Materialism


In response to one of my posts over at Deontologistics, Traxus writes:

latour and social constructivism is a tricky issue. he’s not technically a social constructivist, but his metaphysics is anti-normative. if everything is a product of forces (without additional predicate), then no ‘kind’ of force can be superior to any other. any justification for why a given constellation of forces is right in a given case would have not have recourse to metaphysical arguments. in terms of his metaphysics only force decides (naturalism might be superior to theism because it has stronger relations to different types of forces, but this can’t be determined in advance).

i see the OOO-osphere as reacting to the nietzscheanism inherent in this view by asserting objects over relations as the fundamentally real units.

oh, and badiou’s antiphilosophers aren’t necessarily sophists. for badiou they’re essentially religious — they assert a founding ahistorical, moral intuition — for latour it would be the importance of ‘democracy.’ like foucault, latour engages in genealogical (of a kind) critiques of knowledge in the form of case studies, with one rather ironic foray into systematic philosophy with ‘irreductions.’

At the outset, I suppose I should confess that I have an almost visceral suspicion of philosophical and political discourses that make normativity their central focus. On the one hand, I associate this sort of focus with neoliberal and conservative discourses that obfuscate social issues by portraying them as issues of “values” and rights. There seems to be a way in which the moment we begin talking about values and normativity, discussion and politics gets detached from the structure of concrete situations, rendering all of that invisible. This has even been enshrined in the whole distinction between the “is” and the “ought”. Insofar as the “is” is completely separated from the “ought”, normative discourses see themselves as entitled to ignore the “is” altogether. As a Marxist and a historical materialist, I simply think this is the wrong way to go. Moreover, contrary to those who seem to believe that neoliberalism is a discourse where self-interest is the only deciding factor and that Marxism is an axiological discourse independent of self-interest, I can’t help but see that Marx’s arguments are based on interests. What Marx shows is that our self-interest lies with the collectivity. This is why, for example, we join unions, pay taxes, form institutions to protect ourselves, and so on.

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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.

A few have objected to my generalization as to what constitutes idealism, quoting a passage from my last post where I remark that,

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. …All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues…

The important point to make here is that the issue is not with whether or not one talks about signs or language or power, but with whether or not one believes that being can only be discussed in relation to some human related phenomena. If you endorse this thesis, then you are an idealist. It’s as simple as that. This doesn’t mean that you’re a Kantian idealist, a Schellingian, a Berkeleynian, or a Hegelian. Idealism is a genus with many species. You can be a linguistic idealist like Wittgenstein or Derrida. You can be an idealist of the sort that Foucault or Bourdieu is with respect to power. The distinguishing feature here lies in whether or not beings can only be thought in relation to the human.

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A very interesting discussion is shaping up between Harman and Shaviro concerning the ontological status of objects and relations in Whitehead. Shaviro’s latest post defending Whitehead can be found here. At the outset, it’s worth emphasizing that Whitehead is essential reading for OOO. Whitehead is perhaps the greatest realist and object-oriented philosopher of the last century. In many respects, Whitehead is the most resolutely anti-idealist thinker in the last two hundred years. Unlike those poor cowardly souls that advance arguments to the effect that the distinction between idealism and realism is meaningless (translation: they’ve sided with idealism), or that seek to escape idealism by deconstructing the self-transparency of the subject while still treating everything in terms of the signifier, power, signs, etc., Whitehead resolutely speaks of the objects themselves without conflating the ontological and the epistemological register, leaving the reader with no doubt that he’s perfectly happy to speak of the being of beings that have no relation to the human whatsoever. As Harman has recently noted, this is the litmus test of whether or not one is an idealist:

Stated differently, you can’t say: “I’m not an idealist. I believe the human subject is a passive recipient of the world, not its constitutor,” or “Human and world are co-produced,” or “world produces the human.”

Why does the human need to be involved all of these cases?

Even worse is when the game is played of replacing the human with falsely neutral-sounding terms such as “subject”, “thought”, “Ereignis,” or any equivalent thereof.

If people always have to be involved in any situation being discussed in your philosophy, then you’re an idealist. The problem is that it’s become such a reflexive assumption that the human must be one ingredient in any situation under discussion that people immediately scream “positivism!” as soon as you start talking about inanimate relations. So much contemporary continental philosophy has been built as nothing but a firewall against the natural sciences, and unfortunately Husserl (a truly great philosopher) is one of the worst violators on this front.

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. Whitehead passes this litmus test with flying colors. For Whitehead humans are one being among many others, one event among many others. All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues. They should know better. Everyone who teaches ethics knows how to debunk the students claim that values are purely subjective and whatever beliefs a person possesses within minutes. In other words, everyone who teaches ethics knows that the question of what values are, how we deliberate about right and wrong, etc., is independent of the question of our access to values and norms. Yet oddly this same simple insight isn’t carried over into the realm of ontology.

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

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

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

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transversalRemarking on my post on values and normativity entitled “Co(m)-plications“, Asher Kay of Spoonerized Alliterations writes:

This is a tantalizing vision. I, for one, am totally tantalized. The concept of emergence and the insights of neuroscience (and other parts of complexity theory and cognitive science too) provide some powerful support and explanatory power for OOO’s placement of the human within the realm of the real. And to this point, these relative scientific latecomers have not been coerced into the service of a serious, wide-ranging ontology.

So I’m all happy and cheerful and so forth. Then I read a quote like this (from Larval Subjects), and I begin to wonder if my philosophical sky is really so cloudless:

I think it’s important to show that object-oriented ontology in its realism is not making a call for a scientistic naturalism, but still leaves a lot of room, in suitably re-constructed form, for a number of the sorts of social and cultural analyses the world of theory has come to hold so dear.

I emphasize the “not” there, because that’s where I did a little double-take. Is that right? Isn’t OOO a call for scientistic naturalism? I mean, non-scientific descriptions and explanations are super cool and all that, but we’re talking ontology here! If we’re going to embed and embody the human in the world, what else are we going to use besides the methodology that’s all along been all about objects?

I think my friend’s remarks here are symptomatic of what first comes to the mind of many when we hear words like “ontology”, “realism”, and “objects”. “If”, the train of thought runs, “we are advocating an object-oriented ontology and a realism, this entails that such an ontology is not a subject-oriented ontology. Therefore object-oriented ontology must be interested in showing how the really real world is the result of neurons, atoms, stars, mountains, and so on.” From this point of view, objects are treated as physical or natural objects and are contrasted with subjectivity and culture. The thesis here would be that subjectivity and culture are epiphenomena of these natural objects.

This, however, is not the move that OOO is making. The realism of OOO is not one more move in the battle between realism and idealism where one is asked to choose either realism and advocate the position that really real objects are physical and natural objects and everything else is epiphenomena of these objects or where one is forced to advocate some variant of idealism that holds that all objects are products of mind or culture and that we can never know what things-in-themselves might be independent of mind or culture. Rather, as Ian Bogost notes in his brief response to Asher, OOO places all objects on equal ontological footing. As I articulate it, OOO draws a transversal line across the entire distinction between subject and object, culture and nature, placing the two orders that characterize the discourse of modernity on a single ontological plane.

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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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