Correlationism


As I watched a documentary on the real pirates of the Caribbean this afternoon while marking papers I found my thoughts turning towards sticky networks. In many respects I find this concept to be the most difficult to articulate, but also among the most important to articulate. The image that always comes to mind is that of a spider’s web or quicksand. The more you struggle against it, the more you seem to be pulled in. Subtractive object oriented ontology dictates that objects are independent and autonomous. Yet nonetheless objects often get locked in entanglements from which it’s very difficult to extricate themselves. Sometimes these networks are beneficial, but often they are acutely painful and alienating.

The Caribbean pirates found themselves in such an entanglement. Initially they were commissioned by various nations such as Great Britain to “liberate” goods from other nations like Spain. Yet when these nations achieved peace with one another, their actions were criminalized (and they were deeply criminal to begin with, but that’s besides the point here). With the criminalization of their activities the buccaneers now found themselves trapped within a sticky network. Because they were now coded as criminals, more piracy was among their only recourse for bare survival. Yet the more they engaged in these activities the more they were criminalized. There was no way out of the loop.

The situation is similar with the logic of capital. Most of us are not capitalists, but are entangled with capitalism. If most of us aren’t capitalists, then this is because we don’t live according to a M-C-M (money-commodity-money) logic. We don’t purchase commodities with the aim of producing more surplus-value as a result of that purchase. Rather, we follow a logic of C-M-C (commodity-money-commodity). We sell our labor as a commodity to earn money so as to buy other commodities like food or rent. Yet in selling our labor we find ourselves trapped within a sticky network. The more we engage in this activity the more we undermine and alienate ourselves, producing our very undoing by producing the capital that the M-C-M logic uses to assault us through diminishing jobs, stagnating wages, and all the rest. The more successful we are at producing capital for the capitalist, the more we undermine ourselves by creating the very dynamics that stagnate wages, destroy jobs, de-skill us, diminish our freedoms, etc., etc., etc.. Yet if this network is sticky then it is because we’re perpetually faced with the question of what the alternative is. We try to struggle against it perhaps, yet we find ourselves compelled to accept this logic despite ourselves.

All of this reminds me of Meillassoux’s wonderful illustration of correlationism at the Goldsmith’s Speculative Realism back in 2007. Meillassoux compared correlationism to a bit of double adhesive tape. You get the tape stuck to one finger so you try to remove it with another. Yet because the tape is double adhesive tape it is now stuck to that other finger. Eventually, as the tape shifts from finger to finger the person exclaims with the obscenity– in his comic portrayal –“Typhoon!” I didn’t know “typhoon” was an obscenity but I found it amusing nonetheless. This is how the logic of correlationism works. If you try to think the unthought, you’re still thinking it, and therefore it’s not unthought. I don’t find the correlationist argument very convincing– it’s a bit like undergrad arguments that everything is perception –but I do believe that sticky networks exist. We often find ourselves trapped in life or spider webs of our own making. Sticky networks are like correlationism in this respect, with the added caveat that they are accurate representations of what life is actually like rather than phantoms of tired philosophers. In trying to escape them you unwittingly reproduce them. The question then becomes that of how it’s possible to nullify the adhesive of these sorts of networks. At what point does the network become something entirely other?

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600px_SpiderWebIt seems that one of the standard criticisms recently emerging in response to OOO is that 1) it is apolitical, and 2) it is an apologetics for neoliberalism. I confess that I find both criticisms to be deeply perplexing and am unsure what to make of them. I am unsure of whether or not I’ve ever claimed that OOO is apolitical. If I have, then I was speaking sloppily. What I have consistently emphasized is that questions of ontology and questions of politics are distinct. This is exactly what we would expect from a realist ontology. Insofar as realist ontologies reject correlationism or the thesis that objects can only ever be thought in their relation to a subject and that subjects can only ever be thought in relation to objects, it follows that the being of beings is an issue that is independent of politics. Were the being of beings always bound up with the political, we would not have a realism, but rather a correlationism. Why? Because beings would necessarily be bound up with the human.

However, and I think this is a key point, the claim that questions of ontology are distinct from questions of politics is not equivalent to a rejection of politics. All the claim that ontology and politics are distinct entails is that ontological questions are not to be decided on political grounds. That’s all. Nothing more. In this regard, I take myself to be claiming nothing different than what Badiou claims. As Badiou argues in the Manifesto for Philosophy, it is a disaster for philosophy whenever philosophy is sutured to one of its four conditions: love, politics, science, and art. Badiou does not advocate a particular ontology on political grounds. The questions of ontology are internal to ontology. Yet in affirming this autonomy, he is clearly not rejecting the political, as can be seen in his copius contributions to political philosophy.

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transversalRemarking on my post on values and normativity entitled “Co(m)-plications“, Asher Kay of Spoonerized Alliterations writes:

This is a tantalizing vision. I, for one, am totally tantalized. The concept of emergence and the insights of neuroscience (and other parts of complexity theory and cognitive science too) provide some powerful support and explanatory power for OOO’s placement of the human within the realm of the real. And to this point, these relative scientific latecomers have not been coerced into the service of a serious, wide-ranging ontology.

So I’m all happy and cheerful and so forth. Then I read a quote like this (from Larval Subjects), and I begin to wonder if my philosophical sky is really so cloudless:

I think it’s important to show that object-oriented ontology in its realism is not making a call for a scientistic naturalism, but still leaves a lot of room, in suitably re-constructed form, for a number of the sorts of social and cultural analyses the world of theory has come to hold so dear.

I emphasize the “not” there, because that’s where I did a little double-take. Is that right? Isn’t OOO a call for scientistic naturalism? I mean, non-scientific descriptions and explanations are super cool and all that, but we’re talking ontology here! If we’re going to embed and embody the human in the world, what else are we going to use besides the methodology that’s all along been all about objects?

I think my friend’s remarks here are symptomatic of what first comes to the mind of many when we hear words like “ontology”, “realism”, and “objects”. “If”, the train of thought runs, “we are advocating an object-oriented ontology and a realism, this entails that such an ontology is not a subject-oriented ontology. Therefore object-oriented ontology must be interested in showing how the really real world is the result of neurons, atoms, stars, mountains, and so on.” From this point of view, objects are treated as physical or natural objects and are contrasted with subjectivity and culture. The thesis here would be that subjectivity and culture are epiphenomena of these natural objects.

This, however, is not the move that OOO is making. The realism of OOO is not one more move in the battle between realism and idealism where one is asked to choose either realism and advocate the position that really real objects are physical and natural objects and everything else is epiphenomena of these objects or where one is forced to advocate some variant of idealism that holds that all objects are products of mind or culture and that we can never know what things-in-themselves might be independent of mind or culture. Rather, as Ian Bogost notes in his brief response to Asher, OOO places all objects on equal ontological footing. As I articulate it, OOO draws a transversal line across the entire distinction between subject and object, culture and nature, placing the two orders that characterize the discourse of modernity on a single ontological plane.

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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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Amazon1In response to my post about circulating reference, Jerry and I have had an engaging discussion about the role of locals in the productions of knowledge. Jerry writes:

Perhaps I’ve not be as clear as I might. I rather take the point that Latour’s ethnography concerns the four scientists–of course it does. My query concerned the context of the actual fieldwork these scientists undertook. Here I must object that your comparison above with questions about why work with aborigines and instead of mayans is just nonsense, logical no doubt but nonsense, at least ethnographically. These four scientists undertook their fieldwork in some specific place or set of places. So then the question I raised concerned their relations, if any, with the people of that place or places and what those people know about the world around them, know about the plants and animals of the place or places.

Too often western scientists, or better put folks trained in the sciences which emerged in the west, rely upon local folks and then efface those same local folks and their knowledge from scientific accounts of say the field botany of the region those local folks live in. So my question then concerns the actual practice of this particular bunch of four scientists out there where the forest and savannah blend into one another.

The account above mentions a variety of abstractive and reductive practices as part of the process of method, but it treats these four scientists as if they were alone out there. This seems to me unlikely, on the one hand, and too common, on the other.

Next, and only somewhat separate from the activities of the four scientists, comes the question of Latour’s account and why if these folks were not alone in the field but in contact with local folks and possibly very extensive local knowledge, Latour doesn’t seem to have picked up on the locals and their knowledge as part and parcel of how the scientists produced scientific knowledge.

I note that I wrote if. If these four were alone, then this is all moot. If they weren’t alone, then the absence of the local South Americans from Latour’s account could be deeply arbitrary on Latour’s part. I saw could be because its entirely possible that these particular scientists didn’t think it possible for local folks to know anything worth while about the world; those scientists would not be alone in so thinking, but they’d very likely be mistaken. If they did think the locals didn’t know anything worth while, then this is part of the process of the generation of knowledge and therefore should not have been left out of the account. I can also say could be because if these four did have contacts with the local folks and learned stuff from them and then effaced these contacts from their scientific work, then the arbitrary exclusion of the locals is intrinsic to the account itself.

Anyway, it was intially a question concerning certain facts about the specific practices of these scientists and then a set of ruminations about the consequences of those facts and practices for what we call knowledge.

It took me a long while to understand what Jerry was getting at, because it seemed obvious to me that Latour was engaging in a very specific philosophical question about the nature of reference, the relationship between mind and world, epistemology, and to be making an intervention in how philosophy of science is practiced. In this connection, given that the issue was about scientific practice, I couldn’t see why a discussion of the locals in Latour’s case study would be relevant. Moreover, I don’t take Latour to be claiming that scientists have the one true knowledge, or that scientific methodology is the only way of arriving at knowledge, but rather that he was examining the practices of a very specific form of knowledge production. In other words, as I saw it, Latour’s account of circulating reference could just as easily be used to examine knowledge producing practices of the locals, generating a very different set of results and revealing different procedures. I couldn’t understand what the issue is because, given Latour’s constant praise for ethnography, his criticism of certain anthropological practices that engage in ethnographic analysis of all other groups except those who are allegedly modern, and his passionate defense of having all actors speak and contribute, rather than granting scientists expert status that silences non-scientific voices, the two approaches didn’t strike me as mutually exclusive.

As the post above makes evident, however, the issue for Jerry is quite different. Before addressing Jerry’s remark which, I think, raises broader issues about epistemology than the point he’s making about the relationship between scientists and local knowledge, it is first worthwhile to briefly summarize Latour’s account of circulating reference for those who haven’t read the article or the original post. For those who have cut their teeth on Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Lacan, I suspect the term “circulating reference” resonates in highly misleading ways. In fact, I think it was a horrible choice of terms for what Latour is trying to mark as, like the free play of the signifier, it arouses thoughts of a reference relation that is not fixed. Here the idea would be that reference circulates about in a playful fashion in much the same way that the signifier cannot be tied to a single signified or referent. This is not what Latour has in mind by circulating reference.

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wild-things-for-webWhen the term “realism” is evoked it often leads to associations with the distinction between nature and culture, the natural and the social, objects and language, the objective and the subjective, world and mind. Under this two-world model, reality is placed on the side of nature, the natural, objects, the objective, and world, whereas meaning, representation, values, and significations are placed on the side of the cultural, the social, language, the subjective, and mind. The natural, it is said, is the domain of the is, whereas the cultural is the domain of the ought. Such is the modernist constitution, so beautifully analyzed by Latour in We Have Never Been Modern, Pandora’s Hope, and The Politics of Nature. Based on this modernist constitution, a matrix of philosophical possibilities emerges. The obvious question, of course, is that of how mind is able to relate to world. If these two houses are so fundamentally different, one containing meaning and normativity, the other composed of senseless objects and causal relations, how do the two come together? Predictably, we get those who strive to reduce the one house to the other. Thus we get the naturalists or vulgar realists who attempt to show how all cultural phenomena are really natural phenomena (think sociobiology), while on the other hand we get the vulgar idealists who attempt to reduce everything to the second house or the world of meaning, intentionality, mind, the social, signification, normativity, and all the rest. And, of course, we get a million variants of intermediary positions that, like Epicurean wisdom, want a little natural indulgence here, a little cultural indulgence there.

When the object-oriented ontologist proudly adopts the term “realism”, it is immediately concluded that she is placing everything in the basket of nature, excluding the domain of culture, mind, signification, meaning, and all the rest. Hence charges of “naive realism”. To make matters worse, it is concluded that insofar as it is nature that the onticologist and ontographer are siding with, the human is being excluded, foreclosed, or disavowed in the name of natural phenomena. However, what this reading misses is that onticology is a flat ontology. What the onticologist asserts is not that there are two worlds, the real natural world and the ideal mental world of meaning, but that there is only one level: reality. Onticology thus draws a transversal line across the distinction between mind and world, culture and nature. Culture is not other than reality or the real, but is an element of the real. Since onticology begins with the hypothesis, wishing to know where it will go, that there is no difference that does not make a difference, it proves impossible to exclude the human. Why? Because humans make a difference. What onticology objects to is not the thesis that humans are elements in the real, but the thesis that every relation is a human-world relation.

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nz317Responding to a rather lengthy and rambling post I wrote over at his blog, Bogost has a terrific post up on the relationship of his research and thought to object-oriented ontology. Ian writes:

As a former Lacanian psychoanalyst familiar with cultural studies, Levi makes the following primary observation in his comment:

My sense is that “cultural studies” has been far too dominated by what I generically refer to as “semiotic” approaches. That is, we get a lot of emphasis on interpretation and analysis of signs and cultural phenomena, and the rest falls by the wayside.

This seems generally right to me, given an important provision. There are humanists who consider the materiality of creativity, but when they do so they usually do it from an historical perspective (e.g., the history of the book, itself a rare and possibly ostracised practice in literary scholarship), or from a Marxist perspective (i.e., with respect to the human experience of the material production of artifacts and systems). In both of these cases, the primary—perhaps the only—reason to consider the material underpinnings of human creativity is to understand or explain the human phenomena of creation and interpretation. Clearly there has been a conflation of realism and materialism in cultural studies for decades now, such that it’s very easy to do the latter without the former.

In Unit Operations, I was focused on comparative criticism, particularly criticism that would be able to treat very different sorts of media, like literature and videogames, in tandem. As someone with experience both experiencing and creating computational work, it was always clear to me that the material underpinnings of such systems were both important for anyone who wants to understand them with any depth, and yet also frequently ignored. For example, one topic I discuss in Unit Operations is the relationship between the shared hardware of different videogames, and how such relations cannot be sufficiently explained through cultural theoretical notions like intertextuality or the anxiety of influence. This is an approach that would come back as a primary method in my work with Nick Montfort on platform studies, discussed below.

Read the rest of the post as it is really rich. Like the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally, yet without faking it, I cannot but say “yes! yes! yes!” in response to Bogost’s post.

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