Assemblages


Right now I am closing the semester with a discussion of object-oriented ontology in my classes. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been reading Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks along with my paper “Being as Flat” presented at the Georgia Tech conference. Yesterday my students asked me the question of whether eclipses are objects. Apparently one of my adjunct professors, Troy, had put them up to this question. Last week he took my classes for me when I went to Atlanta and I suppose he decided to play a devilish practical joke on me. If I’m particularly proud of this adjunct then this is because he’s actually one of my former students and has recently made it to the second round of interviews for a full time position. Rock on!

Leg pulling aside, I think this is an interesting ontological question. Is an eclipse an object? My intuition is that the answer to this question is no. An eclipse is not an object but is rather a quality or a local manifestation of an object. Yet if this is the case, then we have to ask what object eclipses locally manifest. In other words, what is the virtual proper being, the endo-relational structure composed of powers, of which the eclipse is a local manifestation?

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Reflecting on the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium, one of the moments that I’m less than pleased with was an exchange with one of the members of the audience who was defending the analysis and critique of ideology. If I’m bothered by this exchange it’s because I cut the participant off mid-sentence without allowing him to fully articulate his point. This was rather rude on my part and for that I apologize.

So what was at issue in this discussion? In my paper, “Being is Flat”, one of the key points I sought to make is that social and political thought has focused entirely too much on content, fetishistically revolving around beliefs, ideologies, signs, narratives, and discourses found in groups. My thesis is that if social and political analysis focuses on ideologies, narratives, signs, signifiers, discourses, beliefs, etc., in its analysis of why social formations are organized as they are, it is doomed to go astray. Following Latour, I thus propose that the concept of society should be replaced by that of collectives. A society is composed entirely of humans, human relations, and human phenomena such as discourses, narratives, and ideologies. A collective, by contrast, includes all of these things when it is a collective involving humans, but also includes nonhuman objects like technologies, resources, roads, cane toads, bacteria, etc., etc., etc. The concept of society should be abandoned, I believe, in favor of the concept of collectives. And if this is the case, then there is no such thing as human relations that do not also include all sorts of nonhuman actors. Moreover, these nonhuman actors are not simply passive resources that people use as tools (a form of overmining with respect to objects), but rather introduce all sorts of differences that deeply influence what sorts of associations between humans come to exist.

Latour underlines this point nicely in Reassembling the Social. Latour writes:

Between a car driver that slows down near a school because she has seen the ’30 MPH’ yellow sign and a car driver that slows down because he wants to protect the suspension of his car threatened by the bump of a ‘speed trap’, is the difference big or small? Big, since the obedience of the first has gone through morality, symbols, signs posts, yellow paint, while the other has passed through the same list to which has been added a carefully designed concrete slab. (77)

Latour tirelessly emphasizes that mechanisms of organization that pass through morality, symbols, and signs are incredibly weak and are very difficult to maintain. To be sure, they make their contributions, yet it is odd that entire schools of social and political thought seem to attribute these actants or objects an iron clad omnipotence and place their eggs in the basket of producing social change through a critique of this order of “morality” and signs. By contrast, the speed bump out there in the world is a real physical constraint. As Latour emphasize, the speed bump is an actant or object entangled with semiotic actants, but it is far from being a mere vehicle or carrier of these actants. Your car slows down whether you like it or not when you pass over that speed bump.

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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.

Adrian Ivakhiv has an interesting post up defending ontology relationism and its importance for ecological thought. Adrian writes:

Contrary to what Levi Bryant and Graham Harman have sometimes argued, however, there’s no inherent reason why a well articulated, materially and socially grounded relationalism*, one that focuses on processes of emergence and actualization, with their various conditions, effects, and so on, should result in an ontology that cannot account for action or change. An ontology that focused only on relations, or on change, or for that matter only on objects (and I’m not suggesting that Graham’s or Levi’s philosophies do that), would be one-sided. But the point is to bring objects — more or less stable and persistent entities (assemblages, actors/actants, or whatever else a given ontological account takes them to be) — and relational processes together in a way that accounts for both stability and change, persistence and transformation, structure and agency, stubborn fact and creative advance (to use Whitehead’s terms).

Our consumptive, commodity-captivated and spectacle-enraptured society, has privileged the object over the process, the thing at the center of our attention over the relations that constitute it. This thing-centeredness isn’t surprising: it’s an effect of the human perceptual apparatus, with its heavy reliance on vision, a sensory modality that shows clear edges to objects and that facilitates distanced observation and predation. (That argument can be taken too far — eyes, after all, are also the communicative soul of intersubjectivity — but there is something to it.) Where traditional cultures tended to de-emphasize the visual in favor of the auditory/multisensorial, the narrative, and the relational, societies like ours — ecologically and historically disembedded (in the sense that Polanyi describes the effects of capitalism), fragmented/individualized, and intensely visually mediated — push the ontological objectivism, literally the “thing-ism,” about as far as it can go.

A couple of points. First, there’s an issue about philosophical vocabulary here. It is difficult to have these discussions if one doesn’t attend to the precise content of concepts. In the passages that I’ve bold-faced above Adrian characterizes object-oriented philosophy in terms of stability over change and process. Here I take it that Adrian is playing on ordinary language usages of the term “object”. However, it’s important to attend to how terms are actually used. Certainly we would end up with some very strange criticisms of Hegel if we took “Spirit” to signify ghosts, demons, and poltergeists; likewise, we would have a very difficult time understanding Heidegger if we understood “Dasein” in its ordinary language sense of the term as “existence”, and finally it would be very difficult to follow Whitehead if we took his term “organism” too literally. In this case of object-oriented ontology this point is important because if we don’t attend to what OOO purports to have discovered about the being of objects we’re bound to misconstrue its claims. Thus, for example, in the second paragraph cited above, Adrian talks about the thing at the center of our perception. The problem here is that in both my variant of OOO, onticology, and Harman’s variant of OOO, ontography, it is argued that you can’t perceive an object. The object is not what is perceived or what is at the center of attention.

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Responding to Graham’s talk at Dundee, Reid has a terrific post up discussing the manner in which Marxist materialism differs from reductive materialisms that trace back to the atomism of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. In many respects, Reid’s remarks come very close to a number of the central intuitions of OOO and onticology where social and political thought are concerned. These intuitions revolve around hoisting social and political thought from its almost exclusive focus on what I call the semiotic, to take into account other domains of collectives and the role they play in social formations. Thus Reid writes:

Materialism in Marx’s sense is neither a metaphysical nor an epistemological doctrine; it is not a philosophical doctrine or theory in any ordinary sense. Rather, it is a meta-philosophical doctrine about the relation between philosophy and its material conditions of possibility. In this regard, both the content of philosophical discourse and the methodological form of that discourse must be referred to the conditions under which philosophical practice occurs. Material conditions in this regard can begin quite narrowly: philosophy requires various material and institutional supports, from universities and publishing houses down to brains and paper. But these conditions, of course, never exist in isolation, and depend upon a certain mode of production that not only conditions their genesis, but their distribution, maintenance, etc. Ultimately, philosophical practice depends upon a broad economic, political, and social condition that enables it to occur, whatever its function within society may be.

The point here is that we can’t focus on the discursive or ideological alone, but must take into account the role that nonhumans play in the collectives within which we find ourselves. Reid drives this point home a moment later when he writes:

Because philosophy always operates under a specific material condition, materialist philosophy must be attentive to the specificity of its relation to this condition. This relation is not necessarily manifest in theoretical content, but it certainly is in the practice through which this content is produced. For example, as a graduate student at a university, I have a specific relation to the political-economic mode conditioning my philosophical work: I take out loans, I pay tuition, I work, I have limited resources whose use is determined by administrators with whom I have limited contact, etc. The central concern of materialism in this regard is not the content of one’s position, which becomes relatively equivocal, but the practical form of its production. The content would become a concern if it were used to justify a particular practice of philosophy. It is on this basis that Marx so strongly condemns all varieties of philosophical idealism, especially Hegel, which in his eyes amount to an apologetics for idealism about philosophy, or the thesis that the practices conditioning philosophical thought are either no concern for philosophy, or must necessarily be as they are for philosophical activity to proceed (Hegel would advocate a variant of the latter).

There’s a lot more there (some of which I’m not entirely in agreement, but which is nonetheless very good), so read the rest here.

All of this brings to mind a beautiful diagram I came across in David Harvey’s sublime Companion to Marx’s Capital. There Harvey seeks to diagram the relations involved in those collectives that involve humans (it’s also important to recall that there are collectives that don’t involve humans at all). The powerful feature of Harvey’s diagram is that in mapping the interrelations between elements that belong to collectives in which humans participate, he expands that field of relations well beyond an obsessive focus on representation, the semiotic, the ideological, or the linguistic. The domain of representation is one element in these collectives, but only one. In addition representation we get nature, technology, modes of production, social relations, and the reproduction of daily life.

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[Update: The title of this post has been changed because apparently the term “value” attracts every spam outlet under the sun, leading to a few hundred links to bargain sites. Yikes!]

Over at Hyper Tiling Fabio has an excellent post up relating his impressions of Dundee. I confess that I’m extremely sad that I was unable to attend the conference. So it goes. A couple of remark in Fabio’s post caught my eye. Fabio writes:

Objects – this term, of course, has been powerfully (and almost single-handedly) thrown back into philosophical language by the work of Graham Harman and its creative synthesis of Latour/Husserl/Heidegger that goes under the name of –precisely– object-oriented Philosophy. I confess to have mixed feelings about Harman’s project, for if I (like many others) have been seduced by his —rhetorically vibrant— exhortations regarding the need for philosophy to break out of its correlationist constraints (the well known ‘fire-cotton’ rhetoric), and by his vigorous and fresh way of philosophizing, I remain (shame on me!) a relationist at heart, finding Latour’s hybrid actors more seductive entities than Harman’s vacuum-sealed objects.

I’m interested in hearing Fabio say more as to just what he means when he calls himself a relationist. Nothing about OOO prevents one from speaking about relations and from analyzing relations. What OOO rejects is the thesis that objects are their relations. There is a vast difference between the claim that there are only relations, and the claim that there are objects and the relations objects enter into. The former is ontological relationism, the latter is what OOO claims (at least in my formulation, though I think Harman and I are on the same page here). What OOO rejects is the thesis that all relations are internal relations. It has no problem with external relations.

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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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No, this is not a Kant bashing diary.

Given the flurry of writing today it’s probably fairly evident that I’m trying to avoid grading. Despite my antipathy to Kant and transcendental idealism, I do find his thought endlessly fascinating and replete with brilliant and devious arguments. It was thus with great pleasure that I got to recently explore the Prolegomena once again with my students. And as we worked through the Prolegomena I found myself particularly struck by the logic and structure of the a priori categories which Kant introduces in the transcendental analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason. In particular, I found myself fascinated by the manner in which every third category is a combination of the preceding two categories. For the object-oriented ontologist the categories falling under quantity and relation are particularly important.

To be clear, I am not endorsing Kant’s specific theorization of the categories (i.e., that they are a priori structures of the mind). As a realist I am, of course, committed to the thesis that attributes like being a substance belong to the things-themselves, not the mind regarding objects (viz., they are primary, rather than secondary, qualities). Nonetheless, there is a great deal of interest in these categories, despite the short shrift he gives to their elaboration (does Kant somewhere treat them in detail in his lectures?).

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I’m experimenting here so hopefully the more mathematically knowledgeable among us won’t give me too hard a time. Perhaps one of the ways the argument of my previous post could be understood is in terms of mathematical categories. What mathematical categories allow us to think are functional morphisms or relations between sets. I’ll say more about this in a moment. In playful jab at my friend Nate, I wrote the following in my previous post:

Rhetorically Nate seems to think that it’s of no significance that his post was written on the internet, requiring fiber optic cables, a particular platform, news feeds, electricity, etc., that created the opportunity for our thoughts to be brought together and preserved despite the fact that we live an hour apart.

Drawing on the formal resources of category theory we can construct an external diagram of the point that I was trying to make, depicted in the upper lefthand corner of the post. In this diagram we notice that there are upper and lower case letters and arrows. The upper case letters are what are referred to as objects in category theory, and are essentially sets. Thus, for example, the set composed of Levi and Nate constitutes what category theory refers to as an object (not to be confused with what OOO refers to as an object). We can denote this set with the name “conversants” or communicants, or simple “C” for short. The lower case letters refer to rules defining relations, morphisms, transformations, or correlations between sets. The relation between f and g connected by a small circle (I can’t figure out how to make the symbol here) is referred to as a composition of functions or morphisms and is read “g following f”. Thus, if we follow the arrows we have X pointing to Y governed by the morphism f and we have Y pointing to Z governed by the morphism g. We note that there is an arrow pointing directly from X to Z with the composition of g and f (g circle f, read as g following f)) which is to be read as the composition of these two morphisms for the three objects or sets involved.

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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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