March 2013


I’ve been hesitant to post a link to this as it’s part of a graduate course conducted by Alex Reid, and I haven’t wanted to interfere, but there’s a lot of really sharp discussion (critical and generous), with folks doing really interesting things.  If you want to learn a lot, check it out.

??????????Machines can roughly be divided into hot and cold objects (for those not familiar with my concept of machines, cf here).  From the outset it’s important to proceed with care.  The distinction between hot and cold objects is not a distinction between dynamic and static objects.  All physical objects are dynamic in some sense or another as they all face the perpetual threat of entropy or dissolution, and therefore must engage in operations or activities to continue their existence or endure through time.  There is no physical object that is not dissolving, and therefore there is no object that is not engaged in activities to continue its existence.  As a consequence, there is no physical object that is not dynamic. Rather, the distinction between hot and cold objects is a distinction between objects undergoing a process of composition and objects that are composed.

Icicles,_Yoho_National_Park_of_Canada,_British_ColumbiaA cold object is an entity or unit that has managed to internalize a swarm of other units, forming a distinct One out of the multiple that manages to persist as a patterned unity for a time.  A cold object is what Badiou refers to as the product of a “count-as-one”.  The coolness of cold objects resides not in sitting still or in being finished products, but in having solved the problem of how to be one out of the multiple.  Our bodies are cold objects.  We are unities– units, Ones –but are composed of all sorts of other units.  We are composed of cells, all sorts of microorganisms (about 90%, the biologists tell us), organs, and so on.  These cells and microorganisms perpetually die and must be replaced.  Our bodies must engage in all sorts of operations or activities to replace dead cells and microorganisms; and do this, in part, through the metabolization of energy drawn from the world about us, giving that energy new form as a result of its operations.  Moreover, our bodies grow, develop, and change throughout the time of our existence.  We see this most dramatically in the case of our development in childhood, but it development takes place throughout life as can be seen in the case of learning and aging.  Cold objects are never finished, they are just objects that have managed to achieve some sort of open-ended unity of becoming as a One.

swarm_3_600.1A hot object isn’t really an object at all.  Rather it is a swarm of objects that may or may not come to form an object or a unity.  Hot objects are swarms of objects on the way to becoming a cold object.  They are what DeLanda talks about under the title of “morphogenesis”, and what Latour has in mind when he talks about “science in action”.  The question with respect to hot objects is that of whether or not a unity will emerge out of this swarm, forming a unit.  Will a unit manage to internalize a swarm of objects to form itself as a unit?  The causality here is circular.  The unit both arises out of the swarm of which it is composed and organizes this swarm into parts of itself.  Will these temperatures, this moisture, this pressure, and these air currents generate a tornado or hurricane (cool objects), or will it just remain a multiplicity or swarm of other entities.  Will these disparate people form into a revolutionary group, or will they remain disparate people?  Will operations emerge through the bricolage or conjunction of cool objects that manage to produce a unity that can persist and continue itself across time, or will they remain external to one another?  Such is the question of hot objects.

Christmas-handwork-nativity-bricolageIn 2009, Congressman Joe Wilson famously screamed “you lie!” during one of Obama’s speeches.  Well he was an asshole, but this is nonetheless the sort of internal reaction I have when I hear theorists speak of “deductive rigor” in the humanities.  There is the claim that thought somehow follows deductively from a single premise or set of premises, or that one maintains fidelity to a particular thinker such as Husserl or Heidegger or Badiou or Derrida or Deleuze or Lacan or whatever.  You lie!  Oh sure, you might erase the composition you passed through to construct your castle, but at the end of the day– and especially for castles! –there’s only bricolage.  As articulated in the context of Levi-Strauss:

To elaborate on his definition of mythical thought, Levi-Strauss drew an analogy to “bricolage”: “Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage'” (p. 17). The French verb, “bricoler,” has no English equivalent, but refers to the kind of activities that are performed by a handy-man. The “bricoleur” performs his tasks with materials and tools that are at hand, from “odds and ends.” He draws from the already existent while the engineer or scientist, according to Levi-Strauss, seeks to exceed the boundaries imposed by society. “The scientist creating events (changing the world) by means of structures and the ‘bricoleur’ creating structures by means of events” (p. 22).

There’s only bricolage.  This is attested to in all dimensions of nature.  The species that manage to survive are products worthy of Frankenstein, cobbled together on the platforms of previous species, as well as sequences of DNA that were exchanged from species to species by viruses.  Their parts never quite work together as we can see in the case of human child birth and the appendix.  The grape of the wine is a product not simply of DNA or a master-plan, but of other plants growing in the environment, weather conditions, soil nutrients, water contents, insects, and so on.  Grape genes of identical genetic stock nonetheless differ significantly from one another from year to year.  The brain is a plastic system with neurons that link to one another as a function of thought, experience, encounters, nutrients, and many other things besides.

Why should thought and theory be any different?  Your fidelity to a particular thinker as a scholar, your commentary and scholarship?  That was the result of countless encounters you had with the work of other thinkers and scholars, your experiences, snippets of things you heard and saw, a text here and there, and so on.  You thought you were getting at the truth of Heidegger?  Maybe.  It’s more likely that you cobbled together odds and ends in your garage as a result of what was available.  Your deductive rigor from a single premise according to the laws of logic?  The same.  You were just Frankenstein sewing together parts of bodies in your lab.  That work that describes itself as “rigorous” is not the absence of the sloppiness of the bricoleuer, but rather a failure to recognize the soil within which it grew.  It is the grape that says “I, an I alone, in contrast to all other grapes, am the grape that completely grew and defined myself!”

Ap17ApolloBelvedereBut this is always a lie, even for the mathematician.  There’s always an aleatory multiplicity that rumbles beneath any Apollinian order.  There is no being, no thought, no theory that isn’t cobbled together from the materials one finds in her garage.  We might as well be honest about it.  Those of us who aren’t are either assholes or just ridiculously ignorant of themselves.  It’s easy to suspect that the people that carp about the purity of their method and rigor are the same people that have trouble asking for directions when they’re lost.  We might also suspect that they dream of managerial or administrative positions.  Such people love to erase the mess of it all.  They detest the contingency of the world and everything in it.

What are the marks of the bricoleur?  First, the bricoleur is the person that works with the materials that are available.  Cognitively, physically, and affectively they have a pile of odd shaped wood, rusty nails in that wood, some duct tape, and some rocks and clay in their back yard.  How could it be any different?  This is the only thing anyone has to work with.  The ingredients, references, and materials that are there about them.  Only the asshole suggests that they should have used this or they should have referenced that.  If such a person is an asshole, then that’s because they have some strange assumption of omnipotence and omniscience, forgetting that anything can only work on the infrastructure it has and the materials– cognitive, material, and affective –that were available to it.  There are lots of assholes, but they’re bricoleurs too; they just forget.  At any rate, the bricoleur does the best she can with what’s available.

fimagesAnd because the bricoleur works with what’s available, she works in an aleatory fashion that lacks assurance of the final project of her work.  To be sure, she has an aim, yet strangely that aim changes as she works with the material that’s available.  Because she’s only given these cognitive, affective, and material matters to work with, she’s placed in a position of having to fit these heterogeneous materials together in a manner that manages to stand or endure.  Her work is a surprise to her and requires a modification of all the materials involved.  As she works with the materials available, she gives them new form, cobbles them together in the same way that evolution builds on earlier versions of the stomach, and finds that things don’t quite fit.  She’s made a monster.  She started with Lacan or Badiou or Braidotti or Hegel, but she had to shave some bits of wood, use some duct tape here, straighten some rusty nails there, and somehow find a way to make Hegel and Deleuze fit together.  Somehow she had to make this monster walk upright, even though the gravitational forces created prostate problems because the original structure was designed to walk on all fours and even though child birth was a mess because brains/skulls got too big.

This is one reason bricolage makes something new.  The bricoleur creates something new by mashing things together that didn’t fit together.  They want Althusser and Derrida and Lacan and Irigaray and Foucault and Luhmann and Brandom and Laruelle.  That was the stuff that was in their junk pile.  And don’t forget that they also had bad movies and television shows in their junk pile, random conversations at the bar, a slap by one of their parents growing up, and certain time constraints.  That’s what they had to work with.  Somehow they have to mash it all together.  Maybe they got the flu while writing.  No matter.  Viruses too can be materials in a bricolage.  At any rate, through their shaving, fitting, taping, and jamming, they manage to make a monster that can stand…  Or maybe not.

And this is the second mark of the bricoleur.  Oh sure, they begin with a purpose or aim, but so did Frankenstein.  He wanted to show that life could be re-animated.  His creature had his own ideas.  The bricoleur begins with her own aim, but quickly discovers that the composition she’s participated in has “ideas” of its own.  This is another way of saying that the bricoleur is that tinkerer that’s willing to be surprised by her own work and to discover aims and goals that the junk pile she works with dictate, rather than those she envisioned.  We’re all bricoleurs, but some of us are more honest and generous about it than others.

nickieatmirrorAs time has passed, I’ve become increasingly hesitant about using the term “correlationism”.  For those new to Speculative Realism, it all began with a critique of correlationism.  Coined by Quentin Meillassoux,  “correlationism” denotes “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (After Finitude, 5).  While there’s very little resemblance between the philosophies of Ray Brassier, Ian Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux, all have shared the common feature of critiquing correlationism and of attempting to think what the being of being is without thought or as posited by our intentionality.

My hesitation with the term has arisen from witnessing how the term has evolved in these discussions since 2007.  Two things in particular have bothered me about the use of the term.  First, I increasingly see mere evocation of the term used as a way of arguing against other positions.  “X is correlationist, therefore x is mistaken.”  This isn’t really an argument, but rather just a way of dismissing through a label.  Second, I increasingly see it implied that correlationism is a taboo or fallacy to be avoided in all circumstances.  If, in SR circles, you point out, for example, that a color blind person processes electro-magnetic waves in a particular way, you’re likely to hear someone decry such a remark as correlationist.  The problem is that I don’t see any other way of understanding and analyzing phenomena such as this.  The way in which my best friend’s father experiences electro-magnetic waves is different than how I experience electro-magnetic waves, and our ways of encountering electro-magnetic waves are different than how cats and mantis shrimp experience electro-magnetic waves.

Is this correlationism?  I don’t know.  Correlationism is the thesis that we only ever have access to the relation between thought (or experience or language) and being, never one of the terms considered apart from one another.  Something very different seems to be asserted in the examples of vision above.  First, it is noted that something like electro-magnetic waves exist regardless of whether any entity registers them at all.  In other words, in making such a claim I am endorsing the existence of something independent of thought.  I can’t see or experience infrared light without the use of some sort of technology, but my lack of access to these sorts of electro-magnetic waves doesn’t undermine the fact that those waves exist.  Second, I am making the claim that other entities such as my best friend’s father, mantis shrimp, and dogs access electro-magnetic waves in different ways.  It’s not possible to make such a claim without having some access to other entities independent of how I access the world.  Can I ever experience the world the way a mantis shrimp experiences the world?  Of course not.  However, through my knowledge of optics, electro-magnetic waves, its reactions to the environment about it, and so on, I can make all sorts of fallible inferences about what mantis shrimp have access to.

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sbimagesIn a previous post I discussed a similarity between the non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle and the sociological work of Niklas Luhmann.  Outlining Luhmann’s theory of observation, I there wrote:

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).

The 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.

Putting Luhmann’s thesis into Kantian language, his thesis is that distinctions are “the condition for the possibility” of observations.  In other words, the observation does not precede the distinction, nor does the distinction arise from an observation.  Rather, observation is only possible where a distinction is first drawn, and then one begins to make indications or observations based on this distinction.  The observation, of course, is an indication of what falls under the marked space of the form.  For example, biology is only possible based on a form that cleaves a marked space (life) from an unmarked space (everything else).  The biologist sets aside everything else in order to attend only to what falls within the marked space of its distinction.  Once again, in Kantian terms we can say that the form is the transcendental, while the indications of what falls in the marked space of the distinction is the empirical.

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For anyone who’s interested, I’ll be giving a talk to the Toronto Lacanian organization on March 23rd and at York on the 22nd.  More info can be found here.

borromeanI’ll probably regret writing this post, but I would like to return to the question of Epicureanism as an ethical and political philosophy.  In her description of Epicurean thought, Catherine Wilson writes:

There is no ambivalence about pain in Epicurean morals:  it is an unqualified evil.  Because death is the end for each sentient being, we should enjoy ourselves to the extent that our enjoyment of present pleasures does not diminish the quantity of pleasure we can enjoy in the future, to the extent that our present enjoyments do not destroy health, bring down the wrath or contempt of others upon us, or subject us to the torments of guilt and regret.  Moral wisdom consists not in ascetic practice, but in prudence and foresight, for the age-old experience of mankind assures us that moderation and avoidance of dissipation tend to make for a less painful life.  Endurance of our mundane sufferings has, at the same time, its own dignity, although it is not a foretaste of hell or morally glorious.  The recognition that human life is temporary and fragile follows from physics, as does the recognition that all suffering comes to an end.  ‘[A]ll the punishments that tradition locates in the abysm of Acheron’, said Lucretius, ‘actually exist in our own life.’  An emblematic figure for the poet is the mythical giant Tityos, whose type, he thinks, exists among us.  ‘He is the person lying in bonds of love, and consumed by agonizing anxiety or rent by the anguish of some other passion.’  Lucretius’ pacificism, his sense of closeness to the animal world, and his sympathetic portrayal of the effects of romantic uncertainty and jealousy, but also the reawakening, and renewing effects of the goddess Venus, are still moving to his readers (Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, 5)

I don’t wish to get in a debate with my medievalist friends about the merits of Wilson’s book (they’re right), but rather focus on the content of this ethics itself.  Epicureanism is perpetually derided, but why?  Why is this framework not all that we need for an adequate ethics and politics?  What is missing here?

Drawing once again on Lacan’s borromean knot, we here seem to have an ethics that embodies all three orders in the name of minimizing suffering or, as Freud put it, for transforming “neurotic suffering into ordinary human misery”.  At the level of the order of the Real we have our material bodies– the body as described by phenomenology doesn’t count here –as well as our ecological relations.  There are certain ways in which we should relate to our bodies in terms of diet and exercise, to maximize health (clearly these will differ from person to person insofar as people are individuals).  Additionally, it is not simply a question of our own individual bodies, but of our ecological relations.  Insofar as our bodies are necessarily embodied and insofar as we always exist in an environment, we should also be concerned with the environment in which we find ourselves embedded.  As Alaimo teaches us, our bodies are never purely our own, but are transcorporeal or interpenetrated by a variety of other foreign bodies.  At the level of the Symbolic, we get our social relationships.  Our social relationships include not only our relationships to other people and how we should conduct ourselves with respect to other people, but also our relationships to the nonhuman animal and mineral world.  If we wish to minimize both our suffering and the suffering of others, then there will be optimal ways of relating to our human others, as well as our animal and mineral others.  Finally, at the level of the Imaginary we have the psychological or our cognitive and affective relationships to others.  There’s a tendency to reduce pleasure to the five senses, but our enjoyment is not simply a matter of the pleasure we can gain through our five senses.  It involves aesthetic enjoyment, fulfilling relationships with both human and animal others, our appreciation of beauty and wonder, and so on.

read on!

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