Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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Over at Ktismatics John has an interesting post up making the case that we have direct access to our minds. John writes:

In my post I summarized some of the empirical evidence supporting the contention that much, if not most, human cognition takes place outside of conscious awareness. However, I decidedly did not propose that all of cognition is unconscious. We consciously attend to things, reason, solve problems, assemble stored memories, plan, evaluate information. And we’re self-reflexive about it: we are consciously aware that we’re reasoning, problem-solving, etc.

Doesn’t this mean that we have direct access to our own minds, at least to some extent? I’d say yes. If’ I’m aware that I’m solving a problem, and if both my awareness and my problem-solving are mental processes, then my mind has direct access to some of its own activities. If we’re consciously aware of the activities and outputs of our own consciousness, then that’s not just direct self-relation but also direct self-awareness of the self-relation. Consciousness is an emergent property of brain activity; unless we believe in the soul or some form of panpsychism there is no source of consciousness other than brain activity. So consciousness has to be in direct relation with the unconscious brain activity that generates it — doesn’t it? — even if that direct relation doesn’t take the form of conscious awareness of brain function. My hand is in direct connection with itself, even if it can’t hold itself in its grip. A bridge is in direct connection with itself, even if it can’s support itself on itself.

Yes and no. The claim that we do not have direct access to our minds is not the claim that our minds are not dependent on our brains, but rather that our introspective accounts of our mental activities are unreliable guides to how these mental activities function. In other words, the thesis that we can have knowledge of how our mental states function through self-reflexive conscious awareness of our internal states is here challenged.

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A central aim of Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is to diagnose what he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. In a nutshell, the epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis, often implicit, that ontological questions can be reduced to epistemological questions. The idea here is that ontology can be entirely resolved or evaporated into an inquiry into our access to beings, such that there are no independent questions of ontology. As an example of such a maneuver, take Humean empiricism. As good Humean empiricists, we “bracket” all questions of the world independent of our mind and simply attend to our atomistic impressions (what we would today call “sensations”), and how the mind links or associates these punctiform impression in the course of its experience to generate lawlike statements about cause and effect relations.

Note the nature of Hume’s gesture: Here we restrict ourselves entirely to our atomistic sensations and what can be derived from our sensations. Questions about whether or not our sensations are produced by entities independent of our mind are entirely abandoned as “dogmatic” because we do not have access to the entities that might cause or produce these sensations, but only the sensations themselves. Consequently, the order of knowledge must be restricted to what is given in sensation. Hume’s epistemology is thus based on a thesis about immanence or immediacy. Insofar as our minds possess and immediate relation to our sensations, we are epistemically warranted in appealing to sensations as grounds for our claims to knowledge. We are not however, warranted in appealing to objects, powers, selves, or causes because we do not have sensations of these things. Consequently, all of these ontological claims must be reformulated in epistemological terms premised on our access to being. If we wish to talk of objects, then we must show how the mind “builds up” objects out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of powers, then we must show how the mind builds up powers out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of causality we must show how the mind builds up an idea of cause and effect relations through impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of selves and other minds we have to show how mind builds up our sense of self and other minds out of impressions and cause and effect associations.

At the level of the form of the argument, not the content, nearly every philosophical orientation since the 18th century has made the Humean move. While the content of these positions differ, the form of the argument remains roughly the same. That is, we perpetually see a strategy of attempting to dissolve ontological questions through epistemological questions. This move always proceeds in two steps: First, one aspect of our experience is claimed to be immanent or immediate. Second, the furniture of our ontology is then dissolved through an analysis of those entities with reference to this plane of immanence or immediacy. The immediate can be impressions as in the case of Hume, the transcendental structure of mind as in the case of Kant, the intentions of pure consciousness as in the case of Husserl, or language as in the case of late Wittgenstein or the thought of Derrida. Other examples could be evoked. In each case, the gesture consists in showing how the being of beings can be thoroughly accounted for in terms of our access through this immanence or immediacy. The point is that we no longer treat the entities in our ontology as existing independently of this field of immanence or immediacy, but now see them as products of these modes of access. Whether the world is really like this independent of our chosen regime of construction is a question that is abandoned as dogmatic.

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Why is it that all the interesting and fun things happen when I’m drowning in grading? In response to Nina’s recent post raising questions about the recent realist turn and focus on ontology in continental thought there have been a flurry of responses. Nick was quick to throw in his two cents with three posts on the relationship between politics and ontology over at Speculative Heresy (here, here, and here), arguing that ontology is completely independent of politics such that it is precisely for this reason that ontology forces us to do politics. Over at Planomenology, Reid chimes in, arguing against Nick’s thesis, attempting to show how politics and ontology cannot be separated. Over at Naught Thought, Ben analyzes the political uses and misuses of references to the natural and the unnatural. Meanwhile, on her facebook page, Nina writes with some amusement that,

…at just how many responses a cryptic, no-names-involved paragraph can generate. But now feels she has to respond to everyone. This could take some time.

To which I respond writing that,

I didn’t take it personally or see it as an attack. I do, however, wonder if you aren’t running together object-oriented versions of SR with Brassier’s eliminative materialist versions of SR. As far as my own positions go, I’m pretty much on board with some synthesis of Marx, Sartre, and Badiou where politics is concerned. My gripe with much … Read MoreContinental political theory is that it’s far too focused on the discursive and semiotic as the sole site of the political (Zizek’s critiques of ideology, for example), ignoring the economic, technological, and material. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in objects.

I have to get back to grading, but I wanted to make a couple of points about Nick’s line of argument, separating the political from the ontological. In his first post responding to Nina Nick writes:

I have to admit that I’m always surprised at how many people disagree with my claim that reality exists independently of politics. It seems like such an obvious statement to me. Which is not to say that they can’t be related in particular cases, but that the study of ontology can be done without a regard for politics, and vice versa. And so I want to respond to what I see as the main line of refutation that people have put to me. I put this forth honestly, and would be quite happy to have someone show me the flaws in my thinking.

As I posted on Twitter a while ago, for me the argument is extremely simple:

1. a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans
2. politics is a human-centered realm
3. therefore, a realist ontology needs to be separate from politics

Since (1) is true by definition, and (3) is the conclusion from the premises, the problem arises with premise (2). And, indeed, it is my contention in this post that those who deny politics and ontology are separate, deny it because of a ‘neutered’ definition of politics.

Here I find that my position is much closer to Reid’s over at Planomenology than to Nick’s. Where Reid argues that ontology can’t be evacuated of politics, Nick sees a sharp division between the political and the ontological. While I do not agree with Reid’s thesis, presented in comments over at Speculative Heresy, that everything is political, I also find it difficult to understand how politics can be outside of being. In other words, I think that Nick’s position is implausible on simple mereological grounds.

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Returning to the theme of transcendental arguments once again, why is it that these arguments have taken the form of a transcendental idealism rather than a transcendental realism. Recall the basic form of transcendental arguments as nicely articulated in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Transcendental arguments…

…characteristically center on a claim that, for some extra-mental proposition P, the indisputable truth of some general proposition Q about our mental life requires that P.

Thus, for example, we indisputably make causal judgments (proposition Q). Judgments of necessity or causal judgments cannot be derived from sensation. Therefore, there must be a category of causation in our mind that functions as the condition for the possibility of making these judgments. I develop this line of argument in more detail here.

Now, the question I am asking is why mental life, consciousness, mind, language, society, or communication is being granted a special privilege in these arguments? I suspect that the answer lies in some thesis about the immanence of mind to itself. In other words, we locate these transcendental conditions in mind (or language, or communication, or perception, or the social) because we implicitly hold that we have direct access to these domains whereas we do not have direct access to objects transcendent to us.

However, if the last 300 years of philosophy have shown us anything, it has shown us that we do not have any direct or immanent or immediate access to our own minds. As Lacan liked to say, following Freud, the subject is split. This is true even in Kant, as can be seen in both the paralogisms and the the deduction where Kant distinguishes between the subject as phenomena to itself, the transcendental unity of apperception, and the subject in-itself. Similarly, phenomenology increasingly discovered just how elusive givenness is in intuition, or how there is no immediacy in consciousness.

Yet if we follow through the implications of these points, then it would seem that there’s no reason to privilege mind (or some variant thereof) in our transcendental arguments. In other words, all things being equal, why is it less plausible to argue for a transcendental realism? Rather than inferring a category of causality in the mind when noting the indisputable fact that we make causal judgments. Why not instead point to the indisputable fact that things change and therefore this change must have a cause? Inquiring minds want to know.

AAAADEskSs8AAAAAAE6XqwOver at the blog err…whateverz. snugglebus I has posted a couple of nice posts on Speculative Realism. Before getting to the actual content of the posts, I’d first like to note that I love it that here in the blogosphere making interesting and thoughtful remarks with names like “snugglebus”. Moving on to the content, snugglebug defends speculative realism against some criticisms by Giuseppe in his second post. As snugglebus writes:

Responding in the comments however, Giuseppe thinks I kind missed the point entirely. As he put it:

what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)?… I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientists when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels.

Ok – I’ll take the bait! I’m not an SR scholar, just an interested, but uninvested, spectator, so I might not be the most effective spokesperson, but this will help me start to work out my own thoughts on a group of thinkers who I have been following for a while now.

I think there is a lot more to the success of SR than a reactionary response to the fact that ‘physical’ science is saying ever more concrete things about areas that were once the preserve of social scientists. Just anecdotally SR people (see for example Larval subjects here) seem to be intensely interested in hard science and thinking its consequences (though SR is concerned above all with metaphysics, not philosophy of science). In fact I think it would be more productive to turn Giuseppe’s view on its head: isn’t it actually crude idealism that expresses the insecurity (in a very different, less modest form than Giuseppe meant) of social science? Doesn’t idealism sometimes seem to shut scientific ‘reality’ away, seeing science somewhere between a naïve enterprise at one end of the spectrum (whereas we know that ‘truth’ is a function of consciousness, power, signs etc.), or just a separate field that is at best interesting, but not our concern as social scientists…?

Obviously I cannot speak for all the speculative realists and, in fact, it is impossible to do so as our positions tend to be radically different. For example, beyond a rejection of the centrality of the human, my own thought shares almost nothing in common with that of Brassier’s. Brassier advocates a sort of eliminative materialism that leans heavily on the hard sciences, whereas I advocate a realism. While there is a robust place for the sciences in my ontology, I do not see the sciences as delivering us to “true reality” whereas all the other disciplines investigate things that are epiphenomenal or mere illusions. In this I follow Bruno Latour in his rejection of the nature/culture distinction, the division of the world into two distinct ontological domains– the domain of nature and the domain of the subject –and instead replace this division with collectives of human and non-human actors. This is quite a difference.

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16_fullBogost has an interesting post up reflecting on Nick’s talk [.PDF] on actor-network theory and politics. Ian writes:

This is something like what Srnicek is suggesting for politics: instead of the fast-cook burger revolution of revolution, what if we considered the slow-cook barbeque of reform?

Another implication of this notion, which Nick hints at but doesn’t say directly, is whether this process can be understood in relation to Badiou’s notion of the event. Is Badiou’s idea of fidelity as a process by which an event is sustained compatible with Srnicek’s political slow cooking? Or is the event too static, more like the protein denaturing of the burger than like the melting collagen of the slab of ribs? It seems to me that the event is too retrospective, too singular, and too momentarily constituted to stand up to the sauce of reform.

I confess that the term “reform” really causes my hackles to rise. To me it just sounds a lot like “working within the system to change the system”, where one becomes a politician or joins a corporation with the intention of changing things. In this respect, Badiou’s notion of “truth-procedures” strikes me as closer to what Nick is getting at, though “truth-procedure” isn’t quite the best term either. Responding to Ian’s worry, it’s worthwhile to recall that for Badiou it is not the event that is important, but the practice that emerges following the event that is important. Truth-procedures proceed by restructuring elements, objects, and relations belonging to a situation, producing the sort of groundwork for new networks and relations that Nick describes in his paper.

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One of the more idiotic charges that sometimes come my way is that if difference is made a criteria for existence, then we are no longer able to make distinctions. I am not sure whether people who advance such charges are idiots, lack the ability to reflect, or have simply become stupid as a result of their knee-jerk attempts to dismiss speculative realist thought and object-oriented ontology in particular. At any rate, I clearly find this to be one of the oddest charges leveled against differential ontology. On the one hand, what else could we possibly mean by “existence” than difference? What else could existence possibly be than the capacity to make and produce differences? More to the point, however, on the other hand, if difference is the ultimate ground well, that entails that differences differ! Differential ontology allows as many differences as we might like. We can examine the differences that compose a piece of technology. We can examine the differences that compose a city. We can examine the differences that compose fictions and signs. We can distinguish all these differences. We can examine how and in what way these various differences make differences in other things. We can examine degrees of strength and weakness, ranging from things that make very slight differences to things like the sun that make extensive differences well beyond their own being.

The only qualification is that if something makes a difference it is. That is all. It is not being suggested that all differences are equal, that all differences are identical, or that all differences impact the world as extensively as other differences. In a certain respect, it could be said that OOO is an attempt to reset the philosophical clock. Rather than accepted a set of rather bad distinctions that we have inherited from the history of philosophy and that have led to a number of deadlocks in thought, OOO instead wipes the slate clean and tries to begin anew. There are many grounds upon which the various forms of OOO can be criticized. The inability to draw distinctions or speak about differences is not one of them.

transversalRemarking on my post on values and normativity entitled “Co(m)-plications“, Asher Kay of Spoonerized Alliterations writes:

This is a tantalizing vision. I, for one, am totally tantalized. The concept of emergence and the insights of neuroscience (and other parts of complexity theory and cognitive science too) provide some powerful support and explanatory power for OOO’s placement of the human within the realm of the real. And to this point, these relative scientific latecomers have not been coerced into the service of a serious, wide-ranging ontology.

So I’m all happy and cheerful and so forth. Then I read a quote like this (from Larval Subjects), and I begin to wonder if my philosophical sky is really so cloudless:

I think it’s important to show that object-oriented ontology in its realism is not making a call for a scientistic naturalism, but still leaves a lot of room, in suitably re-constructed form, for a number of the sorts of social and cultural analyses the world of theory has come to hold so dear.

I emphasize the “not” there, because that’s where I did a little double-take. Is that right? Isn’t OOO a call for scientistic naturalism? I mean, non-scientific descriptions and explanations are super cool and all that, but we’re talking ontology here! If we’re going to embed and embody the human in the world, what else are we going to use besides the methodology that’s all along been all about objects?

I think my friend’s remarks here are symptomatic of what first comes to the mind of many when we hear words like “ontology”, “realism”, and “objects”. “If”, the train of thought runs, “we are advocating an object-oriented ontology and a realism, this entails that such an ontology is not a subject-oriented ontology. Therefore object-oriented ontology must be interested in showing how the really real world is the result of neurons, atoms, stars, mountains, and so on.” From this point of view, objects are treated as physical or natural objects and are contrasted with subjectivity and culture. The thesis here would be that subjectivity and culture are epiphenomena of these natural objects.

This, however, is not the move that OOO is making. The realism of OOO is not one more move in the battle between realism and idealism where one is asked to choose either realism and advocate the position that really real objects are physical and natural objects and everything else is epiphenomena of these objects or where one is forced to advocate some variant of idealism that holds that all objects are products of mind or culture and that we can never know what things-in-themselves might be independent of mind or culture. Rather, as Ian Bogost notes in his brief response to Asher, OOO places all objects on equal ontological footing. As I articulate it, OOO draws a transversal line across the entire distinction between subject and object, culture and nature, placing the two orders that characterize the discourse of modernity on a single ontological plane.

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Paul Ennis has a terrific post up asking us to imagine the following:

Let us engage in a thought experiment. Imagine in twenty years time someone has written the magnum opus in speculative realism. It is called something like ‘Being and Being’. That would not be a bad title. I’d buy that book. Either that or its the worst book title in the world. The point is that ‘Being and Being’ is such an important book that people don’t care about the title. Like how we still read things called ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’ or ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’.

Then imagine that a disciple in another country had written a similar book influenced by ‘Being and Being’ called ‘Non-Being and Non-Being.’ The writer of the latter complains that the author of ‘Being and Being’ has erased the human from the picture.

This is truly problematic because we are entering an utterly bleak stage in history with lots of technological debasement, ecological catastrophe and so on. What madness is this book ‘Being and Being’ with its endless discussions of objects interacting with one another.

More and more I feel that this is the question people want answered with regard to speculative realism.

What I cannot understand is why people think speculative realism is out to debase the subject. Or why it is an anti-humanism. ‘Being and Being’ would be a book populated with humans and other objects. The human would be treated as an especially interesting object among others. In fact maybe ‘Being and Being’ contains its own existential analytic dedicated to this object which is so complex that we spend an awful lot of time dealing with it. Maybe it loves the subject-object object so much it lavishes 200 pages to a description of how consciousness is an emergent property popping up inside the physical structure of a human body etc. This would be a beautifully apt convergence with the insights of neuroscience.

I’m kicking myself for not thinking of this title first! Setting that aside, I think an additional point worth making is that today we simply cannot talk about the human without talking about objects. As Latour tirelessly argues, the great sin of modernity was to try and produce a schism between the world of nature entirely independent of humans and the world of the cultural entirely independent of nature. The problem is that the world in which we live is a world in which we’re constantly enmeshed in imbroglios with objects of all sorts. To understand ourselves is, in part, to understand these imbroglios with objects. Yet what do we in fact find in so much cultural and critical theory? We find a bracketing of objects so as to get at that which is specifically human– norms, cultural significations, ethics, politics, and so on. Technology studies, media studies, material history, science studies, and all the rest get shunted to the side, treated as rarefied sub-disciplines that the high cultural theorist is free to ignore or investigate as they see fit.

In my view, the most vital questions we seek to answer are hopelessly distorted so long as we ignore this dimension of our “amonst-ness” with objects. Nor can these objects be treated as simple “vehicles” of cultural significations or human intentions as in the case of Baudrilliard. Rather, they must be approached in all their uncanniness, their strangeness, as both the most familiar of the familiar and that which exceeds anything like human familiarity and comfort.

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