Subject


Over at Speculative Heresy, Mike Watson of Logical Regressions responds to my recent object-oriented ontology round-up, writing:

Principally, I am at odds with the idea that systems which are sympathetic to Science need be seen as diminishing the subject. I don’t see yet that anyone has convincingly reversed the copernican turn… I just don’t feel that the base objectivity of the subject or the equal footing on which the subject and the object stand in the wider realm of nature are sufficient bases to overturn the philosophical vantage point that only the subject can enjoy.

Again, that is with the concession that that subject is objectively construed, and in that sense I have sympathies with OOO, OOP, etc, yet I do not see the innovation here. It is mainstream knowledge that we are material constructs – a notion that wouldn’t have upset or even suprised my late Grandmother, who passed away long before Brassier even completed his doctoral thesis! What would be a truly great innovation would be the the ameliorisation of an ethical code to our objective existence, that could maintain an objective basis, without becoming hoplessly sentimental. If a proponent of OOP, OOO, SR or any other affiliated or non affiliated thinker could do that, then I’ll be porting my commitments to there’s!

To be clear, I was only pointing out that in his post Mike treats the subject as an object, while nonetheless rightly attributing a number of unique qualities to this particular object. The rest of his post can be read here. In his comments I get the sense that Mike is running together object-oriented ontology with the position of Ray Brassier. This is understandable as he already admitted earlier that he hasn’t read much of the other Speculative Realists and has most been focused on critiquing Brassier (and thank god for that!), but it is important to underline that object-oriented ontology differs fundamentally from Brassier’s position and from that of the other Speculative Realists as well. One important point, right at the outset, is that OOO, while certainly wanting to make room for the objects or generative mechanisms discovered by the sciences, doesn’t see them as exhausting the real or being more real than other sorts of real objects or generative mechanisms (subjects, numbers, symbolic entities, societies, works of art, etc.).

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A central aim of Bhaskar’s A Realist Theory of Science is to diagnose what he refers to as the “epistemic fallacy”. In a nutshell, the epistemic fallacy consists in the thesis, often implicit, that ontological questions can be reduced to epistemological questions. The idea here is that ontology can be entirely resolved or evaporated into an inquiry into our access to beings, such that there are no independent questions of ontology. As an example of such a maneuver, take Humean empiricism. As good Humean empiricists, we “bracket” all questions of the world independent of our mind and simply attend to our atomistic impressions (what we would today call “sensations”), and how the mind links or associates these punctiform impression in the course of its experience to generate lawlike statements about cause and effect relations.

Note the nature of Hume’s gesture: Here we restrict ourselves entirely to our atomistic sensations and what can be derived from our sensations. Questions about whether or not our sensations are produced by entities independent of our mind are entirely abandoned as “dogmatic” because we do not have access to the entities that might cause or produce these sensations, but only the sensations themselves. Consequently, the order of knowledge must be restricted to what is given in sensation. Hume’s epistemology is thus based on a thesis about immanence or immediacy. Insofar as our minds possess and immediate relation to our sensations, we are epistemically warranted in appealing to sensations as grounds for our claims to knowledge. We are not however, warranted in appealing to objects, powers, selves, or causes because we do not have sensations of these things. Consequently, all of these ontological claims must be reformulated in epistemological terms premised on our access to being. If we wish to talk of objects, then we must show how the mind “builds up” objects out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of powers, then we must show how the mind builds up powers out of atomistic impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of causality we must show how the mind builds up an idea of cause and effect relations through impressions and associations. If we wish to speak of selves and other minds we have to show how mind builds up our sense of self and other minds out of impressions and cause and effect associations.

At the level of the form of the argument, not the content, nearly every philosophical orientation since the 18th century has made the Humean move. While the content of these positions differ, the form of the argument remains roughly the same. That is, we perpetually see a strategy of attempting to dissolve ontological questions through epistemological questions. This move always proceeds in two steps: First, one aspect of our experience is claimed to be immanent or immediate. Second, the furniture of our ontology is then dissolved through an analysis of those entities with reference to this plane of immanence or immediacy. The immediate can be impressions as in the case of Hume, the transcendental structure of mind as in the case of Kant, the intentions of pure consciousness as in the case of Husserl, or language as in the case of late Wittgenstein or the thought of Derrida. Other examples could be evoked. In each case, the gesture consists in showing how the being of beings can be thoroughly accounted for in terms of our access through this immanence or immediacy. The point is that we no longer treat the entities in our ontology as existing independently of this field of immanence or immediacy, but now see them as products of these modes of access. Whether the world is really like this independent of our chosen regime of construction is a question that is abandoned as dogmatic.

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02turtleubirrAs I sit here regarding the eighty student essays I have to grade over the course of the next few days– essays that I’ve already had in hand for too long –I naturally cast about for ways to procrastinate. Having completed my posts on Meillassoux’s argument against correlationism (here, here, and here), and having, over the last few days, had an intense, though very productive, discussion with Mikhail surrounding these and related issues (here, here, here, and here), I find myself wondering just how damaging Meillassoux’s argument is. Does Meillassoux’s argument really land a fatal blow to correlationism? I think that depends.

If we are to understand Meillassoux’s argument from ancestrality and against correlationism, it is necessary to understand why he focuses on time. To do this, we need to recall a bit about Kant and how Kant solved the problems of space and time in the Critique of Pure Reason. That is, we have to look at what Kant actually says about the nature of time. If Meillassoux chooses to stake his claim for realism on the issue of time, then this is because primary qualities, qualities that are said to be “in the thing itself” and not dependent on us, are generally understood to be mathematical properties. All that I can know of mathematical properties, the story goes, are those aspects of these properties that can be mathematized. Thus, as Descartes said, “this class of things [primary qualities] appears to include corporeal nature in general, together with its extension; the shape of extended things; their quantity, that is, their size and number; as well as the place where they exist, the time through which they endure, and the like” (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Hackett, Fourth Edition, 61). What are we speaking of when we speak of the mathematical properties of an object if not the spatio-temporal properties of the object? Meillassoux, of course, wants a much broader domain of primary qualities than shape, size, mass, duration, etc., so as to make room for new properties discovered in science. The point is that when he speaks of primary qualities he is basically speaking of spatial and temporal properties that are subject to mathematical representation. The claim isn’t that the property is a number, but rather that it has a mathematizable structure discoverable through measurement, experiment, observation, etc.

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fn3ontoOne of the most attractive, problematic, and astonishing features of Badiou’s ontology is his strictly extensional understanding of sets or multiplicities. A set is not defined by its members sharing a common predicate or quality, nor by the relations among members of the set. Rather, a set is defined strictly by its extension or the members that belong to that set. From the standpoint of 20th Century French and German Continental philosophy, this thesis cannot but be a heresy, for the predominant trend in Continental thought has been a relational conception of entities. Whether we are speaking of language as a diacritical set of negative oppositions as defended by the structuralists and the post-structuralists, or Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where entities, the ready-to-hand, are defined by the relational networks to which they belong, the predominant trend has been to treat beings as bundles of relations such that the entity is nothing apart from its relations. In a spirit similar to Deleuze’s declaration that relations are always external to their terms, Badiou will have none of this. For Badiou entities are not defined by their relations and there are no intrinsic or internal relations that define the being of the entity. Rather, they are simply defined by their relations.

From the standpoint of both Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where each entity is thought as a “being-in” belonging to the worldhood of the world defined by an ensemble of relations defining meaning, or from the standpoint of structuralist and post-structuralist thought where the entity is an ensemble of internal relations from which it cannot be detached, or from the standpoint of Hegelianism where, as Hegel painstakingly shows in the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic, where the entity simply is its relations or mediations, this move cannot but appear stunning. For what this extensionalist conception of sets authorizes is combinations of subsets in whatever order we might like. This, in short, is what the axiom of union tells us. What the axiom of union allows– if I understand it correctly (I’m sure Dominic will educate me if I don’t, thankfully) –is the construction of whatever sets we might like based on those elements belonging to our initial set. Thus, if I have a set composed of an umbrella, an apple, and the moon ({umbrella, apple, moon}), I certainly have a set composed of the apple and the moon ({apple, moon}), or a set composed simply of the apple ({apple}).

equalizer_category_theoryNow all of this sounds silly and unremarkable so long as we don’t contrast Badiou’s extensional notion of sets with the relational ontologies that have predominated during the 19th and the 20th century. If to be an entity is to be a bundle of internal relations, it follows that entities cannot be grouped in any way we might like. Rather, a model of the world based on internal relations dictates that each entity necessarily has a place within an Order and that the entity is nothing apart from this order. Thus the phoneme {c} is nothing apart from other phonemes such as {p}, {b}, {f}, etc., by virtue of the differentiality that allows it produce different senses at the level of the signifier: cat, pat, bat, fat. Insofar as these phonemes take on their value (in the linguistic sense of “value”) differentially in relation to one another, they are nothing independent of their relations to one another. This is what it means to say that each entity takes on a place within an Order. The Order is the totality of internal relations defining a system or structure, whereas the places are locations within that Order relative to the other terms. Because the relations are internal to the various beings in the Order, there is thus a Law that governs these beings and exhausts their being, legislating how they can and cannot act.

In proposing that sets are defined purely by their extension or their membership, Badiou undermines the thesis that to be is to be a bundle of internal relations. At the level of ontology, there is thus no intrinsic Order that defines entities. Rather, in their stark independence, the elements that make up a set not only can be decomposed into infinite subsets (through a recursive process of taking the power set of each power set), but the elements of each set can be related in a variety of different was or simply taken as singletons, thereby abolishing the notion of intrinsic or internal relations as in the case of Hegel’s logic of essence.

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art_whitney_marx-insideN.Pepperell has begun posting chapter drafts of her long awaited thesis on Marx over at Rough Theory. The work that she’s doing is well worth the read and promises to new light on a number of competing approaches to social and political theory. Might we not get an actor-network version of Marx… Including the hyphen and suitably responsive to Braudel? I look forward to watching the text unfold. I do, however, have one gripe. I cannot find a “thesis workshop” tab in her categories section, so it is difficult to follow the order of the text. NP, add a tag stat!

In response to my post “Deleuze and Guattari avec Lacan“, Reid asks “What is the Borromean Clinic?” I confess that I am working through this myself, so I do not have a completely adequate answer. In many respects, this is the most and dense and difficult period of Lacan’s teaching, but it is also a period where he completely exceeds what he had developed in prior years, developing both an entirely new diagnostic system and new possibilities for the end of analysis.

In his Borromean period, Lacan shifts to a topology of the subject based on the borromean knot:

bringsbig

The first thing to notice with this curious knot is that no two of the rings are directly tied together as in the case of a Hopf chain:

chain

Consequently, in the borromean knot, if any one of the rings are severed the other two rings fall away as well. In short, the consistence of the borromean knot arises only from the knotting of the three and the manner in which the strings pass over and under one another in the proper way. Lacan equated each of the three rings with one of his three orders– the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary (RSI) –corresponding to the order of ex-sistence (the real) or that which exists outside the symbolic, the order of the hole or lack introduced into being (the symbolic), and the order of consistency (the imaginary). However, it will be noted that each of the rings overlaps with the others forming points of intersection with the other rings like a Venn diagram:

borromeo1

Consequently, we can think the different orders together getting various combinations between the elements. Thus, for example, there can be a hole in the real, just as there is an ex-sistence in the symbolic (the letter as opposed to the signifier). Likewise, there can be a consistence in the symbolic (meaning), just as there can be a hole in the imaginary. And so on. As I said, I am still working through this myself, so I have not yet worked out the implications of all this.

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Surplus-jouissance, Desire, and Fantasy

In Seminar 6: Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan articulates fantasy as the frame of desire. The fundamental fantasy does not imagine a particular satisfaction, but is rather the frame through which our desire is structured. In this respect, fantasy answers the question of what the Other desires.

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As I remarked in my previous post, the desire of the Other is enigmatic and opaque. Fantasy is what fills out this enigma, articulating it, giving it form, such that it embodies a determinate demand. Lacan persistently claimed that “desire is the desire of the Other”. This polysemous aphorism can be taken in four ways. First, at the most obvious level, it can be taken to signify that we desire the Other. Second, and more importantly, it can be taken to entail that we desire to be desired by the Other. Third, it can be taken to signify that we desire what the Other desires. For example, a petite bourgeois might desire a particular car not because of the intrinsic features of the car, but because it will generate envy in his neighbor. Likewise, someone might mow their lawn not because they see an intrinsic virtue in doing so, but because they fear that their neighbor will become angry if they don’t. Finally, fourth, insofar as the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, the thesis that desire is the desire of the Other indicates the manner in which desire is articulated through the network of signifiers that haunt our unconscious, producing all sorts of symptomatic formations based on the signifier.

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