Networks


Over at Networkologies Chris Vitale has an INTERESTING POST up responding to one of my earlier posts on relations. I can’t respond in detail right now as I am in the midst of writing The Democracy of Objects, but I did wish to draw attention to a few points in Vitale’s post (and here I presuppose some background knowledge of these discussions). At a particular point in his post Vitale draws attention to Latour’s concept of “plasma”. Latour introduces the concept of plasma in Reassembling the Social. There Latour writes that,

I call this background plasma, namely that which is not yet formatted [my emphasis], not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. (244)

Latour clarifies what he is getting at a moment later, remarking that,

Of course sociologists were right to look for some ‘outside’, except this one does not resemble at all what they expected since it is entirely devoid of any trace of calibrated social inhabitant. They were right to look for ‘something hidden behind’, but it’s neither behind nor especially hidden. It’s in between and not made of social stuff. It is not hidden, simply unknown. (244)

There are a couple of points worth making here. First, it is clear that Latour’s concept of plasma is not an ontological concept, but an epistemological concept. As Latour quite clearly states, plasma refers not to what is and is not, but to what is known and what is unknown. However, second, matters are not as clear as all this. Latour refers to plasma not simply as what is not known, but as what is not “formatted”. Presumably reference to “formatting” is reference to structure. To claim that plasma is unformatted is to claim that plasma is unstructured.

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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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Based on a recommendation by a student that was prompted while teaching Harman’s Prince of Networks, my bedtime reading has recently consisted of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. Although I’m not very far into the book, so far I am very much enjoying it. Like Braudel and the Annales School historians, Diamond is extremely attentive to the role played by nonhuman objects in collectives. In many respects, Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel reads like a much quicker and livelier version of Braudel’s Capitalism & Civilization. Diamond, I think, presents us with what 1/3 of an object-oriented analysis would look like in social and political thought. Speaking of the encounter between Pizarro and Atahuallpa, Daimond writes:

How did Pizarro come to be at Cajamarca? Why didn’t Atahuallpa instead try to conquer Spain? Pizarro came to Cajamarka by means of European maritime technology, which built the ships that took him across the Atlantic from Spain to Panama, and then in the Pacific from Panama to Peru. Lacking such technology, Atahuallpa did not expand overseas out of South America.

In addition to the ships themselves, Pizarro’s presence depended on the centralized political organization that enabled Spain to finance, build, staff, and equip the ships. The Inca Empire also had a centralized political organization, but that actually worked to its disadvantage, because Pizarro seized the Inca chain of command intact by capturing Atahuallpa. Since the Inca bureaucracy was so strongly identified with its god-like absolute monarch, it disintegrated after Atahuallpa’s death. Maritime technology coupled with political organization was similarly essential for European expansions to other continents, as well as for expansion of many other peoples.

A related factor bringing Spaniards to Peru was the existence of writing. Spain possessed it, while the Inca Empire did not. Information could be spread far more widely, more accurately, and in more detail by writing than it could be transmitted by mouth. That information, coming back to Spain from Columbus’s voyages and from Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, sent Spaniards pouring into the New World. Letters and pamphlets supplied both the motivation and the necessary detailed sailing directions. The first published report of Pizarro’s exploits, by his companion Captian Cristobal de Mena, was printed in Seville in April 15 1534, a mere nine months after Atahuallpa’s execution. It became a best-seller, was rapidly translated into other European language, and sent a further stream of Spanish colonists to tighten Pizarro’s grip on Peru. (78 – 79)

Daimond works not with the concept of society, which is a concept restricted to people and their beliefs, but rather with what Latour calls collectives. Collectives are entanglements of objects. They can be entanglements composed entirely of nonhuman objects as in the case of an eco-system, or they can be entanglements that also contain humans as well as nonhuman objects. However, they can never be composed of humans alone. In his analysis of the encounter between Spain and South America, Daimond not only discusses human actors such as Atahuallpa, but also institutions like forms of political organization, and nonhuman actors such as germs, clubs, forms of armor, maritime technologies, writing, pamphlets, letters, horses, and so on. All of these entities are full blown actors in Diamond’s account that are generative of certain forms of association or certain social relations.

Indeed, when Diamond begins discussing food production in Europe, he notes the manner in which the domestication of plants and animal led to markedly different forms of human relation:

All those are direct ways in which plant and animal domestication led to denser human populations by yielding more food than did the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A more indirect way involved the consequences of the sedentary lifestyle enforced by food production. People of many hunter-gatherer societies move frequently in search of wild foods, but farmers must remain near their fields and orchards. The resulting fixed abode contributes to denser human populations by permitting a shortened birth interval. A hunter-gather mother who is shifting camp can carry only one child, along with her few possessions. She cannot afford to bear her next child until the previous toddler can walk fast enough to keep up with the tribe and not hold it back. In practice, nomadic hunter-gatherers space their children about four years apart by means of lactational amenorrhea, sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion. By contrast, sedentary people, unconstrained by problems of carrying young children on treks, can bear and raise as many children as they can feed. The birth interval for many farm peoples is around two years, half that of hunter-gatherers. That higher birthrate of food producers, together with their ability to feed more people per acre, lets them achieve much higher population densities than hunter-gatherers.

A separate consequence of a settled existence is that it permits one to store food surpluses, since storage would be pointless if one didn’t remain nearby to guard the stored food. While some nomadic hunter-gathers may occasionally bag more food than they can consume in a few days, such a bonanza is of little use to them because they cannot protect it. But stored food is essential for feeding non-food-producing specialists, and certainly for supporting whole towns of them. Hence nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have few or no such full-time specialists, who instead first appear in sedentary societies.

Two types of such specialists are kings and bureaucrats. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, to lack full-time bureaucrats and hereditary chiefs, and to have small-scale political organization at the level of the band of tribe. That’s because all able-bodied hunter-gatherers are obliged to devote much of their time to acquiring food. In contrast, once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricultural societies are often organized in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are confined to large agricultural societies. Those complex political units are much better able to mount a sustained war of conquest than in an egalitarian band of hunters. (89 – 90)

I quote these passages at length because they are so foreign to most of what we find in dominant strains of continental cultural, social, and political theory. Daimond’s history is a history of collectives that is as much a history of the role played by nonhuman objects as human actants in the genesis of associations between humans and nonhumans in these collectives. Ask yourself honestly, do you really see anything remotely like a discussion of these sorts of agencies in the social and political thought of the Frankfurt School, Zizek, Ranciere, Balibar, Laclau, Derrida, or Badiou? Stepping outside the continental tradition, do you find it in Rawls or Habermas? What about Luhmann? No, we find nothing remotely close to the discussion of these issues. Rather, to encounter a discussion of the role of these sorts of actors we need to turn to Latour and the ANT theorists, Marx, Deleuze and Guattari and their under-developed analysis of machinic assemblages, and thinkers like McLuhan, Castelles, Haraway, DeLanda, Hayles, Bogost, Ong, Kittler, and so on.

What are we missing as a result of ignoring these nonhuman actors, and to what degree are our questions of political theory and action poorly formed and premised on a complete misrecognition of why collective formations are as they are? Indeed, to what degree do we entirely miss issues that are political because we have restricted the domain of the political to the human and the subject? To a great degree, I would say. However, as I said at the beginning of this post, something like Diamond’s analysis only constitutes 1/3 of what an OOO analysis would look like in social and political thought. Diamond is to be commended for paying keen attention to the role played by nonhuman actants in collectives that contain humans, but we must also recall that for OOO signs and language are objects as well. The semiotic is not to be abandoned. What is to be abandoned is the thesis of the linguistic idealists to the effect that language and signs constitute entities. Rather, we must think the manner in which the semiotic is entangled with non-semiotic actants. And finally, we need to make room for the manner in which objects are always withdrawn or in excess of any of their manifestations or sensuous presentations. A fullblown OOO analysis would contain all three of these dimensions in its thinking of collectives and entanglements.

I find it amusing that whenever I proclaim that my blogging is going to become less frequent for a time, I suddenly find myself engaged in heavy blogging. I don’t know if this is an idiosyncrasy of my psychology, or something general to human beings, though I do know that for myself when I try to prohibit myself from doing something I suddenly feel compelled to do it. And so it goes.

At any rate, I wanted to make a brief remark about object-oriented ontology and reification, because I wonder whether or not the relationism debate isn’t, in part, motivated by worries about reification. I think this worry might especially animate those who are committed to process-oriented ontologies. Here, I think, the term “object” can work against object-oriented ontologists insofar as “object”, in ordinary language often connotes something static and fixed, a mere dead clod. I think this conception of objects is an unfortunate remainder of our modernist heritage, which tends to see the domain of nature as a domain of mechanism where brute and unchanging particles interact in deterministic ways, and the domain of culture as a dynamic domain of spirit and freedom where change can take place.

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Expanding a bit on my last post, I recall that my initial impression of Harman’s Tool-Being was that it was a strange Badiouianism. This is certainly an odd claim to make as Badiou is nowhere a key reference in Graham’s work, nor does he deploy concepts like multiplicity, event, truth-procedure, or set in his ontology. So given such profound differences between these two thinkers, what could have led me to discern such a profound proximity between the two of them? Simply put, both Harman and Badiou are profound anti-relationists and subtractive thinkers. Badiou’s multiplicities are militantly anti-relational and, moreover, everything in his thought revolves around what can be subtracted from situations: events and truth-procedures. Likewise, while we find nothing like events or truth-procedures as Badiou understands them, Harman’s objects are nonetheless subtracted from all relation by virtue of the fact that they are radically withdrawn.

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I’m still swamped with grading and will be so for another week, so I haven’t had much time to follow the blogs. With that in mind, I’m just now coming across Ivakhiv’s and Harman’s exchange pertaining to relations and objects. I have to say that I find this debate extremely gratifying because it seems to mark a new stage in the thought of the speculative realists. With the exception of Harman’s work (and perhaps Grant’s), early speculative realism devoted itself largely to the refutation of correlationism. Although Harman’s work often directed arguments against philosophies of access, it has largely been devoted to the development of a full-blown ontology as far back as Tool-Being. Among other things, the debate between the subtractive object-oriented ontologists and the relationist object-oriented ontologists is particularly interesting because it is deployed purely within the realm of ontology. In other words, it is no longer a debate between realists and anti-realists, but between two competing realist theories of existence. As such, it suggests discussion is moving past debates about whether epistemology is First Philosophy or whether ontology is First Philosophy… At least for a few.

As I’ve often remarked on this blog, I have the highest admiration and sympathy for Ivakhiv’s work. This admiration is not simply an admiration for his ontology, but also for his devotion to ecology and his ecological ethics. Nonetheless, I confess that I find his relationism and critiques of subtractive object-oriented ontology baffling. And if I find this critique baffling, then this is because Adrian seems to hold that subtractive object-oriented ontology rejects relations altogether, such that it holds that we should ignore relations among objects. Minimally, given Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics, which possesses the subtitle “Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things”, this is a very perplexing assertion, for when Graham evokes the term “carpentry”, he is referring precisely to relations among objects. Where Tool-Being analyzed the subtraction or withdrawal of objects from all relations as a primitive ontological fact, Guerrilla Metaphysics examines relations that obtain among beings. So the first point here is that subtractive object-oriented ontology does not reject relations.

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As I watched a documentary on the real pirates of the Caribbean this afternoon while marking papers I found my thoughts turning towards sticky networks. In many respects I find this concept to be the most difficult to articulate, but also among the most important to articulate. The image that always comes to mind is that of a spider’s web or quicksand. The more you struggle against it, the more you seem to be pulled in. Subtractive object oriented ontology dictates that objects are independent and autonomous. Yet nonetheless objects often get locked in entanglements from which it’s very difficult to extricate themselves. Sometimes these networks are beneficial, but often they are acutely painful and alienating.

The Caribbean pirates found themselves in such an entanglement. Initially they were commissioned by various nations such as Great Britain to “liberate” goods from other nations like Spain. Yet when these nations achieved peace with one another, their actions were criminalized (and they were deeply criminal to begin with, but that’s besides the point here). With the criminalization of their activities the buccaneers now found themselves trapped within a sticky network. Because they were now coded as criminals, more piracy was among their only recourse for bare survival. Yet the more they engaged in these activities the more they were criminalized. There was no way out of the loop.

The situation is similar with the logic of capital. Most of us are not capitalists, but are entangled with capitalism. If most of us aren’t capitalists, then this is because we don’t live according to a M-C-M (money-commodity-money) logic. We don’t purchase commodities with the aim of producing more surplus-value as a result of that purchase. Rather, we follow a logic of C-M-C (commodity-money-commodity). We sell our labor as a commodity to earn money so as to buy other commodities like food or rent. Yet in selling our labor we find ourselves trapped within a sticky network. The more we engage in this activity the more we undermine and alienate ourselves, producing our very undoing by producing the capital that the M-C-M logic uses to assault us through diminishing jobs, stagnating wages, and all the rest. The more successful we are at producing capital for the capitalist, the more we undermine ourselves by creating the very dynamics that stagnate wages, destroy jobs, de-skill us, diminish our freedoms, etc., etc., etc.. Yet if this network is sticky then it is because we’re perpetually faced with the question of what the alternative is. We try to struggle against it perhaps, yet we find ourselves compelled to accept this logic despite ourselves.

All of this reminds me of Meillassoux’s wonderful illustration of correlationism at the Goldsmith’s Speculative Realism back in 2007. Meillassoux compared correlationism to a bit of double adhesive tape. You get the tape stuck to one finger so you try to remove it with another. Yet because the tape is double adhesive tape it is now stuck to that other finger. Eventually, as the tape shifts from finger to finger the person exclaims with the obscenity– in his comic portrayal –“Typhoon!” I didn’t know “typhoon” was an obscenity but I found it amusing nonetheless. This is how the logic of correlationism works. If you try to think the unthought, you’re still thinking it, and therefore it’s not unthought. I don’t find the correlationist argument very convincing– it’s a bit like undergrad arguments that everything is perception –but I do believe that sticky networks exist. We often find ourselves trapped in life or spider webs of our own making. Sticky networks are like correlationism in this respect, with the added caveat that they are accurate representations of what life is actually like rather than phantoms of tired philosophers. In trying to escape them you unwittingly reproduce them. The question then becomes that of how it’s possible to nullify the adhesive of these sorts of networks. At what point does the network become something entirely other?

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