October 2013

cat-lion_mirrorPerhaps a somewhat disturbing thought with respect to how we think about contemporary political struggles:  In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels famously say that under capitalism “…all that is solid melts into air”.  Contrary to Heidegger with his romanticism about rootedness– being a Black Forest peasant is probably much better from the standpoint of a philosopher contemplating their existence from afar than for Black Forest peasants themselves; just ask the people of the Limousin region of France –one of the great things about capitalism is that it erodes local customs, traditions, and superstitions, revealing subject as “void”.  Every subject alternatively becomes “noone and everyone” because all essentialist identities (the Great Chain of Being where everyone has a place and function) are eroded under capitalism.  From an economic, quantitative point of view, a child can do the same labor as a man and a woman and a black man and a Baptist and a Jew and…  Well you get the idea.  For the first time in history, universality is genuinely introduced as concrete universality insofar as everyone can equally be measured by the abstract dollar, thereby evacuating all identity (cf. Brian Rotman’s Signifying Nothing for the importance of this).

While concrete universality is instantiated at this point, we nonetheless get abstract equality.  Cultural predicates have been evacuated of their determinative power over identity under capitalism.  As Charles Taylor says of religion in A Secular Age we come to recognize religion as a belief, an option, whereas before it was an intrinsic determinate and the agency of the divine in the world was as obvious as the agency of germs in a men’s restroom.  Now one can try on religions like so many outfits.  One can opt to be a Tibetan Buddhist or jump from Catholicism to Unitarianism.  Or one can opt out altogether and be an atheist.  This happens more or less with everything.  It all becomes custom.  Just think, for a moment, how novel the concept of ones practices, identity, and culture as custom is.  To call these things “custom” is to already note a minimal distance between subject and identity.  Where before what we call custom would be invisible because that just is what someone is, now all of these things become outfits.  Again, subject becomes void.  If this gives us an abstract equality, it’s because the conditions of equality are all there by virtue of the voiding of the subject and the disambiguation between imaginary identity and status as an agent, but nonetheless this equality hasn’t been effectuated in the concrete.  Paradoxically, capital reveals that equality is possible, while nonetheless maintaining the most profound inequality that’s ever existed (incidentally, this is why every discourse that romanticizes rootedness and historicity is necessarily reactionary.  Such discourses seek to suture the status of subject as subject or void, filling them with a substantial content– no matter how contingent or thrown –when, in fact, subject means that every content fails).

read on!


I don’t have the time to flesh all of this out as I’m in the middle of grading, but I wanted to raise the question of just how much we’ve managed to think the materiality of power.  Among us critical theorists it seems that the term “materialism” functions as a sort of shibbolith, a term d’art that everyone must embrace to participate in these discussions.  The odd thing is that much of our critical theory– when evaluated from the standpoint of the tradition descended from Democritus –doesn’t look very materialist.  We spend a lot of time analyzing discourses, language, ideologies, and institutions, investigating how these things exercise control and power, yet oddly these things don’t look particularly material.  Indeed, they look downright idealist when you think about it.  The premise seems to be that if we can just debunk these things then people will change their ways.  In other words, political and social change seems to occur at the level of beliefs or thought.

I hasten to add that the issue here is complicated.  If materialism is true and only matter and void exist, if it is true that mind is brain and that everything that is requires a material carrier to act in the world, then it follows that beliefs, institutions, ideologies, language, and institutions are themselves material entities.  I’ve tried to develop this point in my discussions of simulacra on this blog on prior occasions.  Recognition of the materiality of things like signs and ideologies leads us to consider things that we might otherwise overlook in the functioning of power.  In addition to the content-based analysis of ideologies, epistemes, discourses, and systems of signs, we’re led to attend to the speed and geographical range presiding over messages or information, the bandwidth required for a particular message to be integrated or processed by a cognitive or social system, the calories and energy required for messages to both be understood and transmitted and so on.  Speed, range, and bandwidth are forms of power that pertain not to the content of a message or sign, but to the sign purely as a material entity that must conquer time and space to exercise its power and that must contend with requirements of energy and calories to function.  For example, empires would not have been possible without writing, and this not by virtue of what the writing said, but by virtue of what writing is.  Writing allows shared identity and regulation to be produced across large geographical expanses in a way that’s simply not possible without speech.  Writing, however, must deal with issues of bandwidth with respect to human brains and social systems: it must navigate what brains and social systems are able to process and integrate in a timely and integrative fashion.  The greater the difficulty of the message, the greater the likelihood the message will be coded as noise, thereby having no social-genetic effects.  It is likely that these bandwidth and energetic issues are actually measurable, allowing for predictions as to whether or not messages structured in particular ways will be capable of selecting/affecting system states for a social system.

But I digress.  There’s another form of material power we barely attend to at all.  Today in The Atlantic Emily Badger discusses the short and long term effects of poverty on the brain.  As she writes,

Poverty shapes people in some hard-wired ways that we’re only now beginning to understand. Back in August, we wrote about some provocative new research that found that poverty imposes a kind of tax on the brain. It sucks up so much mental bandwidth – capacity spent wrestling with financial trade-offs, scarce resources, the gap between bills and income – that the poor have fewer cognitive resources left over to succeed at parenting, education, or work. Experiencing poverty is like knocking 13 points off your IQ as you try to navigate everything else. That’s like living, perpetually, on a missed night of sleep.

She continues:

Those who grew up poor later had impaired brain function as adults—a disadvantage researchers could literally see in the activity of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex on an fMRI scan. Children who were poor at age 9 had greater activity in the amygdala and less activity in the prefrontal cortex at age 24 during an experiment when they were asked to manage their emotions while looking at a series of negative photos. This is significant because the two regions of the brain play a critical role in how we detect threats and manage stress and emotions.

Poor children, in effect, had more problems regulating their emotions as adults (regardless of what their income status was at 24). These same patterns of “dysregulation” in the brain have been observed in people with depression, anxiety disorders, aggression and post-traumatic stress disorders.

This is a very different kind of power than the sort we find Zizek analyzing under the title of ideology, Horkheimer and Adorno analyzing with respect to things like the culture-industry, Lyotard with his critiques of master-narratives, Lacan with his analysis of the agency of the signifier, or that deployed by Derrida in his critique of foundational operations governing our thought and culture.  Perhaps Foucault comes closest to analyzing this form of power with respect his final work on biopower, but even there the focus is more on discourses pertaining to life and ways of controlling life, rather than what is going on at the organic level.

What we have here is a form of power that assaults the very fabric of the organism in its organic being– not at the level of the “lived body” of say Merleau-Ponty –and that developmentally forms that body in the ways that define that of which it is capable.  There’s a strange blurring of the nature/culture divide that’s very difficult to think about.  Clearly the milieu in which these bodies develop has strong semiotic or cultural components, but these things are not just signs.  Diet, for example, is structured by culture in all sorts of ways, but the developmental effects of diet on the body and nervous system are all too real and play a role in defining that of which a person is cognitively and enactively capable.

We need tools for critically thinking about these forms of power and, above all, for responding to them.  As always, the issue is not one of rejecting the tools of semiopolitics.  It’s not being suggested that we should reject Zizek, Adorno, Lacan, Lyotard, Derrida, and so on.  It’s a question of recognizing the limitations of these analyses of power and the practices that issue from them, while also recognizing the importance of these critiques in their proper domain of thought and practice.  Sometimes it seems to me that critical theorists become very defensive whenever it’s suggested that there are other forms of power that they’re overlooking and that play a key role in maintaining patterns of power, negentropic systems, that define oppression within our social system.  I find these forms of power terrifying as they’re simultaneously so intimate and yet so alien– no one can really recognize that their “spirit is a bone” –but nonetheless, there they are and all sorts of work in neurology and developmental systems theory in biology attests to their existence.  What tools need we develop to bring these ambient fields into greater relief and what practices can we enact to combat them?


Drawing on Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence and Luhmann’s theory of distinctions, we can raise questions such as “what makes a particular form of communication recognizably that form of communication.”  For example, for Latour, in science or religion– and please folks, knock it off with the use of Latour’s abbreviations such as “REP” and “REL” in these discussions!  Open the discussion to readers who haven’t picked up the book yet! –there must be specific “felicity conditions” that render enunciations or speech-acts within these domains recognizable as a “scientific speech-act” or a “religious speech-act”.  In this regard, Latour carries out an implicit critique of some of his earlier work.  Take his writings in science studies.  In those works, he had shown how the supposedly a-political work of science is actually pervaded by all sorts of politics.  The Latour of the Modes, however, notes that many working scientists would reject some of the claims that he makes.  That is, they wouldn’t deny that politics is involved in this or that aspect of what they do, but they would deny that some of the things Latour draws attention to are scientific utterances.

This places Latour in a difficult position.  On the one hand, the core spirit of his actor-network theory lies in respect for how actants describe and understand what their doing.  For example, in Irreductions he lambasts what he’ll later call “the sociology of the social” for ignoring the discourse of, say, the nun, by immediately showing how her discourse is just a veiled reflection of economic relations or Oedipal issues, etc.  However, when Latour elsewhere gets to the analysis of the work of scientists, he seems to do exactly this.  For example, in Science in Action he argues, among other things, that bibliographies and references are forms of rhetoric meant to intimidate the disputant, rather than straightforward support for the claim being made.  Through analyses like these he seems to ignore the scientist’s self-description of what she’s doing.  If Latour is to remain consistent, he needs a theoretical framework that is simultaneously able to maintain respect for the dignity of the speaker’s self-description while also showing how the speaker’s work is pervaded by these other networks.  This is what Modes attempts to do.  In quasi-transcendental terms, it attempts to develop a sociology of the felicity conditions that identify an enunciation as being an enunciation of this or that type, while also showing how other enunciations wouldn’t belong to that mode of existence.

Luhmann is up to something similar with his theory of operational closure and distinctions.  In Luhmann, an operationally closed system– say religion –is a system that forms enunciations and responds to events in the environment or broader world through the use of particular distinctions and codes.  In other words, each domain– politics, religion, science, art, the discourse of love, etc. –has certain felicity conditions that determine whether or not the enunciation is a communication of that type.  The community of artists will have a set of distinctions or codes that determine whether or not an enunciation is an enunciation about art or whether a work is a work of art or not.  For example, the monthly budget report at a particular art studio would probably not be an enunciation about art because it wouldn’t fit with whatever code governs that form of communication at that point in history (for Luhmann the codes and distinctions governing a communication system evolve and change throughout history).  Likewise, for Luhmann there is a communication system governing love that lovers participate in and that determines whether a communication between the two pertains to love or something else that falls outside the discourse of love.  Here it’s important to note that for Luhmann anything can potentially enter the domain of an operationally closed system.  For example, there will be circumstances under which the studio’s monthly budget report can become an artistic act or utterance, but only when it is integrated according to the code that structures artistic communication (e.g., the budget report is framed and placed on the wall or a group of performance artists correlate the numbers with the movements of their body, costumes, certain props, etc.).  In other words, operational closure does not mean that communications from one operationally closed system cannot enter another, but only means that when it does enter that other system it will be integrated according to the codes and distinctions governing the other system.

read on!


LeibnizA throw away post, but I have to get this off my chest as the shame is killing me.  I love the moderns.  I even love Descartes, but in particular, I love Spinoza, Leibniz, d’Holbache, and Hume.  Gasp, I even love Kant!  Especially the Kant of the Critique of Practical Reason who raises profound and fundamental questions such as how it is possible for a will to freely determine itself– thus effectively asking how transcendence beyond environment, upbringing, and historical thrownness are possible –but I’m not sure I would know how to think (if I ever manage to think at all) if it weren’t for Kant’s first critique.

If I declare this in the form of a confession, then that’s because I think us Continentalists spend a lot of time vilifying the moderns and the Enlightenment.  We have Latour perpetually speaking as if modernity were the worst thing to ever happen to the planet.  We have the Heideggerians speaking of modernity as the rise of enframing, the forgetting of being, the rise of ultra-nihilism, and the destruction of all that is good.  We have many of the post-structuralists speaking of modernity as a grand meta-narrative responsible for all oppression and intolerance.  We have the Adornians going so far as to blame modernity for the Holocaust.  These days it’s a pretty bad thing to love the moderns.  And believe me, throughout graduate school, I was in this camp as well.  I went to Loyola to study Heidegger with Tom Sheehen and was all Heidegger all the time during those early years.  Later, as I moved over into the French post-structuralists, I was all about undermining meta-narratives and deconstructing the dreaded subject.  To hear us philosophers tell it, it is somehow philosophers, and in particular the philosophers of modernity, who are responsible for all the world’s evils:  intolerance, the destruction of nature, the exploitation wrought by global capitalism, patriarchy, gender oppression, racism, etc.  Boy us philosophers are a powerful bunch!

Read on!


handwritingTaking a brief break from marking, as I grade student essays I find myself thinking dark, unfair things:  bad writers are bad people.  Before explaining just why this thought occurs to me (and I think I’m wrong to think this) it’s first important to clarify just what I mean by “bad writing”.  I’m not talking about incomplete and awkward sentences, nor am I talking about poor spelling and bad organization.  These things are instances of bad writing, of course, but they are not the sort of bad writing I’m talking about.

Rather, the sort of bad writing I’m talking about might be described as solipsistic writing.  It is a form of writing that fails to consider its audience or what it’s audience would need to know in order to understand what the writer is talking about.  Such writing just jumps into the topic without telling the reader what the topic is– e.g., it simply proceeds to answer the question of the essay prompt without introducing the question being discussed –it provides no context, fails to define terms, provides no examples to illustrate concepts and points, and fails to provide supporting reasons (that a stranger from another very different culture could share) for controversial claims.  The bad writer in this sense is the person that assumes their audience is just like them (or forgets that they have an audience at all) and assumes that their audience has all the “knowledge” that they have.  The bad writer, in short, is a solipsist.

read on!


surat_hands_potteryOver at Algorithm and Contingency, Robert Jackson has an interesting post up discussing Harman’s object-oriented philosophical critique of materialism.  If there is one fundamental point where I’ve disagreed with Harman it’s on his rejection of materialism or physicalism.  Where Harman seems to hold that it is possible for non-physical beings to exist (for example souls), I hold that whatever else beings are, they must be material or physical.  In the context of Jackson’s post, I was surprised to read the following:

But it doesn’t matter what sort of ‘matter’ is deployed in materialism, its deployment is always against form. For Graham, philosophy has historically managed ‘matter’ into two areas; it is either some ultimate ‘stuff’ or physical ‘structure’ upon which all derivative forms can be broken down, or else, matter lies in the absolute formlessness of primordial emergence, which spits out derivative forms within its endless differentiating movement. Graham calls this second one, the “amorphous reservoir”, of matter, focusing on Bennett’s indeterminate wholeness or a throbbing, pulsating movement of matter-energy. I prefer to call it an invisible framework.

Here Jackson presents two versions of materialism:  atomistic materialism such as we find in Democritus and a sort of “hyletic materialism” positing a pure formless stuff out of which individuated or formed entities somehow emerge.  If I’ve understood him correctly, both of these materialisms suffer, according to Harman, from undermining objects.  For example, under Harman’s reading, atomistic materialism denies the dignity of emergent objects, instead reducing them to their atomistic parts which are then treated as what is “really real”.  While the materialism of Inwagen fits this bill, it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.  Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves.  In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged in these particular ways.  In this regard, far from “undermining” objects, he shows how certain objects are only possible through certain relations.  Materialism by and large has never been the thesis that beings just are their parts.  Rather, even among the atomists, those parts must be arranged or organized in a particular way.  So much for that criticism.

read on!


Daisy_chainOver at Circling Squares, Phillip– who’s always worth reading –has a nice post responding to a post I wrote earlier this week on the erasure of the real in contemporary thought and society.  I wanted to zero in on one thing Phillip writes as this is actually the theme of my next book, tentatively entitled Monad-Oriented Ontology, which should come out with the Posthumanities Series with University of Minnesota Press in the next year or so.  Phillip writes:

Having been reading Latour’s modes book a lot recently I can only read this in modal terms.  For Levi it seems that there are only two modes, still.  There’s the sunset and the sun; the subjective and the objective; the unreal and the real.  Only two types of existence, two ways of persisting.  All further distinctions must seemingly be made within those master categories.  His ontology is pluralist inasmuch as it consists of a vast plurality of things but it’s dualist in terms of its modes of existence.

Therefore, in Latour’s terms, Levi is firmly within the ‘modern parenthesis’ – post-Locke, pre-James.  Of course, I’m sure he’d criticise Latour’s rejection of substances, etc. but Latour’s pluralism poses some challenges.  E.g. are all ‘subjective’ phenomena really of one mode?  Is ‘subjective’ really such a secure storehouse for such diverse phenomena as sense experience, dreams, fear, ratiocination, etc?  Can all further distinctions safely be made within those two categories?

This is simultanteously right and misleading.  Before I get to that, I’d first like to say that while I haven’t yet finished Latour’s Modes of Existence, what I have read so far suggests that it’s his best book to date and, in certain respects, that it marks a revolution in his thought.  I would argue, however, that what Latour seeks to accomplish there as an analysis of modes of existence, is what is at the heart of Luhmann’s theory of distinctions (and that Luhmann does it better).

So where is Phillip right and where is he misleading?  Phillip is right to point out that I draw a distinction between objects in-themselves and objects-for-another (though this distinction doesn’t quite map on to the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity because there is an [epistemological] objectivity proper to objects-for-another).  There are two ways in which we can view objects.  We can approach objects as they are in-themselves, regardless of whether they are observed or related to by anyone, or we can observe how various types of subjects or observers relate to objects.  That is, we can think about objects as they are for another.  Latour (and Luhmann), I think, have a tendency to erase the independent existence of objects by virtue of approaching them almost solely in terms of how they are discoursed about and related to within a mode of existence (Latour) or social system (Luhmann).  However, while it is certainly indeed true that I might have a particular legal discourse about Phillip, it would be odd and, I think, obviously wrong to suggest that Phillip’s existence is in any way dependent on my discourse about him.  Phillip exists just fine as an object-in-himself regardless of whether or not any other entity discourses about him or observes him.

read on!


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