Communication


soccer_momIn developing onticology or object-oriented ontology, one of the things I’ve been aiming at is what I call, following DeLanda, though developed in a different way, a flat ontology. A flat ontology is, to use a term my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist recently shared with me, a lumpy ontology. In referring to such an ontology as “lumpy”, I intend an ontology that is composed of a heterogeneity of different entities. As such, heterogenesis is one of the central questions of onticology. Heterogenesis is the question of how the disparate, the heterogeneous, enters into relations or imbroglios with one another to form a collective and a common. These imbroglios or collectives can be thought as logoi. Rather than a single logos for the world, we instead get islands of logoi where the organization governing these imbroglios are emergent results of ongoing heterogenesis.

The idea of a flat ontology can be fruitfully understood in contrast to materialisms. Where materialism posits a single type of entity– whatever that type might be –out of which all other entities are composed, a flat ontology is pluralistic, positing an infinite variety of different types of entities. Flat ontology does not reject the existence of material entities like quarks, atoms, and trees, but merely asserts that these aren’t the only types of entities that exist. Consequently, when onticology claims that “to be is to be an object”, this thesis is not equivalent to claiming that “to be is to be material”. A city is an object. Indeed, it is an object that contains a variety of other objects and that depends on a variety of other objects both in terms of its own endo-relational structure and its exo-relations to things outside its membrane. Nonetheless, were we to take an inventory of all the material objects included in the city we would not have the “city-ness of the city”. For all intents and purposes, nearly all the matter composing New Orleans remained after Hurricane Katrina, but it was a very different city after this event and its continued existence still remains in doubt.

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Just a quick note before I get down to grading. In response to my post on the game of life, Carl writes:

I’m not sure I’m on board with this:

[O]ne of the reasons I find the ideas so attractive is precisely that meme theory treats signs as objects. Rather than treating signs as mere representations of something else, meme theory treats signs themselves as objective reality. So unlike common views of language where you have one thing, the world of objects, and another things, the world of signs representing objects, in meme theory you have one flat plane where there are physical objects and signs as well.

Well, other than getting to call things ‘objects’ rather than calling things things, what’s the advantage here? I see that we clean out the mediating discourse of ‘representation’, but if the ’signifier’ kind of object doesn’t occur without the ’sign’ kind, and neither occurs without the ’signified’ kind, isn’t there an important and realistic claim about the nature of those objectivities embedded in the idea of representation that is simply obscured by flattening the ontology?

I’m still working out how far I’m willing to go with the whole treatment of signs as objects move as things get complicated very quickly. This was a move that Dan recently proposed in comments, and which I’ve been pushing for quite some time under the mantra that language is not simply about something, but also is something. This move could be called, in honor of Freud, the “psychotic move”, for as Freud observed in his essay “The Unconscious”, schizophrenics treat words as things. Under this model, signs would not be representations of things, but rather would enter into relations with or assemblages with things. This might nicely account for the fluidity of reference in a number of respects. Part of this move follows from a self-reflexive demand of my own philosophy. Insofar as I’m trying to break down the whole distinction between nature and mind that’s vexed philosophy since the 17th century, this leads to the conclusion that any philosophy (or other cultural artifacts) is itself an assemblage of objects. The question then becomes that of determining what sorts of peculiar objects signs are and how these function.

I suspect that anthropologists– and I feel very bad about my recent exchange with Jerry –are critical of memes for the same reason that I was critical of memes when I first encountered the theory about five years ago: Here we have these undereducated cowboys claiming to have discovered a whole new realm of investigation– memes –when we have had semiotics and linguistics for decades now. When you read Dawkins and Dennett on memes you get the sense that they are reinventing the wheel, and in a number of instances poorly. Dawkins baldly admits somewhere or other that he doesn’t know enough about the social sciences, linguistics, and cultural theory to know how well his theory resonates with their findings. In a number of respects, I think the meme theorist stands to learn far more from the semiotician (and cultural theorists like the anthropologist) than the semiotician has to learn from the meme theorist.

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X 3 13 SHORT CIRCUIT 1An old chestnut has it that if you are pissing everyone off you must be doing something right. This is especially the case if the charges against a position are themselves completely contradictory or diametrically opposed. In recent dust-ups surrounding my onticology and Harman’s object-oriented ontography, this has certainly been the case. On the one hand, there are the endless anti-realist critiques of onticology charging it with falling it into a sort of naive realism and naturalism, to the detriment of mind, culture, signs, and all the rest. Again and again you hear the charge that the human and all these formations are being banished and ignored. Of course, this criticism is baffling as Harman’s thesis is not that the natural world is the “really real” world and that we must exclude the human to get to it, but rather that the withdrawal of objects is not unique to human-object relations but holds for all inter-ontic or inter-object relations. In other words, there’s a very real sense in which Harman’s position can be read as a radicalization of Kant’s thesis about the unknowability of the thing-in-itself, holding that it is a general ontological proper of all relations among objects and not simply of human-object relations. The situation is similar in my case as well. My principle of translation has it that there is no transporation of a difference from one object to another object without a translation or a transformation of that difference by the second object. These sorts of processes of translation are what I’m principally interested in understanding. Since the human and cultural phenomena are counted among the field of real objects producing differences, there’s nothing in my account that excludes the human. I merely make the claim that the human isn’t included in all inter-object relations. Yet still, somehow, I get situated as a naturalist and a reductive materialist.

However, if this were not comic enough, from the other end I get the charge of rejecting naturalism and materialism, thereby falling into a sort of humanism. Thus, in a couple of truly obnoxious posts written by John (not to be confused with the great John Cogburn who has been sadly absent of late), ire is expressed because I am alleged to reject neurology, quantum mechanics, and relativity theory (here and here). Needless to say, I suspect I won’t be posting any further comments from John as I don’t particularly care for sarcastic assholes, especially those who remark, from the outset, that my project will not hold up under scrutiny. There’s little possibility of dialog with a person who dismisses you from the beginning. At any rate, John charges me with claiming that all things are real, seeming to miss the point that my thesis is not that everything is real, but that if something makes differences it is real. From John’s end of the spectrum I am thus accused of some sort of wild and wooly postmodern idealism where everything goes.

In the meantime, Glen, in a set of criticisms I don’t really understand as they seem to be making many of the very points onticology and ontography makes, charges object-oriented ontology with being profoundly humanist, despite the fact that everywhere speculative realism strives to dethrone the centrality of the human. Elsewhere, in a post also characterized by a rather obnoxious tone, he charges speculative realists with being entirely too pre-occupied with responding to Kant and not doing enough to develop an ontology. This is a curious claim given that I’ve written literally hundreds of pages on this blog alone developing the details of onticology, and there are literally thousands of pages worth of speculative realist writing developing various realist ontologies. The only time Kant ever seems to become a focus is in discussions with anti-realists, which comes as no surprise. Barring that, I think the speculative realists are by and large simply working through the details of their various ontologies. Even more ironic is the fact that this charge is made in the context of other charges where object-oriented ontology has been accused of not attending to Kant enough (usually accompanied by a number of lengthy posts explaining Kant to the poor speculative realists that just don’t get it).

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The always intrepid Ian Bogost responds to yesterday’s Speculative Realism Roundup, remarking that,

Just for kicks, a possible objection to my own claim that the digital comfort of SR is an accident of timing more than a property of its positions:

As this very post illustrates, one of the demands of effective networked discourse is speed; online exchanges happen quickly or they disappear, lost in the noise of novelty. Another is tentativeness. One must be comfortable putting forward thoughts in gestation, in transition, knowing that they will shift and revise over time.

One might say that both speed and tentativeness are unappealing demands for both the analytic and continental traditions, the former thanks to its affinity for the precision of logic and mathematics, the latter thanks to its affinity for of discourse and language. Both efforts strive for a sort of perfect rendering of things, whether as friction-free Wittgensteinian proof or an exquisitely baroque Derridean lyric.

Is it possible that among SR advocates, whatever inner sense finds a rejection of correlationism appealing also makes no qualms about the rapid, experimental outpouring of possible notions given form in logic and language? Writing is still serious business for the speculative realist, to be sure, but so is the tea that steeps, the trousers that wrinkle, or — for that matter — the keyboard keys that depress while such writing takes place.

I really don’t have much to say in response to Ian’s thought here beyond free associations. One of the things I’ve noticed among many of my colleagues in recent years is a sort of outright hostility to the internet, text messaging, etc. The lament always has the form “these kids today…” and spirals into a diatribe about how they are unable to read, how they lack a knowledge of history, science, and are unable to write etc., etc., etc. I am always a bit shocked when I hear these diatribes, while nonetheless sympathizing with them on the writing end (grading these essays can be a miserable experience), because these diatribes are coming from the same folks that are intimately familiar with Plato’s Phaedrus. In other words, they sounds remarkably like Plato’s critique of the evils of writing. Thinkers like Walter Ong with his Orality and Literacy and Friedrich Kittler with his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, have, of course, introduced us to the thesis that communications technologies are not simply tools that leave the content of communication unaffected, but rather have a morphogenetic effect on the nature of that communication as well as cognitive structure. McLuhan makes similar observations in The Gutenburg Galaxy, and thinkers such as Simondon and more recently Stiegler in Time and Technics call into question the notion of τέχνη simply taking on form from human beings. Indeed, Marx had already observed the manner in which the factory had a morphogenetic effect on human bodies, generating a new type of subjectivity.

Simply put, the thesis would run that the person individuated within an oral culture thinks and experiences the world differently than a person individuated within a textual culture. Here there would be different structures of embodiment, cognition, affectivity, and so on. Likewise, it takes no great leap to conclude that perhaps similar differences emerge with respect to digital cultures. In this respect, it wouldn’t be that students are “stupid”, but rather that given this milieu of individuation, they have a different sort of cognitive, affective, and embodied relationship to the world. While this different structure makes reading Spinoza’s Ethics with them tough going as the Ethics requires a very different sort of cognitive temporality than the affective temporality prominent in our current visual and digital culture which is more rhizomatic and associative than deductive, it does not entail that these new forms of subjectivity are somehow less skilled or intelligent. Indeed, it is possible that the sort of affective-temporal structures of text-based structure are actually an impediment to thriving in visual-digital culture as they require a “keeping time” that simply is not available in the zipping technological space Ian alludes to. Rather than the mathematician or the scholar pouring over a text or problem for years or decades, the model of visual-digital culture is something closer to Jackie Chan who, like Charlie Chaplin, is able to make use of whatever environment he is thrown into at the time.

The new technologies thus pose all sorts of questions about the nature of contemporary discourse, thought, dialogue, affectivity, subjectivity, and interpersonal relations. Will we reach a point where we find reading a book every bit as difficult as reciting all of Homer’s Illiad? Yet here again, I think we find a case where correlationism comes up woefully short in providing us with the sorts of conceptual tools to explain the sort of world we live in. In its focus on the mind-world correlate, in its focus on how mind actively gives form to the world, it has a very difficult time theorizing how these sorts of milieus give form to various forms of embodiment, affectivity, temporality, subjectivity, and all the rest. Similarly, it is not clear that correlationist approaches have much of significance to say with respect to technology beyond reactionary, luddite platitudes about how it is corrupting us (perhaps, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s here). As Stiegler and Simondon argue, technology has taken on a sort of autonomy of its own, evolving and developing at its own pace and with respect to its own internal logic, in a way that can no longer be properly theorized in terms of human aims and intentions. In the absence of a clear understanding of that autonomy and its dynamics it’s very difficult to develop strategies for responding to this new world.

I have been pretty outspoken on my hostility of accounts of mind that follow the Kantian model. Regardless of where one sides with respect to the realist/anti-realist debate, I still think we’re going to discover that functionalist models of mind are mistaken. In other words, in my view it is still possible for someone to be an anti-realist while rejecting a functionalist model of thought. There is, for example, an anti-realist version of Deleuze that is currently gaining steam through the work of folks like my buddy Joe Hughes. My Difference and Givenness is partially responsible for this reading of Deleuze due to my emphasis on Deleuze’s debt to German idealism through figures like Kant, Maimon, and Schelling. Under this reading, the dispute between Kant and Deleuze is not a dispute between anti-realism and realism, but rather over the role of categories in cognition. For Kant we cannot properly account for the nature of our cognition without positing a priori categories through which intuition or sensibility is synthesized and organized. By contrast, Deleuze, following Solomon Maimon, argues 1) that Kant is unable to provide a non-circular account of how it is possible to synthesize a pure concept with a concrete intuition (the schema just says that such a mediator must exist– the famous time-determinations of the categories –not how it is possible), and 2) that the organization of our experience is instead an emergent result of a differential unconscious, not unlike the role played by Leibniz’s “insensible perceptions” in his New Essays on the Human Understanding.

This debate is not a rarefied philosophical debate between Kant and Deleuze, but rather has a number of implications outside of philosophy. Clearly if one sides with Deleuze, then functionalist accounts of mind such as we find in Fodor with his “language of thought” or Chomsky with his “deep” or “universal grammar” will be unacceptable. At any rate, in response to my post “Taking Problems Seriously“, Rob and I have been having a bit of a debate regarding Chomsky and functionalist accounts of mind. Rob contends that there are mountains of experimental evidence for Chomsky’s linguistics, though this is not the impression that I’ve gotten (i.e., Chomsky and the Chomskyians, as I understand it, are primarily theoretical linguistics that then interpret data according to their model, not unlike the manner in which Friedmannian economists proceed). However, I am certainly no expert on these issues. At any rate, the anthropologist Timothy Mason of Paris VIII has been kind enough to compile a list of links with critical perspectives on Chomsky. Enjoy!

I am very tired this morning as I stayed up far too late watching first season episodes of Dexter and had to get up very early this morning to get blood work done, so hopefully I make some sense in these remarks. For some time now I’ve pondered the issue of what precisely accounts for the efficacy of psychoanalytic treatment. In many instances I have no doubt that Lacanian psychoanalysis does produce substantial transformations in symptoms and, in a closely related vein, the manner in which a person relates to and experiences others. This was certainly true in my own case, and, I believe, in the case of a number of patients I worked with back when I was still practicing.

Setting aside the aim of analysis as traversing the fantasy and identifying with the symptom, the core Lacanian thesis is that the unconscious is structured like a language. Under this model, the symptom, understood from one angle, is a coagulation of unconscious language that speaks, as it were, that which has fallen underneath the bar of repression. As both Freud and Lacan liked to say, there is no repression without a return of the repressed. What is repressed are therefore signifiers. The symptom is a return of those signifiers in disguised form. In the Rome Discourse Lacan remarks that all speech is addressed to someone. Thus the symptom can be seen as a disguised speech to someone.

My favorite example of this from my own analysis comes from my early teaching experience. At Loyola we still used chalk. When I first began teaching I found myself constantly breaking chalk. This little tick became very noticeable, such that not only was I deeply embarrassed by it, but my students began to chuckle over it and even gave me a chalk guard with a declaration from the citizens of “Chalkville” asking that I clothe their citizens in this fine suit of armor so as to put an end to my carnage. While touched by this little gesture, I was also very bothered by the breaking of the chalk. I remember obsessively talking about it one day in analysis, words flying out of my mouth a mile a minute. At one point I said something like “I don’t know what my problem is, I just seem to put too much pressure on the chalk at the board.” My analyst flatly intoned something like “pressure at the board” and I responded with something like “yeah that’s right, too much pressure on the board.” I thought nothing of it at the time and continued rambling. I didn’t notice until a couple weeks later that I had stopped breaking chalk after that session. The breaking of the chalk was a sort of micro-symptom and a rather minor one at that, though certainly linked in with my global or structuring symptom. I encountered the breaking of the chalk as a problem of technique, a mechanical problem, an inability I have to modulate the amount of pressure I put on the chalk. What my analyst did with his monotonic phrase was transform this bungled action into a condensation or a bit of speech, situating it not as a problem of physics, but as a way of speaking the pressure and anxiety I was experiencing at the board. Perhaps this symptom was even a message to the other situating myself as inept, as bungled, as incompetent, so that I could prop up the Other as complete (a role I had played with respect to my father as a child). The point is that in being articulated, the symptom disappeared. It no longer had to manifest itself in my flesh and activity because it had now been articulated.

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One of the things that has often frustrated me about Continental political theory is that I find in it a tendency to focus on the content of concepts, positions, and arguments to the detriment of the form through which these positions are articulated. Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not simply to represent the world, but to change the world. Part of the production of this change involves having good concepts, arguments, and the right positions. However, if these concepts do not circulate around the world, if they remain cloistered within our skulls or accessible to only a select group of elite individuals, then these concepts do little to change the world.

The form of a discourse, as well as its materiality, matters every bit as much as the content of that discourse. It is not enough to simply have the right ideas or the just position. If that position does not take place in some sort of material inscription, if it does not have the right sort of form, it is unable to in-form at all. That is, it remains incapable of producing any difference outside of the small and select group of elites capable of receiving the message. Where the form is lacking, one suspects that the theoretical engagement is akin to an obsessional exercise, where the obsessional is perpetually preparing to go after the object of desire but in such a way that all of his acts are designed to insure that everything remains exactly as it has always been. In other words, the obsessional form of activity is designed to insure that nothing changes regardless of what the obsessional claims at the level of the content of his discourse. It is here the form of obsessional activity that matters, that is crucial to understanding the obsessional, not the content.

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For the last few days I’ve been a bit remiss in responding to comments and email due to being swamped with other things. I apologize for this. Today, in response to my post on Orientalism, Jerry the Anthropologist writes:

Allow me to wonder how this post might look to someone reading it at Universitas Kebangsaan Malayu or at Gadjah Mada or at San Carlos. Its not that I don’t appreciate (or that they might not appreciate) the elegance of the argument.

Put another way, somewhat over 50 years ago, after having examined somewhat over 300 definitions of culture, A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn wondered whether its not so important what culture is as what culture does.

Hopefully my friend Jerry will say a bit more about his distinction between “culture being” and “culture doing”. For my own part, I have become suspicious of concepts like “society”, “culture”, “economy”, “language”, etc., because I think all too often these concepts tend to hypostatize phenomena that are really complex networks of interactions. South Park recently had an uncharacteristically good episode on precisely this issue with respect to the economy that is well worth watching. We treat the economy as if it itself were doing something, as if it were an entity– the episode is all about how we have “angered” the economy and must repent –when, in fact, the economy is us. The thesis of this post is that we tend to hypostatize things like “culture” and “society”, turning them into entities when, in fact, they’re processes. In developing this line of thought, I am not denying phenomena like orientalism, but raising ontological questions about the conditions under which it is possible.

This, I think, is part of the importance of the concept of “assemblage” or “network”, as opposed to that of “system” or “structure”. By system or structure I understand a form of organization where the elements are inseparable from one another such that their being is purely a function of their relations within that organization. For example, in structural linguistics the phoneme p is nothing apart its differential relation to the phoneme b. Indeed, according to this account we already speak poorly by referring to “b” and “p” as phonemes as there is only b-p or the differential relation defining the two terms. This sort of concept then gets applied to social phenomena as well, such that no element in the social exists apart from the other elements, or rather, all of the elements are what they are by virtue of belonging to the organization. From a system theoretical perspective, the analogy is generally to biology where all the elements are understood to have a functional role and set of interdependencies within the social system. From the structural perspective the analogy is to structural linguistics where the elements are inseparable and only take on identity differentially.

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Laughing_buddha_statue_Buddha_gift_mRecently some charges of Orientalism have been floating about the blogosphere with regard to a particular thinker. I don’t care to get into the nuts and bolts of this discussion, but I do think it might be of value to raise some issues about some of the sociological, anthropological, and linguistic assumptions that might underlie this sort of charge. As the Wikipedia article on Orientalism succinctly puts it, “Orientalism implies essentializing and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples.” In response to this short definition, we might ask “what are the conditions for the possibility of Orientalism?” On the one hand, we are told that Orientalism is an essentializing interpretation of Eastern cultures and peoples; while, on the other hand, we are told that this interpretation is an outsider interpretation.

picture_kafka_drawingBeginning with the second criteria or feature characterizing the “phenomenology” of Orientalism, I think we should ask “who is the outsider?” When it is claimed that someone or some mode of discourse is an “outsider” mode of discourse we are implicitly claiming that an inside exists. Put otherwise, what we are suggesting is that cultural identities, cultural “types”, cultures themselves, exist. But is this a warranted assumption? Are we not every bit as much strangers or outsiders within our own culture as we are with respect to other cultures? Do we not wonder how to be Americans, English, Egyptian, Chinese, etc? Or put otherwise, in Lacanian terms, do we not find ourselves perpetually fraught with the hysteric’s question of what we are for the Other? Quoting Zizek quoting Hegel, the mysteries of the Egyptians were mysteries for the Egyptians. The mistake of the sort of culturalism presupposed by the charge of Orientalism is that it implicitly advocates a sort of immediate and non-mediated relationship to cultural identity such that insiders and outsiders actually exist. But if the aphorism that the big Other does not exist means anything, it is that there is no internally consistent and totalized set of signs and signifiers capable of defining a cultural identity and fixing one’s identity as a member of a group. Our encounter with our own cultural system is every bit as fraught and mysterious as our relation to the so-called “other”.

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inquisition-wheelIn listening to the daily flood of new documented insights about the former Bush Administration’s “Enhanced Interrogation Technique” practices, one of the most frustrating elements of the whole discussion is that it has been pitched in terms of the question “does torture work or not?” Although it strikes me as obvious that torture does not work– one need only read the first volume of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to get this –the truly frustrating thing about the whole debate is that it shouldn’t be a debate at all. Why don’t we see more people standing up and saying “It doesn’t fucking matter whether or not it works! It’s wrong!” Not only are there countless utilitarian reasons as to why this is bad policy, there is the, above all, the simple point of our own dignity and the dignity of other humans. However, perhaps part of the reason such a debate is so upsetting has to do with the very nature of topics and how they function in the social field. All of this brought me to reflect on a passage from Niklas Luhmann’s wonderful Reality of the Mass Media today. Luhmann writes:

Topics… serve the structural coupling of the mass media with other social domains; and in doing this they are so elastic, and so diversifiable that the mass media are able to use their topics to reach every part of society, whereas the systems in the inner social environment of the mass media, such as politics, the economy or law, often have difficulty presenting their topics to the mass media and having them taken up in an appropriate way. The success of the mass media throughout society is based on making sure that topics are accepted, regardless of whether there is a positive or a negative response to information, proposals for meaning-making or recognizable judgments. Interest in a topic is frequently based precisely on the fact that both positions are possible [my emphasis]. (12 – 13)

stem_cellIt’s a real pity that Luhmann’s sociological theory has not gotten more attention, though not a surprise given the difficulty of some of his work. In works like his monumental Social Systems, Luhmann following the work of Maturana and Varela in biology and cognitive science, sought to understand the social field as a dynamic, autopoietic system composed of nothing but events that both produce and reproduce the system in time. Luhmann’s heretical sociological thesis was that the social is composed of nothing but communications. In other words, in the parlance of autopoietic systems theory, individuals and persons do not belong to social systems, but rather belong to the environment of social systems. They are, as it were, entirely outside social systems. As a result, communications are not, according to Luhmann, the product of persons, but rather communications are the product of other communications. Persons can irritate social systems– Luhmann’s technical word for “stimulate” –but persons as such never provide information— difference that make a difference –for social systems. This is because what counts as information is always based on a code that is self-referential in character. If the codes determining whether or not something counts as information (an event) is self-referential in character, that is because information does not belong to the environment of the system– it is not in the “things themselves” –but is rather constituted by the system itself. Put otherwise, there must be an “ontogeny” of information that is system specific. In short, systems are “organizationally closed”. Just as the elements of a biological cell both are a product of and reproduce the cell itself, and just as the cell is only selectively open to an environment or other cells about it, social systems are characterized by an organizational closure that renders them only selectively open to the world about them.

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