Overdetermination


Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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Lately I have been rereading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe as my bedtime reading which perhaps accounts for why I have been unable to sleep and am nearly psychotically tired as it is a rich book full of all sorts of fascinating ideas that keep me tossing and turning as my mind spins. Dealing specifically with issues of self-organization, Kauffman’s work strives to theorize the conditions under which we get self-sustaining and organized matter such as we see in the case of living systems. A number of his claims are generalizable to a wide variety of phenomena beyond cells and organisms. Similar principles, for example, would apply to ecosystems, economy, social systems, brain organization and so on. And indeed, Kauffman approaches organization at a high level of abstraction, focusing on self-sustaining or autocatalytic chemical processes while also providing a wealth of formalizations that refer to no specific material substrate in particular. I have made no secret of the fact that I am generally hostile to relational ontologies that reduce objects to their relations. While objects certainly enter into relations, onticology begins from the premise that objects are independent of their relations and can pass out of and enter into new relations. Thus, for example, while being sympathetic to the Saussurean conception of language as a system, onticology nonetheless refuses the thesis that anything is its relations. In short, onticology begins with the hypothesis that being is atomistic or composed of discrete, autonomous, and independent objects that can pass in and out of relations. Yes, there are systems or forms of organization, but these forms of organization are assemblages of objects that enter into certain relationships with one another.

The consequence of this thesis is that one of the central issues for onticology becomes the problem of entropy. Roughly, entropy is a tendency of systems to move from states of higher organization to states of lower degrees of organization, or, alternatively, to move from states of non-equilibrium to equilibrium. The video below illustrates this idea nicely:

At the beginning, the system is in a state of non-equilibrium in the sense that all of the particles are concentrated in a particular region of the chamber. With the passage of time– a mere ten seconds –the particles wander throughout the chamber such that you have an equal probability of finding particles in any particular region of the chamber. The big question for onticology then becomes if being is composed of discrete and autonomous objects, then how is it that certain objects form assemblages that resist this increase in entropy, instead maintaining an organized state across time? A while back I suggested that this is how we should pose questions about the nature of society. There the question was that of how it is that humans bodies just don’t fly off in entropic ways, but instead enter into organized relations that sustain themselves across time. Of course, in order for any system to maintain itself in an organized way work is required. No system maintains itself without work. So the real issue lies in discovering the sort of work through which this organization is re-produced across time. This really gets to one of the central problems with French inflected structuralism and Luhmannian systems theory. Both identify the organization of a social system, how it is put together and how its elements are related, but they remain at the level of social physiology, giving only the skeleton of social systems or how the “bones are put together”. What they don’t give us is the work by which this physiology is maintained. They tell us that these systems somehow resist entropy, but not how. Given that many of us are interested, above all, in the question of how change is possible, the issue of how a social system resists entropy becomes a crucial strategic issue for political engagement. However, even if one is not interested in these political questions of change, the question remains fascinating on its own terms.

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In recent discussions here and elsewhere surrounding neurology, I get the sense that many approach neurology with a highly specific set of assumptions that very much color their reaction to this field. Turn the television to the Discovery channel on any given evening and you will find documentaries dominated by the theoretical orientation of psycho- and socio-biology. Within this theoretical orientation, any particular human practice, psychological phenomenon, or form of social organization is explained in evolutionary terms as a biological adaptation that promotes reproduction and survival. As a result, this form of psycho- and socio-biology ends up naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary.

Those of us who have developed intellectually in the milieu of the last century’s revolution in the social sciences– whether in fields like ethnography, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, linguistics, etc –cannot but encounter this form of theoretical explanation profoundly ignorant by virtue of the way it is commonly unaware of both the findings of ethnography where we discover that if you can imagine it there is probably some group of people somewhere or somewhen that have organized their social, exchange, and kinship relations in this way, and, as a consequence, ideologically debilitating as it ends up naturalizing the contingent forms of subjectivity, social organization, amorous relations, etc., that characterize our contemporary historical and cultural moment.

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depression-paintingw300h235It is not unusual to hear Lacanians snicker when references to Guattari come up, joking about how the La Borde clinic eventually resorted to giving its patients insulin shots. I’ve certainly made jokes like this in the past. It is almost a requirement within Lacanian circles. The subtext of this joke is that schizoanalysis had failed and that they could only have recourse to chemical straight jackets in treating their patients. I do not know the details of La Borde’s insulin treatments, but if this is a particularly stupid joke then this is because it is both reductive, suggesting that this is all that was taking place at La Borde, and because it assumes that treatment with psychotropics is inherently a failure. With respect to this latter point, what is reflected is a sort of idealistic, anti-materialist tendency within the theory community that would like to disavow the body and anything neurological, instead treating the signifier as the only legitimate approach to treatment.

As many who read this blog know, I spent about seven or eight years in Lacanian psychoanalysis with one of the foremost analysts in the United States. In addition to this, I myself practiced for about four or five years and underwent a training analysis as well. I certainly got a lot out of my analysis in terms of general self-knowledge, though I don’t know that this analysis had much in the way of efficacy where symptoms were concerned.

I’m hesitant to write this post and almost a bit embarrassed by what I’m about to say, but about a year or so ago I was overcome by a very serious depression. Despite the fact that things were going well, that I was getting all sorts of requests for work, that I was getting recognition, that my classes were going well, and all the rest, I was in a very black place. Suicidal fantasies would plague my thoughts. It was not that I was contemplating or planning killing myself. Rather it was as if certain images, fantasies, would flash through my mind, giving me thoughts of driving into oncoming traffic or of slipping downstairs in the middle of the night to slit my throat with my butcher’s knife. My thoughts became extremely persecutory, perpetually telling me how awful I am as a person, how my work is rotten, how I’m trapped in my life, and all the rest. I was no longer able to take pleasure in anything, nor concentrate on anything. I no longer enjoyed cooking. Movies and televisions shows were unable to capture my interests. All books seemed bland and without interest. It was a very black time.

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strange_spc_gravity_waves_02

In physics, thermodynamics (from the Greek θερμη, therme, meaning “heat” and δυναμις, dynamis, meaning “power”) is the study of the conversion of heat energy into different forms of energy (in particular, mechanical, chemical, and electrical energy); different energy conversions into heat energy; and its relation to macroscopic variables such as temperature, pressure, and volume. Its underpinnings, based upon statistical predictions of the collective motion of particles from their microscopic behavior, is the field of statistical thermodynamics, a branch of statistical mechanics. Roughly, heat means “energy in transit” and dynamics relates to “movement”; thus, in essence thermodynamics studies the movement of energy and how energy instills movement. Historically, thermodynamics developed out of need to increase the efficiency of early steam engines. Typical thermodynamic system, showing input from a heat source (boiler) on the left and output to a heat sink (condenser) on the right. Work is extracted, in this case by a series of pistons.

The starting point for most thermodynamic considerations are the laws of thermodynamics, which postulate that energy can be exchanged between physical systems as heat or work. They also postulate the existence of a quantity named entropy, which can be defined for any system. In thermodynamics, interactions between large ensembles of objects are studied and categorized. Central to this are the concepts of system and surroundings. A system is composed of particles, whose average motions define its properties, which in turn are related to one another through equations of state. Properties can be combined to express internal energy and thermodynamic potentials, which are useful for determining conditions for equilibrium and spontaneous processes.

With these tools, thermodynamics describes how systems respond to changes in their surroundings.

From Wikipedia.

When the Ontic Principle, Latour’s Principle, the Principle of Irreduction, and the Hegemonic Fallacy are taken together, they can be understood as making the case for the introduction of something like thermodynamics into ontology. The Ontic Principle states that there is no difference that does not make a difference. Latour’s Principle states that there is no transportation without translation. The Principle of Irreduction states that nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else. And finally the Hegemonic Fallacy states that it is illicit to reduce all difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference. While the thermodynamic dimension of the Ontic Principle does not exhaust the signification of this principle, it nonetheless captures one important aspect that follows from this principle. Insofar as, ontologically, there is no difference that does not make a difference, it follows that difference requires work both for the entity making the difference and the entity upon which the difference is made. Both of these differences are involved in the interactive process of those objectiles entering into an assemblage with one another.

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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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