Ontic


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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I’m a bit groggy this morning. Last night my three year old daughter smacked her forehead against the coffee table and we had to take a trip to the emergency room. Seven stitches and five hours later we finally got home around one thirty in the morning and then didn’t get asleep until four or four thirty. I’m amazed at how well she handled everything. She was a real trooper. After the initial shock of all the blood– and boy do heads ever bleed! –she was rather nonchalant about the whole thing, making offhand remarks like “I bumped my head a little! I hit my head on table. Blood was everywhere! Sometimes that happens!” in an amused voice and, while calmly playing before leaving for the ER, “I don’t need to see a doctor and we don’t have any bandaids”. We danced in the hospital room and she charmed all the nurses and doctors. After everything was over she actually didn’t want to leave as she was having so much fun. That’s my girl! What a ham and little attention addict. At any rate, hopefully I’ll make some sense in this post.

Responding to a couple of my posts from earlier this week on translation, Nate over at Un-canny Ontology writes:

What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?

Translation is more than a simple replication. Translation always involves a certain degree of interpretation in which what is inputted is always changed or transformed – from photons of light to complex sugars. Objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly, which means that objects first and foremost recognize each other.

I am pretty uncomfortable with Nate’s talk of objects “knowing” each other and “recognizing” each other as I think this implies a degree of intentionality (in the phenomenological sense) that only belongs to a subset of objects (humans, many animals, certain computer systems perhaps, social systems), not all objects. In my view, it’s necessary to distinguish between reflexive objects capable of registering their own states and relations to other entities like social systems or cognitive systems, and non-reflexive objects that do not have this characteristic. In other words, where non-reflexive objects are in question it’s important to emphasize that intentionality is not required for translation to take place and be operative in relations between objects.

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I am still experimenting with the diagram below, but as I was teaching the concept of translation in Harman’s Prince of Networks today, I found it to be a useful heuristic device for thematizing just what is new or interesting in Latour’s concept of translation. Scroll past the Scribd diagram for a bit of commentary.

Clearly I have adapted this diagram from Hjelmsleves model of the sign. All of us are familiar with the relation between the signifier and the signified in Saussurean linguistics (to the left). In naive theories of linguistic translation (NTTs), the idea is that the concept remains the same (content), while it is only the signifier (expression) that changes. There are any number of reasons that this concept of translation is mistaken. I outlined some of these shortcomings in a previous post, so I won’t repeat them here. Latour’s concept of translation is broader than that of translation as it applies to linguistics or the transposition of texts from one language to another. The key point to take home from his analysis– and he doesn’t spell these implications out himself –is not so much the fact that a translated text always differs from the text that it translates, but rather that the process of translation produces something new, regardless of whether the relation is between texts in different languages, conscious minds to world, or relations between objects. What Latour wishes to do, I think, is generalize the concept of translation, such that translation is no longer restricted to the domain of language, nor requiring the involvement of living beings of some sort, but rather involves any relations among actants, human or nonhuman, living or material.

Hjelmslev’s key innovation in the domain of linguistics and semiotics was to recognize that both the plane of expression (loosely the signifier) and the plane of content (loosely the signified) have a form and substance that can enter into different relations with one another. Here I am partially basing my analysis of Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of Hjelmslev’s model of expression and content as developed in “The Geology of Morals” in A Thousand Plateaus. This discussion would require a far more developed analysis than I’m capable of giving at the moment. For those who are interested, it would be worthwhile to refer to DeLanda’s early work on this essay (here and a number of Delanda’s articles, podcasts, and talks can be found here), as well as the first chapter of A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Brian Massumi. While I don’t entirely share the ontological commitments of either of these thinkers, their works nonetheless provide some pointers in the direction I’m thinking.

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Mikhail sent me the following post in email, giving me permission to post it if I so desire. I think it gets at a number of important differences and assumptions, so it might be of general interest to others. Following Mikhail’s post you will find my reply. I hope others interested in the realism/anti-realism debate and OOO take the time to read through the post as I think some key points are made here, as well as some arguments potentially central the epistemological grounds of OOO and why the “speculation” of OOO is not simply “making things up”. Basically I rehearse Roy Bhaskar’s argument for transcendental realism, trying to show why I think that epistemological questions can’t properly be resolved without robust realist ontological claims. However, there’s an important caveat here. While I’m strongly inclined to endorse the form of Bhaskar’s transcendental argument for ontological realism, I am more circumspect about the ontological claims he is making. In other words, it is possible to endorse much of the reasoning that leads Bhaskar to the conclusion that we can know something of mind-independent objects that exist regardless of whether anyone knows them, while rejecting the specifics of this ontology on the grounds that it is inadequate.

I think this particular exchange is not about SR/OOO/OOP or anything that has been discussed so far, it’s an old philosophical issue and this is why I think it is important to address as it seems to underlie
many of the disagreements. I’d like to begin with some very basic issues before going any further. You write:

“In my view this position undermines the possibility of any fallibilism so we’re left without the means of determining why we should choose one theory over another.”

This is important. Now just because a position undermines a certain possibility does not mean that it is wrong, just that it is inconvenient. I hope we agree on that. Therefore, say, if skepticism has a good argument, we cannot simply say that if we accept that argument we will be deprived of certain possibilities. I take your observation to mean more than just an expression of preference – if we cannot have an access to the world, we cannot have a true theory of it, because it’s neither true not false and cannot be shown to be
either true or false. I agree.

Now let’s slow down here a bit and see what’s going on. As you say, this is not a real point of disagreement, it’s just a statement and it has consequences. This is going to be very primitive not because I’m being condescending, but because I found of late that most of the disagreements seem to be about very small things we overlook because we think of ourselves (I mean myself primarily) as having long overcome these problems. It seems to me that you are affirming a kind of duality: there’s a level of the world and there’s a level of the mind (the theory of that world) – am I correct in reading you this way? An immanent “inside” and a transcendent “outside” – of course, as we both know from Descartes/Kant, we need a
“third” level, a point from which one can compare the two – the world and its theoretical description – and declare it to be adequate. Let’s reject Descartes’ solution and forget about God or anything that’s
truly “outside” and stick with Kantian types of solution that places that “third” on some transcendental level.

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A central aim of Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is to diagnose what he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. In a nutshell, the epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis, often implicit, that ontological questions can be reduced to epistemological questions. The idea here is that ontology can be entirely resolved or evaporated into an inquiry into our access to beings, such that there are no independent questions of ontology. As an example of such a maneuver, take Humean empiricism. As good Humean empiricists, we “bracket” all questions of the world independent of our mind and simply attend to our atomistic impressions (what we would today call “sensations”), and how the mind links or associates these punctiform impression in the course of its experience to generate lawlike statements about cause and effect relations.

Note the nature of Hume’s gesture: Here we restrict ourselves entirely to our atomistic sensations and what can be derived from our sensations. Questions about whether or not our sensations are produced by entities independent of our mind are entirely abandoned as “dogmatic” because we do not have access to the entities that might cause or produce these sensations, but only the sensations themselves. Consequently, the order of knowledge must be restricted to what is given in sensation. Hume’s epistemology is thus based on a thesis about immanence or immediacy. Insofar as our minds possess and immediate relation to our sensations, we are epistemically warranted in appealing to sensations as grounds for our claims to knowledge. We are not however, warranted in appealing to objects, powers, selves, or causes because we do not have sensations of these things. Consequently, all of these ontological claims must be reformulated in epistemological terms premised on our access to being. If we wish to talk of objects, then we must show how the mind “builds up” objects out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of powers, then we must show how the mind builds up powers out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of causality we must show how the mind builds up an idea of cause and effect relations through impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of selves and other minds we have to show how mind builds up our sense of self and other minds out of impressions and cause and effect associations.

At the level of the form of the argument, not the content, nearly every philosophical orientation since the 18th century has made the Humean move. While the content of these positions differ, the form of the argument remains roughly the same. That is, we perpetually see a strategy of attempting to dissolve ontological questions through epistemological questions. This move always proceeds in two steps: First, one aspect of our experience is claimed to be immanent or immediate. Second, the furniture of our ontology is then dissolved through an analysis of those entities with reference to this plane of immanence or immediacy. The immediate can be impressions as in the case of Hume, the transcendental structure of mind as in the case of Kant, the intentions of pure consciousness as in the case of Husserl, or language as in the case of late Wittgenstein or the thought of Derrida. Other examples could be evoked. In each case, the gesture consists in showing how the being of beings can be thoroughly accounted for in terms of our access through this immanence or immediacy. The point is that we no longer treat the entities in our ontology as existing independently of this field of immanence or immediacy, but now see them as products of these modes of access. Whether the world is really like this independent of our chosen regime of construction is a question that is abandoned as dogmatic.

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In response to a recent post, Paul Bains raises a number of questions that I believe are worth responding to as they often come up in relation to object-oriented ontology. Paul writes,

Trees = ‘big’ multicellular perennial green plants (which obviously lack semovience/self-movement).

So, at the risk of the deadly repetition here’s the thing:

The class of nonhuman natural objects is not as simple as we might think – e.g. we think it includes ‘trees’ and honycombs rather than ‘periodic oscillations’ (Sonigo) where these apparent entities are subjective categories.

In a previous post LS refers to something like the non-epiphenomenal level of complexity of the organic….
I’m no physicist but I suspect some of them might demur.

There might be many smaller objects but not some many ‘classical’ ones.

Now this is likely to be dismissed as some kind of valorizing of the sub-atomic – but within the domain of ‘natural non-human objects’ the sub-atomic might be the real thing.

Of I would never actually say that – just curious as to how those non-anthropocentric ‘tree-believers’ really, really, believe in trees – The same way they believe in ‘neutrinos’ or ‘black holes’…or God.
Altho there might (for Whitehead?) be a god without any trees.

I really cannot say anything about Sonigo as I know nothing of his work.

image1With respect to Paul’s comment here, there are two particularly relevant claims advanced by object-oriented ontology. The first of these claims is mereological or about part/whole relations. For the object-oriented ontologists, objects contains other objects in much the same way that Russian dolls contain other dolls. The point that a rock contains atoms, electrons, and other particles besides, does not undermine the thesis that the rock itself is an object, nor does it make the rock less real than the particles it contains. While it is indeed true that the rock cannot exist without these particles, the pattern or structure or system that characterizes the rock is nonetheless what characterizes the rock as a distinct object. Here it is worthwhile to think of Zubiri’s characterization of existents or objects as “systems of notes” in his book On Essence.

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In a recent remark responding to one of my posts, Dan quotes me and goes on to propose some critical commentary on my claims:

“While the sun certainly enters into political compositions within being, the sun is what it is regardless of whether or not politics is. Presumably the sun was over 5 billion years ago when our solar system accreted. Humans have existed for only about 200,000 years.”

I like you am drowning in undergrad papers that have an ability to drain what little intelligence I have, but this quotation seems indicative of a modality I have tried to flag and discuss in the past, what I nominate “science valorization.” This kind of utterance seems to me fine if everyone subscribes to a certain pattern of speech, a set of rules about narrating the world but it does not seem to me to reflect the usual standard of thought found here in other contexts. There are many issues here but the basic one perhaps is the claim to continuous past entities through time for which little present evidence of identity persists. Let’s say since we are all fond of difference that that chain of events called man or that called the sun evolve (I pick this since you are pro-evolution) but that the changes cannot be shown to be continuous or governed by one variable. Then the identification across time becomes not a statement of fact but a rhetorical injunction or a juridical limit. We find ourselves back with all the problems of essence and a platonic ontic. And what did this win since it gave up the very real it seeks?

While I always appreciate Dan’s comments– even if he might think otherwise –I often have a very difficult time understanding them as they strike me as extremely dense and elliptical. When I first read this comment, I interpreted the charge of “valorizing science” as a charge of dogmatically accepting scientific claims. This reading seemed suggested by the fact that Dan goes on to discuss my remark about the sun in terms of rhetoric, talking about utterances, patterns of speech, and whether or not everyone agrees with those patterns of speech. Since Dan talks about consensus (whether everyone agrees), it seems clear to me that Dan is making rhetoric the measure of reality. If I am portraying his position correctly, the thesis would be that there are different language games, science is one language game among others, and therefore it is dogmatic to “valorize science” because such a valorization fails to self-reflexively recognize the manner in which it is a language game among others.

This interpretation seems warranted as Dan goes on to remark that,

Levi, The majority of what you say strikes me as political and rhetorical, and a clear analysis then would have to be within those disciplinary vocabularies if we “wished to participate in a dialog with others.”

Here, if I understand Dan correctly, “disciplinary vocabularies” are treated as the condition for science, such that a “critical” discourse first requires an analysis of the disciplinary vocabulary or language game we are playing so as to demonstrate the manner in which this disciplinary vocabulary or language game socially constructs its objects. If, then, a discourse that makes claims directly about the world without first engaging in this self-reflexive analysis of disciplinary vocabularies or language games is dogmatic, then this is because it fails to recognize, pace a rhetorical variant of Kant’s Copernican revolution, the manner in which its object is a product of these language games rather than an entity in its own right.

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