January 2013

For anyone who’s interested, here’s the table of contents for Onto-Cartography.  I’m about 2/3rds of the way through editing it and should, with luck, send it to Edinburgh this week.


Introduction:  For a Renewed Materialism

Part I.  Machines

1.         Towards a Posthuman Media Ecology

1.1.      Common Prejudices About Machines

1.2.      Varieties of Machines

1.3.      Posthuman Media Ecology

2.         What is a Machine?

2.1.      Machines Operate

2.2.      Machines are Split Between Their Powers and Products

2.3.      Machines are Binary Machines:  Trans-Corporeality

3.         Alien Phenomenology

3.1.      Machines are Structurally Open and Operationally Closed

3.2.      Alien Phenomenology, Second-Order Observation, and Post-Vitalist Ethology

4.         Machinic Assemblages and Entropy

4.1.      Machinic Assemblages

4.2.      Assemblages and Individuals

4.3.      Extended Minds and Bodies

4.4.      Entropy


Part II: Worlds


5.         The Structure of Worlds

5.1.      Ecologies of Worlds

5.2.      Content and Expression

6.         Topologies of Time and Space

6.1.      Space

6.2.      Time

6.3.      Overdetermination

7.         Gravity

7.1.      The Gravity of Things:  Overcoming Occult Explanation

7.2.      Gravitational Relations Between Machines:  The Objects

7.3.      Subjects, Quasi-Objects, and Catalysis

7.4.      Happenings and Events

8.         Earth, Maps, and Practices

8.2.      Geophilosophy:  A Revised Concept of Nature

8.2.      The Three Dimensions of Geophilosophy:  Cartography, Deconstruction, and Terraformation




268550_Gram_Stain_Anthrax_68Over at Circling Squares and Struggle Forever, Philip and Jeremy are having a nice discussion of agency.  Since flat ontology is mentioned, I thought I’d pipe in with my two cents.  When I use the term “flat ontology”, I don’t use it to suggest that everything has agency.  I think agency is something pretty specific and isn’t common to all entities.  For me, flat ontology just means that everything is material (even incorporeal entities!) and that there is nothing outside of the world that conditions or overcodes everything else such as Platonic forms, God, and so on.  Flat ontology just means that there’s only the world.  It’s a synonym for immanence.  Why do I generally use the term “flat ontology” rather than “immanence”?  Because a number of people heavily influenced by phenomenology and the mind/body dualism seem to confuse immanence with what is in the mind rather than what is in the world.  For example, folks say that sensations are immanent to the mind while the object producing sensations is transcendent to the mind.  This is not how I use the distinction.  Immanence just means something is in the world.

On the topic of agency, I think that an entity must be minimally self-directing in order to be an agent.  That said, following Daniel Dennett in Freedom Explained, I also believe there are degrees of agency.  A bacteria has agency, but a very low degree of agency, because it is able to move towards and away from certain chemical gradients in a fluid or can move away from lie or darkness.  A cat has more agency than a bacteria or pine tree.  An adult human has more agency than a child, and so on.  If a cat has agency whereas a rock does not, then this is because a rock can only move when subjected to another force, whereas in one way or another all of these entities can initiate movement on their own (I sidestep the metaphysical question of freedom here as I just don’t know how to solve it).

Here are a few additional points:  First, the problem with humanist conceptions of agency is that they implicitly assume an idealized model of humans that says we’re all the same (usually that of white, middle class dudes).  Following Andy Clark and Deleuze and Guattari, however, I think this is a bad assumption.  A knight on horseback is a different agent, than a naked person and a person with a smart phone is a different agent than an aborigine.  We need to distinguish agents by what they can do, by their powers or capacities, rather than by resemblances.  I devote a lot of digital to ink to this thesis in Onto-Cartography, so I won’t rehearse it now.

Second, we need to recognize that there are agencies beyond human individuals.  Here I’m not simply referring to dog, blue whales, trees, and bacteria, but also corporations, governments, revolutionary political parties, and so on.  These entities– or machines as I now call them –both are self-directing in their own ways, and have forms of agency that can’t be found among the parts that compose them.  A revolutionary political party is able to do things that the individual person’s that compose them cannot.

Warped_grid-earth-moon1-590x442Third, with Philip, I do not accept the structure/agency couplet.  I think the structure/agency couplet poorly describes how worlds are actually organized.  For me there are only machines and relations/interactions between machines.  What we call a “structure” is just the manner in which one machine, captures another machine in its “gravity” (a metaphor) or power (I try to abandon the term power because it’s too anthropocentric).  The moon moves about the earth because the earth bends time-space in such a way that this is the only path along which the moon can move.  A person that is paid by a company in “scrip” is trapped where they live because scrip can only be redeemed at the company store and cannot be exchanged for federal tender.  They are caught in the “gravity” of the company and scrip.  It is not that there is something called “structure” that is other than agents, but that one agent is caught in the orbit of another agent in a way that limits their movement, fixes their local manifestations, and that influences their becomings.

homeFinally, fourth, we should not assume that agents and subjects are the same thing.  Following Michel Serres, I argue that a subject is a machine that organizes the movements, local manifestations, and becomings of other entities.  Serres gives the example of the game of rugby to illustrate this point.  In rugby, he claims, it is the ball, not the players that are the subject.  The players are subjected to the ball.  The ball brings the players together in certain relations that are constantly shifting.  However, it also modifies their status throughout the course of the game.  The person who has the ball is now pursued.  When another person gets the ball he now either becomes a pursuer or a defender.  It is the ball that “assigns” the roles and that therefore functions as subject.  Clearly the ball’s status as subject is temporary.  When the game is over and it’s tossed in the back of a car, it ceases to be subject.  Anything can serve as a subject, even where the entity that takes on the function of subject is not an agent in the sense outlined above.  Enough for now.

9781844679546_Communist_HorizonThis evening I found myself reading The Communist Horizon by Jodi Dean.  As always, the writing is lively, clear and I find myself agreeing with much that she says.  However– and here my remarks will be brief –I find myself disturbed by the defense of “the party”; or rather, to be more precise, the underdetermination of her concept of the party.  To be clear, while my sympathies lie in the direction of anarchism, I agree with Dean in holding that some sort of organization is necessary in order to accomplish any political change.  In my view– and I realize this will be controversial to some –“communism” and “anarchism” are synonymous.  Anarchism denotes a social form that is no longer alienated in the figure of a state, party, or leader, but where people directly rule themselves and organize their social world.  Communism means precisely the same thing.  However, both communism and anarchism are Real in Dean’s Lacanian sense of the term.  As she writes,

I use ‘horizon’ not to recall a forgotten future but to designate a dimension of experience that we can never lose, even if, lost in a fog or focused on our feet, we fail to see it.  The horizon is Real in the sense of impossible— we can never reach it –and in the sense of actual (Jacques Lacan’s notion of the Real includes both these senses).  The horizon shapes our setting.  We can lose our bearings, but the horizon is a necessary dimension of our actuality.  (1 – 2)

The claim that anarcho-communism is Real, is the claim that it functions as a sort of “regulative ideal” that is never reached in practice, but that nonetheless regulates practice in the present or actuality.  As a regulative ideal, anarcho-communism reminds us that while we might need leaders, parties, bureaucracy, etc., radical egalitarianism and collective self-determination are the ultimate aim of all our practices and we must perpetually subject our own practices and organizations to critique so that they don’t become fetishized or ends in themselves.

In the second chapter, Dean strongly suggests that leeriness of the party is equivalent to an embrace of neoliberal, democratic politics.    Here I think Dean confuses issues of content and form.  She assumes that if one is critical of party organization, they are rejecting the communist party (a particular content).  My concerns with party politics, however, are rather different.  They pertain to the form of parties, and in particular, how identifications function, regardless of whether we’re talking about the Nazi party, the democratic party, a particular religious denomination, a particular group such as “speculative realism”, “existentialism”, “object-oriented ontology”, or the communist party.  All of these structures share a particular form, even though their contents are quite different.  It is the effects and products of these forms that we need to attend to.

read on!


217831_4785597210524_1113354364_nOnto-Cartography:  An Ontology of Machines and Media is nearly complete.  I conceive the relation between Onto-Cartography and The Democracy of Objects as the relation between the transcendental dialectic and the transcendental analytic.  Where The Democracy of Objects explored being in terms of the constituent elements that make it up– objects, or what I’m now calling “machines” —Onto-Cartography explores relations or interactions between machines in worlds, assemblages, or networks (all three terms are synonymous).  Part 1 develops a detailed ontology of machines and flows, departing in a number of respects from the theorizations of The Democracy of Objects.  Above all, the concepts of entropy, work, and energy become far more important in this work.  The world is a world in perpetual decay such that machines require energy to sustain themselves and must engage in constant operations or work to continue existing across time.

Part 2 is devoted the structure of worlds, investigating topological structures of space and time, the different types of objects that populate worlds (dark, bright, dim, rogue, black holes, and quasi-objects), questions of agency, the difference between happenings and events, the methodology of geophilosophy or onto-cartography, and the ethics and politics of onto-cartography.  I still have one and a half chapters to write, so hopefully I’ll have the book to Edinburgh by the end of the month.

Next up will be The Domestication of Humans:  The Nonhuman Infrastructure of Human Beings for the Posthumanities series with University of Minnesota Press.  I apologize for my non-responsiveness to emails and comments lately.  I’ve been madly writing 10 – 20 pages a day trying to complete this book.

On Facebook I recently wrote,

First rule of onto-cartography, don’t track in abstractions (society, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, environment). Second rule of onto-cartography: DON’T traffic in abstractions!

To this, a very close and old friend responded asking,

but isn’t the concrete an abstraction as well?

Good question, so here’s the response. That’s certainly an abstract way of responding! The idea is to suspend our assumptions about why and wherefore things are organized as they are, pausing instead to trace networks, relations between things, to discern how they’re linked up, how they’re organized, and so on. Rather than *beginning* with the premise that x organizes y, we should instead look at how things are actually linked and interact. Latour’s _Reassembling the Social_ is indispensable reading on this. His thesis is that these big terms do more to *obscure* than explain. I disagree with Latour on a number of his conclusions (I think he too hastily rejects Marx— not Marxism, for example –but think he’s making an important point. As Laruelle might argue, the problem with these big master-signifiers (society, patriarchy, capitalism, racism, environment) is that they seem to be saying something without really saying anything. Here it’s worthwhile to think of Hegel’s analysis of “formal ground” in the Science of Logic. When we think in terms of formal ground we appear to be giving the ground of something, when we’ve really replaced the thing to be explained with a *synonym*. You ask “why does the earth move about the sun?” The m’aitre responds “because of gravity!” (formal ground). You ask “what is gravity?” The m’aitre responds “things falling and orbiting about other entities!” You’ve replaced what is to be explained with a different set of words, that are nonetheless saying *exactly* the same thing (A = A).

So we ask “why is society organized as it is?” The m’aitre answers “because of capitalism!” You ask “what is capitalism?” The m’aitre responds, “the way society is organized!” It’s the same loop. You appear to be explaining something and, of course, everyone gets upset because, well, capitalism is bad. But you haven’t really explained anything at all. You’ve named the place where a ground should be, but have not yet provided that ground. So why is this problematic? First and foremost, it’s problematic because it transforms “capitalism” into what Derrida called a spectre. Capitalism is somehow the cause of everything, but it is also this elusive phlogiston that is everywhere and nowhere. Capitalism causes everything, without itself being a material or real agency. The whole problem with ghosts and spectres is that you can’t fight them. We thus end up in a position of theoretical and practical pessimism. We adopt the moral high-ground because we know that there’s this terrible thing called capitalism that we recognize and that is unjust, but because it is a purely formal ground we have no idea how to intervene in it.

The whole point of tracing the networks or onto-cartography is to examine how things are actually put together. Capitalism does not explain, but is what to be explained. Capitalism is the out-come explained by onto-cartographical explanation (as are many other things), but not the explanatory principle. In Hegelian terms, we are seeking real, not formal ground. And we only find real ground by tracing the networks, tracing the assemblages, investigating how machines actually interact in this historical setting and context. We investigate the work that is involved in producing this social structure– and all the entities or machines involved in that –rather than assuming it at the outset. “Society” explains nothing, but is what we’re supposed to explain. Of course, much of this goes unexplored in the humanities and social sciences because the concept of entropy is completely absent from their thought and there is almost no concept of work or energy at work in these theoretical frameworks. There are either concepts or brute material things, but no work to maintain them. No, the only agency is ideas. This is why Marx had to turn Hegel on his head– he understood fatigue –but us academics all forgot that. We forgot that everything is perpetually disintegrating, subject to entropy, precisely because things require energy and work. Who among us has written about fatigue save some spare pages in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition that no one ever notices? Everything quickly became the crystalline idea once again. We worked, the “Marxists” first and foremost, to turn Marx on his head and forget all the things he said about production, energy, work, and so on. We forgot “the working day”.

The second point is that this multiplies our points of intervention at the level of practice. This is not a surprise, of course, because those of us in the humanities would like to think that everything is an idea, a text, a meaning. Then we would be important and masters of all! We could say “everything is Shakespeare!” It’s curious how we so seldom explore our own conditions of production, our own sociological conditions for our enunciations, our own “secondary correlations”. We dream of a world, instead, where our interpretive and conceptual skills are the most important things of all. However, knowing how things or machines are linked in such a way as to produce a particular negentropic social organization, knowing what actants are involved, we are now in a position to intervene in those interconnections and feedback loops. Where, hauntological thought leads us to behave like apes who believe an intervention consists in saying “capitalism sucks!” (which really accomplishes nothing beyond the delights of a beautiful soul that can feel superior to the way in which everyone else is a dupe), we now know how things are actually linked, why they hold together as they do, why people accept them (Reich/Spinoza’s question) while knowing they’re bullshit, and we can engage in interventions that blow these things up. We might be surprised as to what leads people to tolerate this bullshit and what organizes things. We might find that the clock— yes, I literally mean clocks –plays a crucial role or that the length of the working day plays a crucial role or something else besides. But we would know nothing about this because we already know what we’re going to find at the end of analysis. We already know the answer. As a result we see without seeing.

Yet if we bothered to actually trace networks and get out of our master-signifiers, we would discover that there are sites of resistance that we never before imagined because we bothered to trace the network. Sometimes a student in the first grade doesn’t learn not because he’s stupid but because he didn’t have glasses, for example. Sometimes it’s a clock that organizes people’s lives, not a belief. Sometimes it makes more sense to intervene in clocks or glasses, but you can only know that if you actually trace the networks or the concrete. Occupy Wall Street got the idea with rolling jubilee. They realized that maybe debt plays a bigger role in perpetuating capitalism than mistaken ideology or failing to have the right moral values. They then decided to start buying up that debt and then forgiving it. How many of you 101st keyboard revolutionary commandos have participated in that?

I’ll end with a low blow, because I’m despicable like that. The third point is that these big “master-signifier” explanations just don’t display very good fidelity to Marx In other words, I think you’re a bunch of poseurs. Marx spent his time in the library, reading newspapers, exploring tables of numbers, looking at gross products, looking at living working conditions, etc. Marx was a good onto-cartographer. Oh yeah, I went there! He used a methodology that created the conditions for the possibility for him to be surprised. He didn’t have a master-theory but was in search of an explanation. What sad heirs he had. They instead had a dogma that already knew the answer and that, as a result, could no longer be surprised by the world. He didn’t already have the explanation, but understood that this is what is to be explained. He did not behave like the bad psychoanalyst that says at the outset “Your problem is Oedipus!” (or those that at least think this). No, with each new datum he was willing to overturn everything. Marxism has not followed in this path, it has not looked at the actual world, it hasn’t turned Hegel on his head, but has instead tried to turn Marx upside down. Real “Marxism” is onto-cartography.