Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Let Harman have his Gibbon, I’ll take my Braudel

Being an Object-Oriented Ontologist and Actor-Network-Theorist is Hard!
from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

The impact of internet communication, cable, cell phones, satellite communications, etc., has fundamentally changed the nature of our world, collectively increasing our reality as actors. When I first started studying philosophy around the age of 14 or 15, we only had B. Dalton’s and Walden Books which were little holes in the wall that carried crap. I had to scour the vintage and used book stores for miles around to find anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and literature texts. And I was forced to read whatever I happened to find, which partially accounts for my eclectic background. Now, however, I can link to the internet on my iPhone while hiking in a wooded park and order the newly released copy of Souriau’s Les différents modes d’existence from France. I can acquire bootleg transcriptions of all of Lacan’s seminars, and online for free, no less! Additionally, SR and OOO would not have been possible without the intertubes or back in 1991. For SR/OOO to come into existence all sorts of relationships had to be forged among eclectic and diverse thinkers in a variety of fields and this simply would not have taken place in the conference format that traditionally brought thinkers together. The nature of research and interaction changes significantly as a result of these new network links, allowing for new forms of organization and resistance.

Floating amidst all this are the semiotic actants or all those signs, legal relations, partially semiotic entities like nations or the Elks, catch phrases (“you’re for us or against us!”), fads, and so on. These too are closely tied to infrastructure as, like highways, these entities must circulate through zero’s and one’s, radio waves, texts, etc. As Bogost is quick to remind us, it makes a big difference whether this infrastructure consists of copper wires, fiber optic cables, soup cans hooked together by taught string, illuminated texts as in the Middle Ages, satellites, etc. For most of us this infrastructure is invisible. Yet the difference between phone signals sent by copper wires and phone signals sent by fiber optic cables is a quantum leap. The former is deeply limited in the number of signals that can be transported across the line at any point in time, while the latter can carry a tremendous amount of signals. In my lifetime it used to be a fairly common occurrence for phone lines to get overloaded. The last time this occurred that I can recall was on September 11th in 2001. When my blog used to be over at Blogger I had a tracker in the html code that showed a map of the globe indicating where all of the visits I was receiving were originating.

One of the most striking things I recall about this map was that there was a narrow band of high traffic visits just north of the equator across the entire globe, from whence the majority of my traffic came. In the United States the majority of the traffic was along the coasts, whereas the center of the country was largely dark. I had hits throughout Europe (especially Great Britain, Northern Europe, and regions of Eastern Europe), while traffic began to drop off further into Eastern Europe and Russia. There was lots of traffic from regions of Australia and New Zealand, traffic from a few cities in Mexico, South and Central America, and cities in Africa. China was entirely blank. These are infrastructural issues pertaining to how the taught strings between all those soup cans are connected up with one another. I find the darkness or lack of visits in the middle regions of the United States particularly interested as this indicates a lack of well developed infrastructure and this lack of communications infrastructure correlates strongly with political party affiliation. If you want a revolution a good start would not be protests in the streets or critiques of ideology or even Badiouian truth-procedures, but quietly making internet, satellite, cable, and cell phone reception readily available in regions where these things aren’t available.

All of these actants and many more both afford and constrain my student, increasing her degree of reality by both connecting her in all sorts of ways that assist in her ability to endure and persist through time and space, but also by increasing the effects she can have on other actants in the world around her. Yet what I’ve outlined here is only the barest sketch of what an object-oriented analysis looks like. It’s still too vague and general, gesturing at relations with other actants without looking at the concrete actants involved and how these networks are organized, their history, their evolution, their dominant tendencies and directions, their interdependencies and how these constrain the possibility of certain forms of change, where “lines of flight” or tendencies of change are breaking free, how those might be assisted, accelerated, and enhanced, and so much more.

In his magnificent three volumes entitled Capitalism & Civilization, Braudel seeks to investigate what he calls “material history”. Material history is the organization of these actants. Braudel’s seeks to determine why, despite the present of certain revolutionary semiotic actants in a historical epoch (semiotic actants), change is nonetheless so slow to come.

  • Why does everything remain largely the same at the level of material life after Hume, Spinoza’s Theologico-Politico Treatise, Voltaire, Diderot, etc?

This question seems pessimistic, as if one were claiming that change is impossible, but it’s precisely the opposite. Only through knowing how networks of actants are actually put together, what actants are involved, how these interactions among actants are organized, etc., does it become possible to locate the bottlenecks or inhibitors of change and devise strategies for undoing these bottlenecks and releasing transformative potentials. Just opening the black box and seeing the networks already imperiles the organization of the network by opening the possibility to think and enact other possibilities.

Most Valuable Books of 2009 from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

As the year draws to a close I find myself looking back at this crazy year and those texts that impacted me the most. For me 2009 has been one of those years in which everything changed, where all sorts of old assumptions and fixations dissipated like so much mist, and where I’ve found myself having to rebuild everything from the ground up. Building, of course, always requires materials out of which things must be built. Consequently, it is not so much that all of those old influences (phenomenology, Deleuze, structuralism, semiotics, Lacan, Freud, Marx, Kant, Spinoza, Lucretius, Hume, etc., etc.) disappeared, it is that my relationship to these forms of thought shifted and suddenly I was asking different questions, dealing with different problems, resituating what was important and unimportant in these earlier influences, while also abandoning a number of the problems that motivated these movements and thinkers. This year has felt like an event in the Deleuzian sense of something that fundamentally splits time between a before and an after where everything is different with respect to the after. The most fundamental encounter of 2009 was certainly my encounter with Graham Harman. [...]

Broadly Marxist in his outlook, Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation addresses the questions of freedom, normativity, and emancipatory politics and comes out the other side happily with a non-nihilistic, non-Thrasymachean, account of human emancipation. When I asked whether Bhaskar’s later work is worth reading, a friend once joked to me that it is hard to say given that his prose becomes increasingly constipated with time. This is true. Bhaskar is not easy and his prose only gets worse with his prose after Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. Fortunately, Andrew Collier’s Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy provides an outstanding introduction to his thought, clearly explaining his realist ontology, his epistemology, how he meshes social constructivism with realism, his account of emergence and the stratification of reality, and his social and political theory. And like Bhaskar’s own work, Collier’s book is tightly argued and illuminating on each and every page.

Then, of course, there was Latour. Pandora’s Hope presents a brilliant critique of Plato’s allegory of the cave and how this allegory has persisted in one form or another throughout the history of philosophy, while also developing a powerful solution to the problem of reference, and amazing conceptual analyses of collectives of actants and how they are organized. Latour’s Politics of Nature develops a powerful critique of ecological thought, while also showing what is new and transformative at the heart of ecology. Here Latour develops a new ontology of nature-culture, and completely reworks the fact/norm distinction in ways that dispel a whole host of problems.

The other thought changing works of 2009 were Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Motives, Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Patricia Churchland’s Brain-Wise, Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do With Our Brains?, Stephen J. Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Zubiri’s On Essence, Steven Shaviro’s Without Criteria, and Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude.

Some of these books are books I’ve returned to again and again over the years, but this year with new eyes. Others I read for the first time. Meillassoux’s After Finitude cured me of correlationism, even if I don’t share his ontology or conclusions. Churchland’s and Malabou’s work introduced me to the importance of neurology and why it cannot be ignored or excluded from the domain of philosophy. Dennett’s book freed me from a number of structuralist and semiotic assumptions with its underdeveloped concept of memes, while also providing me with a number of concepts and arguments for thinking genesis or the production of new forms. Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory is a treasure trove of ontological concepts and categories for thinking emergence and change that are deeply applicable outside the realm of biology.

Shaviro’s Without Criteria helped to free me from the ghetto of Continental philosophy through his powerful presentation of Whitehead, filling me with all sorts of powerful concepts pertaining to events, actual occasions, societies of actual occasions, and the manner in which relations can be transformative. Zubiri’s On Essence possesses all the joy of scholastic philosophy, riddled with marvelous distinctions and arguments, while deliciously turning phenomenology upside down to create a highly original realist ontology or philosophy of existence. I will never understand why Kenneth Burke does not get more attention outside the field of rhetoric. The Grammar of Motives is a treasure trove of concepts, arguments, and analytic tools that develop nothing short of an object oriented philosophy. This text will reward anyone who takes the time to work through it and Burke’s “pentad” proves to be a powerful tool in situating forms of thought and their internal logic.

And in the background of all this was the material history of Ferdinand Braudel in the three volumes of Capitalism and Civilization. Braudel’s three volumes have been my nightly bedtime reading for the last few months. Let Harman have his Gibbon, I’ll take my Braudel. If reading Braudel has been such a transformative experience, then this is because he draws attention away from familiar territory revolving around signs, ideologies, texts, norms, and concepts, investigating instead infrastructures throughout history such as the presence or absence of roads, the epidemiology of diseases, diets, trade routes, clothing, forms of energy, etc., etc., etc..

You leave these works with an entirely new set of glasses, seeing the world and why the world is the way it is in an entirely different light. Suddenly things you were focused on in your social and political thought seem to become less important as a consequence of the rather minor role they play in social organization, while a whole host of other urgent questions come to the fore. What you above all learn is that it is extremely difficult to do responsible and valuable social and political theory because all sorts of things tend to be invisible to us due to their ubiquity. I’m sure there are a number of other texts that are escaping my memory right now, but these are the ones that stand out.

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