Marx


One of the things I’m particularly interested in accounting for is why, if objects are always distinct from whatever qualities they might happen to actualize or manifest at a given point in time and space. Here the concept of manifestation or actualization should not be confused with experience. There can, of course, be no experience without actualization of some sort, without exo-relations of some sort, but the category or dimension of local manifestation or actualization is broader than the category of experience. Local manifestation or actualization takes place throughout the universe, but experience does not. Local manifestation is thus an ontological category, not an epistemological category. Local manifestation is not the givenness of an object to a subject or a receiver, but is rather one half of the real with respect to objects.

If, then, local manifestation is not givenness, then what is it and why is it local? Local manifestation is that domain of being or existence composed entirely of events and nothing but events. As I argued in my post “The Mug Blues“, qualities of an object are not predicates or possessions of an object, but are rather verbs or actions on the part of an object. Qualities of an object are not something an object is but something an object does. Thus, for example, it would be a mistake to say that my blue coffee mug is blue. Why? Because the color of my mug changes depending on the lighting conditions. In bright sunlight the mug is a brilliant and radiant blue. When I share a romantic moment with my mug– yes I’m polymorphously perverse and have a pathetic romantic life (philosophers seldom fare well in that department, wonder if there’s a connection here) –and enjoy a cup of coffee by candlelight while listening to Barry White, my mug is a deep, flat blue. When I turn out the lights, the mug is black.

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Over at Networkologies Chris has graciously responded to my post last night here and here. I very much appreciate Vitale’s clarifications and apologies. I take charges of object-oriented ontology being in league with neo-liberal ideology and capitalism very seriously. When OOO first started to make a strong appearance in the blogosphere, it was not unusual to hear it charged with being somehow an apologetics for neoliberal ideology. I don’t think these are innocent charges or mere misunderstandings, but are, for anyone who understands what capitalism has done to this world, extremely grave charges.

This criticism seemed to come primarily from those deeply influenced by Zizek who advocate what I view to be an extremely idiosyncratic form of Marxism. And if I refer to this Marxism as idiosyncratic, then this is because economics is entirely absent in his thought (despite his protestations to the contrary in The Parallax View), because any meditation on technology or class is absent from his thought, because any discussion of resources and their role is absent, and because everything is reduced to the level of the signifier and an entirely idealist conception of the real (“the real is an effect of the symbolic”). Part of what happens here, I think, is a transcription of Latour’s views about Marxist thought (he rejects it), onto what onticology is up to. Here I think Latour is just plain wrong and that Marx is a lot closer to Annales School models of analysis that so deeply influenced ANT than Latour is willing to suggest.

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In thinking through the strange mereology of object-oriented ontology I’ve been particularly fascinated by the example of couples. Subtractive variants of object-oriented ontology are all agreed, I believe, that objects are independent of the parts that make them up. When I refer to “subtractive object-oriented ontology”, I am referring to the positions of Harman, Bogost, and myself where it is held that objects are independent and autonomous from their relations. Subtractive OOO is thus to be contrasted with relationist object-oriented ontology, where objects are held to be real, yet nonetheless possess domestic or internal relations to all other objects in the world.

Insofar as all objects are necessarily aggregates of other objects, it follows that objects cannot exist without their parts. However, while subtractive variants of OOO concede that objects cannot exist without their parts and that, indeed, one way of destroying an object is through the destruction of its parts, nonetheless objects are independent of the parts that compose them. In other words, objects cannot be reduced to their parts. The parts of an object are themselves objects that have their own autonomy and life. The larger object composed out of these parts is another object that has its own autonomy and life. If this is the case, then it is because parts of an object can come and go, while the object remains. Thus, for example, we might argue that the parts of the United States are the citizens of the United States. However, citizens are born and die and sometimes renounce their citizenship, yet the United States remains. Moreover, it is possible for someone to be a citizen of the United States without knowing anything about the United States or that the United States exists. Indeed, we are often a part of objects without scarcely knowing we are part of these objects. This is why sociology renders a service in revealing the way in which we’re entangled in larger scale objects that effect our lives in a variety of ways without being aware that we’re part of these objects.

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How about Capitalism: The Video Game? Designed within the framework of Marxist social and economic theory, this game would be organized around the interplay of the state, law, morality, economy, the environment, technology, ideology, population dynamics, infrastructure, and the triad of production, distribution, and consumption, as well as the incredibly different logics of C-M-C and M-C-M and how the interplay of these two logics reinforce certain collective structures.. It would plot the point where contradictions or crises emerge within a system and how they function. The nature side wouldn’t simply look at the impact of capitalism on nature but would also include random events and crises, plotting how the relations respond to these eruptions. The game could even run from primitive accumulation to advanced capitalism and beyond. And perhaps one could play the simulation from either the point of a capitalist in pursuit of ever receding surplus-value or a worker attempting to survive this system.

Responding to Graham’s talk at Dundee, Reid has a terrific post up discussing the manner in which Marxist materialism differs from reductive materialisms that trace back to the atomism of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. In many respects, Reid’s remarks come very close to a number of the central intuitions of OOO and onticology where social and political thought are concerned. These intuitions revolve around hoisting social and political thought from its almost exclusive focus on what I call the semiotic, to take into account other domains of collectives and the role they play in social formations. Thus Reid writes:

Materialism in Marx’s sense is neither a metaphysical nor an epistemological doctrine; it is not a philosophical doctrine or theory in any ordinary sense. Rather, it is a meta-philosophical doctrine about the relation between philosophy and its material conditions of possibility. In this regard, both the content of philosophical discourse and the methodological form of that discourse must be referred to the conditions under which philosophical practice occurs. Material conditions in this regard can begin quite narrowly: philosophy requires various material and institutional supports, from universities and publishing houses down to brains and paper. But these conditions, of course, never exist in isolation, and depend upon a certain mode of production that not only conditions their genesis, but their distribution, maintenance, etc. Ultimately, philosophical practice depends upon a broad economic, political, and social condition that enables it to occur, whatever its function within society may be.

The point here is that we can’t focus on the discursive or ideological alone, but must take into account the role that nonhumans play in the collectives within which we find ourselves. Reid drives this point home a moment later when he writes:

Because philosophy always operates under a specific material condition, materialist philosophy must be attentive to the specificity of its relation to this condition. This relation is not necessarily manifest in theoretical content, but it certainly is in the practice through which this content is produced. For example, as a graduate student at a university, I have a specific relation to the political-economic mode conditioning my philosophical work: I take out loans, I pay tuition, I work, I have limited resources whose use is determined by administrators with whom I have limited contact, etc. The central concern of materialism in this regard is not the content of one’s position, which becomes relatively equivocal, but the practical form of its production. The content would become a concern if it were used to justify a particular practice of philosophy. It is on this basis that Marx so strongly condemns all varieties of philosophical idealism, especially Hegel, which in his eyes amount to an apologetics for idealism about philosophy, or the thesis that the practices conditioning philosophical thought are either no concern for philosophy, or must necessarily be as they are for philosophical activity to proceed (Hegel would advocate a variant of the latter).

There’s a lot more there (some of which I’m not entirely in agreement, but which is nonetheless very good), so read the rest here.

All of this brings to mind a beautiful diagram I came across in David Harvey’s sublime Companion to Marx’s Capital. There Harvey seeks to diagram the relations involved in those collectives that involve humans (it’s also important to recall that there are collectives that don’t involve humans at all). The powerful feature of Harvey’s diagram is that in mapping the interrelations between elements that belong to collectives in which humans participate, he expands that field of relations well beyond an obsessive focus on representation, the semiotic, the ideological, or the linguistic. The domain of representation is one element in these collectives, but only one. In addition representation we get nature, technology, modes of production, social relations, and the reproduction of daily life.

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[Update: The title of this post has been changed because apparently the term "value" attracts every spam outlet under the sun, leading to a few hundred links to bargain sites. Yikes!]

Over at Hyper Tiling Fabio has an excellent post up relating his impressions of Dundee. I confess that I’m extremely sad that I was unable to attend the conference. So it goes. A couple of remark in Fabio’s post caught my eye. Fabio writes:

Objects – this term, of course, has been powerfully (and almost single-handedly) thrown back into philosophical language by the work of Graham Harman and its creative synthesis of Latour/Husserl/Heidegger that goes under the name of –precisely– object-oriented Philosophy. I confess to have mixed feelings about Harman’s project, for if I (like many others) have been seduced by his —rhetorically vibrant— exhortations regarding the need for philosophy to break out of its correlationist constraints (the well known ‘fire-cotton’ rhetoric), and by his vigorous and fresh way of philosophizing, I remain (shame on me!) a relationist at heart, finding Latour’s hybrid actors more seductive entities than Harman’s vacuum-sealed objects.

I’m interested in hearing Fabio say more as to just what he means when he calls himself a relationist. Nothing about OOO prevents one from speaking about relations and from analyzing relations. What OOO rejects is the thesis that objects are their relations. There is a vast difference between the claim that there are only relations, and the claim that there are objects and the relations objects enter into. The former is ontological relationism, the latter is what OOO claims (at least in my formulation, though I think Harman and I are on the same page here). What OOO rejects is the thesis that all relations are internal relations. It has no problem with external relations.

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The more I think about the recent discussion surrounding Life After People and narrativity (here, here, here, and here), the more it seems to me that what is at stake is something similar to what Marx denounced under the title of “commodity fetishism”. Initially, this suggestion might sound very strange coming from an object-oriented ontologist, for commodity fetishism occurs when relationships between people are treated as relations between things. However, a bit of reflection reveals that what is at stake in the hegemonic fallacy and commodity fetishism are isomorphic to one another.

David Harvey gives a nice illustration of what is at stake in commodity fetishism in his latest (which is really quite good, by the way). There Harvey asks,

…what’s going on here [with commodity fetishism]? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price– the "how much" –is socially determined. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers– those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them. (39 – 40)

Note that while the supermarket situation disguises collective relations insofar as all we’re confronted with in the market is the price and the empirical properties of the head of lettuce, it does not follow from this that this disguise is an illusion in the ordinary sense. The lettuce, the price, and the cashier are all things that are really there. What is absent are the collective relations this lettuce embodies as congealed or crystallized labor.

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In discussions of French inflected Marxist political theory I often get the sense that democracy is treated as a dirty word or the contrary of Marxism. The subtext seems to be that somehow neoliberalism and democracy are one and the same thing, or that the concept of democracy is identical to the actually existing system of something like American “democracy”. I find this idea very odd. For me Marxism and communism are synonyms for democracy, and the issues that motivate Marxist activists arise from the fact that our actually existing governmental systems aren’t democratic enough. Equating democracy with American “democracy” is like equating socialism with Stalinist socialism. In both cases we have an utter perversion of the political concept and the precise opposite of what these things are supposed to be. What am I missing?

In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

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Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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