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Over at Jon Coburn’s blog, we have been having an interesting and productive discussion about normativity that has, I believe, clarified (at least for me) a number of issues and helped to define some basic differences. Apart from some brief moments of ugliness that led to an unexpected and very welcome burying of the hatchet between Mikhail and I, the comments accompanying this post are, I think, a good read. I had been working under the impression that normativity was synymous with deontological ethics (no doubt because it’s only ever people deeply influenced by Kant that I hear raising issues about normativity as a cornerstone to theory), but I’ve been disabused of this notion and assured that it refers to something far broader. I outline some of my own problems with Kantian deontological approaches to ethical questions, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Pete Wolfendale has promised to write a post about this, which I very much look forward to as I’ve found myself perplexed for years as to just what all the ruckus is about and why it’s considered so important to those coming primarily out of the Frankfurt School (here it’s important to qualify that Pete tackles these issues not so much from the Frankfurt School perspective, but from the Brandomian perspective).

Over the course of discussion, one of the claims that was made by “anonymous” is that discussions of normativity are primarily about the metaphysics of meaning. As anonymous puts it,

The problem, so far as I see it, is that this very discussion — the one you want to have about normativity — can’t even get off the ground until we all realize that normative ethics isn’t a metaethics, that a metaethics is not coextensive with normativity, and normativity is largely an issue concerning the METAPHYSICS OF MEANING, the basic nature of rationality, and a structuring feature of our shared world. It is, as Jon pointed out precisely Humes problem concerning the medium of imperceptible necessary connections.

Pete very quickly followed this up, qualifying anonymous’ suggestion, emphasizing that it is about “the metaphysics of meaning or lack thereof” and that normativity pertain to discussions about correctness and incorrectness.

Now, it seems to me, coming at these issues from my Luhmannian perspective, that the concept of meaning is necessarily more basic and primordial than either notions of correctness and incorrectness, or issues of rationality. From an object-oriented standpoint, one of the reasons I’m attracted to Luhmann’s systems theory is that it emphasizes the autonomy and independence of systems, along with their closure. While systems do enter into relations with other systems, these relations are external and systems are independent entities.

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Over at Jon Cogburn’s blog, Pete Wolfendale has written a lengthy response to one of my comments. I’ve decided to respond here as, for some reason, I’m unable to blockquote comments over at Jon’s blog, making it more difficult to formulate responses. Pete writes:

The idea of translation is a nice metaphor, but that’s what it is – a metaphor – and it needs cashing out. The simplest way to cash it out is that the effect the affecting object has upon the affected object is in some way dependent upon the affected object, i.e., that the same object will produce different affects upon different things. However, this is something that everyone accepts, and they can accept it without having to talk about ‘real objects’ or ‘proper being’ that withdraws. Maybe you can enlighten me as to the correct stronger way to cash this out, and how this solves any of these issues.

Hopefully Pete will be happy to discover that I “cash” this concept out in great detail in chapter four of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Interior of Objects”. Before proceeding to briefly discuss how I cash this concept out, it’s necessary to make two points. First, it’s necessary to note that there are a number of ways in which Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology differ. Second, it’s necessary to explain why I hold that these questions can only adequately be comprehended in terms of a model of withdrawal. The simplest way of explaining why objects must be thought in terms of withdrawal goes back to Aristotle’s concept of substance. In his account of primary substances in the Categories and Metaphysics Z, Aristotle is careful to note that substances are not identical to either their qualities or their parts. I discuss this in detail in chapter 2 of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Paradox of Substance”.

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Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

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Recently Mel’s got me reading Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which is rewarding for a variety of reasons (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read this long ago, but damn it Jim, I mean Mel, I’m a philosopher not a cultural theorist!). First, at one of her recent talks she spoke favorably about OOO, so its worthwhile to return the favor and delve into her work so as to see the points of productive cross-over between these different theoretical projects. Second, it’s hands down a first rate book that ably defends a highly provocative and timely thesis, despite being published in 1999. And finally, it’s reminding me of all sorts of things from cybernetics, systems theory, and autopoietic theory that mesh nicely with the ontology of objects I’m groping towards. In particular, Hayles’ analysis sheds light on what it might mean to refer to objects as “withdrawn” or entirely autonomous from one another.

Hayles begins How We Became Posthuman by distinguishing between first, second, and third way cybernetics. First wave cybernetics focused on the phenomenon of feedback or how systems are self-regulating. As described by the online dictionary of cybernetics and systems, feedback is,

A flow of information back to its origin. A circular causal process in which a system’s output is returned to its input, possibly involving other systems in the loop. Negative feedback or deviation reducing feedback decreases the input and is inherently stabilizing (see stability, regulation, homeostasis), e.g., the governor of a steam engine. Positive feedback or deviation amplifying feedback increases the input and is inherently destabilizing, explosive or vicious, e.g., the growth of a city when more people create new opportunities which in turn attract more people to live there. Feedback is not the term for a response to a stimulus rather for the circularity implied in both. (Krippendorff)

The example of the growing city above is an example of positive feedback. By contrast, we can think of the humble thermostat as a system organized in terms of negative feedback. Here the issue is one of maintaining a particular homeostasis within the system. Thus, you set your heat for the desired temperature. When room temperature drops below that set point, the heater kicks on and runs until it rises to the set temperature, shutting off once again.

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octopusWhenever the concept of memes comes up it seems that people get really incensed. I’m baffled by this reaction. What is it about this concept that gets folks so worked up? I certainly understand the point that meme theory is underdeveloped, but this is a call for theoretical elaboration and development, not outright rejection. I get the sense that memes get some worked up for one of two reasons. On the one hand, I sometimes sense that hostility to the concept of memes is really driven by disciplinary territory disputes. Here you have the upstarts like Dawkins and Dennett come along, spout the word “memes”, and suddenly everyone yahoo that knows nothing about social theory or the broad and deep discipline of semiotics gets all excited. I wonder whether there isn’t a little of resentment and envy at work here. On the other hand, I get the sense that some associate memes with socio- and psychobiology (more on this in a moment).

From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, I find meme theory extremely attractive precisely because meme theory treats memes as real objects or actors in the world. Here, more specifically, are the reasons that I find memes attractive:

praying-mantis-cannabilism-eating-mate1) Far from falling into vulgar socio- and psychobiology, meme theory allows us to tell a far more complex story about human beings and behavior. The central thesis of meme theory is that at some point in human biological history a new type of replicator emerged in contrast to gene replicators. Genes are replicators in the sense that they are units of some sort that get copied or replicated through reproduction. Under Dawkin’s formulation, at least, the “aim” of genes is not the advantage of the organism, but to get themselves copied through reproduction. In this respect, genes construct vehicles (bodies, organisms) as strategies for getting themselves replicated.

Just as we do not act primarily for the welfare of our cars but use cars for our own aims, genes aren’t primarily “interested” in the welfare of bodies or organisms. This comes out with special clarity in the case of the preying mantis, but also my favorite animal, the octopus. In the case of the preying mantis, of course, the female devours the male preying mantis’s head after mating with him. In contributing half his genes the male has done his work. His sole value after mating consists in contributing nutrients to the impregnated preying mantis. Moreover, were the male to go his happy way after mating he might mate with other females, generating dangerous competitors to the offspring of his first mate. Cruel world. The case is similar with the octopus. After the female octopus is impregnated she finds a well protected cave or pipe and lays her eggs around the mouth of the cave opening. For the next few weeks after laying her eggs she never again leaves the cave, but rather spends all of her time jetting water over the egg sacks hanging from the cave opening and cleaning the eggs with her tentacles. Once the eggs hatch the female octopus is free to leave the cave, but at this point she is so weakened from lack of food (she hasn’t hunted during this whole time) and is very quickly, and somewhat ironically, devoured by the fish and crabs that she previously feasted upon. Once again, the genes of the female octopus were not acting on her behalf, but rather she was a vehicle or strategy for getting her genes replicated. When that replication is complete her job is done. Cruel world.

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Just a quick note before I get down to grading. In response to my post on the game of life, Carl writes:

I’m not sure I’m on board with this:

[O]ne of the reasons I find the ideas so attractive is precisely that meme theory treats signs as objects. Rather than treating signs as mere representations of something else, meme theory treats signs themselves as objective reality. So unlike common views of language where you have one thing, the world of objects, and another things, the world of signs representing objects, in meme theory you have one flat plane where there are physical objects and signs as well.

Well, other than getting to call things ‘objects’ rather than calling things things, what’s the advantage here? I see that we clean out the mediating discourse of ‘representation’, but if the ’signifier’ kind of object doesn’t occur without the ’sign’ kind, and neither occurs without the ’signified’ kind, isn’t there an important and realistic claim about the nature of those objectivities embedded in the idea of representation that is simply obscured by flattening the ontology?

I’m still working out how far I’m willing to go with the whole treatment of signs as objects move as things get complicated very quickly. This was a move that Dan recently proposed in comments, and which I’ve been pushing for quite some time under the mantra that language is not simply about something, but also is something. This move could be called, in honor of Freud, the “psychotic move”, for as Freud observed in his essay “The Unconscious”, schizophrenics treat words as things. Under this model, signs would not be representations of things, but rather would enter into relations with or assemblages with things. This might nicely account for the fluidity of reference in a number of respects. Part of this move follows from a self-reflexive demand of my own philosophy. Insofar as I’m trying to break down the whole distinction between nature and mind that’s vexed philosophy since the 17th century, this leads to the conclusion that any philosophy (or other cultural artifacts) is itself an assemblage of objects. The question then becomes that of determining what sorts of peculiar objects signs are and how these function.

I suspect that anthropologists– and I feel very bad about my recent exchange with Jerry –are critical of memes for the same reason that I was critical of memes when I first encountered the theory about five years ago: Here we have these undereducated cowboys claiming to have discovered a whole new realm of investigation– memes –when we have had semiotics and linguistics for decades now. When you read Dawkins and Dennett on memes you get the sense that they are reinventing the wheel, and in a number of instances poorly. Dawkins baldly admits somewhere or other that he doesn’t know enough about the social sciences, linguistics, and cultural theory to know how well his theory resonates with their findings. In a number of respects, I think the meme theorist stands to learn far more from the semiotician (and cultural theorists like the anthropologist) than the semiotician has to learn from the meme theorist.

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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.

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