Individuation


In my last post I proposed “Ø” as the matheme of the object. In fact, this, I think, is not quite accurate. The complete matheme of the object would be O1/Ø, where O1 refers to the manner in which an object is actualized in terms of properties at any given point in time, and where Ø refers to the divided, split, abyssal, or withdrawn object, beyond any of its actualizations. I have referred to Ø as the hidden, “interior world” of the object. This reference to “interiority” risks being misleading insofar as it has spatial connotations suggesting that Ø can be found by “opening up” an object. However, no matter how thoroughly we look into an object, now matter how carefully we dissect an object, the interior of an object is never found. This is because the interiority of an object is not any of its properties or qualities.

Already, in this formulation of the objectness of objects, I believe it becomes clear just how radically different this conception of objects is from that of representational realism. For representational realism, there is no doubt that the object consists of its properties. The whole issue is whether we are able to represent those properties, or whether our representations transform those properties such that we can never reach the “real” properties of the object. For onticological realism, by contrast, the object is never its properties. The object is not barred or split for us, but in itself.

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pariswallsIn relation to my post on Speculative Realism and Scientific Naturalism, Deontologist and I have been having a stimulating discussion on the ontological status of signs. I advocate the thesis that symbolic entities have real existence and are entities in their own right. Deontologist holds that this is a “trivial”– a truly unfortunate use of language –use of the term “existence” and that only material or physical beings can be truly said to exist.

The discussion began as a discussion about the ontological status of fictional entities like Harry Potter. I hold that fictional entities like Harry Potter are real. In making this claim, I am not making the absurd claim that there is a material referent to the novels depicting David Lewis where a physical Harry Potter exists in one of David Lewis’ possible worlds. Rather, following basic principles of phenomenology, I contend that Harry Potter exists qua fictional entity. Harry Potter is real as a fictional entity. The important caveat here would be that where phenomenology might make this entity dependent upon a sense-bestowing intuition issuing from the cogito— at least in the Husserlian formulation –I hold, following Harman, that Harry Potter, as an object, enjoys independent existence once he has come into existence. To be sure, Harry Potter had to come into existence through the agency of an author, but once he has come into existence his existence is as independent as any other entity that might exist.

We could similarly draw on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” and Limited Inc. to make this point. In these texts Derrida arrives at conclusions that are surprisingly congenial to object-oriented ontology. Meditating on the conditions under which the grapheme or sign are possible, he notes that in order for a grapheme to function as a grapheme, it must be iterable. As he works through the logic of iterability, he shows that it follows that the being of the grapheme or sign cannot be dependent on the intentionality of the person that uses it or enunciates it. In order for the grapheme, mark or sign to be iterable, it necessarily, as its condition of possibility, presupposes the absence of both the speaker, the referent, and the addressee. Derrida puts this point dramatically, remarking that every grapheme, text, or sign presupposes the death of the subject insofar as it is iterable beyond the intentionality of any subject or any context in which it might have been produced. Thus, like Kant’s famous glove turned inside out, the object-oriented ontologist need only give positive formulation to Derrida’s negative thesis. To say that the grapheme, sign, or text presupposes the death of the subject and absence of the referent is to say that the being of the sign, grapheme, or text is that of an independent and real object that is irreducible to the intentionality of the person that employs the sign or the referent to which the sign refers. Neither concept, context, intention, idea, or referent, the grapheme enjoys an independent existence tracing its course throughout the world in excess of any relations it might happen to enter into. Hopefully I will be forgiven for considerably condensing Derrida’s transcendental argument here.

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image003In response to my post on individuals, Ian Bogost writes:

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’m not sure the concept of the replicator is even necessary? Can’t the relations between type and instance, or instance and instance remain, or not, and still be explained via the same approach to relation that one would adopt for relations between yogurt tub and spoon, or alligator and television camera? It seems that there is a strong philosophical (as well as rhetorical) reason to avoid special cases.

An object like “soccer mom” is an object produced through what we might call “memesis” rather than “mimesis.” But once extent in a particular context, can’t its existence can remain flat without trouble? Again, perhaps I’m being dense here.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I use the word “unit” is because it avoids this whole business of explaining away the difference between real and incorporeal objects.

In a similar vein, Asher Kay writes:

LS – I understand now, but I’m not sure I agree. Mathematically, an identity could be viewed as referring to the same individual, so that saying “A=A” would be the same thing as saying “Bruno Latour = Bruno Latour”. This practice introduces some conceptual difficulties, but the formal systems still work fine.

On the other hand, the entities being identified could be seen as conceptual generalizations of the same sort as “soccer mom”. When I say “1″ mathematically, I could be referring only to a property that has no object attached to it. Cognitively, our minds are built to subtract out aspects of things just like we add things when we stick a horn on a horse to make a unicorn.

This is the area of OOO’s realism that is most difficult for me to grasp. Mathematics is a conceptual domain – meaning that it is restricted to certain obscure and dark corners of the material world. OOO seems to speak of concepts (including mathematical ones) as having the same sort of reality as what we’d call “physical objects”. I agree with this, but really only insofar as concepts are physical objects that happen to be very confusing to perceive.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see how mathematics is any more special ontologically than soccer moms.

I’m still working through these issues myself, so I don’t have any hard and fast position as of yet. I suppose one way of articulating what I’m trying to get at is by contrasting the position I’m experimenting with with that of Plato’s. In Plato, when speaking of things like numbers it’s necessary to distinguish three things. On the one hand there is the number itself. For example, there is the number “2”. On the other hand, there are inscriptions or signs standing for the number itself such as an inscription of the number 2 on a piece of paper, in the sand, on a neon sign, in a computer, in a speech-act, or in someone’s thought while doing mathematics. Finally there are things that are counted by the number itself. For example, I have two cats. Someone can eat two french fries. A group can celebrate two days a year. And so on. Drawing on Peirce’s triadic notion of the sign, we can thus distinguish between the sign-vehicle or number as inscribed on a piece of paper or as spoken in speech, the “interpretant” of the sign which is roughly analogous to Saussure’s signified and which in this case would be the number 2 itself, and finally the semiotic-object which is roughly analogous to the referent of the sign and which, in this case, would be the counted.

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wrightson_frankensteinIt seems that sleep is not finding me this evening, despite the fact that I am exhausted. On occasion I have been criticized for describing my own philosophical “methodology” as a work of bricolage. The criticism seems to revolve around the idea that somehow bricolage lacks unity or organization, but is a hodgepodge of things put together in an ad hoc way that ultimately fails to cohere or hold together. Thus, if I draw concepts or lines of arguments from other thinkers, I am creating a sort of Frankenstein– and on occasion I’ve described myself as doing just this –that creates a poorly formed monster rather than anything that resembles philosophy in the exalted sense of a self-contained system that issues from first principles.

It seems to me that this line of criticism and the accompanying view that bricolage is an instance of the ad hoc represents a profound failure to understand the nature of bricolage and the work of the bricoleur. Bricolage refers to a way of working that draws on available materials in the solution of a particular problem. In clarifying this idea, we can compare two types of producers: the Bricoleur and the Ideal Engineer. The ideal engineer is someone who exists in a smooth space without any sort of constraints whatsoever, and who has unlimited power to select among the matters from which they can build and to give form to these matters in any way they might like. Indeed, we can even imagine that the Ideal Engineer even has in his possession something called Ideal Matter. Ideal Matter is truly amazing stuff. It is perfectly conductive, allowing whatever it might like to pass through it. It is gossamer and elastic, such that it can equally form flowing drapes or take on shape and return to its original form. It is absolutely pliable and plastic so that it can be imprinted in any way that we might like. But it is also stronger than diamond or steel and rigid like a Bucky tube. Armed with such an Ideal Matter, a matter with no singularities of its own, the Ideal Engineer can create truly marvelous things indeed.

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brainvatIn email today an old friend of mine asks,

Currently I’m having a bit of a spat with other graphic designers over in another pocket of the Internet. My question is: can design be understood to have an ontology, can there be an ‘ontology of design’? Does this make philosophical sense?

I’m wondering if the assemblage that is my discourse, field, discipline, community, etc. can be understood as a thing? I like the notion of tracing it through all of those lenses and coming to a networked definition. A flat ontology perhaps? Does this make sense?

Hopefully he won’t object to me posting his question here as I think it’s an extremely interesting question that goes straight to the heart of what I’ve been working on with regard to cultural and social theory. Within the framework of my onticology, the criteria by which something is real lies in making a difference. As I put it with my ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference”. Thus, to be real is to make a difference. More recently I have described the ontic principle as a deflationary move. I’ve stolen the idea of “deflationary moves” from my buddy Nate over at the terrific blog What in the Hell. Nate praises Badiou for the deflationary move of placing ontology in the domain of mathematics. Where philosophy has been obsessed with the question “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?”, “Badiou’s” ontology is deflationary in the sense that it says “this question has already been answered and if you would like to know that answer go study mathematics.” As a consequence, Badiou is able to set aside the question of being, dethrone it from center stage, and instead focus philosophy on the question of truth. Deflating the ontological question allows the object of philosophical inquiry to be shifted elsewhere.

Unlike Badiou (and Heidegger), I do not think the central question of philosophy has been “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?” Rather, following Zubiri, I think the central question of philosophy is “what is reality?” However, like Badiou, I try to effect a deflationary move with respect to the question of reality. Since roughly the 17th century, philosophy has been obsessed with the question of how we might come to know reality. As such, reality has been treated as a transcendent beyond that must be reached, and which is to be distinguished from something else that is not reality. What this thing that is other than reality, I do not know. It seems to be mind, culture, language, power, and a host of other things relating to the human. The problem is that situated in these terms the question of how we can know reality is hopeless. Why? Because one of the central lines of thought we inherit from the 17th century is the thesis that we only have access to our representations. Well, if we only have access to our representations then we can only ever scan our representations to find the marks of reality, but since these marks are themselves representations we have no criteria for determining whether they are marks or simulacra: Descartes with his mind in a vat.

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metastaseis1Over at the OOP (why do I always start singing “are you down with OPP” whenever I say this?), Graham expands on my post about Caesar. I’m having tremendous difficulty articulating what I’m trying to get at in a way that is accessible to others who have predominantly worked within hermeneutic or meaning-centered orientations of theory (I use this term generically to refer to any predominantly semiotic, semiological, hermeneutic, deconstructive, discursive, or sociological approach to theory), so it’s nice to see him nailing the issue somewhat towards the end of his post. As Graham puts it,

The best way to see the importance of this is to compare any ANT-type [actor-network-theory] reading of some historical event with a more reductive reading. In the latter case you’ll see histories claiming that “the Crusades were all about economics,” or in the other direction, “Pasteur brought light to the darkness and gave birth to a new, enlightened era of medicine.” In the ANT’ish case, you’ll always find something much more interesting and surprising– actors displaced from their original goals due to chance material obstacles, forced to translate their progress along strange paths that they never intended.

There has been a lot of protest against Latour’s use of the term “actor” to refer to anything from pebbles to human agents. However, I think Harman nails it here when he draws attention to the manner in which goals shift as a result of aleatory encounters among differences in a multiplicity. This is not simply a question of unanticipated consequences, but also about the manner in which goals shift in unanticipated ways and begin to develop in unexpected ways as a result of bringing things together in networks. Here, perhaps, we could distinguish between smooth spaces and gnarled spaces. A smooth space is a space you move through without any sort of friction or resistance. As a result, nothing stands in the way of envisioning a goal and executing it. By contrast, a gnarly space is populated by all sorts of singularities or differences that gradually lead to a transformation of the goals themselves.

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2679320745_92288d6246Melanie, over at the aleatorist, has a post up responding to a recent discussion between Bogost and myself. Melanie’s work focuses on the intersection between technology, media, and literature, tracking the manner in which technological shifts inform, without determining, literary production. In particular, Melanie draws attention to Luddite attitudes she encounters among many of her colleagues with respect to the new media and technologies:

There are many ways to show students that the current way they negotiate texts is not inherently weak. Sure, they might not read the same way as previous generations, they might not enter higher education with all the skills necessary to read critically, but these are skills that they work to acquire in college. As evidenced even in the layout of this neglected blog, I enjoy using concepts such as “constraint” and “play,” computer programming fundamentals like loops and subroutines, nested media realities and transmedia narratives, and contemporary visual culture and technology studies to help students negotiate literary texts and composition skills. Contrary to the academic lament that “students today don’t care about reading or writing” (a lament which, it’s worth noting, is not unique to our moment), I find that students have ample ability to negotiate complex narrative structures, shift in and out of perspectives, problem-solve, balance multi-tiered information–all skills enhanced by aspects of “growing up digital” and all uniquely attuned to literary studies.

I think Mel hits on something of central importance in her reference to laments among academics about students not caring about reading or writing. I have encountered this lament quite often among my colleagues as well, especially those who come from a background informed by Gadamerian hermeneutics and who practice philosophy through the analysis of the history of philosophy. It appears that something similar goes on in literary studies, where texts and a particular way of reading texts is privileged above all else. Faced with forms of textuality, writing, and communication that have come into prominence with the new internet technologies, it cannot but appear, from within this way of thinking, that we have fallen into states of decline. Rather than discerning the emergence of new ways of thinking, communicating, producing, feeling, and interacting, these new forms of textuality are instead seen as forms of decay and decline. We thus get a sort of Adornoesque Luddite narrative about how modern technology has led to a cultural decline that enslaves us all.

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The always intrepid Ian Bogost responds to yesterday’s Speculative Realism Roundup, remarking that,

Just for kicks, a possible objection to my own claim that the digital comfort of SR is an accident of timing more than a property of its positions:

As this very post illustrates, one of the demands of effective networked discourse is speed; online exchanges happen quickly or they disappear, lost in the noise of novelty. Another is tentativeness. One must be comfortable putting forward thoughts in gestation, in transition, knowing that they will shift and revise over time.

One might say that both speed and tentativeness are unappealing demands for both the analytic and continental traditions, the former thanks to its affinity for the precision of logic and mathematics, the latter thanks to its affinity for of discourse and language. Both efforts strive for a sort of perfect rendering of things, whether as friction-free Wittgensteinian proof or an exquisitely baroque Derridean lyric.

Is it possible that among SR advocates, whatever inner sense finds a rejection of correlationism appealing also makes no qualms about the rapid, experimental outpouring of possible notions given form in logic and language? Writing is still serious business for the speculative realist, to be sure, but so is the tea that steeps, the trousers that wrinkle, or — for that matter — the keyboard keys that depress while such writing takes place.

I really don’t have much to say in response to Ian’s thought here beyond free associations. One of the things I’ve noticed among many of my colleagues in recent years is a sort of outright hostility to the internet, text messaging, etc. The lament always has the form “these kids today…” and spirals into a diatribe about how they are unable to read, how they lack a knowledge of history, science, and are unable to write etc., etc., etc. I am always a bit shocked when I hear these diatribes, while nonetheless sympathizing with them on the writing end (grading these essays can be a miserable experience), because these diatribes are coming from the same folks that are intimately familiar with Plato’s Phaedrus. In other words, they sounds remarkably like Plato’s critique of the evils of writing. Thinkers like Walter Ong with his Orality and Literacy and Friedrich Kittler with his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, have, of course, introduced us to the thesis that communications technologies are not simply tools that leave the content of communication unaffected, but rather have a morphogenetic effect on the nature of that communication as well as cognitive structure. McLuhan makes similar observations in The Gutenburg Galaxy, and thinkers such as Simondon and more recently Stiegler in Time and Technics call into question the notion of τέχνη simply taking on form from human beings. Indeed, Marx had already observed the manner in which the factory had a morphogenetic effect on human bodies, generating a new type of subjectivity.

Simply put, the thesis would run that the person individuated within an oral culture thinks and experiences the world differently than a person individuated within a textual culture. Here there would be different structures of embodiment, cognition, affectivity, and so on. Likewise, it takes no great leap to conclude that perhaps similar differences emerge with respect to digital cultures. In this respect, it wouldn’t be that students are “stupid”, but rather that given this milieu of individuation, they have a different sort of cognitive, affective, and embodied relationship to the world. While this different structure makes reading Spinoza’s Ethics with them tough going as the Ethics requires a very different sort of cognitive temporality than the affective temporality prominent in our current visual and digital culture which is more rhizomatic and associative than deductive, it does not entail that these new forms of subjectivity are somehow less skilled or intelligent. Indeed, it is possible that the sort of affective-temporal structures of text-based structure are actually an impediment to thriving in visual-digital culture as they require a “keeping time” that simply is not available in the zipping technological space Ian alludes to. Rather than the mathematician or the scholar pouring over a text or problem for years or decades, the model of visual-digital culture is something closer to Jackie Chan who, like Charlie Chaplin, is able to make use of whatever environment he is thrown into at the time.

The new technologies thus pose all sorts of questions about the nature of contemporary discourse, thought, dialogue, affectivity, subjectivity, and interpersonal relations. Will we reach a point where we find reading a book every bit as difficult as reciting all of Homer’s Illiad? Yet here again, I think we find a case where correlationism comes up woefully short in providing us with the sorts of conceptual tools to explain the sort of world we live in. In its focus on the mind-world correlate, in its focus on how mind actively gives form to the world, it has a very difficult time theorizing how these sorts of milieus give form to various forms of embodiment, affectivity, temporality, subjectivity, and all the rest. Similarly, it is not clear that correlationist approaches have much of significance to say with respect to technology beyond reactionary, luddite platitudes about how it is corrupting us (perhaps, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s here). As Stiegler and Simondon argue, technology has taken on a sort of autonomy of its own, evolving and developing at its own pace and with respect to its own internal logic, in a way that can no longer be properly theorized in terms of human aims and intentions. In the absence of a clear understanding of that autonomy and its dynamics it’s very difficult to develop strategies for responding to this new world.

04121501_01In response to my post on Darwin’s Copernican revolution, Joe writes:

Is that to say that the individual is prior to the species then? I just wonder how easily this could pair itself with some liberal-capitalist bootstrapism with a human face, as with any number of naturalized consumerist gimmicks: from straight-up greenwashing that gets done in the name of LEED certification to hip inner-city farmers’ markets and their localist brand-campaigns, to sociobiology and its adaptationist apology for our historical misery. When you say that for Darwin there are only individual differences, my mind jumps to those little boxes you sometimes see at the cash-register that tell you that you can really make a difference by donating your change.

At the outset, I think it’s worth noting that it’s a mistake to let one’s politics dictate ones ontology. This is a bit like suggesting that we should reject the thesis that atoms are composed of electrons because we find something in this thesis politically objectionable. Nonetheless, I do sympathize with Joe’s concerns about liberal-capitalist political orientations. It is indeed true that Darwin adopts, for lack of a better word, a sort of “metaphysical nominalism” where only individual differences exist, and in which there is no difference in kind between individuals and species. However, it’s a mistake, I think, to leap from this thesis to the thesis of liberal-capitalist politics where we can reduce the social to atomistic individuals.

In my view, there are individuals at a variety of individuals at different levels of scale, and there are individuals embedded in or nested in other individuals. This is significant because it entails that you can have emergent systems (individuals at a larger level of scale) that exercise downward causality and constraint on individuals at a smaller level of scale. Take the example of a body. A body is composed of cells. Each of these cells is an individual in its own right. However, the body is itself an individual as well. Here we have individuals (cells) nested in another individual (the body). The body has system-specific powers and capacities that differ from those of an individual cell. Take one muscle cell, for example, and you don’t get much in the way of expressivity or strength. Network a bunch of muscle cells together and suddenly you get a face capable of making all sorts of different expressions and an am with the power to lift all sorts of objects.

However, it is not simply that we get emergent powers or affects from networks of individual cells, it is also that these networks exercise a constraining force on the individuals that compose it. In the example of cells, initially cells, in the course of development, begin as pluripotent. This is to say that early on cells have the capacity to be a variety of different types of cells such as nerve cells, bone cells, muscle cells, and tissue cells. How, then, do cells shift from this pluripotency to being irreversibly differentiated into particular type of cells? Cell differentiation occurs in networks of cells where cells chemically signal to one another turning the individual cells off and on in particular ways that lead to differentiation into muscle, nerve, tissue, and bone cells. In other words, the network takes on a constraining role with respect to the individual cells that compose it. Here we have a relationship between two individuals: the network of cells and an individual cells, where the organization of the former individual exercises downward causality on the individuals that compose it.

The problem with liberal-capitalist political theory lies not in the ontological category of the individual, but rather in the manner in which it restricts the ontological category of the individual to human subjects, ignoring and failing to recognize individuals at different levels of scale and the relationship between these different levels of scale. For this reason, it ends up being blind to network specific forms of organization that play a constraining role with respect to individual human subjects, or the manner in which individuals at a higher level of scale play a regulating role with respect to their elements through processes of negative feedback. It thus turns out that questions of scale and emergence are key issues for any object-oriented philosophy.

Somewhere or other, Deleuze remarks that Darwin effects a Copernican revolution for thought. Yet in many respects, it seems that this revolution has gone almost completely unremarked in philosophy. In short, this revolution has scarcely been registered by philosophy. Here it is important to be precise. The claim that Darwin effected a Copernican revolution in thought does not refer to his magnificent contributions to biology. Nor is the suggestion that philosophy should become “Darwinistic”, reducing philosophical questions to questions of biology.

Rather, Darwin’s revolution is far more general and abstract. Setting aside his theory of biological speciation, Darwin’s contribution to philosophy resides in his understanding of difference. It could be said that Darwin’s motto is that individual difference makes the difference. Where, prior to Darwin, there was a sharp gulf separating difference inhabiting the individual and species-difference, Darwin shows how individual difference is productive of species-difference. In the former scheme, the individual and the species were understood as two distinct entities, with the species functioning as an ideal norm defining individuals, an essence, distinct and existing in its own right, and individuals being measured in terms of how closely they approach this ideal form.

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