June 2013


2Often I hear people ask “where is the place of the subject in object-oriented ontology”?  The first thing to note is that object-oriented ontology (OOO) is not one particular ontology.  Rather, OOO denotes a genus with many different species, rather than a particular position.  In this regard, OOO is more a term like “empiricism”, “rationalism”, or “idealism”, rather than “Whiteheadian”, “Cartesian”, “Deleuzian”, “Derridean”.  Just as there were debates between the various rationalists as we can see in the case of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz who vehemently disagreed with one another, there are all sorts of different versions of OOO.  The sole criteria for being an object-oriented ontologist lies in holding that the universe is composed of units.  However, different object-oriented ontologists theorize those units differently.  Some argue that units are completely withdrawn from all relations (Harman).  Others argue that units only exist in relation to one another (Whitehead, Bennett).  Some argue that units have a fixed and withdrawn essence (Harman, Morton).  Others argue that units are processes and events and that they only exist and “have” an identity through continuing these operations or processes (me, Whitehead, Deleuze).  Some argue that units are characterized by absolute actuality (Harman, Whitehead), others argue that every unit is split between potentiality, power, or capacity on the one hand, and actuality on the other hand (me, Deleuze, Bhaskar, DeLanda, Aristotle, etc).  I could go on, but you get the idea.  There isn’t one OOO, so there isn’t going to be an “OOO take” on the subject.

Consequently, in writing about OOO and the subject, I can only speak for myself.  I think the first thing to get is that for OOO, the term “object” is not something opposed to a subject.  The language here is misleading, which is why some of us try to use terms other than “object”, such as “unit”, “machine”, “actual occasion”, “actant”, and so on.  The problem with the term “object” is that the philosophical tradition tends to think of object as that which a subject posits, regards, or intends.  OOO uses the term “object” in a sense more analogous to thing, than as the correlate of an egos intentions.  “Object” just names anything that exists.  Being, OOO theories contend, consist of objects or units, regardless of whether any sentient being experiences them or intends them.  These objects, of course, differ amongst themselves.  Atoms are different than plants.  Animals are different than rocks.  Humans are different than armies.  Armies are different than corporations and hurricanes.  There are lots of different types of objects and one fruitful path of object-oriented inquiry would consist in the investigation of the unique structures of these different types of objects.  Moreover, we see just how broadly the term “unit” is used here.  On the one hand, there are units at a variety of different levels of scale from the smallest fermion up to entire nations, and there are objects that exist within other objects.  Armies can’t exist without people and atoms, but nonetheless, armies are unique units that have their own dynamics.  The case is no different than that of the relation between a cell and your liver.  Your liver can’t exist without the cells that compose it, but nonetheless your liver is a unique unit because it has its own ways of operating, its own “rules” that govern it, that can’t be found at the level of individual cells.  In the context of this discussion, however, the important thing to note is that, for OOO, subject is a type of object.

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HampshireIL2008July10Let’s begin from the premise that we are natural beings that evolved in a natural setting and that the types of nervous systems that were selected for as the genus homo evolved was not the sort of nervous system “designed” to know things as they are, but for getting around in the world.  What sorts of characteristics would a mind made for getting around in the world have?  A few come to mind:

1)  Given that biological beings live in a dangerous world filled with other predators and lots of competition, it would be a mind that has to respond in real time.  Such minds would favor durations of the order of minutes (sometimes seconds), hours, and days.  Such minds would probably have a very difficult time registering very small and very large durations of time, because these just wouldn’t be very relevant to real time responses to harvesting plants, escaping wolves, or taking down antelope.

2)  Such minds would also probably also be “wired” to notice entities that it can potentially act on such as animals, things like flint, other people, plants, and so on.  It’s tendency would be to see these things as the “really real” and to see things like, for example, clouds as not really real at all, or as mere ephemeral beings.

3)  It’s also likely that such minds would be “put together” to look for motives and intentions in everything.  Discerning motives would be a life or death matter.  Determining what an animal is likely to do as I approach it, for example, would be crucial to not getting gored.  Determining what other persons want and desire would be crucial to determining whether I can count on them or whether they’re out to get me.

Before getting into the rest, it’s worth mentioning that if you don’t like the evolutionary framework I’m suggesting for these structures of cognition, then maybe you’ll find Bergson more palatable.  This is basically his take on intellect (as opposed to intuition).  For Bergson, intellect has a “pragmatic” (not in the sophisticated philosophical sense) or utilitarian vocation, and is primarily geared towards action and manipulating those entities that can be manipulated.  This, he contends, leads us to overlook the dimension of becoming or change because action requires fairly stable entities upon which to act.  As a consequence, he argues, intellect generates systematic distortions in our understanding of the being of being.

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aaimages1.  All of being is composed of machines and nothing but machines and void exist.

I’ve discussed this point in great detail elsewhere (here’s a good place to start if readers are interested; and you can wait for Onto-Cartography to come out if you want), so I’ll only say two things about this hypothesis here:  First, “machine” is an operational term within a certain theoretical discourse– I draw it from Maturana and Varela’s meditations on the being of the living, as well as Deleuze and Guattari and then build on it –so I’m thoroughly uninterested in those who criticize this thesis by drawing on the connotations of ordinary language and who equate machines with industrial machines like cars, lathes, and computers.  Learn what the concept denotes as stipulated and learn something of the discourse from which the concept arises.  Second, needless to say, there are many different types of machines.  Some are designed and created by other machines like computers which are created by collectives of computer designers.  Others are rather uninteresting (from a certain point of view) machines like atoms, quarks, rocks, and crystals.  Others are alive, like trees, aardvarks (have to include them because they’re funny), people, corporations, universities, revolutionary groups, political parties, and red-ass orangutangs.  Other machines are incorporeal— though they always have a corporeal bodies –like scores of music, recipes, mathematical theorems, and the like.  Many machines, like Greenpeace, for example, are a combination of incorporeal and corporeal machines.  Some machines are self-reflexive or have a self, like dogs, people, corporations, dolphins, and so on.  These machines have the capacity to learn or change their responses to inputs– they are what von Foerster called “nontrivial machines” –rendering them unpredictable.  This is in contrast to other machines such as rigid machines like cars and rocks, that have no capacity (yet, in the case of cars) to change their response to an input, thereby invariably producing the same output (unless, through entropy, they change and fall apart).  Nontrivial machines are able to change their response to inputs, producing surprising outputs.

2.  All machines are physical or coporeal, even incorporeal machines.

radionsorel1It’s only a prejudice of perception that leads us to think that rocks are physical, material, or corporeal (synonyms), whereas corporations are non-physical.  A physicist will tell you that the elements that compose a rock are mostly empty space, that there are constant events taking place within the rock even if it seems to be very still and unchanging, that it is not solid at all, and that relations between the molecules that compose it (and the atoms that compose those molecules) require material interactions between those elements for the rock to continue to exist as a rock.  Were we of a microscopic race of people known as “Atomonians” that existed at the same scale as subatomic particles, rocks would seem as ethereal and cloud-like as corporations.  We can imagine Atomonian philosophers chastising their students not to confuse rocks with “real things” like subatomic particles that are “truly solid”.  Corporeal doesn’t mean “solid”, nor does it mean “enduring unchanged”.  If not the latter, then this is because everything is constantly disintegrating.  In a lot of cases it’s just happening too slowly or at scales that are too small for us to discern.  At any rate, corporations can’t exist without material interactions between their elements such as communications to continue their existence.  Just as a rock ceases to exist when the material interactions between its elements can no longer maintain themselves, a group or institution ceases to exist when it’s no longer maintained by communications.  Communications always require material mediums such as sound-waves (can’t have those in the void of outer space!), messages written on paper, electric pulses over phone cables, light traveling through the void, and so on.  Never forget that light is something (it can even power sails in outer space!).

3.  Most machines are composed of other machines.

I say “most” because it might turn out that there are ultimate units of existence that aren’t composed of anything else.  At any rate, molecules are composed of atoms and atoms of smaller particles.  Your body has a huge swarm of machines such as your cells, your heart, your brain, your liver, and so on.  Often these machines have their own idea of what they’d like to do as in the case of cancer.  In many instances the machines that compose a machine aren’t “team players”.

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648-01569640So the other day I’m watching CNN and they have a panel of multi-billionaires that contribute significant amounts of money to charities that they tightly control.  The whole time the interviewer is gushing about how great this is because, well you know, since billionaires are so great at investing money, they must be absolutely fabulous at charity work!  Here, of course, we see how American ideology responds to Plato’s question of who the good statesmen or shepherd of men is.  The business man because knowing how to make money entails that you are just awesome at governing!

Now I have my problems with Heidegger (honestly I’ve had a sort of visceral reaction to him since midway through grad school; at that point it became hard to read a single word of him), but here’s a place I think he’s genuinely valuable.  But first the reasons for that visceral reaction.  Part of that distaste arises from a sort of “reaction formation” to something I once loved intensely.  There was a time in my life in which I was all Heidegger all the time.  Indeed, I chose Loyola for grad school so that I might study with Thomas Sheehan (and Andrew Cutrofello).  I suppose I reached a point where I felt as if I was ever to think anything of my own– and don’t get me wrong, I doubt I’ve yet to think anything of my own! –I had to get free of that obsession.  There’s a strange way in which you can end up drowning in Heidegger, never to escape.  As for the subsequent reasons, I absolutely detest all his talk of “woodland paths”, Volk, pious thinking, and so on.  In my view, philosophy is a uniquely urban phenomenon, a form of thought that arises in response to the encounters with difference that take place in the city as a result of the absence of shared custom and tradition people can appeal to in interacting with one another.  The idea of a “rural philosophy” is an oxymoron (and politically dangerous or, at least, reactionary).  Then there’s all that talk of “western metaphysics”, “sendings of being”, the “destining of being”, and his suggestions that maths and science don’t think.  What’s up with that?

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Speculations IV is now available and is devoted to debates surrounding Speculative Realism and its significance.  You’ll find an article in there by me entitled “Speculative Realism and Politics”.  It looks to be a fantastic collection filled with first-rate contributors.

img127In response to my post on the emptiness of philosophy, Philip of Circling Squares writes the following great comment:

It’s true that scientists don’t need philosophers to put their abstractions in order. However, it’s also true that when scientists attempt to ‘do’ philosophy they often do so very badly. Just because they don’t need philosophers doesn’t mean that their own implicit (or explicit) philosophies aren’t dreadful and misguided, only that they function well enough for their purposes.

Actually, when thinking about what philosophy is I find it useful to start with what Geertz said of anthropology’s relation to philosophy, which was that the role of anthropology is not to provide answers to the ‘big questions’ but to provide a record of the answers that various peoples have given to such questions. If it is also true that, as Whitehead put it, the philosopher is the ‘critic of abstractions’ then it seems that we can anthropologise and pragmatise the practice of philosophy.

Not only scientists but even the denizens of remote, non-modern villages (i.e. the stereotypical subjects of anthropology) are perfectly capable of developing complex and sophisticated systems of abstractions. Anyone capable of submitting such abstractions to some form of critique could be said to be philosophising. What we call Philosophy is, then, simply the institutionalisation, formalisation and professionalisation of this function. Which isn’t to say that it is ‘universal’ but nor is it necessarily all that particular. Perhaps some people are without a socio-linguistic capacity we could call ‘critical’ in this sense but wherever there *are* people with this capacity we can say that there is philosophy as an anthropological phenomenon.

So, in this sense scientists are already philosophers of their own life worlds. As Latour has said so often, scientists are constantly doing metaphysics, constantly re-imagining how reality is stitched together. If they lacked this capacity then they couldn’t do their jobs.

But, then, how do I reconcile this with my previous point about scientists often making very bad philosophers? Well, we could say that philosophy as a formalised, institutionalised phenomenon — capital P Philosophy, if you like — represents a canon of thought against which present philosophers are judged and through which an ongoing assemblage of competing and overlapping systems of rules, preferences and traditions are impressed upon present philosophers.

Or, in short, maybe everyone does philosophy but only a few do Philosophy — only a few raise that basic anthropological function to a level of formality and deliberation that can be recognised as a distinct epistemic institution. Scientists, for their part, are expert philosophers — they have to be — but they don’t always make very good Philosophers — because that requires a whole other set of experiences and competencies.

The reason I don’t go all the way with Philip is because I think this fails to recognize the periodic nature of philosophy.  I don’t think philosophy (or Philosophy) is just a system of abstractions, but rather think it is a form of conceptual thought that only emerges under certain social and cultural conditions.  As I see it, the conditions for Philosophy are cultural rupture.  There has to be some sort of political transformation that marks a rupture with what came before and more or less overturns what came before, or similar sorts of ruptures in the sciences where our understanding of the world is, as it were, erased by some new set of discoveries, or a technological transformation that overturns prior social relations or ways of doing things (this type of rupture is somewhat new, though it did occur a bit in the past with certain agricultural revolutions), or an artistic rupture, or some combination of the above across which a “transversal” is drawn as Dan suggests in his comment earlier.  What I’m trying to say is that rupture is the condition for the possibility of Philosophy and that there is no Philosophy in the absence of ruptures.  In this regard, Philosophy is that form of thought that reflects the implications of these ruptures, what it means for what the Being of being is, what it suggests as to what sorts of beings we are, what it means for what politics ought to be, what it means for what justice and the good are, etc.  This is why I say philosophy always comes after, never before, and why I argue that philosophy doesn’t exist in all times and places.  There are literally periods where philosophy is entirely absent– I gave the 80s and 90s as an example –because we are not living in a period of rupture.  It is not Philosophy that effects these ruptures, but rather, Philosophy is one of the ways in which societies reflect these ruptures and try to come to terms with them.  In Luhmannian terms, it’s a form of second-order reflection that selects from certain tendencies in the social field, while excluding or abandoning others.  This sort of second-order observation, of course, can occur in any culture.  I think that if we look at the history of Philosophy, this thesis is well attested to.  We see it wax and wane, sometimes disappearing, sometimes reappearing, sometimes being present in certain geographical regions, at other times being absence, and so on.

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burn_the_witch_avatarIt took me a long time to understand what Deleuze and Guattari were on about with their rhapsodic tributes to the logic of the “and”, though perhaps I had always thought in these terms.  It turns out that it’s very difficult to think in terms of the “and”, even if they might seem to be simple conjunctions.  For whatever reason we like the logic of or.  We see this all over the place in the world of theory.  Social reality is structured by language/signs or by things or by the minds and beliefs of individuals or by the way in which evolutionary history has structured our psychology.  Either… or… or… or.  With the logic of the or, wackiness ensues.  We get a war of all against all as they assert their favored term as the ground of everything else.  “It’s language!”  “No it’s things!”  “No it’s the beliefs of individuals.”  “Burn the witch!”  “It’s lived experience!”  “No, it’s neurology!”  “No, it’s ideology without a subject!”  “Kill the heretic!”

real-estate-clock-frozen-paradigmThe logic of the or is substantialist, essentialist, and practices ontological apartheid.  It understands positions as being like oil and water, essentially incapable of mixing.  It is substantialist in the sense that it wants univocal identities without any contamination.  Or encounters and as a threat to its identity and its ability to master the world that it seeks to comprehend.  One of the peculiar features of or logic is its atemporality.  Consider an academic conference.  Jane Bennett gets up and gives a talk.  At one point in her talk, Bennett speaks favorably of research that shows the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on attention, cognition, and affect.  She then proceeds to talk about the phenomenological experience of birds as described by Uexkull, and further on does a linguistic and semiotic analysis of a journalistic article discussing Hurricane Sandy.  During her entire talk, a gentleman of the Lacano-Derridean persuasion, clothed all in black and leather with a streak of blue in his hair and multiple piercings and tattoos as grown darker and darker in his seat, sighing and fidgeting the entire time.  Across the way, a woman of the Merleau-Pontyian phenomenological persuasion, wearing a “witchy” skirt and fabulous boots has been glaring scowling.

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