Search Results for 'inertia'

It is not unusual for people to respond to claims I make such as the thesis that Continental thought has tended to systematically ignore naturalistic and materialist orientations with rebuttals to the effect that “thinker x is a naturalist and materialist and works in the Continental tradition!”  In other words, the idea seems to be that a few counter-examples are sufficient to rebut claims about what is dominant in a population.  This is a very curious thing for people to say coming from a philosophical tradition that’s been so significantly influenced by Foucault’s account of power and Althusser’s theory of ideology.  Both of these thinkers, in their own ways, teach us that power and ideology function to systematically suppress other orientations of thought on behalf of dominate structures of power and ideology.  It’s as if these theories are to be applied to every discipline and set of cultural practices except ones own favored terrain.

To even begin discussing these issues, I believe one has to start within an ecological framework that things in terms of populations.  An ecological orientation focuses not in discrete, individual entities, but rather looks at the existence of these entities in a network of relations to other entities defined by interdependencies, feedback loops, and hierarchical relations between what is dominant and subordinate within that ecology.  In other words, the fact that something exists is not, within an ecological framework, as important as how that thing is situated in a network of interdependencies to other entities and questions of how much influence that type of entity exercises.

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So in response to a previous post, a lot of folks gave me grief about the following passage:

I do think, however, that OOO can problematize our current political thought and open new avenues of political engagement and theorization. As it stands, cultural studies is dominated by a focus on the discursive. We hear endless talk about signs, signifiers, “positions” or positionality, narratives, discourses, ideology, etc. Basically we see the world as a fetishized text to be decoded and debunked. None of this should, of course, be abandoned, but I do think we’re encountering its limitations.

In the few years I’ve been writing on these issues, I’ve been surprised to discover just how hard it is to get people to sense that there is a non-discursive power of things; a form of power that is not about signs, ideology (as text), beliefs, positions, narratives, and so on. It’s as if these things aren’t on the radar for most social and political theorists. I get the sense that the reason for this has something to do with what Heidegger diagnosed in his analysis of the ready-to-hand. Heidegger argues that when the ready-to-hand is working it becomes invisible. We don’t notice it. It recedes into the background. Us academics live in worlds that work pretty well as far as material infrastructure goes. We are, for the most part, in a world where things work: food is available, electricity and water function, we have shelter, etc. As a consequence, all this disappears from view and we instead focus on cultural texts because often this is a place where things aren’t working.

In response to these remarks, I was told that 1) of course no one has the naive belief that everything is text (what a relief! of course, the question is whether this belief registers itself in theoretical practice), and 2) that, in fact, these things are all the rage in the world of theory. I’m well aware that there is a tradition of theorists that don’t fit this mold, and perpetually refer to many of these theorists in my own work. Theorists that come to mind are figures such as Haraway, Stengers, Latour, Kittler, Ong, McLuhan, Elizabeth Grosz, Jane Bennett, Stacy Alaimo, Karen Barad, Kevin Sharpe, Jennifer Andersen et al, Cathy Davidson, Braudel, DeLanda, Pickering, etc. They exist.

The point is not that they don’t exist, but that these forms of theory, I think, have been rather marginal in the academy; especially philosophy. In discussing these things, I’m not making some claim to being absolutely original or to be originating something full cloth. I’m more than happy to play some small role in bringing attention to these things; things that I believe to be neglected. I think, for example, that the new materialist feminists predate OOO/SR by 5-10 years, have many points of overlap with OOO, and have not nearly gotten the attention that they deserve. I think Latour and Stengers are almost entirely invisible in the world of philosophy conferences and departments; and I think that there are systematic reasons for this pertaining to the history of continental theory coming out of German idealism, the linguistic turn, and phenomenology. In German idealism you get a focus on spirit and the transcendental structure of mind. In the linguistic turn, you get a focus on how signifiers and signs inform our relation to reality (for example, Lacan’s famous observation that the difference between the men’s room and lady’s room results from the signifier in “The Agency of the Letter”, and Barthes’ claim that language is a primary modeling system in The Fashion System). In phenomenology you get a focus on the lived experience of the cogito, Dasein, or lived body and how it “constitutes” (Husserl’s language, not mine) the objects of its intentions.

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In response to a discussion unfolding in an earlier post, the always thoughtful Dan remarks:

Levi, you write: “Invariably I find some variant of the hylomorphic assumption in every argument against materialism. It’s always the same old saw: matter is un-form-matted or unformatted and thereby in need of form.” I am not even sure I share the terms of this discussion, so it’s hard to think that I will fall into this invariance even though I do not share all your convictions about ontics. “Form” is used here as if it had clarity and certainly the philosophical tradition seems largely in this mode where the arguments become — as here — about its existence or not or the relations between supposed “things” and forms. Since this site valorizes science, it might be worth mentioned that there are — depending on whom you ask — 3, 4, or 5 states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma, helium 2/Einstein/Bose condensate) and only one — a very unlikely one — corresponds to what individuals usually refer to under form. Indeed, some physicist comedians see the solid as just slow liquid. I am NOT contending — before I get help — that form is unavailable in the non-solid BUT that its attributes are more complex, dynamic, and open than most of the models that haunt philosophy. Further, I have followed to some degree your versions of more flexible form notions though they seem to share an intrinsic commitment to abiding integrity/coherence I see as imposed. If — as I believe — form “in nature” is transitional and interactive, permeable and unstable, and these are its usual characteristics, then the emphasis on a choice between form and formlessness is unhelpful.

Nicely put. I agree with all of this save the suggestion that I valorize science. I take science seriously and give it a place as something other than mere social construction. That’s different than privileging it or valorizing it. An interesting moment occurred with the final keynote speaker, Roland Breeur, in Holland on Thursday. He was giving a talk on Sartre, Bergson, and Flaubert on the phenomenon of stupidity. His thesis was that stupidity occurs when the living becomes material and mechanical. For example a cruise ship crashes overseas and the police officer won’t let anyone step on land until they show their passports. Clearly a law has become mechanical in rigid here in a way that is both inappropriate to the circumstances and that is stupid. At the end of his talk I objected to his use of the term materiality to describe this phenomenon. I claimed that it was perfectly appropriate to refer to this way of behaving as mechanism, but that mechanism and matter are not the same thing. In other words, he was working with a 17th century of matter that has been thoroughly abandoned in the last few hundred years as a result of findings in quantum mechanics, complexity theory, chaos theory, and dynamic systems theory. What we have seen, by contrast, in these last hundred years is the way in which matter is both dynamic and creativity (the emergence of life being the most notable example, but there being many other examples besides, viz. chemical clocks). He rather gruffly responded to me that he’s a philosopher and that as a philosopher he is working with a philosophical concept of matter. I asked him whether he believed life evolved from matter and he said yes, but never consciousness because consciousness, following Sartre, is “The Nothing”. I’m not sure what this could possibly mean, nor why I should embrace this idea of The Nothing (though I concede that I need to give an account of it).

At any rate, it seems to me that saying that one can simply ignore these developments in our understanding of matter because “one is doing philosophy” is intellectually dishonest. As a Portuguese architect– Francisco Vasconcelos –put it to me afterwards, this response was a a bit like claiming one can happily continue claiming that the world is flat or that the Earth is at the center of the universe after Copernicus. The point is not that science should trump philosophy, nor that science can replace philosophy. The point is that we can’t simply ignore scientific findings, continuing on as we did before, pleading that we’re working with a “philosophical concept of x”, rather than a scientific one. If science shows us that that philosophical concept of x was thoroughly mistaken, then this calls for us to revise our philosophical concepts. This, I think, is one of the strongest insights of Badiou. Badiou forcefully argues that truths never come from philosophy, but rather always come from elsewhere in other fields of practice and thought: science, art, love, and politics. The task of philosophy is to think these truths and the compossibility of truths. While I don’t follow Badiou completely in this thesis– I think philosophy has its own domain of concept creation following Deleuze –I do think philosophy always unfolds in dialogue with its others. Why continue to treat the concept of matter in terms of passivity, inertia, and brute mechanism when we live in an age that has discovered that it is anything but these things? If the task of philosophy is to think the present and the new truths that have appeared in the present, why not completely abandon this tradition of thinking matter that has been thoroughly refuted? Mechanism and inertia exist, to be sure, but they are the lowest degrees of matter; they are matter in its least energetic and creative state.

Over at The Nation, Patricia Williams has written a scathing editorial on Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ordinarily I would ignore this sort of debate– I’m particularly uncomfortable with all the cultural stereotypes flying about on both sides –but my attention was caught by a passing contrast Williams draws between values-based approaches to the world and social issues and what, for lack of a better word, might be characterized as materialist orientations. Williams writes,

Chua’s fears are not confined by race, ethnicity or personal effort alone. After all, in Greece and France students have been rioting because of the rising costs of a good education and the paucity of jobs. In Akron, Ohio, an African-American tiger mother named Kelley Williams-Bolar was recently prosecuted for lying about where she lived so she could get her children into a decent school district. In California, immigrant kids of Mexican parents are battling for the right to pay in-state tuition at public universities. In Memphis there are fights about whether integrating a poor school district with a wealthier suburban one would constitute a “theft” of education. In London, a woman named Mrinal Patel was accused of fraud for misrepresenting her address so as to qualify her child for a better school. There are few places, in other words, where people are not worried about the quality of life and distribution of resources on a crowded planet.

At the same time, if Singapore, China and Hong Kong are producing a greater number of students with musical proficiency and excellent test scores, it’s because they have made huge public investments in education. They make musical instruments available to students—as the United States once did in the first part of the twentieth century. They have teachers certified in the subjects they teach—as was the case in Russian schools during the Sputnik era. “Westerners” are not nearly as lacking in work ethic as Chua maintains; but you don’t get to Yale if your elementary school has no books. You don’t rank first in the world in science if, as in the United States, 60 percent of your biology teachers are reluctant to teach evolution—and 13 percent teach creationism instead.

It would be so deliciously convenient if calling your kids “garbage”—another parenting trick Chua boasts about—actually turned them into little engines that could. But our larger educational crisis will involve a public investment that simply does not correlate with shooting down the self-esteem of children or disrespecting the “Western-ness” of the parents who struggle to raise them.

On the one hand you have Chua arguing that our educational woes are the result of having the wrong sorts of values. Chua talks a lot about work ethics, decline, etc, etc., etc. In Chua’s universe, everything is to be explained by reference to the beliefs, norms, values, etc., that we embrace. In this respect, Chua is a thoroughgoing humanist. If we wish to understand why social relations are the way they are, argues Chua, we need to look to the beliefs and values that people embrace. Change those beliefs and values and you will change social assemblages.

Williams does not deny the importance of these sorts of values and their importance. On the one hand, she critiques what she discerns as a sort of cultural essentialism in Chua’s arguments, wondering whether these sorts of values are unique to the Chinese. On the other hands, she points to a number of other cultures that share similar values and aspirations. However, Williams does argue that these values are not enough. What’s interesting in Williams’ argument is the attention that she draws to infrastructure and objects with respect to issues in education. I’m unable to run my latest version of Word on my old Atari precisely because that Atari doesn’t have the right sort of platform to run such programs. Likewise, one can have all the values in the world, but if their schools don’t have books, reliable power, transportation to get to the schools, sufficient room for the students, a sufficient number of teachers for the students, and if the students are spending the day starving, etc., it’s pretty difficult for those students to perform.

Object-oriented ontology has received a lot of flack for being antihuman or hating humans or something, but that misses the whole point. In The Mangle of Practice, Pickering does a nice sorting of the difference between humanism, antihumanism, and posthumanism. Humanism, argues Pickering, is a position that locates all explanatory power in the domain of meaning, values, norms, signifiers, and so on. Antihumanism, in Pickering’s idiosyncratic characterization, excludes all pertaining to the human entirely. He describes antihumanism as the traditional stance of the physical sciences. There one is only concerned with cause and effect interactions, thoroughly ignoring anything to do with meaning, norms, power, and so on. Finally, posthumanism would be that position which attempts to think the interplay of these domains, placing them on equal ontological footing.

OOO is not antihuman, but posthuman. In my work what I try to draw attention to is the role that nonhuman objects play in human assemblages. As I argue in my recent Georgia Tech talk, nonhuman objects play a key role in producing the sort of inertia that characterizes social relations. People might aspire for something else, they might value something other than the sort of social world they find themselves in, but the nonhuman objects that populate our world (availability of resources, the set up of technologies, how institutions are structured and funded, etc), create a sort of inertia that channels us in particular directions. In my post “Falling and Social Assemblages“, I compared this inertia to a sort of gravity structuring the social. This is why, in “The Faintest of Traces” (my Georgia Tech talk), I argued that we always have to think the social from a geographical site and the ways in which the exigencies of that site structure social assemblages. We must take care not to think purely at the level of the signifier, the symbolic, and meaning as these can geographically exist anywhere. We have to look at the material make-up of social assemblages if we truly wish to understand them.

It’s not that I disagree with Chua’s values– though I would never tell my daughter she’s trash or threaten to adopt a “real” Irish-Spanish child to replace her –but rather that I believe that the domain of meaning is never enough to account for why social assemblages are as they are. The problem with arguments such as Chua’s, is that they often lead to cruelty and blindness. In their humanism, they place all efficacy in the agent’s beliefs, meanings, values, and so on. “If people x in region y of the country or world live in dire circumstances z, then this is because they must be lazy, have the wrong values, not have a good work ethic, etc!” Such arguments endlessly ignore the manner in which people are situated, and because they place all efficacy in human agents, they are able to morally blame these agents for where they are in the world and get themselves off the hook for any complicity they might have in the production of these social assemblages (through the manner in which capitalism systematically generates inequality, for example). It is my hope that if OOO does anything at all, it draws attention to this bubbling, yet often invisible, world of nonhuman objects and how they structure our social relations. Greater attentiveness to this dimension of our social world might allow us to begin identifying those links that produce certain oppressive social relations and devise ways to change them. Sometimes digging a well can have far more of a transformative impact than critiquing ideology or instilling people with the right values. Such analysis might not be as sexy as a demystification or an ideological unmasking or the heights of jouissance produced in morally condemning others, but often they make a much bigger difference. We need to cultivate the habit of tracing networks, even when we don’t know what we’ll find as in, by contrast, psychoanalytic critiques.

Recovering from an exhausting yet highly productive and exciting trip to Georgia Tech, I was excited to see that Alex Reid has a VERY INTERESTING post up on object-oriented rhetoric. In his discussion, Reid draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “collective assemblages of enunciation”. Deleuze and Guattari develop the concept of collective assemblages of enunciation most clearly in “The Postulates of Linguistics” in A Thousand Plateaus, but you’ll also find the concept deployed in Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature. For me, this concept, along with the complementary concept of machinic assemblages is ground zero of flat ontology. Why is this and what’s going on here?

I’m always surprised that “The Postulates of Linguistics” hasn’t received more attention in the secondary literature. Perhaps this has something to do with the period in which Deleuze broke in the United States. Dominated by the linguistic turn, Deleuze and Guattari offered an alternative to the obsessive focus on the symbolic allowing us to think forms of being outside the domain of the signifier. As a consequence, perhaps their work on language fell to the wayside. Now that this tendency is beginning to change, it’s possible to draw attention to these areas of their thought once again.

Perhaps the best way to approach Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of collective assemblages of enunciation and machinic assemblages is in terms how the superstructure/base distinction functions in vulgar forms of Marxist thought. Here base can be roughly conceived as technologies, material conditions, natural resources, geography, etc., while superstructure would consist of laws, morals, the semiotic, art, philosophies, etc., etc., etc. For years now one standard critique of Marxist thought has been that it falls prey to a technological determinism by virtue of a simplistic understanding of how the base determines the content of superstructure. Beginning with theorists such as Gramsci and Lukacs, attention was increasingly drawn to the domain of the superstructure or the semiotic. This would intensify through Althusser and Zizek and Badiou until eventually we got a framework in which the symbolic had become the new base and the material domain became the new superstructure. In other words, what we seem to have is an inversion of the relation between these two domains. Where the old school Marxists saw transformations in the base as the condition for political transformation, new school Marxists seem to see transformations in the superstructure as the condition for political transformation.

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The question that really fascinates me is that of how social assemblages hold together. When we look at the world about us we notice that social assemblages are patterned, that they have a certain degree of regularity, and that they have a certain durability in time. Why don’t they fall apart? Why do human beings maintain regular and ongoing patterned relations in the way that they do? Why don’t they succumb to entropy? There’s a scene from the Travolta film Michael that gets at this point. The arch-angel Michael is talking about his contributions to human history, and among them he lists the invention of standing in line. “Before that”, Michael remarked, “people just kinda milled about. It was a mess.” So that’s really the question. Why don’t people just mill about? How do people come to routinely stand in line? How do regular patterned relations that endure in time emerge when, by all rights, the social world should just be a sort of chaos with people milling about in a sort of endless Brownian motion without order?

Social theory and the social sciences give us a lot of answers to these questions. Sometimes we’re told that it’s the domain of representation and meaning that holds people together. Representation is here treated as the glue of social assemblages. Here I use representation very broadly to include norms, laws, signs, beliefs, narratives, ideologies, myths and all the rest. While clearly these must be important components of social assemblage, I think we need only look at any online discussion list to see why it falls short. Even among discussion lists composed by people who have very similar aims– say a political discussion list devoted to a particular party –we encounter just how diverse the representations are that inhabit people. Endlessly we encounter just how different people are in their beliefs, their understanding of the world, the narratives that inform them, their interpretations of others, and so on. Doesn’t this reveal that the domain of representation is a pretty weak glue? Can representation really account for why people don’t just mill about in Brownian motion, in a high state of entropy? We are elsewhere told, in a similar vein, that society is held together by “structures”. Yet the concept of structure doesn’t really seem to tell us very much. In a way structure is like Newton’s concept of gravity. Newton’s told us that there are certain regularities in the motion of objects, but it did not tell us the mechanism by which gravity is exercised. For many centuries this was a question quietly brushed under the carpet. We also talk about power, yet here we face again the question of why people internalize power, how different people internalize it in a regular or similar fashion, and why we recognize it at all.

It seems that social theory needs a shift similar to that between the shift from Newtonian physics to Einsteinian physics. Newton conceived of gravity as a sort of force that somehow attracts bodies to one another. The big mystery was how such connections could take place between objects located vast distances apart in space. Einstein’s revolution consisted of seeing space-time as a sort of fabric that is bent, warped, and curved by the mass of the objects that populate it. Here there is no force that exercises gravity, but rather, there is a curvature of space along which objects “roll” in relation to one another. The manner in which the sun curves space creates a sort of curve along which the other planets “roll”, keeping them in the orbit of the sun. Likewise in the relation between the moon and the earth.

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In my last post I mentioned that Joe Hughes, Jeff Bell and I are drawing up plans for a book on social and political philosophy and ontology. It seems to me that Sartre poses the nature of the question we’ll try to address. In the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre remarks that “…man [sic.] is mediated by things to the same extent as things are ‘mediated’ by man [sic.]” (79). In this regard, Sartre repeats, in his own way, Marx’s famous thesis that “men [sic.] make history, but not in conditions of their own making.” Sartre provides a gorgeous example of how things mediate humans to the same degree that humans mediate things later in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Is Sartre remarks,

In his excellent book, Mumford says: ‘Since the steam engine requires constant care on the part of the stoker and engineer, steam power was more efficient in large units than in small ones… Thus steam power fostered the tendency toward large industrial plants…” I do not wish to question the soundness of these observations, but simply to note the strange language– language which has been ours since Marx and which we have no difficulty in understanding –in which a single proposition links finality to necessity so indissolubly that it is impossible to tell any longer whether it is man or machine which is a practical project. (159 – 160)

Is it humans that define the telos of producing large industrial plants, or is it the specific properties of steam engines that generate the aim of producing large industrial plants? In a manner that will later be repeated by Stiegler in Time and Tecnics, Sartre will suggest that the technological realm takes on a teleology of its own.

In this connection, Sartre will set up a dialectic between praxis and antipraxis. Antipraxis refers to the inertia of the nonhuman realm and the manner in which it comes to structure human relationships and possibilities. One of Sartre’s questions, according to Joseph Catalano in A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles is the question of “…’the condition for the possibility’ of human relations” (22). Because Sartre advocates a metaphysical nominalism in which only individuals exist, he’s obligated to account for how social relations emerge. Among Sartre’s answers is the concept of antipraxis.

How is this to be understood? Through human praxis we create artifacts or products that come to condition subsequent human activity. Take the example of agriculture. Within a hunter-gatherer framework, it is likely that the growing of plants and the raising of livestock was not an aim in itself, but was a causal activity that supplemented what could be hunted and gathered. However, with time the products of agriculture (tilled land and domesticated animals) comes to take on a life of its own. Humans now find themselves existing in a field of inherited products of agriculture, new social relations begin to emerge. For example, people now begin to get tied to particular locations, rather than wandering all over the place, women no longer enjoy the egalitarian position they often enjoyed in agricultural society, paternity becomes important in determining labor and inheritance, time comes to be structured in a different way around the harvest and the rationing of grains over the year, and some form of military becomes necessary to defend against invasion and pillage. This is what Sartre refers to as the “practico-inert”, which consists of the products of human praxis that have now taken on a life of their own, structuring human relations in a particular way.

Those that engaged in agriculture did not intend these new social relations, but rather found themselves in a field– what I call a “regime of attraction” –that produced these new forms of relations. The situation is very much similar to a particular moment on a chess board. Occasionally one of your pieces end up in a position with respect to the other pieces where a particular moves is more or less necessitated by the positions of the other pieces. In Heideggerian terms, we find ourselves thrown into a world that is not of our own making and that structures our movements, ways of relating, even our very subjectivity and ways of feeling in a variety of different ways. Sartre raises questions, for example, as to whether we can univocally say that “primitive man” is anything like modern industrial humans, or whether they even belong to the same species or type. In this regard, he repeats the claims of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto.

The question that Sartre raises so admirably is that of how praxis is possible in a world where humans are mediated by things as much as things are mediated by humans. Put in terms of political thought, how are self-directing collectives or groups possible? Here I think that we should abandon the term subject within social and political theory and follow Deleuze and Guattari’s or Sartre’s advice of talking in terms of collectives or “subject-groups” because “subject” implies an individual or person, whereas the question of politics is always a question of collectives. Contemporary social and political theory is characterized by an opposition between what might be called, on the one hand, Spinozists, and on the other hand, Kantians. On the Spinozist side we have thinkers like Foucault, perhaps Deleuze and Guattari, Althusser, McLuhan, certain variants of Marx, and so on that emphasize the determination of collectives by impersonal forces that exceed the intentions of agents. On the Kantian side we have theorists such as Badiou, Ranciere, and Zizek that defend a sort of volunterism that subtracts itself from any sort of contextual determination.

The Kantians correctly pose the question by asking how self-directing praxis of collectives are possible, but too often end up completely underdetermining context or situations, showing little or no interest in their organization and how they overdetermine action in a variety of ways. As a result, they’re too often left with any nuanced or well developed analysis of what needs to be addressed in situations. Their position remains abstract. The Spinozists correctly pose the question by emphasizing how regimes of attraction structure our possibilities of action and engagement, transforming us into puppets beyond our control, but too often leave unaddressed the question of how any sort of agency or self-direction is possible within a field where we are products of these fields. I am not suggesting that Sartre has the answer, but that he has properly posed the question by asking how self-directing collectives can emerge within a field of antipraxis governed by its own intentionality. This is the squaring of the circle that needs to be worked out: one that is capable of doing justice to the structuration of the contextual or regimes of attraction, while theorizing the emergence of subject-groups capable of acting on situations rather than simply being puppets of forces beyond their intentions. How can we simultaneously think humans making history but not in conditions of their own making?

285321130_2c4c7d3ebb_mI have really enjoyed the appearance of media and technology studies folk, psychologists, sociologists, ecologists, critical animal studies theorists, anthropologists, rhetoricians, and all the rest as discussions surrounding Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology have intensified online in the last few months. I think this suggests that there is something highly productive in Object-Oriented approaches for these other lines of inquiry. Given that I think one of the roles of philosophy is to think the present or to provide conceptual tools that help us to better think the present and comprehend our time, I find this to be a heartening sign. Responding to remarks I made in another post, Scu of the blog criticalanimalstudies writes:

It seems to me this rejection of anthropocentrism is also the starting point for critical animal studies (And I should add I find Bryant’s formulation elegant. Philosophy can always use more elegant formulations.), even if (most) CAS heads in some very different directions than (most) SR after this rejection of anthropocentric ontology. I think one of the ways to understand this difference is by examining another common opposition that Bryant posits for SR:

On the other hand, I think all of those in the speculative realist camp are deeply exhausted by styles of philosophy that begin from the standpoint of critique (in the Kantian sense), the phenomenological analysis of experience, hermeneutics, and textual analysis. There’s a sense that these approaches to philosophy, as powerful and valuable as they are, have exhausted their possibilities and are standing in the way of engaging with the sorts of questions demanded by our contemporary moment. For example, its difficult to imagine something less relevant than phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis to the sorts of issues posed by the ecological crisis. Ecology just requires a very different set of conceptual tools. Moreover, we are living in the midst of one of the most remarkable periods in scientific and mathematical development and invention, yet we have a group of philosophers continuing to pretend that the Greeks said it all and that philosophy largely ended at the beginning of the 19th century. It is also simply bizarre to think that these developments are adequately thematized through the resources of textual analysis or semiotics. We need to become a bit more pre-critical again, I think, to adequately discuss these sorts of issues.

I am, in many ways, very sympathetic to this argument. In many ways also in strong agreement (this odd obsession with Greek as origin, and origin as the authentic and true seems relatively useless to me). But if we replace ecology with the systematic exploitation of animals (and of course, recognizing that the exploitation there is deeply implicated in the present ecological crisis), I doubt highly that “phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis” have exhausted themselves in changing the status of the animal. Not only have phenomenological moments with nonhuman animals been crucial for many people changing their views regarding animal exploitation, but it seems that humanism and speciesism are strongly powerful in maintaining the systematic exploitation of animals. If we are to change things, I feel that confronting how this humanism and speciesism is maintained from their roots to their present formulation is a necessary move, which means critique is a necessary tool for CAS. This critical element needs to be centered not just on political and philosophical texts, but also on present media and scientific texts. At the same time, I agree we need to pay more attention to some of the present movements in current scientific discourses. Indeed, CAS is also interesting as a philosophical movement because of its strong interest in things like current evolutionary discourses, primatology, cognitive ethology, etc. (And indeed, one of the few major continental philosophers that seemed to be particularly interested in these things was Derrida).

One of the criticisms I have often heard of SR is that it is a vulgar positivism and scientism. At least, this is the sort of criticism others are telling me in email that they’re hearing from their professors and colleagues. “Why,” the criticism runs, “would you want to bother with that naive and vulgar positivism?” No doubt this impression arises from the term “realism” itself, which is so often assumed to denote a world independent of all social and mental “contamination”. Given how hard thinkers have struggled for the last two hundred years to reveal the role that cognition, language, signs, power, and the social play in structuring reality, realism, as understood in this way, cannot but appear to be a sort of regression.

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In a generous response to my post “Realism Through the Eyes of Anti-Realism“, Lee Braver writes:

Your discussion of translation is very intriguing and, when applied to mind-world interactions, it does sound a death knell for passive correspondence. This seems to be a version of Kant’s position–our mind’s activity (A5) in organizing experience rules out capturing (R2) the way the world is independently of our experience of it (R1). Then the question becomes, what sense can we attribute to the existence of this independent world (R1) if it remains forever closed off to us. Even the bits and pieces are heavily constructed and interpreted. I take your response to be something like, the existence and nature of an object consists in its interactions with other entities, something like some of Nietzsche’s musings on WTP, and this includes the mind, so that what an entity coughs up in our interactions with it is part of its very nature. Is that right? Of course, if an entity is the totality of its interactions (a la Leibniz), then it isn’t truly independent of us, since interactions with our minds make up 1 of its essential properties. Also, how do we differentiate between accurate/true/illuminating bits and pieces and false/misleading ones? Why go to all the trouble of setting up experiments if my mundane interactions with a thing are just as valid and real? But maybe I haven’t got your idea at all. BTW, Joseph Rouse is also really good on the construction of artificial environments in science.

This is an important and deeply challenging question that I am still working through myself. A couple of points are worth noting here. As I have articulated it, Latour’s Principle states that there is not transportation without translation. This is to say, there is never a transport of a difference from one entity to another entity where the target entity functions merely as a vehicle for the difference from the source entity. The first point to note with the Anti-Realist project would thus be that Anti-Realist positions consistently violate this principle. Here we get a curious inverted mirror between Anti-Realism and Realism. Where Braver rightfully criticizes a certain variant of realist positions for treating the mind as a passive locus (R5) that merely reflects the world as it is (what I would call “naive realism”), Anti-Realism falls into a similar positing of passivity, but with respect to the object. For the Naive Realist the relationship between world and mind, object and subject, is uni-directional and uni-lateral, such that the object does all the “work” and the mind merely receives and registers the object. Similarly, for the Anti-Realist, the relation between mind and world, subject and object, is uni-directional and uni-lateral, such that the object, now, is a passive vehicle of the mind’s synthetic activity, contributing nothing of its own beyond the manner in which it “affects” the mind providing it with matter for intuition.

In other words, for Anti-Realism the mind is not “translated” by the object and for Naive Realism the object is not “translated” by the mind. In both cases, these claims are based on certain assumptions about the nature of identity. In the case of Naive Realism, identity is placed “in” the object (R3), such that the object is exactly what it is and knowledge consists in discovering or reflecting this identity. Knowledge cannot change this identity in any way as to do so would be to distort the nature of the object. Identity-in-the-object is thus a sort of inert and unchanging identity. We are supposed to get to the object as it is beyond any of its shifting changes. We find a similar thesis with respect to identity asserted by the Anti-Realist position. Where it is the object that remains the same in the case of the Naive Realist position, it is the mind that remains the same in the Anti-Realist position. The mind does not become something other in its encounter with the object, but the object does become something other in its encounter with the mind.

read on!


There seems to be a certain inertia to thought, to our dealings with the world, which leads us to a sort of ontological pre-comprehension of the world in which being is apprehended as stable, ordered, reliable, and law-like. Nor is this ontological pre-comprehension without warrant. You can discern this inertia with special clarity in the case of very young children interacting with those with whom they are familiar. The smallest change can transform an easy familiarity into suspicion. The young child reacts with averted eyes, refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the person they were before perfectly comfortable with. A quizzical, anxious look crosses their face. In response to these changes and shifts in what is otherwise stable and familiar, there seems to be a deep “ontological insecurity” against which we defend. And while perhaps there are laws of nature, invariant patterns of being, perhaps our search for such things is a defense against this ontological insecurity (a term I borrow with reservations from Adorno, I think), this need to find identity amidst and underneath change.

Last week I encountered something similar among my students in my Critical Thinking class. We were working through the basic language distinctions that will form all the subsequent work in the class, and I was trying to explain the difference between arguments and persuasion. According to Parker and Moore, an argument consists of a premise and a conclusion such that the premises are presented as support for the truth of the conclusion. Arguments attempt to demonstrate that a particular claim is true. By contrast, persuasion seeks to convince someone else of something, and may or may not use arguments. There are all sorts of things that convince us that have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of a conclusion. We might or might not persuaded because we have a high regard for the person who is speaking to us, or because we are captivated by the beauty or force of their words, because of how they dress, or because the person appeals to our vanity or evokes values such as Nation, God, Morality, etc. In these cases, the language does not function as a reason in support of a claim and has little or nothing to do with whether or not the claim is true or false. Yet nonetheless the speech persuades.

Seeking to illustrate this difference, I referenced modes of dress and job interviews. All of us have received advice about how to dress when going to job interviews, how we should speak, how it’s important to give a firm handshake and look the interviewers in the eye. If one is in academia or perhaps an IT field, this is particularly bizarre as it is unlikely that we dress as we do at a job interview when we are in the classroom or programming software. More fundamentally, the mode of dress has little or nothing to do with ones expertise in the classroom or these fields. In these cases, clothing is an act of seduction, a lure, that compensates for the insufficiency of being able to perceptibly display skill and knowledge.

Thinking this to be a very straightforward and obvious point, I was surprised when howls of protest issued from my students. “But clothing and grooming tell us whether or not a person is responsible!” “Clothing and good grooming tell whether or not a person is a good person!” What the students had missed– or wished to erase –was the manner in which clothing functions as a sign. In this connection, it is perhaps Umberto Eco who best articulates the essence of signs. As Eco writes in A Theory of Semiotics, “…semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie” (7). The students wished to treat these signs as immediate proof of the character and skill of a person, missing the manner in which the sign always differs from that for which it stands. In short, their protests spoke to a desire for a transparent social world where things are what they are and do not differ from themselves (would it be an exaggeration to suggest that politics is always divided between politics of identity and politics of difference, where the former aims after the identical and non-deceptive, whereas the latter allows beings to differ from themselves and their group?) Here one will recall the manner in which the young boy evades capture by his father at the end of The Shining. Recognizing the essential nature of signs, the boy covers his tracks in the snow, creating false tracks that lead in another direction. The boy recognizes that the sign and that for which the signs stand, share no essential connection with one another. In this way he is able to communicate a false trail.

Lefebvre drives this point home with beautiful clarity in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life:

And yet there is something in life which Pirandelloism [the form of theatre that presents everything as a relative point of view or interpretation of the world] cannot contain and which escapes it: the action, the event, the decision, the final outcome and the necessity for a final outcome; actions, and judgments about actions, in the sense in which they involve decisions… To play is to transform our point of view into a decision by confronting chance and determinism in the absence of adequate information about our opponent’s game…

We are never really sure where actions, decisions or events spring from. But, in all their stark reality, the results are there. What lies hidden within men and women is beyond our grasp; maybe these hidden depths are only an insubstantial mist, and not a profound substance (a Grund, a nature, an unconscious belonging to the individual or a group); it may only be a myth. Men and women are beyond us… We weigh the pros and the cons, but there is no telling when something new on one side of the scales will come to outweigh the other. So decisions may ripen like fruit on a tree, but they will never fall of their own accord; we must always cut the stem, we must even choose the moment of choice… Hence the infinitely complex, profound and contradictory character of life is given an element which is always new, and which is indeed constantly being renewed by knowledge.

To put it more clearly or more abstractly, ambiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. (18)

Perhaps, when he asserts that “the big Other does not exist”, Lacan means nothing more than this; that we act and live in a state of ambiguity where we are ultimately unable to calculate the hand of those in relation to whom we act. If the discovery that the big Other does not exist, that the Other is split or barred, proves far more traumatic than the discovery that we, as subjects, are split or barred, then this is because it confronts us with the semiotic nature of the world in Eco’s sense of the term. Not only do we not have adequate information about the others in relation to which we act, but those others do lack this knowledge of themselves as well (for they too are barred and are ignorant of their own desire).

As a result, there is no master-key or algorithm that would allow us to navigate the world. The pre-ontological comprehension of being as governed by invariant laws (whether in the natural world or the social world), would be a massive defense against this ontologically primitive contingency that marks existence. Nietzsche asks what will animates the philosopher’s will to truth. The answer would be found here. Yet as Deleuze claims in his powerful image of the dicethrow, “It is… a question of a throw of the dice, of the whole sky as open space and of throwing as the only rule. The singular points are on the die; the questions are the dice themselves; the imperative is to throw. Ideas are the problematic combinations which result from the throws” (Difference and Repetition, 198). In grasping Deleuze it would be a mistake to assume that we are the one’s formulating the questions or posing the questions. “The imperatives and questions with which we are infused do not emanate from the I: it is not even there to hear them. The imperatives are those of being, while every question is ontological and distributes ‘that which is’ among problems” (199). We are thrown into a space of being that questions and problematizes us, and it is this that we navigate in the individuate our being. We find ourselves thrown into a constellation, a set of aleatory singular points, that form the problematic field in which we are individuated. “the dice which fall are a constellation, their points form the number ‘born of the stars'” (Nietzsche & Philosophy, 32). Yet again and again philosophy striates this space of the constellation, erasing aleatory distributions of singularities, striving to transform being into static, eternal, lawful structures. The question is that of how it might be possible to think from constellations, from distributions of singularities, no longer erasing the non-existence of the Other.