September 2013

800px-Longleat_mazeOver the years I’ve struggled to articulate why nonhuman objects are relevant to our understanding of the form societies take and questions of politics, only to encounter great difficulty.  The problem, I think, is that objects and features of materiality are largely invisible.  Oh sure, we see them about us all the time and interact with them in a trillion ways every day.  Nonetheless, it’s very difficult to discern how they contribute to our action and are a condition for our action.  Our action, I want to say, is never entirely our own, it never arises fully from us, but rather is a sort of collaboration or interaction with the features of the world about us.  Action is interaction and those material features both afford our possibilities of action and constrain our possibilities of action.

lou-ferrigno-as-the-hulkWhen I say that we need to attend to what objects do rather than their properties, what I’m after is the way in which they afford and constrain action.  I’m not suggesting something silly and absurd like the idea that objects have motives, that there’s some sort of psychology of objects that leads them to act on us in various ways; but am instead saying we need to look at how objects create paths and vectors of movement and behavior that mark the trajectory of our journeys throughout the world, which others we relate to, which others we don’t relate to, and so on.

I think it’s extremely difficult to think in these terms– at least I struggle with it –because its so damned obvious.  There’s no need for a depth hermeneutics here.  There’s no need for a hermeneutics of suspicion.  No, the gravity of the world, the gravity of things, is all there on the surface.  For example, I encounter the people I encounter daily on campus because of the layout of the hallways in the building where I teach as well as the time schedule of the classes.  For the same reason, I don’t encounter others because of this same material configuration.  Sure, I could tear my way through walls like the Incredible Hulk or go through windows, but as I put it in my California talk last week, much of our movement arises not from any intentions we might have, but is instead like the trajectory of a raindrop along a leaf, following the path of least possible resistance.  Because this is so obvious we overlook it, we overlook materiality, and thus come to explain the action of people and their relations with one another by reference to their intentions, beliefs, propositional attitudes, etc.  We look almost entirely to the domain of the psychological to explain why people behave and relate to one another as they do.  The point, of course, is not that the psychological, textual, semiotic, ideological, etc., don’t play a key role in social formations.  Of course they do.  How could it be otherwise?  The point is that they are only one part of the puzzle, that they are only one element of a vast domain of power.

read on!


Do we need to believe in anthropogenic climate change?  I pose this question, of course, to be provocative as I do think it’s useful to believe in things like anthropogenic climate change.  However, the point of posing the question is to draw attention to how a lot of us academics think and what intellectual movements such as actor-network theory and the new materialisms and realisms might bring to the table at the level of political strategy.  A lot of us seem to think that our political work consists in persuading others to believe certain things.  People must be persuaded to believe that neoliberal economic philosophy pervades all aspects of contemporary life (true).  People must be persuaded to believe that current climate change is caused by human activity (true).  Etc., etc., etc.  The idea seems to be that if people have the right theory about the world or the correct set of propositional attitudes, then they’ll modify their action accordingly and do the right thing.  Let’s call this the intentional attitude.  The premise of the intentional attitude or intentionalism is that since action is based on belief or propositional attitudes, persuasion is a key component of political activism.

The intentional attitude can be contrasted with the functional attitude.  The functional attitude doesn’t deny that people have intentions and that these intentions play a significant role in why they do what they do, but it notes that functionally much of what our action produces has very little to do with what we intend in our action.  For example, as I write this post I intend to persuade and convey certain ideas; however, functionally I am also contributing to the reproduction of the English language (and am probably making it worse!).  When I go to the supermarket to get food for dinner I do so because I intend to feed myself, but I am also contributing to the reproduction of agrocapitalism.  A lot of work in Continental political thought is undertaken for the sake of various emancipatory projects (intentional stance), but because it ends up accessible only to other expert level academics it functionally just reproduces university discourse, the tenure system, and contributes to the publication of new journal issues.  In Latour’s famous example, we slow down for the cement speed bump not because of any particular belief we have about speed laws, but because of how the speed bump functions.  Things that happen at the level of functionality are independent of beliefs and intentions, but contribute to why we act as we do all the same.

From a functional standpoint, let’s look at intentionalist strategies again.  My strategy is to persuade my interlocutor that climate change is human caused so that they will take action against these causes and support things like reducing carbon emissions and whatnot.  That’s my intention.  But looks at what happens.  Now a massive debate goes on between the climate change denier and the person defending anthropogenic climate change theories.  The denier wins either way, because functionally we end up discussing the issue to death rather than taking action.  In continuing to debate we’re still doing nothing even though that’s not our intention to debate.

I wanted to say more about these two approaches (gotta go teach)– and I suspect some readers will misunderstand me and think I’m trying to reject the intentional stance in political action –but the foregoing raises the question of whether or not people need to believe in something like climate change for us to make meaningful change.  Returning to Latour’s example of the speed bump, aren’t there ways in which we can simply modify the environment in which people act, diminishing their carbon footprint, regardless of whether or not they believe climate change is caused by human activity?  In other words, aren’t there all sorts of interventions we can make at the level of the nonhuman actants that populate the world that would address this issue independent of what people believe?  How far might this sort of design practice extend in other domains of politics?

As I think through ethics, I find that I’m confronted with something of an antinomy.  On the one hand, no ethical action is possible whatsoever without affect.  It’s not just me saying this.  The philosophical tradition as well as empirical evidence seems to suggest this.  Those who have suffered brain damage to certain reasons of their brain become moral morons, unable to determine right action while nonetheless retaining reasoning skills (take that Kant!).  But even Kant recognized this.  In both the Groundwork and second Critique he argued that we have to have a special sort of affect– “respect for the moral law”, whatever that is –in order to become ethical agents.  On the other hand, you can’t base an ethics on affect because, simply put, people don’t have the affects.  This person experiences outrage with respect to that thing, while that person is completely indifferent.  For this person it’s an obscenity to club a seal to death, absolutely disgusting and horrifying, while that person feels nothing at all and just sees it as a purely utilitarian matter pertaining to gathering fur for coats (the thought process wouldn’t be very different in the case of enslaving others).  It’s great that people have tender feelings, but when we talk about ethics we’re talking about grounding and persuasion.  You just can’t get very far if the affect isn’t there.

This is why Kant said that ethics can’t be based on the “pathological”.  He meant this in a very literal way:  pathos = body = feeling.  He wasn’t referring to “mental problems” or affect being “out of control”, but was simply referring to affect as such.  We can’t expect people to feel such and such because, well, people are different (Spinoza), and not all people feel the same thing (Hume, von Uuxkull), so the grounds of ethics must come from elsewhere than sentiment.

This is why I don’t think Levinas– despite finding him very beautiful –has much to offer to serious ethical thought.  Great, such and such a person experiences such and such an infinite obligation with regard to such and such a face, but just as many don’t.  Just as many people don’t encounter the faciality of the Other in relation to people of different races, classes, nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc.  For them this face is just an obstacle to their own aims.  Levinas really has nothing to offer in this situation.  Great, you feel this way.  Others don’t.  The whole question of relation to the Other was that of the face of the Other that we don’t recognize as a face.  In other words, ethical thought begins at a different level where this phenomenological experience has failed.  It begins where we don’t experience that pathology.  It begins, perhaps, at the level of rhetoric.  So enjoy Levinas but also forget him when it comes to ethical discussions.  He hasn’t identified the problem.

Hume understood the problem much better.  Hume rejected the liberal idea that we’re primarily selfish individuals that first are concerned with our own self-interest and who must then learn to have a regard for others.  No, for Hume, we’re first defined by sympathies to others:  our siblings, our parents, the members of our village (or in a more contemporary setting, our neighborhood, workplace, those who share our same ethnicity and gender, etc).  But this is not yet ethics.  That’s just how we are:  social beings (which is why it’s so disturbing and perhaps symptomatic that our ethics has become anonymous and rule based, i.e, it suggests a collapse of that communal/social dimension of our existence…  if you need to appeal to a rule for right action towards others something is wrong or has failed).  For Hume, the question isn’t “how might we come to care for others?”, but how might we come to have sympathy for the stranger or the person/entity outside our familial, fraternal, ethno-sexual, tribal order.  Ethics proper begins with the question of how we might begin to cultivate sympathy for those for whom we aren’t initially inclined to regard:  the anonymous face, the different face, the animal face, the mineral face, the disfigured space, etc.  No ethical action is possible without an affect, but affects also don’t come naturally or as the result of a contingent experience.  How to move beyond the limits of our cognitive/affective enframing, our enculturated affect, that’s the question.  This requires a formation or paideia of affect; which also implies aesthetics as a crucial dimension of ethics.

alienAs I teach Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (along with the thought of Epicurus and Epictetus), I’m struck by just how much our ethical discourse has changed.  This is attested to by what is absent in these discourses as much as by what is present.  What’s so striking in Aristotle, is that the question of ethics is one of eudaimonia, happiness, or human flourishing.  How ought we live our lives in order to attain human flourishing or happiness, he asks?  Similarly, in the case of the Epicureans and stoics, the question is one of ataraxia, peace of mind, or tranquility.   For these thinkers there is a clear telos to ethical thought and action:  happiness and tranquility.

Such questions seem thoroughly absent from the ethical thought of the last couple hundred years.  Ethics instead seems to become a question of how to determine the rules that should govern behavior and that would allow us to assign praise and blame, a discourse about remaining committed to a particular cause when everything suggests it will fail (Badiou), or a particular encounter with the Other (Levinas).  Of these three I find Levinas the most baffling, for while I find his work deeply beautiful, I just don’t see how you can get a robust ethical philosophy out of a contingent encounter that one might or might not have.

indexIn the case of Aristotle and Epicurus, we also see the question of ethics deeply intertwined with the question of the polis.  Aristotle opens the Nichomachean Ethics arguing that every science (body of knowledge) aims at a good and that if we aren’t to fall into an infinite regress, there must be a highest science that investigates that good that is valued for its own sake rather than for the sake of something else.  In other words, there must be a “science” of happiness.  Much to the reader’s surprise, Aristotle declares that this highest science, this science of happiness, is political science.  I suspect that Aristotle was presupposing that we are inherently social beings, such that not only are our relations to others a condition for our happiness (he devotes two chapters to friendship), but also if we don’t live in the proper way others will rebound back upon us diminishing our possibilities of human flourishing.  In the work of the Epicureans we find a similar preoccupation with our social being.  It’s necessary, for example, to the proper sort of community– “The Garden” –to achieve ataraxia, for if we have no control over our social world it will be very difficult to achieve peace of mind.  Likewise, there are remarks about the necessity of friendship scattered throughout Epicurus’s writings.

read on!


For anyone who’s interested, here’s the text of my talk today:  pasadenaagentialobjects

bluebandAs I teach Morton’s The Ecological Thought this semester, I find myself thinking a lot about ecological ethics and politics.  I really think we’re only barely able to pose these questions at this point.  Part of the problem lies at the level of the very connotations of language, perpetually getting in the way of what needs to be thought.  In a lot of ways this is what Tim is trying to address in his critique of what I call the “spatial or geographical concept of nature” is a critique of this issue.  If I understand Morton correctly, what he’s critiquing in works like Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought is a geographical or spatial concept of nature.  On the one hand, there is the domain of the city, the suburbs, the town, and the farm that is the world of society; while on the other hand there is the domain of the great barrier reefs, Brazilian rain forests, and Utah Badlands outside of society.  Under this model, nature is a place that you go to outside of the city and suburbs.  It’s a geography.  From an ecological perspective, this is problematic because it places ecological concerns pretty low on the hierarchy of concerns.  Are you going to worry about things like economic injustice, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. (the city) or the great spotted owl?  Worrying about the great spotted owl seems like the worry of the privileged and the decadent because antagonisms revolving around the economic, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., are more directly relevant to our social world or geographical locality.

Morton’s proposal– notorious among some environmental activists –is that we abandon the concept of nature.  Now, I’m with the environmentalists in being bothered by the idea of abandoning the concept of nature, but I think for different reasons.  In other words, I think they’re missing his point.  Morton’s point, it seems to me, is not that we should abandon the concept of nature so as to no longer worry about the great spotted owl, but that where we conceive of nature as something outside society, we also end up treating things like the demise of the spotted owl as being of no social concern.  My reason for being reticent to abandon the concept of nature are different from those of the environmentalist.  First, I understand nature in a different way than Morton.  For me “nature” does not signify a place outside of society, but rather is a synonym for being or existence, signifying the totality of what exists, composed entirely of physical or material beings, interacting through causes.  In other words, for me minds and society are no less a part of nature than society.  This is a part of my general polemic against idealism, Platonism, theistic religions, etc.  There are only physical causes in my ontology and I think there are a number of reasons that it’s important to emphasize this.  I’m not sure that Morton would disagree with this, though I have been troubled by his polemics against materialism as I think materialism, far from leading to an “enframing” of the world, instead leads us to appreciate the bodily, affective, and fragility of things, as well as the work and energy that go into everything (I think the expenditure of energy is one of the great oversights of how power and control functions in critical theory).

read on!


I will be giving the keynote address at the Objects as Actors symposium in Pasadena, California this Saturday.  The title of my talk is “Agential Objects:  Towards an Ontology of the Act”.  If you’re in the area, please drop by!  More information about the event can be found here.

the_bell_jar_by_kimded-d3cf4xqSo I haven’t been writing much lately.  Have I been busy?  Always, but not as busy as I should be.  Have I been sick of dealing with people online?  Sure.  We’re a pretty wretched, awful species, especially in a cool medium such as this.  Have I been in the “bell jar”?  Maybe a little.  My hope is that I’m like a fallow field.  I’m sure y’all learned about it in your highschool history classes.  Rotate the crops on a three year cycle and allow certain fields to lie fallow so that they might replenish their nutrients.  It was one of the great revolutions of the middle ages, as I recall.  Well, when I grow dry– and so much of my sense of self-value is tied up with whether or not I’m writing so I find the blank page deeply traumatic –I like to think that maybe I’m just fallow, that ideas and thoughts and bits of prose are somewhere gestating in me…  They’re just larval, inchoate, half-formed.  Doesn’t Deleuze somewhere say that “there’s nothing more distressing than ideas that slip away half-formed and unarticulated”?  That’s how I remember the quote; and the way we remember things is often what’s most important…  Not representation, but the life of an affective response that maybe, if you’re lucky, becomes something else.  Ecclesiastes, one of my most important books– alongside Job –said “nothing new under the sun”.  True.  I soldier on with the belief that everything is worth repeating because not everyone has heard it (the materiality of the signifier, it must travel), and that there is no such thing as a faithful copy.

Here I take heart from evolutionary theory.   The greatness of evolutionary theory is that it is anti-hermeneutic.  Rather than tracing back everything to an origin or a model (the species as ideal, eternal form), where it then measures the individual asymptotically in terms of how closely it approximates the model (fascism, idealism), it instead shows how every “copy” is a unfaithful and how this very lack of fidelity is what creates the new.  Yeah, I stole this from Deleuze too, but he was right.  Had Darwin been clever he would have entitled The Descent of Species, The Deviation of Species.  Of course, you dope (referring to myself), he never wrote The Descent of Species.  The title of that book was The Descent of Man.  The Deviation of Man would have been a fine title as well; especially for the Lacanian or cultural critic.  Anyway, that’s how I remember the title– again with the unfaithfulness of copies –as The Descent of Species; a nice slip of the tongue or act of forgetting.  That should have been the title.  I don’t know about you, but I perpetually suffer from the terror of repetition, from the horror of finding something I thought I thought (note the reflexivity) in the next book or article I pick up, and it absolutely paralyzes me; when it comes to writing anyway.  How, after 250k years and 6k years (at least) of literate culture, can anyone pick up a pen… Or a typewriter…  Or a keyboard?  I place my faith in the power of the unfaithful; the unfaithful copy.  That’s as good a reason to write as any.  I leave uninterrogated why my sense of self-worth is so bound up with writing.

The-fastBut in these moments where I’m not writing and feel dark and full of despair as a result, I like to think that I’m also a fallow field.  I like to think that while my writing slips away every time I resolve to resume again, every time I egotistically and arrogantly believe I might address the larger world– what else is an inscription on paper or an act of speech? –and yet fail to resume, that I am fallow, building up new reserves of nitrogen– or in my most delirious Fast and the Furious fantasies, that I’m building up nitrous or pure and endless thought and prose that burns like white fire –and that what’s really taking place is that my unconscious is working through all sorts of questions, thoughts, and new concepts; that it’s developing new styles of expression and building new prose, metaphors, and examples.  That fantasy prevents me from pulling my hair out in despair and allows me to think that maybe I’ll think again, that maybe I’ll compose again, that maybe I’ll have the great joy of the adventure of new sight.  And yeah, I say this all with humor and irony; a little anyway.

When I’m in these places I find myself reading “inspirational literature” or works that might give me faith once again in the world and the point of it all.  Believe me, that’s hard for an atheist and an anarchist.  It’s easy to lose faith in the point of it all when your honest, analyze the social world from the standpoint of immanence, and eschew all myths and eschatologies.  It’s hard when you no longer believe that history is inevitably progressing, though you believe it could progress.  No angels.  No saving events.  No romances.  Just the idiocy of existence and the sad idiocy of human history.  A real materialist refuses the satisfaction of the children’s stories of dialectical materialism.  Of course, there’s always hope.  Yet for the student of sociology and psychology, it’s also hard to hope.

sisyphusSo what is inspirational literature within such a bleak context?  Right now I’m reading d’Holbach’s System of Nature.  He’s not as great a thinker as Spinoza, but he’s pretty great.  He makes me think of times (a myth) when we fought for things and weren’t confused about everything.  Then there’s Jonathan Israel’s A Revolution of the Mind:  Radical Enlightenment and the Origins of Democracy.  Israel reminds me of things that are fine and teaches me of those who refuse to compromise to the exigencies of “pragmatic realism”.  Then there is Warren Montag’s Althusser and his Contemporaries, who teaches me of the alternative histories of structuralism, how rich the debates were during this period, of engaged and committed thought, of magnificent debates that had meaning, and who reminds me that often what I know of the thought of the continent is like a static filled radio broadcast that I try to piece together and that– as Serres teaches –becomes something different as a result of the noise.  I look forward to reading Montag’s book on Spinoza’s materialism.  And finally I’m reading Kristen Ross’s May of 68 and its Afterlives which mirrors, I think, Israel’s work.  Books of immanence.  Books of people creating new worlds.  Books of people somehow finding the transcendence to depart from the world into which they were born and in which they grew.  The sin of the historian is to find continuity or precedent in everything.  It’s a way of thinking that stinks to high heaven.  It’s a way of thinking that wants every consequent (note the language of logic, not causality) to be found in a premise.  It has no belief in the creative power of a thesis and the procedure that follows form it.  It has no faith in the deviant or queer.

I had expected to write about neurology, ecology and what it means to think ecologically, and other things this evening.  However, I think this will do for the moment as an attempt to resume.