problems


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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bladerunner-origami-unicornIn response to my post on speculative realism and the alethetics of discourse, Asher Kay writes:

What strikes me after reading this post (and the one on the Alethetics of Rhetoric) is that what is revealed in an ontology might be more powerful by far than a moral theory, by providing a vista for self-realization rather than a didactic formula.

I’m hoping to deal with these issues in greater detail in the future. Zer0 Books has asked me if I’d be interested in pulling together a book after I finish The Democracy of Objects. Right now I’m vacillating between either developing an object-oriented politics and normative theory, or devoting that book to an object-oriented account of signs along the lines I’ve been discussing recently. I’m leaning towards the latter project because I think it’s important to show that object-oriented ontology in its realism is not making a call for a scientistic naturalism, but still leaves a lot of room, in suitably re-constructed form, for a number of the sorts of social and cultural analyses the world of theory has come to hold so dear.

At any rate Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature goes a long way, I believe, towards resituating these questions. There he revises the fact/value distinction and develops something like an object-oriented normative theory. Where, very crudely put, traditional normative theory might look for a set of norms or prescriptions that allow us to decide moral, ethical, and political issues, Latour sees the issue very differently. Under the traditional account of normativity we are to avoid ever conflating the “is” and the “ought”. What ought to be the case, the story goes, holds regardless of what the facts may be. In other words, the ought or domain of normativity is treated as impervious to the realm of facts.

Latour, by contrast, sees both the factual and the domain of values as a sort of process that ranges from what he calls “perplexity” to “institution”. Very roughly, Latour contends that discussions about value are really discussions about matters of concern where the appearance of new actors, human or nonhuman, generate perplexity. Additionally, Latour contends that normative discussions erupt when something appears that is not counted that nonetheless “co(m)-plicates” an established organization. The term “co(m)-plication” is not a term that will be found in Latour, but I think it nicely gets at what he’s striving to draw our attention to. “Co(m)-plication” is a word filled with a number of different attractor states, simultaneously evoking resonances of complication, co-implication, and co-plication in the sense of actors being “folded together” or “folded into one another”.

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wrightson_frankensteinIt seems that sleep is not finding me this evening, despite the fact that I am exhausted. On occasion I have been criticized for describing my own philosophical “methodology” as a work of bricolage. The criticism seems to revolve around the idea that somehow bricolage lacks unity or organization, but is a hodgepodge of things put together in an ad hoc way that ultimately fails to cohere or hold together. Thus, if I draw concepts or lines of arguments from other thinkers, I am creating a sort of Frankenstein– and on occasion I’ve described myself as doing just this –that creates a poorly formed monster rather than anything that resembles philosophy in the exalted sense of a self-contained system that issues from first principles.

It seems to me that this line of criticism and the accompanying view that bricolage is an instance of the ad hoc represents a profound failure to understand the nature of bricolage and the work of the bricoleur. Bricolage refers to a way of working that draws on available materials in the solution of a particular problem. In clarifying this idea, we can compare two types of producers: the Bricoleur and the Ideal Engineer. The ideal engineer is someone who exists in a smooth space without any sort of constraints whatsoever, and who has unlimited power to select among the matters from which they can build and to give form to these matters in any way they might like. Indeed, we can even imagine that the Ideal Engineer even has in his possession something called Ideal Matter. Ideal Matter is truly amazing stuff. It is perfectly conductive, allowing whatever it might like to pass through it. It is gossamer and elastic, such that it can equally form flowing drapes or take on shape and return to its original form. It is absolutely pliable and plastic so that it can be imprinted in any way that we might like. But it is also stronger than diamond or steel and rigid like a Bucky tube. Armed with such an Ideal Matter, a matter with no singularities of its own, the Ideal Engineer can create truly marvelous things indeed.

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metastaseis1Over at the OOP (why do I always start singing “are you down with OPP” whenever I say this?), Graham expands on my post about Caesar. I’m having tremendous difficulty articulating what I’m trying to get at in a way that is accessible to others who have predominantly worked within hermeneutic or meaning-centered orientations of theory (I use this term generically to refer to any predominantly semiotic, semiological, hermeneutic, deconstructive, discursive, or sociological approach to theory), so it’s nice to see him nailing the issue somewhat towards the end of his post. As Graham puts it,

The best way to see the importance of this is to compare any ANT-type [actor-network-theory] reading of some historical event with a more reductive reading. In the latter case you’ll see histories claiming that “the Crusades were all about economics,” or in the other direction, “Pasteur brought light to the darkness and gave birth to a new, enlightened era of medicine.” In the ANT’ish case, you’ll always find something much more interesting and surprising– actors displaced from their original goals due to chance material obstacles, forced to translate their progress along strange paths that they never intended.

There has been a lot of protest against Latour’s use of the term “actor” to refer to anything from pebbles to human agents. However, I think Harman nails it here when he draws attention to the manner in which goals shift as a result of aleatory encounters among differences in a multiplicity. This is not simply a question of unanticipated consequences, but also about the manner in which goals shift in unanticipated ways and begin to develop in unexpected ways as a result of bringing things together in networks. Here, perhaps, we could distinguish between smooth spaces and gnarled spaces. A smooth space is a space you move through without any sort of friction or resistance. As a result, nothing stands in the way of envisioning a goal and executing it. By contrast, a gnarly space is populated by all sorts of singularities or differences that gradually lead to a transformation of the goals themselves.

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In a recent offline a correspondent expresses ire at my post on Darwin, accusing me of explaining things away through rhetorical flourishes. As my interlocutor writes, “It just happens that neither… contempt, nor the rhetorical flourishes of some recent posts (and I include here the heart-achingly frustrating piece on Darwin and difference here) are particularly productive pieces of writing. There’s no way to save them Levi — and I say this as someone who respects you, not as someone trying to bring you down a notch.” Towards the end of his email he goes on to say, “all this said, if you want to engage in a serious transvaluation, that’s fine, but that’s a book-report kind of project: you need to work through material, not just condescend to chuckle at it for taking a set of problems seriously, or feel justified in hating folks — however repugnant — simply because you feel entitled to. These latter responses have no philosophical or intellectual value.” This is an uncharacteristically impassioned remark on the part of the person who wrote this post. Knowing a bit about this person’s intellectual background, he is, no doubt objecting to this passage in my post on Darwin:

From this perspective, the significance of Darwin for philosophy becomes clear: What Darwin’s thought challenges is the primacy of all essence/accident/individual and form/content theorization. After Darwin, it is difficult not to chuckle when we hear philosophers continue to harp on distinctions between form and content, scheme and content, type and token, essence and existence, norm and fact, and all the rest. One marvels at how legions of scholars continue to take Kant’s account of the role played by the categories in cognition, or how we get endless discussions of the aporetic relationship between scheme and content or type and token. For example, how can thinkers take seriously Adorno’s negative dialectic between form and non-conceptual differences? Have they not heard? Species-difference is an effect of individual difference, and species themselves are individuals, not ontological categories like essences that differ in kind from individuals. Somehow philosophy today has remained all too theological, all too Medieval.

This person’s email has the flavor of the “with all due respect” scene from Talledaga Nights. “I respect you and am not trying to bring you down a notch, but with all due respect…” Setting that aside, I would like to address the issue of “taking problems seriously”. There are situations, I think, where it is appropriate to chuckle at how a particular problem has been posed. Were we to encounter someone today who takes the issue of how species relate to individuals seriously, treating species as one being and the individual as another, we would rightly marvel and chuckle at their perplexity. “Haven’t you heard”, we would think to ourselves, “species are not enduring and eternal essences that differ in kind from individuals, but are statistically preponderant regularities among a reproductive population of individuals subject to change.” In other words, the person tying himself in knots over this issue would lead us to raise an eyebrow in surprise because a solution to this problem has been found. We would wonder why such a person continues to labor within such a framework.

Now, when a successful idea arises in the course of history, we suspect that perhaps elements of this idea can be successfully employed with respect to other problems. If the concept of species turned out to be a fiction in the case of biology, if it turned out that there was no difference in kind between species and individuals in biology, and if it turned out that species are the result of individual differences not the reverse, then perhaps something similar holds in the case of other form/content, essence/existence, type/token, norm/fact, scheme/content distinctions. This is, of course, only a hypothesis, but given the number of problems these distinctions have generated– problems not remarkably different from those generated by the relationship between species and individuals in Scholastic thought –it is a hypothesis worth pursuing. In short, these distinctions look suspiciously like carry overs of Scholastic metaphysics. Kant did the best he could with the tools that he had, but the fact still remains that Kant was working within the framework of a now discredited faculty psychology based upon occult entities like “categories” and “concepts” that you would have a very difficult time finding in Kant’s form anywhere in contemporary psychology or neurology. Rather, with the exception of certain cranks in philosophy circles like Jerry Fodor, contemporary psychology begins with the thesis that these sorts of abstractions do not explain, but rather must be explained. That is, they begin from the thesis that we must give a developmental account of these sorts of cognitive regularities from individual differences. What is painful is seeing so many talented minds– let us call them “normaholics” due to their fetishistic obsession with questions of normativity and their naive belief that normativity ever prevented anything terrible from happening –continuing to waste their energy on occult entities such as this and poorly posing problems and questions as a result, but so it goes. Should we really continue to take the scholastics among us seriously, or should we instead acknowledge that they do an important service with their work on intellectual history, reminding us of the curious follies of certain past thinkers with respect to questions of knowledge, metaphysics, and ethics?

As is so often the case during breaks, my brain has all but fallen out of my ear and I’ve been in a bit of a dark malaise. I’ve spent the last week reading Badiou’s Logics of Worlds, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (I’m about halfway through at the part where Half-Cocked Jack and Eliza meet Leibniz), sleeping in, eating, and doing a whole lot of nothing. I really have to get myself in action this week and start getting things done.

DSC01129Malaise aside, I have been getting some nice gardening done. The other day I turned over all the soil so roots could grow better, and, in my ongoing battle with wabbits, I put in a ring of marigolds about the perimeter to drive them away. So far this strategy seems to be working as I haven’t seen any hanging out in my backyard since.DSC01130 In addition to keeping the wabbits out, I think they look terrific as well.

DSC01131My tomatoes are beginning to come in which is very exciting. In addition to that my four cucumber plants are beginning to flower like crazy, so there’s a good chance I’ll be inundated with cukes. The situation is much the same with my pepper plants. I planted about seven different varieties of peppers, using both seeds and pre-grown plants.

Much to my surprise between seventeen and twenty plants popped out of the ground, so with any luck I’ll be crushed under the weight of habaneros, jalapenos, poblanos, serranos, a couple varieties of bells, cherry peppers and who knows what else. Who knew that you could just put plants in the ground and they’d start producing stuff?DSC01132 If you look carefully– I know the pictures are fuzzy –you can see a couple of tomatoes on one of my plants.

DSC01133I even have a nice harvest of lettuce and herbs that are just about ready, and my very first pepper (a cherry pepper) has appeared (visible at the very bottom of the page)! I have no idea what non-pickled cherry peppers might taste like, but I’m keen to find out.DSC01134

Perhaps I should give up this philosophy and theory stuff altogether and just open a vegetable stand along the side of the road somewhere. After all, being the great fan I am of Epicurus and Lucretius it seems like a good idea to follow their advice of tending to ones garden. Of course, that’ll never happen.

If I find the time and motivation this week I’d like to write a post on the role that the concept of chaos plays in the history of philosophy and contemporary thought and another post on Badiou’s Logics of Worlds. Whether we are speaking of the creation myth in the Bible, the myth of the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus, or chaos in Deleuze, Badiou, and any number of phenomenologists, there seems to be a marked tendency of thought to conceive the materiality of matter as a sort of pure chaotic flux without any internal structuring– or as Graham has put it “formatting” –principle within it. Following an Aristotlean protocol– though a protocol already present in the thought of Plato and perhaps even Parmenides –it seems as if matter is ineluctably conceived only in its negative, as the absence of form. This generates the entire problem or question of how form is generated or how matter comes to be “form-atted”. And, of course, because matter has already been conceived as formlessness, as the un-form-atted, as that which is without in-form-ation, the principle of form must come from elsewhere or outside of matter.

Just as we have the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper in the domain of stellar phenomena, where the question of in-form-ation emerges, we inevitably get either the Big Demiurge or the Little Demiurge as the principle or source of form. In other words, this model of matter or the materiality of matter comes to require reference to a transcendence to account for the genesis of form. In the case of the Big Demiurge, this would, of course, be the theological conception of God imposing order on the pure chaotic materiality of being. In the case of the Little Demiurge, this source of in-form-ation would be a subject of some sort, whether of the Kantian variety, the Husserlian variety, the Sartrean variety or some other sort. Matter itself is treated as being without its own structuring principle or as being without its own ordering principle. As Gilbert Simondon observed, this way of thinking most likely arises as a consequence of technocratic thought where humans impose form on a matter that is thought or conceived of as a passive recipient of structuration.

However, it is not difficult to discern this move as already necessitated by the Parmenidean declaration. Here the whole problem emerges in relation to Parmenides’ declaration that being is and non-being is not. Now, if being is and non-being is not, we very quickly run into the problem of difference. For if to differ is to be what something is not, then it follows that differences are not for as we know being is. Yet if differences are not, then it follows as a consequence that entities are not, for to be an entity is to differ.

Perhaps it would be no exaggeration to say that an entire destiny of Western thought already lies within Parmenides’ fateful decision. Here the issue would lie not with the declaration that being is, but rather with the identification of difference with negativity. For in identifying difference with negativity, Parmenides insures that the principle by which being is form-atted requires an exteriority, another agency, another principle through which difference is introduced. We thereby get the interminable story of the Big and Little Demiurge imposing form on the world. However, in identifying difference with the power of negativity, has not Parminedes fallen into what Roy Bhaskar calls the “Epistemic Fallacy” or the conflation of the epistemic and the ontological? Between difference as it functions in representation, recognition, or the cognitive activity of identification and difference as it is ontologically, there is a massive chasm. I say “This is a cherry pepper”, thereby identifying the pepper and distinguishing it from other types of peppers and plants. But it would be a mistake to suggest that the pepper itself, in being a cherry pepper, proceeds by way of negation in establishing or acting its being. The differences that compose the ongoing adventure of the pepper are absolutely positive, affirmative, and without any sort of negation. What is required in overcoming the Parmenidean consequence is a purely positive conception of difference that is not based on negation or negativity.

Keith, of Metastable Equilibrium, has done a very nice translation of Meillassoux’s gloss on Badiou’s Being and Event and his forthcoming Logics of Worlds. Although it has been around for a while, I thought I would cross-post it here anyway. For me, the key question can be found in this passage:

The prime objective is to adjoin to a theory of Being , a theory of appearance. It acts in effect, for Badiou, as the confrontation of a problem left in suspense in EE, namely: how is it that Being – pure inconsistent multiplicity – somehow manages to appear as a consistent world? The ontological multiples in themselves are deprived of the order manifested for us in the empirically given: they are only multiples composed in their turn of multiples. A building is a multiple of bricks, which in turn are a multiple of molecules, made of a multiplicity of atoms, themselves decomposable into a multiplicity of quarks – and so on to infinity, since the ontology of Badiou does not hold to the data of current physics – to make of any entity a pure multiple in which no fundamental unit is ever encountered. It is always the count which introduces the One: a house, a brick, a molecule are one because they are counted for one. But this introduction of the One by the count is done setting off from a being in which thought never meets anything other than multiplicities without end. The problem is then to understand why Being is all the same not presented through any such inconsistent multiplicity: because there are many things which come to us through bonds intrinsic between them in the given, as stable units on which we are able to construct a background: material objects, communities, institutions, bodies. These units are not provided in their entirety by an arbitrary act of the subject who brackets them by exterior unity in the count, it really governs if not Being then at least its appearance, its sensible donation.

It seems to me that in this question we encounter a sort of Charybdis and Scylla between, on the one hand, Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, and, on the other hand, infinite dissemination. Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason eventually leads us to posit the existence of God to explain the necessary existence of this world and no other (despite it’s contingency and the possibility of other worlds). The premise seems to be that order cannot be found in this world itself, but requires a transcendence to be explained. Clearly it is desirable to avoid this conclusion, which often functions unconsciously in thought… This is one way of interpreting Lacan’s thesis of our belief/fantasy that the Other exists. However, it is difficult to see how any consistent multiplicities could arise from Badiou’s infinite dissemination or inconsistent multiplicities. In short, how is it that order ever arises from chaos? It seems to me that this issue arises in Meillassoux as well. What is needed is some way of avoiding the forced alternative between a supremely individuated being governed by the principle of sufficient reason and God as guarantor of order and unlimited chaos and rhapsody of being from which nothing can emerge.

For those who have not been following his posts, Shahar, of Perverse Egalitarianism, has been writing a very thoughtful and clear series of posts on Meillassoux’s After Finitude. The most recent post can be found here. You can find links to the earliest posts embedded therein.

In response to my recent diary on the public, Shahar of Perverse Egalitarianism writes:

the “pedagogic” comments are all too irritating, but then again, the hazard of the public is of course, nothing less than the perverse egalitarianism of the internet.

Recently, in an argument or line of reasoning that makes me suspicious or somewhat uncomfortable, I’ve been thinking that democracy is the one “true” form of the political. This line of reasoning arises in response to Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro where it is asked “is piety pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?” Under the first option, we get the logic of sovereignity, where the sovereign is the first term (whether that sovereign be the gods, God, the emperor, the priest, or the leader) such that the sovereign makes the good what it is. That is, under this first option there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of the good, but rather it is the will of the sovereign that makes the good what it is. Thus, for example, it is impossible to claim that the actions of Caligula or Nero are wrong in themselves, for Caligula and Nero, as sovereigns, are those who decree and create the law. By contrast, under the second option– moral realism –there are transcendent standards by which sovereignity itself can be evaluated. If the actions of the Greek gods or the Christian God can be said to be wrong, if it is possible to claim that the caesar is a bad emperor, then this is because there is some standard that transcends the gods, God, and the caesar. All of this is bound up intimately with previous diaries I have written on Lacan’s graphs of sexuation and, in particular, the masculine side of the graph of sexuation.

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When we look at an object or at another person we necessarily apprehend them in space. There they stand before us, alongside other things, in three-dimensional space. This phenomenological presentation of persons and objects thus gives the impression that those things are in space together, that they are side by side in space, but also, under the order of temporality, that they are simultaneous. Before my apprehending gaze I encounter the entities there, together, as being “at the same time”. Perhaps this would be one of the basic premises of structural approaches to social formations, for the structuralist tells us to approach the social formation in its synchrony, as a set of interdependent relations that are simultaneous with one another.

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Perhaps the problem with this view is that social formations are accompanied by archives, whether in the form of texts or in stories, such that they do not follow a trajectory of simultaneity, but rather are punctuated, like staves of a musical score, at a variety of different temporal levels, interacting in highly complex ways. Here it is worthwhile to recall Freud’s famous description of the topology of the mind in Civilization and Its Discontents. There Freud writes,

…[L]et us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past– an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. This would mean that in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine and that the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beaitufl statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths, and so on. But more than this. In the place occupied by the Palazzo Caffarelli would once more stand– without the Palazzo having to be removed –the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; and this not only in its latest shape, as the Romans of the Empire saw it, but also in its earliest one, when it still showed Etruscan forms and was ornamented with terra-cotta antefixes. Where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House. On the Piazza of the Pantheon we would find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the ancient temple over which it was built. And the observer would perhaps only have to change the direction of his glance or his position in order to call up the one view or the other.

Where in space one thing can only occupy one place at a single time, mind, claims Freud, is such that all these different periods or strata co-exist together exactly as they were, continuing their processes just as they did in the past. Thus, in the present, I can simultaneously be frustrated with my boss for perfectly legitimately work related and administrative reasons, while also reliving a childhood drama with my father for which he is an effigy, stand-in, or surrogate. It is not that one meaning of the strata is the true meaning of the other meaning (the past version being the truth or the real meaning of the first version), but rather that these two temporalities are tangled together, intertwined, unfolding together simultaneously in this present.

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The case would be the same with social formations. Rather than a space of simultaneously structure that overdetermines all social relations, perhaps instead we have different levels of temporality, different temporal rhythms, that form a temporalized structure playing itself out at different levels. This point can be illustrated with reference to the current democratic primary elections in the United States. As has often been noted, older and middle aged women have disproportionately broken for Clinton, while younger women seem to be breaking for Obama. It is not unusual to hear these older women complain, claiming that these younger women are betraying sisterhood and the feminist cause. Indeed, it is not at all unusual for younger women to abjure or reject the title “feminist” (much to my dismay) altogether.

Could it be that the explanation of this difference has to do with different rhythms of intertwined temporality governed by very different problematic spaces? On the one hand, the feminism of the older women seems to revolve around gender inequality, victimhood, and a pressing desire to break or undermine certain boundaries. Yet on the other hand, when we look at popular culture, we see a very different image of the feminine that speaks to an entirely different set of issues. Battlestar Gallactica depicts women as commanders and fighter pilots that bunk with the men, compete with them vigorously in sports, and who seem to recognize no marked difference between masculine and female characteristics. Quentin Tarantino’s recent films (Kill Bill and Death Proof, as well as Rodriguez’s Planet Terror) depict women as entirely capable of handling themselves, or depict women who shift from positions of dependence on men (Planet Terror) to leadership and confidence. We have had an entire slew of female super-heroes such as Electra and Lara Croft.

A recent series of Cadillac commercials depicts Kate Walsh (Grey’s Anatomy) sardonically repeating a variation of Julie Andrew’s list of her favorite things from The Sound of Music. On the one hand, Julie Andrews’ character in The Sound of Music is an iconic image of woman as caregiver, while on the other hand, Walsh’s character on Grey’s Anatomy is an intelligent, attractive woman in command of her own career and who does not draw her identity primarily from caring for children or men. The slogan of the commercial asks “when you turn your car on, does it turn you on?” When she arrives at a stop light she looks over and sees a couple of men driving a sports car. A satisfied smile crosses her face, she hits the gas, and she leaves them in the dust. She competes directly with men, rather than being a victim of men or subordinate to men.

Perhaps, within this universe of symbols and meanings, something like the presidential race is no longer conceived as a gender issue or as a gender struggle. Yet nonetheless, these different problematic fields or spaces, these different temporalities, co-exist together in the present and weave themselves in a variety of ways, forming something like a temporalized structure or a structure composed of different time-space vectors (“space-time worms”). Paradoxically, they are both present and past, preventing us from arguing that they are strictly synchronous. An adequate social theory would have to think these complex forms of temporality, their structures of meaning production, and their tangled interrelations.

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N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has been kind enough to plug my recent post “Social Assemblages and Agency“. A while back I wrote a rather whimsical post entitled “Of Cooking, Mixtures, and Milieus“. While the post might have been whimsical in tone– drawing on anecdotes from cooking and examples from Seinfeld –the point I was trying to make was a serious one about the nature of causality in relation to social formation. That is, there seems to be a tendency to adopt top-down models of causality when thinking about social phenomena, such that we are led to think one cause hegemonically dominating the social space. Whether we posit signifiers as determining social relations, the sovereign as determining social relations (a recent turn I find particularly irritating as, following Spinoza and Hegel, there is no such thing as a sovereign that doesn’t draw his power from the consent of the multitudes), language, structure, or more recently the biological, we posit a unilateral causality where one term serves as the explanation for the rest. This, of course, is the essence of metaphysics: to treat a part of the whole as explaining the whole.

Casting about for metaphors to interrupt this pattern of thought, I seized on cooking and chemistry:

If cooking is instructive for the social theorist, then this is because cooking teaches us to think in terms of mixtures, processes, intensive transformations, intensities, and irreversible processes. Tomato, garlic, cumin, and olive oil are not the same after they are mixed and heated. Rather, a qualitative transformation takes place… A transformation that is irreversible. Cooking is chemistry, rather than physics. Where, in classical physics we are enjoined to think atoms impacting one another in relations of force such that the atoms nonetheless retains its identity, changing only in velocity, chemistry leads us to think mixtures, temperatures, pressures, etc., that lead to qualitative transformations of the elements involved. The garlic is not the same after it is cooked and mixed. Nor can I return the garlic to its previous uncooked state. Rather, it has undergoing a qualitative transformation that now has different potentialities. For instance, if I roast garlic in tinfoil and olive oil in the oven, I can now spread it on a nice loaf of sour dough bread like butter, whereas before this would not have been possible. Under these conditions, the flavor becomes sweet, where before it was pungent.

Cooking, chemistry, requires us to think a milieu of individuation where a milieu of individuation is to be understood as the relation something entertains to other things in the world such that it would not be that thing without these other things. If you enjoy wine then you know that where the wine comes from and the year the wine was made make a tremendous difference as to what the wine is. Wine, wine grapes, always emerge in a milieu of individuation defined by the weather, the soil conditions, other plants, animals, and insects in the region and so on. Wine from one and the same vinyard can be radically different from one year to the next. The same is the case with cheese. Each individual entity is itself attached to a world, a local morphogenetic field, through which it produces itself as an ongoing process by interacting with that world.

In cooking or chemistry there is no one thing that causes the rest. Rather, we instead have to think relations of feedback and interaction where all the elements or ingredients interact. This entails that there will not be a “one size fits all” sort of explanation for social phenomena. Rather, following Freud, we might instead talk of “overdetermination”. Of course, this approach to thinking the social and political will cause some to recoil as the complexity of our object is vastly complicated. Social and political philosophers strike me as liking simple answers and schematizations of their objects (I think actual social scientists often fare much better and are much less reductive). On the other hand, an approach that emphasizes interaction at multiple levels, multiple levels of non-linear causation, and complexity might also undermine some of the pessimism (that sometimes seems almost celebratory in tone) that sometimes seems to haunt social and political philosophy (the all or nothing attitude that asks empty questions like “how do we overcome capitalism” and then finds itself impotent when it comes to doing anything at all). That is, such a view might allow us to diagnose false problems that result from overly schematic and simplified conceptions of the social. At any rate, N.Pepperell has recently written a couple of very nice posts on Diane Elson’s work, who appears to be thinking in a similar groove (here and here). Well worth the read!

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