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.

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