Symbolic


For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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David1-744682.gifPaul Ennis has a terrific post up on his experience reading psychoanalytic thought, the dis-ease it generates in him, and how he encounters something similar when reading the speculative realists:

Reading psychoanalysis generates a sense of uneasiness in me. To borrow Zizek’s voice for a moment ‘I mean it quite literally’. When I’m sitting there reading about gaps and Others and Fathers I feel anxious. What is Metaphysics style anxiety.

There seems to be a direct psychological impulse behind what speculative realism wants to do. If my more informed readers will allow me to make a crude analysis: speculative realism wants to ‘allow’ the real in. It wants to collapse some symbolic order that we are not supposed to collapse.

Read the rest of the post here. Paul hits on something fascinating with his observation about collapsing something in the symbolic order that is not supposed to be collapsed. In the subsequent discussion in the comments revolving around the “heimlich” or “being-at-home”, I think the point of the unheimlich is somewhat missed in the discussions that somehow it is constitutively impossible for us to not be at home.

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Just a quick note before I get down to grading. In response to my post on the game of life, Carl writes:

I’m not sure I’m on board with this:

[O]ne of the reasons I find the ideas so attractive is precisely that meme theory treats signs as objects. Rather than treating signs as mere representations of something else, meme theory treats signs themselves as objective reality. So unlike common views of language where you have one thing, the world of objects, and another things, the world of signs representing objects, in meme theory you have one flat plane where there are physical objects and signs as well.

Well, other than getting to call things ‘objects’ rather than calling things things, what’s the advantage here? I see that we clean out the mediating discourse of ‘representation’, but if the ’signifier’ kind of object doesn’t occur without the ’sign’ kind, and neither occurs without the ’signified’ kind, isn’t there an important and realistic claim about the nature of those objectivities embedded in the idea of representation that is simply obscured by flattening the ontology?

I’m still working out how far I’m willing to go with the whole treatment of signs as objects move as things get complicated very quickly. This was a move that Dan recently proposed in comments, and which I’ve been pushing for quite some time under the mantra that language is not simply about something, but also is something. This move could be called, in honor of Freud, the “psychotic move”, for as Freud observed in his essay “The Unconscious”, schizophrenics treat words as things. Under this model, signs would not be representations of things, but rather would enter into relations with or assemblages with things. This might nicely account for the fluidity of reference in a number of respects. Part of this move follows from a self-reflexive demand of my own philosophy. Insofar as I’m trying to break down the whole distinction between nature and mind that’s vexed philosophy since the 17th century, this leads to the conclusion that any philosophy (or other cultural artifacts) is itself an assemblage of objects. The question then becomes that of determining what sorts of peculiar objects signs are and how these function.

I suspect that anthropologists– and I feel very bad about my recent exchange with Jerry –are critical of memes for the same reason that I was critical of memes when I first encountered the theory about five years ago: Here we have these undereducated cowboys claiming to have discovered a whole new realm of investigation– memes –when we have had semiotics and linguistics for decades now. When you read Dawkins and Dennett on memes you get the sense that they are reinventing the wheel, and in a number of instances poorly. Dawkins baldly admits somewhere or other that he doesn’t know enough about the social sciences, linguistics, and cultural theory to know how well his theory resonates with their findings. In a number of respects, I think the meme theorist stands to learn far more from the semiotician (and cultural theorists like the anthropologist) than the semiotician has to learn from the meme theorist.

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I have been pretty outspoken on my hostility of accounts of mind that follow the Kantian model. Regardless of where one sides with respect to the realist/anti-realist debate, I still think we’re going to discover that functionalist models of mind are mistaken. In other words, in my view it is still possible for someone to be an anti-realist while rejecting a functionalist model of thought. There is, for example, an anti-realist version of Deleuze that is currently gaining steam through the work of folks like my buddy Joe Hughes. My Difference and Givenness is partially responsible for this reading of Deleuze due to my emphasis on Deleuze’s debt to German idealism through figures like Kant, Maimon, and Schelling. Under this reading, the dispute between Kant and Deleuze is not a dispute between anti-realism and realism, but rather over the role of categories in cognition. For Kant we cannot properly account for the nature of our cognition without positing a priori categories through which intuition or sensibility is synthesized and organized. By contrast, Deleuze, following Solomon Maimon, argues 1) that Kant is unable to provide a non-circular account of how it is possible to synthesize a pure concept with a concrete intuition (the schema just says that such a mediator must exist– the famous time-determinations of the categories –not how it is possible), and 2) that the organization of our experience is instead an emergent result of a differential unconscious, not unlike the role played by Leibniz’s “insensible perceptions” in his New Essays on the Human Understanding.

This debate is not a rarefied philosophical debate between Kant and Deleuze, but rather has a number of implications outside of philosophy. Clearly if one sides with Deleuze, then functionalist accounts of mind such as we find in Fodor with his “language of thought” or Chomsky with his “deep” or “universal grammar” will be unacceptable. At any rate, in response to my post “Taking Problems Seriously“, Rob and I have been having a bit of a debate regarding Chomsky and functionalist accounts of mind. Rob contends that there are mountains of experimental evidence for Chomsky’s linguistics, though this is not the impression that I’ve gotten (i.e., Chomsky and the Chomskyians, as I understand it, are primarily theoretical linguistics that then interpret data according to their model, not unlike the manner in which Friedmannian economists proceed). However, I am certainly no expert on these issues. At any rate, the anthropologist Timothy Mason of Paris VIII has been kind enough to compile a list of links with critical perspectives on Chomsky. Enjoy!

narcissusMuch to my surprise and delight, I have been exceedingly pleased by the discussion my post “The Monstrosity of Christ” has generated. For me, Jesus is an incredibly important political thinker who proposes a new vision of communal relations. What has been so great about this discussion, apart from a few bumps here and there, is the manner in which the religious and the atheist have been able to discuss these issues, without the question being one of debunking the other. Towards the end of the comments, Guavatree asks a couple of questions which, I believe, get right to the heart of the issue. First, Guavatree remarks that,

By explaining the difference between interpretations: traditional (Jesus and God above all things) and “radical and revolutionary” — I think you clarify what I think the blog dispute is about. Is Jesus “Resolving” the Imaginary or “Challenging” it?

More than whether Jesus is really asking you to hate your family or not, I’m interested in how you think the Imaginary can be challenged. Is this even possible? To what extent does challenging the bonds of the tribe/family/Imaginary involve the Real and the Symbolic?

Guavatree is responding to a comment I made earlier clarifying my position on Luke 14:26 where Jesus claims that in order to follow Jesus one must hate their mother, father, brother, sister, etc. I have read this, following the findings of ethnographers, as a devaluation of the role of familial or kinship relations as a foundation of social and political structure.

Thanks for the additional passages (here Guavatree provides numerous Gospel references to Jesus making injunctions similar to that found in Luke 14:26), Guavatree. Based on your remarks, I wonder if I haven’t missed the point of some of Kevin’s criticisms. You write:

So in terms of this argument on the blog, hating your family and loving Jesus and God hardly strikes me as a textual oddity.

The real question is whether Jesus’ “dissolution of “the law” into two vast identifications (God/neighbor)” as kvond puts it is a resolution of the imaginary OR a “challenging of this dimension of the imaginary” as larval subjects puts it.

If I’m following your gloss correctly Guavatree, then the dispute revolves around Jesus’ declaration to love one’s neighbor as ourselves and his charge to hate our parents, where it is being claimed that there is a contradiction between these two positions. With respect to the second command, it had never occurred to me to read the demand to hate our family literally. That would be a bizarre reading of the Gospels no matter how you cut it, so I’m surprised to discover that others might have read me as claiming such a thing. Rather, I am interpreting Jesus’ charge as the injunction to cease privileging familial relations or tribal identifications. As such, this separation from the primacy of kinship structures would be a precondition for love of the stranger or the neighbor. This is also why I’ve drawn attention to the story of the Good Samaritan because here we have an instance of a love extended to the other that falls outside the tribal community.

I reject, of course, the remainder of the traditional interpretation of Jesus’ injunction to “hate” one’s family, where it is argued that we are to place Jesus and God above all other things. First, I reject this reading because I think it covers over the whole socio-political issue that he’s getting at with respect to the role that kinship relations play in his historical setting. Second, however, I don’t think this reading is very well supported given how cagey he always is about identifying himself as the son of God (doesn’t he only directly say this in the book of John?). I think this traditional reading places too much emphasis on the person or figure of Jesus, turning him into a screen as described in the post above, thereby allowing us to ignore the truly radical and revolutionary form of social organization that he seems to be proposing.

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cezannecorner-quarryNick of the Accursed Share has posted a compelling discussion of the difference between speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy over at Speculative Heresy. Throughout the post Nick provides some valuable criticisms of the position I’ve been developing that lean heavily on the thought of Laruelle. Despite having read Brassier’s discussions of Laruelle in Alien Theory (warning pdf.) and Nihil Unbound, as well as Nick’s excellent (and dense!) forthcoming article in Pli, I am still unsure as to just what Laruelle is up to, so I will limit myself to commenting on what I understand of Nick’s criticisms with the hope that he’ll be able to clarify matters in the future with respect to Laruelle. Hopefully Nick will forgive me if my thoughts are a little disorganized and scattered in this post as I am completely exhausted from beginning to exercise once again today.

Nick begins by drawing a distinction between the speculative realists and object-oriented philosophy with respect to relation.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that one of the main dividing lines emerging in speculative realism is between those who argue for an object-oriented position (Graham, Levi, and Latour being the exemplars), and those who argue that relationality is entirely on the side of ideality (Brassier and Laruelle).

glorious-tree-01The first question that emerges for me is why relationality would be characterized in terms of ideality. How is it that relation is being conceived such that it is treated as falling on the side of ideality? It seems to me that the interaction between the sun and a tree is defined by relation. Here, according to the Ontic Principle, we would have an example where one entity makes a difference on another entity. Yet it is difficult for me to see just why this relation would be considered ideal, assuming that ideality refers to the domain of thought and the human.

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