Possibility


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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go-3women-534x716Responding to my post on the Game of Life and Emergence, John Doyle, over at Ktismatics, speculates about the ontological status of the patterns that emerge in the game. Doyle first outlines five helpful criteria for emergence drawn from Jaegwon Kim:

1. Systems with a higher level of complexity emerge from the coming together of lower-level entities in new structural configurations.
2. Higher-level systems exhibit higher-level emergent properties arising from the lower-level properties and relations of its constituent parts.
3. Emergent properties are not predictable from information about lower-level conditions.
4. Emergent properties are not explainable or reducible to the lower-level conditions.
5. Emergent properties have novel causal powers of their own.

I am largely in agreement with these five criteria of emergent phenomena so long as number four isn’t taken to entail anything spooky or magical like a sudden magical leap, but rather is a thesis about scale dependent properties that couldn’t have strictly been predicted from the lower level rules. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment. For those interested in actually playing the Game of Life, Ian Bogost has been kind enough to provide a link here.

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Fall_Creek_2For some time now I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from biological thought. In part, I suppose, this is because I went through a period when I wanted to be a marine biologist and watched The Food Chain Channel (National Geographic and Animal Planet) nightly. Between the ages of eight and thirteen I could be found, on any given Summer day, mucking about in the creek in my backyard, shorts rolled up all Tom Sawyer like, capturing various critters such as tadpoles, frogs, snails, crayfish, turtles, fish, and whatever else I could find for my numerous aquariums in my room. Needless to say my parents were much dismayed by a rather swamp-like miasma that came to permeate the upper story of our house. Despite the social alienation I experienced then, this was a happy time in my life, spent exploring the plants and trees and animals and building all sorts of things. Beyond my fascination with the biological, however, I’ve found that biology converges on issues central to contemporary debates. When I suggest this there are, no doubt, those who shudder, immediately jumping to the conclusion that I am suggesting that philosophy should be “biologized”. But really that isn’t it at all. If biology should be of interest to philosophers, then this is because it deals with issues at the heart of contemporary debates such as the nature of what constitutes an individual, the nature of systems, how change takes place, how negentropic phenomena are possible, the nature of difference, and so on and so on. As my brilliant friend Adam Miller recently exclaimed when describing his encounter with Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, “it is like an embarrassment of ontological riches”. This is not, I take it, because of the contributions Gould makes to evolutionary theory, but because of how he tackles questions like what constitutes an individual?, what is the relationship between different scales of individuals?, how does change take place?, what is difference?, etc. Adam is right, just read the book. If anything else it is good for pushing you into different constellations of thought.

For the last week I’ve been working through Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students. Written in a gorgeous conversational and entertaining style that I can only dream of having and which emulates Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach (who was, incidentally, one of his mentors), Dennett’s book, no less than Gould’s, is an embarrassment of riches. If this is so, then it is not because one is ultimately convinced by his arguments– though that’s always possible –but because the book is so rich in concepts, analogies, and thought experiments that it functions as a rich machine for producing other associations very remote from his own immediate aims and interests.

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Stem_cell_embryo_20x_01In a terrific response to my post on exo-relations, Caemeron writes:

I wonder if people are scared to comment on this? The topic here does get pretty obscure and daunting, but I would like you to say more.

I remain unconvinced by your claim that there are objects that aren’t related to any other object.

To begin, I’ll take your example of yourself in relation to planet earth. Isn’t planet earth the way it is because of its gravitational relations with the rest of the solar system, and the solar system with the galaxy and so on?

Secondly, what is your take on “the butterfly effect”, or the idea that miniscule events on the other side of the world can create large impacts through a serial progression? To the point, perhaps: by relation do you mean only direct relation?

you say:

This is one reason that we are able to claim that two objects can be spatially unrelated. If enough time has not elapsed for light to travel to the other object, then there is no gravitational relation between these objects.

Could we not add the word ‘yet’ to the end of this? doesn’t that give us a temporal relation?

Insofar as you want to say that objects create spatiotemporal relations rather than vice versa, I’m with you, but I simply find the notion of an object which is unrelated to anything else to be unthinkable (wouldn’t thinking about it place it into a relation?) And, if it is thinkable through Gaussian manifolds, which I know woefully little about, I don’t see how that might justify us in claiming that there actually are such objects (to throw your criticism of Badiou back at you)

‘Relation’ seems to me to be a very broad term. A number like 47 may not be in space or time, but is certainly related to many things conceptually, metonymically, mathematically, etc. It seems to me that we can even conceive of non-relation as a form of relation.

Is your claim that 1) an object is not necessarily related to every other object or 2) there are objects which are not related to any other object?

I think Caemeron here raises a number of points that are worth briefly expanding upon and clarifying. First, my thesis is not that objects are unrelated to anything else or that there are objects that are unrelated to anything else. Like Caemeron, I hold that objects maintain a variety of exo-relations with other objects. My body, for example, has the shape, height, and consistency it possesses because of the exo-relations it has with other objects like the planet earth, the molecules presiding over air pressure etc. Consequently, there are a number of qualities belonging to my body that would not exist as they do without exo-relations or relations to other objects.

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platoscave

In many respects it can be said that Žižek is a consummate ironist with all of the problems attendant to irony as a rhetorical strategy. In this respect, his rhetorical strategy is not unlike that of Socrates’, where he rhetorically strives to always turn the question back to the questioner, getting them to question their own assumptions behind the question, shifting the frame of the question (and therefore the possibilities following from the question) itself. Through this rhetorical maneuver Žižek strives to effect a sort of transcendence of reigning conditions and ideology, introducing new alternatives into the social system. In this respect, Žižek’s texts can be thought as not unlike Plato’s famous allegory of the cave (which Žižek often references), where the participants, the interlocutors, cease playing the ideological game (trying to name what image will appear on the wall next), and instead leap into an entirely different game. It was this that I tried to argue in my article “Symptomal Knots and Evental Ruptures” (warning pdf), where I attempted to argue that where Badiou’s political strategy consists in the affirmation of an undemonstrable event and the truth-procedures that follow from that declaration, Žižek’s political strategy consists in trying to force the event, to produce the event, or in opening a void space within the hegemony of the ideological structure where new alternatives become available.

As an ironist, just when you think you’ve pinned down his position, he reverses everything and articulates yet another position contradicting the first. Hence the sense that he never gets anywhere. The paradox is that the more Žižek tries to disavow and undermine this position of being the subject-supposed-to-know, the more he tends to provoke transference in his audience, convincing them that he must contain some secret (just as Socrates’ interlocutors invariably thought that he knew and was just withholding the answer).

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I do think that while I do not agree with the notion of revolution as the only aim of politics (advocating a more classically Marxist position pertaining to tendencies populating the social field and their possibilities), and while I find Žižek’s references (and often celebration of) figures like Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, etc., as well as violence distasteful, this talk of revolution does serve a rhetorically important function within debates over political theory. In other words, in the absence of the belief that society can be fundamentally transformed and that we should commit ourselves to the project of transforming society– i.e., a desire for the real or impossible –we descend into a pacifying neo-pragmatism not unlike that of Critchly or Rorty, where we become apologists for liberal democracy and all of its attendant problems. Under this neo-pragmatic liberal democratism, any form of engagement envisioning an alternative form of society is excluded a priori as necessarily doomed to produce disaster and simultaneously as impossible. There is thus a closure of political possibility and the best we can hope for is a pacifying “communicative action” that dare not work for something else.

One of Žižek’s points is that liberal democracy is every bit as obscene and brutal as these other political systems so often denounced within western democracies as being “the worst”. The problem is that Žižek doesn’t do the necessary legwork in order to demonstrate this. Yes he shows the ideological mechanisms creating the straight-jacket of capitalism and liberal democracy as the only alternative, but he doesn’t do a very good job demonstrating just what is so obscene about liberal democracy and capitalism. To see this you need to read someone like Naomi Klein or other empirically oriented writers who document the actual effects of this system. It is disappointing that many of the theorists working in the post-Althusserian tradition of structuralist Marxism (and ultimately in the Gramscian tradition of Marxist thought where everything eventually came to be reduced to the cultural or semiotic register) look down on this sort of hard empirical and historical work practiced by people like David Harvey or Naomi Klein.

I do not think, however, that Žižek genuinely advocates the violence he often glorifies, or the totalitarianism he so often celebrates. What I think he’s doing is trying to make alternative possibilities available within political discourse. Proof of this, I think, can be seen in his recent article on Obama (here and here). A standard radical leftist stance, premised, as it so often is on a sense of cynicism and distrust of any establishment power, might be that we should reject Obama or should not have voted for him as he will simply be a continuation of the same. Badiou goes so far as to argue that we shouldn’t vote at all as this confuses the domain of the political with the state. A radical leftwing Žižekian political activist might argue that support for Obama amounts to giving way on one’s revolutionary desire, betraying that desire, and therefore betraying the cause (objet a). Yet surprisingly in his writings on Obama we find Žižek defending support for Obama as one avenue through which the coordinates of the symbolic can be changed even if, at the level of policy, these policies continue to support standard liberal democratic and capitalist platforms. This defense alone should give us significant pause in our interpretation of just what Žižek is up to.

Of course, the problem is, as Nathan asks, what happens when irony is not understood as irony?

UpdateBryan, over at Velvet Howler, presents an excellent response to my post on Žižek’s political strategy.

As Dr. Sinthome goes on to explain, Žižek’s key rhetorical tactic used to subvert conformist liberal democratic discourse is irony. This involves something peculiarly Žižekian, something that is palpable in every book he has written and every article he has published. The first move involves a rejection of the (typically hegemonic) liberal response to a given issue. One might think that, given Žižek’s political commitments, the next move would be to assert the far Left/Marxist view to counter the liberal position. Instead, Žižek often takes a stance that is uncomfortably close to the right-wing position, but then argues that the right-wing position simply makes a much stronger case for the far Left position.

Read the rest here. The piece is very rich and contains far more than this brief passage.

Update 2:Mikhail of Perverse Egalitarianism adds his own scathing rejoinder in a style only Mikhail can pull off.

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So far we have only abstract oppositions for thinking the space of the political. By “abstract opposition” I have in mind an opposition where the terms are conceived as existing independent of one another, apart from one another. As Blah-feme points out, we suppose that there are two options: agency which is free and ubiquitous subjectivity which is enslaved. On the one side, a free and autonomous subject, unmediated by any social, linguistic, technological, or economic relation. On the other side, an ego completely formed and produced by the social system as an instance of a Borg collective. That is, an ego’s being that is so distributed that its very thoughts are simply iterations of the collective, global network where we immediately move to action in response to the proper stimulus. All the women at Heathrow were wearing tall leather boots. I return and all the women here are wearing precisely the same boots. No doubt they all believe they made an absolutely unique decision based on their own unique, singular, and absolutely individual aesthetic taste.

The image of a fly caught in a web comes to mind… But not just a fly caught in a web. Rather a fly that has itself been produced by the web. There is a whole genre of theory premised on such an idea: Bourdieu, Foucault, perhaps Althusser and Butler. The anxiety is that the fly never existed independently of the web to begin with; not in any meaningful sense, anyway.

If the fly never existed existed independently of the web, then there can be no question of overcoming alienation as there never was an origin, a substance, an essence, that was then subsequently alienated. There can be no talk here of recuperating a “species-being” that we are at our core but in alienated form. There can be no return if there is no destination to which to return. The fly was never outside the web or prior to the web.

But if the fly is nothing but folds or weavings of the web, a product or creation of the web in the robust sense that an origami bird is not other than the paper out of which it is made but is itself continuous with that paper as a topological variation of its substance, then how can creations of the fly be anything but creations, foldings, weavings of the web of social relations? That is, how can they be anything but ways of strengthening the web. The content might change through the fly’s foldings and weavings of the threads of the web, yet the form remains the same: the material out of which the content is woven remains that of a spider’s web. Quicksand. The more the fly struggles the deeper it is pulled, the more it is entangled. We thus get another genre of theory: Sartre, Badiou, Ranciere, Zizek, various appropriations of Lacan. Here it is always a matter of conceiving a void place that is unmediated by the social system, that is not touched by the web, that would function as a point of leverage– Archimedes said that the entire world could be moved with one fixed point and a lever –that would allow a space of autonomy and freedom from which to challenge the web.

Yet ontologically a subtraction or non-mediated point is untenable or a bit of wishful thinking. The real question ought to be drawn from judo: how can web be used against itself?

Notebookeleven— whose blog, I’m embarrassed to say, I just recently discovered –has written an interesting response to my post Where’s Marx?

Larvalsubjects has an interesting post on Marx in the academy over here which has generated a lively discussion in which, perhaps unsurprisingly, the question of agency has risen to the fore again. This is still something I find disturbing, something I’m not really able to get a grip on fully, since I tend to understand the problem of agency as responding to something like a desire to answer the question ‘what difference can I make?’. “Where’s the agency”, someone might ask, “in these economic analyses of desire (D&G) or capital (Marx)? Isn’t it all just a huge machine in which I am nothing? And if it is a big machine, how did this machine produce it’s own auto-critique? Isn’t it really the break, the rupture (of the subject), that we need to theorise? Isn’t consciousness really the most important fact in reality since it is inexplicable by reality? Me, I’m important, surely – doesn’t my analysis do anything, offer anything – don’t I have the answers, or at least the right to produce answers or the possibility of finding them?” I’m inclined to dismiss these questions out of hand as the whining desire of a resentiment-filled petit-bourgeois who thinks they’re ‘in charge of their life’ in the first place but have to recognise that at least some of the charge invested in this response is disproportionate and perhaps related to the other peculiar investments I find myself bound to (revolution, majik, sex).

You can read the rest here. While I am not yet willing to draw a hard and fast distinction between academic theory and the field of practice, I do think these are questions worth raising. Rather than asking the question what is to be done?, perhaps the question should be where are things being done? That is, where are the tendencies of change and transformation in the world today. The virtue of this question is that it takes the onus of change off the shoulders of the theorist– a rather narcissistic and self-congratulatory perspective to begin with, that lends itself easily to hierarchical, top-down models –and directs attention to the social field and those tendencies or potentialities where social structurations are shifting and changing. This accords well with Marx’s own attentiveness to questions of where the real motor of history is to be found. Regardless of how problematic they are, this is one of the things I find appealing about Negri and Hardt. Negri and Hardt do not propose a program– as far as I know –nor give a set of prescriptions as to what is to be done. Rather, they look to those places in the social field where existing social structures are undergoing transformation and change as a result of the productions of various, heterogeneous, multitudes. That is, it is these divergent, heterogeneous, multitudes that are the motor of change, not the theorist remaking society in his imagination from his armchair. If anything, the theorist perhaps brings a little more clarity to these struggles and points of deterritorialization. In his defense, Badiou is very clear that it is not philosophers that create truths or engage in truth-procedures (qua philosophers). For Badiou it is always artists, scientists, those engaged in political struggles, and lovers that engage in truth-procedures. The philosopher names truths, articulates them as truths (one need not be aware that they are engaged in a truth-procedure to be engaged in a truth-procedure) and strives to think the compossibility of the four conditions of truth.

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