Critique


In response to the recent discussion surrounding objects and relations, I read Chris Vitale making the following remark:

First some background. When Adrian states “Commodity capitalism is very good at making us think that objects are real,” I think he hits a key point – we see objects because capitalism has taught us to do so. Then again, I’d also argue, with Whitehead (and hence I don’t doubt Adrian would agree), that there is also the reifying apects of language, but also embodiment and taking up a particular perspective within spacetime. Reification is part of what it means to exist at a particular spacetime location, and I think that thought requires that we figure out ways to get around how this enables yet also warps our larger relation to the world. Capitalism, and paranoid politics in general, I think, are merely echo of this much deeper set of problems, even if they do much more damage.

I see this sort of “argument” as a categorical discussion ender. Indeed, in Difference and Givenness, one of my key aims was to shift discussions of Deleuze away from this style of “argument”. At that time it was not at all uncommon to hear Deleuzians “argue” against other thinkers with denunciations to the effect that they are “state thinkers”, “animated by molar desires”, or that they “remain tied to the moral image of thought”. Yet these are not arguments, nor do they respond to the substance of positions. I wanted to show that Deleuze had actual arguments and compelling reasons for both the rejection of thinkers like Kant and Hegel and for his own positions. Name-calling and normative judgment is not an instance of such reasons.

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It is not unusual, in discussions about Kant, to hear supporters of Kant emphasize that he is an empirical realist and a transcendental idealist. It is important to understand what Kant has in mind by empirical realism and why it is radically different than realist ontologies. At this late hour I will not do this issue the justice it deserves, but hopefully indicate some pointers that will help to clarify the issue. No one is forgetting that Kant claims to be an empirical realist in these discussions, above all those that advocate realist ontologies. Nor are realist criticisms of Kant based on the idea that somehow he is subjectivist or a subjective idealist. Empirical realism is something radically different than a genuine realist ontology. When Kant describes his position as an empirical realism, he is not asserting a realist ontology, but is making a claim about intersubjectivity. What Kant is saying is that the items that populate experience are “objective” in the sense that what we experience is intersubjectively communicable and universal by virtue of the transcendental structure of subjectivity or mind as outlined by Kant. In other words, for Kant we are entitled to say that when the sun warms the rock (here I’m drawing on his famous distinction between perception and experience in the Prolegomena), we’re entitled to claim that this causal relation is an objective truth, i.e., intersubjectively universal.

Nonetheless, while Kant is an empirical realist and this is a commendable thing (was it ever in dispute that he wanted to establish the objectivity of science and mathematics?), he remains a transcendental idealist. In short, Kant’s empirical realism only extends as far as the subject and humans. He nonetheless remains committed to the thesis that what objects might be independent of humans, and whether objects exist as our empirical claims portray them, is something that we can never know and which must be carefully excluded from philosophical discussion. For Kant, even in his empirical realism, there’s always an “asterisks” containing the qualification “for us and apart from us we can never know”.

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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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In response to my post on Nature and Its Discontents, Joseph C. Goodson posts a terrific comment on what he sees as the significance of OOO/SR. Joseph writes:

Precisely. As Gould puts it, the history of our evolution is a history of catastrophes, one after the other. I wonder, thinking along these lines, that in the wake of the death of God, this transcendentalizing of our fissures, breaks, discontents, etc, was done in such a way that the effect was one of making the human (so to speak) another exception (even if this exception is fundamentally “negative”). “Man” was still allowed this exceptional place even though the theological backdrop was lost. Part of what is exciting about SR and OOO in particular, and why the continuing backlash against it is so interesting, is that it takes these fundamental antagonisms of Marx, Freud, Lacan, et al, completely seriously — if anything, *its* wager seems to be that we have not taken them far enough, and that the death of God must imply, at one and the same time, the death of a theological concept of nature (this self-consistent sphere which would allow the -1 of humanity to appear).

Another very productive thing I have noticed about OOO is that, even in order for this ontology to begin, in its positivity, it also critiques much of these unsaid philosophical prejudices which, even in some of the most critical philosophies, still operate. This often subtle culture/nature hierarchy is one such prejudice that is very nicely displaced in a flat ontology.

Joseph here gets at one of the key aims or ambitions of the flat ontology I’ve tried to formulate in my version of OOO. I restrict this flat ontology to onticology because Graham, in the past, has expressed reservations about just how flat my ontology is. This difference, for example, comes out in our respective differences with respect to fictional entities. Graham draws a distinction between sensual objects (roughly intentional objects) and real objects. The latter are, if I’ve understood Graham correctly, dependent on minds to exist. In my case, however, symbolic entities are real actants or objects no less than rocks or stars. In my view there are collective entities like symbolic entities, pure mental relations, and nonhuman objects or actors like technologies, stars, quarks, cells, etc. I do not think that symbolic entities can be properly thought by reducing them to a mind-intention sort of relation. This, I suppose, is part of my debt to structuralism and semiotics. If I’m interested in fictions and the ontological status of fictions then this is not out of any sort of perverse wish to say that fictions are real, but rather because fictions provide a sort of exemplary case of a purely symbolic entity that is not a representation of something else. As a consequence, fictions shed light on what symbolic entities are in general. Hopefully Harman and I will work through some of these issues together at the Object-Oriented Ontology event at Georgia Tech in April (please come if you’re able! You’ll get to see me, Shaviro, Harman, and Bogost go at it!).

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Both Ben and Austin have posts up responding to some claims Zizek makes about nature. Ben writes:

For Zizek nature must be non-all or barred, but this nature never goes beyond the range of the earth. Zizek those go on to argue that the appearence of the whole in nature, that the very possibility of nature-in-itself is merely a result of subjective experience, an argument he ties to the experience of the sublime. Zizek then argues for ecology without nature thereby following Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature. I have unfortunately not yet read his text of the same name. From what I have read it seems that what he attacks as the concept of nature is a dominant mode of nature – one stemming from the rationalist tradition where is an immense but separate entity. Zizek writes: “what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on.”

Here my largest issue (which seems to come up with many commentators on nature and ecology) is that the ecology of concepts of nature is severally narrowed for the sake of argument. Zizek seems to make a reversal when discussing the films of Tarkovsky and in particular Stalker but then shifts back to focus on transcendental subjectivity.

The ontological priviledge of the subject remains a serious stumbling block for any approach to nature that is not too shallow or too obfuscated. The finitude of the subject has become increasingly transcendentalized at the expense of nature, nature becomes merely an elaborate background. Nature goes right through the subject.

Following up on Ben’s criticism, it seems to me that there is a fundamental ambiguity in how Zizek refers to “nature”. When Zizek critiques nature is he referring to nature as such or the discursive concept of nature as it functions in a particular ideological discourse? If the former, it is completely appropriate for Zizek to critique this concept of nature and how it functions ideologically. Within this discursive framework, nature is treated as a whole that is harmonious and independent of culture. That is, culture is treated as something other than nature and outside of nature.

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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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A central aim of Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is to diagnose what he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. In a nutshell, the epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis, often implicit, that ontological questions can be reduced to epistemological questions. The idea here is that ontology can be entirely resolved or evaporated into an inquiry into our access to beings, such that there are no independent questions of ontology. As an example of such a maneuver, take Humean empiricism. As good Humean empiricists, we “bracket” all questions of the world independent of our mind and simply attend to our atomistic impressions (what we would today call “sensations”), and how the mind links or associates these punctiform impression in the course of its experience to generate lawlike statements about cause and effect relations.

Note the nature of Hume’s gesture: Here we restrict ourselves entirely to our atomistic sensations and what can be derived from our sensations. Questions about whether or not our sensations are produced by entities independent of our mind are entirely abandoned as “dogmatic” because we do not have access to the entities that might cause or produce these sensations, but only the sensations themselves. Consequently, the order of knowledge must be restricted to what is given in sensation. Hume’s epistemology is thus based on a thesis about immanence or immediacy. Insofar as our minds possess and immediate relation to our sensations, we are epistemically warranted in appealing to sensations as grounds for our claims to knowledge. We are not however, warranted in appealing to objects, powers, selves, or causes because we do not have sensations of these things. Consequently, all of these ontological claims must be reformulated in epistemological terms premised on our access to being. If we wish to talk of objects, then we must show how the mind “builds up” objects out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of powers, then we must show how the mind builds up powers out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of causality we must show how the mind builds up an idea of cause and effect relations through impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of selves and other minds we have to show how mind builds up our sense of self and other minds out of impressions and cause and effect associations.

At the level of the form of the argument, not the content, nearly every philosophical orientation since the 18th century has made the Humean move. While the content of these positions differ, the form of the argument remains roughly the same. That is, we perpetually see a strategy of attempting to dissolve ontological questions through epistemological questions. This move always proceeds in two steps: First, one aspect of our experience is claimed to be immanent or immediate. Second, the furniture of our ontology is then dissolved through an analysis of those entities with reference to this plane of immanence or immediacy. The immediate can be impressions as in the case of Hume, the transcendental structure of mind as in the case of Kant, the intentions of pure consciousness as in the case of Husserl, or language as in the case of late Wittgenstein or the thought of Derrida. Other examples could be evoked. In each case, the gesture consists in showing how the being of beings can be thoroughly accounted for in terms of our access through this immanence or immediacy. The point is that we no longer treat the entities in our ontology as existing independently of this field of immanence or immediacy, but now see them as products of these modes of access. Whether the world is really like this independent of our chosen regime of construction is a question that is abandoned as dogmatic.

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