History


Based on a recommendation by a student that was prompted while teaching Harman’s Prince of Networks, my bedtime reading has recently consisted of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. Although I’m not very far into the book, so far I am very much enjoying it. Like Braudel and the Annales School historians, Diamond is extremely attentive to the role played by nonhuman objects in collectives. In many respects, Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel reads like a much quicker and livelier version of Braudel’s Capitalism & Civilization. Diamond, I think, presents us with what 1/3 of an object-oriented analysis would look like in social and political thought. Speaking of the encounter between Pizarro and Atahuallpa, Daimond writes:

How did Pizarro come to be at Cajamarca? Why didn’t Atahuallpa instead try to conquer Spain? Pizarro came to Cajamarka by means of European maritime technology, which built the ships that took him across the Atlantic from Spain to Panama, and then in the Pacific from Panama to Peru. Lacking such technology, Atahuallpa did not expand overseas out of South America.

In addition to the ships themselves, Pizarro’s presence depended on the centralized political organization that enabled Spain to finance, build, staff, and equip the ships. The Inca Empire also had a centralized political organization, but that actually worked to its disadvantage, because Pizarro seized the Inca chain of command intact by capturing Atahuallpa. Since the Inca bureaucracy was so strongly identified with its god-like absolute monarch, it disintegrated after Atahuallpa’s death. Maritime technology coupled with political organization was similarly essential for European expansions to other continents, as well as for expansion of many other peoples.

A related factor bringing Spaniards to Peru was the existence of writing. Spain possessed it, while the Inca Empire did not. Information could be spread far more widely, more accurately, and in more detail by writing than it could be transmitted by mouth. That information, coming back to Spain from Columbus’s voyages and from Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, sent Spaniards pouring into the New World. Letters and pamphlets supplied both the motivation and the necessary detailed sailing directions. The first published report of Pizarro’s exploits, by his companion Captian Cristobal de Mena, was printed in Seville in April 15 1534, a mere nine months after Atahuallpa’s execution. It became a best-seller, was rapidly translated into other European language, and sent a further stream of Spanish colonists to tighten Pizarro’s grip on Peru. (78 – 79)

Daimond works not with the concept of society, which is a concept restricted to people and their beliefs, but rather with what Latour calls collectives. Collectives are entanglements of objects. They can be entanglements composed entirely of nonhuman objects as in the case of an eco-system, or they can be entanglements that also contain humans as well as nonhuman objects. However, they can never be composed of humans alone. In his analysis of the encounter between Spain and South America, Daimond not only discusses human actors such as Atahuallpa, but also institutions like forms of political organization, and nonhuman actors such as germs, clubs, forms of armor, maritime technologies, writing, pamphlets, letters, horses, and so on. All of these entities are full blown actors in Diamond’s account that are generative of certain forms of association or certain social relations.

Indeed, when Diamond begins discussing food production in Europe, he notes the manner in which the domestication of plants and animal led to markedly different forms of human relation:

All those are direct ways in which plant and animal domestication led to denser human populations by yielding more food than did the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A more indirect way involved the consequences of the sedentary lifestyle enforced by food production. People of many hunter-gatherer societies move frequently in search of wild foods, but farmers must remain near their fields and orchards. The resulting fixed abode contributes to denser human populations by permitting a shortened birth interval. A hunter-gather mother who is shifting camp can carry only one child, along with her few possessions. She cannot afford to bear her next child until the previous toddler can walk fast enough to keep up with the tribe and not hold it back. In practice, nomadic hunter-gatherers space their children about four years apart by means of lactational amenorrhea, sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion. By contrast, sedentary people, unconstrained by problems of carrying young children on treks, can bear and raise as many children as they can feed. The birth interval for many farm peoples is around two years, half that of hunter-gatherers. That higher birthrate of food producers, together with their ability to feed more people per acre, lets them achieve much higher population densities than hunter-gatherers.

A separate consequence of a settled existence is that it permits one to store food surpluses, since storage would be pointless if one didn’t remain nearby to guard the stored food. While some nomadic hunter-gathers may occasionally bag more food than they can consume in a few days, such a bonanza is of little use to them because they cannot protect it. But stored food is essential for feeding non-food-producing specialists, and certainly for supporting whole towns of them. Hence nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have few or no such full-time specialists, who instead first appear in sedentary societies.

Two types of such specialists are kings and bureaucrats. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, to lack full-time bureaucrats and hereditary chiefs, and to have small-scale political organization at the level of the band of tribe. That’s because all able-bodied hunter-gatherers are obliged to devote much of their time to acquiring food. In contrast, once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricultural societies are often organized in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are confined to large agricultural societies. Those complex political units are much better able to mount a sustained war of conquest than in an egalitarian band of hunters. (89 – 90)

I quote these passages at length because they are so foreign to most of what we find in dominant strains of continental cultural, social, and political theory. Daimond’s history is a history of collectives that is as much a history of the role played by nonhuman objects as human actants in the genesis of associations between humans and nonhumans in these collectives. Ask yourself honestly, do you really see anything remotely like a discussion of these sorts of agencies in the social and political thought of the Frankfurt School, Zizek, Ranciere, Balibar, Laclau, Derrida, or Badiou? Stepping outside the continental tradition, do you find it in Rawls or Habermas? What about Luhmann? No, we find nothing remotely close to the discussion of these issues. Rather, to encounter a discussion of the role of these sorts of actors we need to turn to Latour and the ANT theorists, Marx, Deleuze and Guattari and their under-developed analysis of machinic assemblages, and thinkers like McLuhan, Castelles, Haraway, DeLanda, Hayles, Bogost, Ong, Kittler, and so on.

What are we missing as a result of ignoring these nonhuman actors, and to what degree are our questions of political theory and action poorly formed and premised on a complete misrecognition of why collective formations are as they are? Indeed, to what degree do we entirely miss issues that are political because we have restricted the domain of the political to the human and the subject? To a great degree, I would say. However, as I said at the beginning of this post, something like Diamond’s analysis only constitutes 1/3 of what an OOO analysis would look like in social and political thought. Diamond is to be commended for paying keen attention to the role played by nonhuman actants in collectives that contain humans, but we must also recall that for OOO signs and language are objects as well. The semiotic is not to be abandoned. What is to be abandoned is the thesis of the linguistic idealists to the effect that language and signs constitute entities. Rather, we must think the manner in which the semiotic is entangled with non-semiotic actants. And finally, we need to make room for the manner in which objects are always withdrawn or in excess of any of their manifestations or sensuous presentations. A fullblown OOO analysis would contain all three of these dimensions in its thinking of collectives and entanglements.

In response to my post on Extended Cognition, english140prof or Alice writes:

Students in my Digital Humanities course are reading selections from Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media for next Tuesday. I agree with Ian that McLuhan remains extremely useful, especially when introducing humanities-based students to a new media curriculum. Of course, the Medievalist in my English Department also appreciates that I’m resurrecting his work and introducing it into general student discourse!

In many respects, I think this gets at the project of re-construction I proposed and that Paul Ennis named. On the one hand, I’m hoping to teach McLuhan– hopefully in the context of my “extended pedagogy” experiment –in the next semester or so. Any suggestions as to what text would be good to assign would be terrific. I think I might have frightened other people off with the proposal of extended pedagogy. The point of extended pedagogy is not to structure classes in the same way, but to provide an opportunity for academics interested in each others work to collaboratively read a text with one another over the course of the semester. The text could be an entire book or, as Mel and I plan to do this semester, something as small as an essay like Deleuze’s “Post-Script on Society of Control”. In this respect, the extended pedagogy experiment allows for dual duty, simultaneously providing the opportunity to do research with someone who’s though and ideas you’re interested in and assign material to students. Now, ideally– and Mel and I are going to try this –I would also like to involve students for a portion of the semester. This would involve creating a blog or discussion list for the class where students from different courses would participate with one another in digital dialogue. I think this could potentially be a productive experience for the students in the form of active learning, rather than simply listening to professors lecture and guide discussion. I’d like to do this with McLuhan in the future.

All of these pedagogical issues aside, however, in other contexts I’ve spoken about object-oriented ontology in the context of a project I refer to, following Paul Ennis, as “re-construction”. Part of that project would consist, as Deleuze suggested, in creating a counter tradition and in resurrecting those moments of the philosophical and theoretical tradition that are particularly valuable from the standpoint of onticology and ontography. Just as Deleuze sought to create a minor tradition consisting of Lucretius, the Stoics, Spinoza, Hume, Leibniz, and so on, OOO needs its “minor tradition” of those object-oriented philosophers that have been object-oriented philosophers without knowing it.

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Vincent-Van-Gogh-The-Wheat-Field--1888-133375As I lay in bed fighting the flu this weekend I found myself once again reading Braudel’s Civilization & Capitalism. In my view, Braudel’s approach to history provides a model example of what an object-oriented analysis might look like. Braudel does not tell the story of the emergence of capitalism from the standpoint of ideas, political conflicts, nations, or “great men”, but rather from the standpoint of what he calls “material civilization”. Material history consists of those constraints and affordances upon which the social world is based at any given point in time. “Material life is made up of people and things. The study of things, of everything mankind makes or uses– food, housing, clothing, luxury, whether or not money is used, what sort of money is used, tools, coinage or its substitutes, framework of village and town… (31).” This material civilization thus consists of things such as the way in which food is produced, the epidemiology of disease, the sorts of foods produced, whether or not roads are present, the layout of towns and their relationship to the countryside, clothing styles, forms of cooking, weather patterns, wild animals, the relationship of nomads to agricultural society, technologies and technics, and so on.

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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.

mapofitalyI sometimes get the sense that when I make remarks about flat ontology and collectives of human and nonhuman actors the points I’m making are so simple, so vulgar, so obvious that others are often confused as to what I might even be referring to. Ghost, for example, remarks,

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s grateful for all the time you’ve spent explaining this stuff. I’m beginning to get a handle on it, but as you describe the differences between a flat ontology analysis and something Zizek might do, for instance, I realise I need to see this ontology in action. A detailed flat ontology analysis might dissipate the feeling for me that the old nature/binary is still there, but now together in a new container.

No doubt I’ve exacerbated the problem because I’ve developed a somewhat abstract vocabulary with mysterious expressions like “there are no differences that do not make a difference”, “there is no transportation without translation”, and “nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else”, all situated in terms like “objectiles”, “actors”, “exo-relations”, “endo-relations”, “attractors”, “phase spaces”, “endo-consistency”, and so on. Faced with this infantry of terms and expressions, it’s difficult to determine what I might be getting at. A good deal of this has been my fault as I seldom give very elaborate examples to develop my claims. Hopefully I can rectify some of this today through the question “how did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”

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Roots_by_cesarpbOver at Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog– what a marvelous blog title so full of rich resonances! –I came across a little enigmatic aphorism that I found somewhat jarring. In response to my post on realism and speculative realism, Russell, like the Oracle at Delphi, intones that “aesthetics is lost without ontology.” This is a gorgeous and mysterious little statement that appeals even to the object-oriented ontologist– or, to try on some new “clothes” the ontographist (certainly a more appealing term than “onticology”. Steven Shaviro, for instance, has recently shown brilliantly– and I’m still pissed at him for not contributing to The Speculative Turn as he absolutely belongs there –how aesthetics is deeply ontological in the realist, non-correlationist, sense. He does this through an imbrication of the aesthetic ontology of Whitehead, the aesthetics of Kant (in a reading that can only be described as “Harmanian” in its daring misinterpretation that redeems), and of Deleuze, showing that aesthetics is not simply a human affair.

However, I suppose I find Jacob’s aphorism so jarring because I’m inclined to invert it. This for both philosophical reasons and personal reasons. A few years ago I had the pleasure of teaching an Aesthetics course here at Collin. This was a rare treat as, while I have the freedom to assign whatever texts I might like, it gave me the opportunity to teach a theme based course and work with an eclectic body of students coming from both the fine arts and philosophy. One of the things I discovered is the manner in which throughout the history of philosophy questions of knowledge, reality, truth, and ethics are so tightly interwoven with questions of aesthetics. Although aesthetics is often portrayed as a marginal branch of philosophy– with ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics being the “big three” –I am willing to wager that the aesthetic theory of a philosopher contains, in fractal form, the inner kernel and truth of any philosopher. I haven’t yet developed a theory as to why this is the case, but what I found again and again as we explored the aesthetic theories of the tradition was that the ontological, epistemological, and ethical questions of whatever philosophy we were studying converged on aesthetic issues. Indeed, I’m even willing to suggest that we can distinguish philosophy from non-philosophy in terms of whether a thinkers body of thought contains an aesthetic theory. In this respect, I’m led to wonder whether it is indeed the case that aesthetics is nothing without ontology. Might it instead be the reverse, that ontology (and epistemology) is nothing without aesthetics? Here, of course, aesthetics would have to be understood as a trifecta: a theory of sensibility (aesthesis) or better yet “appearing” or “manifestation”, a theory of art as of central ontological concern an revelation, and a theory of creation.

Of course, all of this is very well a bias on my part. In many respects, I think we all dream of being something other than we are. For me, I always dreamed of being an artist. I remember the awed wonder I experienced when I watched another child draw for the very first time. There, in the first or second grade, I watched, full of envy, as that child inscribed images on paper, bringing another world into existence. It was a simple depiction of the space shuttle, but nonetheless I was hooked at that very moment. What could be better, more miraculous, more powerful, more valuable, than this power to bring worlds into being? Oh how deeply I ached to draw, to paint, to write stories, to create poetry. I was hooked. And sadly, I just didn’t seem to be wired in that way. It could even be said that I first pursued philosophy out of a desire to do art… Philosophy, I thought, would allow me to thematize worlds, to create worlds, to create. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way, but it could be said that a red thread linking all the philosophers I identify with and work on is aesthetics. My compensation for this creative impotence is ontological: the only universe worth living in and affirming is a creative universe.

In this respect, I always find it curious how different intellectual practices encounter one another. One of the things I constantly encounter among my friends engaged in other practices and disciplines is a sort of “philosophy envy” or “philosophy insecurity”. How many times have I heard someone in literary studies, a social science, or engaged in an artistic practice say “what you do is rigorous and actually does something!” I’m always surprised by this and by this anxiety in the face of philosophy. If that’s the case, then it is because I believe, above all, that philosophy is a parasitic discourse aimed at thinking our present. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense at all. There is nothing to disparage in meta-theory. Rather, what I mean is that the philosopher is always a becoming-other, carried along by those who are not so much attempting to think the present, as by those who are making the present: activists, scientists, painters, poets, musicians, mathematicians, and so on. Philosophy needs all these makers as the datums that course through them, giving them the material for what is to be thought, for what provokes thought. And hopefully, in turn, philosophy can add concepts that assist these others in their making, and can help to resituate questions and problems, assisting in the birth of new possibilities for practice and engagement. I suppose I’m still that first grader gazing in awe at those who make.

It seems to me that within contemporary academia, there is a good deal of anxiety among philosophers as to just what the vocation of philosophy is. Just as Kant famously observed that “time was when metaphysics was the queen of philosophy”, there seems to be an underlying anxiety, among continental philosophers especially, that “time was when philosophy was the queen of the sciences”. Any honest appraisal of philosophy today cannot fail to acknowledge that philosophy has been dethroned from its privileged position among the various disciplines. Where Kant could still teach geography, anthropology, physics, and philosophy, seeing all of these disciplines as, in effect, a part of philosophy, for us today philosophy has increasingly become pared down and marginalized in such a way that it often appears, to the outsider, as a sort of archaic curiosity. The various sciences, both as forms of serious research and in popular culture, have taken on the mantel of answering the questions of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Thus, when the layman searches for answers to the question of the fundamental nature of reality, he generally looks not to the tradition of philosophy, but to popular science texts such as the works of Brian Green, Frijtof Capra, Stephen J. Gould, and Richard Dawkins. Where philosophy pursues a game of one upsmanship, presenting ultra-radical, whizbang critique to end all critiques, these figures dogmatically present their various accounts of the nature of reality. When the layman looks for answers to the most fundamental and basic questions of ethics, to the classical questions of Aristotle, Epictetus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, the layman looks not to the ethicist, but to the psychologist and self-help books or to mystogogues selling their latest permissive snake-oil. When the layman looks for answers to questions of politics, they look not to political philosophy, but to popularized works of the social sciences. Everywhere it appears that philosophy has become eclipsed by other disciplines, such that in its own disciplinary practice it becomes addressed only to other professional philosophers addicted to something like Magister Ludi’s glass bead game.

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has led to rather tiresome and reactionary attitudes among philosophers. It is not uncommon to find a sort of “Luddite” mentality among philosophers, where the world is implicitly described as fallen, where the Enlightenment is seen as the pivot point where this fall took place, and where thought prior to this period was a Golden Age. The vocation of philosophy thus becomes a “recollection” or “retrieval” of this forgotten truth, of this ground of all grounds, that has been lost through the fall into the natural attitude initiated by the Enlightenment. As a result, philosophy in the classroom, journals, and books becomes the history of philosophy and the retrieval of this truth from errancy. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that far from denouncing a decisive errancy of thought, this posture is instead based on a combination of envy at the triumph of one philosophical school over the others (a victory that is very carefully suppressed and denied), self-importance, insecurity, and a phobia towards all things mathematical and scientific.

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