Power


newssmokeThe word “object” derives from the Latin prefix ob, meaning “against”, and the word jacere, meaning “to throw”. Presumably there is a relationship between objects, on the one hand, and existence on the other hand. To be an object is also to exist. The term “existence” comes from the Latin term existere (ex and sistere) meaning “to stand forth”. It would thus seem that to be an object is “to be thrown against” or “to stand forth”. Here, then, would be a first reason for conceiving objects in relation to difference. If to be an object is to stand forth or to be thrown against, then it follows that to be an object is first and foremost to differ. On the one hand, we here see why objects must always be attached to a field. If objects stand forth or are thrown against, there must be something from which they stand forth or against which they are thrown. Minimally, then, it must be said that there are not just objects, but object-field relations. There is nothing for the object to stand-forth from if there is no field against which the object stands. This field could be anything and the question of what constitutes a field would be a central question of ontological speculation. Is the field in question the void, as in the case of Lucretius? Is it other objects? Is it a background-foreground relation as in the case of the Gestaltists? Is it the One substance of Spinoza? The question is open. All that can be said is that minimally objects are a differentiating. For this reason objects are necessarily attached to a world; or rather, there are no worldless objects.

125The second notable feature of the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” is that both contain verbs. “Object” contains the verb jacere, meaning to throw. “Existence” contains the verb sistere, meaning “to stand forth”. The term “object”, of course, is a noun. When we think of nouns we tend to think of something fixed and established. Something that presides. Yet the etymology of the terms “object” and “existence” suggests a verb or action at the heart of objects and existence. If objects stand-forth or are thrown, then there is an activity at work in the object or the existent. In this respect, the Greek concept of φύσις or phusis as that which emerges, grows, or is born would be at the heart of objects. When the Ontic Principle claims that there is no difference that does not make a difference, we get one sense in which objects are. The difference of an object is a difference that is made and constantly remade, emerging from out of a field. Consequently, objects should be thought as events.

g002_pllck2_she_wolfIt is unfortunate that we so often use “difference” as a noun. The differences that constitute an object should not be understood as the properties by which an observer distinguishes two objects from one another, but should instead be understood as difference internal to the object, presiding over the process of how it stands forth from a field or throws itself. Difference should be understood in the sense of “to differ” or “differing“, as the activity by which the objects unfolds, blooms, or emerges against a field. Perhaps the term “differentiating” would be preferable to “difference”, so long as differentiating is understood as what objects do, not what minds do in distinguishing objects from one another. While we do indeed make distinctions, so long as difference is understood primarily as distinction, difference becomes a negative term describing relations between identicals. When we speak of difference as distinction, we here speak of difference in terms of what something is not, rather than affirmatively as the differentiating taking place in the heart or volcanic core of objects. “This cat is black, that cat is not.” Hence Deleuze will remarks that,

The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself– and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it… Difference is this state in which determination takes the form of unilateral distinction. We must therefore say that difference is made, or makes itself, as in the expression ‘make the difference’. (Difference and Repetition, Columbia University Press, 28)

As I argued in a previous post, the epistemic and the ontological are deeply intertwined due to the philosophical tradition, such that we must perpetually struggle to untangle the two if we are to get anywhere. Difference-between is a relation between three terms where, on the one hand, we have two objects that differ from one another (black and white cats) and a mind contemplating that difference or distinguishing these two terms. Such would be difference epistemically conceived. Implicitly this form of difference would involve an observer or mind distinguishing the two objects. However, difference as Deleuze here conceives it would be ontological and strictly an affair of the object itself, regardless of whether any minds were about to distinguish the object from other objects. Here we would have the object distinguishing itself through some sort of internal force or power– an internal difference –rather than objects being distinguished.

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lagoonnebulaheartnasaReid has another interesting post up further developing his concept of Dark Matter. While I do not share Reid’s views about Dark Matter, his post does evoke some thoughts with respect to the ontology I’m trying to develop. Reid begins by asking us to,

Imagine an unspecified object. This ‘object’ image is a variable the value of which we cannot deduce. If we introduce this variable into a series of relations with other specified objects, we can determine that value and hence make definite or specific claims about it. Yet we will refrain from doing so. Let’s hold this object in reserve, so to speak, and grant it only the minimal qualification of existentiality: this object has a value that can be judged in terms of its existence or non-existence.

Yet we cannot definitely or definitively make such a judgment until we can relate this object to the field within which it is implicated as existing or not; or until we can attribute to this object some qualitative properties that derive from its constitution or interior composition. The object as variable must be related to an exterior field within which it is implicated, or an interior field of which it is composed: it is by virtue of these relations that we can deduce the existential value of this variable-object.

Yet we will hold such judgments in suspense by refusing any such relational qualification (and yes, the inward relation of an object to its components is still a relation, and even a relation of exteriority). We do not do so for the sake of some thought experiment or theoretical game. Rather, we want to raise the real question of the existential status of unqualified variables. We have already allowed that this variable-object is minimally taken in terms of an existential value, though this value is unknown. Yet without any specification or qualification, the variable-object which admittedly has some existential valence, which admittedly exists in some mode or magnitude (even negative), only has the effect of suspending the existential status we have admitted of it. As an unqualified variable, one which admittedly exists somehow, in some way, the variable-object exists in the manner of having an unspecifiable, indeterminable existence or existential value. Far from being a mark of epistemological limitation, this is a positive claim on the object, one which converts the suspense of value itself into a value.

This completely unqualified variable is what Reid calls “Dark Matter”. I am not entirely certain I understand Reid’s last move where he converts what appears to be an epistemological limitation into, if I read him properly, an ontological limitation. That is, on the one hand we have the properties of an object that manifest themselves in terms of a field. For example, water has the capacity to boil, but this capacity only manifests itself in response to certain conditions, i.e., a rise in temperature.

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108-519Jacob Russell has written a very nice response to my post on Margaret’s Pepper Principle, translating this principle into the domain of aesthetics. The money quote comes at the end:

From my earlier POST (a chapter in my novel-in-progress, Ari Figue’s Cat, I wrote (with some alterations)

Until the first word is written everything is possible. … We may, of course, erase as we write, circling back to a new starting point–speaking to ourselves, as it were, but that all comes to an end the moment the page is read, and in truth, even the freedom of erasure and revision is an illusion. Every word added to the next forecloses an infinite array of possibilities.

If you set out to tell a story you quickly find that you cannot go just anywhere. The more you write the more the words take charge, reducing the writer to a mere instrument playing out theme and variation over sets of ever more determinate patterns, and yet, it is seldom clear what those patterns are.

Busily translating (viva la difference!) from ontology to the aesthetics of process: all the elements of memory, association, ideas and language that we work into a written form are like the grains and eyes in the piece of wood. Like whitling the head of a duck, writing a novel is a process of negotion with the material at hand and every act, each engagement with that material translates both material and our intention. When reading and interpreting a literary work, it is useless to appeal to the author’s intention, not because we have no access to the author’s mind and are limited to the text–but because the author’s intentions have been in a continuous process of translation along with the writing as it evolves. What existed in the beginning, and at every point to the completion of the work, is a continuum of difference that moves both forward and back. We cannot get there from here without changing both here and there.

This has actually been a pet project of mine for a long time and is one of the key themes of my book, Difference and Givenness. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze calls for a new transcendental aesthetic that would be capable of overcoming the split between aesthetics as the doctrine of sensibility or what can be sensed and aesthetics as the theory of artistic production. The first form of aesthetics might be traced back to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason where the transcendental aesthetic refers to the a priori forms of sensibility or intuition defining, as it were, the frame within which any object must be encountered or experienced. baezThe mind imposes the forms of space and time upon objects, giving them sensible structure or form. Consequently, as Kant brilliantly argues, space and time come not from the world itself, but are rather imposed by mind on the objects of the world. Were this not the case, Kant argues, we would be unable to explain how geometry and arithmetic are possible. Here Kant is assuming that mathematics is based on intuition or pure sensibility. It is important to note that this is an exceedingly controversial thesis in the philosophy of mathematics and a thesis that is strongly challenged by the subsequent development of new forms of mathematics that appear to be unintuitable by humans. At any rate, why doesn’t Kant think we’d be unable to account for mathematics were we not to suppose that time and space are forms of intuition mind imposes on the world? Simply put, we would not be able to explain why the truths of mathematics, truths we can reach through thought alone, 1) hold for all times and places despite the finite limitations of our ability to verify this, and 2) apply to the objects of intuition themselves. This latter point, I think, is the far more profound and challenging argument. That is, why is it that something that we merely think again and again happens to also apply to physical objects in the world? This simple observation is one of the more convincing arguments for Kant’s transcendental idealism.

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2464925252_3f01334e30My dear gray friend (it really is glorious long hair, and I’m generally staunchly opposed to long hair on men, but he’s one of the few gents that can pull it off with style and gravitas) Jerry the Anthropologist has evoked Margaret’s Pepper Principle in the course of a discussion pertaining to the Hegemonic Fallacy. Although I have referenced this anecdote often here on the blog, I have never devoted a post to it, so here goes.

Jerry writes,

Every semester I begin every class by bringing in two peppers: a bell pepper and the pepper closest to a west African pepper. Long ago (in 1961 0r 1962) my mother, Margaret was asked to plant bell peppers in Kaduna, northern Nigeria by the US Department of Agriculture. The first fruiting led to sweet bell peppers just as you might expect. The second fruiting of the same plants produced very very hot peppers just like all the peppers for some considerable distance around. So something in the environment and something in the underlying system conjoined to produce something I call FORM. I take this to be a general principle pertaining to everything we can observe including ourselves.

495931989vzvgix_phWhen Jerry asked me if I had referenced Margaret’s Pepper Principle here on the blog, I mistakenly took him to be referring to the proper name “Margaret Pepper” (I’m not all here today, being a bit under the weather). I’ve often referenced Margaret’s Pepper Principle here on the blog and it’s actually a foundational principle of my own metaphysics. On the one hand, it is an excellent example of what I’ve been calling “Latour’s Principle”, which states that there is no transportation without translation. The Ontic Principle states that there is no difference that does not make a difference. In the case of Margaret’s Pepper Principle, perhaps the difference in question would be the DNA of the peppers. As the DNA unfolds in a new generation of peppers, it transports itself in the production of the pepper cells. However, this transportation requires translation of the material with which it works. Cells do not erupt in the world ex nihilo, but rather must draw on the body of the earth and sky about them, translating these materials in turn into a new configuration. Just as the carpenter carving a piece of work cannot simply impose the form he has in mind on the wood, but must take into account the grain of the wood, its knots, its density, its dryness or dampness, etc., the seeds brought by Jerry’s mother have to navigate the environment or field within which they’re planted.

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2718546386_1bebbf7b87Bryan, over at the marvelous Velvet Howler, weighs in on my response to Mikhail, remarking that,

I want to give Dr. Sinthome as much credit as is due to him, but if his main point in regards to the hegemonic fallacy is that reductionism is bad, what’s the point of the hegemonic fallacy and all of the abstract talk of objects? To an extent I agree with Mikhael that LS’s metaphysics obscures the fact that what he seems to be saying isn’t, at the core, all that interesting. If I could crudely summarize, it seems that LS’s point is this: the Ontic principle (“there is no difference that does not make a difference”) does not intend to describes Kantian Things-in-themselves (which would simply be a return to traditional metaphysics), but seeks to overcome the nature/culture divide that characterizes Modernist thinking by asserting (1) the horizontal nature of difference and (2) the “deconstruction” of objects.

In the case of these two points, the first involves the destruction of structure or hierarchy. This is another way of simply restating the hegemonic fallacy: no difference can attain a metaphysical status wherein it determines other differences (Sinthome gives Latour’s example of the Bible and the “savages”). The second point involves a critique of Kant, who, despite his attempt at limiting metaphysics to the scope of the (transcendental) conditions of possibility, nevertheless describes what is outside of consciousness (or what is for-us) as “objects,” which presupposes a modicum of organization that is itself rendered “metaphysical” under Sinthome’s “speculative realist” terms (and the same, for Sinthome, seems to be true of intuitions, but ultimately what I find disappointing about Sinthome’s reading of Kant is that it is simply boring)

There are few charges more damning or upsetting than the charge that one’s thoughts are boring or uninteresting. I truly hope this isn’t the case. At the moment there are a lot of moving parts to what I’m trying to do and there’s a lot of work left to be done. The Ontic Principle is only a starting point. First, in response to Bryan, the aim of the hegemonic fallacy is not simply to overcome the nature/culture divide. In formulating the Hegemonic Fallacy, I was first responding to some remarks that I had received on my blog and in email that seemed to suggest that people were assuming that, in affirming an object-oriented philosophy, I was simply opting for nature over culture or the physical world over the cultural world. The first aim of my post on the Hegemonic Fallacy was simply to dispel that notion.

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2f4df0324760b79935b80ea340398d82_matrix_code_emulatorThe danger faced by any object-oriented philosophy, especially in its beginnings, is that readers will conclude that the aim is to speak of things as they are in themselves, independent of any humans, thereby denying all that is human. Those prone to dialectical thought will conclude that where the last three hundred years of philosophy have been characterized by philosophies of access or correlationism in one form or another, whether that form be Kant’s transcendental idealism, linguistic idealism, phenomenological givenness, or social constructivism, those advocating an object-oriented ontology are by contrast shifting to the domain of objects and are now eradicating all culture, society, language, and subjectivity. In other words, we are here faced with the old choice between nature and culture.

Here the interminable, inexhaustible, objections will begin. “But it is still you, a subject, a human being, talking about objects! How do you propose to overcome the manner in which your mind gives form and structure to the world?” “Yet you are thrown into a tradition, determined by categories of culture, language, and society! How can you talk of a world independent of humans, tradition, culture, language, and society?” On and on it will go. We are given the alternative of either living inside a submarine known as mind, tradition, language, culture, or society, where we only ever encounter the world through the mediation of our “sonar machines” (i.e., in a way that fails to represent them as they are, or of directly touching objects either themselves. We are given the stark alternative of mind or world, culture or nature, language or object.

atomsYet this stark alternative misconstrues the entire problem. The issue is not one of escaping the human, culture, or language to touch the world as it is in itself. It is not a question of shifting from one form of difference, culture or mind, to another form of difference, the objects themselves. Or, put differently, it is not a question of an alternative between Lucretius or Derrida. What object-oriented philosophy opposes is not culture, society, or mind, but rather those metaphysics– and they are metaphysics –that declare that one difference makes all the difference. Were object oriented philosophy to reject language as in the case of Lacan, for example, and shift entirely to Lucretian atoms, this move would be equally egregious from the standpoint of the Ontic and Ontological Principles. For here we would simply be replacing one difference that makes all the difference (language), with another difference that makes all the difference (atoms). I call this reduction of difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference, the hegemonic fallacy. The hegemonic fallacy can occur in more or less extensive forms. Thus, in the case of those theologies where everything is dependent on God as in the case of Leibniz or Spinoza, we have a rather extreme form of the hegemonic fallacy. By contrast, the relationship between form and matter as conceived by Aristotle or categories and intuitions as conceived by Kant are both less extensive forms of the hegemonic fallacy insofar as matter and intuition still contribute some difference, but in a less important way with respect to form and the categories.

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In my last post I introduced the Ontic Principle as the ground upon which any object-oriented philosophy must be based. On the one hand, the Ontic Principle states that “there is no difference that does not make a difference.” On the other hand, in Latour’s formulation, it states “there is no transportation without translation.” The ontic, of course, is the domain of entities or beings, as opposed to the ontological which deals with being qua being or what can be said of being independent of any reference to specific objects (here I strongly suspect that ontology has very little of interest to say, but more on that later). Consequently, if the Ontic Principle states that there is no difference that does not make a difference, then this entails that being a being or entity consists in producing a difference.

Entity is power and act: The power to produce difference and activity, the actuality, of making difference. I suspect that there are two further principles lurking behind this first formulation: The Principle of Reality and the Principle of Actuality. The Principle of Reality would state something along the following lines:

The degree of power or reality embodied in a being are a ratio of the extensiveness of the differences the entity produces.

In other words, the more real an entity is the more difference that entity produces. Clearly this principle is indebted to Latour’s understanding of the reality of an entity in terms of the extensiveness of its relations, Badiou’s most recent work on worlds, entities, and intensities with respect to appearing, and Deleuze-Spinoza’s understanding of entity as power. Reality and power would thus be co-extensive and defined in terms of act, as I gropingly tried to outline in a previous post.

The Principle of Actuality, by contrast, would be formulated roughly as follows:

Entities only are insofar as they are act-ual

ba1fa211-d1e8-d704-796509f20de29fae_1In other words, there is no entity where there is no act-uality. Here the hyphen must be observed to underline the essence of entity as act. To be act-ual is not to be still and complete, but rather to be in act. If it is true that there is no difference that does not make a difference and that entity is difference, then it follows as a consequence that there can be no being that is not act-ual. Consequently, I banish any entity that does not act or produce a difference. A purely possible or potential entity is, under this model, no entity at all. I also set aside the vexed question of the Deleuzian virtual. As I understand it, the Deleuzian virtual refers not to some mysterious extra-actual form of being but rather refers to relations among actualities. The virtual is not something other than the actual, but refers to relations of acting between actualities. In this respect, the Deleuzian virtual would be a variation of Whitehead’s Ontological Principle which states that the reason for any entity is to be found in another actual entity or in that entity itself. For example, genes are purely virtual in relation to my body but are entirely actual at any point in time for themselves. Nonetheless, this raises a number of questions about causality and potency that I am not yet prepared to tackle.

london-after-people-jj-001It is of crucial importance to note one point. Clearly the Ontic Principle is a variation of Bateson’s famous definition of information:

Information is that difference that makes a difference.

This connection might give the impression that the Ontic Principle is epistemological, pertaining to autopoiesis, systems theory, or some similar theory of operational closure where systems constitute their own elements. Certainly I have written often about autopoiesis and systems theory on this blog. However, it is important to note that the Ontic Principle is strictly ontological in nature. To properly envision the scope of the Ontic Principle we must imagine, after the fashion of Roy Bhaskar (without necessarily sharing his ontology) a world without humans, or, after the fashion of Quentin Meillassoux, a world without thought. This is not because entities independent of the human are the real differences that make a difference– certainly humans fulfill the Ontic Principle and the Principle of Act-uality –but rather because this thought experiment allows us to think ontologically and in terms of beings entirely independent, where the question is not one of whether or not we register a difference but whether a differences is produced in and among entities regardless of whether humans are there to register them. Such is the ruin of Parmenides and his equation of being and thought.

No doubt I am behind the curve on this one, but if you want to read a book that will make your hair literally stand on end, take a look at David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism. Harvey deftly traces the history of neoliberalism, showing how contemporary capital systematically deregulated business and dismantled collective labor movements, and how people were convinced that this was in their interests, giving us the marvelous world we have today (I say that sarcastically). Of course, as a function of this, we also witness the rise of identity politics (on both the left and right– nationalist and fundamentalist religious movements on the right, gender and ethnic politics on the left) and postmodern politics. In the meantime, questions of class antagonism become almost completely hidden or clothed (as evidenced by the recent flair up over Obama’s “Bitter” comment, where he hit the true third rail in American politics: class). Books like this make me wonder if theory is asking the right sorts of questions or questions that are even relevant to our contemporary moment. At any rate, I think I need to go drink now.

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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?

Jodi Dean, over at I Cite, raises the question of what political movements are liable to produce change in their subject’s lives. After a brief discussion of identity politics and its attachment to procedural democratic politics, she concludes with the following:

These days, the only source for transformation seems to be religion. The right gets its energy from its fundamentalist base and religious overtones, but avoids going the extra mile to fascism. The left can’t escape from its envelopment in communicative capitalism–cultural politics is a lot more fun!–and thus abjures any program of political transformation. Besides, cultural revolution seems a bit too scary, the dark underside of left utopian projects–better to accept the liberal framework and advocate half-measures and resistances.

Is it possible to conceptualize, to advocate, a non-democratic program of political transformation with emancipatory and utopian energies today? What would look like? Could it make any promises, hold out any aspirations? Zizek’s emphasis on subjective destitution seems like an important step in this direction–it breaks the binds of identity politics and consumerism in one move. But, how might this sort of destitution figure in a larger kind of solidarity? how might it become a component of a new kind of social link? And what is the next step in conceiving this?

Repeating a comment made over there, I have increasingly found myself skeptical of Zizek and Badiou as accurately theorizing how significant political change takes place. Simply put, I am coming to feel that their understanding of political change is too abstract. Zizek seems to believe that ideology critique will produce a significant transformation of subjectivity such that social subjects become political subjects that can then set about producing significant change in how the social is organized. Badiou seems to wait about for a rupture, an event that cannot be counted within situations, as an impetus for producing “non-interpellated” subjects.

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