Autonomy


Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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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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In a recent post over at An Un-canny Ontology, Nate argues the object-oriented ontology must necessarily confront the figure of the zombie.

Because of this need to place all things on an equal playing field, Object-Oriented philosophy and ontology (hereto referred to as OOP/OOO) is forced to deal with its own creature.

Where, according to Nate, postmodernism encountered the figure of the cyborg, object-oriented philosophy necessarily finds the figure of the zombie at the center of its meditations. As Nate puts it,

Zombies are the uncanny kernel of the Real, they are not the object which leaves a remainder, they ARE the remainder. Zombies are Das Ding, the Thing, human qua object. And because of this, OOP/OOO must deal with the zombie much in the same way Postmodernism (especially in Haraway and Lyotard) had to deal with the cyborg. However, instead of talking about how humanity will have become, OOP/OOO will have to talk about in what ways humanity is not unique – how we are all zombies. They must take up the zombie as a human representative since only in the zombie do we find the human as it “really” exists, without any obfuscation.

First, the zombie IS – of this there can be no mistake. The zombie is just as real as the computer in front of me. For OOP/OOO all objects are as real as all other objects. Second, the zombie exists as pure desire, it moves with a single purpose and without known agency. And finally, every zombie is the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog. But essentially the zombie is an empty desire, an object with no name except pure existence. Why do they hunger for brains? Who knows. Will they ever stop looking for brains? No. And in a world where all objects are on the same level playing field, stripped away of our agency as subjects, we find ourselves in an awkward position, as non-human humans alive in a world of networks and alliances. We are all zombies. And the only question that remains in a this philosophy that deals with fidelity and allegiance is, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”

While I am extremely interested in the figure of the zombie as a cultural symptom, I confess that I am deeply perplexed by Nate’s meditation on zombies in relation to object-oriented ontology. How did I or Graham for that matter, ever give the impression the object-oriented ontology sees humans are zombies? First, I think there is some confusion here as to just what flat ontology entails. Flat ontology is not the thesis that all beings are on equal footing– which would be a normative thesis –but that insofar as a being makes a difference it is. Nonetheless, among beings there are all sorts of inequalities. Deleuze articulates this point nicely in Difference and Repetition:

The words ‘everything is equal’ may therefore resound joyfully, on condition that they are said of that which is not equally in this equal, univocal Being: equal being is immediately present in everything, without mediation or intermediary, even though things reside unequally in this equal being. (37)

If something makes a difference then it is, but the degree to which a being makes a difference on other beings can range from nil to perhaps infinity. A being in some remote corner of the universe busily plods away making its difference in being itself, but insofar as this entity is unrelated to other entities, the difference this entity makes is rather sleight. It is thus necessary to distinguish between making a difference simpliciter and making a difference in relation to other entities. Insofar as an entity is, it necessarily makes a difference simpliciter, even if that entity is unrelated to any other entity. To be is to simply be this difference in the way that it is. By contrast, what we’re generally interested in when speaking of differences are those relational differences or the difference that one thing produces in another thing. In this latter case, not all differences are equally relevant as they range from rather minor differences that make little impact on other entities, to the extensive differences that tend to make up the object of investigation.

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0d1f650fGraham has a couple of terrific posts up that are well worth the read. The first outlines elements of his appropriation of occasional causation in the context of his discussions with Latour. I am still trying to get my head around this concept of causation and confess that Graham outlines precisely my objection:

The problem I note in Prince of Networks is that if neutrons can’t touch politics without Joliot acting as a mediator, it’s unclear why Joliot should be able to touch either politics or neutrons. Wouldn’t he need mediators to touch either of these things too? And so on, in an “Achilles and the Tortoise” sort of problem. That’s why I think the only solution is to say that the sensual medium where intentional objects obviously bump up against one another is the only place where real objects can interact. But Latour allows for no duality between real and intentional objects, so the solution can’t work in his model. (Note: sometimes people say that Latour’s Joliot point is meant only as sociology of science, not as metaphysics. But Latour presents himself as a metaphysician, and in fact makes use of rather subtle metaphysical principles, and hence deserves to be judged as a metaphysician.)

That is, if entities can only interact via the mediation of some third term, why don’t we find ourselves falling into an infinite regress (which isn’t necessarily bad)? Hopefully Graham will give a more detailed response to this criticism in the future, or direct me to where he has already responded to this problem if, indeed, it is a problem.

Graham’s other post suggests that, in light of recent comments, I am falling back into my corrupt Deleuzian-Bergsonian roots. Graham concludes that while I come perilously close to positing a pre-individual realm in opposition to individual entities out of which individual entities would emerge,

There’s still a taste of individual objects in Levi’s post. He’s not saying, as many do, that there’s some unarticulated pre-individual realm prior to the actual. He still seems to be letting individual chestnuts and donkeys do all the work in the world (three cheers for that!), and simply wants to make them into trajectories across time. The “withdrawal” is not instantaneous for him as for me, but is a kind of principle lying above the sequence of shapes by which the chestnuts and donkeys appear from one moment to the next. Instead of “time as a moving image of eternity,” it’s more like “time as a moving image of instantaneity.

Hopefully this is true. My language is still in a great deal of flux and I am struggling to articulate things in a coherent and intelligible way. My points about time and duration are not designed to claim that entities emerge from some pre-individual state– though I think it is certainly true that entities come-to-be –but that there is something at the heart of beings that is on the order of a struggle to exist in a particular way. In my recent post on the ugly word “onticology” (a term chosen as more a way of thumbing my nose at ontology than anything else), I added the term enlistment in describing the dynamics of object-iles. As assemblages object-iles must enlist other entities or other assemblages so as to be or continue existing. Oxygen atoms perpetually exchange their electrons with other atoms. The cells of my body must constantly convert other matter into material to (re)produce themselves. Cells in my body can enter into struggles with one another as in the case of sickness or cancerous growths where a virus enlists cells to (re)produce itself. Likewise, in a society members of the group must be enlisted so that the society might (re)produce itself in time. These processes of enlistment must also maintain the enlisted over time. That is, in a social setting all sorts of work (translation) must take place to perpetuate the group relations. All of these are issues that pertain to time, but here time and temporalization arises from the interactions among object-iles and consists of interactions and struggles among individual entities.

[UPDATE]: Graham responds to issues pertaining to infinite regress here and here. As I suggested in the original post, it’s worth noting that infinite regress is not necessary a terrible thing within the context of speculative realism. In seeking to break with correlationism and philosophies of access, contemporary metaphysics has been characterized by a renewed thinking of the infinite. Where philosophies of access are characterized in one form or another by a restriction to finitude, these new ontologies affirm the infinite and the thinkability of the infinite. This can be seen quite clearly in the thought of Deleuze, Badiou, and Meillassoux. Graham reflects this orientation in his conception of objects as infinitely decomposable assemblages. Here is perhaps one of his deepest tensions with his philosophical master, Heidegger.

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Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory– especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools –woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned. The problem here is that these theories are often so abstract, in the Hegelian sense, that they end up with overly simplistic schema that then make any change seem like it is either an all or nothing proposition, or in the worst cases impossible and hopeless altogether. This point can be made clearly with reference to Althusser’s famous essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus“. In reading Althusser’s essay, we get the impression that the individual, the social subject, is completely formed by the ideological state apparatus to such a degree that his thoughts, beliefs, bodily attitudes, and so on are simply iterations of that social structure. As Althusser writes,

Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.

Although their theoretical positions are very different, similar observations could be made about Foucault’s conceptions of power and subjectivization, Bourdieu’s conceptions of power and habitus, and even Lacan’s conception of the agency of the signifier (during his middle period, at any rate). It is clear that if we accept this thesis, issues of social and political change become extremely problematic and we immediately find ourselves in a nearly impossible situation. On the one hand, if change takes place, it takes place through agents. On the other hand, agents themselves, according to Althusser, are simply products or iterations of social formations or the ISA’s. As a result, any change that a group of agents attempts to produce is itself already predelineated by the social structure such that it is no real change at all. The consequence of this conception of how agents are individuated and social formations is that we have to engage in all sorts of theoretical contortions to explain how change might be possible. No doubt it is for this reason that the Lacanian conception of the subject as a sort of void or lack in the symbolic chain has become so attractive, or that thinkers like Badiou have had to imagine an event, a rupture, to explain how any sort of change takes place.

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So far we have only abstract oppositions for thinking the space of the political. By “abstract opposition” I have in mind an opposition where the terms are conceived as existing independent of one another, apart from one another. As Blah-feme points out, we suppose that there are two options: agency which is free and ubiquitous subjectivity which is enslaved. On the one side, a free and autonomous subject, unmediated by any social, linguistic, technological, or economic relation. On the other side, an ego completely formed and produced by the social system as an instance of a Borg collective. That is, an ego’s being that is so distributed that its very thoughts are simply iterations of the collective, global network where we immediately move to action in response to the proper stimulus. All the women at Heathrow were wearing tall leather boots. I return and all the women here are wearing precisely the same boots. No doubt they all believe they made an absolutely unique decision based on their own unique, singular, and absolutely individual aesthetic taste.

The image of a fly caught in a web comes to mind… But not just a fly caught in a web. Rather a fly that has itself been produced by the web. There is a whole genre of theory premised on such an idea: Bourdieu, Foucault, perhaps Althusser and Butler. The anxiety is that the fly never existed independently of the web to begin with; not in any meaningful sense, anyway.

If the fly never existed existed independently of the web, then there can be no question of overcoming alienation as there never was an origin, a substance, an essence, that was then subsequently alienated. There can be no talk here of recuperating a “species-being” that we are at our core but in alienated form. There can be no return if there is no destination to which to return. The fly was never outside the web or prior to the web.

But if the fly is nothing but folds or weavings of the web, a product or creation of the web in the robust sense that an origami bird is not other than the paper out of which it is made but is itself continuous with that paper as a topological variation of its substance, then how can creations of the fly be anything but creations, foldings, weavings of the web of social relations? That is, how can they be anything but ways of strengthening the web. The content might change through the fly’s foldings and weavings of the threads of the web, yet the form remains the same: the material out of which the content is woven remains that of a spider’s web. Quicksand. The more the fly struggles the deeper it is pulled, the more it is entangled. We thus get another genre of theory: Sartre, Badiou, Ranciere, Zizek, various appropriations of Lacan. Here it is always a matter of conceiving a void place that is unmediated by the social system, that is not touched by the web, that would function as a point of leverage– Archimedes said that the entire world could be moved with one fixed point and a lever –that would allow a space of autonomy and freedom from which to challenge the web.

Yet ontologically a subtraction or non-mediated point is untenable or a bit of wishful thinking. The real question ought to be drawn from judo: how can web be used against itself?

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Shahar Ozeri of Perverse Egalitarianism has written a very interesting post responding to my diary Language and Passivity, and Paco’s diary Is Philosophy Irrelevant?

This question really, at least for me, cuts to the heart of the problem. For one, the traditional idea of liberal education is to foster a critical consciousness. Yet, if Paco is correct about the decline of the broader structure of the University–from a marketplace of ideas to a bottom line minded business–the university simply reflects the broader culture, which is largely anti-intellectual, disapproves of critique and as a whole tends to reward social status not talent. One thing is certain: many of our students simply refuse to think things through, or think, in the most Heidegarrian sense. I don’t know how to produce such a critical consciousness in my students either, other than trying over and over to point it out. This is interesting, one of the more odd things that my students could just not wrap their minds around was the emotive use of language, that it’s not necessarily mere emotion.

Anyway, all of this has gotten me thinking about two figures I haven’t thought about in quite some time: the (under-rated) Roland Barthes and (always interesting) Louis Althusser, who both point to this very phenomenon of the passivity of language I think.

Unfortunately, I am far too exhausted this evening to comment at length, but I did want to throw out a couple of thoughts for future development. I do not know whether this situation is unique to our age. Following Lacan, I am inclined to think that ignorance is one of the three passions… That we have a passion for ignorance. Thus, while I am sympathetic to the thesis that the decline of print culture and the rise of the spectacle has also had a developmental impact on the nature of our cognitive structures, I suspect that by and large things were not much better in the past. I’ll get to this in a moment.

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