Affect


Over at Networkologies Chris has graciously responded to my post last night here and here. I very much appreciate Vitale’s clarifications and apologies. I take charges of object-oriented ontology being in league with neo-liberal ideology and capitalism very seriously. When OOO first started to make a strong appearance in the blogosphere, it was not unusual to hear it charged with being somehow an apologetics for neoliberal ideology. I don’t think these are innocent charges or mere misunderstandings, but are, for anyone who understands what capitalism has done to this world, extremely grave charges.

This criticism seemed to come primarily from those deeply influenced by Zizek who advocate what I view to be an extremely idiosyncratic form of Marxism. And if I refer to this Marxism as idiosyncratic, then this is because economics is entirely absent in his thought (despite his protestations to the contrary in The Parallax View), because any meditation on technology or class is absent from his thought, because any discussion of resources and their role is absent, and because everything is reduced to the level of the signifier and an entirely idealist conception of the real (“the real is an effect of the symbolic”). Part of what happens here, I think, is a transcription of Latour’s views about Marxist thought (he rejects it), onto what onticology is up to. Here I think Latour is just plain wrong and that Marx is a lot closer to Annales School models of analysis that so deeply influenced ANT than Latour is willing to suggest.

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This week my students and I began exploring Meillassoux’s After Finitude. The first chapter of Meillassoux’s After Finitude begins with a call to rehabilitate the discredited distinction between primary and secondary qualities. It will be recalled that secondary qualities are purely relational, existing only in the interaction between the body and the object or the subject and the object, whereas primary qualities are qualities that are in the object itself, regardless of whether any body or subject relates to them. Generally primary qualities are treated as any qualities that can be mathematized or quantified (extension, duration, mass, wavelengths, numerical temperatures, and so on). When elucidating secondary qualities Meillassoux gives the nice example of the pain you feel in your finger when burnt by a candle flame. To be sure, the candle flame causes this pain, but it cannot be said that the flame has pain as one of its qualities. The pain only exists in the relationship between my finger and the flame. Thus, in the traditional sorting of primary and secondary qualities, qualities like colors, tastes, textures, scents, sounds, pains, pleasures, and so on are all purely relational in character. And insofar as these qualities are all relational, it cannot be said that there is anything like colors, tastes, textures, scents, pains, and pleasures in the world itself.

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For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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Scu of Critical Animal has a really interesting (and amusing) post up about certain forms of argumentation he often encounters in animal rights discussions. As Scu writes:

One of the more peculiar charges made against those advocating for the liberation of animals, particularly those who advocate for animal rights, is that we somehow hate humanity. That our desire for animal welfare, animal emancipation, etc., is based on an animus to humans.

Scu cites some pretty amusing passages from Roudinesco and Gasset, where the former tries to draw a connection between animal rights activists and Hitler’s vegetarianism, suggesting that to support animal rights is to support Nazism (Derrida, to his credit, proceeds to tear Roudinesco to shreds in this interview), and where the latter seems to argue that we properly respect the dignity of animals by hunting them.

I find all this interesting as I often encounter the same sort of argument in response to object-oriented ontology. Somehow decentering humans from the center of being, arguing that humans are among beings, not correlated to each and every being, or arguing that philosophy needs to move beyond its obsessive focus on the human-world gap or relation gets translated in the mind of some critics into the thesis that we should hate humans, that humans are of no importance, or, the claim that I find most baffling, that we’re abolishing humans.

How one arrives from such claims to these conclusions, I do not know. With all due respect to former governor Palin, there just seem to be certain issues or claims such that when people confront or encounter them they become retarded. I often reflect on this when we reach the chapter on emotional fallacies in my critical thinking courses. Here I think the Spinoza of book III of the Ethics is an invaluable guide. It would be a mistake to believe that, in most cases, people fall in to these sorts of fallacies intentionally or out of some sort of conscious malice.

Rather, when passionate attachments that organize a person’s cognition are endangered these distortions of thought seem to arise inevitably of their own accord. Here the situation is not unlike the bending of time and space that occurs in the vicinity of a massive object like the sun. You can’t approach a massive object directly– at least not without very powerful forms of propulsion –because of the manner in which the massive object curves space and time. Rather, these sorts of massive objects can only be approached asymptotically, through a curve. And the case is similar with these sorts of passionate attachments. Any attempt to approach them directly seems to encounter a curvature of thought in the audience that distorts what is being said like a funhouse mirror distorts an image beyond recognition. Thought just falls apart. Thus, at the level of form, not content, there’s no marked difference between Roudinesco’s reaction to animal rights discussions and the reaction of a conservative nationalist to criticism of the policies of his beloved nation. Just as Rudinesco equates the claim that we shouldn’t eat animals with hating people (two totally different and unrelated claims), the nationalist is likely to equate criticism of the French penal colonies with hating France.

Here the passionate attachment, the intensity of the affect, bends the structure of cognition, distorting the space of reasons and grounds, in much the same way that the massive object bends the structure of space and time. While this sort of a theory might help me to understand why thought becomes so distorted in the vicinity of particular issues and claims, I nonetheless find myself baffled as to why people have these sorts of passionate attachments in the first place. That, I think, is the real mystery. Why would a person as intelligent as Roudinesco nonetheless have such a passionate attachment to the idea of humans as being at the center of being, such that any extension of rights to nonhuman entities is seen not simply as sharing and extending rights, but as actively negating human value? As Scu remarks in his post, this line of thought is really no different than that of the person who believes that treating homosexuals as equals amounts to actively hating heterosexuals or taking away the rights of heterosexuals. What is it that leads someone to have such a passionate attachment to their nation that any discussion of the wrongs of that nation are equated with actually hating the nation? I can’t help but find these sorts of attachments bizarre.

In my development of the ontology of objects within the framework of onticology I have tried to argue that objects are not their local manifestations or actualizations, but rather a virtual endo-relational structure composed of relations among attractors, singularities, powers, or generative mechanisms. It is this virtual dimension of the object that, in my view, constitutes the proper being of an object. This virtual dimension of the object, I argue, constitutes its substantiality. Consequently, it follows that no object ever directly encounters another objects, but rather objects only ever encounter one another as local manifestations of their virtual proper being. The proper being of the object, its virtual structure, is always in excess of any of its local manifestations.

This model of objects is proposed, in part, to account for the identity of an object throughout its variations. Objects continuously vary or change as their conditions change, yet there is something of the object that remains the same. But what is this something? Certainly it can’t be the local manifestations or actualizations of the object because those local manifestations change with shifting conditions or changes in exo-relations to other objects. It is this insight that leads many, I think, to overmine objects by reducing them to their relations to other objects. Yet as Harman has compellingly argued, this line of thought fails to provide the conditions for the possibility under which these variations are possible. As a consequence, it follows that the identity of an object cannot be something in the appearance (to the world, not to humans), local manifestation, or actualization of an object, but must reside in another dimension of the object. And because the object can undergo variations while remaining that object, it follows that the proper being of the object, its substantiality, must be something that does not manifest itself. It is there everywhere in the object, without ever becoming present in the world. It is the “principle” of the object, its “essence”, its “style of being”, without being something that we could ever find in the local manifestations of the object.

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One of the more compelling themes that punctuates Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is the linkage between the rise of certain mental illnesses and post-Fordist capitalist modes of production, identifying it as a key site of the political (at least virtually). Now, for readers familiar with French inflected social theory, this thesis will not, in and of itself, appear new. In An Introduction to Marcel Mauss Levi-Strauss had argued something similar with respect to schizophrenia and psychosis, going so far as to suggest that in certain “primitive societies” this phenomena doesn’t exist. Canguilhem suggested something similar, as did Foucault. But in each of these instances the emphasis was put on the social and discursive production of mental illness. If one adopted these accounts of mental illness, then it became necessary to reject materialist or neurological accounts of mental illness. The story goes that either one adopts the neurological account and is thus subject to an ideological illusion that de-politicizes something that is in fact social (mental illness), or you adopt the social account of mental illness and reject anything having to do with the neurological or psychotropics as ideological mystifications. Fisher’s analysis, by contrast, is far more subtle. As Fisher writes,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

In many respects, Fisher’s analysis of affectivity here mirrors Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Just as commodity fetishism treats relations that are truly between person’s as if they were relations between or to things (when I buy a diamond I think I’m just relating to that commodity and not enmeshed in a set of social relationships), “affectivity fetishism” could be construed as treating relations that are, in fact, social and political, as relations to mere neurons. The instantiation of certain neuronal structures and relations is here confused with the cause of these instantiations. Here I would express what I take to be Fisher’s point a bit differently by referring to Aristotle’s four causes. The problem with neurological accounts of mental illness is that they confuse what Aristotle referred to as the material and formal cause of a thing with its efficient cause. Depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are all certain structures of mentality (formal cause) that are embodied in a certain stuff (material cause), but this in and of itself does not account for why these particular embodied structures come to exist as they do (efficient cause).

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108-519Jacob Russell has written a very nice response to my post on Margaret’s Pepper Principle, translating this principle into the domain of aesthetics. The money quote comes at the end:

From my earlier POST (a chapter in my novel-in-progress, Ari Figue’s Cat, I wrote (with some alterations)

Until the first word is written everything is possible. … We may, of course, erase as we write, circling back to a new starting point–speaking to ourselves, as it were, but that all comes to an end the moment the page is read, and in truth, even the freedom of erasure and revision is an illusion. Every word added to the next forecloses an infinite array of possibilities.

If you set out to tell a story you quickly find that you cannot go just anywhere. The more you write the more the words take charge, reducing the writer to a mere instrument playing out theme and variation over sets of ever more determinate patterns, and yet, it is seldom clear what those patterns are.

Busily translating (viva la difference!) from ontology to the aesthetics of process: all the elements of memory, association, ideas and language that we work into a written form are like the grains and eyes in the piece of wood. Like whitling the head of a duck, writing a novel is a process of negotion with the material at hand and every act, each engagement with that material translates both material and our intention. When reading and interpreting a literary work, it is useless to appeal to the author’s intention, not because we have no access to the author’s mind and are limited to the text–but because the author’s intentions have been in a continuous process of translation along with the writing as it evolves. What existed in the beginning, and at every point to the completion of the work, is a continuum of difference that moves both forward and back. We cannot get there from here without changing both here and there.

This has actually been a pet project of mine for a long time and is one of the key themes of my book, Difference and Givenness. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze calls for a new transcendental aesthetic that would be capable of overcoming the split between aesthetics as the doctrine of sensibility or what can be sensed and aesthetics as the theory of artistic production. The first form of aesthetics might be traced back to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason where the transcendental aesthetic refers to the a priori forms of sensibility or intuition defining, as it were, the frame within which any object must be encountered or experienced. baezThe mind imposes the forms of space and time upon objects, giving them sensible structure or form. Consequently, as Kant brilliantly argues, space and time come not from the world itself, but are rather imposed by mind on the objects of the world. Were this not the case, Kant argues, we would be unable to explain how geometry and arithmetic are possible. Here Kant is assuming that mathematics is based on intuition or pure sensibility. It is important to note that this is an exceedingly controversial thesis in the philosophy of mathematics and a thesis that is strongly challenged by the subsequent development of new forms of mathematics that appear to be unintuitable by humans. At any rate, why doesn’t Kant think we’d be unable to account for mathematics were we not to suppose that time and space are forms of intuition mind imposes on the world? Simply put, we would not be able to explain why the truths of mathematics, truths we can reach through thought alone, 1) hold for all times and places despite the finite limitations of our ability to verify this, and 2) apply to the objects of intuition themselves. This latter point, I think, is the far more profound and challenging argument. That is, why is it that something that we merely think again and again happens to also apply to physical objects in the world? This simple observation is one of the more convincing arguments for Kant’s transcendental idealism.

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