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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Oh man, I’m a sucker for diagrams of any sort. Here’s a sample from Graham’s next book:


It’s extremely cruel to provide a sample of an alluring and enigmatic diagram without providing a commentary on what it does or how it works.

UPDATE: Harman provides a brief commentary on how he’s thinking about his diagrams here. I’ll have to think through this more, but my initial impression is that this is really exciting stuff. I confess that his theory of vicarious causation and his analysis of the four-fold are the aspects of his ontology that have left me most scratching my head. Just the first of the ten diagrams and the brief gloss on it already shed a lot of light on the latter (for me anyway) and are highly suggestive with respect to the former. In the post Harman writes:

The danger with diagrammatic systems of this sort, when new, is that you’re always within a few inches of looking like a goof or a crank cooking up homebrewed philosophical systems in the basements and attics of the internet. What you have to do to avoid that impression is keep on reminding the reader of the absolutely compelling considerations that lead gradually to a model of this sort. It is the (for now) end result of many years of reflection, and I’m already becoming more comfortable playing with it and getting new results out of it.

Perhaps it’s just my Lacanian and Badouian ways, but I tend to think that formalization is a mark of the real. Lacan liked to say that it is only through formalization that we manage to grasp a bit of the real. I emphasize the “bit” because the Lacanian thesis, like the object-oriented thesis, is that we never entirely, completely, or transparently grasp the real.

This reference allows me to make a nice ontological self-reflexive point about Graham’s diagrams. One of Harman’s core claims is that objects withdraw from one another or never directly encounter one another. This is the Kantian moment in Harman’s ontology. Where Kant holds that we never have direct access to the thing-in-itself, emphasizing the relationship between mind and thing-in-itself, Harman generalizes this thesis to all relations between things, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. This is precisely why Harman’s ontology, despite being an ontological realism is also an epistemological anti-realism. In my own ontology, I refer to this general feature of things with the concept of “translation”. As Gadamer (and Quine) taught us, every translation is a transformation. When I re-situate something from a source-language into an object-language in the process of translating it, the object-language does not leave the original unchanged but produces something new. Finnegan’s Wake is not the same book in French that it is in English. This, incidentally, is the reason that we’ll always need new translations of great texts. Like Harman, I generalize this feature of translation as it pertains to language to all objects, viewing all interactions between objects as forms of translation where one thing transforms the differences it receives from another thing. I thus arrive at a very similar conclusion regarding the thing-in-itself. The grounds of the Kantian hypothesis about the inaccessibility of the in-itself are not to be located in epistemology, but are ontological features of any relations between things, regardless of whether minds are involved or not. The point then I’m trying to make about diagrams is that they are ways of “alluring” or evoking the real. They are mechanisms of, in my vernacular, translation that bring some bit of the real into relief or coax it out of its hiding.

68Z0aBelow is the paper I presented at the RMMLA this morning. We had large audiences for the two Deleuze panels, great discussions, and my paper was very well received. My only regret is that I couldn’t really get into the details of Deleuze’s understanding of simulacra as “signal-sign systems” as the paper would have been twice as long, so I had to focus on his critique of Platonism. It’s absolutely gorgeous here in the mountains of Utah, though I’ve had a wicked headache since arriving as a result of the altitude. Hopefully that will go away by tomorrow. I should also add that I wrote this paper at the airport and on the flight here, so a number of my allusions are unreferenced. Go easy on me! At any rate, without further ado…

Interpretation hits the real.
~J. Lacan

The simulacrum enjoys a short life in Deleuze’s thought. Appearing primarily in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, the concept then disappears in his later thought. This is not, of course, so unusual in Deleuze’s work. As has often been observed, each of Deleuze’s texts creates a new conceptual constellation. However, later, in interview, Deleuze will remark that the concept of the simulacrum was a poorly formed, while nonetheless giving no explanation or account of just how this concept was poorly formed. In my view, if Deleuze was led to abandon the concept of the simulacrum, this was not for reasons pertaining to the endo-consistency of the concept or its ability to attain a coherence and consistency allowing it to stand and support itself, but rather for rhetorical reasons pertaining to phenomena of resonance and echoes within the philosophical tradition of representation. This rhetorical situation or set of exo-relations within the tradition of representation only intensified with the appearance of Baudrillard’s work which made the simulacrum its key concept, but in a sense directly opposed to Deleuze’s own intentions in mobilizing the concept. Where Baudrillard mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum diagnostically as a symptom of our times in a war against representation and the real, Deleuze, while sharing Baudrillard’s war against representation, mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of the real. In short, Deleuze mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of a realist ontology. If, then, there is a problem with the concept of the simulacrum, this problem is to be found at the level of the plane of expression where the signifier “simulacrum” continues to resonate all too easily with both the logic of representation and anti-realist thought that has dominated philosophy since the late 17th century.

From the beginning of his work until the end, Deleuze dismisses the thesis that metaphysics is at an end or that it has exhausted itself. This affirmation of metaphysics should be taken seriously. Since Heidegger, there has been an unfortunate tendency within Continental thought to conflate metaphysics with onto-theology and philosophies of presence. Rather than following a path of thought that would metaphysically overturn onto-theology and the primacy of presence, the decision was instead made to either a) abandon metaphysics altogether in favor of humanist correlationism, or b) attempt to achieve, as in the case of Heidegger, a passage beyond metaphysics to something called thinking. By contrast, to affirm the possibility of metaphysics is to affirm realist ontology against the correlationisms that have come to dominate philosophy, suturing being and the world to the condition of the human. Within the constellation of French thought arising out of the late 60s, Deleuze is singular in this affirmation of metaphysics.

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illustration-map_largeNick Srnicek has posted his Goldsmith’s talk “Framing Militancy” (warning pdf) over at his academic webpage. Nick hints at certain thoughts he’s developing at the intersection of Laruelle’s non-philosophy and actor-network theory. From my perspective, the paper is of interest as it raises questions of how we are to think a networked subject, and also raises questions about how to strategize change within networks. Over at Speculative Heresy he remarks that the paper received mixed reactions. I wonder how much of this had to do with selecting the neoliberal subject to illustrate the formation of a networked subjectivity, coupled with his reformist stance.

These reservations aside, I think there’s a good deal of interest in the paper. In particular, the three ideas with which Nick opens his paper leap out at me. Nick writes:

-My interest right now is in reformatting the politics of continental philosophy, away from its tendency towards grand abstractions, and focusing it more towards grappling with the concrete contours of the world.

-I take it that this basic imperative follows from three ideas:

(1) Non-philosophy’s insistence that it is the real which determines its own objectification in thought. In other words, the reality of any particular political situation is what must be allowed and permitted to determine its own thought.

(2) Actor-network theory’s idea of ‘empirical metaphysics’ – the idea that we can’t predetermine what entities are operating in a particular situation, and who is responsible for what actions. This means, for instance, getting rid of the idea of a pre-established revolutionary actor.

(3) Lastly, the imperative to work within the networks we’re embedded in stems from the materialist belief that thought is not the medium through which objects appear, but rather thought is an object alongside other objects. Theory, in other words, cannot be independent of its physical and social conditioning.

When I read these three inspirations, I find it difficult not to see at base what OOO is advancing in the domain of political thought. A good deal of my shift to SR and OOO was motivated by the desire to escape these sorts of grand abstraction to get closer to what I referred to in another post as “the rustle of being“. In the domain of political ontology, this rustle of being would be concrete social assemblages of persons, institutions, technologies, geography, signs, and so on. It is difficult to present an abstract theoretical account of what assemblages such as this look like. You have to actually read analyses of this sort. Good examples would be Latour’s Pateurization of France, Braudel’s magnificent (and mind numbingly boring! but in oh so good a way) Capitalism & Civilization, Bogost’s analysis of the history of game engines in Unit Operations, or Luc Boltanski’s and Eve Chiapello’s analysis of network capitalism in The New Spirit of Capitalism.

The sense here is that concepts like “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” are, as Deleuze might say, far too baggy to do real work in political ontology. They don’t tell us anything specific about the organization of real situations, and thus leave the activist and theoretician feeling as if they are grasping after elusive dark matter or ghosts, producing a sense of impotence and tragedy. The point here is that you have to know how the actual situation you’re in is concretely structured to strategize engagement within that situation.

In this spirit, I fully endorse Nick’s Laruellian imperative, though it seems to me that this imperative is more Lacanian or Marxist, than Laruellian. All to often, I think, political thought begins from the standpoint of a pre-established set of normative postulates, creating an alienating rift between the multitude and the intellectual that claims to speak for the multitude. Within the Lacanian framework, the situation is entirely different. The analyst does not begin with a pre-defined set of norms defining what is good or bad for the analysand. She does not harbor a wish or desire for the analysand to accomplish some specific thing like career success, freedom from false consciousness, self-awareness, greater empathy towards others, etc. Rather, the analysand attempts to situate herself as an advocate of the analysand’s desire, functioning as a sort of midwife of that desire. Any norms or values that emerge over the course of analysis are not there at the outset, but are the analysand’s creation over the course of analysis. In this respect, it is the object that determines thought– in the case of the clinic, objet a –not the analyst that comes to the analytic setting with a set of formula as to what the analysand should be. Of course, as both Lacan and Freud liked to emphasize that analysis is an impossible art, but insofar as the real is the impossible, this is to say that analysis operates from the real.

The case is similar with genuine Marxism. Marx was deeply hostile towards what he called “utopian socialism”. You will find remarks about utopian socialism, dripping with disdain and sarcasm, scattered throughout almost all of his work. Again the case is here similar to that of the Lacanian clinic. Marx’s “utopian socialism” is Lacan’s “ego psychologist”. Just as the ego psychologist begins with a set of normative assumptions as to what is good for the analysand, even further alienating the analysand from his desire, the “utopian socialist” begins with a model of society or a set of ahistorical, normative ideals of what the social should be, thereby rendering him deaf to the desire embodied in the socius or the voice of the socius itself. This is the major difference between materialist socialism and utopian socialism. Where utopian socialism begins from the position that it has a privileged knowledge of what the social order should be and arrives at this model either based on some religious inspiration, or some sort of a prioristic reasoning, the materialist socialist begins from the premise that norms and values arises from historical situations themselves and that the task of the political ontologist is to hear these tendencies or potentialities within the social order and assist in giving voice to these tendencies. Unlike the norm based theorist or the ahistorical deontologist, the materialist socialist allows thought to be determined by the real, not the reverse.

Lacan liked to say that the analyst plays dead with respect to the analysand. In saying this Lacan meant that the analyst sets aside his own desires so that the desire of the analysand might come to speech. In this respect, the analyst subordinates herself to her analysand. She consents to occupy the position of the object or objet a. Similarly, in genuine Marxist thought, the role of the theorist should be like that of an analyst, where the theorist agrees to play dead with respect to the social order. A theoretical work in political ontology, in this respect, should look more like a Freudian case study than Freud’s essays on metapsychology.

Perhaps thinkers and artists shouldn’t be evaluated by influences within their art or discipline, so much as by their idiosyncratic fetishes and obsessions that fall outside of their work. What are we to make, for example, of Graham’s obsession with Gibbon? As I read Harman’s daily posts about Gibbon, I can’t help but feel that I’m encountering something purely singular and inarticulable. As Graham himself would admit, I’m sure, there is something deeply libidinal in this obsession, a jouissance that falls outside of language, even though it seems to be all about language. If the suggestion of a jouissance outside of language that is all about language seems paradoxical, we need only think of Joyce’s final work. As Lacan observed, Finnegans Wake is a pure jouissance, a sinthome rather than a symptom.

Where a symptom is either a metaphorical substitution or a metonymical displacement susceptible to interpretation, a sinthome is a jouissance that admits of no interpretation. Lacan, perhaps influenced by Deleuze and Guattari, referred to the sinthome as a haecceity. When a woman continuously has fits in public where she falls down and where there’s no medical condition that accompanies this malady, we probably won’t be far off the mark in concluding that the signifier “fallen woman” is at work somewhere in her unconscious. This symptom is a message to the Other, indicating perhaps the manner in which she has betrayed her desire. The sinthome by contrast, does not function in this way. When Lacan says Joyce cannot be interpreted, he is not saying that he is so difficult that his work defies any analysis. Clearly this is not the case. What he is saying is that the relation to language in Joyce is that of the sinthome or a pure jouissance in language itself, without this language being organized around a series of metaphorical and metonymical substitutions that would allow for an interpretive master key. And indeed, to read the late Joyce you have to read him at this level. If you are looking for meaning in Joyce’s later work (i.e., the relation between the Imaginary and the Symbolic), you’re going to be tremendously frustrated and outraged. Joyce has to be enjoyed at the level of the rustle of his language itself, at the level of the texture of that language. While the later work of Joyce is capable of producing a great deal of meaning (it’s almost like hyper-text), it does not contain pre-delineated meaning that would lie beneath the shimmer of the text as its secret key.

This is what I have in mind when I refer to analyzing a thinker in terms of his or her obsessions and fetishes rather than their intellectual influences. While I am sure Graham gets all sorts of things from his forays into Gibbon, there’s something else going on here. What are we to make of this jouissance? What does it say about Graham’s jouissance? Graham has often remarked on my unusually high tolerance for dealing with assholes, for my tendency to get into ridiculous discussions and debates that are of little or no worth. What does this say of my jouissance? What are we to make of Zizek’s obsession with film or Bogost’s love of video games? Or how about Shaviro’s delight with science fiction and Harold & Kumar? We all find ways to integrate our jouissance with our work, yet jouissance is always strangely outside of that work. If someone some day writes a biography of Harman there will be endless perplexity and debate about the place of Gibbon in his thought. And that’s exactly how it is with jouissance. Beyond what is transmissible about a person, it is the haecceity of a person, never summarizable in a single feature or obsession, but fractally present throughout all acts of that person, functioning as a sort of ghostly mark of that which withdraws from all relation and interpretation.

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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The Onticological Dialectic

Like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, onticology has its onticological analytic and its onticological dialectic. However, where Kant’s transcendental analytic and dialectic deals with structures of cognition so as to answer the question “how are synthetic a priori propositions possible?”, the onticological analytic and dialectic is concerned with the being of objects. The onticological analytic is concerned with the internal structure of objects independent of their relation to anything else. It is objects as they exist from the “inside”. Unlike Kant’s Transcendental Doctrine of Elements where a distinction is drawn between the transcendental aesthetic and the transcendental analytic, or where intuition/sensibility and understanding/concepts are distinguished, the onticological analytic collapses this distinction. Much of the arguments for this thesis are already developed in my Difference and Givenness. The content of the onticological analytic will not become entirely clear until The Democracy of Objects is published. However, forerunners of the endo-relational structure of objects would be Leibniz’s notion of “monads”, Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of “actual occasions”, Latour’s understanding of objects as “entelechies” in Irreductions, DeLanda’s understanding of multiplicities and attractors in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, Deleuze’s account of virtual multiplicities, and Harman’s account of withdrawn or vacuum packed objects.

Where the onticological analytic deals with the interior world or endo-consistency of objects, with their being as processes or organisms, the onticological dialectic is concerned with relations between objects or what happens when one object relates to another object. The onticological dialectic is thus interested in processes of translation. Translation refers to what happens when an object receives a difference from another object. Plants, for example, translate photons of sunlight into sugar through photosynthesis. One of the central theses of onticology is that no object receives the difference or act of another object without translating that difference. In other words, every object transforms the differences that it receives from other objects in the world.

Latour expresses this point beautifully in a rather Leibnizian moment of Irreductions in the second half of The Pasteurization of France. There Latour writes,

1.2.8 Every entelechy makes a whole world for itself. It locates itself and all the others; it decides which forces it is composed of; it generates its own time; it designates those who will be its principle of reality. It translates all the other forces on its own behalf, and it seeks to make them accept the version of itself that it would like them to translate.

“Entelechy” is Latour’s all purpose word for “object”. Persons are entelechies. Societies are entelechies. Rocks are entelechies. The particles composing rocks are entelechies. Each, claims Leibniz is an object that defines a boundary between itself and the world (sound like an autopoietic system?), and each transforms the differences it receives from the world in its own particular way. Once again, sunlight becomes sugar for the plant. Latour goes on to ask,

1.2.9. Is it a force of which we speak? Is it a force that speaks? Is it an actor made to speak by another? Is it an interpretation or the object itself? Is it a text or a world? We cannot tell, because this is what we struggle about, the building of a whole word.

* What those who use hermeneutics, exegesis, or semiotics say of texts can be said of all weakness. For a long time it has been agreed that the relationship between one text and another is always a matter for interpretation. Why not accept that this is also true between so-called texts and so-called objects, and that even between so-called objects themselves?

If one does not like the term “translation” to describe the manner in which objects relate to the differences of other objects, then the word “interpretation” will do as well. Each monad, entelechy, actual occasion, objectile, or object interprets the world about it. There is no difference that does not make a difference. Not only does a difference received make a difference to the internal organization of the object or entelechy by selecting a system state within that organization, but additionally a difference is made in the sense that the difference received is received not as identical, but as transformed, interpreted, or translated by the internal organization of the object receiving the difference. There is no such thing as a docile body.

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