Difference


Over at Jon Cogburn’s blog, Pete Wolfendale has written a lengthy response to one of my comments. I’ve decided to respond here as, for some reason, I’m unable to blockquote comments over at Jon’s blog, making it more difficult to formulate responses. Pete writes:

The idea of translation is a nice metaphor, but that’s what it is – a metaphor – and it needs cashing out. The simplest way to cash it out is that the effect the affecting object has upon the affected object is in some way dependent upon the affected object, i.e., that the same object will produce different affects upon different things. However, this is something that everyone accepts, and they can accept it without having to talk about ‘real objects’ or ‘proper being’ that withdraws. Maybe you can enlighten me as to the correct stronger way to cash this out, and how this solves any of these issues.

Hopefully Pete will be happy to discover that I “cash” this concept out in great detail in chapter four of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Interior of Objects”. Before proceeding to briefly discuss how I cash this concept out, it’s necessary to make two points. First, it’s necessary to note that there are a number of ways in which Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology differ. Second, it’s necessary to explain why I hold that these questions can only adequately be comprehended in terms of a model of withdrawal. The simplest way of explaining why objects must be thought in terms of withdrawal goes back to Aristotle’s concept of substance. In his account of primary substances in the Categories and Metaphysics Z, Aristotle is careful to note that substances are not identical to either their qualities or their parts. I discuss this in detail in chapter 2 of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Paradox of Substance”.

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Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

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Both Adrian and Harman have expressed reservations about blog debates, so hopefully I won’t be crossing any boundaries by responding to them concerning the recent discussion about relations and objects. I tend to be just the opposite in many respects. Where Harman is of the sentiment that arguments should take place in written text, I find that I only come to know what I think in my interaction with others. In certain ways this has been the plague of my academic career. Where the ordinary order of things is to treat the published text as what as important and the exchange as derivative, I often experience an acute suffering when it comes to the written text. The written text, to me, feels like excrement, like a remainder, like a waste or a frozen petrification of a living object: Dialogue.

My genesis as a thinker began with chat rooms, moved to email discussion lists, and finally to the medium of blogging. And in all these cases my thought has been animated by a single insistent and painful desire: The desire for dialogue. In Lacanian terms, I suppose you could characterize me as a hysteric or a subject whose desire is structured around the desire of, not for, the Other. This pathology or symptom runs so deep that the only way I can convince myself to publish is by conceptualizing the written text as a necessary evil, or as a slow dialogue in the form of correspondence that is practiced as a consequence of limitations of space, time (Plato is dead), and geography. I conceive the written text as a missive, a letter, rather than a statue. And since dialogues or discussions are distinct objects, it follows that I am not the author of these posts and texts. And this for the very simple reason that in a dialogue one can never know what comes from where. If there is an author named “Levi”, then the name Levi can only name a space of entanglements, of discussions, of dialogues where it is impossible to determine what idea or concept might have originated from me and what ideas, concepts or arguments might have originated with my various interlocutors. And as I say this I shudder in disgust at the pompous self-indulgence of such remarks, as if I were channeling Foucault’s “What is an Author?”. Yet all the same, it’s true. Who can say what comes from where in a dialogue? In the worlds of philosophy, theory, and science, proper names denote tribes.

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One of the interesting things that took place during the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Philosophy Symposium was ongoing tweets as people presented their papers (they can be found at #OOO). One of the key terms I used throughout my paper was that of “entanglement”. I’ve lifted the term from Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, though, given my disagreements with certain aspects of her epistemo-ontology, I suspect that I use it in a rather different way. At any rate, my proposal is that one thing flat ontology should allow us to think is entanglements of objects without one type of object, such as language, overdetermining the other objects. In this connection, the marvelous, loquacious, and brilliant Barbara Stafford, who gave closing remarks for the symposium, was kind enough to remind us that “entanglement” refers not only to folded and arranged drapes such as one might find in a nomads tent, but also threads that are entangled with one another while retaining their identity. Needless to say, I rather liked these associations. The key point to be drawn from the concept of entanglement is that no one entity or thread (I think of objects as four dimensional space-time worms) overdetermines all the others. Rather, each thread or object instead contributes differences in its own way.

With the concept of entanglement I thus hope to challenge the form/matter logic drawn from Aristotle that still dominates, in a largely unconscious fashion, much of the discourse of philosophy and theory. Within the framework of this logic, form is the active agency that bestows structure on passive matter. We see this logic at work, for example, in how Kant’s a priori categories of the understanding are deployed in the Critique of Pure Reason. Here the categories are active agencies that bestow form and structure on the passive matter given in sensations. The sensations merely receive form. A similar logic is at work among the semiologists coming out of the Saussurean tradition. In Lacan’s earliest formulations, the real is treated as a sort of amorphous plenitude without gap or lack and the signifier comes to give structure or form to this plenitude. It is this point that Lacan sought to illustrate with his famous example of the doors in “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”. It will be noted that the two doors are identical or that, beyond their spatio-temporal position, there is nothing to differentiate them. If, then, a fundamental difference is introduced between the doors, this vertically descends from the agency of the signifier– Ladies and Gentlemen –that bestows a new form on this matter of intuition. The matter of intuition, in and of itself, contributes no difference. For a critique of this form/matter logic, Susan Oyama’s Ontogeny of Information is indispensable. Once you notice it you see it everywhere.

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It seems that for some reason or other I am always waxing on about my blue coffee mugs. In part, I suppose, this is because my coffee mug is always nearby, within reach of my hand when I am sitting at my computer and readily available for my gaze to alight upon. In part, this is because coffee mugs are familiar furniture of the world and are therefore ideally suited as an example. Finally, and I find this to be odd, this is because my blue coffee mugs fill me with a deep sense of warmth and comfort. Given that I generally detest the color blue (I have an almost violent emotional reaction to the color in many instances), I find this surprising.

At any rate, it was with great surprise and no small amount of nervousness that I this week discovered that a student is writing his dissertation on my thought as well as the thought of Manuel DeLanda (who is, of course, a deep inspiration in my own work). In certain respects, this marks a sort of bifurcation point within the blogosphere. Theorists such as Walter Ong, Friedrich Kittler, and Marshall McLuhan make much of the transition from oral cultures to written cultures and it could be that we are perhaps witnessing a similar transition with respect to internet thought. My initial reaction was to suggest that he abandon this crazed idea and work on something more fitting, but who knows.

All this narcissistic horn tooting aside, as I reviewed his dissertation abstract and breakdown of chapters, I was exceedingly pleased to see that he has tentatively entitled one of his chapters “We do not Know what an Object or an Assemblage Can Do”. This is, of course, a reference to the opening of the third book of Spinoza’s Ethics where he cryptically remarks that we do not know what bodies can do. There are a couple of reasons I find this title so gratifying. On the one hand, this dictim goes straight to the heart of my thesis that objects are split between their virtual proper being and their actual local manifestations. In a number of respects it is the core idea behind my concept of objects. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I’ve made this point clearly enough. I am thus grateful and relieved to see that someone else has recognized this thesis at the heart of my work.

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The more I think about the recent discussion surrounding Life After People and narrativity (here, here, here, and here), the more it seems to me that what is at stake is something similar to what Marx denounced under the title of “commodity fetishism”. Initially, this suggestion might sound very strange coming from an object-oriented ontologist, for commodity fetishism occurs when relationships between people are treated as relations between things. However, a bit of reflection reveals that what is at stake in the hegemonic fallacy and commodity fetishism are isomorphic to one another.

David Harvey gives a nice illustration of what is at stake in commodity fetishism in his latest (which is really quite good, by the way). There Harvey asks,

…what’s going on here [with commodity fetishism]? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price– the "how much" –is socially determined. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers– those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them. (39 – 40)

Note that while the supermarket situation disguises collective relations insofar as all we’re confronted with in the market is the price and the empirical properties of the head of lettuce, it does not follow from this that this disguise is an illusion in the ordinary sense. The lettuce, the price, and the cashier are all things that are really there. What is absent are the collective relations this lettuce embodies as congealed or crystallized labor.

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This week my students and I began exploring Meillassoux’s After Finitude. The first chapter of Meillassoux’s After Finitude begins with a call to rehabilitate the discredited distinction between primary and secondary qualities. It will be recalled that secondary qualities are purely relational, existing only in the interaction between the body and the object or the subject and the object, whereas primary qualities are qualities that are in the object itself, regardless of whether any body or subject relates to them. Generally primary qualities are treated as any qualities that can be mathematized or quantified (extension, duration, mass, wavelengths, numerical temperatures, and so on). When elucidating secondary qualities Meillassoux gives the nice example of the pain you feel in your finger when burnt by a candle flame. To be sure, the candle flame causes this pain, but it cannot be said that the flame has pain as one of its qualities. The pain only exists in the relationship between my finger and the flame. Thus, in the traditional sorting of primary and secondary qualities, qualities like colors, tastes, textures, scents, sounds, pains, pleasures, and so on are all purely relational in character. And insofar as these qualities are all relational, it cannot be said that there is anything like colors, tastes, textures, scents, pains, and pleasures in the world itself.

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