Grounds


600px_SpiderWebIt seems that one of the standard criticisms recently emerging in response to OOO is that 1) it is apolitical, and 2) it is an apologetics for neoliberalism. I confess that I find both criticisms to be deeply perplexing and am unsure what to make of them. I am unsure of whether or not I’ve ever claimed that OOO is apolitical. If I have, then I was speaking sloppily. What I have consistently emphasized is that questions of ontology and questions of politics are distinct. This is exactly what we would expect from a realist ontology. Insofar as realist ontologies reject correlationism or the thesis that objects can only ever be thought in their relation to a subject and that subjects can only ever be thought in relation to objects, it follows that the being of beings is an issue that is independent of politics. Were the being of beings always bound up with the political, we would not have a realism, but rather a correlationism. Why? Because beings would necessarily be bound up with the human.

However, and I think this is a key point, the claim that questions of ontology are distinct from questions of politics is not equivalent to a rejection of politics. All the claim that ontology and politics are distinct entails is that ontological questions are not to be decided on political grounds. That’s all. Nothing more. In this regard, I take myself to be claiming nothing different than what Badiou claims. As Badiou argues in the Manifesto for Philosophy, it is a disaster for philosophy whenever philosophy is sutured to one of its four conditions: love, politics, science, and art. Badiou does not advocate a particular ontology on political grounds. The questions of ontology are internal to ontology. Yet in affirming this autonomy, he is clearly not rejecting the political, as can be seen in his copius contributions to political philosophy.

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I was delighted to wake up this morning– um, well, really this afternoon… I was up very late grading and have much more yet to do –to find a comment by Lee Braver in response to my post Problems of Immanence. Lee writes:

This is a really interesting topic, and one at the heart of my book. Its 2 epigraphs directly raise the issue:

“The all-decisive question… [is] What happens when the distinction between a true world and an apparent world falls away? What becomes of the metaphysical essence of truth?”

~Heidegger

And, somewhat as a response,

“Truth is a thing of this world”
~Foucault

Once Kant closes off the possibility of correspondence with a reality that transcends our grasp of it, the notion of truth must undergo profound revision, which I take to be one of the core projects of continental thought. Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and early Heidegger all wrestled with new understandings of truth but were still entangled in the traditional sense. It was Heidegger’s later work, building on “aletheia,” that decisively broke with traditional understanding on my reading, freeing the post-modernists to experiment more radically.

Nietzsche correctly diagnosed the danger of swinging from absolute metaphysical foundations to complete nihilism (to which many relegate po-mo), which leaves the problem of how to carve out a path between these extremes. What does truth mean where there is no transcendent umpire to issue infallible rulings, or even a realm of objects existing in absolute separation from us to supply even a conceptual foothold for comparing our beliefs with their objects? In classes, I call this a “just-us-chickens” epistemology: how do we determine what’s right when it’s just us humans, endlessly squabbling? On one reading, this is what Hegel’s absolute (ab solus) knowledge teaches us.

Okay, back to grading as I’m way behind right now!

Jon, I have a lot of sympathy with what you’re sketching out–it sounds a bit like Rorty’s picture of animals making complicated noises at each other. The problem in reducing discussions to the level of causality is that normativity falls out of the picture. Builder A can respond positively or negatively to B’s bringing him a block upon A’s speaking “block,” but Wittgenstein wants to maintain the idea that B’s action’s being right or wrong is not determined entirely by A’s satisfaction or lack thereof. This correctness cannot lie coiled within the command or A’s mind, of course, but Wittgenstein frequently claims that it must still be there, somewhere (in wider society’s reactions, according to some). Now, we may want to simply jettison this evaluation; all there is is people’s interactions and reactions and the demand for over-arching normativity is just a metaphysical hang-over. My sense is that the vast majority of analytic philosophers emphatically demand retaining it, while continentals get a lot less excited over its loss. But it is something to consider.

I haven’t read Lee’s book yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it over the summer. In response to Lee’s remarks, what I’m looking for is something that retains the best of correlationism or anti-realist positions– preserving their kernel of insight –while nonetheless situating it within a realist framework. In other words, in adopting a realist position I think it would be a mistake to re-inscribe the division between culture and nature, where the “real” is on the side of nature and the side of culture and spirit is somehow something other than the real. Here I find Latour’s critique of this distinction in texts like We Have Never Been Modern and The Politics of Nature to be deeply compelling and right on the mark. Moreover, if the split between nature and culture is inscribed in this way we will eventually, as Alexei points out, find ourself back at all the questions that first motivated the Kantian position. I think this is one of the major differences that distinguishes the Object-Oriented Ontologies of Graham and I, from the realist ontologies of folks like Brassier and perhaps Meillassoux. What is needed is not a sharp reinscription between mind and world, culture and nature, but a flat ontology where all of these things are elements of the real. I have outlined what such an ontology would look like in very schematic forms in my post Principles of Onticology (and here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In developing this ontology it should be noted that I proceed experimentally in much the same way that Freud proposed the Death Drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. That is, in proposing the Ontic Principle (the principle which states “there is no difference that does not make a difference), I do so in the spirit of a hypothesis, saying “suppose we were to begin with difference as the ground of being rather than sameness or identity as Parmenides did, what would follow and how would we have to rethink our understanding of Being and beings?”

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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.

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newssmokeThe word “object” derives from the Latin prefix ob, meaning “against”, and the word jacere, meaning “to throw”. Presumably there is a relationship between objects, on the one hand, and existence on the other hand. To be an object is also to exist. The term “existence” comes from the Latin term existere (ex and sistere) meaning “to stand forth”. It would thus seem that to be an object is “to be thrown against” or “to stand forth”. Here, then, would be a first reason for conceiving objects in relation to difference. If to be an object is to stand forth or to be thrown against, then it follows that to be an object is first and foremost to differ. On the one hand, we here see why objects must always be attached to a field. If objects stand forth or are thrown against, there must be something from which they stand forth or against which they are thrown. Minimally, then, it must be said that there are not just objects, but object-field relations. There is nothing for the object to stand-forth from if there is no field against which the object stands. This field could be anything and the question of what constitutes a field would be a central question of ontological speculation. Is the field in question the void, as in the case of Lucretius? Is it other objects? Is it a background-foreground relation as in the case of the Gestaltists? Is it the One substance of Spinoza? The question is open. All that can be said is that minimally objects are a differentiating. For this reason objects are necessarily attached to a world; or rather, there are no worldless objects.

125The second notable feature of the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” is that both contain verbs. “Object” contains the verb jacere, meaning to throw. “Existence” contains the verb sistere, meaning “to stand forth”. The term “object”, of course, is a noun. When we think of nouns we tend to think of something fixed and established. Something that presides. Yet the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” suggests a verb or action at the heart of objects and existence. If objects stand-forth or are thrown, then there is an activity at work in the object or the existent. In this respect, the Greek concept of φύσις or phusis as that which emerges, grows, or is born would be at the heart of objects. When the Ontic Principle claims that there is no difference that does not make a difference, we get one sense in which objects are. The difference of an object is a difference that is made and constantly remade, emerging from out of a field. Consequently, objects should be thought as events.

g002_pllck2_she_wolfIt is unfortunate that we so often use “difference” as a noun. The differences that constitute an object should not be understood as the properties by which an observer distinguishes two objects from one another, but should instead be understood as difference internal to the object, presiding over the process of how it stands forth from a field or throws itself. Difference should be understood in the sense of “to differ” or “differing“, as the activity by which the objects unfolds, blooms, or emerges against a field. Perhaps the term “differentiating” would be preferable to “difference”, so long as differentiating is understood as what objects do, not what minds do in distinguishing objects from one another. While we do indeed make distinctions, so long as difference is understood primarily as distinction, difference becomes a negative term describing relations between identicals. When we speak of difference as distinction, we here speak of difference in terms of what something is not, rather than affirmatively as the differentiating taking place in the heart or volcanic core of objects. “This cat is black, that cat is not.” Hence Deleuze will remarks that,

The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, Columbia University Press, 28)

As I argued in a previous post, the epistemic and the ontological are deeply intertwined due to the philosophical tradition, such that we must perpetually struggle to untangle the two if we are to get anywhere. Difference-between is a relation between three terms where, on the one hand, we have two objects that differ from one another (black and white cats) and a mind contemplating that difference or distinguishing these two terms. Such would be difference epistemically conceived. Implicitly this form of difference would involve an observer or mind distinguishing the two objects. However, difference as Deleuze here conceives it would be ontological and strictly an affair of the object itself, regardless of whether any minds were about to distinguish the object from other objects. Here we would have the object distinguishing itself through some sort of internal force or power– an internal difference –rather than objects being distinguished.

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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).

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jansonp766If, as the Ontic Principle affirms, there is no difference that does not make a difference, then the Ontological Principle directly follows. Deleuze, following Duns Scotus, gives a particularly clear formulation of the Ontological Principle:

…Being is said in a single and same sense… of all its individuating differences or intrinsic modalities. Being is the same for all these modalities, but these modalities are not the same. It is ‘equal’ for all, but they themselves are not equal… The essence of unvocal being is to include individuating differences, while these differences do not have the same essence and do not change the essence of being… (Difference and Repetition, 36)

A bit later Deleuze goes on to remark that,

The words ‘everything is equal’ may therefore resound joyfully, on condition that they are said of that which is not equal in this equal, univocal Being: equal being is immediately present in everything, without mediation or intermediary, even though things reside unequally in this equal being. (DR, 37)

As Deleuze puts it in the magnificent elevenths chapter of Expressionism and Philosophy (a chapter that should banish all doubt that Deleuze’s thought is a variant of neo-Platonism),

jacksonpollock-full-fathom-five-1947

…[P]ure immanence requires as a principle the equality of being, or the positing of equal Being: not only is being equal in itself, but it is seen to be equally present in all beings. And the Cause appears as everywhere equally close: there is no remote causation. Beings are not defined by their rank in a hierarchy, are not more or less remote from the One, but each… participat[es] in the equality of being, receiving immediately all that it is by its essence fitted to receive, irrespective of any proximity or remoteness. Furthermore, pure immanence requires a Being that is univocal and constitutes a Nature, and that consists of positive forms, common to producer and product, to cause and effect… Thus the superiority of causes subsists within the viewpoint of immanence, but now involves no eminence, involves that is, no positing of any principle beyond the forms that are themselves present in the effect. Immanence is opposed to any eminence of the cause, any negative theology, any method of analogy, any hierarchical conception of the world. (173)

In many respects, the Ontological Principle is simply another way of formulating the Ontic Principle. If there is no difference that does not make a difference, then it follows that “to be” is to both differ and produce difference. When Deleuze evokes remote causation, his target is entities such as the Platonic forms, Plotinus’ One from which all else is said to emanate, Kant’s categories, Hegel’s Geist, the sense-bestowing cogito of phenomenology, signifiers, etc. In other words, the Ontological Principle is an affirmation that banishes any sort of overdetermining cause that affects all other beings without itself, in turn, being affected. Henceforth, all vertical being will be banished and the world or universe will necessarily be understood as flat or horizontal without any causes that are “out of scene” and secretly determinative of the rest. The Ontological Principle thus announces a democracy of being as opposed to an aristocracy of being, insofar as there is no sovereign form of being (forms, categories, subject, signifier, God, etc) that coordinates the rest without itself being coordinated in terms. All beings are equal in the sense that all beings are and insofar as all are differences.

vangogh111I am tempted to say that the Ontological Principle is a peculiar sort of principle in that it seems to mark the closure of any ontology. Here, of course, I do not have in mind the understanding of ontology as articulating the “furniture of the universe”, but rather of ontology as asking the question of “being qua being” or what can be said of being as such independent of any beings. Here being qua being would be exhausted in the declaration that being is said in a single and same sense for all that is. The Ontological Principle would thus direct us squarely to the ontic.

As a consequence of the Ontological Principle it thus seems that another principle, again articulated by Latour, follows: The Principle of Irreduction. The Principle of Irreduction states:

Nothing can be reduced to anything else.

cool-fractals-swirls-spirals-thumb20813If the Ontic and Ontological Principles are both affirmed, it follows that no being can merely be an effect or product of anything else insofar as any being, as a being, makes a difference. To reduce one being to another being, say signifiers or atoms, is to declare the only the being to which the other being is reduced makes a difference. The Principle of Irreduction sounds, at the outset, scandalous as, for example, it seems to return us to mind/body dualism and a world where everything is disconnected from everything else. However, the Principle of Irreduction does not state that there are no relations of dependency in and among beings, only that all beings contribute a difference. Consequently, while it is certainly the case that my body would not be possible without DNA, DNA, in unfolding, must nonetheless undergo translation as it transports itself (Latour’s Principle, which I now think is distinct from the Ontic Principle), and the body formed in translation with DNA produces its own differences. The Principle of Irreduction leads to a very strange ontology that spells the ruin for the principle of individuation wherein act-ualities are individuated from one another by not being able to occupy the same position in place and in time. Rather, the Principle of Irreduction opens a world in which individuals can exist within other individuals, all existing at different levels of scale such that an individual even exists with spatially dispersed parts as in the case of a social movement like the Zapatista movement which is both an individual and composed of many individuals. In all events, the relation between individuals is not one where one type of individual explains the rest without remainder, but where processes of translation must take place.

nietzscheIn Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche famously argued that metaphysics is a product of grammar.

With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact, which these superstitious minds hate to concede—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” It thinks: but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty.” After all, one has even gone too far with this “it thinks”—even the “it” contains an interpretation of the process, and does not belong to the process itself. One infers here according to the grammatical habit “thinking is an activity; every activity requires an agent; consequently—.” It was pretty much according to the same schema that the older atomism sought, besides the operating “power,” that lump of matter in which it resides and out of which it operates, the atom; more rigorous minds, however, learned at last to get along without this “earth-residuum,” and perhaps some day we shall accustom ourselves, including the logicians, to get along without the little “it” (which is all that is left of the honest little old ego). (Part 1, §17)

graph13jThe world is parsed into nouns in the form of subjects and objects, adjectives or predicates, and verbs. Subjects and objects are then treated as substances or that which endures in times and lies beneath. Verbs or events are treated as that which happens to objects and subjects, such as the movement from one position to another in space as if on a sheet of graph paper. And finally predicates are what are said of substances. The ball, a substance, is red and spherical (predicates). The ball moves this side of the table to that side of the table.

As a consequence of this parsing of the world, all sorts of metaphysical and epistemological problems emerge. Insofar as subjects and objects are conceived as substances, the epistemological question arises of how it is possible for a subject to relate to an object. The object, as a substance, forever transcends the subject, necessarily being beyond the subject in all ways. We know the object through its predicates or properties, yet we encounter the entire problem of primary and secondary qualities or the indiscernibility of properties. That is, how do we determine whether the predicates we find in the object are a product of us or whether they belong to the object itself? Is color, for example, in the object or is it in me? On the metaphysical level, is the object simply a bundle of properties or is the substance something more, in addition to its properties, beyond these predicates? If the object is nothing but a bundle of properties, doesn’t it cease to be that objects when it gains or loses properties? If the object is a substance beyond its properties, what does it mean to speak of it as this object at all insofar as the substance which the object is is always in excess of any properties that it might have (the bare substratum problem).

Yet certainly “to be”, to exist, is something more than simply being a substance characterized by identity? Generally we restrict the verb “to act” to living beings. Animals act in bringing themselves to motion. Some claim that only humans are capable of acts. Action here is conceived as necessarily containing a component of will or self-willing. A rock, it is said, does not act insofar as it cannot will itself to act but can only be made to move through external forces. Etymologically the term act comes from the Latin actus, “a doing”, and actum, “a thing done”. These are derivatives of agere, “to do, set in motion, drive, urge, chase, stir up”. These Latin terms, in turn, derive from the Greek agein, “to lead, guide, drive, carry off,” and, interestingly, agon, referring to “assembly, contest in games,” as well as agogos or “leader”.

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