Difference


In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

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For some time now I have evoked the concept of attractors and points in phase space to describe the structure of objects. Since these are somewhat foreign concepts in philosophy and I am using them, I suspect, in idiosyncratic ways, it would be worthwhile to clarify just what I have in mind and, more importantly, clarify what problem these concepts are designed to respond to. In a nutshell, the concepts of attractor and phase space are designed to account for the relation between what I call the local manifestation of objects and objects in their proper being. Attractors and phase spaces belong to the proper being of objects and are virtual, while points in phase space belong to the local manifestations of objects and are actual.

To understand these concepts it is necessary to understand the problem to which they respond. So why am I evoking these concepts? What philosophical work do they do? Objects are substances. Before Continentalists coming out of a Nietzschean and process oriented tradition begin to twitch, it is necessary to understand that the question of what a substance is is very much open. There is no a priori reason, for example, to suppose that substances can’t be processes or events. I won’t get into the details of this point here, but in my view process metaphysics critiques of substance are way overblown. They are right to critique the concept of substance as a bare substratum, but nothing about this critique suggests that we should throw out the concept of substance altogether. It only entails that one proposal as to the nature of substance is mistaken or wrongheaded.

Setting all this aside, it will be recalled that one way in which Aristotle defines substance is as that which is capable of sustaining contrary qualities at different points in time. One and the same substance, say a piece of paper, can have the quality of being smooth at one point in time and wrinkled at another point in time. Being-wrinkled or being-smooth are what I call local manifestations of an object. They are manifestations of an object because they are actualizations of the power of a substance. In other words, they are actualizations of what a substance can do.

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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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I’m a bit groggy this morning. Last night my three year old daughter smacked her forehead against the coffee table and we had to take a trip to the emergency room. Seven stitches and five hours later we finally got home around one thirty in the morning and then didn’t get asleep until four or four thirty. I’m amazed at how well she handled everything. She was a real trooper. After the initial shock of all the blood– and boy do heads ever bleed! –she was rather nonchalant about the whole thing, making offhand remarks like “I bumped my head a little! I hit my head on table. Blood was everywhere! Sometimes that happens!” in an amused voice and, while calmly playing before leaving for the ER, “I don’t need to see a doctor and we don’t have any bandaids”. We danced in the hospital room and she charmed all the nurses and doctors. After everything was over she actually didn’t want to leave as she was having so much fun. That’s my girl! What a ham and little attention addict. At any rate, hopefully I’ll make some sense in this post.

Responding to a couple of my posts from earlier this week on translation, Nate over at Un-canny Ontology writes:

What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?

Translation is more than a simple replication. Translation always involves a certain degree of interpretation in which what is inputted is always changed or transformed – from photons of light to complex sugars. Objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly, which means that objects first and foremost recognize each other.

I am pretty uncomfortable with Nate’s talk of objects “knowing” each other and “recognizing” each other as I think this implies a degree of intentionality (in the phenomenological sense) that only belongs to a subset of objects (humans, many animals, certain computer systems perhaps, social systems), not all objects. In my view, it’s necessary to distinguish between reflexive objects capable of registering their own states and relations to other entities like social systems or cognitive systems, and non-reflexive objects that do not have this characteristic. In other words, where non-reflexive objects are in question it’s important to emphasize that intentionality is not required for translation to take place and be operative in relations between objects.

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I am still experimenting with the diagram below, but as I was teaching the concept of translation in Harman’s Prince of Networks today, I found it to be a useful heuristic device for thematizing just what is new or interesting in Latour’s concept of translation. Scroll past the Scribd diagram for a bit of commentary.

Clearly I have adapted this diagram from Hjelmsleves model of the sign. All of us are familiar with the relation between the signifier and the signified in Saussurean linguistics (to the left). In naive theories of linguistic translation (NTTs), the idea is that the concept remains the same (content), while it is only the signifier (expression) that changes. There are any number of reasons that this concept of translation is mistaken. I outlined some of these shortcomings in a previous post, so I won’t repeat them here. Latour’s concept of translation is broader than that of translation as it applies to linguistics or the transposition of texts from one language to another. The key point to take home from his analysis– and he doesn’t spell these implications out himself –is not so much the fact that a translated text always differs from the text that it translates, but rather that the process of translation produces something new, regardless of whether the relation is between texts in different languages, conscious minds to world, or relations between objects. What Latour wishes to do, I think, is generalize the concept of translation, such that translation is no longer restricted to the domain of language, nor requiring the involvement of living beings of some sort, but rather involves any relations among actants, human or nonhuman, living or material.

Hjelmslev’s key innovation in the domain of linguistics and semiotics was to recognize that both the plane of expression (loosely the signifier) and the plane of content (loosely the signified) have a form and substance that can enter into different relations with one another. Here I am partially basing my analysis of Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of Hjelmslev’s model of expression and content as developed in “The Geology of Morals” in A Thousand Plateaus. This discussion would require a far more developed analysis than I’m capable of giving at the moment. For those who are interested, it would be worthwhile to refer to DeLanda’s early work on this essay (here and a number of Delanda’s articles, podcasts, and talks can be found here), as well as the first chapter of A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Brian Massumi. While I don’t entirely share the ontological commitments of either of these thinkers, their works nonetheless provide some pointers in the direction I’m thinking.

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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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68Z0aBelow is the paper I presented at the RMMLA this morning. We had large audiences for the two Deleuze panels, great discussions, and my paper was very well received. My only regret is that I couldn’t really get into the details of Deleuze’s understanding of simulacra as “signal-sign systems” as the paper would have been twice as long, so I had to focus on his critique of Platonism. It’s absolutely gorgeous here in the mountains of Utah, though I’ve had a wicked headache since arriving as a result of the altitude. Hopefully that will go away by tomorrow. I should also add that I wrote this paper at the airport and on the flight here, so a number of my allusions are unreferenced. Go easy on me! At any rate, without further ado…

Interpretation hits the real.
~J. Lacan

The simulacrum enjoys a short life in Deleuze’s thought. Appearing primarily in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, the concept then disappears in his later thought. This is not, of course, so unusual in Deleuze’s work. As has often been observed, each of Deleuze’s texts creates a new conceptual constellation. However, later, in interview, Deleuze will remark that the concept of the simulacrum was a poorly formed, while nonetheless giving no explanation or account of just how this concept was poorly formed. In my view, if Deleuze was led to abandon the concept of the simulacrum, this was not for reasons pertaining to the endo-consistency of the concept or its ability to attain a coherence and consistency allowing it to stand and support itself, but rather for rhetorical reasons pertaining to phenomena of resonance and echoes within the philosophical tradition of representation. This rhetorical situation or set of exo-relations within the tradition of representation only intensified with the appearance of Baudrillard’s work which made the simulacrum its key concept, but in a sense directly opposed to Deleuze’s own intentions in mobilizing the concept. Where Baudrillard mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum diagnostically as a symptom of our times in a war against representation and the real, Deleuze, while sharing Baudrillard’s war against representation, mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of the real. In short, Deleuze mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of a realist ontology. If, then, there is a problem with the concept of the simulacrum, this problem is to be found at the level of the plane of expression where the signifier “simulacrum” continues to resonate all too easily with both the logic of representation and anti-realist thought that has dominated philosophy since the late 17th century.

From the beginning of his work until the end, Deleuze dismisses the thesis that metaphysics is at an end or that it has exhausted itself. This affirmation of metaphysics should be taken seriously. Since Heidegger, there has been an unfortunate tendency within Continental thought to conflate metaphysics with onto-theology and philosophies of presence. Rather than following a path of thought that would metaphysically overturn onto-theology and the primacy of presence, the decision was instead made to either a) abandon metaphysics altogether in favor of humanist correlationism, or b) attempt to achieve, as in the case of Heidegger, a passage beyond metaphysics to something called thinking. By contrast, to affirm the possibility of metaphysics is to affirm realist ontology against the correlationisms that have come to dominate philosophy, suturing being and the world to the condition of the human. Within the constellation of French thought arising out of the late 60s, Deleuze is singular in this affirmation of metaphysics.

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Nate over at An Uncanny Ontology has a terrific post up responding to my recent posts on difference. While I don’t fully agree with his claims about difference, it’s nonetheless well worth the read. Unfortunately I won’t be able to get to it until next week as I’m currently swamped with grading and am giving a talk at the RMMLA in Utah this week. Nonetheless, give Nate some love– and comments! — between now and then. His blog, in my opinion, deserves far more traffic than it’s currently getting and a lot more attention. And I don’t say this just because Nate is a great friend, but because he is thinking about really interesting stuff as well. Oh, and he also makes great diagrams.

8872426.CleopatrasNeedleIn a lovely passage from Without Criteria, Shaviro writes,

Even a seemingly solid and permanent object is an event; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events. In his early metaphysical book The Concept of Nature (1920/2004), Whitehead gives the example of Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment in London (165ff.). Now, we know, of course, that this monument is not just "there." It has a history. Its granate was sculpted by human hands, sometime around 1450 BCE. It was moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria in 12 BCE, and again from Alexandria to London in 1877-1878 CE. And some day, no doubt, it will be destroyed, or otherwise cease to exist. But for Whitehead, there is much more to it than that. Cleopatra's Needle isn't just a solid, impassive object upon which certain grand historical events– being sculpted, being moved –have occasionally supervened. Rather, it is eventful at every moment. From second to second, even as it stands seemingly motionless, Cleopatra's Needle is actively happening. It never remains the same. “A physicist who looks on the part of the life of nature as a dance of electrons, will tell you that daily it has lost some molecules and gained others, and even the plain man can see that it gets dirtier and is occasionally washed” (ibid., 167). At every instant, the mere standing-in-place of Cleopatra’s Needle is an event: a renewal, a novelty, a fresh creation. (17-18)

It seems to me that Shaviro here draws a distinction between events that befall an object (its movements from place to place) and the event that an object is. We can even go one step further than Whitehead, pointing out that it is not simply that Cleopatra’s Needle gains and loses electrons, but these electrons are themselves in a constant state of motion, jumping from higher to lower and lower to higher states of energy.

This concept of objects as events is the most difficult thing of all to think. Our tendency is to think objects as substances in which predicates inhere. Take, for example, Aristotle’s categories. All of these categories are predicates that can be attributed to a substance. As I have argued elsewhere, in my article “The Ontic Principle” forthcoming in The Speculative Turn, the concept of substance responds to a real philosophical problem. This problem is the endurance of entities through or across time as this object. I denote this substantiality of the object with the expression “the adventure of the object” to capture the sense in which objects are ongoing happenings or events. In other words, events are not something that simply happen to an object as in the case of someone being granted a degree while nonetheless remaining substan-tially the same. Rather, objects are events or ongoing processes.

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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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