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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Vincent-Van-Gogh-The-Wheat-Field--1888-133375As I lay in bed fighting the flu this weekend I found myself once again reading Braudel’s Civilization & Capitalism. In my view, Braudel’s approach to history provides a model example of what an object-oriented analysis might look like. Braudel does not tell the story of the emergence of capitalism from the standpoint of ideas, political conflicts, nations, or “great men”, but rather from the standpoint of what he calls “material civilization”. Material history consists of those constraints and affordances upon which the social world is based at any given point in time. “Material life is made up of people and things. The study of things, of everything mankind makes or uses– food, housing, clothing, luxury, whether or not money is used, what sort of money is used, tools, coinage or its substitutes, framework of village and town… (31).” This material civilization thus consists of things such as the way in which food is produced, the epidemiology of disease, the sorts of foods produced, whether or not roads are present, the layout of towns and their relationship to the countryside, clothing styles, forms of cooking, weather patterns, wild animals, the relationship of nomads to agricultural society, technologies and technics, and so on.

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kochOne of the things that absolutely fascinates me about discourse, and, in particular, Lacan’s theory of discourse is that it has a fractal nature that seems to iterate itself at all levels. Thus, to the same degree that you can have interpersonal or speaker to speaker relations that have the same formal structure outlined by Lacan with many different contents, you can have entire social structures that are organized around these formal relationships. And indeed, there’s a strange way in which the appearance of one discourse structure somehow generates the appearance of all the other discourse structures. For those interested in a brief introduction to Lacan’s theory of discourse you can consult my article on discourse theory here, beginning with page 40. Formally we can see why the other three discourses emerge “a priori” wherever there is the appearance of one discourse. If this is the case, then it is by virtue of the fact that discourses form what mathematicians call a group. That is, through a simple clockwise permutation, you are able to generate the other three discourses simply by rotating the symbols in each position one position forward. 180px-MadisThus, if you begin with the discourse of the master, you are able to generate the discourse of the hysteric, the analyst, and the university through a simple clockwise rotation of the terms in each of your initial positions:

Unidis For those unacquainted with Lacan’s discourse theory, look carefully at the succession of these four discourses, you will note that beginning with the discourse of the master and then shifting to the discourse of the hysteric, then moving to the discourse of the analyst, and finishing with the discourse of the university, the relations among the terms remains invariant. The terms change their position in each of the four positions they can occupy, but with respect to one another they always maintain a constant position. In this particular universe of discourse (again, see my article for the concept of a “universe of discourse”, which you won’t find in Lacan, but which is a logical extension of his own thought regarding discourse), for example, a can never appear, to put it metaphorically, before the term S2. Consequently, given one discourse, you already have the other three.

As Deleuze put it speaking in the context of Levi-Strauss, “In whatever manner language is acquired, the elements of language must have been given all together, all at once, since they do not exist independently of their possible differential relations” (Logic of Sense, Handsome Continuum Edition, 58). So too with Lacan’s discourse structures. Even if each discourse were to appear diachronically in the order of history in such a way that the others were absent or not present in the social order, nonetheless these other discourses would be virtually there or would exist virtually, simply “awaiting” their opportunity to manifest themselves. What is remarkable, however, is that the discourses don’t seem to arise sequentially with the establishment of a single discourse. Rather, the moment one discourse is instituted you get the sudden actualization of the other three discourses within that universe of discourse.

Take the discourse of the master. What is it that the discourse of the master does? Does it master, dominate, control? No, not really. If you refer back to the discourse of the master you note that on the upper portion of the discourse there is a relation between S1 and S2. S2 refers to the battery of signifiers. We might think of this as a disorganized, chaotic mass of signifiers that float about willy nilly, almost at random. What the discourse of the master does is provide a master-signifier, loosely something like what Derrida referred to as a “transcendental signifier”, that organizes this chaotic mass of signifiers into a unified structure. Thus, for example, when Kant formulated the position of “transcendental idealism” he was situated in the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he provided a signifier that unified philosophy in a particular way, generating a coherent structure or organization. Similarly, when an activist characterizes a series of conflicts as a revolution, he is occupying the position of the discourse of the master insofar as he is unifying a mass of disconnected acts and events under a single signifier that render them capable of generating a sense or an organization.

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Lately I have been rereading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe as my bedtime reading which perhaps accounts for why I have been unable to sleep and am nearly psychotically tired as it is a rich book full of all sorts of fascinating ideas that keep me tossing and turning as my mind spins. Dealing specifically with issues of self-organization, Kauffman’s work strives to theorize the conditions under which we get self-sustaining and organized matter such as we see in the case of living systems. A number of his claims are generalizable to a wide variety of phenomena beyond cells and organisms. Similar principles, for example, would apply to ecosystems, economy, social systems, brain organization and so on. And indeed, Kauffman approaches organization at a high level of abstraction, focusing on self-sustaining or autocatalytic chemical processes while also providing a wealth of formalizations that refer to no specific material substrate in particular. I have made no secret of the fact that I am generally hostile to relational ontologies that reduce objects to their relations. While objects certainly enter into relations, onticology begins from the premise that objects are independent of their relations and can pass out of and enter into new relations. Thus, for example, while being sympathetic to the Saussurean conception of language as a system, onticology nonetheless refuses the thesis that anything is its relations. In short, onticology begins with the hypothesis that being is atomistic or composed of discrete, autonomous, and independent objects that can pass in and out of relations. Yes, there are systems or forms of organization, but these forms of organization are assemblages of objects that enter into certain relationships with one another.

The consequence of this thesis is that one of the central issues for onticology becomes the problem of entropy. Roughly, entropy is a tendency of systems to move from states of higher organization to states of lower degrees of organization, or, alternatively, to move from states of non-equilibrium to equilibrium. The video below illustrates this idea nicely:

At the beginning, the system is in a state of non-equilibrium in the sense that all of the particles are concentrated in a particular region of the chamber. With the passage of time– a mere ten seconds –the particles wander throughout the chamber such that you have an equal probability of finding particles in any particular region of the chamber. The big question for onticology then becomes if being is composed of discrete and autonomous objects, then how is it that certain objects form assemblages that resist this increase in entropy, instead maintaining an organized state across time? A while back I suggested that this is how we should pose questions about the nature of society. There the question was that of how it is that humans bodies just don’t fly off in entropic ways, but instead enter into organized relations that sustain themselves across time. Of course, in order for any system to maintain itself in an organized way work is required. No system maintains itself without work. So the real issue lies in discovering the sort of work through which this organization is re-produced across time. This really gets to one of the central problems with French inflected structuralism and Luhmannian systems theory. Both identify the organization of a social system, how it is put together and how its elements are related, but they remain at the level of social physiology, giving only the skeleton of social systems or how the “bones are put together”. What they don’t give us is the work by which this physiology is maintained. They tell us that these systems somehow resist entropy, but not how. Given that many of us are interested, above all, in the question of how change is possible, the issue of how a social system resists entropy becomes a crucial strategic issue for political engagement. However, even if one is not interested in these political questions of change, the question remains fascinating on its own terms.

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go-3women-534x716Responding to my post on the Game of Life and Emergence, John Doyle, over at Ktismatics, speculates about the ontological status of the patterns that emerge in the game. Doyle first outlines five helpful criteria for emergence drawn from Jaegwon Kim:

1. Systems with a higher level of complexity emerge from the coming together of lower-level entities in new structural configurations.
2. Higher-level systems exhibit higher-level emergent properties arising from the lower-level properties and relations of its constituent parts.
3. Emergent properties are not predictable from information about lower-level conditions.
4. Emergent properties are not explainable or reducible to the lower-level conditions.
5. Emergent properties have novel causal powers of their own.

I am largely in agreement with these five criteria of emergent phenomena so long as number four isn’t taken to entail anything spooky or magical like a sudden magical leap, but rather is a thesis about scale dependent properties that couldn’t have strictly been predicted from the lower level rules. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment. For those interested in actually playing the Game of Life, Ian Bogost has been kind enough to provide a link here.

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thingsBenoît of Idios raises questions as to whether Caesar crossing the Rubicon was the best choice of examples for illustrating object-oriented ontology. In the course of his post, he makes a couple of casual remarks that I believe are worth responding to. Benoît writes,

I’m not sure if a dissection of “Caesar crossing the Rubicon” was the best example to use, as I still don’t grasp the particular value OOP/SR brings to the table when all of the modes of analysis above are possible without dissolving the Kantian limit on epistemology(or, why they are obvious).

Another way to put this would be to say that a particular difference (say, language) could make most of the difference (because honestly, I’ve never heard anyone defend that a certain difference makes ALL the difference, at least in my experience of the Continental tradition), and I’d still get all the same toys.

What am I missing?

First, I think Benoît somewhat misunderstands my aim in “How Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?” That post was not designed to present a concrete object-oriented analysis, and therefore it comes as no surprise that it is rather uninteresting as a piece of analysis. If you’re looking for a good object-oriented analysis read Latour’s Pasteurization of France or Science in Action, Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism, or Bogost’s Unit Operations. What “How Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?” aimed to do was simply draw attention to the role that other other actors or objects play in a situation, beyond minds, signifiers, social structures, and so on. I think such simple illustrations are important because, by and large, we have been educated in an environment so pervaded by the primacy of the signifier that it’s often difficult for us to imagine anything else in the world of theory. I know this was certainly the case for me back in my orthodox Lacanian days. I was so accustomed to viewing the world in terms of texts and signifiers, that I was really unable to even imagine any other type of analysis. The only alternative I could see was phenomenology. In both cases, however, we have a subordinating mode of analysis. In the linguistic idealisms we get the subordination of objects to the signifier and texts, whereas in phenomenology we get the subordination of objects to intentionality. What is impossible, in these frameworks, is for nonhuman objects to surprise us or make any contribution of their own.

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