Critique


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.

read on!
(more…)

Over at An Un-Canny Ontology, my friend Nate writes:

for Levi, even if we scientifically prove that material existence can be decomposed into 6 or so specific particles, such decomposition is in no way exhaustive for all being. For Levi, being is more than just materiality; it is also immateriality, fictional, and symbolic. And in this way, onticology is inclusive, slutty, or promiscuous. It does not discriminate between objects.

This is mostly right. I do discriminate among objects (they come in all sorts of flavors), but I hold that all of these objects are real. There are a wide variety of realisms and it is important to keep this in mind. Platonic realism holds that Forms or universals exist in their own right, and are not just abstractions of mind. This differs from Aristotle’s particularism that holds that only particulars exist and universals are just abstractions. In addition to Plato’s realism and Aristotle’s particularism, you also have materialistic and physicalist variants of realism. Thus the materialist or physicalist will claim that only material things are real. Everything else is to be explained in terms of this fundamental reality.

My realism is a promiscuous realism. I do not wish to claim that fewer things are real, but rather I wish to multiply the number of real things. The more real beings the better as far as I’m concerned. Or as Latour so nicely puts it, we shouldn’t strive to make things less real, but more real. What does he mean by this? This point can be nicely illustrated in terms of the modernist project of critique. In this connection I cannot recommend Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern more emphatically. Yes, sometimes he is thin on argument. Yes, often he is unfair. Nonetheless, he presents, in my view, a compelling critique of modernity. Modernity, as Latour understands it, consists in drawing a strict distinction between nature on the one hand (the physical world) and society on the other hand. The project of modernity is to purify these two domains. Thus, where there is only a single world for the premoderns, where the social and the natural are not clearly distinguished, modernity posits two distinct ontological domains that are never supposed to cross: the ontological domain of nature and the ontological domain of the social.

read on!
(more…)

Over at I Cite Jodi Dean has written a gorgeous mournful post, nicely articulating many of my own recent feelings. In many respects, frustrated by the political situation we find ourselves in, I’ve found myself in a “tend your garden” mode, preferring to think of anything so long as it isn’t politics. Things are just too depressing at the moment, and I confess I feel deeply powerless, as if I’m a serf or a peasant tied to the land that has no power over my circumstances. As I watch the shenanigans of Congress and the administration, I can’t but come to the conclusion that government is simply an arm of the wealthy. I suppose I always knew this, but it’s really hit home for me recently. Moreover, as I observe the behavior of many of my fellow citizens, I can’t help but feel deep disgust at the hatred and resentment that seems to fill them, the superstitious irrationality, and feel deeply sad at the manner in which this pathos compels them to side with the real source of the problem. I thus end up tending my garden.

At any rate, in the comment section Aidan makes an extremely interesting observation related to the blogosophere and speculative realism. Aidan writes,

It’s a very strange and disquieting time in the blogosphere. The speculative realists have made Badiou and Zizek look a little like they belong to another era. Perhaps the most disquieting was how quickly that happened. Almost within the space of a few months. To me it was really momentous, and made me realise how contingent our attachments are. I don’t believe SZ and AB no longer have relevance, but I don’t think it is possible to approach anything now as if SR hadn’t happened. I just wonder about the politics that will arise from it. Perhaps that will be its biggest test.

While I’m far from believing that Badiou and Zizek belong to another era or have grown stale, I do think Aidan is right in observing that the dominant themes in the theory blogosphere shifted almost over night. It was as if a bifurcation point had been reached and a new form of organization arose or came into being. For me the question is why and how these sorts of shifts take place so suddenly. Another way of posing this question would be to ask what was brewing prior to this shift that rendered speculative realism an attractive “solution” or response to these sets of concerns and problems.

read on!
(more…)

AntibodyWorking through Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students, I naturally have memes on my mind these days. Although there is a tendency for the concept of “memes” to be looked down upon in the world of theory, Dennett puts forward a number of striking ideas that are well worth consideration when thinking about the nature of language and culture. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett argues that memes, much like organisms, often form their own immunological system so as to help insure their replication. A meme, of course, is simply a cultural unit. Memes can be anything from hairstyles, to clothing, to techniques for preparing food, to songs, to particular ways of organizing society. The disturbing thesis of memetics– quite close in many respects to structural linguistics –is that the aim of memes is not to communicate or provide any advantage to those who use them, but simply to replicate themselves. Of course, one way in which memes can effectively replicate themselves lies in being useful in some way to the other replicants, humans, in which they commonly lodge themselves.

One way in which memes help to replicate themselves is by acquiring something resembling an “immune system”. Through the acquisition of an immune system, a memetic complex helps to insure its persistence and diminish drift or memetic change as it is replicated or passed from host to host. An obvious example of such an immunological system belonging to a mimetic complex would be certain concepts of faith as it operates in religion. Indeed, faith often functions like an anti-body within meme-complexes of religious belief. On the one hand, despite its very public, political, and social nature, it is not unusual to hear it said that faith is a private matter. In presenting itself as a private matter faith paradoxically enhances its likelihood of social or public replication by creating a defense against critique and criticism. The person who criticizes faith becomes the jerk who is not respecting another person’s privacy. Thus the person of faith is free to discuss and assert their faith as publicly as they like, but criticism is treated as a violation of the faithful person’s privacy and is said to ignore their rights or indicate a lack of respect.

read on!
(more…)

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).

read on!
(more…)

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!

In discussions surrounding Speculative Realist orientations of thought, and especially critical discussions of Speculative Realism, I’ve noticed a strong tendency to emphasize the realist dimension of this term to the detriment of the speculative dimension of this term. Nowhere is this tendency more apparent than in a tendency to accuse Speculative Realism of positivism. Today, over at Object-Oriented Philosophy, I read Graham responding to a series of emails criticizing SR in precisely this vein. In the first email, the author, Alex G, writes:

“also perhaps you might comment on this criticism i’m hearing more and more from colleagues, the gist of which is: ‘isn’t the goal of speculative realism basically just positivism? i.e. ‘let’s figure out definitively how we can make scientific claims about an absolute reality.’ and since we’re against positivism, why shouldn’t we be against SR too?’ it seems like the trend is to think that SR is just Badiou without politics.”

Another reader follows up with his own remarks here. In both posts Graham gives compelling rejoinders to these remarks. However, I would like to add a couple points of my own. On the one hand, there is an entire philosophical practice that consists in simply lobbing certain charged terms so as to give the appearance of making an argument. One levels charges like “positivism”, “naive realism”, “vitalism”, “postmodern obscurantism”, “neo-liberal apologetics”, etc., as if they were making a substantial criticism without really saying anything at all. It would be worthwhile to develop an entire lexicon of this sort of monkey poo posing as profundity so that it might be avoided in philosophical discussion.

This aside, and more profoundly, however, I think the charge of “positivism” leveled against the various strains of Speculative Realism speaks volumes as to where we’re at philosophically in this particular historical moment. What this charge indicates as a deeply ingrained tendency to think of all philosophical questioning in the epistemological register, rather than the metaphysical register. Positivism is the epistemological thesis that all knowledge must ultimately be founded in sensation. It is a claim pertaining to how we know or how we have access to the objects of the world. In its looser connotations, positivism refers to the view that only science delivers us legitimate objects of knowledge.

Few things could be further from the position of the various strains of Speculative Realism. The various strains of Speculative Realist thought are not claims about knowledge and how we know, but are rather metaphysical claims about what is. When Meillassoux proposes his principle of factiality, rejecting the principle of sufficient reason and arguing that being is radically contingent, he is not making a claim about our knowledge of being, but about the beings themselves. When Graham Harman presents his account of objects, arguing that all objects withdraw from one another, and his account of vicarious causality, he is not making a claim about how we know objects or causality, but about objects themselves. When I affirm the Ontic Principle, claiming that there is no difference that does not make a difference, I am not making a claim about how differences relate to us or make a difference to us or how we know differences, but about objects themselves.

In all of these cases, the issue is one of metaphysics or ontology, not of our access to the world or our ability to know the world. Nor is there necessarily a privileging of scientific objects or material objects in these ontologies. Graham Harman’s universe is a universe populated by all sorts of strange objects ranging from humble quarks to massive galaxies to the character of Harry Potter. All of these objects are, for Harman, real and on equal footing ontologically. This is a position I share as well. While I have a special fondness for the sciences and a fascination with the objects investigated by the sciences, it in no way follows from this that I hold that quarks are more real than the city of Frisco where I live. Perhaps the most challenging thing about Speculative Realist thought lies in attempting to bracket epistemological questions of access or knowledge so as to think objects themselves.

It will be objected that we must know objects in order to develop a metaphysics of objects. In many respects this simple observation is the lynch-pin argument of the epistemological turn beginning largely in the 17th century and subsequently gaining momentum until nearly all variants of contemporary thought became variants of correlationism. However, in my view, this is a specious line of reasoning. The issue of what causality is is quite independent of our ability to know with certainty specific cases of causality. We can have an ontological knowledge of what causality is while also being very limited in our ability to know a number of specific instances of causality. Similarly, we can know what essence is– that without which an individual entity would not be what it is –without necessarily being able to have any access to the essence of this or that specific individual in its essence. In short, the lynch-pin argument of the epistemological turn strikes me as being premised on a conflation of type and token distinctions, coupled with a highly dubious implicit premise that we only have immediate access to our own minds or representations or language or history, etc..

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.

read on!
(more…)

090504-swine-flu-picture_bigIt seems as if this cold is getting worse with every passing day. There are few things worse than scrambling to read final essays and complete grades while sniffling, sweating, and shivering. Hopefully I haven’t come down with the swine flu, though I hear that it is far less worse than first thought.

At any rate, this last week I had the pleasure of finally picking up John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy, David Couzens Hoy’s The Time of Our Lives: A Critical History of Temporality (which the Notre Dame Philosophy Review has mysteriously and with strange synchronicity given what we’ve been discussing here in the blogosphere asked me to review… Maybe Gary Gutting is slyly trying to convert me to correlationism), along with Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism, all three of which strike me as central to the debates over realism and anti-realism currently playing out here in the blogosphere. Although all three of these books are devoted to the careful textual analysis of various philosophers, they refreshingly take philosophical positions, reading these works not as exercises in textual commentary, but in view of their arguments for realist and anti-realist positions.

read on!
(more…)

I’m sure these posts are getting old by now, but despite the acrimony and heated nature of these discussions, I do think a good deal of progress has been made in clarifying points, posing questions, and developing positions. I doubt that ultimately there will be any consensus, but this development of respective positions is itself worthwhile and, I think, it is refreshing to see an actual philosophical debate taking place rather than endless exegesis on texts without asking the much broader question “is this position true?”. It’s a shame that these discussions have to get so ugly. I’m guilty of being ugly in some of my rhetorical tactics, as are, I think others. Over at Grundledung, there’s a post up discussing the recent debates surrounding Kant, Meillassoux, realism and anti-realism, announcing a more thorough discussion of Kant to come. At the end of his post, Grundledung writes:

In the posts that follow, I will concentrate on three cases, with an eye towards why the readings of Kant matter. (I won’t address the recent hot topic concerning time and ancestrality, since I can’t devote the energy to it, especially as tempers are flaring once again.). Again, the aim will be to show why a focus on Kant is not a morbid fixation but a useful piece of the puzzle. I want to show how the cases I’ll look at bear upon substantive issues in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, even when abstracted from the historical issue of what Kant thought. Also, I shall try to counter the second-guessing of the motivations of critics of speculative realism, providing some symptomatological musings of my own. However, I also want to issue a plea for a bit of old-fashioned bourgeois civility, which would not go amiss on all sides. I’ve no interest in questioning other people’s intelligence or integrity.

Unfortunately I’m having difficulty linking directly to the post, but that aside, I cannot agree more. It is difficult to practice this sort of civility in the heat of debate, but I do think it’s something worth striving for. As I’ve remarked before, I do not think that sarcasm and jest translate well in this medium, and they often are counter-productive to the course of discussion, shifting the discussion to the speakers involved rather than the analysis and evaluation of the claims being made. Everything spirals out of control. It’s difficult to understand why these philosophical discussions get so heated or ugly.

read on!
(more…)

« Previous PageNext Page »