February 2013

Over at Circling Squares Philip has a couple great posts on naturalism (here, here, and above all here). I think there’s a lot of anxiety in the humanities arising from both methodological worries and university politics. With regard to the first source of worry, there seems to be concern that naturalism leads to the erasure of meaning, replacing the analysis of cultural texts with neurology, biology,and so on. With regard to the latter, liberal arts departments have increasingly witnessed economic assaults on their departments, while watching the hard sciences grow.

I’m certainly not for the erasure of meaning or the thesis that fields such as neurology and biology provide us with the real account of cultural artifacts. My thesis is more modest: if naturalism is true, then signification as signification is a natural phenomenon. If that’s true, then it can’t be a phenomenon outside the constraints of physics, the rate at which information can travel (the current barrier being the speed of light or 186,232 mps), neurology, the processing power of computers, etc. so while I recognize that meaning, as a natural phenomenon, has it’s own organization that needs to be attended to if we’re to understand Homer, I think we also need to be open to the role played by various physical structures. For example, does the range, durability, and speed at which information can be exchanged in a particular society influence the sort of structure it can have and the form signification takes? Such questions require us to attend to the physics of information under a particular medium. There’s much more to say here, but dinner beckons.

From The Information, by James Gleick: A theory is an algorithmic compression of data. That is, a theory is short-hand for a large body of data that provides us with a body of rules or operations that allow us to generate data. To this, I would add that a good theory allows us to generate “theorems” or propositions that allow us to broaden the theory or develop new methods of data compression. Maybe this is what I find frustrating about so much Continental philosophy. We end up talking about the philosopher and his work, rather than deploying the algorithms. Rather than the economy of data compression, we instead get an ever expanding list (ie, commentary). But philosophy shouldn’t be about philosophy but what philosophy is about. A theory ought to be used to generate data and theorems. It ought not be the data.

sbimagesThis is more a random thought than anything else, but the more I understand what Laruelle is up to with his non-philosophy, the more I feel his thought has a profound affinity with the work of Niklas Luhmann.  Put very crudely, Laruelle begins from the premise that all philosophy begins with a decision that allows it to observe the world philosophically, but to which it is constitutively blind.  The point, if I understand it, is that the decision arises not from the world, but rather from the philosophy.  The non-philosopher, as it were, attempts to observe these decisions to investigate how they structure the “world” investigated by the philosophy.

Proceeding from Spencer-Browns calculus of forms, this is exactly where Luhmann begins in his “sociology”.  All observation, Spencer-Brown argues, requires a distinction to be possible.  Here it’s important to be careful.  “Observation”, for Spencer-Brown and Luhmann is not an empirical terms referring to the five senses and measurements, but is a formal and functional structure.  Spencer-Brown begins his Laws of Form with the imperative “first draw a distinction”, which is a structure similar to Laruelle’s theory of decision.  With the drawing of a distinction, a space is cleaved in two.  This space cleaved in two is what Spencer-Brown calls a “form” and is the unity of a marked space and an unmarked space.  With the distinction it now becomes possible to observe or indicate what falls under the unmarked space, e.g., white males (marked space) vs everything else (unmarked space).

blindspot-940x625The key point for Luhmann is that the distinction itself is always invisible for the observer that uses the distinction to observe because of its functional nature.  One can observe a marked space through a distinction or observe a form/distinction, but cannot observe through a distinction and observe the distinction one uses to observe or make indications.  And, of course, if one opts to observe a distinction, they must make yet another distinction to observe that distinction which will itself be invisible to the observer and have its own unmarked space.  At any rate, Luhmann refers to the distinction that allows an observer to observe a marked state as the blind spot of the observer.  Every observation implies a blind spot, a withdrawn distinction from which indications are made, that is not visible to the observer the observes.  The eye cannot see itself seeing.

Despite the formal and highly abstract nature of his work, if Luhmann calls himself a sociologist rather than a philosopher, then this is because his aim, like Laruelle’s,  is to “observe the observer”.  “Observing the observer” consists in investigating how observers draw distinctions to bring a world into relief and make indications.  Were, for example, Luhmann to investigate philosophy from a “sociological” perspective, his aim wouldn’t be to determine whether Deleuze or Rawls or Habermas, etc., was right.  Rather, he would investigate the distinctions they draw to bring the world into relief in particular ways unique to their philosophy.  In other words, he would investigate the various “decisional structures” upon which these various ways of observing are based.

borromeanIn the next year, I have a lot coming out on what I’m calling “borromean critical theory” (BCT).  I introduce the concept in Onto-Cartography, discuss it a bit in “Speculative Realism and Politics”, coming out in Speculations, and discuss it in the next issue of theory@buffalo in an article entitled “The Body of the Sign” (it’s for their Flesh of the World issue).  The basic idea is more organizational than anything else (though hopefully it will become something more over time).  My thesis is first that what we call “critical theory” (broadly construed), has been largely correlationist in character and has dominantly taken one of two forms.  On the one hand, there’s been what might be called “phenomenological critical theory” (PCT) represented by figures like Sara Ahmed and Sandra Bartky, among many others.  Here the aim is to investigate the lived experience and embodiment of subaltern bodies.  On the other hand, there’s been what might be called “semiotic critical theory” (SCT), where the focus is on the semiotic and semiological structuration of the world.  This orientation would be exemplified by historical materialists such as Horkheimer and Adorno, Zizek, Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard, and so on.  I’m sure people will object to characterizing historical materialists or the heirs of pre-Habermasian critical theory and the Althusserian school as “semiotic”, but please note that the basic operation of these orientations of thought consists in showing how the reigning ideology of the time structures knowledge formations and politics (e.g., the claim that x reflects object-oriented program, which in its turn reflects capitalistic, neoliberal ideology).  Despite its claim that it focuses on practice, this critical procedure is thoroughly discursive and idealist in character.  Finally you get the outliers:  Marx himself (not so much his heirs), Latour, the new materialist feminists such as Braidotti, Alaimo, Bennett, Barad, Bianco, the speculative realists, the object-oriented ontologists, media theorists such as Kittler, Ong, McLuhan, Parikka, DeLanda, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on that focus on materiality as materiality or the difference that physical beings make in social assemblages.  These figures are giants in fields such as science and technology studies and media studies, but get short shrift in literary theory and philosophy.  As an aside, just because you call yourself a materialist it doesn’t follow that you are a materialist.  The only legitimate materialism descends from the atomistic tradition of Democritus.  If you aren’t talking about physical stuff and the difference that physical stuff makes, you just aren’t a materialist.  That’s okay.  Just be honest.  Sorry Zizek, you’re not a materialist!

220px-Triquetra-circle-interlaced.svgBorromean critical theory (BCT) recognizes there’s something right in each of these orientations, but that the claims of each are exaggerated and inflated.  It is thus both synthetic (it wants all these orientations) and deflationary (it wants to deflate the imperialistic claims each makes).  If you want to have your Uexkull (PCT) and your Barthes (SCT) and your Latour too, you’re an advocate of BCT.  A BCTer thus both carries out a critique of the excesses of each orientations (deflation) and strives to integrate them.  This is where Lacan’s borromean knot becomes helpful as an organizational and critical tool.  In the first three phases of his teaching, one of his three orders dominated and structured the other three orders.  In the first phase, the Imaginary dominated and was understood to structure the Symbolic and Real.  In the second phase, the Symbolic dominated, and was understood to structure the Imaginary and Real.  In the third phase of his teaching, the Real dominated, and was understood to structure the Symbolic and Imaginary.  The fourth and final phase of Lacan’s teaching departs from all this.  Now we are supposed to think all three orders as equal and mutually interpenetrating, without one structuring the others.  In the third phase, we must simultaneously think how the three orders relate, what each order specifically contributes, and to do so without one overcoding the other two.

read on!


manson1For years I’ve been hearing off and on that there’s a school of thought that argues that the rhetoric of texts should be enigmatic and elusive so as to interrupt the logic of exchange characteristic of communicative capitalism.  I can see the point of this.  Since their emergence during the last century, mass media technologies have favored easily transmitted messages that tend to standardize identities and entities within the world.  This sort of communicative structure has, in its turn, been put to all sorts of dark political purposes.   Recognizing this, one can reasonably conclude that one strategy of resistance would lie in the creation of noise that disrupts the codes governing semiotic structures of communication that favor the powerful.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that there’s not a little bit of bullshit in this line of argument.  Before getting to that, let me emphasize that I’m here talking about works of theory, not literature and art (and I know this distinction is fraught and problematic).  The problem is that this strategy seems to exchange one form of power and domination for another.  In the first instance, we’re in the thrall of dominant codes that typify our identities and reduce us to good consumers.  In the latter instance, however, we seem to become hypnotized by the text and thereby enslaved.  Like the cult follower that believes that the leader contains a mysterious amalga or objet a around which our desire comes to pulsate, the enigmatic and elusive text comes to capture our desire and enslave us.

tumblr_lfxki6G0Vd1qe8ld6o1_400I began by looking for a point of resistance to the dominant codes structuring communicative capitalism.  I turned to this thinker or that to find technologies of resistance at the level of the semiotic.  Yet now I find that I’m trapped in the enigma or the elusiveness of that theorist’s writing.  My goal begins to change.  Where before it was strategies of resistance, now it’s understanding the theorist.  Hours and years are now spent deciphering Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Adorno, Hegel, and so on.  “They must,” I reason, “know what they’re saying, they must have a secret behind all of this, and I only fail because I haven’t read enough, haven’t done enough work tracking down their references, haven’t followed their lines of thought carefully enough!”

fig5Paradoxically, then, such texts tend to produce university discourses.  The product of identification with a hypnotic text is a divided subject ($) that has become caught within the thrall of the master-figure (S1), becoming their servant by endlessly doing commentary on their work.  The old goal disappears– though to be sure, it’s still given lip service –and the new goal becomes a life devoted to understanding Heidegger, Hegel, Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, and so on.  Of course, there’s no end to this project insofar as it belongs to the nature of objet a to slip away.

Oh don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that any of these thinkers should be rejected on the grounds of style.  I’ve certainly gained much by becoming hypnotized by all the thinkers I’ve listed here.  I do, however, think that style can be a form of power– sometimes hypnotizing us like the cult leader, at other times functioning as a shibboleth for privileged communities –and that it’s not clear that conceptual work, clearly expressed, can’t be a more effective strategy against communicative capitalism.  Indeed, another danger that arises out of the enigmatic text is that it becomes mere noise for the broader society, having little to no effect outside the halls of the academies.  I will suggest– perhaps imprudently –that such texts seem to suggest a somewhat poor regard to readers.  To publish a text is to invite others to read.  Those who read give their time.  In a world saturated by information as ours is today, it seems somehow wrong to entrap others in your text when they wish to learn from you and give portions of their life over to you.

13106496.0001.001Tim Morton’s Realist Magic is now available online in html.  Congrats to Morton and yet another fine book from OHP.  Also, another gorgeous cover from Tammy Lu.  Check it out here.

entropyIn the last couple years I’ve spilled a lot of ink arguing against holism or the thesis that everything is related to everything else.  This is not because I believe that relations are unimportant– indeed, the only thing that really interests me are relations –but rather because I think this position says too much.  From a holistic perspective, for example, I’m unable to make sense of ecology.  While many ecotheorists defend holistic ontologies, the actual practices of ecologists and environmental scientists reveals something different.  In their practices, they show supreme attentiveness to the fragility of relations, and focus on what happens when elements are subtracted from ecological networks (e.g., the extinction of a species) or added to a network (e.g., increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere).  This wouldn’t be possible unless entities possessed some minimal autonomy from their relations.  So while I can agree with the holist when they argue that it is important to attend to interactions and interdependencies between entities, I don’t think holism can be coherently sustained as an ontological position.  We can call this the “argument from ecology”.

A second argument could be called the “argument from politics”.  Here the argument is similar, perhaps identical; which shouldn’t come as a surprise as societies are ecologies.  Here the argument runs that if social and political change is to be possible, then holism cannot be true.  If everything were related to everything else in holistic wholes, then social and political changes wouldn’t be possible because individual entities– whether they be classes, identity groups, or whatever –would be overmined (Harman’s nice term) insofar as they would have no being beyond their status as elements within a whole.  Insofar as they would have no being beyond their status as elements in a whole, there would be no way of departing from existing social regimes so as to form new sets of social relations.  Put differently, there would be possibility of emancipation, as the concept of emancipation is only possible where there is something to be emancipated and where there is something from which that thing can be emancipated.  This is only possible where relations are separable and don’t constitute the essence of a being.  Social changes are only possible where elements constitutive of a whole– if wholes even exist –are irreducible to those wholes.

read on!


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