Over 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.
Notice also that Phillip is both a subject and an object. We must simultaneously think Phillip as an entity that exists in its own right and as a seat of experience (though I’d argue contra Whitehead that not all objects are also seats of experience; I don’t think rocks and stars are). At any rate, I think there’s a deep rooted tendency in these sorts of theories to erase the independent existence of other beings, attempting to transform them into products of discourse, figures in a mode of existence, etc. This, tendency, I think, has all sorts of really problematic epistemological, political, and ethical consequences. As I outlined in the post to which Phillip is responding, we became so terrified of saying that something is real because we saw this as undermining pluralist values of tolerance that it’s become impossible for us to say anything is real at all. This, however, has generated its own set of problems.
At any rate, recognizing that there’s a difference between how an observer encounters another object and the object– if it is indeed an object; viz., clearly God appears in all sorts of “modes of existence” and discourses, but there’s no being that corresponds to this talk –itself, doesn’t entail that we’re caught within the modernist frame (as Latour conceives it) where the discourse of truth trumps everything. With Latour we can recognize that there are many modes of existence for relating to the world and that there are different functives in each of these modes of existence. In Luhmann– who does it better and far more precisely –this thesis takes the form of a “theory of distinctions”, where every social system has its own operative distinctions and codes, relating to meaning within that system in their own particular way (really folks, you need to read this guy; I’ll will drag you to him kicking and screaming). Thus, for example, the legal system only relates to events according to the distinction legal/illegal, politics relates to events according to the distinction power/non-power, economy profit/no-profit, religion according to the distinction marked/unmarked, ontology the distinction being/non-being, news media information/non-information, etc. It’s all more intricate than this, but the point is that in each one of these systems– and “system” is a synonym for “object” within the ontology I propose –is a particular mode of existence for relating to the world.
It follows from this that truth/non-truth– and I suspect that this isn’t the operative distinction in what we call science –is only one mode of existence among many. Moreover, if this is true of the observers we call social systems, then it also follows that social systems cannot be steered by one particular system such as the political system. Why? Because the other systems will continue to be organized around the operative distinction that structures that particular mode of existence, e.g., the economic system will continue to “process” events in terms of the distinction profit/non-profit, rather than the operative distinction the political system is attempting to deploy in the economic system. If true, this poses a tremendous challenge to our understanding of the challenges faced by leftist politics which continue, even in anarchist form (the form I most advocate) to imagine all other social systems being controlled by the political system or mode of existence. We’ve barely caught up to the phenomenon of operational closure in our political thought. Additionally, if Luhmann is right about operational closure, it also follows that one particular system (economy) cannot serve as the base for all the other systems, determining them in the last instance. This is good news, of course, for cultural politics as we’ve long suspected that there are a plurality of domains of political struggle and that they can’t all be traced back to economy (Althusser was a great forerunner here with his concept of overdetermination), but it also significantly complicates the nature of political struggle and how to think these different systems.
At any rate, all of this is a round about way of saying that I’m very much on the same page as Latour with the idea of a plurality of modes of existence. I agree with this hands down and this was even the central point of chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects: Many objects are not “merely” objects, but are also subjects and we need to be cognizant of this. Hence the idea of a “monad-oriented ontology“, that is attentive to how other objects encounter the world about them. Even Luhmann stresses this point, arguing that we must distinguish between the environment of a system (the particular way in which an object is open to the world or forms an umwelt), and systems in the environment of a system (other entities with different umwelts). Sadly he doesn’t himself follow this distinction through very consistently or coherently due to his ultra-posthumanist-correlationism. Had he followed this distinction through consistently (same with Latour), he would have arrived at the caveat that objects or systems cannot be reduced to how they are as correlates for another system. Put in Latour’s terms, both him and Latour would have come to see that we must preserve a kernel of the modernist divide even while completing that divide.
I will say this in criticism of Latour’s Modes of Existence: I think it contains a bit of the “beautiful soul” within it. Latour, I think, dreams of a “federative universe of harmonious differences” (Deleuze’s characterization of the beautiful soul in Difference and Repetition), where every mode of existence gets along in a happy daisy chain or orgy without an conflicts. This comes out with particular clarity in Latour’s discussions of religion in Modes of Existence. He wants to say something like “you atheists just don’t get it. You think religion is making ontological or scientific claims about the nature of the world, when in fact it’s an entirely different mode of existence completely unconcerned with such claims, talking about something entirely different.” In other words, he wants to draw an analogy to something like the difference between the mode of existence of the legal system where the operative distinction is legality/illegality and the economic system where the operative distinction is profit/non-profit, and suggest that the religious system or mode of existence is, like the legal system, talking about something entirely different than the scientific and philosophical system like the economic system. In other words, he’s tacitly suggesting that the new atheist is making a “category mistake” in their critiques. The problem is that this simply isn’t the case. Everywhere we look– at least in the United States –we see religious system making ontological claims rather than simply claims about the unmarked space or the space of paradox that arises necessarily within any system of distinctions for an observing (I’ll tell that fascinating Goedelian story another day). The point is that with these particular systems there just isn’t the possibility of a federation of peaceful differences (here I excuse Latour because he’s dealing with a very different religious universe in France and Europe).