Power


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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I’ll make these questions brief as I haven’t eaten yet today, am coming down with a cold, and am generally worn out. The model of objects I’ve been working with recently has basically focused on very simple physical objects where the attractors inhabiting the virtual dimension of the object are relatively fixed. Here I think it’s important, however, to distinguish between what, for lack of a better word, might be called recursive objects and non-recursive objects (if someone has a better term for what I’m trying to get at, let me know). When I refer to recursive objects, I have in mind objects whose outputs evoked by inputs (i.e., local manifestations) have the peculiar property of, in turn, functioning as inputs for subsequent states of the object. In addition to the outputs of these objects functioning as inputs for new objects within the endo-relational structure of the object, these objects are historical in the sense that not only do they have a past, they reflexively relate to that past. Thus all objects have a past, no matter how brief that past might be, but not all objects reflexively relate to that past such that that past can function as an input for subsequent states of the object.

I can think of no better representation for this sort of object than Bergson’s famous “cone of memory” from Matter and Memory (depicted to the left above). The point of Bergson’s cone of memory can’t really be represented in a diagram, because what the cone expresses is not simply that there’s a past that trails out behind an object, but that the object perpetually relates to different strata of that past. In the diagram above “S” can be taken to represented the most contracted point of time or the specious present (what I would call the most instantaneous of local manifestations). The cone itself represents the past.

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For some time now I have evoked the concept of attractors and points in phase space to describe the structure of objects. Since these are somewhat foreign concepts in philosophy and I am using them, I suspect, in idiosyncratic ways, it would be worthwhile to clarify just what I have in mind and, more importantly, clarify what problem these concepts are designed to respond to. In a nutshell, the concepts of attractor and phase space are designed to account for the relation between what I call the local manifestation of objects and objects in their proper being. Attractors and phase spaces belong to the proper being of objects and are virtual, while points in phase space belong to the local manifestations of objects and are actual.

To understand these concepts it is necessary to understand the problem to which they respond. So why am I evoking these concepts? What philosophical work do they do? Objects are substances. Before Continentalists coming out of a Nietzschean and process oriented tradition begin to twitch, it is necessary to understand that the question of what a substance is is very much open. There is no a priori reason, for example, to suppose that substances can’t be processes or events. I won’t get into the details of this point here, but in my view process metaphysics critiques of substance are way overblown. They are right to critique the concept of substance as a bare substratum, but nothing about this critique suggests that we should throw out the concept of substance altogether. It only entails that one proposal as to the nature of substance is mistaken or wrongheaded.

Setting all this aside, it will be recalled that one way in which Aristotle defines substance is as that which is capable of sustaining contrary qualities at different points in time. One and the same substance, say a piece of paper, can have the quality of being smooth at one point in time and wrinkled at another point in time. Being-wrinkled or being-smooth are what I call local manifestations of an object. They are manifestations of an object because they are actualizations of the power of a substance. In other words, they are actualizations of what a substance can do.

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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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