Over at Poetix Dominic has an interesting post up responding to Pete’s recent discussion of normativity over at Speculative Heresy. Dominic writes:

The crux here seems to be that “man” is not in himself a normal animal: normative accounts of human being are best taken as descriptions of the commitments we make to ourselves and others as preconditions for various kinds of social being, and the capacity to bear such norms is rather haphazardly instantiated in our animal selfhood.

This split between the normed human being and the ab-normal human animal plays out in Badiou, for example, as a tension between the “de-subjectivising” pull of egoic self-interest and the possibility of constructing a political “subject” which affirms (or “verifies”) egalitarian norms. But there’s a problem here: egoic self-interest is arguably also a normed expression of human being – neo-liberalism explicitly affirms it as a norm, as a precondition for higher forms of social organisation (e.g. those based on competitive markets). The conflict between Badiou’s ethical “good” (tenacity in the construction of truths) and “evil” (de-subjectivation, the saggy victory of the flesh) can be seen as a conflict between rival normative commitments rather than between committed and uncommitted being as such. What Rowan Williams calls the “false anthropology” of neo-liberalism does not merely declare, in social Darwinist fashion, that human beings are intrinsically self-seeking creatures: it also goes to considerable lengths to modify the “soul” of society (its basic normative commitments and symbolic co-ordinates) so that individuals will perceive this to be their true nature and act accordingly.

There’s a good deal more in Dominic’s post, especially with respect to heteronormativity and discussions of heterosexuality coming out of the Christian Right, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage in particular as I think it represents something that is truncated or underdetermined within the framework of critiques of neo-liberal capitalism. While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology.

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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.

600px_SpiderWebIt seems that one of the standard criticisms recently emerging in response to OOO is that 1) it is apolitical, and 2) it is an apologetics for neoliberalism. I confess that I find both criticisms to be deeply perplexing and am unsure what to make of them. I am unsure of whether or not I’ve ever claimed that OOO is apolitical. If I have, then I was speaking sloppily. What I have consistently emphasized is that questions of ontology and questions of politics are distinct. This is exactly what we would expect from a realist ontology. Insofar as realist ontologies reject correlationism or the thesis that objects can only ever be thought in their relation to a subject and that subjects can only ever be thought in relation to objects, it follows that the being of beings is an issue that is independent of politics. Were the being of beings always bound up with the political, we would not have a realism, but rather a correlationism. Why? Because beings would necessarily be bound up with the human.

However, and I think this is a key point, the claim that questions of ontology are distinct from questions of politics is not equivalent to a rejection of politics. All the claim that ontology and politics are distinct entails is that ontological questions are not to be decided on political grounds. That’s all. Nothing more. In this regard, I take myself to be claiming nothing different than what Badiou claims. As Badiou argues in the Manifesto for Philosophy, it is a disaster for philosophy whenever philosophy is sutured to one of its four conditions: love, politics, science, and art. Badiou does not advocate a particular ontology on political grounds. The questions of ontology are internal to ontology. Yet in affirming this autonomy, he is clearly not rejecting the political, as can be seen in his copius contributions to political philosophy.

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Vincent-Van-Gogh-The-Wheat-Field--1888-133375As I lay in bed fighting the flu this weekend I found myself once again reading Braudel’s Civilization & Capitalism. In my view, Braudel’s approach to history provides a model example of what an object-oriented analysis might look like. Braudel does not tell the story of the emergence of capitalism from the standpoint of ideas, political conflicts, nations, or “great men”, but rather from the standpoint of what he calls “material civilization”. Material history consists of those constraints and affordances upon which the social world is based at any given point in time. “Material life is made up of people and things. The study of things, of everything mankind makes or uses– food, housing, clothing, luxury, whether or not money is used, what sort of money is used, tools, coinage or its substitutes, framework of village and town… (31).” This material civilization thus consists of things such as the way in which food is produced, the epidemiology of disease, the sorts of foods produced, whether or not roads are present, the layout of towns and their relationship to the countryside, clothing styles, forms of cooking, weather patterns, wild animals, the relationship of nomads to agricultural society, technologies and technics, and so on.

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origin1Over at Speculative Heresy, Nick has a really interesting post up about the possibility of interesting intersections between Marxist thought and Actor-Network Theory. Much of the discussion has revolved around the conflict between actor-network theory and Marxist thought on the issue of totalization. ANT theorists are notorious for making claims like “society does not exist” and “capitalism does not exist”. Of course, such a claim is intolerable from a Marxist perspective insofar as Marxist requires that the social field is totalized by certain modes of production at a particular point in time. A charitable interpretation of these claims made by ANT theorists is that they are rhetorical exhortations to examine the relations among actors in networks. In other words, the ANT worry is that we treat concepts like “society” or “capitalism” as themselves being entities that do things, thereby becoming blind to how societies and modes of production like capitalism are put together. In other words, where these terms should be shorthand referring to complex networks of actors, we instead make claims like “society does”, etc. This reverses the order of explanation insofar as society and capitalism are not what explains but what is to be explained. An appeal to “social forces” in the explanation of a phenomena is a bit like appealing to the somnolent properties of wine as an explanation of why wine makes us sleep. In this respect, Marx is an outstanding ANT theorist. When Marx seeks to explain some phenomenon, he never appeals to “social factors” or “capitalism”, but rather he examines complex networks of actors such as the rise of factories and how they transform bodies and cognition– as Aleatorist informed me last night, Ford spent his time thinking about the most efficient forms of bodily movement on the assembly line –the role of clocks in temporalizing bodies and subjectivity, the conditions under which bodies become partitioned into workers and owners, the formation of trade routes and how they preside over the emergence of particular forms of production, distribution, and exchange in such and such a historical period, the role of memes in negentropically maintaining certain structure and order, and so on. Just look at Marx’s famous analysis of value. Marx refuses a psychological or “social” explanation of value, instead looking at the complex network through which something takes on value and, additionally, takes on the value of representing the value of something else (money). In every instance, we are referred back to the roles of human and non-human actors forming networks.

Unfortunately the issue is not clear-cut where ANT is concerned. If it were simply a matter of a rhetorical exhortation, we could easily forgive, even admire, actor-network-theory, readily agreeing that we should avoid the sorts of explanations so rightly derided by Molière. The problem is that Latour is often less than charitable to certain modes of analysis doing something very similar to what ANT calls for. Thus, it is not unusual to read him deriding Marxist thought. While I would agree that there is a lot of Marxist thought that should be derided because it turns capitalism into something like somnolent qualities or Zeus, there is a lot of really good work out there that avoids this sort of puerile simplification.

Depending on how it is theorized, it seems to me that the Marxists are clearly correct when they talk about totalization. The problem with ANT is that although it places “network” between “actor” and “theory”, somehow networks seem to get short shrift and all the emphasis gets placed on the side of actors. What is missed is the emergence of self-sustaining negentropic networks in which the actors in the network become dependent on one another in the replication or reproduction of the network. Just as Latour would like, these networks are composed of heterogeneous and autonomous actors, but insofar as the relations they enter into are characterized by negentropy, the network comes to organize subsequent adventures of actors in the network. In other words, the network functions like an ecology setting constraints for the actors within the network.

All of this makes me think of the rise of the eukaryotes about two billion years ago. There is a very real sense in which eukaryotes were a totalization of the biosphere, fundamentally transforming the ecology of the Earth. If the rise of the eukaryotes was so significant, then this was because it gradually transformed our atmosphere from one consisting of all sorts of inhospitable gases, to an atmosphere where oxygen came to predominate. Moreover, eukaryotes introduced complex cells enclosed in membranes. The formation of an oxygen rich atmosphere opened up all sorts of new environmental niches, creating new fields for speciation to take place. Similarly, the invention of complex cells with membranes opens a milieu of experimentation, allowing for the emergence of all sorts of multi-cellular critters. If eukaryotes totalized the biosphere, this is not because everything became the same, but because they transformed the very framework of the game of life. What we got was a very different sort of networked system. So too in the case of capitalism.

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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Fall_Creek_2For some time now I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from biological thought. In part, I suppose, this is because I went through a period when I wanted to be a marine biologist and watched The Food Chain Channel (National Geographic and Animal Planet) nightly. Between the ages of eight and thirteen I could be found, on any given Summer day, mucking about in the creek in my backyard, shorts rolled up all Tom Sawyer like, capturing various critters such as tadpoles, frogs, snails, crayfish, turtles, fish, and whatever else I could find for my numerous aquariums in my room. Needless to say my parents were much dismayed by a rather swamp-like miasma that came to permeate the upper story of our house. Despite the social alienation I experienced then, this was a happy time in my life, spent exploring the plants and trees and animals and building all sorts of things. Beyond my fascination with the biological, however, I’ve found that biology converges on issues central to contemporary debates. When I suggest this there are, no doubt, those who shudder, immediately jumping to the conclusion that I am suggesting that philosophy should be “biologized”. But really that isn’t it at all. If biology should be of interest to philosophers, then this is because it deals with issues at the heart of contemporary debates such as the nature of what constitutes an individual, the nature of systems, how change takes place, how negentropic phenomena are possible, the nature of difference, and so on and so on. As my brilliant friend Adam Miller recently exclaimed when describing his encounter with Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, “it is like an embarrassment of ontological riches”. This is not, I take it, because of the contributions Gould makes to evolutionary theory, but because of how he tackles questions like what constitutes an individual?, what is the relationship between different scales of individuals?, how does change take place?, what is difference?, etc. Adam is right, just read the book. If anything else it is good for pushing you into different constellations of thought.

For the last week I’ve been working through Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students. Written in a gorgeous conversational and entertaining style that I can only dream of having and which emulates Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach (who was, incidentally, one of his mentors), Dennett’s book, no less than Gould’s, is an embarrassment of riches. If this is so, then it is not because one is ultimately convinced by his arguments– though that’s always possible –but because the book is so rich in concepts, analogies, and thought experiments that it functions as a rich machine for producing other associations very remote from his own immediate aims and interests.

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art_whitney_marx-insideN.Pepperell has begun posting chapter drafts of her long awaited thesis on Marx over at Rough Theory. The work that she’s doing is well worth the read and promises to new light on a number of competing approaches to social and political theory. Might we not get an actor-network version of Marx… Including the hyphen and suitably responsive to Braudel? I look forward to watching the text unfold. I do, however, have one gripe. I cannot find a “thesis workshop” tab in her categories section, so it is difficult to follow the order of the text. NP, add a tag stat!


Dejan of Cultural Parody Center asks how I respond to the worry that collective assemblages lead to disasters such as some of those that characterized aspects of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. In subsequent discussion he qualifies his question, indicating that he wasn’t suggesting that collective assemblages necessarily lead to this outcome, but was rather asking what proposals or thoughts I might have as to how this might be avoided. However, I do think Dejan hits on a fundamental argument that is extremely common in, at least, the United States when arguing against any form of collective action. My position is that this line of argument is always based on spurious reason. Consequently, since this spurious reasoning is so common I thought I’d take a moment to show just where it goes wrong through a formalization of its reasoning. Roughly the argument runs as follows:

Premise 1: The Soviet Union (or whatever poison you might like to choose) was a social system premised on collective assemblages.
Premise 2: Social Formation X calls for collective assemblages.
Conclusion: Therefore, Social Formation X leads to outcomes identical to those in the Soviet Union.

In the United States, at least (Thatcher gave similar arguments, I believe, in Great Britain, and arguments such as this were used throughout South and Central America to justify deregulation and privatization), we have been beaten over the head by arguments like this so often that we don’t even pay attention to them anymore. Indeed, I so commonly hear claims like this from my students (in completely unrelated contexts), that I almost wonder whether they haven’t become lodged in our DNA, manifesting themselves as “innate truths”. However, when we formalize the argument using a venn diagram we see that the conclusion clearly cannot follow from these premises:


For those unfamiliar with venn diagrams, they work by spatially representing relations among categories represented in propositions. For universal propositions (“all A’s are B’s) you use shading. For particular propositions (Some A’s are B’s) you use x’s. When you cannot determine the region to which the x belongs in the three circles, you place it on the line separating the regions to indicate that it could be in either of the regions. To determine whether or not a syllogism is valid, you diagram the premises of the syllogism and if the conclusion follows from the premises, then it will appear after you diagram the premises of its own accord.

The argument above deals only with propositions that are particular in quantity, and therefore uses nothing but “x’s”. For the first premise, the x is to be placed in the intersection of the Soviet Union circle and the Collective Assemblage circle as the first premise asserts a relation between these two classes. We are thus indicating that at least one entity shares the property of being both the Soviet Union and a Collective Assemblage. However, we notice that there are two regions where we can place the x: region 2 or region 4. For this reason, we place the x on the line between these two regions, indicating that we do not know whether it is in region 2 or 4. For the second premise, we now look at the relationship between the circle for some unspecified Social Formation X and the circle for Collective Assemblages. Premise two again asserts an intersection between these two classes of entities. However, once again we notice that there are two regions where our x could appear: region 4 and region 6. Since we do not know whether the social formation in question is in region 4 or region 6, we place it on the line between these two regions to indicate our uncertainty.

If our argument is valid, then we should see an x appear in region 4 at the point of overlap between the circle for Social Formation X and the Soviet Union. What, in fact, do we see? We see that based on our premises it is possible for an x to be in region 2 or region 6; which is to say that there is not a relation of necessity between collective assemblages, social formations, and the Soviet Union, such that the presence of one of these properties or classes deductively entails the presence of the others. The ideological trick thus consists in implying that there is a relation of deductive necessity between collective assemblages and totalitarianism, where there is only a relation of contingency, i.e., a relation that can and often is otherwise.

This argument is, of course, stupid and any school child should be able to immediately see that it is invalid, yet nonetheless people seem to find it extremely compelling or convincing. As Dejan points out, that, in and of itself, should raise all sorts of important questions about human psychology. There is thus, on the one hand, the question of why certain collective assemblages lead to social formations that are totalitarian or fascist in character. And also, on the other hand, the question of how it might be possible to produce collective assemblages that do not lead to these results. Of course, the whole point of such an exercise lies in showing how that which appears natural and necessary is, in fact, contingent such that other forms of life are possible. Reactionary politics and ethics perpetually treats the contingent and historical as necessary and eternal. For example, it is said here in the States that “marriage has always been between a man and a woman and that God would have made same sex couples capable of reproduction had he intended them to marry.” All of this despite massive ethnographic evidence to the contrary. One of the first conditions for change lies in discerning the essential fragility and contingency of social formations. It is only in this way that the social order loses the appearance of being akin to Newtonian laws, trapping us in the iron grip of their necessity.

I apologize to readers for the silliness of this post, but it was fun, at least, to pitch an ideological claim in terms of syllogisms and venn diagrams. Hopefully I’ll be excused for finding lame ways to avoid grading.


In a very nice response to my paper on assemblages and networks, Joe Clement remarks,

I liked the paper too. However, could you say a bit more about how post-structuralists like Deleuze understand networks as opposed to how structuralists understand, well, structures. At a certain point, it sounds like they are different names for the same pomme de terre. I can get behind networks and assemblages being “things” of change, while structures are usually talked about as quasi-eternal forms. However, what is to stop us from saying that a network is structured, not according to an identity with some sort of totality, but according to its symptomatic deadlocks/exclusions/slippages? I’m thinking of Zizek’s very rudimentary lesson in commodity fetishism in the first chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology

“rather, it [commodity fetishism] consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belonged to it outside its relation with other elements” (24).

You know Zizek then goes on to quote Marx on commodities A & B, and then tie that into an allusion to the mirror stage. All of this falls very neatly under the conventional structuralist rubric, but it’s the point about misrecognition that perks my interest. Zizek says misrecognition occurs as a structural effect, though this really does not pre-suppose a “structured network” (i.e. what I take to be the conventional structuralist line) anymore than it pre suppose that “this property also belonged to it outside of its relation with other elements.” That is to say, the misrecognition is about the “structured network” as much as the individual element, though that means we aren’t stuck having to unravel the “structured network” anymore than we are stuck having to stabilize the individual element. They are both “structural effects,” whose unified expression is the symptom. With my Buddhist hat on, subject and object are “structural effects” caused by ignorance (avijja), whose symptomatic expression is suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha).

There is some similarity between structure and networks, but also quite a difference. A network is something more than atomistic individuals and something less than a structure. A structure is a set of interdependent differential relations where the terms have no existence independent of one another. Thus, for example, in language the phonemes that make up a language are not /b/, /p/, etc., but differential relations between these units. Neither /b/ nor /p/ form a phoneme, but rather only b/p forms a phoneme within a specific language. As such, /b/ has no existence independent of /p/ and vice versa. The minimal condition for being a phoneme is that the substitution of a unit produces a difference in sense: /b/at, /p/at. Sense is thus not something that precedes these differential relations, but is an effect of these differential relations.

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