Archive for November, 2009

New Books

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Several new books have arrived in the mail this week.

First of all, there are two great books, by friends of mine, that I read in manuscript, and for which I provided a blurb. The first is Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, by Steve Goodman (aka the DJ and producer kode9), and coming out shortly from MIT Press (as part of the same series as my book on Whitehead):

In the beginning, there was rhythm. In Sonic Warfare, Steve Goodman surveys the soundscape, or “vibrational nexus,” in the midst of which we live today, tracking it in its various guises, from Jamaican dub soundsystems to US military infrasound crowd-control devices, from Muzak as mind-numbing sonic architecture to grime and dubstep as enhancers of postapocalyptic dread, and from  the cosmic vibrations left behind by the Big Bang to the latest viral sound contagions.

The second is Capitalist Realism, by Mark Fisher (aka k-punk), which is available now from Zero Books:

What happened to our future? Mark Fisher is a master cultural diagnostician, and in Capitalist Realism he surveys the symptoms of our current cultural malaise. We live in a world in which we have been told, again and again, that There Is No Alternative. The harsh demands of the ‘just-in-time’ marketplace have drained us of all hope and all belief. Living in an endless Eternal Now, we no longer seem able to imagine a future that might be different from the present. This book offers a brilliant analysis of the pervasive cynicism in which we seem to be mired, and even holds out the prospect of an antidote.

Zero Books has also just published two more worthwhile volumes. One is the brilliant One-Dimensional Woman, by Nina Power (aka infinite thought). The other, edited by Mark Fisher, is called The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson; it’s a collection of essays responding to Jackson’s death, and it includes an essay of mine (a smoothed-out version of something that initially appeared here in blog form), together with many smart essays, deeper than mine, by many people whose work I highly respect, including Joshua Clover, Mark Sinker, Geeta Dayal, Ian Penman, David Stubbs, Owen Hatherley, Dominc Fox, Reid Kane, and Alex Williams — to mention only people whom I have met before, or heard speak before, or whose work I have encountered in the blogosphere (I hope I haven’t missed anyone; there are lots of interesting articles in the volume by people I do not know at all).

I hope this doesn’t sound like in-group blog cronyism — the real point, I think, is that, in spite of everything, the blogosphere really has worked, for me and for many other people, as a stimulus to thought.

I also just received in the mail my copy of Les différents modes d’existence by Étienne Souriau — a book that has been out of print for years, and is now once more available thanks to the interest of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, who provide a lengthy joint introduction. (For now, this is only in French. I have been looking forward to this book ever since I read an earlier article on it by Latour, also only in French for now, but forthcoming in English translation in The Speculative Turn).

Problems of Translation

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009
Nathan of <a href=”http://un-cannyontology.blogspot.com/2009/11/ubersetzung.html”>An Un-canny Ontology</a>, responding to the same posts by Levi Bryant that I cited in <a href=”http://steveshaviro.tumblr.com/post/255685503″>my Tumblr workblog</a>, asks the question: “What exactly happens during translation? What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?” After mulling over this question for some time, Nathan concludes “that objects predict, expect, or anticipate other objects – they recognize potential.”
Now, I am not sure that this is the right answer — or, at the very least, I would argue that it isn’t all of the answer. Nathan makes this claim because, for instance, “for leafs [sic] to translate photons of light into complex sugars, they must recognize the photons of light as photons of light.” I suppose this is true in a sense: leaves will not — cannot — translate just anything into complex sugars. But I don’t see why “recognition” has to be the precondition. If anything, I’d say that the leaf’s “recognition” of the photon is a consequence of, rather than a precondition for, its “translation” of light into sugar. Re-cognition, and indeed any form of cognition, always comes afterwards; it is the error of cogntivists (which we human beings, unavoidably misunderstanding ourselves, tend to be much of the time) to think that cognition is a ground of action, when actually it is a result of action.
I think that the source of this problem, in Nathan’s account, is the following. He says that ” objects first and foremost recognize each other,” precisely because — here paraphrasing Levi, and also to an extent Graham Harman — “objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly.” But as I’ve said before, my biggest disagreement with both Levi and Graham is that, for me, objects do encounter each other directly. (Whitehead’s actual entities are a bit like Leibniz’s monads, but actual entities touch each other directly, as monads do not. Cf. also Gabriel Tarde, who posits monads that — unlike Leibniz’s — interact with one another directly).
Levi puts it this way:
One of Harman’s core claims is that objects withdraw from one another or never directly encounter one another. This is the Kantian moment in Harman’s ontology. Where Kant holds that we never have direct access to the thing-in-itself, emphasizing the relationship between mind and thing-in-itself, Harman generalizes this thesis to allrelations between things, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. This is precisely why Harman’s ontology, despite being an ontological realism is also anepistemological anti-realism. In my own ontology, I refer to this general feature of things with the concept of “translation”. As Gadamer (and Quine) taught us, every translation is a transformation.  (from this post)
I largely agree with this (as I’ve said before, here and here). I think that it is precisely right to generalize what Kant says about the mind’s encounter with external reality to all interactions between/among objects. However: unlike Levi, I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.” This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access. In Kant’s account, we are affected by things-in-themselves, even though we can never know them. This is indeed the source of one of the most-remarked problems with Kant’s thought: he seems to be saying that, in some sense, things-in-themselves cause our perceptions of them, even though he explicitly says that causality is merely phenomenal (i.e. merely produced by the way our minds organize our sensations). There are two ways to resolve this dilemma. One is Hegel’s and Zizek’s way, which absolutizes Mind or Spirit or Subject, by saying that even the inaccessibility of things-in-themselves is in fact posited by the Mind in the first place. Obviously, I find this undesirable. The other alternative — or, more precisely, the move in the opposite direction — consists in distinguishing the way things affect other things from “causality” understood as a Transcendental Category (i.e. roughly, as a form of cognition). Causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that the mind is non-cognitively affected by things-in-themselves. Or — to make the speculative realist generalization — causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that an object affects, or is affected by, another object.This is one way of describing Whitehead’s distinction between “causal efficacy” (what I am calling non-cognitive affectivity) and “presentational immediacy” (which, for Whitehead, means the type of causal connection discussed by Hume and by Kant).
So I agree with Levi and Graham that an object never cognitively grasps any other object in its entirety. (This is what Levi calls epistemological anti-realism). But I disagree with their move of equating this cognitive inaccessibility with the claim that objects never directly encounter one another. My non-vicarious version of ontological realism consists in claiming that objects do directly encounter (or affect) one another — only they do so non-cognitively. This is precisely why our ontology can be realist, even when our epistemology is confessedly anti-realist. The translation that happens in every encounter between objects — i.e. when, in Whitehead’s terms, one object prehends another object — is a direct, but non-cognitive, encounter (in Whitehead’s terms, it is a process of feeling, in which an “actual entity” determines itself by making a “decision” about how it will feel that which moves it to feel. An object functions for another object, Whitehead says, as a “lure for feeling”).
[I know that Levi and Graham won't agree with my account here, and probably Nathan won't either. But none of this would have come clear to me -- to the extent that it has come clear -- if not for my puzzling over what they wrote].

Nathan of An Un-canny Ontology, responding to the same posts by Levi Bryant that I cited in my Tumblr workblog, asks the question: “What exactly happens during translation? What is translation? And why do some things get translated and others do not?” After mulling over this question for some time, Nathan concludes “that objects predict, expect, or anticipate other objects – they recognize potential.”

Now, I am not sure that this is the right answer — or, at the very least, I would argue that it isn’t all of the answer. Nathan makes this claim because, for instance, “for leafs [sic] to translate photons of light into complex sugars, they must recognize the photons of light as photons of light.” I suppose this is true in a sense: leaves will not — cannot — translate just anything into complex sugars. But I don’t see why “recognition” has to be the precondition. If anything, I’d say that the leaf’s “recognition” of the photon is a consequence of, rather than a precondition for, its “translation” of light into sugar. Re-cognition, and indeed any form of cognition, always comes afterwards; it is the error of cogntivists (which we human beings, unavoidably misunderstanding ourselves, tend to be much of the time) to think that cognition is a ground of action, when actually it is a result of action.

I think that the source of this problem, in Nathan’s account, is the following. He says that ” objects first and foremost recognize each other,” precisely because — here paraphrasing Levi, and also to an extent Graham Harman — “objects translate each other, they change each other without encountering each other directly.” But as I’ve said before, my biggest disagreement with both Levi and Graham is that, for me, objects do encounter each other directly. (Whitehead’s actual entities are a bit like Leibniz’s monads, but actual entities touch each other directly, as monads do not. Cf. also Gabriel Tarde, who posits monads that — unlike Leibniz’s — interact with one another directly).

Levi puts it this way:

One of Harman’s core claims is that objects withdraw from one another or never directly encounter one another. This is the Kantian moment in Harman’s ontology. Where Kant holds that we never have direct access to the thing-in-itself, emphasizing the relationship between mind and thing-in-itself, Harman generalizes this thesis to all relations between things, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. This is precisely why Harman’s ontology, despite being an ontological realism is also an epistemological anti-realism. In my own ontology, I refer to this general feature of things with the concept of “translation”. As Gadamer (and Quine) taught us, every translation is a transformation.  (from this post)

I largely agree with this (as I’ve said before, here and here). I think that it is precisely right to generalize what Kant says about the mind’s encounter with external reality to all interactions between/among objects. However: unlike Levi, I am unwilling to equate Kant’s argument for the cognitive inaccessibility to the thing-in-itself with the thesis that “objects never directly encounter one another.” This is because contact or encounter cannot be reduced to cognitive access. In Kant’s account, we are affected by things-in-themselves, even though we can never know them. This is indeed the source of one of the most-remarked problems with Kant’s thought: he seems to be saying that, in some sense, things-in-themselves cause our perceptions of them, even though he explicitly says that causality is merely phenomenal (i.e. merely produced by the way our minds organize our sensations). There are two ways to resolve this dilemma. One is Hegel’s and Zizek’s way, which absolutizes Mind or Spirit or Subject, by saying that even the inaccessibility of things-in-themselves is in fact posited by the Mind in the first place. Obviously, I find this undesirable. The other alternative — or, more precisely, the move in the opposite direction — consists in distinguishing the way things affect other things from “causality” understood as a Transcendental Category (i.e. roughly, as a form of cognition). Causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that the mind is non-cognitively affected by things-in-themselves. Or — to make the speculative realist generalization — causality, as a cognitive category, isn’t adequate to describe the way that an object affects, or is affected by, another object.This is one way of describing Whitehead’s distinction between “causal efficacy” (what I am calling non-cognitive affectivity) and “presentational immediacy” (which, for Whitehead, means the type of causal connection discussed by Hume and by Kant).

So I agree with Levi and Graham that an object never cognitively grasps any other object in its entirety. (This is what Levi calls epistemological anti-realism). But I disagree with their move of equating this cognitive inaccessibility with the claim that objects never directly encounter one another. My non-vicarious version of ontological realism consists in claiming that objects do directly encounter (or affect) one another — only they do so non-cognitively. This is precisely why our ontology can be realist, even when our epistemology is confessedly anti-realist. The translation that happens in every encounter between objects — i.e. when, in Whitehead’s terms, one object prehends another object — is a direct, but non-cognitive, encounter (in Whitehead’s terms, it is a process of feeling, in which an “actual entity” determines itself by making a “decision” about how it will feel that which moves it to feel. An object functions for another object, Whitehead says, as a “lure for feeling”).

[I know that Levi and Graham won't agree with my account here, and probably Nathan won't either. But none of this would have come clear to me -- to the extent that it has come clear -- if not for my puzzling over what they wrote].

Object Oriented Aesthetics?

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

I delivered my paper critiquing Graham Harman at the SLSA conference the other day. But here I want to address one of the ways in which I have been stimulated by Harman’s ideas.

In one of his recent posts, Harman usefully critiques the correlationist claim that you cannot think the unthought, or that “to think things-in-themselves converts them into things-for-us,” because by the very act of referring to something ostensibly outside thought you are therefore bringing it within thought. [This claim is parallel to the equally facile claim that you cannot coherently affirm relativism, because by the very act of affirming it you are thereby making an absolute, i.ee. nonrelative, statement].

But Harman points out that “you don’t just have the options of saying something or not saying it. There is also a way of saying something without saying it: we allude to it.” In this way, we can reference, or refer to, or “point to” something that we cannot access directly, cannot see or say. We are never really stuck with the early Wittgenstein’s dictum that “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” — because in practice we actually are always speaking in various ways towards, around, and about “what we cannot speak about.”

One can relate this to Levi Bryant’s recent suggestion that the object-oriented ontology espoused by him and by Harman consists in an anti-realist epistemology coupled with a realist ontology. Another way to put the common correlationist claim is to say that anti-realism in epistemology (or the simple recognition that things are not altogether as they “naively” appear to us) entails anti-realism in ontology as well. But the possibility of allusion, or of metaphor, or indeed of any non-literal use of language and of other modes of expression (pictures, musical sounds, etc.) allows us to escape the correlationist claim, and to be realists about “things in themselves.”

In his book Guerrilla Metaphysics, Harman writes of allusion and metaphor, and this leads to discussions of humor, tragedy and comedy, and charm, and allure. These aesthetic discussions are among my favorite things written by Harman. Aesthetics, as Harman develops it, is both a way to break out of the charmed circle of correlationist epistemology, and a broader way of discussing how objects interact with other objects on all scales. That is to say, aesthetics is not just a human attitude, but a primordial form of relation and interaction. And this leads Harman to suggest, in a lovely (and justified) hyperbole, that “aesthetics becomes first philosophy” (“Vicarious Causation, in Collapse 2).

Now, I find this sort of approach useful and liberating from my own Whiteheadian point of view. Aesthetics describes what Whitehead calls feelings: i.e. the ways that objects affect, and are affected by, other objects, even (and especially?) when there is no cognition going on. The failure of epistemological cognition does not mean the impossibility of ontological interaction. Aesthetic modes of expression correspond to “vicarious” (in Harman’s sense) as well as to noncognitive (in a Whiteheadian sense) modes of interaction — they are ways of positively expressing “what we cannot speak about.”

So I find Harman extremely valuable on this point of aesthetics — even though I see objects as continually jostling up against one another, “prehending” one another, i.e. primordially relating to one another and defining themselves by means of the multiplicity of their relations — a view which (as I have noted before) is very far from Harman’s vision of objects packed away in vacuums, unable to touch one another except “vicariously.” But Harman’s vicarious relations and Whitehead’s promiscuous ones can both be described aesthetically first of all; the difference between them might even be seen as a difference in aesthetics (a suggestion that I begin to make at the end of my paper, and that I am extending here.) Bruno Latour writes of the different modes of existence; what’s needed, similarly, is an account of the different modes of aesthetic expression, which would also point to different modes of object interactions. In the past I have tended (like most aestheticians) to fall back upon the old opposition between the beautiful and the  sublime (an opposition that Kant codified, but that long pre-existed him); but I think that we need a more nuanced and varied account of aesthetic modes (and presumably, one that would not presume to enumerate all the possibile modes of aesthetics a priori, but would instead work simply by listing and describing, with the understanding that it might always be possible to add new items to the list.

[I should note that the Latour article I linked to above is an account of a long-out-of-print book, Les différents modes d'existence,  by the long-forgotten French philosopher Etienne Souriau; and that, thanks to the efforts of Latour and Isabelle Stengers, the book has just been republished, for the first time in years -- I ordered my own copy just the other day -- unfortunately, in French only for now].

Objects?

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Levi Bryant, in a recent blog entry, argues against the reductionist critique that would see only subatomic particles as “real,” since they are the building blocks of everything on a larger scale. Reductionism argues, in effect, that larger entities (such as “trees”) are not actual objects, but only our own way of constructing or organizing a quantum reality that we cannot perceive directly.

In opposition to this, Levi rightly says that, if quarks and leptons are actual objects independent of our own perceptual projections, then things like trees are actual objects independent of our own perceptua projections as well.

However, I am not sure I agree with Levi’s reasons for defending the independence of objects of all scales. Or rather, I do agree, more or less, with his first argument:

The point that a rock contains atoms, electrons, and other particles besides, does not undermine the thesis that the rock itself is an object, nor does it make the rock less real than the particles it contains. While it is indeed true that the rock cannot exist without these particles, the pattern or structure or system that characterizes the rock is nonetheless what characterizes the rock as a distinct object.

This is one way of understanding Whitehead’s insistence that philosophy must not “explain away” anything, but must accept the reality of the beautiful sunset as well as the reality of photons of different energy levels. (The point of Whitehead’s example is precisely that the beautiful sunset is part of “nature” just as much as the photons are, and that it cannot be “explained away” as being merely a subjective human interpretation, or as involving “secondary qualities” instead of primary ones, etc. The sunset, every bit as much as the photon, is itself a real object, irreducible to the way that human consciousness posits and grasps it).

But I disagree with his second argument:

All objects are independent of one another. This is where the mereological thesis gets really strange. The particles that the rock contains are themselves independent objects and the rock itself an object independent of the particles that it contains. Thus, while the rock cannot exist without these particles, the rockness of the rock is nonetheless independent of the particles that contain it.

This is the defining thesis of object-oriented metaphysics, held by Graham Harman as well as Levi, that I cannot make sense of. I do not see how it is possible, or conceivable, for anything to exist independently of everything else. For it is only due to other things that any particular thing can exist in the first place. I am not reducible to the particles and atoms that compose my body,  just as I am not reducible to the oxygen I breathe, the food I eat, the language I speak, the clothes I wear, and the money that sustains my existence in this society; just as the tree is not reducible, either to the atoms that compose it, or to the sunlight and atmosphere that sustain it, the animals that help to fertilize its seeds, etc. But it seems to me to be incoherent to essentialize this “not reducible to” by equating it with some sort of absolute existence, in and of itself. A dependent being is not reducible to what it is dependent upon (or to what, in turn, is dependent upon it); but neither can it be posited as a self-contained being altogether apart from the other beings upon which it depends

To even propose such a thesis of substance, or object-independence — as Harman and Bryant do — is to freeze objects in time, and to rule out the reality of genesis, becoming, and transformation. It is to posit an endurance that is somehow independent of time, i.e. that time only affects secondarily, contingently, from the outside as it were.

This is where (as usual) I prefer Whitehead’s account to the more recent “object-oriented” one. Whitehead fully recognizes how a thing, or an object, is independent of, and irreducible to, its causes, components, and supports or preconditions or milieu. But he goes to great lengths to prevent this independence from being hypostasized as an enduring substance. A Whiteheadian “actual occasion” (or “actual entity”) is in fact independent of everything contemporaneous with it (just as Bryant and Harman claim);No entity is merely a passive result of what precedes it, because every entity makes a “decision” with regard to the “data” that it “prehends” (perceives, touches, is affected by, etc.). Indeed, the independence of an entity/occasion in the present is precisely the consequence of its “decision” with regard to its past. Contemporaneous decisions made by different entites do not influence one another, which is why things can be different, and the new can be produced, even within a common environment or a common set of antecedents.

However — such an “actual entity” is not a substance (in Harman’s sense) or a subsisting object (in Bryant’s sense), because it precisely does not endure. That is to say, it is a process rather than a substance. Once it happens, it is done; it is now dead, or (as Whitehead likes to put it), “objectively immortal” — it is now a mere datum for other processes to come. In this way, the entity is not independent of its antecedents and consequences. It comes out of those things that it makes a decision about, and it influences the rest of reality as something about which other entities must make a decision. It cannot be completely prehended or apprehended by any following entity — it is always grasped only partially and incompletely, just as Harman requires of objects in relation to other objects. And yet it is in its essence relational, because it arises out of already-given data and donates itself to the future as data.

In other words, the punctuality of Whitehead’s actual occasions, the fact that they are “perpetually perishing,” is what gives them over to temporality — in contrast to the way that time remains necessarily secondary and external for the “object-oriented” thinkers. Or, Whitehead’s doctrine of actual occasions does in fact meet all the criteria of Harman’s and Bryant’s object-oriented thought, while at the same time being essential temporal and relational in a way that their notion of object-independence is unable to compass. Harman and Bryant are right in what they require of objects; but there is more to it than they are willing to compass. Whitehead doesn’t contradict the “object-oriented” argument, so much as he places it within a wider context of relations. What Harman and Bryant see as an opposition, is for Whitehead rather a contrast.

I am not really saying anything different from what I say in my formal article critiquing Harman, which I will be delivering tomorrow as a talk at the SLSA conference in Atlanta; and which will appear, together with Harman’s own spirited  rejoinder, in the forthcoming volume The Speculative Turn. But I think that Bryant’s formulations in his latest blog posting have allowed me, or spurred me, to make one aspect of the argument clearer than it was before.

[Note to self: this is still incomplete. I need to write also about how Whitehead conceives "societies", which can be objects that more or less endure through time, like myself or a tree. Societies are composed of actual entites, but not in the way that physical objects are composed of subatomic particles; there is a crucial "mereological" argument here, one that I still need to work out better -- but that differs from Bryant's account of parts and wholes. Also, I need to broaden the sense in which Whitehead's approach bridges the gap between object-orientation on the one hand, and the emphasis on becoming and transformation and crystallizations of the actual out of the virtual that one finds in Bergson, Deleuze, and Iain Hamilton Grant. Harman regards this as an irreconcilable opposition -- for him, there is no middle ground between the object-orientation of his own thought, Bryant's, and Latour's, and the process orientation of the above-mentioned thinkers. But Whitehead precisely undoes this dichotomy -- and that is something else that I still need to work out more fully and cogently].