Bats, Dogs, and Posthumans

Here’s an essay I have written for a compilation of essays to be published in 2014 entitled Turborealism, following an exhibition with the same title curated by Victoria Ivanova and Agnieszka Pindera at Izolyatsia, Donetsk, Ukraine.

BATS, DOGS, AND POSTHUMANS

What is it like to be a bat?

The philosopher Thomas Nagel asked this question in a famous essay, first published in 1974. Most people today would assume that bats, like dogs and cats and other mammals, are not mere automata. They have experiences, which is to say that that have some sort of inner, subjective life. In other words, Nagel says, it is “like something” to be a bat. And yet, bats are so different from us that it is hard for us to imagine just what being a bat is like. How can we find a human equivalent for its powers pf echolocation, or its experience of flight? In comparison to human beings and other primates, Nagel says, bats are a “fundamentally alien form of life.” In particular, “bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.” We cannot easily think ourselves into the mind of a bat.

Nagel’s question is really just a vivid example of a problem that has long been a matter of concern for Western thought. Even since Descartes, philosophers and artists alike have worried about the problem of other minds. Descartes makes subjective experience the ground for all certainty. I think, therefore I am: this means that, even if all all my particular thoughts are delusional or false, the fact that I am thinking them is still true. But how much of a reassurance is this, really? I do not experience anyone else’s feelings from the inside, in the way that I experience my own. Descartes worries that the figures he sees through the window might not be actual human beings, but “hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs.” However absurd or paranoid such a hypothesis seems, there is no way to absolutely disprove it. Modern science fiction works — think of Philip K. Dick’s novels, or The Matrix movies — still take up this theme: they express the disquieting sense that the world, with all the people in it, is nothing more than an enormous virtual-reality simulation somehow being fed into our minds.

The best answer to this sort of paranoid skepticism is the argument from analogy. Other people generally act and react, and express themselves, in much the same way that I do: we all laugh and cry, groan when we are in pain, agree that the wall over there is painted red. On this basis, I can presume that other human beings must also have the same sort of consciousness, or inner experience, that I do. Of course, this is not an absolute logical proof; and it leaves open the possibility that other people might be shamming or acting: pretending to be in pain when they are not. And yet, the argument from analogy works pragmatically. As Wittgenstein put it, despite his own skepticism about the language of inner experience: “just try — in a real case — to doubt someone else’s fear or pain!” Only a sociopath would do so.

The real problem with analogy lies in the opposite direction: in the fact that we tend to extend it further than we should. We are so good at discerning other people’s feelings, desires, and intentions, that we tend to believe that these things exist even where they do not. We discern patterns in random bits of data. We attribute intention to deterministic mechanisms. We decipher messages that in fact were never sent. We assume that everything in the world is somehow concerned with us. Paranoid credulity is a worse danger than paranoid skepticism.

If we fail to grasp what it is like to be a bat, then, this is less because we fail to recognize it at all, than because we tend to anthropomorphize it unduly. We all too smugly assume that bats are just like us, only not as smart. We tend to subsume a creature like the bat under our own image of thought, forgetting that it might think and feel in radically different ways. For how else could we hope to understand the bat at all? But if we have a hard time grasping the mind of a bat, then how can we even hope to grasp the mind of a much more distant intelligent organism — for instance, an octopus? And what about — to extrapolate still further — the minds of intelligent beings from other planets? Peter Watts’ science fiction novel Blindsight tells the story of a First Contact with aliens who are more advanced than us by any intellectual or technological measure, but who turn out not to be conscious at all, in any sense that we are able to recognize or understand.

Watts imagines his aliens by inverting the argument from analogy. His novel’s title — Blindsight — refers to a well-documented medical condition in which people are overtly blind, but able to see unconsciously. Blindsight sufferers are not aware of seeing anything. But if you throw them a ball, they are often able to catch it; and if you ask them to “guess” the location of a light that they cannot see, they are usually able to turn in the right direction. Apparently their brains are still processing visual stimuli, even though the outcome of this processing is never “reported” to the conscious mind. Such nonconscious mental activity provides the analogy on the basis of which Watts imagines his aliens. In doing so, he manages disquietingly to suggest that consciousness might well be evolutionarily maladaptive, reducing our efficiency and our ability to compete with other organisms.

Watt’s speculative fiction is not an idle fantasy. In fact, nonconscious mental processes are not just confined to people who suffer from blindsight or other neurological disorders. Contemporary neurobiology tells us that most of what our brains do is nonconscious, and even actively opaque to consciousness. At best, we are only aware of the results of all our complex mental activity. The price we pay for conscious access to the world is an inability to grasp the mechanisms that provide us with this access. We cannot “see” the processes that allow us to see. As the neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger puts it, “transparency is a special form of darkness.”

This puts the whole question of “what it is like” on a different footing. If I do not know what it is like to be a bat, this is because I also do not know what it is like to be a human being. Indeed, I do not even really know “what it is like” to be myself. My consciousness is radically incomplete, and it never “belongs” only to myself. Descartes’ “I think” is generated, and driven, by all sorts of nonconscious (and non-first person) mental processes. Other things think through me, and inside me. My own thought is merely the summation, and to some degree the transformation, of all these other thoughts that think me, and of which I am not (and cannot ever be) aware. Such nonconscious thought may well include — but is surely not limited to — what has traditionally been known as the Freudian unconscious. My thought processes are not self-contained, but broadly ecological or environmental.

In part, this is because all thought is embodied. As Alfred North Whitehead once put it, “we see with our eyes, we taste with our palates, we touch with our hands.” Today we might add that we see with our neurons and cortex, as well as with our eyes. But even this does not go far enough. We should also say that we see with the objects that reflect photons into our eyes. We hear with our ears, but we also hear with the things whose vibrations are transmitted through the air to us. We sense and feel by means of all the things in our surroundings that incessantly importune us and affect us. And these include, but are not limited to, the objects of which we are overtly aware. For the greater part of our environmental surround consists of things that, in themselves, remain below the threshold of conscious discrimination. We do not actually perceive such things, but we sense them indirectly, in the vague form of intuitions, atmospheres, and moods.

This vast environmental surround also subtends our use of analogy in order to grasp “other minds,” or to imagine “what it is like” to be another creature. Degrees of resemblance (metaphors) themselves depend upon degrees of proximity (metonymies) within the greater environment. Consider, for instance, the dog instead of the bat. Dogs are not intrinsically any more similar to us than bats. They operate largely by smell; if anything, this is even more difficult for us to imagine than operating by sound. Blind people can often learn to echolocate with their voices, or with the tapping of their sticks. But it is unlikely that any human being (at least as we are currently constituted) could learn to olfactolocate as dogs do.

Despite this, we feel much closer to dogs than we do to bats. We are much more able to imagine what they think, and to describe what they are like — even on points where they differ from ourselves. This is because of our long historical association with them. Dogs are our commensals, symbionts, familiars, and companions; we have been together with them for thousands of years. We share much more of a common environmental background with dogs than we do with bats. This means that many of the things that think within us also think within dogs — in a way that is not at all true for bats. Evidently, neither visual objects nor olfactory objects affect us, or think within us, in the same way that they affect, or think within, dogs; nonetheless, their common presence helps to bridge the gap between us and them.

No thought is possible without, or apart from, what I am calling the environmental surround. Doubtless this has been true as long as humanity has existed — indeed, as long as any form of life whatsoever has existed. But why is this situation of special concern to us now? Or better: why has it become so urgent now? I think there are two reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.

In the first place, recent digital technologies have allowed us to grasp and account for the environmental surround, more thoroughly and precisely than ever before. Media theorist Mark Hansen writes of how digital microsensors, spread ubiquitously within our bodies and throughout our surroundings, are able to compile information, and give us feedback, about environmental processes that are not phenomenally or introspectively available to us. We can now learn — albeit indirectly and after the fact — about imperceptible features that nonetheless help to shape our decisions and our actions: things like muscles tensing, or action potentials in neurons, but also subliminal environmental cues. We can then use this information to reshape the environment that will influence our subsequent decisions and actions.

The science fiction writer Karl Schroeder pushes this even further. In his near-future short story “Deodand,” he envisions a world in which ubiquitous microsensors break down the distinction between subjects and objects, or between human beings, nonhuman organisms, and lifeless things. “Fantastic amounts of data” are not only collected for our benefit, but also “exchanged between the sand-grain sized sensors doing the tagging,” and ultimately between the “things themselves.” Once an entity has a rich enough datafeed, it implicitly declares its own personhood. Objects are able to speak and respond to one another, and thereby to assert, and to act in, their own interests. Schroeder’s story tell us that we must reject “the idea that there’s only two kinds of thing, people, and objects.” For most entities in the world are “a little bit of both.” This has always been the case; but today, with our microsensing technologies, “we can’t ignore that fact anymore.”

The second reason for the current importance of the environmental surround is a much more somber one. Our technologies — both industrial and digital — have devastated the environment through pollution, global warming, and the extermination of individual species and whole ecosystems. This is less the result of deliberate actions on our part, than of our unwitting interactions with all those factors in the environmental surround that imperceptibly affect us, and are themselves affected by us in turn. Climate change and radioactive decay are prime examples of what the ecocritic Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects: actually existing things that we cannot ever perceive directly, because they are so widely distributed in time and space. For instance, we cannot experience global warming itself, despite the fact that it is perfectly real. Rather, we experience “the weather” on particular days. At best, we may experience the fact that these days are warmer on average than they used to be. But even the coldest day of the winter does not refute global warming; nor does the hottest summer day “prove” it. Once again, we are faced with things or processes that exceed our direct perceptual grasp, but that nonetheless powerfully affect whatever we do perceive and experience.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction short story “The People of Sand and Slag” addresses just this situation. The narrator, and the other two members of his crew, are posthumans, genetically engineered and augmented in radical ways. They have “transcended the animal kingdom.” But their bodies and minds are not the outcome of any sort of Promethean, extropian, or accelerationst program. Rather, they have been altered from baseline human beings in order to meet the demands of a radically changed environment. They are soldiers, guarding an automated mining operation in Montana. The three of them share a close esprit de corps; but otherwise, they seem devoid of empathy or compassion. As befits their job, they are extremely strong and fast; when they are hurt, their wounds heal quickly and easily. Sometimes, during sex play or just for fun, they embed razors and knives in their skin, or even chop off their own limbs; everything heals, or grows back, in less than a day. For food, they consume sand, petroleum, mining leftovers, and other industrial waste. They live and work in what for us would be a hellish landscape of “acid pits and tailings mountains,” and other residues of scorched-earth strip mining. And for vacation, they go off to Hawaii, and swim in the oil-slick-laden, plastic-strewn Pacific. They seem perfectly adapted to their environment, a world in which nearly all unengineered life forms have gone extinct, and in which corporate competition apparently takes the form of incessant low-grade armed conflict.

In the course of Bacigalupi’s story, the soldier protagonists come upon a dog. The creature is almost entirely unknown to them; they’ve never seen one before, except in zoos or on the Web. Nobody can explain where it came from, or how it survived before they found it, in a place that was toxic to it, and that had none of its usual food sources. The soldiers keep the dog for a while, as a curiosity. They do not understand how it could ever have survived, even in a pre-biologically-engineered world. They take for granted that it is “not sentient”; and they are surprised when it shows affection for them, and when they discover that it can be taught to obey simple commands.

The soldiers are perturbed by just how “vulnerable” the dog is; it needs special food and water, and incessant care. They find that they continually “have to worry about whether it was going to step in acid, or tangle in barb-wire half-buried in the sand, or eat something that would keep it up vomiting half the night.” In their world, a dog is “very expensive to maintain… Manufacturing a basic organism’s food is quite complex… Recreating the web of life isn’t easy.” In the end, it’s simply too much annoyance and expense to keep the dog around. So the soldiers kill it, cook it over a spit, and eat it. They don’t find meat as tasty as their usual diet of petroleum and sand: “it tasted okay, but in the end it was hard to understand the big deal.”

From bats to dogs to posthumans: philosophy and science fiction alike explore varying degrees of likeness and of difference. The point is not to achieve certainty, as Descartes hoped to do. Nor is the point to conquer reality, or to think that we can master it, or even that we can really know it. The point is not even to “know thyself.” But rather, perhaps. to come to terms with the multitudes that live and think within us, which we cannot ever live and think without, but which we can also never reduce to ourselves.

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

I have just submitted a proposal to give a talk on the SF novel Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett.

Here it is:

Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden is not literally an adaptation, but in fact it “adapts” and rewrites a number of foundational Western texts regarding the origins of human society and civilization. Its sources range from the Book of Genesis, through Robinson Crusoe, and on to major 18th- and 19th-century works of social theory by such prominent thinkers as Rousseau, Bachofen, Nietzsche, and Engels.

The novel is set on a dark planet, one that does not circle any sun. The only energy source is geothermal, arising deep within the planet’s core. Plant and animal life forms have evolved, using this energy for fuel. “Trees” and other plants draw up heat energy from deep beneath the planet’s surface, and provide the ecosystem with warmth and light. Animals either forage on this plant life, or prey upon other animals.

A small number of human beings — five hundred or so — live on this planet; they are all descendents of a founding heterosexual couple, astronauts who were stranded on the planet, unable to return to Earth. The novel deals mostly with the social organization of this group. At first they live in a tightly-bound, matriarchal, “primitive,” and more or less egalitarian society. But in the course of the book we witness the splintering of this society: a “fall” from a putative “state of nature” into a more “historical” situation.

This “fall” is the result of a number of pressures: most importantly, environmental stress (as a result of overexploitation of limited resources), and the frequent appearance of detrimental recessive genetic traits (cleft palate and clubfoot) due to the restricted nature of the gene pool, combined with adolescent restlessness, and a certain drive against tradition and in favor of innovation.

The consequences of this “fall” include the “invention” of rape and murder, the transition from egalitarian matriarchy to hierarchical patriarchy, a growing tension and discordance between generations, as well as between men and women, and an energetic burst of exploration and technological invention.

In recounting these developments, the novel gives us an updated version of what I would like to call speculative anthropology. Following the classical thinkers I have already mentioned (Rousseau on the origins of inequality; Nietzsche on the origins of morality; Bachofen and Engels on the origins of family structures and differentiated gender roles), Chris Beckett speculates about “primitive” society and the development of the social institutions that today we take far too readily for granted.

I call Beckett’s “adaptation” of these sources an updated one, however, for several reasons. In the first place, Dark Eden is definitely “hard” science fiction; it revises the famous mythological and philosophical accounts upon which it draws in the light of our contemporary understanding of Darwinian constraints. In the second place, Dark Eden forcibly calls our attention to the way that the “origin” it recounts is not a true beginning, but remains parasitic upon previous human social developments. Marx famously observed that Robinson Crusoe does not really build civilization from scratch; he starts out with both his already-ingrained bourgeois assumptions, and the large amount of material that he is able to salvage from the shipwreck that threw him on his island. Dark Eden makes this structure of antecedence entirely explicit: the lives of all the human beings on the planet are dominated by a kind of social memory, in the form of the myths, legends, gossip, and practices that have been handed down to them from the founding couple’s reminiscences of life on Earth.

There is no true origin, therefore, but only a repetition or “adaptation” (using this word both in the literary sense and in the biological one). The realm of myth is itself the consequence of historical contingency. Dark Eden is an unsettling book, not just because it offers a pessimistic and nonutopian account of human potentialities, but also because it strips this very account of any mythic, originary authority, and places it instead in a context of chance, arbitrariness and existential fragility.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Samuel R. Delany’s new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is over 800 pages, which makes it the longest book he has ever written (even longer than Dhalgren). It is also one of the best novels by anyone that I have read in quite a long time. Indeed, I would go so far as to say (as I already put it on Twitter) that it is the best English-language novel that I know of, of the 21st century so far.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders tells the story of Eric Jeffers and his life partner Morgan “Shit” Haskell. Eric is white, though he has been brought up mostly by his black stepfather; Shit is black, though he has been brought up mostly by his white father. We meet Eric and Shit when they first meet, as teenagers; and we follow them for seventy years, until extreme old age. The location is a kind of backwater, a (fictional) small town on the Georgia coast, with little going on economically except for the summer tourist trade. The novel starts more or less in the present, in 2007 when Eric is just a few days shy of his 17th birthday; and it ends in the 2080s, when Eric is in his nineties. To a degree, the novel is science-fictional; we hear of future cultural ferment (the 2030s sound a lot like a freer and more advanced 1960s), of changes in social mores (though homophobia hasn’t disappeared, same-sex marriages are legal everywhere, and pretty much taken for granted); of terrorist nuclear attacks, of colonies on the Moon and Mars, of gas-free automobiles, of new telepresence and virtual reality technologies, and so on. But all of this happens in the background, and only affects the main characters at second hand (as they live their lives in a backwater, and are largely unconcerned with contemporary media). The emphasis remains firmly on the uneventful happenings of everyday life.

There’s an enormous amount of sex in the book — on a level that at least equals that of The Mad Man, and that is only matched within Delany’s oeuvre by his early “pornographic” novels, Hogg and Equinox. The book is therefore very much of a hybrid — between what might be called mainstream literary ambitions, and those of the two “paraliterary” genres (as Delany has called them in his critical writing) pronography and science fiction. It remains to be seen how this will affect the book’s overall reception. Its ambitions, and its achievements, are immense in ways that recall, and equal, the great novels of the 19th and 20th centuries; but it differs from these because, most notably, its pages are filled with so much gay sex.

Delany’s writing of sex is itself one of the most noteworthy, powerful, and original things about the novel. There is a stylistics to it that already appeared in The Mad Man, but that is brought to a pitch of perfection here. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that Delany is the most materialist fiction writer I have ever encountered. His evocation of sex is very much of a piece with his evocation of other sorts of sensuous details of life and experience. Delany’s autobiography is called The Motion of Light in Water, and descriptions of shimmerings and shadings, of delicate preceptual differentiations, and indeed specifically of sunlight reflecting off the waves at the seashore, are quite prevalent in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, as in many of Delany’s texts. And these are not so different from his descriptions of bodily/sexual sensations. In the present book, Delany gives us an intensely vivid, sensual  and materially thick description of “bodies and pleasures” (to use a phrase from Foucault). A wide range of sexual acts among men are described: from sucking and penetration to snot-eating and piss-drinking, to masturbation and nail-biting (something that comes up in many of Delany’s novels), to various sorts of voyeuristic arousal, to the enjoyment of funky body odors, to just plain cuddling. The only thing uniting them is that they are all exclusively among males, and that they are all consensual.

Although the explicitness of the sexual descriptions in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders certainly qualifies as “pornographic”, the ethos of Delany’s sex-writing is vastly different from what is commonly understood either about “pornography” or about its more respectable upscale cousin “erotica.” Some readers will find parts of Delany’s descriptions arousing, and others will not — there is no way to assume just who the “reader” is, after all; but in either case the point is much more to describe the arousal of the characters undergoing these acts, than it is to produce arousal in the (ideal or actual) reader. Another way to put this is to say that — even if the sheer plethora of available sexual acts in the world of the novel is something of a fantasy (or better, a fairy tale) — the orientation of the sex-writing is towards desire-fulfilled-as-bodily-pleasure, rather than towards the fantasy of desire-projected-beyond, or desire-that-exceeds-any-possibility-of-fulfillment. It’s desire as concrete production of affects, as in Spinoza, rather than desire as “lack” (as in Hegel and Lacan). We have multiple, concretely- and bodily-rooted arousals and satisfactions, rather than some furious drive towards some infinitude (whether of repletion or of self-annihilation). The characters often speak of doing “nasty” stuff, but there is no sense of (say) Bataille’s transgression or Genet’s willed abjection. I myself regard Bataille and Genet as among the greatest writers of the old past century; but I think it’s important to see that Delany is doing something new and different here, something that is as far from such 20th century art pornography as it is from more commercial (straight or gay) pornography.

Delany’s descriptions/evocations of multiple bodily arousals and pleasures also shade into descriptions or evocations of interpersonal relations, or of what is sometimes called “community” (a word I resist, because it has censorious implications in many contexts; but I cannot find a better word here). The sexual acts that Delany describes also involve, and create, forms of affiliation between people. These affiliations are grounded in bodily pleasures, in the pleasures of sharing, and in the multiple ways that people can find mutually enabling forms of contact. It’s a vision of both bodily desire, and human sympathy or being-together, that seems to me in an odd way more reminiscent of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier than it is of Freud. Each person’s particular twists of desire are what enlivens him or her, without having to be “accounted for,” or matched to any norms—so that they are entirely singular and autonomous to but also with the open, outward-looking potentiality of creating affinities with other people who have similar and/or complementary desires (someone who likes to drink piss meets someone who likes to piss in other people’s mouths; and in turn they meet someone else who likes to watch this . . .). With all these singularities of desire, nobody is ever drearily “the same” as anybody else; but also, with the widening circles of these singularities, everyone is likely to find at least some other people with whom to share at least something that moves, excites, or arouses them. It is in the midst of such continual fluctuating action that Eric and Shit, and also some of the other couples or threesomes (or more-than-threesomes) that we meet in the course of the novel must negotiate, both their primary emotional relationships with one another, and their sexual-emotional engagements, of various longer or shorter durations, with other people as well.

With all this, I don’t mean to imply that the novel is only about sex. It is about sex overwhelmingly, but it is also about lots of other things. The key point is that sex is part of the everydayness of Eric’s and Shit’s lives, and of the world they share. What really makes the novel so powerful is the sheer accumulation of incidents and everyday habits in Eric’s and Shit’s lives, over some 800 pages, or over the 70 years that they live together. There is lots of repetition, but also all sorts of subtle modulations of perception, habit, interest, and desire. As the characters get older, the sex diminishes, and also our sense of time gets changed — so that longer periods of time seem to pass more quickly. Reading the novel, we come to live and feel along with Eric and Shit, just because so much of their lives are given to us in the course of those 800 pages — we get the motifs and endless variations which are at the heart of what it means, for anyone, to “have a life.” It’s amazing to have this sort of feeling in a long book where, in a sense, “nothing happens” — there are no great deeds, no striving against mighty dangers, no special adventures — just the adventure which is the stuff of living itself, no matter how quietly and uneventfully. Eric and Shit are not important players in the history of the world, and they know that they are not. They spend twenty years as garbagemen, then thirteen years as managers of a porno movie theater, and finally forty-odd years as handymen on an island off the coast that has found semi-prosperity as a lesbian artists’ colony.

In all these settings, Eric and Shit do their work; they find both sexual (with other men) and simply social (with women) ways to associate with others and feel some sense of community; they have lots of fun (or sexual/sensual enjoyment); and also they strive to help other people when necessary, and to be kind to others, as much as possible. As Spinoza might put it, they work toward ever-greater compositions of positive affects. Indeed, Spinoza is something like the tutelary spirit of the novel. Around the middle of the book (or around the middle of Eric’s life), an older gay man gives Eric a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics; and for the rest of his life (or the rest of the novel), Eric reads this text over and over again. He originally finds it incomprehensible; but gradually he comes to make sense of it. We aren’t directly given Eric’s thoughts about Spinoza; but gradually we discern that the whole impulse and organization of Eric’s life, with his cultivation of positive affects, of widespread generosity, and of ever-widening affiliations with others, is very much a Spinozistic one.

And this leads me to the one major aspect of the novel that could be called “utopian,” or a “fantasy,” in the sense that (even more than wide general acceptance of the sexual acts portrayed throughout the book) it is something that, unfortunately, is scarcely imaginable in America today. Eric and Shit and their friends are able to lead the sorts of lives they do because they receive the discreet backing of the Kyle Foundation, an organization set up by a black gay millionaire, in order to give support to the lives of gay men of color. Because of the Foundation’s backing, Eric and Shit and their entire community have access, even when they are most poor and deprived, to living space and food and good medical care. Also, they encounter & suffer from far less homophobia and racism (though it of course remains present, and comes up at several points in the course of the novel) than would be the case in the “real” world as we know it today. In this way I think the novel suggests that the possibility of a humane life for all really depends upon at least this minimum of protection from the vagaries, not just of bigotry, but of “the market” as well. In effect, this makes the novel into an argument for socialism, as well as for the humane pleasures of nonprocreative sex. And this has something to do, in turn, with the kindness or generosity which is so big a feature of Eric’s life and actions, and is the ethos of the book as a whole.

By the end of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, I found my reading experience to be pretty much overwhelming. Over the course of the book, we get to know Eric and Shit as intimately, and as well, as we have ever gotten to know any of the great characters in the history of modern Western literature. I mean this less in the sense of “depth” than in that of breadth. (“Depth psychology” I think is overrated — and it is far rarer a thing to encounter, whether in “real life” or in novelistic and cinematic narratives, than we often suppose. Neither Hamlet, nor Raskolnikov, nor Leopold Bloom, nor Proust’s narrator have anything to do with depth psychology. They are all defined as rich characters by the range of the discourses and affiliations associated with them, as well as by the absence of any master key to who they are. This is what makes them so, well, lifelike). As we read Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, we gradually accumulate, around Eric and Shit, a wealth of perceptions and sensory impressions and likes and dislikes; of habits and wishes and preferences and physical inclinations; and also of affiliations and alliances, and points of both contact and distance — and it’s often hard (and not really relevant) to discern which of these are internal and which external, which are private, which are shared by the two of them, and which are shared more widely. And with this wealth of connections, with this broad web of feelings and meanings, particular new facts or meetings or happenings or encounters often take on a weight that they could not have just by themselves. Memories surprisingly return in full intensity; but they also weaken, wear away, become general instead of specific, fade or get confused. The latter parts of the novel are rich because of how they follow from, and draw upon, everything that has come before. But they also register a powerful poignancy that comes from people dying, from changes that cannot be reversed, and finally from the very experience of aging, with the gradual lessening of physical vigor and of sexual excitement; the novel goes into great detail on the facts of how getting old changes our relationship to the past, and even to what we most vividly remember.

I don’t know how to conclude this brief account except by reiterating how rich the novel is, and also how generous — in the sheer profusion of what it offers us as readers, and allows us to share. Conservative critics (I mean this both politically and aesthetically) often like to go on about universal values that great works of art are supposed to inculcate. But Delany confirms what Proust and Deleuze already knew: that the only “universality” worthy of the name is one that rejects bland generalities, and instead affirms and passes through the most singular of passions. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is not a book about capital-L Love, but rather one about two boys who fall in love with one another at least in part because they both so greatly enjoy chewing on their own, and each other’s, snot. Something like that might seem disconcerting for those of us (myself included) who are not snot-eaters — or simply for those of us who are not accustomed to talk about such things. But such are the details, or the singular affects, that are composed together to make up an actual life, as well as the fictional depiction of such a life. And it is this sense of actual life — not of something special or heroic or earthshattering, but just of a life — that Delany’s novel brings us.

Carl Freedman, The Age of Nixon

I am happy to report that Carl Freedman’s superb new book, The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power, is now in print from Zer0 Books and available for purchase. I wrote a blurb for this book, which appears on the inside front cover, and which I will reproduce here:

Richard Nixon was real, for all that he seems like a fictional character concocted in the course of some strange literary collaboration between Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Theodore Dreiser, and J. G. Ballard. And Nixon continues to fascinate us, and to haunt our dreams, even these many years after his death. Carl Freedman’s compelling book takes the full measure of Nixon the man, Nixon the media image, Nixon the myth, and even Nixon the ideal type, the quintessential expression, and the most capacious representative of the political and economic system under which we continue to live today.

So, admittedly, I am not a neutral observer with regards to this book. I have known Carl Freedman for something like thirty-six years (can it really be that long? — amazing), and during all that time we have shared a fascination (an obsession?) with Nixon and all things Nixonian.

I can also say that I grew up, as it were, with Nixon. My parents taught me Nixon-hatred from the cradle. Indeed, my parents actually knew (and I once met) Jerry Voorhis, a one-time Democratic Congressman from southern California who had the dubious honor of being the very first victim of a vicious Nixon smear campaign. 

Obviously, American politics today is far different from what it was in Nixon’s time: today, Nixon’s policies would place him far to the left of any of the current batch of Republican Presidential contenders, and in many respects to the left of Obama as well. But Nixon was both the architect (via his “Southern strategy”) of the current, horrifically reactionary political alignment, and the still-unsurpassed master (as well as, in some respects, the inventor) of the sort of over-the-top political sleaze that we take for granted today without so much as a second glance.

But whereas, for me, Nixon-analysis has all been just talk, Carl has actually sat down and written the book. Sifting patiently through vast quantities of Nixoniana, he has detailed “Nixon as the quintessential petty-bourgeois, as a man of ressentiment, as an example of the anal-erotic character, as anti-Semite, as racist.” But Carl also writes, to the disquiet of many who might agree with the preceding designations, of “Nixon as liberal”: which means that, in his very slipperiness and obsessive insistence upon the virtues of the supposed “even playing field”, Nixon signifies or embodies (I am not sure which word is better) an “essential emptiness…at the heart of liberalism,” an opportunism, together with an insistence on proceduralism rather than substantial values, which means that “liberalism, in actual psychological practice, can with fearful ease become the opposite of itself.” (Though I am quoting the book here, my scrambled summary comes off a bit too convoluted; it fails to convey the clarity and eloquence that the book has, if it is read straight through). 

All in all, Carl’s book drives us to the conclusion that everything horrific that Nixon did (or was) is “deeply rooted in American history and tradition.” Carl demonstrates that Nixon was (and still is) truly the “obscene supplement” (to use a Zizek phrase that Carl himself does not employ) of American optimism, idealism, and exceptionalism. I am tempted to put it this way. In the 19th century, writers like Poe and Melville revealed a disturbing underside to the great and beautiful idealisms of Emerson and Thoreau. These are the two sides of American culture, which actually run continuously with one another, and transform into one another, like the seeming two sides (which are really one) of a Moebius strip. Nixon was the 20th century living embodiment of this situation — which is why his twisted legacy continues to haunt us today. And this despite the fact that we live under a neoliberal economic regime far harsher than anything Nixon supported or imposed (remember that Nixon’s Keynesianism caused him to be denounced by Milton Friedman himself as a socialist).

Also — since I have just described Nixon in aesthetic terms, in relation to Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Melville — it is important to note that The Age of Nixon wonderfully contains an Epilogue discussing “Nixon in Art.” Carl is the first (to my knowledge) to point up the significance of the fact that Nixon figures prominently as a character in the works of a whole generation of American artists: novelists such as Robert Coover and Philip Roth, painters such as Philip Guston, filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and Robert Altman, and even opera composers like John Adams. 

I doubt that Nixon can be as much an object of fascination to younger generations today as he always was to aging Boomers like myself, who actually grew up with him. But The Age of Nixon captures and explains this fascination, and also demonstrates how “the meaning of Richard Nixon” (by parallel with Badiou’s The Meaning of Sarkozy and Richard Seymour‘s The Meaning of David Cameron) remains, unfortunately, all too relevant for us today in the 21st century.

Cognition and Decision in Nonhuman Biological Organisms

My edited volume, Cognition and Decision in Nonhuman Biological Organisms, has just been published as part of the new Living Books About Life series from Open Humanities Press.

I’m excited about the entire Living Books About Life series. It represents a new form of collaboration between scientists and scholars in the humanities. And it is entirely open access as well. Each volume contains a number of crucial science articles, collected (or curated) and introduced by a humanities scholar.

My own volume covers topics such as “free will” in fruit flies, moods and emotional tones in bees, and more generally processes of affect, cognition, and decision found not just in animals, but in other sorts of organisms (trees, slime molds, bacteria) as well.

When the biologist and science fiction writer Joan Slonczewski, in her recent novel The Highest Frontier , envisions plants that display a sense of humor, and that can learn to resolve “Prisoners Dilemma” situations with mutual cooperation, she isn’t extrapolating all that much from what we actually already know about “mental” operations even in entities that have few or no neurons.

The Prince and the Wolf

Today I read The Prince and the Wolf, the short book from Zer0 that transcribes a discussion between Graham Harman and Bruno Latour, held at the London School of Economics in 2008, and organized and introduced by Peter Erdelyi. I found the book very helpful in further pursuing the questions about Harman’s object-oriented ontology that I have been mulling over for several years. This is largely because of the context we have Latour responding to Harman’s reading of him, which suggests different directions for debate than any I have thought of myself, or come upon elsewhere. I haven’t the time to think through all of the stuff I read — so this posting will just mention briefly a few of the key points that emerge from the book, before I forget them.

Basically, Latour objects to Harman’s characterization of him as a relationist, by saying that he doesn’t understand (or doesn’t accept) Harman’s entire opposition between objects/substances and relations. Where the question of whether objects can be defined by their relations, or on the contrary have hidden nonrelational cores, is crucial for Harman, Latour suggests rather that this is a both/and, not an either/or. It is precisely because things are singular, that they need mediators, relations via translation and transportation, in order to have an effect, or assert their presence in the world. So it’s not a question of whether objects are defined by intrinsic substantial natures or by merely relational qualities, but rather that it is precisely to the extent that objects are singular and irreducible to external common measures that they need to establish modes of relationality.

Latour accepts Harman’s definition of him as an occasionalist, and as the first secular occasionalist. This is because, for Latour, all alliances among things are contingent, and can always be broken or articulated differently. However, it still doesn’t seem to me that causation, or contact among entities, is as problematic for Latour as it is for Harman. Harman affirms occasionalism because, given his notion of sel-subsistent objects, sealed off from one another, the fact that objects do affect one another cannot be taken for granted, but needs a special explanation. I don’t see that this is a problem for Latour — he sees objects making alliances and networks, entering into confederations or fights and oppositions, as being the usual course of things; it isn’t in need of special explanation.

This also is an issue in Harman’s reading of Whitehead, which comes up briefly in the book because of Latour’s overt Whiteheadianism. Harman says that Whitehead is also an occasionalist, and not a secular one, because Whitehead requires eternal objects mediated by God in order for things to affect one another. This seems to me to be wrong. In his doctrine of causal efficacy, Whitehead presents entities as affecting one another directly, without mediation, all the time.

This is the whole point of Whitehead’s critique of Hume. Whitehead says that, if Hume were correct in claiming that no connections among events or entities can be detected in the world, then it would be impossible for such connections to be detected in the mind either — there could be no habit or stability of mental associations. Hume in fact assumes, in the case of the mind, the very causal links that he denies to the world outside the mind. But this is unacceptable, once we reject the Cartesian dualistic notion that the mind is somehow separate from the world. Whitehead says in effect that it is impossible to actually disavow causal efficacy. I accept Harman’s brilliant observation that Hume’s scepticism is really just the flip side of Malebranche’s occasionalism — but my conclusion from this is that, if we accept Whitehead’s argument against Humean scepticism, then this is an argument against occasionalism as well. For Whitehead, an entity cannot ever exist apart from its connections, even though the entity itself is not reducible to these connections.

As for eternal objects and God in Whitehead’s cosmology, it seems to me that they are not deployed in order to answer the question of how things can influence other things. Rather, they are there in order to answer a quite different question: that of how novelty is possible, of how creativity takes place, of how things can be something other than just repetitions of previous things. Harman observes that, “for Aristotle… causation itself isn’t really a problem; there are no gaps between things.” I would claim, contra Harman, that the same is true of Whitehead. The problem for Whitehead is not the occasionalist one of how to bring unconnected things together, but rather the one of how to produce gaps, discontinuities, and changes in a world in which everything (every actual entity) has a reason, which reason is always another actual entity (or a number of them).

In other words: Harman rejects Aristotle’s belief that “there are no gaps between things,” while he seeks to revive an Aristotelian notion of substance. Whitehead, as is well known, utterly rejects Aristotelian substance, but like Aristotle he doesn’t have a problem with things touching and affecting one another. Actually, it is a bit more complicated: for Whitehead – contra Bergson – “there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming.” Both the continuity and the gaps in continuity have to be produced, and have to be accounted for. Reality, for Whitehead, is atomistic — but this does not mean nonrelational. I think that Whitehead would probably reject Harman’s basic duality between objects and relations in much the same way that Latour does.

To get back to Latour — he says in The Prince and the Wolf that he is not as much of an actualist as Harman makes him out to be, precisely because he does not conceive things in “punctual” terms. Where Harman seeks to revive a notion of substance in order to get away from the contemporary overvaluation of relations, Latour poses the issue quite differently. Several times in the book he says that, precisely because we can no longer accept the notion of substance, the question that exercises him the most is one of subsistence. “Once substance has been excluded, subsistence comes to the fore.” For Harman, things are substances, in their basic being, regardless of whether they subsist or not. For Latour, things cannot be substances at all, and this is why the question of their subsistence is such an important one. Indeed, Latour hints that his still-unpublished exploration of different modes of being (under the influence of Souriau) is really about different ways of subsisting. There are multiple modes of being, because there are multiple ways in which entities, without being substances, nonetheless subsist over time (and also, I would suspect, through space).

Latour adds that what he now sees as the defect of his early treatise “Irreductions” (part of the Pasteur book) is that it is in fact too “punctual” — it presents as points what are really vectors. Now, “vectors” is very much a Whiteheadian term as well — Whitehead insists on the vector quality of existence — and for Latour, vectors are important because they involve both movements of translation and transportation, and processes of subsistence. Harman objects that vectors are only spatial, not temporal, a movement outward but not a movement forward in time — Whitehead’s and Latour’s vector picture has little to do with Bergsonian duration. Harman is right regarding Bergson specifically, but I don’t accept Harman’s further inference that therefore there is no real temporality in Latour: I think it is just that Latour is following Whitehead’s physics-inflected sense of spacetime, rather than Bergson’s radical duality between time and space. The movement of the vector is as irreducible to the kind of temporality of present instants that Harman describes as it is to Bergsonian continuity of becoming. For Latour (as for Whitehead, and in contrast to Harman) everything has “descendants and ascendants” [I suspect that what Latour meant by the latter word was “antecedents”].

And this, coming near the end of the volume (page 108), is perhaps the crux: Latour claims that “every single entity is expectant of a next step.” Harman responds: “Not expectant, but it becomes a possible mediator of other two entities.” Latour responds that he does intend the stronger meaning that Harman rejects: “No, but for itself, we are talking about the thing itself. It is expectant, is it not?” Harman says no, where Latour says yes. As for me, this is precisely where I side with Latour (and Whitehead) against Harman. Things are indeed “expectant,” because they feel what they prehend, and in turn set down conditions for what will prehend them, i.e. ways in which they will (expect to) be felt. Such is the vector character of experience for both Whitehead and Latour; it is also the “physical intentionality” at the heart of George Molnar’s conception of “powers.”

The Kingdom of Shadows

The Kingdom of Shadows (just published, as an e-publication for Kindle and Nook) is K. W. Jeter‘s first new full-length novel since Noir (1998). It’s an extraordinary book, though difficult to describe without spoilers. I will do my best.

The Kingdom of Shadows is set just before and during World War II, in Nazi Germany and Hollywood. It could easily be thought of as a historical novel, except for one crucial plot element (which I will avoid giving away here) that pushes it over the line and into the realm of speculative fiction. The “kingdom of shadows” (or Schattenreich, in German) to which the title refers is both the insubstantial world of light and dark (or black and white) that appears on cinema screens, and the world of the Third Reich, in which life has been drained of its colorful variety in the service of a fanatical Idea. Our bodies project shadows, and the ancient philosophers believed that images were emanations from our skin and from the surfaces of other bodies (Deleuze writes of the “particularly subtle, fluid, and tenuous elements” that, according to Epicurus and Lucretius, “detach themselves from the surfaces of things — skins, tunics, or wrappings, envelopes or barks — what Lucretius calls simulacra and Epicurus calls idols”). In the twentieth century, such subtle, almost impalpable emanations were captured by analog photgraphic devices, and then projected as movies.  

It’s well known how the Nazis made use of cinematic mise-en-scene in order to take and consolidate their power. A film like Triumph of the Will exalts the Nazi Party and the German State in terms of an overwhelming, monumentalist aesthetic. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, both ran the German film industry in competition with Hollywood, and helped to organize the society of the Reich as if it were some sort of immense film set. Jeter builds on this to portray all of Nazi Germany as a kind of cinematic epic; the Gotterdamerung of its nihilistic collapse when it loses the war is as much a part of this as was its initial grandiloquent construction. Hollywood is evidently less malign than Nazi Germany — but the technologies of both realms are the same: the cinema-machine as a way of destroying souls by extracting images from bodies, and giving them a monstrous new magnified life on the screen. In this way, the cinema is both a destroyer and a preserver: the kingdom of shadows is both the spectacle of a mutilated life, and the storehouse of our memories, which are the only things we have to counter this mutilation and destruction. 

The plot of The Kingdom of Shadows concerns a small religious minority group, the Lazarenes (invented by Jeter; as far as I know, they had no actual historical existence), who are targeted by the Nazis for extermination on the grounds that they (like the Jews and the Roma) are an “inferior” race. The main character Marte, a young woman of “mixed” Lazarene and “German” blood, ironically comes to embody the myth of “Aryan” supremacy and “purity,” when Goebbels becomes obsessed with her, takes her as his “mistress” (which in this case, really means as his sex slave), and puts her on screen as the Reich’s greatest and most radiant star. As the novel proceeds, she is increasingly separated from herself: turned into a radiant image despite (or secretly because of) the inner suffering and melancholy that almost shines through. Jeter is unsparing in the way that he links the misogyny of Nazi ideology to that of the cinematic machine’s reliance upon women’s “to-be-looked-atness.”

The Lazarenes are visible in Germany as a separate ethnic group because of a genetic quirk: their eyes are always of two different colors. Culturally, they distinguish themselves by a certain secret knowledge transmitted by the elders, and by the tattoos, representing Christ’s stigmata, that all members of the group receive upon initiation into adulthood. The Nazis are obsessed with the Lazerenes’ secret wisdom, which concerns the skin and its images or emanations, and which thereby is related to the cinema as a machinery both of self-perpetuation, and of propaganda and control. The shadow-images that emanate from our skins and get projected on movie screens are flimsy and insubstantial, and yet they are a source of nearly (or potentially) unlimited power. Jeter’s novel moves between the grandiose monstrosity of the Third Reich (and to a lesser extent, of Hollywood) and the inward pain and vulnerability of individual bodies, which is to say of human beings who are entirely exposed to the world through the openness of their skin.

I think that The Kingdom of Shadows is a profound work of media philosophy, due to the way that it draws links between the substantiality and suffering of the flesh, the shadowy impalpability (which is yet not non-existence) of images, and the functioning (both technical and social) of twentieth-century media technologies. The book rethinks the meaning of the horrors of the Nazi era, and their relation to the larger movements of the whole twentieth century (as opposed to the way that all too many contemporary works just invoke Naziism as an easy signifier of ultimate evil). But of course, it is first of all a novel, not a treatise. What really makes the book work is its affective dimension, as conveyed through K. W. Jeter’s dark and melancholy prose. The Kingdom of Shadows is rooted in German Romanticism and (going further back) in the disturbing world of early-Germanic fairy tales, while it also reaches forward to contemporary “dark vitalism” and the poetry of extinction. It’s a devastating book, a descent into the dark night of the twentieth century, from which there can be no easy redemption.

The Alchemists of Kush

I haven’t finished reading Minister Faust‘s new novel, The Alchemists of Kush. So I am not going to discuss it in the same detail as I did with his previous novel, From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain. Let me just say, based on what I have read so far (I am about 50% of the way through), that The Alchemists of Kush is another brilliant work of speculative fiction (though it is closer to Minister Faust’s first book, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, than it is to Dr. Brain).

The Alchemists of Kush is a work of triangulation: ancient African myth is juxtaposed with the lives of young (teen-aged) African immigrants (from Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere) in present-day Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I can best describe the novel in terms of a musical analogue: it’s as if you were to make a kind of mutant crossing between, on the one hand, the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra, with its invocation of ancient Egyptian deities, and on the other hand, the gritty urban hiphop of the Wu-Tang Clan, with its doubling of naturalistic detail into the modern mythologies of martial arts films and comic books.

The Alchemists of Kush is about poverty, violence, and racism; but it’s also about hope, inspiration, and transformation. It doesn’t separate the personal from the political and social, but grasps life from a point at which these dimensions both inhere, even though they also remain separate. Neither is reducible to the other, but at the same time neither is independent of the other. The novel might be described as both Afrofuturist and Afrocentric; but precisely thanks to this stubborn particularity, its aspirations and attainments are universalist.

The Alchemists of Kush goes on sale as an ebook (both Kindle and Nook formats) tomorrow — June 15, 2011 — for $2.99.

And also — If the book hits the Kindle Top 100 on launch day–June 15, 2011 — Minister Faust will donate the first $500 of sales to the South Sudan Development Foundation’s efforts to ship thousands of books (including the 300 he donated) to the Dr. John Garang Memorial University in South Sudan, which currently has no library. Good works for a good book.

George Molnar, Powers

I just finished reading George Molnar’s extraordinary book Powers. Reading an analytic philosophy book like this one reminds me, once again, that I am not a philosopher, even though I frequently write about philosophical texts. Good analytic philosophy tries to provide basic logical grounds or arguments for all of its assertions — something that I am incapable of doing. And it almost totally ignores what is interesting about classical philosophical texts: which is the implications of the metaphysical assertions. The point is that I am sure that any good analytic philosopher could point to the logical errors or ungrounded assertions in great speculative metaphysicians such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and William James. But such errors do not negate what is genuinely challenging and thought-provoking about these thinkers. (I am crudely echoing, here, some of the remarks that Graham Harman has made many times on his blog. But then, Harman really is a philosopher, albeit of the continental rather than analytic kind — which means that he is doing the kind of thing the aforementioned great speculative philosophers do, rather than what the analytics do. I, in contrast, am doing something that is closer to speculative fiction than to speculative metaphysics. I respind to philosophy texts in the same way that I do to science fiction novels). 

Nonetheless, although his book is mostly concerned with the usually analytic statement of the particular arguments needed to establish his assertions, Molnar’s metaphysical assertions are themselves fascinating and suggestive, and contribute a lot to current debates in “speculative realism.” (Indeed, I came upon Molnar in the first place because he was mentioned in the context of SR by Ben Woodard). (Molnar is also footnoted in the introduction of The Speculative Turn, in connection with Iain Hamilton Grant’s attempt to produce a “powers” metaphysics; but Grant himself doesn’t seem to mention Molnar, either in his essays in that volume or in his own book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling).

Molnar’s basic argument is that things (or OOO’s objects) possess causal powers that are ontologically real, and not just confined to the instances in which they are manifested. Salt contains the power of being soluble (dissolveable) in water; this power is a veritable property of the salt, even if it never encounters water and never actually gets dissolved. In insisting that powers are actual independently of their manifestation (even if they can only be described in terms of their manifestation), Molnar rejects the skeptical (empiricist, and especially Humean) hypothesis that talk of powers has no meaning apart from the conditional statement that, e.g., if the salt is put into water, then it will dissolve. The classic Early Modern reproach to medieval philosophy was to ridicule the latter for allegedly saying, for instance, that opium puts people to sleep because it has a dormative power — and to claim that this sort of explanation is utterly meaningless. Molnar is arguing, in effect, that opium really does have something like a “dormative power.” This is not to deny that such a power can be analyzed, e.g., in terms of particular neurochemical events that take place in the brain of somebody who has smoked opium. But such an analysis of the “dormative power” does not get away from the attribution of powers, since it simply replaces the power of opium per se with a more detailed account of the powers possessed by particular molecules in the composition of opium. 

In this way, Molnar asserts a realist ontology, one that is directed against the skeptical empiricism of the whole tradition derived from Hume (and one still adhered to by a large number of analytic philosophers today). The parallels with speculative realism go further; Molnar insists, as much as Graham Harman does, that a thing, or an object, is not just a bundle of properties or characteristics, but exists in its own right apart from and in addition to these. (Although Molnar, unlike Harman, endorses the basic scientistic move of reducing objects to their ultimate subatomic constituents, he doesn’t make the claim that this somehow renders objects of the sort that we can see and touch illusory). 

In this way, Molnar offers something like the actualism, and the “flat ontology,” insisted upon by Delanda, by Latour, and by OOO (in contrast to the eliminativist impulses, both of many analytical philosophers, and of Ray Brassier or other more scientistically-inclined speculative realists). But there’s a difference. Molnar writes: “While ontologically there is nothing over and above individuals and their properties (actions), causally there is.” (George Molnar). The insistence on actual causality, and on actual relations (causality being one form of relation), makes for a significant difference between Molnar and Harman. Contra Harman, Molnar rejects any sort of “occasionalism”; he insists that causality is direct — and not merely “vicarious.” Like Harman and against Deleuze, Molnar claims that powers, even when they are not being exercised, are entirely actual qualities of things — they cannot be regarded as “virtual” or “potential.” They fully exist even when they are not manifested in particular events, as a result of particular relational encounters. But against Harman, Molnar insists that relations are as primary an ontological category as things or objects are. 

To put this another way: Harman, in his critique of Latour, opposes the Deleuzian notion of the virtual (together with related notions of the potential) to what he sees as Latour’s “Megarian” actualism. Although he applauds this actualism, he rejects what he claims is Latour’s relationalism, or denial that his discrete entities have any nonrelational substance. But Molnar adds another option to this picture. For Molnar, things do have a substantial reality that is outside of, and anterior to, relations — but this substantial actuality is largely composed of “powers,” or of causal abilities to do things (and thereby to interact relationally with other substances). There is nothing besides individuals and their properties; but since many of these properties of individual things are powers, they make direct causality possible, i.e. when they do contingently encounter other things or substances, they produce real effects.

Molnar asserts that “laws of nature” are supervenient upon the powers of actually-existing things. Against post-Humean skepticism, “laws of nature” are objective features of the world, not mental impositions. This thesis is therefore, once again, realist and anti-correlationist; it affirms that reality is mind-independent and human-independent.  But, in opposing Hume, Molnar also implicitly opposes Quentin Meillassoux’s return to, and alleged solution of, “Hume’s problem.” Something like Leibniz’s law of sufficient reason, or Whitehead’s ontological principle, is preserved against Meillassoux’s all-too-Humean insistence that anything can happen with no reason whatsoever. This is because, for Molnar, it is not that things obey pre-existing laws of nature (which is the thesis that Meillassoux rejects), but rather that “laws of nature” are themselves the consequence of the actual powers actually possessed by individual entities. We might say therefore, that Molnar’s powers are like Spinozian/Deleuzian abilities to affect, and to be affected by, other things. (The Spinozian part of Deleuze, unlike the Bergsonian part, does not involve virtuality). 

In addition to all this, Molnar claims that powers need not be grounded, and indeed that the ultimate powers of things are ungrounded. He argues this on an empirical, rather than a priori basis: the subatomic particles of which, according to contemporary physics, the universe is composed, do not seem to possess any grounding. An electron or a photon is nothing over and above its powers. If the powers of “composite” or everyday objects are themselves grounded (e.g. in physical, non-dispositional properties of these objects), the grounding does not continue downwards infinitely, but ultimately meets the ungroundedness of the powers of elementary particles.

Now, this might well be the place where OOO thinkers would argue that Molnar reveals himself to be a scientistic reductionist after all, but I think that such a criticism would not be entirely fair. This can best be understood, perhaps, by looking at the role that ungrounded powers play in Iain Hamilton Grant’s metaphysics (see Grant’s response to Harman in The Speculative Turn; this is also the place where Ben Woodard, as cited above, associates Molnar with Schelling and Grant). The crucial point we can take from Molnar is that powers need not be grounded in order to be real; and this makes for a crucial step in Grant’s argument, against Harman, that one can trace the anteriority of forces that generate objects, without thereby “undermining” objects and reducing everything to some sort of undifferentiated blob. From another direction, Molnar’s sense of ungrounded powers might also be used to defend Latour’s ontology against Harman’s criticisms. When objects are understood as possessing intrinsic powers, they can be separate and actual without being “withdrawn” in Harman’s sense. Objects possess real forces, which they exert against other, equally real forces being deployed by other objects. Without going so far as to make the difficult claim that Latour and Grant can be reconciled with one another, I think that they both can be defended against Harman’s various criticisms of them on the basis of an appeal to something like Molnar’s insistence upon the actuality, and not-needing-to-be-groundedness, of causal powers.

There’s also another, weirder direction in which one could take all this. For Molnar, subatomic entities like electrons and photons have intrinsic powers, but they don’t have any intrinsic qualities other than their powers. Indeed, this is precisely what he means when he asserts that their powers are ungrounded. If the powers of salt and opium and human beings and (to use Harman’s examples) tar and hailstones are grounded, this is because such entities have intrinsic qualities that are not powers, in addition to their intrinsic powers. I think, however, we can reduce the difference between subatomic entities and the sorts of entites that we can apprehend directly by adopting some form of panpsychism (as I have argued before — of course, Molnar would have hated this). That is to say, I want to argue for a thesis that Molnar explicitly rejects, but which is not incompatible with his main points. The thesis is what Molnar calls “dual-sided theory”: “all properties [of objects] have something about them that is irreducibly and ineliminably dispositional [i.e. is a power], and something (else) about them that is irreducibly and ineliminably non-dispositional or ‘qualitative’… A power is only a face/facet/side of a property that also has a qualitative face/facet/side.” Molnar rejects this thesis primarily because he doesn’t think that subatomic particles (or “field-densities”) have a qualitative side: they are only dispositional (they only have powers without any “grounding” or innerness). But a major argument of 20th century panpsychists, from Russell on to Strawson, is precisely that all entities must have an inner as well as an outer side, even if physics only gives us the latter. For panpsychism, there is a qualitative or experiential dimension to everything, including electrons and photons; just as there is a “dispositional” dimension, or the intrinsic possession of powers, to everything. Such a dual-aspect theory would grant interiority to subatomic particles, while also suggesting that the interiority of mesocosmic and macrocosmic entities need not be thought of as the “ground” of these entities’ powers, but as coextensive with them. Such an account both rescues Molnar’s overall argument from the vestiges of “smallism,” while at the same time preserving the intrinsicality and independence of objects without asserting that they are “withdrawn,” and without asserting that their causal relations are merely “occasional” or “vicarious.” For me, this is a way of taking Harman’s questions seriously, while at the same time giving more credence to the assertions of Latour (on the one hand) and Grant (on the other hand) than he is willing to; and of taking Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism seriously, without accepting his claims that mathematics = the absolute, and that things can and do happen for no reason. The occasionalism of both Harman and Meillassoux is rejected in favor of a Whiteheadian duality of determination and decision.