Potential


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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One of the more compelling themes that punctuates Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is the linkage between the rise of certain mental illnesses and post-Fordist capitalist modes of production, identifying it as a key site of the political (at least virtually). Now, for readers familiar with French inflected social theory, this thesis will not, in and of itself, appear new. In An Introduction to Marcel Mauss Levi-Strauss had argued something similar with respect to schizophrenia and psychosis, going so far as to suggest that in certain “primitive societies” this phenomena doesn’t exist. Canguilhem suggested something similar, as did Foucault. But in each of these instances the emphasis was put on the social and discursive production of mental illness. If one adopted these accounts of mental illness, then it became necessary to reject materialist or neurological accounts of mental illness. The story goes that either one adopts the neurological account and is thus subject to an ideological illusion that de-politicizes something that is in fact social (mental illness), or you adopt the social account of mental illness and reject anything having to do with the neurological or psychotropics as ideological mystifications. Fisher’s analysis, by contrast, is far more subtle. As Fisher writes,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

In many respects, Fisher’s analysis of affectivity here mirrors Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Just as commodity fetishism treats relations that are truly between person’s as if they were relations between or to things (when I buy a diamond I think I’m just relating to that commodity and not enmeshed in a set of social relationships), “affectivity fetishism” could be construed as treating relations that are, in fact, social and political, as relations to mere neurons. The instantiation of certain neuronal structures and relations is here confused with the cause of these instantiations. Here I would express what I take to be Fisher’s point a bit differently by referring to Aristotle’s four causes. The problem with neurological accounts of mental illness is that they confuse what Aristotle referred to as the material and formal cause of a thing with its efficient cause. Depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are all certain structures of mentality (formal cause) that are embodied in a certain stuff (material cause), but this in and of itself does not account for why these particular embodied structures come to exist as they do (efficient cause).

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Adrian Ivakhiv and I have been having a terrific exchange on objects and relations which really goes to the heart of what I’m trying to think about (here, here, and here). Indeed, in an earlier draft of The Democracy of Objects I had pitched the project of the work as working out “the relation between relata (objects) and relations”. As I read Adrian’s remarks, I get the sense that he worries that object-oriented ontology might lead us to ignore relations. After all, OOO begins from the premise that objects are absolutely independent of one another. This could certainly cause a lot of worries for an ecological theorist, where relations and systems are so important.

I think this too quickly passes over, however, one of Harman’s most radical and original ontological claims; a claim that I have also made a center-piece of my own ontology. It is indeed the case that the ontological nominalist contingent of object-oriented ontology (Harman, Bogost, and myself), holds that objects are independent and autonomous with respect to one another. This is in contrast to the ontological relationist contingent (Whitehead, Latour), that holds that objects are constituted by their relations to everything else in the universe. However, this is not the whole story. One thesis that lies at the heart of the nominalistic variants of OOO pertains to mereology or part/whole relations.

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Responding to the second part of my manifesto for onticology, Paul Bains asks about the thesis that objects withdraw shared by a number of different object-oriented ontologists. Paul writes:

This might need more than one go to get it right.

I’m partly referring to Graham Harman’s thesis that objects have no direct contact – one that you ‘partly share.’ Altho onticology is ‘flat’ – all objects have the same ontology…

What I’m wondering is that, even if we accept objects exceeding an given encounter, why we cannot say that there is ‘direct contact’, even if only partial. Objects really do have contact – they don’t have to use up all their possibilities in that encounter.

When the rain drop hits the pavement there are other possible things it could have done (I could have opened my mouth to the sky and let it straight in) but it still has direct contact with the pavement…???

Partially anticipating Paul’s question, Harman writes:

People ask me: “Why do objects need to be withdrawn from all relation? Why not just say that they are *partially* in relation?” And I’m pretty sure that’s what Paul means here.

My response to this (not that different from Leibniz’s in the Monadology) is that an object isn’t pieced together out of parts. It’s not as if humans can touch trees directly, but due to some sad epistemological limits we can only ever know 85% or 90% of the tree. No, the point is that the tree is not something pieces together out of a finite number of accessible qualities, and hence to come in contact with some of those qualities is already an *indirect* relation to the tree. Qualities are already mediators with respect to the things to which they belong.

Harman and I share a number of similar philosophical intuitions– which is why we can both safely number ourselves as belonging to the genus “object-oriented ontology” –but I am never quite sure whether onticology (me) and object-oriented philosophy (Harman) ultimately arrive at these conclusions for the same reason. In other words, there’s a question of whether we’re expressing the same thesis and set of concepts using different conceptual vocabularies, or whether we arrive at similar conclusions from very different and perhaps even opposed conceptual frameworks. This ambiguity is part of what makes my engagement with Graham so productive. In many respects we come from very different theoretical backgrounds (Harman coming out of phenomenology, me coming out of French structuralism, post-structuralism, and neo-Marxist thought), so there’s a question of just how our positions overlap and diverge.

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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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