Theory


I’m feeling pretty wretched this evening, whether from a cold or allergies. To amuse myself in my sinus fog, I’ll post this clip and then proceed to the issue of this post.

Returning to Ian’s keynote address where tacos are mentioned, I just cannot resist posting this clip as a nice cinematic representation of non-human objects as actors. Silliness and sinus headaches aside, I have some rather vague and unformed thoughts rolling about in my cobweb filled mind regarding the nature of theories. One of the measures of any ontology, I think, is the issue of self-reflexivity. Does the ontology take account of its own ontological status within its own theoretical framework, or does it implicitly exempt itself from the claims it makes about the nature of the world? Foucault, for example, got himself in trouble with Habermas. As Habermas argued in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Foucault seems to exempt his own archaeological and genealogical analyses from the very dynamics of power he discerns everywhere else. If truth is a product of power, the argument runs, what is it that authorizes Foucault’s own discourse? Wouldn’t it too be a product of power-relations? I am not here endorsing Habermas’ criticism, but simply giving an example of the problem of self-reflexivity to draw attention to what the issue is. How is it that a theory takes account of itself within the framework of its own ontological commitments?

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andy-warhol-marilynOver at the inaccurately named Struggleswithphilosophy, Edward proposes the sort of analysis necessary for avoiding the Hegemonic Fallacy and demanded by object-oriented philosophy. Meanwhile, Carl, over at the amusingly named Dead Voles (why this name, Carl?), chants “object-oriented philosophy, what is it good for?” As Carl puts it,

Among the various things ideas may be for, what they’re nearly always for is constituting discourse communities, conversations and like minds. For ideas in the present, then, that I don’t have a professional obligation to backtrack through all their assembled agendas and contexts, the questions for me are first: whether they’re getting anything done I see a need to get done; and second, whether I find the conversation and/or conversants compelling. In the case of the new philosophy I’m solid on the latter, which is why I’ve been engaging with it. But I’m really shaky on the former, which is why I keep feeling so dissatisfied. What the hell is this stuff for?

To this, Edward, without realizing that he’s responding, remarks,

The main objective of hybrid model analysis is to construct an object-oriented approach for researchers that avoids what Larval has termed the “Hegemonic Fallacy.” Instead of the researcher relying on one style of analysis, the hybrid model forces the researcher to explain the object of analysis in its diversity. For example, when the researcher is examining the object of cars in the world, the hybrid model would not allow the researcher to select one particular dimension of cars to explain their existence. The problem of selecting one dimension is that it would only reveal and prioritise one aspect of cars and neglect other factors. Imagine if I analysed the discursive construction of cars in various discourses. While the analysis of these discourses would prove invaluable, its language bias would fail to capture the hybrid nature of the object in question. The result of examine the discursive construction would be to remained traped within the hegemonic fallacy. The hybrid model would not neglect the importance of discourses disseminating meaning about cars, but it would claim there are other dimensions (political economy, environmental factors, technological capability, and so on) that construct the object. The challenge for the researcher is to conceptualise how all these dimensions interconnect and influence one another in the object of analysis.

Quite right. My particular version of Object-Oriented Philosophy arises primarily from a dissatisfaction with the social and political theory that has been my bread and butter for over a decade. Here it’s important to keep in mind, as Harman has repeatedly emphasized, that there is no entity floating about called “Speculative Realism”, such that all Speculative Realists share these positions. Between Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, and Quentin Meillassoux there is no discernible shared position to be found. Indeed, there is a great deal of conflict among these positions, such that each of them is making very distinct ontological claims about the nature of the world. If, as Graham argues, there is some unity among the Speculative Realists, this is not to be found among their shared positions but rather in what they are against. That is, the common thread linking the Speculative Realists is a dissatisfaction with correlationist and anti-realist paradigms of thought. In this respect, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to claim that there are a number of “Speculative Realists” that don’t refer to themselves as Speculative Realists. For example, Deleuze, under one reading, could be classified as a Speculative Realist. DeLanda certainly fits the bill, as does Alfred North Whitehead. Harman argues that Latour fits the bill, and I would add Stengers to this list as well.

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Open Humanities Press has announced a new book series devoted to the publication of original metaphysical systems. This is an exciting moment in Continental thought and a bit of a watershed for the future of Continental philosophy. The old stereotype runs that Anglo-American philosophy is focused on problems, while Continental thought tends to be focused on the history of philosophy and commentary. As a result, within Anglo-American philosophy we tend to get original work (though often very boring), while in Continental thought, at least within the English speaking world, we get commentary after commentary. This is not, of course, to diminish the value of commentary or its potential to function as a platform for the development of new philosophical trajectories. However, this focus on the history of philosophy places real institutional constraints on philosophers in the English speaking world working in the Continental tradition. Insofar as one must be concerned with either getting a position or gaining tenure, and insofar as Continental journals and presses are geared towards the history of philosophy, doing original work becomes a losing proposition as you’re unlikely to find a publishing venue for that work and thereby lose valuable time in doing this work. This new series goes part of that way towards ameliorating that problem, though it also opens the door to anxiety as to whether or not we really have anything to say in our own voice. At any rate, here’s the announcement:

New Metaphysics

Series editors: Graham Harman and Bruno Latour

The world is due for a resurgence of original speculative metaphysics. The New Metaphysics series aims to provide a safe house for such thinking amidst the demoralizing caution and prudence of professional academic philosophy. We do not aim to bridge the analytic-continental divide, since we are equally impatient with nail-filing analytic critique and the continental reverence for dusty textual monuments. We favor instead the spirit of the intellectual gambler, and wish to discover and promote authors who meet this description. Like an emergent recording company, what we seek are traces of a new metaphysical “sound” from any nation of the world. The editors are open to translations of neglected metaphysical classics, and will consider secondary works of especial force and daring. But our main interest is to stimulate the birth of disturbing masterpieces of twenty-first century philosophy. Please send project descriptions (not full manuscripts) to Graham Harman, graham@rinzai.com. Open Humanities Press is an international Open Access publishing collective. OHP was formed by scholars to overcome the current crisis in publishing that threatens intellectual freedom and academic rigor worldwide. All OHP publications are peer-reviewed, published under open access licenses, and freely and immediately available online through www.openhumanitiespress.org.

Niklas Luhmann on some basic principles of systems theory. (very good despite its brevity)

Niklas Luhmann on the function of theory in relation to science.

The Architecture of Theories

At the beginning of his novel Gemini, Michel Tournier writes,

On the twenty-fifth of September 1937, a depression moving from Newfoundland to the Baltic sent masses of warm, moist oceanic air into the corridor of the English Channel. At 5:19 P.M. a gust of wind from the west-southest uncovered the petticoat of old Henriette Puysoux, who was picking up potatos in her field; slapped the sun blind of the Cafe des Amis in Plancoet; banged a shutter on the house belonging to Dr. Bottereau alongside the wood of La Hunaudaie; turned over eight pages of Aristotle’s Meteorologica, which Michel Tournier was reading on the beach at Saint-Jacut; raised a cloud of dust and bits of straw on the road to Plelan; blew wet spray in the face of Jean Chauve as he was putting his boat out in the Bay of Arguenon; set the Pallet family’s underclothes bellying and dancing on the line where they were drying; started the wind pump racing at the Ferme des Mottes; and snatched a handful of gilded leaves off the silver birches in the garden of La Cassine. (9)

What a beautiful way to begin a novel. The first thing to notice is the manner in which the events described here are dated. They occur at a particular time and in a particular place. Yet secondly, note the way in which this gust of wind pulls together a series of entities, linking them together despite their disparity.

Okay, so maybe not a master-science, but rather a master-metaphor or a guiding metaphor for thought. For some time I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated with the terms “structure” and “system” as key terms for thinking social-formations. For me, structure evokes connotations of architecture. I think of architectural structures. I can draw them on a piece of paper, capturing the blue-print of the edifice that I’m trying to think about. If I have some talent in the discipline of topology, I can then imagine these structures undergoing free variation. Yet the problem is that structure, even in topography, remains relatively static and rigid. When I describe the Sears Tower I don’t really need to talk about the outside world, but just the organization of the tower and how all of its parts fit together. Matters are not much different in the case of systems. For instance, the paradigm of a system might be a bureaucracy, where there are a set number of protocols for processing inputs for producing a particular output.

Both of these concepts strike me as too rigid, two subject to closure, for defining the historical present in which we exist. In his beautiful book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, the ethnographer Arjun Appadurai describes a set of social and cultural circumstances impacted by contemporary media technologies and mass migrations. How can we today speak of “architecture” or rigid structures in a contemporary setting where diverse codes are perpetually being brought into contact with one another through migration and communications technologies? Is it a mistake that the concepts of structure and system emerge right at that historical moment when migration brought on by the industrial revolution begins to erode these structures, calling them into question as a result of codes being scrambled everywhere? Does not structure appear at that precise moment when structure is disappearing? And might not the frantic search for structure and system everywhere be a symptom of the desire to make the Other exist, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

Assembly Required

Last night I had one of those thoughts that is probably best to never express out loud. “What,” I thought, “would the world look like if we imagined all entities that exist as variations of the weather?” This is really the sort of thought that can only occur to you when you’re in a sleepy, half drunken stupor, falling asleep on the couch while watching a show about the Galapagos Islands on National Geographic. I should say that meteorological metaphors have often appeared in my writing. In the past I’ve often made reference to phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes when trying to think about the nature of systems. On the one hand, hurricanes are of interest in that they have the status of quasi-things. Why is it that we’re inclined to think of a chair or rock as a thing or object, yet when it comes to a hurricane or a tornado we’re inclined to think of these things as events? It seems to me that what’s at issue here is a temporal prejudice or a prejudice pertaining to temporality. If a rock has the status of an object, then this is because it is a relatively slow moving and dense event. Rocks stick around for a long time. By contrast, even though a hurricane might stick around for days and weeks, they lack density and temporal longevity. Nonetheless, hurricanes do have qualities of organization and endurance, even if that organization or internal structure is relatively short-lived.

What interested me in particular about the documentary was their discussion of the ocean currents surrounding the Galapogos Islands. Every year the Islands receive cold currents of water that are particularly congenial for plankton and algae. A whole host of animals depend on these currents from marine iguanas to various sorts of fish to sea lions and a variety of sea birds that feed on these other creatures. Every few years the so-called El Nino effect will occur, preventing the cool waters from reaching the islands and bringing about unseasonable warmth and torrential downfalls. When this occurs the plankton do not arrive and the algae do not grow, and vast numbers of birds, marine iguanas, and sea lions die, leaving only a few to survive. These events then function as selective mechanisms, shifting the trajectory of subsequent development for the various species on the island. Just as vast numbers of sea iguanas die, the land iguanas flourish as a result of tender flowers and plant-life that pop up everywhere on the island as a result of the heavy rainfall. In short, these ocean currents assemble an entire organization among the plant and animal life that populate. What we have here are assemblage mechanisms that generate a particular organization (the ever shifting eco-systems), giving rise to a temporary pattern of relationships among the elements.

There are a variety of levels at which such systems can be investigated and no one level of analysis takes priority over the others. One might think that a discussion of the ocean currents is sufficient to explain the emergent system. That is, why might posit a hierarchical and unilateral form of causality. However, while the ocean currents serve as a condition for the possibility of the resulting assemblage, it must not be forgotten that the elements of the emergent assemblage themselves interact with one another and have dynamics of their own. The resulting assemblage has inter-assemblage relations with an outside (something entirely missing in structuralism and much of systems theory), but there are also intra-assemblage relations among the elements (the plankton, plant-life, sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, turtles, fish, etc).

These intra-assemblage relations contain their own dynamics and tensions that preside over the development as a whole. For instance, there are a number of land iguanas that live in the calderas of old volcanoes. Every year, during mating season, the female iguanas make a journey of sometimes tens of miles to the top of the caldera so that they might lay their eggs. Here timing is everything (again a feature that tends to be ignored in structural approaches). If an iguana comes from deep inside the caldera she will have a longer journey. If she doesn’t make it to the top of the caldera in time, all of the good nesting sites will be taken and she’ll be forced to re-enter the caldera, laying her eggs in the precarious walls of the volcano’s side. These walls are composed of very loosely packed rock and soil where avalanches not only often occur, but are inevitable. In a year where the El Nino effect is operative, there will be a higher number of land iguanas due to the great amount of available vegetation, thereby leading to more intra-assemblage competition among the various iguanas and other creatures, thereby shifting subsequent courses of development. A more striking example of these intra-assemblage relations would be the effect that the Cane Toad has had on the eco-system in Australia. The Cane Toad was introduced into the Australian ecosystem to fight pests. However, having no natural predator of its own, it reproduced rapidly and began devouring much of the plant-life and other desirable animal life. Here we have an example of intra-assemblage relations where one element comes to predominate and shift the organization of the assemblage itself without being catalyzed to do so from elements of an outside. Consequently, it is not enough to simply analyze the inter-assemblage relations between ocean and weather patterns and the organisms that form a system in response to these patterns, but it is also necessary to explore the intra-assemblage relations and the various patterns that emerge as a result of interactions among the elements of these assemblages. Various species and ecosystems here come to resemble weather patterns themselves, like a relatively persistent eddy of water behind the support of a bridge that has its duration and fluctuations as it endures throughout time.

Contingency in the Garden of Forking Paths

The Galapagos Islands have a number of active volcanoes. Among the creatures that inhabit the Galapagos are the famous Galapagos tortoises. Some of these tortoises live exclusively in the calderas of various volcanoes, and have very simple or homogeneous genetic codes compared to tortoises elsewhere on the island. Occasionally you will find these tortoises with rocks actually embedded in their shells from small volcanic explosions that continue to occur in the base of the calderas, where they have lodged themselves in the shell of the tortoise. Biologists hypothesize that the simplicity of the genetic code among these tortoises is to be explained through a volcanic explosion that destroyed most of the tortoise population, leaving only a few to mate with one another.

A volcanic eruption or meteor hitting the earth or group of terrorists destroying the World Trade Center can be thought of as a contingent bifurcation point. Emerging from neither the relatively stable assemblages of weather patterns, nor from within the system itself, these events explode onto the scene, challenging the intra-systematic organization of the assemblage as a whole and bringing it before a point where forking paths of development as a whole are possible. In the days following 9-11, the United States wobbled between alternative paths in moving towards its future. Organization fluctuated back and forth without settling initially on any one particular social configuration. Within a few days the valence of the event was retroactively codified and a vector was chosen, generating a particular organization. Other vectors were possible.

Kaleidoscopes and Textiles

No doubt I will regret having written this post later on this evening. I have gone on about ocean currents, turtles, and iguanas in a rather indulgent fashion. However, it seems to me that social and political theory often suffers from being myopic and reductive, choosing one level of analysis and excluding all others. For instance, in psychoanalysis we are told the signifier reigns supreme and that everything is filtered through the signifier, thus allowing us to ignore contributions from neurology or even historical studies. Theory should instead be thought as a kaleidoscope, where various levels of analysis are thought like a turn of the scope revealing a different pattern. The difference here, of course, would be that these various patterns not be thought as independent, but should instead be thought as inter-dependent networks at various levels, producing effects at other levels, without these levels being hierarchical over overdetermining the others (as in the case of language with Lacan or economics for some classical variants of Marxist thought). Along these lines, Appadurai has proposed that we think in terms of independent streams such as mediascapes, ethnoscapes, financescapes, technoscapes, and ideoscapes, where these various streams are woven together in various configurations, sometimes one dominating, sometimes others, where it is always a question of the relationship between the local and the global and of local configurations like a local weather pattern that is nonetheless dependent on global fluctuations. In this way we can investigate the manner in which certain forms of organization arise and maintain consistency for a time, while also discerning where their points of transformation might lie. To Appadurai’s five streams, I would also add ecoscapes or geoscapes, and perhaps bioscapes, to refer to the Other beyond the Other, the absolute outside of social systems, or those contingencies that shake the earth such as earthquakes, hurricanes, meteor strikes, etc., where ordinary social relations are momentarily suspended and the social system wobbles between possibilities.

In thinking these six or seven streams, we must learn how to think according to the ancient art of textiles in terms of weaving and fabrics, where we ask not which of these streams provides the interpretive key of all the others, but instead look at the patterned fabrics that emerge out of these various threads being woven together. Of course, the fabric here must not be thought as an extant thing like the fabrics we know in our day to day life, but as a specifically meteorological fabric that is an ongoing process of weaving on a shuttle and loom that never ceases to vary itself and which perpetually weaves new fabrics as new groupings or patterns emerge responding to contingencies both within the threads and from without. Weaving must be thought not in terms of its status as product, but process.

The advantage of treating meteorology as a key theoretical metaphor is that it underlines both internal organization and the dependency of every system on an outside, while also capturing the ephemeral nature of all emergent organization in the order of time. The hurricane can only emerge as a hurricane, as an organization, through the heat of the ocean water out of which it arises. Every social group formation, as it produces and reproduces itself in time, needs its heat as well. Some of this heat can be intra-systemic (for instance, the way in which communication technologies function as catalysts that heat up social relations and function as a condition of onto-genesis presiding over entirely new groupings independent of local conditions) or inter-systemic, pertaining to relations between social systems and environmental conditions in which the group exists (for instance, the role that a drought might play in defining struggles among various groups in Africa or placing group identities in onto-genesis as they redefine themselves in fights over resources). All these relations and their dynamics deserve investigation in their own right. These investigations will not unfold universal rules like Newtonian laws, but will be far closer to Levi-Strauss’s “science of the concrete”, investigating a set of emergent regularities that both came to be and that can pass away.

Following up on my remarks about counter-factuals late last night, I’m led again to think about how theory relates to practice. Lately I have been critical of forms of theory that strike me as only being addressed to other academics within the walls of the academy. This shouldn’t be taken as a call for everyone to become a public intellectual like Dawkins, nor should it be taken as a call for everyone to write in plain and ordinary everyday language that everyone can easily comprehend. Rather, my consternation here is that so much of the theory I read strikes me as being conjured up out of thin air and have little or no connection (at the level of analysis) to the concrete situations within which we live. Marx’s Capital is, of course, incredibly dense and is not accessible to everyone. At least under the first reading. However, I would call this work concrete in the way that it grapples directly with the moment and the contours of that situation. It is a work that works from the situation, unfolding a set of potentialities within the situation and perpetually keeping one eye on the concrete situation without weaving fine sounding theological webs. It is serious theory.

I think the question of counter-factuals, of how possibilities become available to us that are not already predelineated in the situation, is important if for no other reason that the very theorizing of possibilities creates possibilities. I cannot speak for everyone, but the intellectual climate in which I was trained was one where theory allowed little or nothing in the way of possibilities or ruptures. I believe this has repurcussions at the level of both thought and action. As Spinoza argues, all thoughts are embodied and there is no distinction between understanding and will. How we think thus has a profound impact on how we will and how we act. After all, if I act on the basis of the possibilities I discern in a situation and if I only admit what last night I called “state counterfactuals”, then I will only reproduce the state.

The intellectual environment in which I was trained was populated by names like Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, etc. Heidegger told me that I was thrown into the world, and that my Dasein is characterized by a fundamental historicity that functions as a determinant of my thought and praxis. Foucault told me that all my thought and interactions are pervaded by the epistemes and structures of power that function as determinants of my action. Althusser told me that there is no subject, but that we’re all puppets of ideology. Levi-Strauss argued that our thought process is an iteration of transpersonal structures that have little or nothing to do with my own intentionality. Wittgenstein told me that I am simply a participant in an unconscious set of language games. And Derrida showed me how an unground before the ground, or text, pervaded all thought and action.

In all cases these theorists and a host of others argued that there is no otherwise beyond the state (conceptualizing the state in a variety of different ways). Theories are not simply about something, but they do something. A theoretical orientation that begins from the premise of overdetermination and contextual saturation is a theory that will produce forms of thought that confirm this thesis. Possibility will not even be on the table as it will be a theoretical axiom a priori that history, power, and language determine thought and praxis without remainder. As a result, one ends up with a tragic vision of the world where there is no place for action or where all action is co-opted in advance. It is for this reason that the very theorization of possibility creates possibilities and opening. Rather than sad and passive subjects, it opens a horizon for free subjects where thinking otherwise within immanence might become possible. A theory is not simply a representation or map, but it is also a psychology, a way of feeling, an existential attitude towards the world. For too long theory has conceptualized the subject as a puppet not unlike poor Schreber that experienced himself in the thrall of God without a line of flight or a point of escape. Libidinally, perhaps, this is a very satisfying position. One occupies the sexually satisfying position of the perverse masochist where jouissance is drawn from being the implement of the Other’s jouissance. While I certainly know the charge of these games, I don’t wish to be a masochist anymore. It seems to me that if philosophy and theory have one duty, then this is to invent possibilities or open spaces of possibility, perpetually resisting the closure of the social field. In doing so, philosophy invites unheard of peoples that begin producing themselves by projecting these possibilities and transforming them from virtualities to actualities. While I might grumble over the details of thinkers such as Badiou, Deleuze, Lacan, etc., I am nonetheless grateful that they have at least put the possibility of possibility on the table as a rejoinder to the state thinkers.

Once again the theory wars have erupted throughout the blogosphere (here and here and here) and once again I find myself both disturbed and confused as to what these wars are about. On the one hand, if I find myself disturbed by these discussions then this is because vaguely I experience myself as falling within the scope of these critiques, and I see all of this as somehow being bound up with questions of institutional power.
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