Only slept for about an hour last night. Bleary eyed and can hardly see straight. At any rate, Jeremey Dunham, Mark Edward, and Nick Srnicek’s reviews of my Difference and Givenness are now available on Global Discourses: A Developmental Journal of Research in Politics and International Relations. I am truly humbled and full of gratitude for their thoughtful and positive reviews. I am also gratified to have been selected for a book symposium in this way. In addition you will also find my response to their reviews.

As I have repeatedly remarked, the “foundation” of my ontology is difference. My basic claim is that if something makes a difference, then it is. Or as I articulate it in the ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference.” The first point to note is that when I begin from this hypothesis, I am not making a normative claim or a value judgment. “Making a difference” should not be understood as a synonym for “being important” or “being valuable”. Nor am I making the precious claim that everything is important or special or unique. There are very small and minor differences, but they are no less for this. All I am saying when I assert the ontic principle is that to be is to make differences. Note, when I say that to be is to make differences, I am taking no stand on whether or not a being makes a difference to you or me or any other living being in the universe. In short, the phrase “making difference” should not be elided into the phrase “making a difference to…” Even if a being is not observed, even if a being does not act on any other being, it nonetheless produces differences purely in and through its being. It is for this reason that I claim that objects are activities or doings.

The question, then, is what exactly is meant by “difference”? I am still trying to work this out. However, I think one key point to keep in mind is that difference should not be confused with distinction. In ordinary language we often say “x differs from y”. Or we say that to differ is to not be something else. Under this view, difference is treated as a comparative term, and is run together with the concept of distinction.

When I evoke the concept of “difference” I am not evoking difference in the sense of comparison between two entities, nor in the sense of distinctions. In my view, difference is a condition for comparisons, and is also a condition for distinctions, but difference as such is prior to comparisons and distinctions.

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pariswallsIn relation to my post on Speculative Realism and Scientific Naturalism, Deontologist and I have been having a stimulating discussion on the ontological status of signs. I advocate the thesis that symbolic entities have real existence and are entities in their own right. Deontologist holds that this is a “trivial”– a truly unfortunate use of language –use of the term “existence” and that only material or physical beings can be truly said to exist.

The discussion began as a discussion about the ontological status of fictional entities like Harry Potter. I hold that fictional entities like Harry Potter are real. In making this claim, I am not making the absurd claim that there is a material referent to the novels depicting David Lewis where a physical Harry Potter exists in one of David Lewis’ possible worlds. Rather, following basic principles of phenomenology, I contend that Harry Potter exists qua fictional entity. Harry Potter is real as a fictional entity. The important caveat here would be that where phenomenology might make this entity dependent upon a sense-bestowing intuition issuing from the cogito— at least in the Husserlian formulation –I hold, following Harman, that Harry Potter, as an object, enjoys independent existence once he has come into existence. To be sure, Harry Potter had to come into existence through the agency of an author, but once he has come into existence his existence is as independent as any other entity that might exist.

We could similarly draw on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” and Limited Inc. to make this point. In these texts Derrida arrives at conclusions that are surprisingly congenial to object-oriented ontology. Meditating on the conditions under which the grapheme or sign are possible, he notes that in order for a grapheme to function as a grapheme, it must be iterable. As he works through the logic of iterability, he shows that it follows that the being of the grapheme or sign cannot be dependent on the intentionality of the person that uses it or enunciates it. In order for the grapheme, mark or sign to be iterable, it necessarily, as its condition of possibility, presupposes the absence of both the speaker, the referent, and the addressee. Derrida puts this point dramatically, remarking that every grapheme, text, or sign presupposes the death of the subject insofar as it is iterable beyond the intentionality of any subject or any context in which it might have been produced. Thus, like Kant’s famous glove turned inside out, the object-oriented ontologist need only give positive formulation to Derrida’s negative thesis. To say that the grapheme, sign, or text presupposes the death of the subject and absence of the referent is to say that the being of the sign, grapheme, or text is that of an independent and real object that is irreducible to the intentionality of the person that employs the sign or the referent to which the sign refers. Neither concept, context, intention, idea, or referent, the grapheme enjoys an independent existence tracing its course throughout the world in excess of any relations it might happen to enter into. Hopefully I will be forgiven for considerably condensing Derrida’s transcendental argument here.

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For those who have online access to Project Muse, Ronald Bogue’s review of Difference and Givenness is now available volume 16 of Symploke. From the final paragraph:

His argumentation is dense, yet pursued with rigor and systematic coherence. His reading of Difference and Repetition is one of the finest now available and a significant contribution to the growing body of serious engagements with Deleuze as a philosopher. Bryant’s study will be difficult going for anyone unfamiliar with the Deleuzian corpus, but for those who have struggled with Deleuze’s complex works, this book will prove an invaluable guide and an essential stimulus to further discussion of his thought. In every way, Difference and Givenness is a major achievement.

This is a truly gratifying review, not only because it was Bogue that first introduced Deleuze to the English speaking world and because he has done so much excellent work on Deleuze (particularly his three volumes on Deleuze and the arts), but also because Ronald Bogue’s work has been so influential in my own thought. Difference and Givenness would not have been possible without his book Deleuze & Guattari, and especially the chapters on Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense.

Fall_Creek_2For some time now I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from biological thought. In part, I suppose, this is because I went through a period when I wanted to be a marine biologist and watched The Food Chain Channel (National Geographic and Animal Planet) nightly. Between the ages of eight and thirteen I could be found, on any given Summer day, mucking about in the creek in my backyard, shorts rolled up all Tom Sawyer like, capturing various critters such as tadpoles, frogs, snails, crayfish, turtles, fish, and whatever else I could find for my numerous aquariums in my room. Needless to say my parents were much dismayed by a rather swamp-like miasma that came to permeate the upper story of our house. Despite the social alienation I experienced then, this was a happy time in my life, spent exploring the plants and trees and animals and building all sorts of things. Beyond my fascination with the biological, however, I’ve found that biology converges on issues central to contemporary debates. When I suggest this there are, no doubt, those who shudder, immediately jumping to the conclusion that I am suggesting that philosophy should be “biologized”. But really that isn’t it at all. If biology should be of interest to philosophers, then this is because it deals with issues at the heart of contemporary debates such as the nature of what constitutes an individual, the nature of systems, how change takes place, how negentropic phenomena are possible, the nature of difference, and so on and so on. As my brilliant friend Adam Miller recently exclaimed when describing his encounter with Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, “it is like an embarrassment of ontological riches”. This is not, I take it, because of the contributions Gould makes to evolutionary theory, but because of how he tackles questions like what constitutes an individual?, what is the relationship between different scales of individuals?, how does change take place?, what is difference?, etc. Adam is right, just read the book. If anything else it is good for pushing you into different constellations of thought.

For the last week I’ve been working through Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students. Written in a gorgeous conversational and entertaining style that I can only dream of having and which emulates Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach (who was, incidentally, one of his mentors), Dennett’s book, no less than Gould’s, is an embarrassment of riches. If this is so, then it is not because one is ultimately convinced by his arguments– though that’s always possible –but because the book is so rich in concepts, analogies, and thought experiments that it functions as a rich machine for producing other associations very remote from his own immediate aims and interests.

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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!

Image3It looks like I’m writing a lot of posts responding to others today, but I can’t express how helpful these comments are in assisting me in the development of my own thoughts. In response to my last post, NrG writes:

First, I would love to read something other than Lacan for our groups. And second, I would enjoy it even more if it were Graham’s new book! So, to answer your question, I’m definitely on board.

Now, to my (seemingly unending series of) questions. When you comment that:

“Rather, the body is an endo-relational unity anterior to whatever matter might compose it, wherein the elements related interdepend on one another through time.”

Could you possibly describe the differences between a sum, a composition, and a unity? As I see it, there seems to be more to a composition than a simple sum, but in what way(s) does a unity differ from either or both?

Also, I am struck by the fact that there seems to be something “anterior” to the object-whole. I’m not disagreeing with you, per se, but am intrigued by this notion that before multiple objects become a whole, there seems to be a preset or pre-constructed form by which the objects (eventually, but not always) come to take.

My favorite example is the two garages, one with a pile of parts and the other with a similar pile but fully constructed into a working motorcycle. Now, you’re right; for if the whole was merely the sum of its parts, then the pile would be the same object as the working motorcycle. However, there is something quite drastically different between the two. It is only because the parts are composed in such and such a way that the working motorcycle comes to be. Parts can be replaced, but only if the new parts maintain the same function in the composition. (Another example would be that given the sentence, “Bob wrote a paper.” I could easily replace the word Bob with the pronoun he, with little to no change in the sentence’s meaning – “He wrote a paper.” Yet, the more complex the sentence/object, the harder it is to make such replacements.)

What most fascinates me about form, then, is that it seems to exist as part of the object-whole, but is not essentially a proper part in the sense that it, itself, cannot be taken as an independent object. For, what object is “the body”, or “the motorcycle” minus all of their respective parts?

First things first: I am absolutely stoked at the prospect of readings Harman’s Prince of Networks for reading group. In my view it is his finest work to date, though this might just be a function of my abiding affection for Latour. It would be terrific to start sooner rather than later, i.e., over the Summer. Maybe we could send something out to the group list this week with the proposal and see when folks are available.

Now onto more metaphysical issues. I think NrG’s intuitions concerning the difference between sums and compositions are similar to my own. I take it that a sum is a collection in which the parts do not depend on one another. A sum can thus be thought as a simple set. The elements of a set have no relations of dependency with respect to one another defined merely by membership in the set. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that we are authorized to take the sub-multiple of any set without that multiple being changed in any way as a result of its subtraction from the set. For this reason I’m inclined to say that sets aren’t objects. I think Badiou comes to realize this himself in the trajectory of his thought from Being and Event to Logics of Worlds. If he comes to the conclusion that we require category theory to think objects and worlds, then this seems to be because he recognizes that you don’t get an object or a world out of a mere set extensionally defined. I differ from Badiou on this point in rejecting the thesis that objects are necessarily indexed to a world and a transcendental, and in my distinction between endo- and exo-relations. If I reject Badiou’s thesis that objects are necessarily indexed to a world, then this is because I am committed to the independent substantivity of objects. I confess that I might be unfair to Badiou on this point as Badiou does argue that objects can move from world to world while remaining the same object in Logics of Worlds.

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My apologies for not posting much lately. I have been working on an article and my second book. In the meantime, I’m pleased to announce the release of two new books on Deleuze. The first is a collection edited by Edward Willatt and Matt Lee entitled Thinking Between Deleuze and Kant: A Strange Encounter. My contribution, “Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism: Notes Towards a Transcendental Materialism” is second in the collection and approaches Deleuze in terms of Speculative Realism, attempting to work through the issue of non-anthropomorphic time.

For those of you who read Dutch, Romein, Schuilenburg, and van Tunien have put together a collection of the various influences and elements of Deleuze’s thought entitled Deleuze compendium. I contributed an article on Deleuze and Simondon entitled ““Individueringsprocessen. Deleuze, Simondon en de genese van individuen” or “Individuation and Process: Deleuze, Simondon and the Genesis of Individuals”.

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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duchamp_bride1Based on the recommendation of my friend Jerry the Anthropologist, last week I picked up a few books by the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. Yesterday, during the day and on the flight from Dallas to Dayton, I was able to get through about half of A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Like most of Jerry’s recommendations, the book does not disappoint, and presents a rich and sophisticated discussion of consciousness at both the phenomenological level and the neurological level, which is informed by debates surrounding mind in the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy of mind, along with a vast array of material from neurology and psychology (Edelman himself is a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist). Edelman and Tononi are at pains to develop a neurological account of consciousness.

If their approach is so interesting and provocative, much of this has to do with a simple shift in how they pose the question. I have been taken to task by some for claiming that the neurological foundation of consciousness is a done deal or largely established conclusion. It has been pointed out to me that this remains a hotly debated issue and that, as of yet, we do not yet have a neurological account of how consciousness emerges from neuronal activity. I am, of course, aware of this. If I am led to claim that there is no serious dualistic contender for the physicalist hypothesis, then this is not because we have an account of how consciousness arises from the brain, but because massive bodies of observational evidence have emerged with respect to various brain injuries and whatnot showing that consciousness is a physical phenomena. The state of neurology with respect to its ability to account for consciousness is analogous to the state of biology following Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution through natural selection. All of the evidence gathered in the wake of Darwin’s theory indicated the truth of his account (broadly construed). What was lacking was an account of the mechanism by which traits could be passed on. Despite Mendel, we would have to wait nearly a hundred years before that mechanism was discovered and before we began to understand how, precisely, it works. The situation with neurology is very similar. We largely know that brain produces consciousness, but there are a number of big and mysterious “x’s” as to how the brain does this.

One of the things that makes Edelman’s approach so promising– and such a departure from many other assumptions about consciousness –is that he shifts the issue from the question of how consciousness is produced, to the question of when consciousness is produced. To be sure, an answer to the question of “how?” is still the ultimate aim, but if the question of when is so promising, then this is because it helps us to zero in on those processes and their structures generative of consciousness. Edelman’s enquiry proceeds along both phenomenological and neurological axis. Phenomenologically he is attentive to the lived experience of consciousness, its indivisible unity, our sense of self, its internally differentiated nature (not unlike Bergson’s description of multiple durations in Duration and Simultaneity), etc. But most importantly, he is attentive to when consciousness arises at the phenomenological level of experience and when it passes away or disappear. The issue here isn’t simply one of falling asleep, but ranges throughout a number of states in our lived experience. Thus, to take a trite example, when I was learning to type I was highly conscious of the movements of my fingers, the letters on the keyboard, the screen, and the text that I was transposing on to the computer screen. Now, unless I am typing about typing, I am non-conscious of most of these activities, simply doing them in an automatic way.

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