Responding to my post on Diamond, Yant writes:

One way of approaching the, I think, quite legitimate reservations that Johan raises is to recognise (and this should be quite obvious really) that just because we’ve got a noun for something doesn’t mean we should take it to be an object!

To use words like ‘European, Inca, Maya, European maritime technology’ do not necessarily make a work ‘object oriented’ – this is too hasty a conclusion. Whether a ‘culture’ or a ‘nation’ or a ‘state’ can be legitimately referred to as an ‘object’ at all I think is a very important point.

I study international relations and it is of the utmost importance to the theory of this discipline whether one accepts the state and thus the international system to be closed, black-boxed ‘objects’ (as the dominant, mainstream neo-positivist theories hold) or whether it is actually necessary to insist on opening up this black-box and actually denying it closure (both for ontological and ethical reasons). Similar concerns are routinely raised about Diamond’s histories and I think an OOO driven social science needs to address these problems as problems head on not just accuse critics of correlationism.

I think the problem with Diamond’s work is not that it is oriented towards objects (which is good) but that it is (like Braudel and McNeill certainly) overwhelmingly macro-oriented; this is not necessarily a bad thing but it is certainly something with a lot of problems attached to it.

If we are to advance object oriented theory into the humanities and social sciences further (and this is very much my intention) we need to square some circles. For example, are not the histories of Diamond et al. not the absolute anti-thesis of Latour’s ANT? (And is not Latour’s ANT somewhat the cause celebre of object oriented approaches in the social sciences so far?)

Being ‘object oriented’ doesn’t necessarily forgive one all other sins. I don’t think one need be ‘correlationist’ to recognise the problems of macro-history. That isn’t to dismiss its relevance, however, just to insist on the recognition of its problems.

I initially misunderstood the problem that Jonah was alluding to (here and here). My mistake. Yes, this is all absolutely correct. We cannot assume that just because there is a noun for something that something is an object.

With that said, I think it’s important to exercise some caution where Latour is concerned. OOO and Latour are not identical. Graham already shows some major divergences in Prince of Networks, where Latour falls into the internalist camp pertaining to relations, while OOO is externalist. To this, I would add that Latour, in my view (Harman need not be guilty of this criticism) is often confused with respect to mereology.

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I am just now discovering Ian Bogost’s Latour Litanizer which he created back in December of 2009. Bogost’s Latour Litanizer generates random lists of objects drawn from wikipedia. Now, it seems to me that there is something philosophically important going on with the Latour Litany. Latour litanies are not simply amusing lists of objects, but do important philosophical work by performing a sort of object-oriented epoché. Often when philosophers speak of objects– including object-oriented ontologists –we use the blanket term “object” without referring to any specific or concrete objects.

The danger here is that discussions of objects are implicitly governed by a prototype object that functions as the representative of all objects. Cognitive psychologists treat prototypes as specific examples that function as representatives of abstract concepts. Think back to the 80’s and the dire Reagan revolution. Many readers will recall all the talk of “welfare queens” that continues down to this day in discussions of social programs. Welfare queens were mythological single women on welfare who had multiple children (to get larger welfare checks, the story goes) and who used their money to buy expensive things like cadillacs. In short, the non-existent welfare queen came to function as a prototype or exemplary instance representing all people on welfare. This prototype caused much mischief in welfare debates and subsequent legislative reforms.

Here then we encounter the importance of Latour’s litanies. What Latour’s litanies effectively accomplish is an annulment of prototypes that come to stand for the being and nature of all objects. Through the creation of a litany of heterogeneous objects, the object theorist is forced to think that heterogeneity as such rather than implicitly (and often unconsciously) drawing on one prototypical object that functions as the representative of the nature of all objects. Here we might think of Borges’ entry from a Chinese encyclopedia discussed so brilliantly at the beginning of The Order of Things. The Latour litany is a technique for thinking this a-topos, this heterotopia, that follows from the central claims of flat ontology. And this task is accomplished all the better with a randomizer such as Bogost’s Latour Litanizer which confronts the thinker with heterotopic configurations of objects not of her own making, demanding the thought of this heterotopia. I’ve placed Bogost’s important piece of philosophical technology– and it is a piece of philosophical technology, not unlike a microscope for the biologist –in my blogroll. Experiment with it. Bogost’s Latour Litanizer might be the first genuine piece of laboratory equipment ever created for philosophy.

The more I think about the recent discussion surrounding Life After People and narrativity (here, here, here, and here), the more it seems to me that what is at stake is something similar to what Marx denounced under the title of “commodity fetishism”. Initially, this suggestion might sound very strange coming from an object-oriented ontologist, for commodity fetishism occurs when relationships between people are treated as relations between things. However, a bit of reflection reveals that what is at stake in the hegemonic fallacy and commodity fetishism are isomorphic to one another.

David Harvey gives a nice illustration of what is at stake in commodity fetishism in his latest (which is really quite good, by the way). There Harvey asks,

…what’s going on here [with commodity fetishism]? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price– the "how much" –is socially determined. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers– those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them. (39 – 40)

Note that while the supermarket situation disguises collective relations insofar as all we’re confronted with in the market is the price and the empirical properties of the head of lettuce, it does not follow from this that this disguise is an illusion in the ordinary sense. The lettuce, the price, and the cashier are all things that are really there. What is absent are the collective relations this lettuce embodies as congealed or crystallized labor.

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Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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Over at Poetix Dominic has an interesting post up responding to Pete’s recent discussion of normativity over at Speculative Heresy. Dominic writes:

The crux here seems to be that “man” is not in himself a normal animal: normative accounts of human being are best taken as descriptions of the commitments we make to ourselves and others as preconditions for various kinds of social being, and the capacity to bear such norms is rather haphazardly instantiated in our animal selfhood.

This split between the normed human being and the ab-normal human animal plays out in Badiou, for example, as a tension between the “de-subjectivising” pull of egoic self-interest and the possibility of constructing a political “subject” which affirms (or “verifies”) egalitarian norms. But there’s a problem here: egoic self-interest is arguably also a normed expression of human being – neo-liberalism explicitly affirms it as a norm, as a precondition for higher forms of social organisation (e.g. those based on competitive markets). The conflict between Badiou’s ethical “good” (tenacity in the construction of truths) and “evil” (de-subjectivation, the saggy victory of the flesh) can be seen as a conflict between rival normative commitments rather than between committed and uncommitted being as such. What Rowan Williams calls the “false anthropology” of neo-liberalism does not merely declare, in social Darwinist fashion, that human beings are intrinsically self-seeking creatures: it also goes to considerable lengths to modify the “soul” of society (its basic normative commitments and symbolic co-ordinates) so that individuals will perceive this to be their true nature and act accordingly.

There’s a good deal more in Dominic’s post, especially with respect to heteronormativity and discussions of heterosexuality coming out of the Christian Right, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage in particular as I think it represents something that is truncated or underdetermined within the framework of critiques of neo-liberal capitalism. While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology.

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factory2In response to The Politics of Epistemology, Evan remarks,

Very interesting. On the point of bringing up “Circulating Reference,” (which I have not had the pleasure to read) I was wondering if you might say more on how there comes about “really great stuff that is both realist and constructivist.” I’m working on a project that has to do with constructivism from a Hegelian perspective, but obviously, that, in some way shape or form, is going to involve absolute idealist constructivist.

Before proceeding to respond to this question, it is first necessary to forestall any confusion surrounding the term “construction” as used by thinkers like Latour, Stengers, Oyama, and Deleuze. Within our current theoretical climate the first thing that tends to come to mind when we hear the term “constructivism” is social constructivism. To say that something is constructed, in this theoretical framework, is to deny its reality, treating it as made up not of real things, but of social phenomena like language, power, signs (under an anthropocentric construal), or social forces. For example, if we say that gender is “constructed”, this generally signifies that gender is not natural. The “natural” here refers to the innate, inborn, or essential, as opposed to the acquired, learned, and artificial.

When Latour, Stengers, Oyama, and Deleuze refer to “constructivism”, they are not referring to constructivism in this sense. If this is the case, then it is above all because they reject the nature/society distinction that underlies this way of talking about the world. If, for example, Latour is led to replace the word “society” with “collectivity” and define sociology as the “study of associations”, then this is because Latour thinks it is impossible to draw a clean distinction between the social and the natural. Nonhuman actors always belong to human associations, and human associations would be impossible without these actors. On these grounds it is impossible to draw a clean distinction between a social on the one hand that would be exclusively composed of the human and human phenomena, and the natural on the other hand that would be purely natural and without any human admixture. The human is always bound up with these non-human actors.

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duchamp_bride1Based on the recommendation of my friend Jerry the Anthropologist, last week I picked up a few books by the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. Yesterday, during the day and on the flight from Dallas to Dayton, I was able to get through about half of A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Like most of Jerry’s recommendations, the book does not disappoint, and presents a rich and sophisticated discussion of consciousness at both the phenomenological level and the neurological level, which is informed by debates surrounding mind in the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy of mind, along with a vast array of material from neurology and psychology (Edelman himself is a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist). Edelman and Tononi are at pains to develop a neurological account of consciousness.

If their approach is so interesting and provocative, much of this has to do with a simple shift in how they pose the question. I have been taken to task by some for claiming that the neurological foundation of consciousness is a done deal or largely established conclusion. It has been pointed out to me that this remains a hotly debated issue and that, as of yet, we do not yet have a neurological account of how consciousness emerges from neuronal activity. I am, of course, aware of this. If I am led to claim that there is no serious dualistic contender for the physicalist hypothesis, then this is not because we have an account of how consciousness arises from the brain, but because massive bodies of observational evidence have emerged with respect to various brain injuries and whatnot showing that consciousness is a physical phenomena. The state of neurology with respect to its ability to account for consciousness is analogous to the state of biology following Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution through natural selection. All of the evidence gathered in the wake of Darwin’s theory indicated the truth of his account (broadly construed). What was lacking was an account of the mechanism by which traits could be passed on. Despite Mendel, we would have to wait nearly a hundred years before that mechanism was discovered and before we began to understand how, precisely, it works. The situation with neurology is very similar. We largely know that brain produces consciousness, but there are a number of big and mysterious “x’s” as to how the brain does this.

One of the things that makes Edelman’s approach so promising– and such a departure from many other assumptions about consciousness –is that he shifts the issue from the question of how consciousness is produced, to the question of when consciousness is produced. To be sure, an answer to the question of “how?” is still the ultimate aim, but if the question of when is so promising, then this is because it helps us to zero in on those processes and their structures generative of consciousness. Edelman’s enquiry proceeds along both phenomenological and neurological axis. Phenomenologically he is attentive to the lived experience of consciousness, its indivisible unity, our sense of self, its internally differentiated nature (not unlike Bergson’s description of multiple durations in Duration and Simultaneity), etc. But most importantly, he is attentive to when consciousness arises at the phenomenological level of experience and when it passes away or disappear. The issue here isn’t simply one of falling asleep, but ranges throughout a number of states in our lived experience. Thus, to take a trite example, when I was learning to type I was highly conscious of the movements of my fingers, the letters on the keyboard, the screen, and the text that I was transposing on to the computer screen. Now, unless I am typing about typing, I am non-conscious of most of these activities, simply doing them in an automatic way.

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