Recently I have found myself wondering if object-oriented ontology does not require something like the destruction of the history of ontology called for by Heidegger in §6 of Being and Time. In the case of Heidegger, the necessity of this destruction arises from the fact that

[i]n its factical Being, any Dasein is as it already was, and it is ‘what’ it already was. It is its past, whether explicitly or not. And this is so not only in that its past is, as it were, pushing itself along ‘behind’ it, and that Dasein possesses what is past as a property which is still present-at-hand and which sometimes has after-effects upon it: Dasein ‘is’ its past in the way of its own Being, which, to put it roughly,’historizes’ out of its future on each occasion. (41)

For Heidegger, the aim of this destruction of the history of ontology is to make the fundamental structures of this tradition explicit. If there is a problem in them remaining implicit, then this is because “[w]hen tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn (43)”.

For Heidegger, the destruction of this history of ontology does not consist in the abandonment of the philosophical tradition, nor is it a negative project, but rather this destruction is a positive project that seeks to free up possibilities for philosophy by undermining the self-evidence of that tradition but also by disclosing the primordial sources upon which it is based in an “implicit” way. In Heidegger’s thought, the question of being is to be taken as the clue for the investigation of this tradition. As Heidegger puts it,

In thus demonstrating the origin of our basic ontological concepts by an investigation in which their ‘birth certificate’ is displayed, we have nothing to do with a vicious relativizing of ontological standpoints. But this destruction is just as far from having the negative sense of shaking off the ontological tradition. We must, on the contrary, stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition, and this always means keeping it within its limits; these in turn are given factically in the way the question [of being] is formulated at the time, and in the way the possible field for investigation is thus bounded off. On its negative side, this destruction does not relate itself towards the past; its criticism is aimed at ‘today’ and at the prevelent way of treating the history of ontology, whether it is headed towards doxographhy, towards intellectual history, or towards a history of problems. But to bury the past in nullity is not the purpose of this destruction; its aim is positive; its negative function remains unexpressed and indirect. (44)

Clearly the aims and method of object-oriented ontology’s destruction of the history of philosophy will differ from those outlined by Heidegger, yet nonetheless there will be certain similarities. First, like Heidegger’s destruction of the history of philosophy, one of the aims will be to overcome the self-evidence through which which the question of being is formulated today. In particular, the target here will be the subject-object division of being into two incommensurable houses or ontological domains perpetually at war with one another, such that one is offered the stark alternative of either choosing the correlationist route of mind and reducing the object to a carrier of culture, mental categories, language, and so on; or choosing the side of world or object as in the case of materialism and reducing all human actors to effects of matter. The work of Latour already outlines what an alternative to the modernist project might look like in his careful dismantling of the two-world ontology of nature versus culture.

Second, like Heidegger’s destruction, such a project would seek to liberate or render available positive realist possibilities from out of the tradition. Instances of this way of approaching the history of philosophy can be found in both Whitehead and Graham Harman’s work. Readers of Process and Reality will be familiar with the manner in which he approaches the work of Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant. For Whitehead it is never a question of dismissing these thinkers, but of reading their epistemological investigations that revolve primarily around questions of representation and the nature of mind with “realism as a guiding clue”. Thus, for example, Hume’s “impressions” become, for Whitehead, “prehensions”, but prehensions refer not to representations or sensations in the mind, but rather to the manner in which one object grasps another object in the constitutions of its own being. Mind becomes a particular case of a generalized process characteristic of all beings. By treating realist ontology as his guiding clue, Whitehead is able to liberate all sorts of possibilities from the history of philosophy while also escaping the endless epistemological deadlock first inaugurated with Plato’s allegory of the cave and its two-world ontology consisting of the rabble of the slaves and the Truth of the philosopher. Similarly in the case of Harman. When one reads Tool-Being or Guerilla Metaphysics, he very quickly discovers that Harman does not simply dismiss the tradition of correlationism, but that he engages with a series of correlationist philosophers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Husserl, and so on, treating realism as the guiding clue of his investigations and liberating, as a result of this guiding clue, all sorts of insights into the nature of objects that can be found embedded in these texts but covered over by the self-evidence of a philosophical tradition that pitches the question of being in terms of a divided house between the distinct ontological realms of the subject and the object. By reading, to use Zizek’s term, the tradition awry through the lens of realism as the guiding clue, a rich resource of realist insight is made available for thought.

entropyWe really differ very little from the so-called pre-moderns. This is above all the case with our social sciences and in many of the orientations of philosophical thought. When encountering phenomena such as lightning or a terrible storm, the early Greek might have evoked Zeus or Neptune. When seeking to explain some sort of social phenomenon, we evoke things like “social forces”, “power”, “ideology”, “structures”, etc. When seeking to account for some form of thought or knowledge, we evoke things like “categories”, “reason”, “intuition”, and so on. In both cases we believe that we have explained something, but all we’ve really done is provide a short hand name for the phenomenon we wish to understand. In naming it we believe that we have somehow accounted for it. These names are our Greek Gods. What we have here is what Hegel called “tautological ground”:

Five year old: “Why do the planets move about the Sun and objects fall to the Earth?”

Parent: “Because of gravity!”

Child: “What is gravity?”

Parent: “The manner in which planets move about the sun and things fall to the earth.”

Child: (discouraged expression)

This sort of practice sticks out to me with special clarity when I reflect back upon my days among Lacanians. If there was one sort of question that was off limits, it was questions pertaining to ontogeny or development. Ontogeny, the Lacanians declared, was always necessarily off limits because it was inherently “mythological”, retrojecting the very thing it seeks to ground back into origins. Such was the argument. One wonders whether the vehemence with which they denounced questions of ontogeny wasn’t more a defense formation than anything else.

read on!

171103065Over at Perverse Egalitarianism, Shahar has a brief post up on Mach and realism. Mach, in his The Analysis of Sensations, writes,

It has arisen in the process of immeasurable time without the intentional assistance of man.. It is a product of nature, and preserved by nature. Everything that philosophy has accomplished…is, as compared with it, but an insignificant and ephemeral product of art. The fact is, every thinker, every philosopher, the moment he is forced to abandon his one-sided intellectual occupation…immediately returns to [realism]. Nor is it the purpose of these “introductory” remarks to discredit the standpoint [of realism]. The task which we have set ourselves is simply to show why and for what purpose we hold that standpoint during most of our lives, and why and for what purpose we are…obligated to abandon it.

I think Shahar here draws attention to an important point with respect to the speculative realist movement pertaining to what it is and what it is not. It seems to me that it is important to distinguish between naive realism and other variants of realism. In the passage you cite above, Mach appears to be referring to naive realism. His remark here is not unlike Hume’s famous quip about his skepticism. As a philosopher, he remarked, he is a skeptic, unable to demonstrate the necessity of cause and effect relations, etc. However, the moment he plays billiards (i.e., is no longer doing philosophy), he believes in the absolutely necessity or reality of these cause and effect relations.

read on!

In recent discussions here and elsewhere surrounding neurology, I get the sense that many approach neurology with a highly specific set of assumptions that very much color their reaction to this field. Turn the television to the Discovery channel on any given evening and you will find documentaries dominated by the theoretical orientation of psycho- and socio-biology. Within this theoretical orientation, any particular human practice, psychological phenomenon, or form of social organization is explained in evolutionary terms as a biological adaptation that promotes reproduction and survival. As a result, this form of psycho- and socio-biology ends up naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary.

Those of us who have developed intellectually in the milieu of the last century’s revolution in the social sciences– whether in fields like ethnography, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, linguistics, etc –cannot but encounter this form of theoretical explanation profoundly ignorant by virtue of the way it is commonly unaware of both the findings of ethnography where we discover that if you can imagine it there is probably some group of people somewhere or somewhen that have organized their social, exchange, and kinship relations in this way, and, as a consequence, ideologically debilitating as it ends up naturalizing the contingent forms of subjectivity, social organization, amorous relations, etc., that characterize our contemporary historical and cultural moment.

read on!

evolution11In response to my post expressing enthusiasm for Brassier’s hymn to science, Jerry the Anthropologists has expressed some criticisms of what he takes Ray to be claiming. Jerry writes,

He [Brassier] writes “to attain an adequate conceptual grasp…it is necessary to achieve a complete theoretical suspension.” I take your reading to be very charitable, or probably just a great deal clearer understanding of scientists and their activities. At the same time I don’t think what he’s saying (and I read him in a way I think is pretty literal) is possible. I think what we’re learning from the neurologists like Edelman runs entirely counter to his view; the workings of our nervous systems do not allow for the suspension of the image of the world. Further what I know of Copernicus and Darwin would be consistent with the operations and processes of intuition given certain connundrums, in Copernicus’s case about the movements of the planets and the increasing difficulties making an accurate calculation for Easter and in Darwin’s case of variation within and between species in a circumstance of ongoing struggle over great long periods of time. In both these cases I sense greater attention to the image of the world not lesser attention. I gather that he’s so seduced by the existence of the world that he wishes to avoid the very realities that we work with images of that world, constantly changing images but images nonetheless because of the ways in which our nervous systems work. Thus science may pose a challenge to certain systems of common sense and to certain folk metaphysics but not to others and further the activities of science generate other systems of common sense and metaphysics.

It seems to me that Jerry is making two distinct claims in this post. First, Jerry is claiming that the desire for a complete theoretical suspension is untenable. Second, he is advancing the correlationist claim that all of our access to the world is mediated through our relationship to the lived phenomenological world of day to day experience or what Heidegger called the world of “everydayness”. I am grateful to my great, gray lion maned friend (and still embarrassed by getting completely blitzed when I last enjoyed dinner last at his fine table) for these criticisms, so I’ll take this opportunity to expand a bit on just what I find attractive and refreshing in these ten pages of Brassier’s Alien Theory.

read on!

void-709422In a rather humorous response to my satire on transcendental philosophies, Mikhail writes:

Actually, as I pointed out in my non-satirical bits before, the whole thing about mind conforming to object or objects conforming to mind is a pure caricature – so this is really not a satire at all, but a kind of desperate mocking, like a student who after a frustrating evening with Descartes declares in class: “This is bullshit, why will I ever need to know this?”

“Critical Philosophy” was never a queen of anything, if Critical Philosophy is Kant.

“Endless disputes” are not an evidence of failure, otherwise mathematics, physics, neuroscience, chemistry and many other sciences that still dispute data and interpretations are failed sciences.

if oxygen is the ultimate transcendental principle, if it is the principle of principles, the principle without peer…

I think I’m starting to see my issues with your “principle” – oxygen is a word, not a principle, principle is a statement, if you are going to mock something, at least give it a bit of brains, I suppose.

Moreover, could Descartes have declared “I think therefore I am!” without the vital power of breath?

Of course, and he did – my students just wrote papers on that yesterday! I mean I like the funnies as much as the next man, but this is not really funny at all, it’s mostly mocking of what you either don’t understand or refuse to consider. It’s kind of sad – where exactly is the humor? Do you really think that someone like Kant proceeds in this way? This sort of explains things…

Apparently Mikhail, that close reader of close readers, that defender of the Downer Principle, missed the point that I was aping the styles of various transcendentalists or defenders of variants of correlationism from Kant to Heidegger and Derrida. For instance, how could Mikhail fail to recall Kant’s famous remark in the first Critique where he declares that “Time was when metaphysics was the queen of the sciences…” Moreover, it’s surprising that Mikhail doesn’t recall that for Kant the endless disputes of metaphysics are offered as evidence of its failure and the need for critique. At any rate, you know you’re in trouble when you need to explain your own satire!

The real target of this little satire is not so much Kant as the critical/dogmatic divide. We are told that one approach to philosophy is critical while another is pre-critical dogmatism. The curious thing is that nearly anything can be treated as the ultimate condition or the fundamental condition required for a philosophy to count as critical. Thus you get the Kantians talking about the constitutive role that mind plays, such that any philosophy that does not take this role into account is dogmatic. The Gadamerians and Foucaultians respond by making history the constitutive condition, denouncing the Kantians as dogmatically ignoring our fundamental historicity. The Kantian retorts that history wouldn’t be possible without these constitutive structures of mind. The Marxist Critical Theorist intervenes by showing how the Kantian categories are actually generated from economics. Derrida leaps in showing how all these folks are wrong because the role that Arche-Writing plays has not been taken into account. Every one of these positions is able to one-up and explain the other position in terms of what it has located as the transcendental, and every position being denounced as dogmatic is able, in its own turn, to respond by showing how the allegedly critique is in fact dogmatic by the lights of its own critical structure. For example, the Husserlian denounces the Marxist for failing to carry out the reduction and engage in a phenomenological analysis of intentionality, while the Marxist turns around and denounces the Husserlian for failing to carry out a historical and economic investigation into the origins of his very conception of the world (i.e., the Marxist denounces the Husserlian for bourgeois individualism).

read on!

2f4df0324760b79935b80ea340398d82_matrix_code_emulatorThe danger faced by any object-oriented philosophy, especially in its beginnings, is that readers will conclude that the aim is to speak of things as they are in themselves, independent of any humans, thereby denying all that is human. Those prone to dialectical thought will conclude that where the last three hundred years of philosophy have been characterized by philosophies of access or correlationism in one form or another, whether that form be Kant’s transcendental idealism, linguistic idealism, phenomenological givenness, or social constructivism, those advocating an object-oriented ontology are by contrast shifting to the domain of objects and are now eradicating all culture, society, language, and subjectivity. In other words, we are here faced with the old choice between nature and culture.

Here the interminable, inexhaustible, objections will begin. “But it is still you, a subject, a human being, talking about objects! How do you propose to overcome the manner in which your mind gives form and structure to the world?” “Yet you are thrown into a tradition, determined by categories of culture, language, and society! How can you talk of a world independent of humans, tradition, culture, language, and society?” On and on it will go. We are given the alternative of either living inside a submarine known as mind, tradition, language, culture, or society, where we only ever encounter the world through the mediation of our “sonar machines” (i.e., in a way that fails to represent them as they are, or of directly touching objects either themselves. We are given the stark alternative of mind or world, culture or nature, language or object.

atomsYet this stark alternative misconstrues the entire problem. The issue is not one of escaping the human, culture, or language to touch the world as it is in itself. It is not a question of shifting from one form of difference, culture or mind, to another form of difference, the objects themselves. Or, put differently, it is not a question of an alternative between Lucretius or Derrida. What object-oriented philosophy opposes is not culture, society, or mind, but rather those metaphysics– and they are metaphysics –that declare that one difference makes all the difference. Were object oriented philosophy to reject language as in the case of Lacan, for example, and shift entirely to Lucretian atoms, this move would be equally egregious from the standpoint of the Ontic and Ontological Principles. For here we would simply be replacing one difference that makes all the difference (language), with another difference that makes all the difference (atoms). I call this reduction of difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference, the hegemonic fallacy. The hegemonic fallacy can occur in more or less extensive forms. Thus, in the case of those theologies where everything is dependent on God as in the case of Leibniz or Spinoza, we have a rather extreme form of the hegemonic fallacy. By contrast, the relationship between form and matter as conceived by Aristotle or categories and intuitions as conceived by Kant are both less extensive forms of the hegemonic fallacy insofar as matter and intuition still contribute some difference, but in a less important way with respect to form and the categories.

Read on

There are works of philosophy and theory that help clarify the thought of a particular philosopher or a particular concept without unsettling our presuppositions about the nature, key assumptions, and primary aims of philosophy. There are then works of philosophy that remind us what philosophy itself is, which call us to philosophy, and which have the effect of unsettling those assumptions that are so proximal, so basic, that they are all but invisible. Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency certainly belongs to the latter category. Regardless of whether one agrees with his conclusions (and I am not at all decided), should Meillassoux never write another book– this is his first –he will have already made a substantial contribution to the history of philosophy.



The Object of the Question and the Objection to the Object

A few days ago, Joseph Kugelmass of The Kugelmass Episode tagged me to write a post on why I teach literature. Admittedly I’ve been behind the curve on this one. The discussion has now proliferated throughout the intellectual blogosphere (for a set of links to how this discussion has proliferated and her own interesting response, see Rough Theory here and here), and I am only now catching up on the posts. As for my delay in responding, I have no good excuses. On the one hand, I’ve been extremely busy, trying to balance teaching with the completion of two articles and two conference papers (shoot me now). On the other hand, it has been very difficult for me to think clearly of late as someone very close to me is very sick and I’m facing the question of an absence in my life, a total void, with respect to someone who has been there my entire life. I think of Sartre’s description of the cafe where he walks in, looking for his friend Pierre, only to find that he is absent. This is a minor missed meeting between friends. But what of someone who is so much more than that? How do you grasp or get your mind around the irreversible absence of someone else, the fact that they will never be there again? How do you endure the reality, the facticity, of their absent laughter, that you’ll never hear their voice again, that you’ll never again hear their jokes or what they have to say or even their pointed anger?

Finally, I have, no doubt, been reluctant to respond to this challenge as, in many respects, the question of why I teach is a fundamental existential question, a question pertaining to my being-towards-death, a question that produces anxiety. In short, just as I do not have a clear answer as to why I practice philosophy, I do not have a clear answer as to why I teach. I do not, of course, teach literature, but philosophy. In asking “why do you teach philosophy?” I suppose the first question to ask is what, precisely, is this question asking? In his famous phenomenology of the question, Heidegger writes:

Every inquiry is a seeking [Suchen]. Every seeking gets guided beforehand by what is sought. Inquiry is a cognizant seeking for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to its Being as it is. This cognizant seeking can take the form of ‘investigating’ [“Untersuchen”], in which one lays bare that which the question is about and ascertains its character. Any inquiry, as an inquiry about something is somehow a asked about [Sein Gefragtes]. But all inquiry about something is somehow a question of something [Anfragen bei…]. So in addition to what is asked about, an inquiry has that which is interrogated [ein Befragtes]. In investigative questions– that is, in questions which are specifically theoretical –what is asked about is determined and conceptualized. Furthermore, in what is asked about there lies also that which is to be found out by the asking [das Erfragte]; this is what is really intended: with this the inquiry researches its goal. Inquiry itself is the behavior of a questioner, and therefore of an entity, and as such it has its own character of Being. (Being and Time, 24)

I have quoted this passage to draw attention to the Befragtes or that which is asked about in Kugelmass’s question. When one asks, “why do you teach?” What is the Befragtes? What is it that is asked about? In evoking the indexical, the “you”, it would seem that the question is about one’s desire. The question here would be “what desire animates your teaching? Or rather, it would be a question of how teaching is one’s own symptom. Here reference would have to be made to the unconscious of the particular person answering the question, to their particular mode of jouissance, and how teaching is a way of satisfying the drive for a singular subject. In this case, my own choice of teaching and of philosophy in particular refers not to any particular aims I might have in the classroom, but to the way the signifier functions in my unconscious. I have spoken of this elsewhere in the past. The reason I chose philosophy rather than literature, and teaching rather than being a comedian (besides lacking a sense of humor), a journalist, a politician, etc., has to do with a particular trauma that structures my life.



Throughout its history, philosophy seems particularly prone to three interrelated errors– or perhaps they would be better referred to as “transcendental illusions”? –that it shares with doxa or common sense and that plague thought.

First, in approaching the explanation of phenomena in the world, philosophy perpetually has recourse to the primacy of the Concept, the Form, or Essence, to the detriment of the individual or actually existing entity. Perhaps the most famous example of this primacy is to found in the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology, entitled “Sense-Certainty”. There Hegel begins with the epistemological thesis that all knowledge originates in the immediacy of sense-certainty or the sensible given. Taking this thesis at its word, Hegel goes on to show how our attempt to say the sensible immediate or given always fails insofar as language is only composed of general terms that are unable to grasp the individual given presented within the sensible field. I say that the individual given is this given, here, at this time, yet these same terms can apply indifferently to any number of other objects, such that I am only apply to express the universal, never the individual. The outcome of this contradiction or deadlock within sense-certainty is that Spirit comes to recognize that the individual given was never the object of knowledge, that it is always-already mediated by the universal, and that these universals are the true object of knowledge.


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