Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

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One of the more compelling themes that punctuates Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is the linkage between the rise of certain mental illnesses and post-Fordist capitalist modes of production, identifying it as a key site of the political (at least virtually). Now, for readers familiar with French inflected social theory, this thesis will not, in and of itself, appear new. In An Introduction to Marcel Mauss Levi-Strauss had argued something similar with respect to schizophrenia and psychosis, going so far as to suggest that in certain “primitive societies” this phenomena doesn’t exist. Canguilhem suggested something similar, as did Foucault. But in each of these instances the emphasis was put on the social and discursive production of mental illness. If one adopted these accounts of mental illness, then it became necessary to reject materialist or neurological accounts of mental illness. The story goes that either one adopts the neurological account and is thus subject to an ideological illusion that de-politicizes something that is in fact social (mental illness), or you adopt the social account of mental illness and reject anything having to do with the neurological or psychotropics as ideological mystifications. Fisher’s analysis, by contrast, is far more subtle. As Fisher writes,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

In many respects, Fisher’s analysis of affectivity here mirrors Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Just as commodity fetishism treats relations that are truly between person’s as if they were relations between or to things (when I buy a diamond I think I’m just relating to that commodity and not enmeshed in a set of social relationships), “affectivity fetishism” could be construed as treating relations that are, in fact, social and political, as relations to mere neurons. The instantiation of certain neuronal structures and relations is here confused with the cause of these instantiations. Here I would express what I take to be Fisher’s point a bit differently by referring to Aristotle’s four causes. The problem with neurological accounts of mental illness is that they confuse what Aristotle referred to as the material and formal cause of a thing with its efficient cause. Depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are all certain structures of mentality (formal cause) that are embodied in a certain stuff (material cause), but this in and of itself does not account for why these particular embodied structures come to exist as they do (efficient cause).

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Recently Mel’s got me reading Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which is rewarding for a variety of reasons (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read this long ago, but damn it Jim, I mean Mel, I’m a philosopher not a cultural theorist!). First, at one of her recent talks she spoke favorably about OOO, so its worthwhile to return the favor and delve into her work so as to see the points of productive cross-over between these different theoretical projects. Second, it’s hands down a first rate book that ably defends a highly provocative and timely thesis, despite being published in 1999. And finally, it’s reminding me of all sorts of things from cybernetics, systems theory, and autopoietic theory that mesh nicely with the ontology of objects I’m groping towards. In particular, Hayles’ analysis sheds light on what it might mean to refer to objects as “withdrawn” or entirely autonomous from one another.

Hayles begins How We Became Posthuman by distinguishing between first, second, and third way cybernetics. First wave cybernetics focused on the phenomenon of feedback or how systems are self-regulating. As described by the online dictionary of cybernetics and systems, feedback is,

A flow of information back to its origin. A circular causal process in which a system’s output is returned to its input, possibly involving other systems in the loop. Negative feedback or deviation reducing feedback decreases the input and is inherently stabilizing (see stability, regulation, homeostasis), e.g., the governor of a steam engine. Positive feedback or deviation amplifying feedback increases the input and is inherently destabilizing, explosive or vicious, e.g., the growth of a city when more people create new opportunities which in turn attract more people to live there. Feedback is not the term for a response to a stimulus rather for the circularity implied in both. (Krippendorff)

The example of the growing city above is an example of positive feedback. By contrast, we can think of the humble thermostat as a system organized in terms of negative feedback. Here the issue is one of maintaining a particular homeostasis within the system. Thus, you set your heat for the desired temperature. When room temperature drops below that set point, the heater kicks on and runs until it rises to the set temperature, shutting off once again.

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I am still experimenting with the diagram below, but as I was teaching the concept of translation in Harman’s Prince of Networks today, I found it to be a useful heuristic device for thematizing just what is new or interesting in Latour’s concept of translation. Scroll past the Scribd diagram for a bit of commentary.

Clearly I have adapted this diagram from Hjelmsleves model of the sign. All of us are familiar with the relation between the signifier and the signified in Saussurean linguistics (to the left). In naive theories of linguistic translation (NTTs), the idea is that the concept remains the same (content), while it is only the signifier (expression) that changes. There are any number of reasons that this concept of translation is mistaken. I outlined some of these shortcomings in a previous post, so I won’t repeat them here. Latour’s concept of translation is broader than that of translation as it applies to linguistics or the transposition of texts from one language to another. The key point to take home from his analysis– and he doesn’t spell these implications out himself –is not so much the fact that a translated text always differs from the text that it translates, but rather that the process of translation produces something new, regardless of whether the relation is between texts in different languages, conscious minds to world, or relations between objects. What Latour wishes to do, I think, is generalize the concept of translation, such that translation is no longer restricted to the domain of language, nor requiring the involvement of living beings of some sort, but rather involves any relations among actants, human or nonhuman, living or material.

Hjelmslev’s key innovation in the domain of linguistics and semiotics was to recognize that both the plane of expression (loosely the signifier) and the plane of content (loosely the signified) have a form and substance that can enter into different relations with one another. Here I am partially basing my analysis of Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of Hjelmslev’s model of expression and content as developed in “The Geology of Morals” in A Thousand Plateaus. This discussion would require a far more developed analysis than I’m capable of giving at the moment. For those who are interested, it would be worthwhile to refer to DeLanda’s early work on this essay (here and a number of Delanda’s articles, podcasts, and talks can be found here), as well as the first chapter of A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Brian Massumi. While I don’t entirely share the ontological commitments of either of these thinkers, their works nonetheless provide some pointers in the direction I’m thinking.

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A very interesting discussion is shaping up between Harman and Shaviro concerning the ontological status of objects and relations in Whitehead. Shaviro’s latest post defending Whitehead can be found here. At the outset, it’s worth emphasizing that Whitehead is essential reading for OOO. Whitehead is perhaps the greatest realist and object-oriented philosopher of the last century. In many respects, Whitehead is the most resolutely anti-idealist thinker in the last two hundred years. Unlike those poor cowardly souls that advance arguments to the effect that the distinction between idealism and realism is meaningless (translation: they’ve sided with idealism), or that seek to escape idealism by deconstructing the self-transparency of the subject while still treating everything in terms of the signifier, power, signs, etc., Whitehead resolutely speaks of the objects themselves without conflating the ontological and the epistemological register, leaving the reader with no doubt that he’s perfectly happy to speak of the being of beings that have no relation to the human whatsoever. As Harman has recently noted, this is the litmus test of whether or not one is an idealist:

Stated differently, you can’t say: “I’m not an idealist. I believe the human subject is a passive recipient of the world, not its constitutor,” or “Human and world are co-produced,” or “world produces the human.”

Why does the human need to be involved all of these cases?

Even worse is when the game is played of replacing the human with falsely neutral-sounding terms such as “subject”, “thought”, “Ereignis,” or any equivalent thereof.

If people always have to be involved in any situation being discussed in your philosophy, then you’re an idealist. The problem is that it’s become such a reflexive assumption that the human must be one ingredient in any situation under discussion that people immediately scream “positivism!” as soon as you start talking about inanimate relations. So much contemporary continental philosophy has been built as nothing but a firewall against the natural sciences, and unfortunately Husserl (a truly great philosopher) is one of the worst violators on this front.

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. Whitehead passes this litmus test with flying colors. For Whitehead humans are one being among many others, one event among many others. All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues. They should know better. Everyone who teaches ethics knows how to debunk the students claim that values are purely subjective and whatever beliefs a person possesses within minutes. In other words, everyone who teaches ethics knows that the question of what values are, how we deliberate about right and wrong, etc., is independent of the question of our access to values and norms. Yet oddly this same simple insight isn’t carried over into the realm of ontology.

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Lately I have been rereading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe as my bedtime reading which perhaps accounts for why I have been unable to sleep and am nearly psychotically tired as it is a rich book full of all sorts of fascinating ideas that keep me tossing and turning as my mind spins. Dealing specifically with issues of self-organization, Kauffman’s work strives to theorize the conditions under which we get self-sustaining and organized matter such as we see in the case of living systems. A number of his claims are generalizable to a wide variety of phenomena beyond cells and organisms. Similar principles, for example, would apply to ecosystems, economy, social systems, brain organization and so on. And indeed, Kauffman approaches organization at a high level of abstraction, focusing on self-sustaining or autocatalytic chemical processes while also providing a wealth of formalizations that refer to no specific material substrate in particular. I have made no secret of the fact that I am generally hostile to relational ontologies that reduce objects to their relations. While objects certainly enter into relations, onticology begins from the premise that objects are independent of their relations and can pass out of and enter into new relations. Thus, for example, while being sympathetic to the Saussurean conception of language as a system, onticology nonetheless refuses the thesis that anything is its relations. In short, onticology begins with the hypothesis that being is atomistic or composed of discrete, autonomous, and independent objects that can pass in and out of relations. Yes, there are systems or forms of organization, but these forms of organization are assemblages of objects that enter into certain relationships with one another.

The consequence of this thesis is that one of the central issues for onticology becomes the problem of entropy. Roughly, entropy is a tendency of systems to move from states of higher organization to states of lower degrees of organization, or, alternatively, to move from states of non-equilibrium to equilibrium. The video below illustrates this idea nicely:

At the beginning, the system is in a state of non-equilibrium in the sense that all of the particles are concentrated in a particular region of the chamber. With the passage of time– a mere ten seconds –the particles wander throughout the chamber such that you have an equal probability of finding particles in any particular region of the chamber. The big question for onticology then becomes if being is composed of discrete and autonomous objects, then how is it that certain objects form assemblages that resist this increase in entropy, instead maintaining an organized state across time? A while back I suggested that this is how we should pose questions about the nature of society. There the question was that of how it is that humans bodies just don’t fly off in entropic ways, but instead enter into organized relations that sustain themselves across time. Of course, in order for any system to maintain itself in an organized way work is required. No system maintains itself without work. So the real issue lies in discovering the sort of work through which this organization is re-produced across time. This really gets to one of the central problems with French inflected structuralism and Luhmannian systems theory. Both identify the organization of a social system, how it is put together and how its elements are related, but they remain at the level of social physiology, giving only the skeleton of social systems or how the “bones are put together”. What they don’t give us is the work by which this physiology is maintained. They tell us that these systems somehow resist entropy, but not how. Given that many of us are interested, above all, in the question of how change is possible, the issue of how a social system resists entropy becomes a crucial strategic issue for political engagement. However, even if one is not interested in these political questions of change, the question remains fascinating on its own terms.

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In my post “Individuals and Scale” I outlined a nested model of individuals, following the work of Harman and DeLanda. Under this model we would have individuals within individuals at different levels of scale, with individuals at a higher level of scale often regulating or constraining those individuals of which they are composed. Like Russian dolls we would have individuals within individuals, with the important difference that the individuals at a lower level of scale are a condition for the individuals or objects at a higher level of scale and that the individual at a higher level of scale constrains or regulates the individuals at a lower level of scale. However, this is a strange sort of dependency, for the elements or individuals that make up an individual or an object at a larger level of scale can pass in and out of existence, and can leave the network or the object at a higher level of scale, without the object at the higher level of scale ceasing to exist or losing its essence. A body continuously loses and gains new cells, but nonetheless remains that body. A society or social individual loses or gains individuals of which it is composed, but still remains that network.

Indeed, in the case of both cells in the body and human individuals in a society, it is not even necessary that the cells or the human individuals perfectly execute a plan or a rule in order for the larger level individual to maintain its existence. In this respect, we have a strange nesting of objects within objects where the objects at a smaller level of scale enjoy a degree of freedom or autonomy that isn’t rigidly determined or constrained by the individual or object at the larger level of scale. No doubt it is this that led Luhmann to claim that individuals belong to the environment of social systems, or that social systems are not composed of individuals. If Luhmann is led to this claim in his marvelous Social Systems, then this is because social systems persist and endure independent of the individuals that compose them. The smaller scale individuals that compose a larger scale individual are a condition for the larger scale individual, but they do not make the larger scale individual the object that it is. Likewise, it is no doubt this observation that led the structuralists to their anti-humanism. Insofar as a social system has attractor states of its own, it has an autonomous dynamic stability that is in many respects impervious to the acts of smaller scale individuals. Indeed, in most instances the dissident actions of smaller scale individuals actually function as fodder to reinforce the internal organization of the larger scale individual or object.

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04121501_01In response to my post on Darwin’s Copernican revolution, Joe writes:

Is that to say that the individual is prior to the species then? I just wonder how easily this could pair itself with some liberal-capitalist bootstrapism with a human face, as with any number of naturalized consumerist gimmicks: from straight-up greenwashing that gets done in the name of LEED certification to hip inner-city farmers’ markets and their localist brand-campaigns, to sociobiology and its adaptationist apology for our historical misery. When you say that for Darwin there are only individual differences, my mind jumps to those little boxes you sometimes see at the cash-register that tell you that you can really make a difference by donating your change.

At the outset, I think it’s worth noting that it’s a mistake to let one’s politics dictate ones ontology. This is a bit like suggesting that we should reject the thesis that atoms are composed of electrons because we find something in this thesis politically objectionable. Nonetheless, I do sympathize with Joe’s concerns about liberal-capitalist political orientations. It is indeed true that Darwin adopts, for lack of a better word, a sort of “metaphysical nominalism” where only individual differences exist, and in which there is no difference in kind between individuals and species. However, it’s a mistake, I think, to leap from this thesis to the thesis of liberal-capitalist politics where we can reduce the social to atomistic individuals.

In my view, there are individuals at a variety of individuals at different levels of scale, and there are individuals embedded in or nested in other individuals. This is significant because it entails that you can have emergent systems (individuals at a larger level of scale) that exercise downward causality and constraint on individuals at a smaller level of scale. Take the example of a body. A body is composed of cells. Each of these cells is an individual in its own right. However, the body is itself an individual as well. Here we have individuals (cells) nested in another individual (the body). The body has system-specific powers and capacities that differ from those of an individual cell. Take one muscle cell, for example, and you don’t get much in the way of expressivity or strength. Network a bunch of muscle cells together and suddenly you get a face capable of making all sorts of different expressions and an am with the power to lift all sorts of objects.

However, it is not simply that we get emergent powers or affects from networks of individual cells, it is also that these networks exercise a constraining force on the individuals that compose it. In the example of cells, initially cells, in the course of development, begin as pluripotent. This is to say that early on cells have the capacity to be a variety of different types of cells such as nerve cells, bone cells, muscle cells, and tissue cells. How, then, do cells shift from this pluripotency to being irreversibly differentiated into particular type of cells? Cell differentiation occurs in networks of cells where cells chemically signal to one another turning the individual cells off and on in particular ways that lead to differentiation into muscle, nerve, tissue, and bone cells. In other words, the network takes on a constraining role with respect to the individual cells that compose it. Here we have a relationship between two individuals: the network of cells and an individual cells, where the organization of the former individual exercises downward causality on the individuals that compose it.

The problem with liberal-capitalist political theory lies not in the ontological category of the individual, but rather in the manner in which it restricts the ontological category of the individual to human subjects, ignoring and failing to recognize individuals at different levels of scale and the relationship between these different levels of scale. For this reason, it ends up being blind to network specific forms of organization that play a constraining role with respect to individual human subjects, or the manner in which individuals at a higher level of scale play a regulating role with respect to their elements through processes of negative feedback. It thus turns out that questions of scale and emergence are key issues for any object-oriented philosophy.

For the last few days I’ve been a bit remiss in responding to comments and email due to being swamped with other things. I apologize for this. Today, in response to my post on Orientalism, Jerry the Anthropologist writes:

Allow me to wonder how this post might look to someone reading it at Universitas Kebangsaan Malayu or at Gadjah Mada or at San Carlos. Its not that I don’t appreciate (or that they might not appreciate) the elegance of the argument.

Put another way, somewhat over 50 years ago, after having examined somewhat over 300 definitions of culture, A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn wondered whether its not so important what culture is as what culture does.

Hopefully my friend Jerry will say a bit more about his distinction between “culture being” and “culture doing”. For my own part, I have become suspicious of concepts like “society”, “culture”, “economy”, “language”, etc., because I think all too often these concepts tend to hypostatize phenomena that are really complex networks of interactions. South Park recently had an uncharacteristically good episode on precisely this issue with respect to the economy that is well worth watching. We treat the economy as if it itself were doing something, as if it were an entity– the episode is all about how we have “angered” the economy and must repent –when, in fact, the economy is us. The thesis of this post is that we tend to hypostatize things like “culture” and “society”, turning them into entities when, in fact, they’re processes. In developing this line of thought, I am not denying phenomena like orientalism, but raising ontological questions about the conditions under which it is possible.

This, I think, is part of the importance of the concept of “assemblage” or “network”, as opposed to that of “system” or “structure”. By system or structure I understand a form of organization where the elements are inseparable from one another such that their being is purely a function of their relations within that organization. For example, in structural linguistics the phoneme p is nothing apart its differential relation to the phoneme b. Indeed, according to this account we already speak poorly by referring to “b” and “p” as phonemes as there is only b-p or the differential relation defining the two terms. This sort of concept then gets applied to social phenomena as well, such that no element in the social exists apart from the other elements, or rather, all of the elements are what they are by virtue of belonging to the organization. From a system theoretical perspective, the analogy is generally to biology where all the elements are understood to have a functional role and set of interdependencies within the social system. From the structural perspective the analogy is to structural linguistics where the elements are inseparable and only take on identity differentially.

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I was delighted to wake up this morning– um, well, really this afternoon… I was up very late grading and have much more yet to do –to find a comment by Lee Braver in response to my post Problems of Immanence. Lee writes:

This is a really interesting topic, and one at the heart of my book. Its 2 epigraphs directly raise the issue:

“The all-decisive question… [is] What happens when the distinction between a true world and an apparent world falls away? What becomes of the metaphysical essence of truth?”


And, somewhat as a response,

“Truth is a thing of this world”

Once Kant closes off the possibility of correspondence with a reality that transcends our grasp of it, the notion of truth must undergo profound revision, which I take to be one of the core projects of continental thought. Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and early Heidegger all wrestled with new understandings of truth but were still entangled in the traditional sense. It was Heidegger’s later work, building on “aletheia,” that decisively broke with traditional understanding on my reading, freeing the post-modernists to experiment more radically.

Nietzsche correctly diagnosed the danger of swinging from absolute metaphysical foundations to complete nihilism (to which many relegate po-mo), which leaves the problem of how to carve out a path between these extremes. What does truth mean where there is no transcendent umpire to issue infallible rulings, or even a realm of objects existing in absolute separation from us to supply even a conceptual foothold for comparing our beliefs with their objects? In classes, I call this a “just-us-chickens” epistemology: how do we determine what’s right when it’s just us humans, endlessly squabbling? On one reading, this is what Hegel’s absolute (ab solus) knowledge teaches us.

Okay, back to grading as I’m way behind right now!

Jon, I have a lot of sympathy with what you’re sketching out–it sounds a bit like Rorty’s picture of animals making complicated noises at each other. The problem in reducing discussions to the level of causality is that normativity falls out of the picture. Builder A can respond positively or negatively to B’s bringing him a block upon A’s speaking “block,” but Wittgenstein wants to maintain the idea that B’s action’s being right or wrong is not determined entirely by A’s satisfaction or lack thereof. This correctness cannot lie coiled within the command or A’s mind, of course, but Wittgenstein frequently claims that it must still be there, somewhere (in wider society’s reactions, according to some). Now, we may want to simply jettison this evaluation; all there is is people’s interactions and reactions and the demand for over-arching normativity is just a metaphysical hang-over. My sense is that the vast majority of analytic philosophers emphatically demand retaining it, while continentals get a lot less excited over its loss. But it is something to consider.

I haven’t read Lee’s book yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it over the summer. In response to Lee’s remarks, what I’m looking for is something that retains the best of correlationism or anti-realist positions– preserving their kernel of insight –while nonetheless situating it within a realist framework. In other words, in adopting a realist position I think it would be a mistake to re-inscribe the division between culture and nature, where the “real” is on the side of nature and the side of culture and spirit is somehow something other than the real. Here I find Latour’s critique of this distinction in texts like We Have Never Been Modern and The Politics of Nature to be deeply compelling and right on the mark. Moreover, if the split between nature and culture is inscribed in this way we will eventually, as Alexei points out, find ourself back at all the questions that first motivated the Kantian position. I think this is one of the major differences that distinguishes the Object-Oriented Ontologies of Graham and I, from the realist ontologies of folks like Brassier and perhaps Meillassoux. What is needed is not a sharp reinscription between mind and world, culture and nature, but a flat ontology where all of these things are elements of the real. I have outlined what such an ontology would look like in very schematic forms in my post Principles of Onticology (and here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In developing this ontology it should be noted that I proceed experimentally in much the same way that Freud proposed the Death Drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. That is, in proposing the Ontic Principle (the principle which states “there is no difference that does not make a difference), I do so in the spirit of a hypothesis, saying “suppose we were to begin with difference as the ground of being rather than sameness or identity as Parmenides did, what would follow and how would we have to rethink our understanding of Being and beings?”

read on!

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