September 2014

The skepticism I’m speaking of here is that sort that denies that we can know whether the world exists, whether any of our theories are true, whether other people exist, whether the moment before now really occurred and whether the moment after now will occur, and so on.  Let’s call this sort of skepticism “decadent skepticism”.  The decadent skeptic wins every argument.  I’m not referring to the sort of highly valuable skepticism we find in Derrida, Lyotard, certain moments of Wittgenstein, Latour (yes, I think he’s a huge skeptic), Hume, Nietzsche, Zizek, etc., where suspicion is called on a variety of our claims about reason, what we can know, what morality is about, etc.  These latter anti-philosophers are absolutely vital to the philosophical project of discerning how far we can get with reason (without having to make appeals to gods and whatnot).  I’ll call this latter sort of skepticism “critical skepticism”.  This skepticism, I think, does real service to thought and society by revealing biases, prejudices, assumptions, and illicit forms of power behind claims and institutions that claim to be acting on behalf of the good, public welfare, and the true.

The problem with decadent skepticism is that it makes no difference.  I guess here my assumption is that good philosophy makes a difference in how we do things.  Good philosophy leads you to see different things than you would have otherwise seen, pursue the formation of different types of institutions, regard different things as being ethical obligations, etc.  Good philosophy makes a difference in what we believe to be of value, how we judge, how we cognize, how we build, and so on.  Decadent skepticism ultimately makes no difference (at least as far as I can tell).

Suppose we’re unable to refute the extreme skeptic in his claim that the world does not exist, that there are no other people, that we’re just a brain in a vat hooked to electrodes, that yesterday really did not exist and tomorrow will not happen, etc.  The decadent skeptic always wins his arguments because he’s undermined any possibility of evidence through his skepticism.  The thing is, though, my life wouldn’t be any different were all of this true.  I’d still have to behave as if there are cause and effect relations, as if tomorrow will happen, as if yesterday I placed myself in debt, as if there are other people, as if I need to work in order to eat, etc.  This is why I call extreme skepticism decadent skepticism.  It is “philosophical” in the worst vernacular sense of the term:  that sense which wonders about things that ultimately make no difference whatsoever.  So no, I have no idea how to refute the extreme skeptic, but nonetheless neither my life nor that of the skeptic’s is any different if he’s right.



B_S_no._13H_bevel_gear_cutting_machine_blueprint_drawing_bIn Onto-Cartography I propose a machine-oriented ontology.  “Machine” is a synonym for “entity”, “thing”, “object”, or “being”.  Machine-oriented ontology– or more simply, “machinism” –is the thesis that all of being is composed of machines.  I make the argument for this thesis in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects; though there I use the term “object”.  Clearly the term “machine” is here used in a sense quite a bit broader than it’s used in ordinary language.  In natural language we thing of a machine, above all, as something that is built by humans.  Such a view implicitly holds that there are three broad categories of entities:  natural beings such as trees and stars, tools such as forks and ice pics, and machines.  We can then ask what it is that distinguishes a machine from a tool insofar as both machines and tools have humans (and other similar entities) as their condition of existence.  If, however, I make the claim that all of being is composed of machines, it is clear that I have distorted the use of this term as it occurs in natural language.  Clearly stars, planets, tardigrades and trees are not produced by humans (allowing that farming is a different form of cultivation than designing and building a car).  And clearly, trees are very different types of entities than blenders, computers, and garage door openers.  Certainly a work of art is a different type of entity than a garbage disposal.  A machinic ontology would have to be sensitive to these differences, articulate what they are, and develop a machinology (akin to a zoology) of the different types of machines that exist and what their distinguishing features are.  Just as reptiles are different types of animals than mammals, but both are nonetheless animals, automobiles, hammers, stars, buildings, and butterflies are all different types of machines, belonging to different genuses, but are nonetheless machines.

The choice of “machine” for “entity” is certainly a rhetorical choice.  What matters is the concept behind the signifier, not so much the signifier that’s chosen to nominate that concept.  If the term doesn’t appeal, you’re welcome to choose others.  There are few debates as irritating, worthless, and superficial as those over terminological choices.  What then, if any, is the rhetorical payoff of referring to entities as “machines”, beyond perhaps irritating vitalists and luddites?  If I’ve chosen the term “machine” rather than “thing”, “entity”, “object”, “event”, or “process”, then this is because I think “machine” comes closest to drawing our attention to how things operate and what they do.  “Process” comes close, though still doesn’t do as good a job, I think, as the term “machine”.  Machinism is an essentially operational perspective on being.  It asks not what things are, but what they do.  In this regard, machinism is an analytic framework similar to the manner in which phenomenology is an analytic framework.  It is a framework of concepts designed to analyze beings in a particular way.

NPCA_posters3Machinism can best be understood by contrasting it with what might be called a “substantialist” approach.  A substantialist approach asks what a thing is.  Here before me I have a marker.  The substantialist asks “what is a marker?”  He then proceeds to describe the marker.  “It is long and cylindrical.  It is made of plastic.  It has blue along its body and cap, spelling the word ‘Expo’.  It has a felt tip.  It is used for writing.  Etc.”  The substantialist might ask “what constitutes the essence— if there is one –of markers?”  The concept of essence has a bad reputation, but really all one is asking when inquiring after essence is “what set of features determine that that entity is a member of a kind?”  Or alternatively, “what distinguishes this type of entity from all other types of entities?’  For example, “what makes a marker a marker rather than a pencil or a pen?”  It’s difficult to see why this question is so objectionable.  What’s objectionable are misattributions of essence, or the claim that some type of thing has an essence when it really does not, e.g., claiming there’s an essence to “American” beyond being a citizen of a particular country (“Americans are like…”).

Without discounting substantialist analysis– there are circumstances where it’s entirely appropriate –machinism asks a different question.  Rather than asking “what is it?”, machinism asks “what does it do?”  Now one might suppose that this question was already covered under substantialism.  After all, when analyzing the marker, we said markers are used for writing.  However, writing is something we and other apes do with markers, it is not what markers do.  A machinic orientation asks what the marker does, how it acts and operates on other things?  For example, we might ask how writing instruments operate on us?  Does years of using writing instruments change a person’s bone and muscle structure in their hands?  Are the hands of writers different than those of non-writers?  Do writing utensils change our neurological structure?

read on!


Why does philosophy, dealing with such apparently abstract issues, generate so many controversies?  Because philosophy is essentially debating what counts as a publicly admissible reason as a ground for persuasion and governance.  It essentially discusses what is free game (or a personal preference beyond law) and what is binding or public. Philosophy is meta-politics, or the question of what can count as a reason, whether there are any reasons, who ought to be authorized to speak, whether everyone should be authorized, etc. It explores the boundary between reasons and violence (tyrannical imposition) and is politics before politics.

I won’t call it “negative theology” because that would be attributing too much to such a position, but it strikes me as closely related.  I’m sure my theology friends will correct me and I’m eager to learn.  So what do I mean by “theological mysterianism”?  When confronted by the critiques of rational/natural theology, I often hear people respond with mysterian answers.  What is a claim of rational theology?  Such a claim might be something like the following:

God is, by definition a perfect being.  If God is a perfect being, then God must also be morally perfect and must be omniscient, for when we ask ourselves what “perfection” would be, these properties are logically entailed.

If God is morally perfect, then the stories of Job, Adam and Eve, and Zeus committing adultery cannot be true, because they violate one or the other of these properties of moral perfection or omniscience.

How does the mysterian (usually an advocated of revealed theology) respond?  Generally they respond with the claims that humans can’t possibly understand or know God’s perfection because we’re just lowly humans and lack the cognitive capacity to understand these things (or the infinite).  In this way, the mysterian is able to preserve the truth of the stories they get from the authority of revealed theology (stories in sacred texts), by saying these things are beyond our comprehension.  The argument runs “Although God appears to act immorally in Job, it’s only an appearance produced as a result of our inability to comprehend divine perfection.”  Likewise, “Although the story of Adam and Eve appears nonsensical because there’s 1) no plausible reason why a divine being would need to experiment with whether beings such as us would eat the forbidden fruit, and 2) a being that did know how things would turn out but did such a thing anyway would be an immoral sadist, we just can’t understand God’s omniscience, rationality, or moral perfection.  He had his reasons and they were good.”  In this way, the advocate of mysterianism is able to defend the truth of these stories and stave off critique.

Such a strategy is fine so far as it goes, but it is not without consequences.  If we submit the mysterian argument to weak transcendental analysis, we see that it assumes that God is unknowable.  This has serious implications for discussions of God in public discourse.  The mysterian began by wanting to save the stories they derive from revealed theology by saying that God’s nature is essentially unknowable.  Not a bad strategy.  However, what they fail to notice is that they’re burning down the house when they say this.  If God we claim that God is essentially unknowable, that he’s a complete mystery, then we’ve sacrificed the right to say anything of God.  We’ve sacrificed the right to say that God is good, that God’s creation is good, that God commands certain things, that there’s a reason for things, or that there’s any way that we can distinguish God from a tyrant (a being that arbitrarily acts merely based on taste and is able to establish his acts as sanctioned because of his mere superior power alone; like Q in Star Trek:  The Next Generation).  In other words, in a desire to preserve his stories as true, the mysterian abdicates any right to use God as a reason or premise in any argument about our moral duties, how the polis should be organized, why creation is good, etc.  Why?  Because the mysterian has said we can rationally know nothing because he is so far “beyond” (as Plato would have it) any rational comprehension.  If you wish to make that argument, fine.  However, in doing so, you’ve sacrificed any right to use appeals to God’s goodness and commands in your argumentation on any other issue.  Notice, in making this argument I’ve done so in a completely immanent fashion.  I haven’t appealed to any external or outside criteria, but have merely taken the mysterian at his own word and drawn out the consequences of those words.  Somehow I suspect that no one is really a mysterian and that people who argue this way also argue that some knowledge of God is possible when they appeal to God.

Freud described psychoanalysis as being among the three impossible professions (teaching and governance being the other two).  To Lacanian ears, of course, this quip resonates a bit differently, for “impossible”, in Lacanese, signifies “real”.  The Lacanian real refers to a number of things, all of which can be retroactively detected in Freud’s famous statement about the impossibility of analysis.

  1. The Real sometimes signifies that which is impossible to represent.  Certainly the psychoanalytic setting is impossible to represent.  No matter how much Freud, Lacan, and psychoanalytic theory you read; no matter how many case studies you read; what takes place in the clinical setting will not be known to you.  The only way to understand the clinic (and probably the concepts of psychoanalysis) is to go through the clinic.  There’s simply no substitute for the experience of analysis itself and something slips away in every description of analysis.
  2. The Real sometimes signifies that which always returns to its place.  Here, of course, the Real would be the symptom that animates and organizes the subject’s being.  The symptom– at least in neurotics –is that which repeats in a variety of ways throughout their life.  It is the Real of their being.
  3. The real sometimes signifies “impossible”, or formal deadlocks and antagonisms that are at the heart of being and social systems.  Perhaps there is something impossible about psychoanalysis in this sense as well.

What is it that makes psychoanalysis such an impossible art?  Part of it has to do with the position the analyst strives to occupy.  Somewhere or other (the Rome Discourse?), Lacan remarks that the analyst plays dead in the analytic setting.  What could this possibly mean?  Certainly the analyst speaks (on occasion), scands and punctuates the anlaysand’s speech (by going “hmmm” and a variety of other things), opens and terminates sessions, breaths, and occasionally coughs and sneezes.  Her eyes are open and sometimes she even has expressions.

What, then, does it mean to play dead?  It seems to me that the death the good analyst seeks to embody is the death of any personal or individuating characteristics.  The analyst strives for something impossible:  to both be a face and to be completely faceless.  The analyst strives for perfect anonymity and pure faciality.  All signs of desire, inclination, taste, preference, politics, ethics, etc., ought to disappear from the analytic setting, so that the analyst might occupy the position of faciality as such.

This is a truly monstrous ideal.  Imagine would it would entail to be the perfect analyst or the perfect embodiment of this ideal.  First, the perfect analyst would have to be invisible.  The problem with visibility is that clothing, gesture, jewelry, make-up choices, hair choices, body art, etc., all indicate judgments of taste, ideologies, political beliefs, etc.  These features of the analyst’s being might, in their turn, function as lures for the imaginary, functioning as points of identification that foreclose the analysand’s ability to encounter the truth of her own desire and symptom.  “Of course my analyst wants me to be this, just look at how she dresses!”  Similarly, the perfect analysis would never speak in public, nor publish any articles– or certainly wouldn’t do so in ways expressing personal convictions –for these public pronouncements too would get in the way of the analysand encountering the truth of their desire.  On the level of relations to others, the perfect analyst would be someone without a trace; but not only is it impossible to relate to anyone if you’re without a trace, it’s impossible to live this way.  It is impossible to live without a trace of desire.  Everything about us, up to and including the practice of analysis, expresses desire in some form or other.

There are good reasons for this ideal.  At the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan writes,

The analyst’s desire is not a pure desire.  It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it.

In our day to day interpersonal relations we are poorly situated to determine the desire that animates our being.  It’s always unclear whether our desire is our own or whether it is anothers desire.  Is this my desire or is it theirs?  Is this my affect or is it theirs?  Are they angry at me or am I projecting my own anger onto them.  By fashioning herself into a nonperson or a dead person, the analyst creates a strange sort of mirror.  This mirror is strange for while it is indeed you that’s reflected in this mirror, you encounter yourself as alien and other in this mirror.  You also encounter an other other (repetition intended) in the form of the analyst that embodies the mirror.  Through the attempt to form such a strange mirror the analyst attempts to create a surface through which the absolute difference of the patient might be encountered and known.  The question, however, is how anyone can ever come to occupy this unheimlich space.

I’ll be teaching the following course at The New Centre for Research & Practice starting this October.  This will be followed by a course of the same name devoted to Onto-Cartography.  Please come join me!  Enrollment information can be found on the New Centre’s website.


The Anarchy of Objects:  Objects and Regimes of Attraction

Instructor: Levi Bryant Module: 1 of 2 Date & Time: Sundays: October 19th & 26th; November 2nd & 9th 7:00 PM – 9:30 PM EST; 6:00 PM – 8:30 PM CST

DESCRIPTION: Since the revolutionary work of Immanuel Kant, Continental philosophy has been dominated by the idealist or correlationist turn wherein it is argued that mind structures and constitutes reality. In 20th century Continental philosophy, this correlationist turn has been manifested in the thesis that it is language, signs, discourses, or narratives that structure reality. This thesis has also harbored the emancipatory promise of liberating people from oppressive conditions through a critique and deconstruction of various discourses and symbolic systems that structure social relations.Through the disclosure that forms of subjectivity and identity are not intrinsic properties of persons but are social constructions, these identities and power-relations are revealed to be contingent, and it becomes possible to build new forms of subjectivity, identity, and social relations. Such is the political import of the work of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and those influenced by Lacan. The emancipatory achievements of the semiotic turn are not to be underestimated nor minimized; however, they have obscured another form of power, non-discursive power, that arises from materiality as such. Power issues not simply from signification and how we signify, but also how the world of objects about us is organized.Through a reading of Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects, this seminar explores both the being of material objects and how they contribute to the organization of social relations through technologies, infrastructure, living beings, and features of geography. Over the course of the Fall seminar, students will be introduced to the ontology of objects, relations between objects, and how they influence the form that societies take. Special emphasis will be placed on interrelation between the agency of signs and the agency of material objects in structuring the social worlds in which we live. In exploring these themes, the seminar hopes to disclose new sites of political struggle as well as new opportunities for political emancipation.

REQUIREMENTS: Each seminar session will consist of lectures over the material assigned that week, as well as class discussion. Students are expected to participate in class with contributions of their own in the form of questions and observations. Students are required to attend all four sessions of the online seminar. Over the course of the week there will also be message board discussions over the material. Students taking the course for credit will write a 3000-3500 word essay applying the concepts drawn from the assigned readings in the analysis of how a region of the social world is structured.

2411132044041In Onto-Cartography I spill a lot of ink discussing how structurations of time and energy can function as forms of power (and analyzing similar things with respect to how space is structured).  An “ont0-cartography” just is a mapping of how temporal, spacial, semiotic, and material beings function in producing certain social relations.  The hope is that with better maps we can develop more efficacious political interventions.  When dealing with issues of temporal structure, I called this form of politics “chronopolitics”.

One of the things that often fills me with dread with respect to time is its binary nature.  Time forces me to choose and in choosing I am perpetually killing other possibilities.  I can’t have both of the possibilities.  In writing this blog post, for example, I am not write the exam for my students or talking to my friend I haven’t talked to in weeks.  In driving to work, I am not walking.  If I watch a television show, I am not talking to my daughter.  If I am reading Derrida’s Specters of Marx, I am not reading Badiou’s Logics of Worlds.  Each act necessarily excludes other possibilities because we exist in time.  We can always console ourselves by saying that time can be regained.  I can have the conversation with my daughter later, I can take the walk tomorrow, I can read Badiou another time.  However, time can’t be regained.  The time I exclude is lost forever.  The walk I take tomorrow will be different than the walk I would have had today.  Who knows what I missed?  That opportunity for conversation with my daughter is gone.  Badiou will read differently after I read Derrida than he would have had I read him first.

With each choice, I’m killing time, I’m aborting it, I’m exterminating other possible futures both as to what would have happened and who I would have been.  Yet it’s not just me that’s killing time with my choices.   It’s the social structure I live in that kills time as well.  As a community college professor, I’m relatively fortunate to have next to no publication requirements and to have fairly light service duties.  I have a large student load, but otherwise have a fair amount of free time.  From what I understand, things are quite different for my university colleagues.  It’s not unheard of for such people to work upwards of 80 hours a week between service, scholarship, supervision, and teaching.  The nature of the labor system academics inhabit– and often it’s not just administrations that are doing this, but we make unreasonable temporal claims on each other when it comes to uncompensated editorial, conference organizational, publishing, etc., work –that force us to kill time.  The binary structure of those 80 hours mean that during that time we are not attending to our children, loved ones, friends, home, health, etc.  We have aborted the stream of time that would have allowed that, and often our personal lives and health suffer significantly as a result of this.  To be sure, we chose this life, yet we also become trapped in it.

What I say here is not, of course, unique to academics.  It’s the nature of all labor.  We have to work in the current system to live.  As Zizek likes to say, we are free to choose any labor we like and can get.  What we can’t choose is to opt out.  In one form or another, then, all labor forces us to kill time.  I think back to a friend who did mortgages at a certain bank.  That bank was so greedy in its demand for time that the loan officers weren’t even permitted to take lunch or take off early on occasion to take a child to a doctor.  Such decisions would come with significant sanctions from the management.  “She chose to work there”, someone will say.  True.  But what was she to do?  As a single mother whose ex-husband was a dead-beat dad, she had to support her child.  She had to pay rent.  Eat.  Pay for daycare (because she had to work).  And all the rest that comes with being alive.  She was stuck in time and beholden to a disjunction of choice that was not of her own making but that of her employer’s who got to make the decisions about how time was used.  While she had some freedom to make her own decisions as to how to kill time, many of the decisions belonged to her employer because if she wanted to take care of her child and pay her student loans she needed that job.  She was caught in a sticky web of economic power.

I think American neoliberal capitalism is particularly egregious in how it forces us to kill time (especially with the student loan and broader debt system).  However, it’s also true that every social system has its own way of killing time, of requiring us to kill time.  The question is two-fold:  At the level of our own lives as individuals and our own decisions, how ought we to kill time to live a flourishing life?  Answering that question would require figuring out just what a flourishing life is.  At the societal level, however, the question is one of justice.  Are these ways in which social systems force us to kill time just and reasonable?  Is it right, is it just, for an employer to literally take the life of its employees because they have a gun to their head that basically says “work this time or don’t support your kid?”  This is a question of how to make time and the demands made on time a site of political struggle rather than a mere obvious given that’s just “how things are”.

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