November 2012

Networks won’t save us, nor will assemblages.  Sometimes we contrast networks and hierarchies in value-laden terms.  “Networks good, hierarchies bad!”  But like any ontological truth, networks are just what there is.  Sadly networks have their hierarchies.  There are only networks, but they too have their inequalities, their forms of oppression.  It just turns out that hierarchy, of the Platonic or Aristotlean sort with respect to essences, or with respect to the sovereign sort with respect to medieval governance (God-King-Father) turns out to be false.  That doesn’t mean that power somehow disappears.

In a network, power is called a “hub”.  A hub is a point through which a variety of other points in a network must pass to act.  Think of airports.  You live in a rural region.  If you live in a rural region you must travel to this city and then fly to this city in order to get a flight to another city in, say, Europe like London or Paris.  That’s a hub.  A point of passage.  There are hubs all over the places.  Sometimes they’re governmental institutions.  Sometimes they’re particular resources like oil.  Sometimes they’re bosses.  At other times they’re airports like LAX or DFW.  Sometimes they’re particular figures.  Sometimes they’re blogs.  Sometimes they’re theoretical movements.  So many hubs, so many forms of power.  They exercise what I call “gravity”.  I think “gravity” is preferable to the term “power” because it intuitively captures how power functions, while deterritorializing it from its humanist reference to social institution.  Sure, corporations, governments, signifiers, etc., are all forms of power, can all function as hubs, but so too is the sun a hub.

Hubs produce what I call a “regime of attraction” within a network or assemblage.  That is to say, they organize the relations between other nodes in the network.  The other nodes are attracted to the hub and are obligated to pass through the node.  Their possibilities or “local manifestations” come to be structured by the nodes.  If you’re to build anything, for example, you have to pass through the node of fossil fuels.  That’s the network we live in.  That’s the hierarchy our social world is structured by.  If culture has become “universal” today, it’s become universal in the Marxist sense, as a concrete universal.  A concrete universal is a network in which all nodes in a network or assemblage are structured by a particular hub.  Culture is universal today not because the signifier structures everything, but because the material world that industry produces affects everything from the molecular structures of inorganic beings like rocks on the surface of the planet, to all bio-life and social existence.  Everything on the planet locally manifests itself in terms of the way in which we’ve transformed the biosphere through our modes of production and the flows of energy we use to run these things (fossil fuels).  That’s the sense in which culture is universal, not the signifier.  This is what it means to say we live in the “anthropocene”.  No Lacan, the world is not “the flower of rhetoric” (the signifier), it’s the flower of oil and coal and nuclear energy and contemporary farming practices.  The world is a product of the flows of energy that pass through it, not the signifiers that diacritically structure it.

There are, of course, different types of networks.  We see three of them in the diagram to the right above.  There are centralized, decentralized, and distributed networks.  A centralized network is what we now critique as “transcendent”.  It was always a network, never a genuine transcendence (as in the case of Plato or theism), and never fully successful.  These networks were the medieval “great chains of being”, the Oedipus, patriarchy, and more recently systems of party politics or the Stalinist state-form.  They were machines that required all other nodes in an assemble to pass through one point:  God, the king, the father, the dictator, the president, or the party.  They were always a network.  At the other end of the spectrum we see anarchy or what communism should be.  Communism and anarchy are synonyms.  Sadly neither has ever been realized except at small scales.  This is the dream of all genuine politics:  a network without hubs.  If you’re advocating a party politics then it’s clear you have no understanding of communism.  You’re in a secular and contemporary version of the 12th century.  And then there’s what we have today:  decentralized networks, where governments, certain privileged signifiers, certain substances like fossil fuels, certain actants like corporations, other actants like parties, etc., function as hubs organizing the gravity that determines the movement and relations of all the other nodes or actants.  We have a variety of actants fighting to be hubs, rather than dreaming of fully distributed networks…  Except the anarchist/communists, and who listens to them?  The aim of being a hub is too enticing.

It might be that just as a genuinely centralized network is a conservative/totalitarian/authoritarian fantasy, a truly distributed network is an anarcho-communist fantasy.  Oh well, these would be normative ideals.  Normative ideals exercise their gravity as well, so we shouldn’t sniff at them.  About politics, we can minimally say this at least:  to the same degree that networks will not save us, politics is nonetheless the activity of shifting and demolishing hubs.  A politics either aims to reinforce the power of a hub (reaction, authoritarianism, traditionalism), to demolish or produce new hubs (revolution), or to abolish hubs altogether in the name of forming a distributed network (anarcho-communism).  There’s really not much more to be said.


I must be in a mood today– half irritated, half amused –because I find myself ranting.  Of course, that’s not entirely unusual.  So this afternoon I came across a post by a friend quoting something discussing the environmental movement that pushed all the right button.  As the post read,

For mainstream environmentalism– conservationism, green consumerism, and resource management –humans are conceptually separated out of nature and mythically placed in privileged positions of authority and control over ecological communities and their nonhuman constituents.  What emerges is the fiction of a marketplace of ‘raw materials’ and ‘resources’ through which human-centered wants, constructed as needs, might be satisfied.  The mainstream narratives are replete with such metaphors [carbon trading!].  Natural complexity,, mutuality, and diversity are rendered virtually meaningless given discursive parameters that reduce nature to discrete units of exchange measuring extractive capacities.  Jeff Shantz, “Green Syndicalism”

While finding elements this description perplexing– I can’t say that I see many environmentalists treating nature and culture as distinct or suggesting that we’re sovereigns of nature –I do agree that we conceive much of our relationship to the natural world in economic terms (not a surprise that capitalism is today a universal).  This, however, is not what bothers me about this passage.

What I wonder is just what we’re supposed to do even if all of this is true?  What, given existing conditions, are we to do if all of this is right?  At least green consumerism, conservation, resource management, and things like carbon trading are engaging in activities that are making real differences.  From this passage– and maybe the entire text would disabuse me of this conclusion –it sounds like we are to reject all of these interventions because they remain tied to a capitalist model of production that the author (and myself) find abhorrent.  The idea seems to be that if we endorse these things we are tainting our hands and would therefore do well to reject them altogether.

The problem as I see it is that this is the worst sort of abstraction (in the Marxist sense) and wishful thinking.  Within a Marxo-Hegelian context, a thought is abstract when it ignores all of the mediations in which a thing is embedded.  For example, I understand a robust tree abstractly when I attribute its robustness, say, to its genetics alone, ignoring the complex relations to its soil, the air, sunshine, rainfall, etc., that also allowed it to grow robustly in this way.  This is the sort of critique we’re always leveling against the neoliberals.  They are abstract thinkers.  In their doxa that individuals are entirely responsible for themselves and that they completely make themselves by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, neoliberals ignore all the mediations belonging to the social and material context in which human beings develop that play a role in determining the vectors of their life.  They ignore, for example, that George W. Bush grew up in a family that was highly connected to the world of business and government and that this gave him opportunities that someone living in a remote region of Alaska in a very different material infrastructure and set of family relations does not have.  To think concretely is to engage in a cartography of these mediations, a mapping of these networks, from circumstance to circumstance (what I call an “onto-cartography”).  It is to map assemblages, networks, or ecologies in the constitution of entities.

Unfortunately, the academic left falls prey to its own form of abstraction.  It’s good at carrying out critiques that denounce various social formations, yet very poor at proposing any sort of realistic constructions of alternatives.  This because it thinks abstractly in its own way, ignoring how networks, assemblages, structures, or regimes of attraction would have to be remade to create a workable alternative.  Here I’m reminded by the “underpants gnomes” depicted in South Park:

The underpants gnomes have a plan for achieving profit that goes like this:

Phase 1:  Collect Underpants

Phase 2:  ?

Phase 3: Profit!

They even have a catchy song to go with their work:

Well this is sadly how it often is with the academic left.  Our plan seems to be as follows:

Phase 1:  Ultra-Radical Critique

Phase 2:  ?

Phase 3:  Revolution and complete social transformation!

Our problem is that we seem perpetually stuck at phase 1 without ever explaining what is to be done at phase 2.  Often the critiques articulated at phase 1 are right, but there are nonetheless all sorts of problems with those critiques nonetheless.  In order to reach phase 3, we have to produce new collectives.  In order for new collectives to be produced, people need to be able to hear and understand the critiques developed at phase 1.  Yet this is where everything begins to fall apart.  Even though these critiques are often right, we express them in ways that only an academic with a PhD in critical theory and post-structural theory can understand.  How exactly is Adorno to produce an effect in the world if only PhD’s in the humanities can understand him?  Who are these things for?  We seem to always ignore these things and then look down our noses with disdain at the Naomi Kleins and David Graebers of the world.  To make matters worse, we publish our work in expensive academic journals that only universities can afford, with presses that don’t have a wide distribution, and give our talks at expensive hotels at academic conferences attended only by other academics.  Again, who are these things for?  Is it an accident that so many activists look away from these things with contempt, thinking their more about an academic industry and tenure, than producing change in the world?  If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound!  Seriously dudes and dudettes, what are you doing?

But finally, and worst of all, us Marxists and anarchists all too often act like assholes.  We denounce others, we condemn them, we berate them for not engaging with the questions we want to engage with, and we vilify them when they don’t embrace every bit of the doxa that we endorse.  We are every bit as off-putting and unpleasant as the fundamentalist minister or the priest of the inquisition (have people yet understood that Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus was a critique of the French communist party system and the Stalinist party system, and the horrific passions that arise out of parties and identifications in general?).  This type of “revolutionary” is the greatest friend of the reactionary and capitalist because they do more to drive people into the embrace of reigning ideology than to undermine reigning ideology.  These are the people that keep Rush Limbaugh in business.  Well done!

But this isn’t where our most serious shortcomings lie.  Our most serious shortcomings are to be found at phase 2.  We almost never make concrete proposals for how things ought to be restructured, for what new material infrastructures and semiotic fields need to be produced, and when we do, our critique-intoxicated cynics and skeptics immediately jump in with an analysis of all the ways in which these things contain dirty secrets, ugly motives, and are doomed to fail.  How, I wonder, are we to do anything at all when we have no concrete proposals?  We live on a planet of 6 billion people.  These 6 billion people are dependent on a certain network of production and distribution to meet the needs of their consumption.  That network of production and distribution does involve the extraction of resources, the production of food, the maintenance of paths of transit and communication, the disposal of waste, the building of shelters, the distribution of medicines, etc., etc., etc.

What are your proposals?  How will you meet these problems?  How will you navigate the existing mediations or semiotic and material features of infrastructure?  Marx and Lenin had proposals.  Do you?  Have you even explored the cartography of the problem?  Today we are so intellectually bankrupt on these points that we even have theorists speaking of events and acts and talking about a return to the old socialist party systems, ignoring the horror they generated, their failures, and not even proposing ways of avoiding the repetition of these horrors in a new system of organization.  Who among our critical theorists is thinking seriously about how to build a distribution and production system that is responsive to the needs of global consumption, avoiding the problems of planned economy, ie., who is doing this in a way that gets notice in our circles?  Who is addressing the problems of micro-fascism that arise with party systems (there’s a reason that it was the Negri & Hardt contingent, not the Badiou contingent that has been the heart of the occupy movement).   At least the ecologists are thinking about these things in these terms because, well, they think ecologically.  Sadly we need something more, a melding of the ecologists, the Marxists, and the anarchists.  We’re not getting it yet though, as far as I can tell.  Indeed, folks seem attracted to yet another critical paradigm, Laruelle.

I would love, just for a moment, to hear a radical environmentalist talk about his ideal high school that would be academically sound.  How would he provide for the energy needs of that school?  How would he meet building codes in an environmentally sound way?  How would she provide food for the students?  What would be her plan for waste disposal?  And most importantly, how would she navigate the school board, the state legislature, the federal government, and all the families of these students?  What is your plan?  What is your alternative?  I think there are alternatives.  I saw one that approached an alternative in Rotterdam.  If you want to make a truly revolutionary contribution, this is where you should start.  Why should anyone even bother listening to you if you aren’t proposing real plans?  But we haven’t even gotten to that point.  Instead we’re like underpants gnomes, saying “revolution is the answer!” without addressing any of the infrastructural questions of just how revolution is to be produced, what alternatives it would offer, and how we would concretely go about building those alternatives.  Masturbation.

“Underpants gnome” deserves to be a category in critical theory; a sort of synonym for self-congratulatory masturbation.  We need less critique not because critique isn’t important or necessary– it is –but because we know the critiques, we know the problems.  We’re intoxicated with critique because it’s easy and safe.  We best every opponent with critique.  We occupy a position of moral superiority with critique.  But do we really do anything with critique?  What we need today, more than ever, is composition or carpentry.  Everyone knows something is wrong.  Everyone knows this system is destructive and stacked against them.  Even the Tea Party knows something is wrong with the economic system, despite having the wrong economic theory.  None of us, however, are proposing alternatives.  Instead we prefer to shout and denounce.  Good luck with that.

Yesterday a friend of mine related a criticism of posthumanism often heard from colleagues:  “What is the point of posthumanism if the analysis is still conducted by humans?”  I think this is a good question.  The term postmodernism is itself a highly contested term, meaning a variety of different things, so the question is difficult to answer in a way that will satisfy everyone.  For example, there are the posthumanisms of the transhumanists that imagine fundamentally transforming the human through technological prostheses and genetics.  More recently, David Roden has imagined a “pre-critical posthumanism” that entertains the possibility of the emergence of a new type of intelligent species altogether that would arise from humans, but would no longer be human.  Such a posthumanism would be genuinely posthuman.

While I am intrigued by both of these conceptions of posthumanism, this is not the way in which I intend the term.  As I understand it, a position is posthumanist when it no longer privileges human ways of encountering and evaluating the world, instead attempting to explore how other entities encounter the world.  Thus, the first point to note is that posthumanism is not the rejection or eradication of human perspectives on the world, but is a pluralization of perspectives.  While posthumanism does not get rid of the human as one way of encountering the world, it does, following a great deal of research in post-colonial theory, feminist thought, race theory, gender theory, disability studies, and embodied cognition theory, complicate our ability to speak univocally and universally about something called the human.  It recognizes, in other words, that there are a variety of different phenomenologies of human experience, depending on the embodied experience of sexed beings, our disabilities, our cultural experiences, the technologies to which our bodies are coupled, class, etc.  This point is familiar from the humanist cultural and critical theory of the last few decades.  Posthumanism goes one step further in arguing that animals, microorganisms, institutions, corporations, rocks, stars, computer programs, cameras, etc., also have their phenomenologies or ways of apprehending the world.

I think this is a point that is often missed about OOO.  OOO is as much a theory of perspectives, a radicalization of phenomenology, as it is a theory of entities.  While the various strains of OOO differ amongst themselves, they all share this thesis in common.  There is a phenomenology for, not of, every type of entity that exists.  One of Graham Harman’s central claims is that the difference between a Kantian subject and any other object is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.  When Harman claims this, his point is that just as Kantian subjects structure the world in a particular way such that they never encounter things-as-they-are-in-themselves, the same is true for all other entities as they relate to the world.  Atoms structure the world in a particular way, just as red pandas structure the world in a particular way.  No entity directly encounters the other entities of the world as they are.  In The Democracy of Objects I argue that every object is an observer or particular point of view on the world, and propose, following Niklas Luhmann, that we need to engage in “second-order observation” or the observation of how other observers observe or encounter the world about them.  In Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost proposes a new type of phenomenology, not unlike Jakob von Uexkull’s animal ethology, that investigates how nonhuman entities such as cameras and computer programs encounter the world.  In The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton formulates a similar idea with his account of strange strangers.

This is one of the things that makes the realism of OOO “weird”.  Far from defending one true perspective on the world, OOO instead pluralizes perspectives infinitely, arguing that each entity has its own way of encounter the world about it.  It is a radicalization of perspectivism.  It is an ontology that is fascinated by how bats, cats, shark, tanuki, NASA, quarks, computer games, and black holes “experience” or encounter the world around them.  The realism of OOO is thus not a realism that says “this is the one true way of encountering things”, but rather is a realism that refuses to reduce any entity to what it is for another entity.  The tanuki or Japanese raccoon dog (right) can’t be reduced to how we encounter it.  It is an irreducible and autonomous entity in its own right that also encounters the world about it in a particular way.

Hence the all important distinction between “phenomenology-of” and “phenomenology-for“.  A phenomenology-of investigates how we, us humans, encounter other entities.  It investigates what entities are for-us, from our human perspective.  It is humanist in the sense that it restricts itself to our perspective on the beings of the world.  Though phenomenology has made significant strides in overcoming these problems, it is nonetheless problematic in that it assumes a universality to human experience.  For example, this phenomenology tends to gloss over the worlds of autistics like Temple Grandin, blind people, gendered bodies and how the world is experienced differently by different sexed bodies, people from different cultures, etc.  Even though it talks endlessly about perspectives (horizons), it nonetheless tends to universalize the perspective of its own lived experience.  Luhmann explains well just why this is so, insofar as all observation is based on a prior distinction that contains a blind spot that is unable to mark what it excludes.

By contrast, phenomenology-for is a phenomenological practice that attempts to observe the manner in which another entity experiences the world.  Where phenomenology-of adopts the first person perspective of how I experience the world, where phenomenology-of begins from the unity of that first person perspective on the world and what things are in the world for me, phenomenology-for begins from the disunity of a world fractured into a plurality of perspectives and attempts to enter into the perspectives of these other entities.  In Luhmannian terms, it attempts to “observe the other observer” or “observe how another observer observes the world”.  It begins not from the standpoint of the sameness of experience, but from the standpoint of the difference of experience.

The plate to the left drawn from Jakob von Uexkull’s Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans gives a sense of this alien phenomenology.  The top picture depicts how humans experience a field of flowers, while the bottom picture depicts how bees experience a field of flowers.  Von Uexkull doesn’t ask “what are bees like or for us?”, but instead asks the question “what is the world like for bees?”  In other words, von Uexkull adopts the perspective of the bee and attempts to infer how bees experience the world.  He is able to learn something of the experience of bees through a knowledge of their physiology and optics that allows him to infer what their vision is like, through observation of their behavior, through observation of their responsiveness in situations where we can discern no stimuli that they would be responding to (thereby allowing him to infer that they’re open to stimuli that we can’t sense), etc.  Alien phenomenology thus practices a different “transcendental epoche“.  Rather than bracketing belief in the natural world to attend to the givens of our intentional experience alone, he instead brackets our intentionality, so as to investigate the experience of other entities.  This is a practice that can be done with armies, stock markets, computer programs, rocks, etc.

It is natural, of course, to ask how this is even possible.  Aren’t we still the ones examining the experience of other beings and thus aren’t we ultimately talking about the experience of ourselves and not the experience of other beings?  To be sure, we are always limited by our own experience and, as Thomas Nagel pointed out, we can’t know what it is like to be a bat.  However, all this entails is that we can’t have the experience of a bat, not that we can’t understand a great deal about bat experience, what they’re open to, what they’re not open to, and why they behave as they do.

The problem is not markedly different from that of understanding the experience of another person.  Take the example of a wealthy person who denounces poor people as being lazy moochers who simply haven’t tried to improve their condition.  Such a person is practicing “phenomenology-of”, evaluating the poor person from the standpoint of their own experience and trying to explain the behavior of the poor person based on the sorts of things that would motivate them.  They reflect little understanding of poverty.  They are blissfully unaware of the opportunities that they had because of where they are in the social field, of the infrastructure they enjoy that gives them opportunity, the education they were fortunate enough to receive, etc., etc., etc.  All of this is invisible to them because, as Heidegger taught us, it is so close it is not seen at all.  As a consequence, the wealthy person assumes that the poor person has all these things.  However, we can imagine the wealthy person practicing something like alien phenomenology or second-order observation, thereby developing an appreciation of how the world of poverty inhibits opportunity.  Prior to developing this understanding, the wealthy person behaves like the person with vision who berates a blind person for not seeing a sign.

Clearly there is a difference between the person who is completely blind to the experience of others, assuming their experience is identical, and the person who has some understanding of others.  Take the example of the man who screams at his infant child for crying and beats her.  If we look at this person with disgust and contempt, then it is not simply because this person beats the infant, but also because his abuse is premised on the idea that infants can understand screaming and yelling and modify their action accordingly.  This person is unable to adopt the perspective of the infant and is unaware of how infants experience the world.  As a result, he relates to the infant in brutal and cruel ways.

Just as we readily recognize that there’s a difference between the person who assumes the experience of all other humans is like their own and the person who develops an awareness of how other people experience the world differently, there is a difference between a person who relates to an animal as a mere object to be used as he sees fit, and the person that recognizes that animals have a perspective or way of encountering the world.  Through ethology, second-order observation, or alien phenomenology, we can begin to learn something of what the world of the animal is like as Temple Grandin did in the case of cows.  While I will never myself have the experience of being a cow, I can develop some understanding of what it is like to be a cow and this understanding will lead me to relate to cows differently.

Returning to the question with which I began this post, what’s the point?  Why bother?  I think there are a number of answers to this question.  Recently, on NPR, I heard an English professor discussing the importance of the novel Black Beauty (sadly I didn’t catch her name).  She remarked that Black Beauty contributed to better treatment of horses because it depicted, among other things, to the perspective of the horse.  As she put it, “to recognize that other beings have a point of view, is already to grant them some ethical status or deserving of ethical regard.”  We see this point in the case of civil rights struggles.  A big part of these struggles consisted in the recognition of the point of view of minorities and women.  In recognizing that these people also have perspectives, that they aren’t simply “objects” in the pejorative sense, we also recognize that they deserve to be treated with dignity.  The same is true with animals.  To recognize that animals have points of view, that they have perspectives, is to recognize that they deserve to be treated with dignity.  Our attitude towards them changes when we adopt their perspective.  Similarly in the case of the disabled and those suffering from mental illness.  When we adopt their perspective we’re less likely to treat them in brutal and horrific ways as is so often the case in many homes.

From an ecological perspective, alien phenomenology is crucial to understanding of the dynamics and impact of climate change and properly responding to it.  When bees began disappearing a couple years ago, we had to know something about how bees encounter the world to respond to this crisis.  It wasn’t enough to just approach bees in terms of what they are for us– pollinators of plants –we had to understand something about what it’s like to be a bee, how bees are related to their world, to respond to this crisis.  Alien phenomenology is a vital component to responding to the extinction of species upon which we depend.

In our political struggles, we need something like alien phenomenology to strategically respond to the entities against which we struggle.  If it is true that institutions like governments, corporations, militaries, etc., are intelligent actors in their own right, over and above the humans that serve as their neurons, then it is necessary to figure out how these entities encounter the world about them, to properly combat them.  We need to learn “what it is like to be a corporation?” to find ways to fight the exploitation of corporations.  If we assume that they experience the world in the same way as humans, chances are we won’t be able to respond in the appropriate ways at all.  There are all sorts of reasons for adopting a posthuman perspective at the ethical, political, and ecological level.  There aren’t many good reasons for not adopting such a perspective.

I’ll be speaking at The Artist’s Institute alongside a showing of the work of Haim Steinbach this Wednesday:

Trees are machines. Some might think of a tree as an object, made of wood, covered in bark, but it’s not.

The philosopher Levi Bryant thinks of objects as machines, where a tree is defined not by what it has, but by what it does––the operations it makes, the inputs on which it draws, the transformation it performs, and the outcomes it produces.

Levi Bryant presents an expanded version of his lecture Difference Engines.

Wednesday, November 14th

P.S.: Space is limited.

The fifth season at The Artist’s Institute is dedicated to Haim Steinbach.

Our address is 163 Eldridge Street in New York City.

This will be a short post as I’m in transit to Brown for a talk on Tuesday, but I just finished RS Bakker’s Neuropath, and felt the need to mention it to spare myself the disquiet it’s generated in me (think about how Naomi Watts saves herself and her son in The Ring). This novel is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, I’m half tempted to sue Bakker for plunging me into a first-order existential crisis. It is also a novel well worth reading. I don’t know that I agree with Bakker (though I also don’t know that I have an argument against his claims), but I do think he is posing the right questions regarding the significance of neurology for who we are, ethics, and politics. This novel has really wrecked me. I do wonder, however, why we have consciousness or a sense of self at all if it’s just an illusory output? What evolutionary function do these things serve? Are the just spandrels? Readers will find an excellent review of Bakker’s novel by Shaviro here. While this is one of the most intellectually thought-provoking novels I’ve read in years, I wouldn’t recommend it to tender hearts.

« Previous Page