December 2012

AmazonRainforestSocieties should be thought ecologically; and indeed, thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Deleuze and Guattari, and Timothy Morton think about societies in precisely these terms. This is neither a metaphor nor an analogy. We have an unfortunate tendency to immediately associate ecology with the study of natural ecosystems such as Amazonian rain forests. In that context, we think about various relations between organisms and physical features of their environment, how one organism depends on another, how they render each other possible, which organisms dominate the ecosystem, the cycles of feedback between the various organisms, and so on. We think about how worms, insects, microbes, and rotting fauna and creatures make the soil possible within which trees and plants grow. We think about how these trees, in their turn, provide food for a variety of animals. How those animals provide food for other animals. We think about the different niches these various beings construct and how they intersect and diverge from one another. We think about how energy passes through these assemblages, undergoing a variety of transformations beginning with the sun as the first source of energy, and going through a variety of different cycles.

nyThere is no reason this form of analysis should be restricted to assemblages of nonhuman organic beings such as coral reefs. The difference between a city and a coral reef is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In a city there are various niches through which people carve out lives and devise strategies for living. There are relations of dependency between various organisms ranging from the way in which people depend on one another, to the existence of institutions, governments, businesses, corporations, and so on. There are hierarchies between different “species” where some are more dominant, some are more influential, than others. There are feedback loops between these various organisms, where various beings depend on others and where people and institutions become constrained by the various interactions and feedback relations that organize the assemblage. Above all, there are flows of energy that undergo continuous transformation, beginning with the sun, then plants and animals, then the various ways in which these are converted into calories for people. And there are, of course, all of the energies these assemblages produce through natural sources like goal, oil, natural gas, thermal springs, sunlight, and so on.

Perhaps the first step in thinking the world and societies ecologically lies in thinking entropically. We tend to first think entropy in terms of decay, heat death, and disintegration. But entropy is also a measure of order in an assemblage. A high entropy system is one that has a very low degree of order. It is like a cloud of gas particles in Brownian motion. Given the position of one particle in the system, we can’t make inferences about the position of any other particles in the system because there’s a high probability that the other particles will appear anywhere in the system. By contrast, a low entropy system is a highly ordered system. It is a system in which there is a low probability that particles will be located anywhere in the system. Thus, given the position of one element in such a system, we can make reliable inferences to the position of other elements because there’s a low probability of them being located anywhere. We can say that elements in such a system more or less possess “addresses”. It is for this reason that we can call low entity systems– that is, highly organized systems –“improbabilities”. If the term “improbability” is valuable, then this is because it reminds us never to take order for granted. Order is always something to be explained. Ongoing order or order that sustains itself across time is even moreso something to be explained.

read on!


child-mill-laborMost People: “In order to eat, support my family, clothe myself, and shelter myself, I must work. I get a raw deal, but I have to do it anyway. Yeah sure, it’s all bullshit, but what else am I going to do. The other problem is that in order to work, I must eat, cloth myself, shelter myself, etc. But I can’t do that unless I work. I don’t really believe in much because I know it’s all BS. But in order to take care of myself, my family, clothe myself, shelter myself, etc., I have to work. Truth be told, I don’t have time to think about much else. I work all day. I come home and have to feed myself and my kids and do chores. We do some homework, have dinner, watch some ridiculous television, and go to bed. We get some nice holidays and decorate. Oh yeah, and we hope God will help us as the kid is autistic, our blood pressure is high, and the husband has arthritis. There’s not much more we can do than hope. Most of the time I’m exhausted.

Critical Theorist (at cushy university that’s taken care of): Don’t you see, it’s your beliefs, the fact that you’re ideologically duped, that places you in these circumstances? You’re a horrible, stupid, terrible person that just doesn’t get it. If you just took the time to read Adorno and Zizek and Laruelle and Marx and Deleuze and Guattari, everything would be different. You’d fight the good fight and quit your job and change things. But you’re an ignorant fool with superstitious beliefs, pervaded by ideology, ignorant and duped. Don’t you know? You just need the right theory to change these things? What? You talk about your geography, about the lack of opportunity where you live? Reactionary prick! How dare you place your kids, nutrition, and shelter first! How dare you consume meaningless baubles when you could be changing everything! Wait, what, you want to do dinner next week? Sorry, you’re a bit beneath me, but I am fighting for you, you dope. If only you’d just get the right ideas. Quit talking about your circumstances and reading and watching that trash! The problem is your ideas. Aren’t you a good materialist like me? Have you heard that there are other people that dare to say that nonhuman things like laundry contribute to the human condition? They reject the idea that everything is the force of ideas. How dare they deny your suffering and circumstances! Sorry, I can’t organize anything or any alternatives for your life, I’m busy writing articles for other people like me to bring about the revolutions.

universityOver at his blog, Bogost has a great post up on human suffering and OOO, addressing the question of whether a posthumanist ontology (my term for it, not his) undermines our ability to address questions of human suffering, inequality, injustice, etc.  The whole post is well worth reading, but I wanted to draw attention to one passage in particular:

Indeed, taking for granted, in advance, what actors and approaches are of most appropriate use feels far more destitute as a philosophy than opening the floodgates. Mark Nelson has quippedthat “radical critique” involves applying well-worn tools in the conventional way to reach the expected conclusion. Contrary to popular belief, such an attitude looks far more like nihilism than it does like revolution, or even liberation. By contrast, the realist position recommends greater attention and respect, not lesser. It admits that we have to do the work of really looking hard at all the things in the world before drawing conclusions about what they mean for one another—or for ourselves. That’s not a poverty of philosophy, at all. Just the opposite. A wealth, a cornucopia, a profusion, almost to the point of overwhelm.

This is a common theme in Bogost’s work.  What, he seems to ask, do our theoretical commitments blind us to?  What other forms of engagement would open up for us if we suspended these a bit and instead looked at the role played by other entities in assemblages?

positionsWhat Bogost seems to be critiquing is what Lacan called “the university discourse” (depicted to the right, above).  For Lacan a discourse refers not to the content of a particular discipline, such as what Foucault analyzes in The Order of Things, but to a particular relation between an agent and an other.  We have the agent addressing an other, producing a product.  In the lower left-hand position we see “truth”.  The truth of a discourse relation is it’s unconscious.  It is what the discourse simultaneously excludes in order to function and that upon which it is based.  There are four of these discourses; or, if you follow my work, 24 possible discourses (warning .pdf).

We shouldn’t take the term “university discourse” too seriously.  “University discourse” doesn’t refer to particular institutions like Princeton and Oxford, but to a particular form of relation between an agent and an other.  While university discourses often occur in universities, they also occur in corporations, governments, psychiatric clinics, living rooms, on blogs, etc.  This sort of discourse structure can be exemplified in a variety of different places.

So what sort of relation is at work in university discourses?  On the upper right hand we see the following relation:  S2 —> a.  In this context, we can read “knowledge” addressing an individual that is new and unknown.  We might think of S2, for example, as the system of diagnostic categories in the DSM-IV.  A person walks into a psychiatric clinic (the other, the unknown).  The person describes what they’re suffering from:  repetitive washing of the hands, fear that they are being watched, inability to get out of the bed, whatever.  The psychiatrist now consults the DSM-IV and subsumes the person under the category of obsessional neurosis, paranoia, or depression.  The symptoms are indexed to a system of categories or “knowledge” (S2).  The case is similar when you fill out a form for Uncle Sam or the government.  You’re given a list of options for your sex, ethnicity, and religion (S2) and must subsume yourself (objet a) under one of these categories.  Likewise, in bad psychoanalysis, we get a university discourse in the sense that we always know (S2) that the patient will be suffering from an Oedipus complex, fear of castration, etc.  Every new analysand learns exactly the same thing (S2) with only the details of the stories of castration and Oedipus changing.  Another good example is Zizek’s work.  We think we’re before an analyst’s discourse, but instead we’re before a machine that monotonously finds the same thing, again and again, in whatever cultural artifact he investigates.  Far from an encounter with the enigma of something new, we instead have the endless subsumption of all things to his theoretical machine.  We know exactly what we’re going to find:  “the standard interpretation is x, but it is really y.”

3794_file_Black_rhino_BalfourWe can basically call the “university discourse” what Kuhn called “normal science“.  In “normal science” we don’t get a new theory, but rather we get the progressive subsumption of unexplained phenomena (objet a) under the “paradigm” (S2) or existing system of explanation and categorization.  Marco Polo mentions that unicorns do, in fact, exist; they just have grey skin, two horns, are rather ugly and ill tempered, etc.  He’s referring to his encounter with the rhinoceros.  Marco Polo is here working in a university discourse, subsuming a new entity under the paradigm of animal classification he had available to him at the time.  The comparison of the university discourse to normal science should disabuse us of the notion that university discourses are intrinsically bad things.  A lot of new knowledge is produced through these things.  They can be positive practices and debilitating ones.

Sieve_(PSF)Nonetheless, the foregoing gives a sense of why we see “$”, the matheme for the barred or alienated subject, appear in the place of the product of these discourses.  In being passed through the sieve of S2, of the system of explanation or categories, objet a, the new case, is alienated in that system.  It is not objet a that is generating new knowledge, but rather it is simply being subsumed under the existing system of categories as yet one more instance of a kind.  This comes out clearly in the case of our discussion of the psychiatric clinic and bad psychoanalysis.  The person (objet a) comes in, talks about their symptoms, and is immediately indexed to a diagnostic category in the DSM-IV.  That category is then indexed to a particular treatment such as a suggested medication or course of therapy.  What hasn’t happened is the speech of the patient.  The patient hasn’t been given a space to articulate the meaning behind their symptom because that “meaning” is already assumed.  What would the patient have to offer?  Anything they say about, for example, their sense of being watched is immediately subsumed under the category of paranoia (the thought that this could be a hysterical form of desire is never even entertained).  Hence they are “divided”– $ –from themselves and alienated in the system of categories.  The DSM-IV always already knows.  There can never be a question of a case that would disrupt or fundamentally fail to fit with that system of categorization and explanation.  The same is true with bad psychoanalysis.  Whatever the analysand says, the analyst always already knows that it will be a case of castration and the Oedipus.  All enunciations, all symptoms, are immediately indexed to the family drama.

We thus see why S1 appears in the position of truth in the university discourse.  It is the unconscious of this discourse.  S1 is the signifier for power, mastery, completeness, the father, God, the master, etc.  It is a being or signifier that would somehow manage to escape the diacritical play of signifiers and ground identity and a foundation absolutely.  S1 appears in the position of truth for two reasons:  First, discourses of the university always seem to refer to some master figure (S1) that functions as the foundation of the discourse and its guarantee:  Freud, Lacan, Marx, Adorno, Deleuze and Guattari, Einstein, etc.  The master is uncastrated or truly knows (the relationship between God and the claims of the Bible, for example), and therefore the system of categories cannot be mistaken.  Yet if the relationship to the master must be in the place of the unconscious, then this is because the system of knowledge (S2) must present itself as objective and impartial.  It can’t make an appeal to authority to ground itself because then it would reveal its circularity.  But more fundamentally, S1 appears in the place of truth, the unconscious, then this is because university discourses are generally premised on a will to mastery, control, and power.  Lacan liked to say that we have a desire for ignorance, that we don’t want to know anything about “it”.  What we really want is a world where all the pegs fit in the holes and there’s nothing noisy or aleatory.  We certainly don’t want to listen to objet a and allow it to disrupt our S2.

When I hear Mark Nelson and Bogost claim that critical theory uses well worn theory to reach expected conclusions, I hear them basically saying that critical theories are all too often university discourses.  Far from being emancipatory, far from surprising us, we instead know exactly what we’re going to find:  that x is “ontotheological”, or x is animated by a “sickening jouissance”, or that x is a neoliberal capitalist ploy, or that x is a form of religious superstition, or that x is this, or this, or this, or this.  We begin from the premise that whatever cultural phenomena we encounter, whatever artifact we encounter, etc., is already subsumable under our categories and explanatory frameworks (S2).  And inevitably, this is premised on some fidelity to a master (S1) and will to power (S1) in a world that is pretty chaotic (objet a).  In a move that is worthy of Laruelle (one of the latest S1’s), we can say that critical theory perpetually posits the being of the real and is endlessly caught in a form of analysis based on its own arbitrary decision ultimately based on fidelity to a master; a fidelity that thoroughly contradicts the rejection of mastery taught by all of these figures.  With the exception of true Lacanians like Guattari, for example, we seldom do what these masters themselves did:  listen to objet a, to the unassimilated, as the only source of knowledge rather than subsuming it under a category.  We seldom surrender mastery and open a space where we might be surprised and discover that something very different is going on.  Instead, we always already know what we’re going to find as a function of our critical apparatus.  Yet the worst thing about this sort of theoretical practice is that, like the fundamentalist Catholic theologians, it seems obsessed with finding sin everywhere.  Everything must be shown to be dirty.  Everything must shown to be compromised.  Seldom do we encounter a form of practice that is for something.  Indeed, the very act of being for something is seen as naive and suspect.

walnutsIn the blogosphere, facebook, and twitter, a lot of fun has been poked at just how bad Alexander Galloway’s arguments are in his Critical Inquiry article “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism” (follow the links here for a small taste of these criticisms), but little has been said about just why these arguments are bad. For those who haven’t read the article, Galloway is basically making an argument by resemblance (he uses the whizbang term “homology”) to criticize realist thinkers such as Badiou, Harman, and Meillassoux. The argument runs something like this:

x resembles y.

x has characteristics p, q, and r.

therefore y has characteristics p, q, and r.

To give a more concrete example, Galloway argues the equivalent of the following:

Walnuts resemble testicles.

Therefore walnuts are phallocentric.

I kid, I kid! But seriously, Galloway seems to have reverted to the sort of “reasoning” based on resemblance Foucault describes at the beginning of The Order of Things. In his critiques of Badiou, Harman, and Meillassoux, he attempts to show, in each case, that because there is some resemblance between some feature of capitalism x and a particular philosophy y, philosophy y is complicit in this particular form of capitalism and actually is trying to promote it! Thus, for example, because Badiou bases his ontology on set theory and because the dominant mode of intellectual production (in Galloway’s opinion), bases its programming on set theory, Badiou must support capitalism and be complicit in it! There’s no investigation of just how Badiou deploys set theory or whether it’s analogous to the way in which programmers use it. Rather, it’s simply asserted that they’re the same. The same claim is made with respect to Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, arguing that because Harman’s objects are withdrawn, and because we cannot see the programming of object-oriented programming, and because– according to Galloway –object-oriented programming is the dominant programming used by contemporary post-Fordist capitalism, Harman is a supporter of post-Fordist capitalism. Again, there’s no investigation of how Harman deploys his theory, whether he has his objects functioning as machines to extract surplus-value and exploit others, etc. No, based on a simple resemblance it’s simply concluded that they must be the same.

read on!


kittensSo I guess that Alexander Galloway has a piece in Critical Inquiry calling for SR/OOO theorists to stop eating kittens.  Apparently he arrives at the conclusion that we’re all kitten eaters and supporters of all that is egregious about capitalism because some of us make the claim that political claims and ontological claims are distinct kinds of claims and that we should be able to talk about the being of jellyfish and be committed to their existence without immediately jumping into a discussion of the politics of discourses about politics.  As can be seen, such a claim immediately entails that one nihilistically endorses the capitalistic exploitation of humans, the planet, and indeed, the very destruction of the two.  I think this is all confused silliness, of course, but if you’re interested in some good reasons to his article see here, here, and here.  I’d say more, but I’m busily eating my midnight snack of live kittens, while doing bourgeois set theory and plotting the capitalist prevention of any emancipation.

entropy-christopher-gastonThe important thing to understand that it is not the possibility of change, motion, and becoming that needs explanation, but rather persistence, stability, and endurance.  It is a stable entity that is improbable, not entropy.  If we begin from a meta/physics premised on stability as “natural” and primordial, we’ll necessarily fall into onto-theology.  We will be required to refer to some primordial ground, some first principle, some first being, that introduces motion into the pluriverse:  Aristotle’s unmoved mover, the God of the three monotheistic religions, Plato’s Demiurge.  Where stability, motionlessness, stasis is treated as ontologically primitive, we always require some agency from outside being to account for the emergence of motion.  Change and motion become things to be explained.

But where in our experience do we ever encounter a ubiquity of stability over motion?  Oh, to be sure we encounter “continuity”, the persistence or endurance of a variety of entities.  But we also encounter them in a constant state of decay and disintegration.  Our own bodies fall apart.  The things we live with daily gather dust, break down, decay.  Entropy is the rule of the pluriverse.  Cement sidewalks crack with the changing of the seasons, weeds grow in those cracks pushing them apart.  It’s all in motion.  Some of these things move more slowly than others, but they’re in motion nonetheless.

tornado-2The real question is not how it is possible for things to change, but rather why they don’t just disintegrate.  Things, patterns, stabilities, organizations, require work and energy.  As Serres observes in The Birth of Physics, objects, things, machines, or any sort of organization whatsoever are vortexes arising out of encounters between machines.  They are vortexes that manage to maintain a particular organization for a time.  Philosophy scarcely has concepts of work and energy due to its idealist tendencies.  For philosophy it is always a question of the intelligible, the conceptual, the idea, spirit.  Philosophy is largely blind to work and energy because of the relative class position of philosophers.  They seldom encounter the issue of building something, maintaining something, coordinating an organization, etc.  They thus tend to separate form and matter, treating form (the idea/concept/essence) is the really real, ignoring the energy or work that goes into maintaining a form.  As is always the case, there are exceptions to this rule:  Leibniz, Nietzsche, Marx, Bergson, Deleuze, etc.  But philosophy is nonetheless largely blind to the material work, the energy, required for form.  It dreams of a world that is nothing but thought and that can be grasped in a glance by thought.  It is not enough to overcome correlationism and philosophies of access to overcome idealism.  No, the philosopher must also overcome the privileging of form, the concept, the intelligible, the structural, so as to grasp the work and energy involved in the production of any pattern or intelligibility.  Essence must be seen not as a ground or substrate, but as the product of energetic processes.  Objects must be seen not as withdrawn essences that persist throughout change, but as tornadoes that arise from plays of forces that manage to endure for a time.

And if this shift is so crucial, then this is because it not only allows us to understand the being of improbabilities (“organized being”, “object”, “machine”, “thing”, etc., are all synonyms for improbabilities), but because they allow us to begin discerning the means for intervening in those oppressive patterns or organizations that repeat throughout time.  Once we understand that these patterns are processes, we can begin to intervene in those processes to change the networks of flows that process those patterns that are oppressive and that inhibit the becoming of various entities.  A truth-procedure committed to some norm is a fine thing, but without a good mapping of the territorial processes that produce beings, it amounts to little more than a conceit.

bf1-2In light of some recent discussions, it’s amazing to me how some people have such a difficult time getting their head around the concept of generosity.  They seem to either see it as a disguised exercise of power or as something that would prevent them from engaging in critical thinking.  While hard to practice, I think the idea of generosity is pretty simple.

1)  Don’t begin with the premise that the new person you’re talking to is your enemy or ignorant.  Instead begin with the premise that they have reasons for what they’re saying and that they’re talking in good faith.  If repeated interaction reveals they don’t know what they’re talking about, so be it.  But don’t start from these premises.

2) Recognize that not everyone has the same project and that it is not an assault on you if they have a different project they’re working on.  The biologist takes nothing away from the physicist, the linguist takes nothing away from the classicist.  Not everyone is engaged with your little hill.  That’s okay.

3) Begin from the premise that if someone who has gone through requisite education has an idea that seems to you like it’s batshit crazy insane or completely ridiculous, you’ve probably misinterpreted what they’re saying rather than them saying something idiotic.  Go back to the drawing board and try to think about what they’re saying from a standpoint that a reasonable person would hold.  This is a good rule of thumb in general.  Until proven otherwise, you should begin with the premise that your interlocutor is reasonable.  Your bar for concluding that they’re unreasonable should be very high.

4) Always be respectful and treat your interlocutors with dignity.  Avoid all snark and sarcasm, especially online.  Avoid insults to the intelligence of the person you’re talking to, as well as insults to their person as well.  While us OOOers have certainly not always behaved in the most upright and best way to our interlocutors over the years, again and again I find that the people who complain the most about allegedly being “mistreated” were people who regularly insulted the intelligence of the people they were addressing, their person, who used snark and sarcasm mistaking these things for wit, etc.  It’s not a surprise that people occasionally boil over when addressed in these ways and when they’re repeatedly mocked.  You’re the problem in these instances, not the people who stopped talking to you.  Snark and ribbings are for bar talk with close friends.  They aren’t appropriate for intellectual discussions.

5) Forgive and forget.  Generally if you hold grudges you’re an asshole.  Those of us in the humanities are passionate folks.  We’re passionate about our subjects and disciplines.  We’re passionate about the shingle we’ve decided to set up.  We’re passionate about the ethical and political issues we’re committed to.  As a result of these passions– as well as the general lack of recognition our work gets outside of the academy –we sometimes boil over in debate.  The fact that you had a bad exchange on this particular occasion doesn’t mean that person is your mortal enemy for all eternity.  Don’t fall prey to the “narcissism of minor differences“.  Don’t go on mean spirited vendettas.  Forget it and move on.  In over a decade of interacting with people online, I think there are maybe three people that I think are completely hopeless because they obviously suffer from some serious mental illnesses.  I generally completely forget the heated debates with the others I’ve had.

6) Be a bonobo not a chimpanzee!  Is it a mistake that a lot of the acrimonious behavior we see in the academic blogosphere is among men?  Seriously, we look like a bunch of chimpanzees killing children of our rivals, forming all male grooming posses, pissing on trees, and so on.  It’s ridiculous.  Knock it off.  Stop reenacting your biological heritage and treating intellectual discussion as if it’s somehow undermining your reproductive possibilities.  Stop pissing on trees and forming tribes.

7) Don’t practice the hermeneutics of suspicion with people you’re talking to.  It’s fine to engage in a hermeneutics of suspicion with respect to a system of ideas or an ideology you’re talking about, but if you engage in this with the person you’re talking to or start psychoanalyzing them, you’re being an asshole and you’re blowing things up.  Take their claims at face value until proven otherwise.  Again, the bar for being proven otherwise should be pretty damned high.

8) Don’t write grudge posts.  If you find yourself writing ugly posts about others that mention and link to them by name you’re being an asshole.  Let it go.  You’re behaving like an insecure chimp and making yourself look small.  I think this goes doubly for those of us online who have major scholarly accomplishments under their belt, like having published numerous books and articles.  If you find yourself writing acrimonious posts about some grad student that was nasty to you or someone who wrote a nasty tweet about you and you’ve accomplished these things, you look pretty ridiculous.  In Texas we wonder about you in the same way we wonder about dudes with jacked up trucks.  We wonder what you’re compensating for.  We wonder why you’re getting all worked up about some random comment on twitter or what some person barely familiar with your work and who hasn’t accomplished nearly what you’ve accomplished is writing such a thing.  This makes you look bad, not the person you’re writing about.

Am I guilty of falling short of all these suggestions?  Absolutely.  But we’re talking about regulative ideals here, the fact/value dichotomy, not what happens in reality.  I try to get better.  I fall short.  I will so that I don’t think there’s much of a mystery as to what generosity is in discussion, that being generous in no way undermines your ability to “be critical”– I can’t tell you how many times someone who behaves like an asshole and gets blocked from this blog protests that ‘I just can’t take criticism’; um no, I have no time for assholes that call me names and suggest I’m an idiot –and I believe it’s rather disturbing for someone to practice the hermeneutics of suspicion on values like generosity and charity.  We could use a whole hell of a lot more of these things across the board, not less.

« Previous PageNext Page »