Events


A great deal of the anguish I feel over the BP oil catastrophe lies not only in the ecological damage it has wrought, but in what a missed opportunity this is turning out to be. As I remarked in a previous post on the disaster, this is a prime moment to enact a progressive version of what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine“. The Obama Glee Club has focused on how he’s doing everything he possibly can to stop the link and ensure that clean up proceeds apace. However, this misses the point. Discontent with Obama’s handling of the oil spill revolves not so much with how he’s dealing with the spill itself– though there’s plenty to be discontent with there as well –but with his failure to seize this opportunity.

One of my central reasons for voting for Obama was his profound rhetorical ability. It is my view that we exist at a point in history where it is of crucial importance to shift the reigning commonplaces underlying American politics. For thirty years our airwaves have been filled with neoliberal propoganda, convincing us that the primary function of government is to create an optimal business environment and that the best way to achieve this goal is through the privatization of government functions and through the deregulation of all markets and industries. On the one hand, the thesis runs, the private sector knows best how to run things and government botches everything it puts its hands on. As Reagan famously said, “government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” And indeed, in the late 70s when neoliberalism began to ascend from a wacky fringe position defended by only a few cranks to a hegemonic ideology constituting the common sense of the American public, there was good reason for being suspicious of the government. On the other hand, the argument runs, where business flourishes money will trickle down to average people, improving their standard of living. As the old saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

The BP oil disaster is not simply an ecological and economic catastrophe, but is a symptom or a symbol of all the failures of neoliberal ideology. And this is precisely what has been largely missing in Obama’s handling of the issue. What we need right now is not someone who seeks bipartisan legislation, nor someone who works quietly and competently behind the scenes. No, what we need right now is a Lacanian master.

Perhaps the best way to understand Lacan’s discourse of the master is in terms of the moment of kairos in rhetoric. In Greek, kairos means the “right or opportune moment.” The rhetor is the person who is adept at taking advantage of the opportune moment to generate action that leads in the right direction. Situated in terms of Lacan’s discourse of the master depicted above, we see the top portion of the graph pointing from S1 to S2. S1 refers to the master-signifier, whereas S2 refers to the battery or collection of free floating signifiers. The function of the master, the kairotic act of the master, lies in unifying the chaotic and free floating battery of signifiers (S2′s) under a master-signifier that renders them structured and intelligible.

And this has been precisely what is missing in Obama’s presidency so far. If Obama has failed to step up to the plate, this is not because he is dealing with a recalcitrant congress or an obstructive opposition party, but because he has failed to step up to the plate and perform the kairotic act. Here we have an event that is going to have massive economic and ecological impact that will reverberate for years, an event is a direct outcome of deregulation and corporate greed, an event that will, in one way or another effect all Americans, and we have an administration that refuses to quilt this event into a whole series of events that have buffeted both the country and the world. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze speaks of repetition in terms of resonances, echoes, and reflections of the past. In repetition the present actuality somehow is haunted by all sorts of other past events.

It is precisely something like this that is the case with the BP oil catastrophe. The oil catastrophe echoes and resonates not only with past oil catastrophes, but with the financial collapse, the West Virginia mining disaster, the exploitation of American tax payer dollars by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the exploitation of American citizens by insurance companies, and on and on. If there were ever a moment to quilt together our economic woes, the impending environmental apocalypse, and rampant corruption among the corporations and government as a result of neoliberal ideology, this is that moment. Obama needs to step up to the plate and take advantage of this moment, performing a Kennedyesque moment not unlike that of persuading the American people to go to the moon.

The point isn’t that Obama will necessarily be successful in all that he asks for, but that asking for it plays an important function in structuring the dialogue and changing popular consensus as to what the function of government is and whether or not corporations truly are the best at running things. Now is the time to ask for big things. While I am aware that he has put more money into funding public transportation, why is he not linking the use of public transportation to patriotism? Here he would have a way of quilting the use of public transportation to the war in the Middle East, the death of soldiers and innocent civilians, massive expenditures on that war, and the environment. And here, also, he could make a call for boosting public transportation in the suburbs, encouraging us to take the bus or a train to work, rather than drive our cars. And while he’s at it, he could address highschool kids, who are much more environmentally minded than the older generations, and encourage them to take the bus to school rather than driving their car. He could work to make this a “cool” or “hip” thing to do for the environment.

In addition to public transportation, he could call for a radical shift in the trucking industry. In the United States alone trucks travel trillions of miles a year. Now is the time to call for a shift from diesel to natural gas in trucks, or, ideally, some environmentally friendly, biodegradable fuel. It is also the time to call upon congress to give large tax cuts to families that buy hybrid cars and who do things to make their homes more energy efficient.

These are just a few things that come to mind. Once again, the point is not that Obama will get all that we want. We won’t. The point is that things have to be put out there to get anything. As a result of all that’s taken place in recent years, I believe Americans are gradually waking up to the devastation wrought by neoliberalism economically, environmentally, in terms of political instability throughout the world and so on. However, we need a kairotic act that links these things together and that registers them for the big Other as a sort of force field in the symbolic order. Nor can we drag our feet at this time in history. We are not living in times of business as usual where incrementalism and political pragmatism is an acceptable way of proceeding. As the environmental apocalypse continues to intensify we will witness massive economic instability as the result of food shortages and the scarcity of water and fossil fuels, more pandemics unleashed as a result of the world heating up, and political instability and war as a result of the scarcity of these resources. Perhaps Obama will find the courage to engage in such kairotic acts if he is lucky enough to be elected for a second term, but it’s increasingly difficult to see him getting re-elected. There is nothing pragmatic or realistic about proceeding in such a wishy washy manner where winning the support of the electorate is concerned. The damage is largely done in the Gulf, but perhaps something good can nonetheless come of this catastrophe.

One of the things I’m particularly interested in accounting for is why, if objects are always distinct from whatever qualities they might happen to actualize or manifest at a given point in time and space. Here the concept of manifestation or actualization should not be confused with experience. There can, of course, be no experience without actualization of some sort, without exo-relations of some sort, but the category or dimension of local manifestation or actualization is broader than the category of experience. Local manifestation or actualization takes place throughout the universe, but experience does not. Local manifestation is thus an ontological category, not an epistemological category. Local manifestation is not the givenness of an object to a subject or a receiver, but is rather one half of the real with respect to objects.

If, then, local manifestation is not givenness, then what is it and why is it local? Local manifestation is that domain of being or existence composed entirely of events and nothing but events. As I argued in my post “The Mug Blues“, qualities of an object are not predicates or possessions of an object, but are rather verbs or actions on the part of an object. Qualities of an object are not something an object is but something an object does. Thus, for example, it would be a mistake to say that my blue coffee mug is blue. Why? Because the color of my mug changes depending on the lighting conditions. In bright sunlight the mug is a brilliant and radiant blue. When I share a romantic moment with my mug– yes I’m polymorphously perverse and have a pathetic romantic life (philosophers seldom fare well in that department, wonder if there’s a connection here) –and enjoy a cup of coffee by candlelight while listening to Barry White, my mug is a deep, flat blue. When I turn out the lights, the mug is black.

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In response to my recent post on reification Joshua Mostafa raises an excellent question. I started to respond to him in the comments, but my response began getting rather lengthy and because his question is so astute (and so comedically well executed!) I decided to post it on the front page instead. Joshua writes:

Really enjoying your posts as they pop up in the feed reader I use.

Would mass be the ‘endo-quality’ underlying weight? If so, are there any of these exo-qualities you mention that cannot be extrapolated from combinations of such ‘endo-qualities’ in the objects which are (or may in the future) participating in foreign relations? I am wondering whether it might be more parsimonious to view these exo-qualities as the potential combination of the qualities of their respective objects.

Otherwise every object possesses a number of such exo-qualities that tends to infinity – for instance, a cat could be said to possess the quality “yowling when fireworks tied to tail”. If you were to allow the chaining of such qualities, you could say “apt to hiss and spit when humans approach *after* an incident of tying fireworks to its tail”. And one could extend this ad absurdum. So where does one draw the line?

This is a really good question. I’m pretty hesitant whenever it comes to pinning down endo-qualities. Is mass an endo-quality? It’s hard to say as mass, as I understand it, changes depending on the velocity at which an object is moving. As such, mass would be a quality that emerges from relations and would therefore be a local manifestation of an object. It might be that Harman is right here and that what I call endo-qualities are what he calls real qualities. Real qualities, like real objects, are, for Harman, completely withdrawn and therefore they are never touched by another real object, much less perceived or determinable by us. Ontologically we would therefore be warranted in asserting that they exist, but could never say anything about what they are for a particular object.

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Expanding a bit on my last post, I recall that my initial impression of Harman’s Tool-Being was that it was a strange Badiouianism. This is certainly an odd claim to make as Badiou is nowhere a key reference in Graham’s work, nor does he deploy concepts like multiplicity, event, truth-procedure, or set in his ontology. So given such profound differences between these two thinkers, what could have led me to discern such a profound proximity between the two of them? Simply put, both Harman and Badiou are profound anti-relationists and subtractive thinkers. Badiou’s multiplicities are militantly anti-relational and, moreover, everything in his thought revolves around what can be subtracted from situations: events and truth-procedures. Likewise, while we find nothing like events or truth-procedures as Badiou understands them, Harman’s objects are nonetheless subtracted from all relation by virtue of the fact that they are radically withdrawn.

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I’m still swamped with grading and will be so for another week, so I haven’t had much time to follow the blogs. With that in mind, I’m just now coming across Ivakhiv’s and Harman’s exchange pertaining to relations and objects. I have to say that I find this debate extremely gratifying because it seems to mark a new stage in the thought of the speculative realists. With the exception of Harman’s work (and perhaps Grant’s), early speculative realism devoted itself largely to the refutation of correlationism. Although Harman’s work often directed arguments against philosophies of access, it has largely been devoted to the development of a full-blown ontology as far back as Tool-Being. Among other things, the debate between the subtractive object-oriented ontologists and the relationist object-oriented ontologists is particularly interesting because it is deployed purely within the realm of ontology. In other words, it is no longer a debate between realists and anti-realists, but between two competing realist theories of existence. As such, it suggests discussion is moving past debates about whether epistemology is First Philosophy or whether ontology is First Philosophy… At least for a few.

As I’ve often remarked on this blog, I have the highest admiration and sympathy for Ivakhiv’s work. This admiration is not simply an admiration for his ontology, but also for his devotion to ecology and his ecological ethics. Nonetheless, I confess that I find his relationism and critiques of subtractive object-oriented ontology baffling. And if I find this critique baffling, then this is because Adrian seems to hold that subtractive object-oriented ontology rejects relations altogether, such that it holds that we should ignore relations among objects. Minimally, given Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics, which possesses the subtitle “Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things”, this is a very perplexing assertion, for when Graham evokes the term “carpentry”, he is referring precisely to relations among objects. Where Tool-Being analyzed the subtraction or withdrawal of objects from all relations as a primitive ontological fact, Guerrilla Metaphysics examines relations that obtain among beings. So the first point here is that subtractive object-oriented ontology does not reject relations.

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In response to my recent post on Endo-Relations and Topology, Will writes:

“Rather, the proper being of the object is not its performance or manifestation, but the generative mechanism that serves as the condition under which these performances or manifestations are possible…”

“…No one has ever perceived a single object, but we do perceive all sorts of effects of objects….”

So far so good…

“Fortunately we do occasionally manage to cognize objects through a sort of detective work that infers these generative mechanisms from their effects; without, for all this, ever exhausting the infinity of a single object.”

What I fail to grasp is how we do not introduce the unity of the “single object” through this retroactive cognition.
Alternatively, what lets us suppose that these “effects” can be “owned” by a single object?

This is a good and fair set of questions. The first point to note is that these are epistemological rather than metaphysical questions. That is, they are questions about how we come to know objects, not questions about what objects are regardless of whether or not we know them. It is important not to conflate these two domains of philosophy. The properties of a being are no less a properties of a being if we don’t know them. All I’m minimally committed to metaphysically is the thesis that objects are generative mechanisms and that generative mechanisms can fail to actualize such and such a property when they function in open systems. When I say that an object can fail to actualize a particular property in an open system I am not making a claim about our perception of the object. I am making a claim about the manifestation of the object in the world, regardless of whether any perceivers exist or not. Manifestation is first and foremost manifestation to a world not a perceiver or a knower. The point is that the object can be present in the world, without exemplifying a particular quality of which it is capable. For example, when fire burns in low gravity environments it flows like water. On earth, by contrast, flames lick upwards towards the sky. The capacity of fire to flow like water is non-manifest on Earth but is nonetheless a power of the object.

I outline this line of argument, drawn from the early work of Roy Bhaskar, in the two manifestos on object-oriented ontology in the side bar (here and here). The thesis that effects are products of objects relies on a transcendental argument. In other words, such mechanisms or objects must exist if our practice is to be coherent. Now Will asks “how do we not introduce the unity of the ‘single object’ through this retroactive cognition?” The answer is that this can happen. Why? Because knowledge and inquiry are fallible. In other words, there’s no guarantee that our representations of the world will map on to the world or carve the world at its joints.

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One common criticism of Deleuze and DeLanda is that their ontolog(ies) suffer from what might be called “virtualism”. It’s important that some might not consider this a failing and that there is, I believe, a way of interpreting these thinkers so that this problem largely disappears. Roughly, virtualism would consist in treating the virtual as the domain of the “really real” and reducing the actual to mere “epiphenomena” that have but an epiphenomenal “being”. In the language of Roy Bhaskar’s ontology, the virtual can roughly be equated with the domain of “generative mechanisms”, while the actual would consist of events take place as a result of these generative mechanisms. Virtualism would thus treat these generative mechanisms as what are properly real, while the actual events engendered by these generative mechanisms would have a subordinate and lesser status.

The problem with this sort of virtualism is that it fails to observe a particular property of groups known as “closure” as described by mathematical group theory. Roughly, closure is the property of a group such that for a group G, all operations carried out on elements of G– say a, b –are also in G. Thus, for example, if group B consists of the numbers 1 and 2, the conjunction of 1 and 2– 3 –is also a member of the group. This point can be illustrated for material systems with respect to fire. A flame requires all sorts of generative mechanisms involving chemical and atomic reactions that are conditions of fire at the level of the “virtual” with respect to the flame as an actuality or event. However, it does not follow from this that the flame is itself an epiphenomenon or lacking in reality. The flame has all sorts of powers, capacities, are “able-to’s” that cannot be found at the level of the generative mechanisms themselves. Put otherwise, a flame is itself a generative mechanism with respect to other relations.

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In response to one of my posts over at Deontologistics, Traxus writes:

latour and social constructivism is a tricky issue. he’s not technically a social constructivist, but his metaphysics is anti-normative. if everything is a product of forces (without additional predicate), then no ‘kind’ of force can be superior to any other. any justification for why a given constellation of forces is right in a given case would have not have recourse to metaphysical arguments. in terms of his metaphysics only force decides (naturalism might be superior to theism because it has stronger relations to different types of forces, but this can’t be determined in advance).

i see the OOO-osphere as reacting to the nietzscheanism inherent in this view by asserting objects over relations as the fundamentally real units.

oh, and badiou’s antiphilosophers aren’t necessarily sophists. for badiou they’re essentially religious — they assert a founding ahistorical, moral intuition — for latour it would be the importance of ‘democracy.’ like foucault, latour engages in genealogical (of a kind) critiques of knowledge in the form of case studies, with one rather ironic foray into systematic philosophy with ‘irreductions.’

At the outset, I suppose I should confess that I have an almost visceral suspicion of philosophical and political discourses that make normativity their central focus. On the one hand, I associate this sort of focus with neoliberal and conservative discourses that obfuscate social issues by portraying them as issues of “values” and rights. There seems to be a way in which the moment we begin talking about values and normativity, discussion and politics gets detached from the structure of concrete situations, rendering all of that invisible. This has even been enshrined in the whole distinction between the “is” and the “ought”. Insofar as the “is” is completely separated from the “ought”, normative discourses see themselves as entitled to ignore the “is” altogether. As a Marxist and a historical materialist, I simply think this is the wrong way to go. Moreover, contrary to those who seem to believe that neoliberalism is a discourse where self-interest is the only deciding factor and that Marxism is an axiological discourse independent of self-interest, I can’t help but see that Marx’s arguments are based on interests. What Marx shows is that our self-interest lies with the collectivity. This is why, for example, we join unions, pay taxes, form institutions to protect ourselves, and so on.

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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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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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