Non-Signifying Differences

For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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soccer_momIn developing onticology or object-oriented ontology, one of the things I’ve been aiming at is what I call, following DeLanda, though developed in a different way, a flat ontology. A flat ontology is, to use a term my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist recently shared with me, a lumpy ontology. In referring to such an ontology as “lumpy”, I intend an ontology that is composed of a heterogeneity of different entities. As such, heterogenesis is one of the central questions of onticology. Heterogenesis is the question of how the disparate, the heterogeneous, enters into relations or imbroglios with one another to form a collective and a common. These imbroglios or collectives can be thought as logoi. Rather than a single logos for the world, we instead get islands of logoi where the organization governing these imbroglios are emergent results of ongoing heterogenesis.

The idea of a flat ontology can be fruitfully understood in contrast to materialisms. Where materialism posits a single type of entity– whatever that type might be –out of which all other entities are composed, a flat ontology is pluralistic, positing an infinite variety of different types of entities. Flat ontology does not reject the existence of material entities like quarks, atoms, and trees, but merely asserts that these aren’t the only types of entities that exist. Consequently, when onticology claims that “to be is to be an object”, this thesis is not equivalent to claiming that “to be is to be material”. A city is an object. Indeed, it is an object that contains a variety of other objects and that depends on a variety of other objects both in terms of its own endo-relational structure and its exo-relations to things outside its membrane. Nonetheless, were we to take an inventory of all the material objects included in the city we would not have the “city-ness of the city”. For all intents and purposes, nearly all the matter composing New Orleans remained after Hurricane Katrina, but it was a very different city after this event and its continued existence still remains in doubt.

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narcissusMuch to my surprise and delight, I have been exceedingly pleased by the discussion my post “The Monstrosity of Christ” has generated. For me, Jesus is an incredibly important political thinker who proposes a new vision of communal relations. What has been so great about this discussion, apart from a few bumps here and there, is the manner in which the religious and the atheist have been able to discuss these issues, without the question being one of debunking the other. Towards the end of the comments, Guavatree asks a couple of questions which, I believe, get right to the heart of the issue. First, Guavatree remarks that,

By explaining the difference between interpretations: traditional (Jesus and God above all things) and “radical and revolutionary” — I think you clarify what I think the blog dispute is about. Is Jesus “Resolving” the Imaginary or “Challenging” it?

More than whether Jesus is really asking you to hate your family or not, I’m interested in how you think the Imaginary can be challenged. Is this even possible? To what extent does challenging the bonds of the tribe/family/Imaginary involve the Real and the Symbolic?

Guavatree is responding to a comment I made earlier clarifying my position on Luke 14:26 where Jesus claims that in order to follow Jesus one must hate their mother, father, brother, sister, etc. I have read this, following the findings of ethnographers, as a devaluation of the role of familial or kinship relations as a foundation of social and political structure.

Thanks for the additional passages (here Guavatree provides numerous Gospel references to Jesus making injunctions similar to that found in Luke 14:26), Guavatree. Based on your remarks, I wonder if I haven’t missed the point of some of Kevin’s criticisms. You write:

So in terms of this argument on the blog, hating your family and loving Jesus and God hardly strikes me as a textual oddity.

The real question is whether Jesus’ “dissolution of “the law” into two vast identifications (God/neighbor)” as kvond puts it is a resolution of the imaginary OR a “challenging of this dimension of the imaginary” as larval subjects puts it.

If I’m following your gloss correctly Guavatree, then the dispute revolves around Jesus’ declaration to love one’s neighbor as ourselves and his charge to hate our parents, where it is being claimed that there is a contradiction between these two positions. With respect to the second command, it had never occurred to me to read the demand to hate our family literally. That would be a bizarre reading of the Gospels no matter how you cut it, so I’m surprised to discover that others might have read me as claiming such a thing. Rather, I am interpreting Jesus’ charge as the injunction to cease privileging familial relations or tribal identifications. As such, this separation from the primacy of kinship structures would be a precondition for love of the stranger or the neighbor. This is also why I’ve drawn attention to the story of the Good Samaritan because here we have an instance of a love extended to the other that falls outside the tribal community.

I reject, of course, the remainder of the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ injunction to “hate” one’s family, where it is argued that we are to place Jesus and God above all other things. First, I reject this reading because I think it covers over the whole socio-political issue that he’s getting at with respect to the role that kinship relations play in his historical setting. Second, however, I don’t think this reading is very well supported given how cagey he always is about identifying himself as the son of God (doesn’t he only directly say this in the book of John?). I think this traditional reading places too much emphasis on the person or figure of Jesus, turning him into a screen as described in the post above, thereby allowing us to ignore the truly radical and revolutionary form of social organization that he seems to be proposing.

read on!

andy-warhol-marilynOver at the inaccurately named Struggleswithphilosophy, Edward proposes the sort of analysis necessary for avoiding the Hegemonic Fallacy and demanded by object-oriented philosophy. Meanwhile, Carl, over at the amusingly named Dead Voles (why this name, Carl?), chants “object-oriented philosophy, what is it good for?” As Carl puts it,

Among the various things ideas may be for, what they’re nearly always for is constituting discourse communities, conversations and like minds. For ideas in the present, then, that I don’t have a professional obligation to backtrack through all their assembled agendas and contexts, the questions for me are first: whether they’re getting anything done I see a need to get done; and second, whether I find the conversation and/or conversants compelling. In the case of the new philosophy I’m solid on the latter, which is why I’ve been engaging with it. But I’m really shaky on the former, which is why I keep feeling so dissatisfied. What the hell is this stuff for?

To this, Edward, without realizing that he’s responding, remarks,

The main objective of hybrid model analysis is to construct an object-oriented approach for researchers that avoids what Larval has termed the “Hegemonic Fallacy.” Instead of the researcher relying on one style of analysis, the hybrid model forces the researcher to explain the object of analysis in its diversity. For example, when the researcher is examining the object of cars in the world, the hybrid model would not allow the researcher to select one particular dimension of cars to explain their existence. The problem of selecting one dimension is that it would only reveal and prioritise one aspect of cars and neglect other factors. Imagine if I analysed the discursive construction of cars in various discourses. While the analysis of these discourses would prove invaluable, its language bias would fail to capture the hybrid nature of the object in question. The result of examine the discursive construction would be to remained traped within the hegemonic fallacy. The hybrid model would not neglect the importance of discourses disseminating meaning about cars, but it would claim there are other dimensions (political economy, environmental factors, technological capability, and so on) that construct the object. The challenge for the researcher is to conceptualise how all these dimensions interconnect and influence one another in the object of analysis.

Quite right. My particular version of Object-Oriented Philosophy arises primarily from a dissatisfaction with the social and political theory that has been my bread and butter for over a decade. Here it’s important to keep in mind, as Harman has repeatedly emphasized, that there is no entity floating about called “Speculative Realism”, such that all Speculative Realists share these positions. Between Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, and Quentin Meillassoux there is no discernible shared position to be found. Indeed, there is a great deal of conflict among these positions, such that each of them is making very distinct ontological claims about the nature of the world. If, as Graham argues, there is some unity among the Speculative Realists, this is not to be found among their shared positions but rather in what they are against. That is, the common thread linking the Speculative Realists is a dissatisfaction with correlationist and anti-realist paradigms of thought. In this respect, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to claim that there are a number of “Speculative Realists” that don’t refer to themselves as Speculative Realists. For example, Deleuze, under one reading, could be classified as a Speculative Realist. DeLanda certainly fits the bill, as does Alfred North Whitehead. Harman argues that Latour fits the bill, and I would add Stengers to this list as well.

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Bob Altemeyer’s book on authoritarianism is posted on the web. The style is irritating (far too chatty for my tastes), but there’s lots of interesting material here. Chapters three and four are especially interesting.


Towards the beginning of his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre writes:

“How can we accept this doubling of personality? How can a man who is lost in the world, permeated by an absolute movement coming from everything, also be this consciousness sure both of itself and of the Truth. It is true that Naville observes that ‘these centres of reaction elaborate their behaviour according to possibilities which, at the level both of the individual and of the species, are subject to an unalterable and strictly determined development…’, and that ‘experimentally established reflex determinations and integrations enable one to appreciate the narrowing margin within which organic behaviour can be said to be autonomous’. We obviously agree with this; but the important thing is Naville’s application of these observations, which inevitably lead to the theory of reflection, to endowing man with constituted reason; that is, to making thought into a form of behaviour strictly conditioned by the world (which of course it is), while neglecting to say that it is also knowledge of the world. How could ’empirical’ man think? Confronted with his own history, he is as uncertain as when he is confronted by Nature, for the law does not automatically produce knowledge of itself– indeed, if it is passively suffered, it transforms its object into passivity, and thus deprives it of any possibility of collecting its atomised experiences into a synthetic unity. Meanwhile, at the level of generality where he is situated, transcendental man, contemplating laws, cannot grasp individuals. Thus, in spite of ourselves, we are offered two thoughts, neither of which is able to think us, or, for that matter, itself: the thought which is passive, given, and discontinuous, claims to be knowledge but is really delayed effect of external causes, while the thought which is active, synthetic and desituated, knows nothing of itself and, completely immobile, contemplates a world without thought. Our doctrinaires have mistaken for a real recognition of Necessity what is actually only a particular form of alienation, which makes their own lived thinking appear as an object for a universal Consciousness, and which reflects on it as though it were the thought of the other.

We must stress this crucial fact: Reason is neither a bone nor an accident. (30-31)

Recently I’ve been making a sustained effort to work my way through Marx’s massive Capital, while also returning to Deleuze’s collaborative works with Guattari, in a sustained attempt to think in a more concrete, rigorous, and philosophical way about the nature of the social (as opposed to dogmatically making sociological and psychoanalytic claims without grounding them philosophically). In certain respects, I think questions of how to think about the social and the Other have haunted philosophy for a century. With the emergence of the social sciences in the form of anthropology/ethnography, linguistics, psychoanalysis, sociology, history, and sociology, philosophy, I would argue, found its assumptions significantly challenged. Since the 17th century the schema of philosophical thought has been relatively straightforward: there is a subject whose contents of consciousness are immanent and immediate to itself (whether one is an empiricist or a rationalist) and therefore are certain (hence the fact Hume is certain of his impressions but can maintain doubt maintaining the objects that presumably cause them), and there is an object that the subject seeks to know. The social sciences significantly complicate this schema. For example, Levi-Strauss is able to show, in The Savage Mind and the Mythologiques, that there is an unconscious thought process that takes place, as it were, behind the back of the subject, both determining the thought process of the subject and creating a symbolic-categorical web, “thrown” over the world, sorting objects in various ways that can’t simply be reduced to the predicates or properties (the “primary qualities”) that belong to the “objects themselves”. This is the significance of Levi-Strauss’s extensive, often exhausting, discussion of how plants are sorted in The Savage Mind and his analysis of how the symbolic categories of the /raw/, the /boiled/, and the /cooked/ function with regard to the sorting of objects in the world (I use the convention “//” to denote the status of these entities as signifiers rather than predicates or “primary qualities” really inhering in an object). Similar results emerge from psychoanalysis– particularly in its Lacanian formulation, though also in Freud –linguistics, economics, sociology, and so on.

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Returning to the debate surrounding Zizek’s analysis of 300, it seems that this passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is highly relevant. Towards the end of Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari write that,

The most general principle of schizoanalysis is that desire is always constitutive of a social field. In any case desire belongs to the infrastructure, not to ideology: desire is in production as social production, just as production is in desire as desiring-production. But these forms can be understood in two ways, depending on whether desire is enslaved to a structured molar aggregate that it constitutes under a given form of power and gregariousness, or whether it subjugates the large aggregate to the function multiplicities that it itself forms on the molecular scale (it is no more a case of persons or individuals in this instance than in the other). If the preconscious revolutionary break appears at the first level, and is defined by the characteristics of a new aggregate, the unconscious or libidinal break belongs to the second level and is defined by the driving role of desiring-production and the position of its multiplicity. It is understandable, therefore, that a group can be revolutionary from the standpoint of class interest and its preconscious investments, but not be so –and even remain fascist and police-like –from the standpoint of its libidinal investments. Truly revolutionary preconscious interests do not necessarily imply unconscious investments of the same nature; an apparatus of interest never takes the place of a machine of desire.

A revolutionary group at the preconscious level remains a subjugated group, even in seizing power, as long as this power itself refers to a form of force that continues to enslave and crush desiring-production. The moment it is preconsciously revolutionary, such a group already presents all the unconscious characteristics of a subjugated group: the subordination to a socius as a fixed support that attributes to itself the productive forces, extracting and absorbing the surplus value therefrom; the effusion of antiproduction and death-carrying elements within the system, which feels and pretends to be all the more immortal; the phenomena of group ‘superegoization,’ narcissism, and heirarchy– the mechanisms for the repression of desire. A subject-group, on the contrary, is a group whose libidinal investments are themselves revolutionary; it causes desire to penetrate into the social field, and subordinates the socius or the form of power to desiring-production; productive of desire and a desire that produces, the subject-group invents always mortal formations that exorcise the effusion in it of a death instinct; it opposes real coefficients of transversality to the symbolic determination of subjugation, coefficients without a heirarchy or a group super-ego. (348-349)

A bit earlier Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to social investments and preconscious investment of class or interest (343). The central problem that Anti-Oedipus sets out to tackle is that of why we will our own repression:

why do many of those who have or should have an objective revolutionary interest maintain a preconscious investment of a reactionary type? And more rarely, how do certain people whose interest is objectively reactionary come to effect a preconscious revolutionary investment? Must we invoke in the one case a thirst for justice, a just ideological position, as well as a correct and just view; and in the other case a blindness, the result of an ideological deception or mystification? Revolutionaries often forget, or do not like to recognize, that one wants and makes revolutions out of desire, not duty. Here as elsewhere, the concept of ideology is an execrable concept that hides the real problems, which are always of an organizational nature. (344)

One of the central theses of Deleuze and Guattari’s social thought is that the people are not duped, but at a certain level desire fascism and their own repression. What is at issue here is that we can have social movements that are revolutionary at the level of their preconscious class investments, yet nonetheless reactionary at the level of their unconscious libidinal investments. The situation is analogous to issues surrounding the death of God as described by Nietzsche; which is to say, the issue is structural. As Nietzsche somewhere puts it, it is not enough to kill God, but the place itself of God must be abolished. Nietzsche here distinguishes between a certain theological concept of God as a transcendent being presiding over being, and a God-function as a certain structural placeholder in thought, social organization, and practice that other things can come to fill without apparently having anything to do with the divine or supernatural. In short, there is a sort of structural theology of transcendence, a “theology before theology”, that is a form of thought, not an adherence to any particular popular religion. This structural theology, this structural transcendence, is what Lacan represents with the masculine side of the graphs of sexuation, where masculine desire is premised on the phantasm that there is at least one entity that is not subject to the phallic function or castration.

This idea of a structural transcendence without a folk religious conception of God that nonetheless haunts atheism can be elucidated with reference to Laplace. Laplace was, of course, famous for pushing the Newtonian laws to their limit, arguing that we live in a perfectly deterministic universe, such that if we knew the position of all particles at any particular moment along with their velocities, we could perfectly predict all past states of the universe and all future states. When asked about the place of God in his system by Napoleon, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse: I have no need of that hypothesis. One of the revolutions effected by the early Enlightenment thinkers was the thesis of movement immanent to the universe, requiring no transcendent intervention in order for it to occur. Laplace here echoes that thesis, and thus endorses an atheistic position. However, we should not be so quick to come to this conclusion. In putting forward his deterministic thesis, Laplace makes an appeal to what is referred to as “Laplace’s Demon“, which is the idea of an entity capable of observing and calculating all the states of the universe. There is thus a theology that continues to haunt Laplace’s thought, a structure of thinking, which posits a transcendence capable of surmounting castration. Although Laplace’s being is not a creator, does not intervene in the world, does not judge or condemn, does not define a set of moral laws, it is nonetheless a transcendence that, in principle, surmounts our embeddedness in the world.

Deleuze and Guattari appear to be drawing a similar distinction between concrete actual social formations and movements and whether these are reactionary or revolutionary, the structure of social movements that remain reactionary even when undertaken through revolutionary pre-conscious investments. This concern emerges in response to the history of the Soviet Union, where we had a revolutionary movement at the level of preconscious class investments and interests, but nonetheless ended up with a social system organized around highly reactionary unconscious libidinal investments pertaining to power and the party. No doubt Deleuze and Guattari are thinking of the highly disappointing role that the French communist party played in the events of the student revolutions during Spring of 68. The question then becomes that of how it is possible to form a revolutionary movement that does not fall prey to these sorts of unconscious reactionary investments that simply reproduce oppressive systems. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” That is, how do we avoid simply re-instituting one and the same structure with differing decorations?

This was a problem Lacan encountered as well in the formation of his school. As Lacan remarks at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, analysis aims at a beyond of identification with the master-signifier:

It is not enough that the analyst should support the function of Tiresias. He must also, as Apollinaire tells us, have breasts. I mean that the operation and manipulation of transference are to be regulated in a way that maintains a distances between the point at which the subject sees himself as lovable– and that other point where the subject sees himself caused as a lack by a, and where a fills the gap constituted by the inaugural division of the subject. (270)

That point from which the analysand sees himself as lovable is the master-signifier, or the place from which the analysand sees himself as being seen by the various authority figures with whom he identifies. In traversing the fantasy and discovering the Other does not exist, that the other is fissured, desiring, lacking, the analysand discovers a beyond of identification in drive. With regard to an organization like a psychoanalytic school or association, the obvious question is that of how it might be possible to form a collective or society premised on the non-existence of the Other. This is a difficult and paradoxical question to say the least. Clearly Lacan himself was a point of identification for the members of his school. He was treated as “the subject supposed to know”. Yet analysts of the school are supposed to have traversed the fantasy and thus worked through the transference, no longer positing a subject supposed to know or a master. This, incidentally, is why I’ve sometimes playfully suggested that Deleuze and Guattari are the real Lacanians: they do not slavishly repeat every word of the master, but work with the thought of Lacan and contribute to the development of a problem and set of concepts. At any rate, Lacan’s various declarations and letters in Television all revolve around this question of the production of a revolutionary collective. The history of Lacanianism since Lacan’s death suggests that the problem has never been completely resolved.

It would appear that we are still caught in this bottleneck. One of the difficulties with Deleuze and Guattari’s proposals– at least as they were taken up by the academy –is that they do not seem to generate any organized activist collectives, and therefore it’s worried that they provide no real tools for struggling with capitalism (I am not suggesting this is true). This would be the concern with a number of other post-structural theorists as well, where political theory is thick on critique and analysis, but provides very little in the way of workable praxis. Enter Badiou and Zizek. In a number of respects, I think Badiou, despite his fascination with figures such as Saint Paul, manages to skirt worries of re-instituting desires at the level of unconscious libidinal investments. Badiou is quite clear in his discussion of political events and in his thesis that a true politics is outside the “state” (Deleuze and Guattari’s preconscious class investments). However, with Zizek and his flirtations with figures such as Robespierre, Mao, and Stalin, the worry emerges that once again we’re moving down the path of a paradoxical “reactionary revolution”, where the new boss is the same as the old. The concerns that motivate Zizek are, I think, well founded: change requires organization, movement. Yet he seems to move in the opposite direction, turning questions of mobilization and organization in fascist directions. I have no answers to solution to these issues, but it does seem to be that one of the central questions is that of how revolutionary movements can avoid falling into reactionary traps.

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