Writing


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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bryantAs I look back at Difference and Givenness, a book about which I have so many ambivalent feelings and from which I feel so distant, I think that if there is any accomplishment in this text it is to be found in the seventh chapter “Overcoming Speculative Dogmatism: Time and the Transcendental Field”. If I feel so ambivalent about Difference and Givenness, then this is because it is a book I believe to be populated by the sorts of micro-fascisms described by Foucault in his preface to Anti-Oedipus. It is a police book, filled with the desire to correct and dampen exuberant Deleuzians, assert academic hierarchy, and shackle them to constraint. It is a book that reeks of scholarship and a scholarly mentality, full of ressentiment directed at those who refuse to bow to the philosophical tradition and “practice rigor”. Rather than a book that functions as a “difference engine”, functioning to open up possibilities through aleatory appropriations that lead in surprising directions, instead it strove to maintain boundaries, borders, and possibilities. The book is shit in the psychoanalytic, object drive, sense of the word.

This had something to do with the context in which it was written. Overcome by an institutional framework dominated by phenomenology and Kant– indeed impressed by these things –I was, at the time, obsessed with the question of what entitled me to advocate Deleuze’s position. “How does the Deleuzian respond to the Husserlian”, I wondered. What a sad question, this question of authorization, as if we must first show our identification before passing through a series of gates or allowing ourselves to speak. As if we must first know in advance, ground things in advance, rather than engage in polemos. It is the question of an obsessional that is always preparing to begin without ever beginning, that is always deferring his encounter with his love as he gets the right career, becomes worthy, makes things right with the respective families (there’s always something left to do insuring that the eventual encounter is deferred), rather than simply passing to the act and letting the chips fall where they may.

But if there is something redeeming in this wretched, sad work of ressentiment and this sordid affair, if there is something that resists our academic machinery that only allows discipleship and slavish commentary, creating horrifying grey vampires and minotaurs that fight to the death, defending against any slight deviation, innovation or creation that isn’t beyond in some unobtainable realm recreating the rites of the sacred golden bull, it is to be found in the seventh chapter. Like all good obsessional phenomena it contains a marker of its own lie, the seed of its own undoing, an acknowledgment of its own fantasy, and this is what takes place in my seventh chapter. Like the rest of the passive work, it remains sad in that it contends that we must still pass through critical thought to reach speculative uncertainty. However, unlike the rest of the work, so obsessed with faux rigor coming from the Derrideans, the Husserlians, and the saddest creatures of all, the hermeneuts, it strives to undermine the very premise of all these approaches, showing that the difference between the critical and the speculative is indiscernible. In doing so, it sought to free the rights of the speculative, but was still ambivalent, as Nick Srnicek notes in his sensitive review of my book, so that the project of obsessional reflexivity might be abandoned once and for all. At least by me.

And oddly, it accomplished that goal, as uncertain or unconvincing as those arguments were. I can still recall, like a Spring day, my analytic session with Bruce Fink. Why did I choose a position at a two year school? “There”, I told Fink, “I will have academic freedom. I will be able to explore my interest in all styles of philosophy, psychoanalysis, biology, physics, history, literature, and so on without being required to be anything. No one will care what or where I publish, so I will be free to do what I want.” In his characteristic manner he said “hmmmm!!!”, making a honking sound like one of the squash horns my grandfather used to make for me as a young boy. At the time I thought that was a rationalization. Often I still do. I took myself out of the prestige game, though I still yearn for it sometimes. But what I was doing ultimately, I think, was giving myself the freedom to speculate. What a relief it was to read Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus years later! Perhaps, above all, what that seventh chapter gave me was the authorization to speculate without bowing before the obsessional alter of “Continental rigor” [editorial note: defense]. However, the fact that I would undermine my own work in this way must indicate that here there’s still something unresolved. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel embarrassment whenever anyone wants to discuss the work or wants insight into it.

Roots_by_cesarpbOver at Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog– what a marvelous blog title so full of rich resonances! –I came across a little enigmatic aphorism that I found somewhat jarring. In response to my post on realism and speculative realism, Russell, like the Oracle at Delphi, intones that “aesthetics is lost without ontology.” This is a gorgeous and mysterious little statement that appeals even to the object-oriented ontologist– or, to try on some new “clothes” the ontographist (certainly a more appealing term than “onticology”. Steven Shaviro, for instance, has recently shown brilliantly– and I’m still pissed at him for not contributing to The Speculative Turn as he absolutely belongs there –how aesthetics is deeply ontological in the realist, non-correlationist, sense. He does this through an imbrication of the aesthetic ontology of Whitehead, the aesthetics of Kant (in a reading that can only be described as “Harmanian” in its daring misinterpretation that redeems), and of Deleuze, showing that aesthetics is not simply a human affair.

However, I suppose I find Jacob’s aphorism so jarring because I’m inclined to invert it. This for both philosophical reasons and personal reasons. A few years ago I had the pleasure of teaching an Aesthetics course here at Collin. This was a rare treat as, while I have the freedom to assign whatever texts I might like, it gave me the opportunity to teach a theme based course and work with an eclectic body of students coming from both the fine arts and philosophy. One of the things I discovered is the manner in which throughout the history of philosophy questions of knowledge, reality, truth, and ethics are so tightly interwoven with questions of aesthetics. Although aesthetics is often portrayed as a marginal branch of philosophy– with ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics being the “big three” –I am willing to wager that the aesthetic theory of a philosopher contains, in fractal form, the inner kernel and truth of any philosopher. I haven’t yet developed a theory as to why this is the case, but what I found again and again as we explored the aesthetic theories of the tradition was that the ontological, epistemological, and ethical questions of whatever philosophy we were studying converged on aesthetic issues. Indeed, I’m even willing to suggest that we can distinguish philosophy from non-philosophy in terms of whether a thinkers body of thought contains an aesthetic theory. In this respect, I’m led to wonder whether it is indeed the case that aesthetics is nothing without ontology. Might it instead be the reverse, that ontology (and epistemology) is nothing without aesthetics? Here, of course, aesthetics would have to be understood as a trifecta: a theory of sensibility (aesthesis) or better yet “appearing” or “manifestation”, a theory of art as of central ontological concern an revelation, and a theory of creation.

Of course, all of this is very well a bias on my part. In many respects, I think we all dream of being something other than we are. For me, I always dreamed of being an artist. I remember the awed wonder I experienced when I watched another child draw for the very first time. There, in the first or second grade, I watched, full of envy, as that child inscribed images on paper, bringing another world into existence. It was a simple depiction of the space shuttle, but nonetheless I was hooked at that very moment. What could be better, more miraculous, more powerful, more valuable, than this power to bring worlds into being? Oh how deeply I ached to draw, to paint, to write stories, to create poetry. I was hooked. And sadly, I just didn’t seem to be wired in that way. It could even be said that I first pursued philosophy out of a desire to do art… Philosophy, I thought, would allow me to thematize worlds, to create worlds, to create. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way, but it could be said that a red thread linking all the philosophers I identify with and work on is aesthetics. My compensation for this creative impotence is ontological: the only universe worth living in and affirming is a creative universe.

In this respect, I always find it curious how different intellectual practices encounter one another. One of the things I constantly encounter among my friends engaged in other practices and disciplines is a sort of “philosophy envy” or “philosophy insecurity”. How many times have I heard someone in literary studies, a social science, or engaged in an artistic practice say “what you do is rigorous and actually does something!” I’m always surprised by this and by this anxiety in the face of philosophy. If that’s the case, then it is because I believe, above all, that philosophy is a parasitic discourse aimed at thinking our present. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense at all. There is nothing to disparage in meta-theory. Rather, what I mean is that the philosopher is always a becoming-other, carried along by those who are not so much attempting to think the present, as by those who are making the present: activists, scientists, painters, poets, musicians, mathematicians, and so on. Philosophy needs all these makers as the datums that course through them, giving them the material for what is to be thought, for what provokes thought. And hopefully, in turn, philosophy can add concepts that assist these others in their making, and can help to resituate questions and problems, assisting in the birth of new possibilities for practice and engagement. I suppose I’m still that first grader gazing in awe at those who make.

morat-lgA long while back someone asked me– I think it was Jacob Russell –what relationship Speculative Realism has to realism in literature. At the time the question didn’t really register, nor strike me as particularly significant because I didn’t take the ontological position of realism as having much, if anything, to say about literary or artistic movements. In short, I don’t see as ontology– at least good ontology –as legislating what art should be. However, in coming across the little passage from Latour where he remarks that the entire tired problem of correspondence arises from a confusion between epistemology and the history of art (Pandora’s Hope, 78 -9), I find that this question suddenly resonates in an entirely different way.

Perhaps, I reflect to myself, when people hear the word “realism” the first thing that comes to their mind is the epistemological position where mind is portrayed as a mirror like essence that depicts a world identical to how it is and that is characterized by a verisimilitude between representation and represented. This would account for common charges of “naive positivism” one so often hears leveled at the speculative realists. However, this is an odd sort of conclusion to reach when encountering the actual writings of speculative realists. In the case of my onticology, the ontic principle asserts that there is no difference that does not make a difference. As a consequence of this principle it follows that no difference can ever be smoothly transported from one object to another without accompanying transformations as the receiving object will always contribute its own differences. Epistemologically onticology turns out to be very similar to various anti-realisms, with the caveat that it refuses to privilege the human-world relation and that it generalizes this phenomenon of translation to relations among all objects, not just humans and objects. Harman’s position is similar. What could be further from this classical sort of realism than vacuum packed objects that never directly touch one another and where objects translate one another whenever they interact? Similarly, Brassier perpetually emphasizes how radically the real differs from the world as we perceive it, underlining how different the world of neurology and quantum mechanics is from our folk metaphysical world. Likewise, DeLanda’s world is a world composed of vectors and attractors, where objects are but accretions or products of processes that cannot be directly represented. How could anyone who has actually read the writings of myself or these other thinkers conclude that there is anything even vaguely resembling the glassy essence hypothesis of naive realisms?

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The always intrepid Ian Bogost responds to yesterday’s Speculative Realism Roundup, remarking that,

Just for kicks, a possible objection to my own claim that the digital comfort of SR is an accident of timing more than a property of its positions:

As this very post illustrates, one of the demands of effective networked discourse is speed; online exchanges happen quickly or they disappear, lost in the noise of novelty. Another is tentativeness. One must be comfortable putting forward thoughts in gestation, in transition, knowing that they will shift and revise over time.

One might say that both speed and tentativeness are unappealing demands for both the analytic and continental traditions, the former thanks to its affinity for the precision of logic and mathematics, the latter thanks to its affinity for of discourse and language. Both efforts strive for a sort of perfect rendering of things, whether as friction-free Wittgensteinian proof or an exquisitely baroque Derridean lyric.

Is it possible that among SR advocates, whatever inner sense finds a rejection of correlationism appealing also makes no qualms about the rapid, experimental outpouring of possible notions given form in logic and language? Writing is still serious business for the speculative realist, to be sure, but so is the tea that steeps, the trousers that wrinkle, or — for that matter — the keyboard keys that depress while such writing takes place.

I really don’t have much to say in response to Ian’s thought here beyond free associations. One of the things I’ve noticed among many of my colleagues in recent years is a sort of outright hostility to the internet, text messaging, etc. The lament always has the form “these kids today…” and spirals into a diatribe about how they are unable to read, how they lack a knowledge of history, science, and are unable to write etc., etc., etc. I am always a bit shocked when I hear these diatribes, while nonetheless sympathizing with them on the writing end (grading these essays can be a miserable experience), because these diatribes are coming from the same folks that are intimately familiar with Plato’s Phaedrus. In other words, they sounds remarkably like Plato’s critique of the evils of writing. Thinkers like Walter Ong with his Orality and Literacy and Friedrich Kittler with his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, have, of course, introduced us to the thesis that communications technologies are not simply tools that leave the content of communication unaffected, but rather have a morphogenetic effect on the nature of that communication as well as cognitive structure. McLuhan makes similar observations in The Gutenburg Galaxy, and thinkers such as Simondon and more recently Stiegler in Time and Technics call into question the notion of τέχνη simply taking on form from human beings. Indeed, Marx had already observed the manner in which the factory had a morphogenetic effect on human bodies, generating a new type of subjectivity.

Simply put, the thesis would run that the person individuated within an oral culture thinks and experiences the world differently than a person individuated within a textual culture. Here there would be different structures of embodiment, cognition, affectivity, and so on. Likewise, it takes no great leap to conclude that perhaps similar differences emerge with respect to digital cultures. In this respect, it wouldn’t be that students are “stupid”, but rather that given this milieu of individuation, they have a different sort of cognitive, affective, and embodied relationship to the world. While this different structure makes reading Spinoza’s Ethics with them tough going as the Ethics requires a very different sort of cognitive temporality than the affective temporality prominent in our current visual and digital culture which is more rhizomatic and associative than deductive, it does not entail that these new forms of subjectivity are somehow less skilled or intelligent. Indeed, it is possible that the sort of affective-temporal structures of text-based structure are actually an impediment to thriving in visual-digital culture as they require a “keeping time” that simply is not available in the zipping technological space Ian alludes to. Rather than the mathematician or the scholar pouring over a text or problem for years or decades, the model of visual-digital culture is something closer to Jackie Chan who, like Charlie Chaplin, is able to make use of whatever environment he is thrown into at the time.

The new technologies thus pose all sorts of questions about the nature of contemporary discourse, thought, dialogue, affectivity, subjectivity, and interpersonal relations. Will we reach a point where we find reading a book every bit as difficult as reciting all of Homer’s Illiad? Yet here again, I think we find a case where correlationism comes up woefully short in providing us with the sorts of conceptual tools to explain the sort of world we live in. In its focus on the mind-world correlate, in its focus on how mind actively gives form to the world, it has a very difficult time theorizing how these sorts of milieus give form to various forms of embodiment, affectivity, temporality, subjectivity, and all the rest. Similarly, it is not clear that correlationist approaches have much of significance to say with respect to technology beyond reactionary, luddite platitudes about how it is corrupting us (perhaps, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s here). As Stiegler and Simondon argue, technology has taken on a sort of autonomy of its own, evolving and developing at its own pace and with respect to its own internal logic, in a way that can no longer be properly theorized in terms of human aims and intentions. In the absence of a clear understanding of that autonomy and its dynamics it’s very difficult to develop strategies for responding to this new world.

mole_400I am extremely excited to see that Re.Press has announced the edited collection Nick, Graham, and I are putting together. Contributors will include Ray Brassier , Nathan Brown, Levi R Bryant, Gabriel Catren, Manuel DeLanda, Iain Hamilton Grant, Martin Hägglund, Peter Hallward, Graham Harman, Adrian Johnston, Francois Laruelle, Bruno Latour, Quentin Meillassoux, Reze Negarestani, Nicole Pepperell, John Protevi, Nick Srnicek, Isabelle Stengers, Alberto Toscano, and Slavoj Žižek.

I conceived the collection one drunken night as I was cooking dinner, full of warm and euphoric sensations from the chardonnay I was drinking (yeah I know, lame, but for some reason chardonnay makes me very euphoric, sentimental, expansive, affectionate, and happy whenever I drink it), and flush with excitement from reading Meillassoux’s After Finitude and from encountering Graham’s work, much to my embarrassment, for the first time. Prior to that, I only knew of Graham as the guy from DePaul (Loyola’s Continental rival) who had published a book fresh out of grad school and who was wearing a fidora in his books cover picture, i.e., I encountered him as an object of my envy and ressentiment. The original title of the collection was to be Post-Continental Realisms, but that title quickly got shot down– rightfully –by Bruno who observed that we have far too many “posts” in philosophy. “Let’s just do philosophy, eh?” At any rate, with the project fresh in my mind and wine diminishing my judgment, I immediately contacted Nick Srnicek, whose work I admire tremendously, who knows far more about the speculative realists than I ever will, and who I also owed for so generously citing me in his thesis.

Nick and I set about contacting the “big four” (Brassier, Grant, Harman, and Meillassoux), as well as others doing important work with a realist orientation (Stengers, DeLanda, Johnston, Hallward, Badiou, Protevi, Hagglund, Pepperell, etc). We were shocked and overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which our proposal was met. Along the way we struck up a friendship with Harman and he did so much work promoting the collection that there was no way we couldn’t make him an editor. Graham is a work-horse, filled with enthusiasm for everything he does, and a mover and shaker. I really don’t know where he gets the time to do all that he does while also doing such creative and original philosophy.

As I sit here today, not even a year later, watching the articles begin to roll in, I am amazed by how much this project has changed my own thought process and philosophical orientation. One of the things I really like about this collection is that it is a work written by moles and being published by moles. Here I am not using the term “mole” in the sense proposed by Jon Cogburn, but rather in the sense of the old spy movies as someone who infiltrates a foreign organization and undermines it from within. On the one hand, nearly all of the contributors to this collection are moles in the sense that they are on the fringes of mainstream Continental philosophy, somewhat excluded from academia and traditional Continental scholarship. What made this strange alliance of moles possible– as moles are generally solitary creatures –was the internet, which allowed for networks of burrows to be formed, creating the possibility of strange cross-fertilizations of ideas and philosophical orientations that are otherwise so disparate. Although moles are generally peaceful creatures, content to burrow and feast on the grubs and delectable roots they find, nomadic mole armies are fearsome forces, despite their myopia. Indeed, their myopia or devotion to burrowing lines of flight are their strength.

On the other hand, Re.Press is a mole press, publishing the work of authors and thinkers that otherwise would have a great deal of difficulty getting their work published by more mainstream Continental presses, due to the manner in which these works tend not to be organized around commentary on a particular thinker. In this respect, the name “Re.Press” is a double entendre, capturing Freud’s dictum that repression is always accompanied by the return of the repressed.

However, if Re.Press is a mole press, then this is because through open access publishing that makes its texts available to the general public online, it allows for networks of burrows to be formed, alliances to be forged, that would otherwise be significantly restricted by exclusive paper publishing. Like the scene in Fight Club where Ed Norton’s character beats himself up, the voice-over remarking that something has been growing around and behind his boss that couldn’t be seen, open access publishing as well as blogs allow for mole collectives to be formed that skirt the established hierarchies of the academies and the morphogenetic role they play in defining the canon. If you read Peter Gay’s biography of Freud you discover that a mere handful of psychoanalytic theorists managed to transform the world through weekly meetings in Freud’s living room over coffee. The internet intensifies the formation of such networked assemblages and alliances. Moreover, it is high time that we Continentalists shoot back at ridiculously priced presses like Continuum and Palgrave that both inhibit the propagation of thought, hurt academic careers by keeping the work of emerging authors in obscurity due to the price of their texts, and that promote a sort of implicit elitism by restricting readership to those that can either afford the texts or who have access to a good library. And, of course, there are all the ecological issues behind paper publishing as well.

As far as my own contribution to this project goes, I’d like to express my great thanks to Jon Cogburn, Nick Srnicek, Reza Negarestani, John Protevi, and Nathan Gale for the exceedingly helfpul comments they gave me on my article “The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Philosophy”. While not shirking on critical comments, all of you have been extremely encouraging and helped me to better develop my own vague intuitions. I owe all of you.

One of the things that has often frustrated me about Continental political theory is that I find in it a tendency to focus on the content of concepts, positions, and arguments to the detriment of the form through which these positions are articulated. Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not simply to represent the world, but to change the world. Part of the production of this change involves having good concepts, arguments, and the right positions. However, if these concepts do not circulate around the world, if they remain cloistered within our skulls or accessible to only a select group of elite individuals, then these concepts do little to change the world.

The form of a discourse, as well as its materiality, matters every bit as much as the content of that discourse. It is not enough to simply have the right ideas or the just position. If that position does not take place in some sort of material inscription, if it does not have the right sort of form, it is unable to in-form at all. That is, it remains incapable of producing any difference outside of the small and select group of elites capable of receiving the message. Where the form is lacking, one suspects that the theoretical engagement is akin to an obsessional exercise, where the obsessional is perpetually preparing to go after the object of desire but in such a way that all of his acts are designed to insure that everything remains exactly as it has always been. In other words, the obsessional form of activity is designed to insure that nothing changes regardless of what the obsessional claims at the level of the content of his discourse. It is here the form of obsessional activity that matters, that is crucial to understanding the obsessional, not the content.

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