the entire globe and that appears to structure the becoming of all other entities on the surface of the globe. There is no entity today on the surface of the globe whose becoming and existence is not modified and structured by the dominance of capitalism.
So in what sense can we say that culture is a universal? Has culture become a universal? Culture is not a universal in the sense that the poststructuralists and structuralists intended it, where language functions as a primary modeling system. We can understand why the analytic and continental thought took the linguistic/semiotic turn due to the unprecedented rise of print, radio, television, and later internet culture. It’s no surprise that theorists of this era, encountering a “precession of the simulacra” would come to see signs as universal. Yet culture, while a material universal always and everywhere for us, was not yet a material universal for terra or the planet. No, culture does not become a material universal for terra or the planet until there’s no region of the planet that is not affected by the language of culture, the signs of culture, but above all the technology and productive structures of culture. Culture becomes a universal, a material universal, when we enter the anthropocene.
The anthropocene is that moment where no biological, chemical, or geological process on the surface of the planet is unaffected in its becoming by culture. Even in those remote regions of the globe like deep Amazonian rain forests or frigid, Lovecraftian, regions of Antarctica, entities in these regions are affected by the anthropocene and become differently than they would in the absence of the anthropocene. The mark of the universality of culture in the anthropocene thus does not lie in the universal reign of the signifier structuring everything– cultural narratives and signifiers structure very little in Antarctica –but rather lies in the universal effects of contemporary technology and capitalist modes of production that have managed to transform the fabric of the planet at the atmospheric, chemical, and biological level no matter how remote the region. In this respect, the anthropocene does not entail the erasure of the biological, chemical, or geological, but rather the emergence of a new dominant actant that every other actant must contend with.