June 12, 2009
Posted by larvalsubjects under Anti-Realism, Assemblages, Badiou, Correlationism, Difference, Epistemology, Graham Harman, Immanence, Metaphysics, Object-Oriented Philosophy, Ontic, Ontology, Real, Realism, Relation, Speculative Realism
In a gorgeously written post, Reid of Planomenology criticizes my thought (as well as Graham’s) for dehumanizing the human with respect to ontology. Since Graham has already written a lengthy response to Reid’s post with which I largely agree, I’ll content myself with a few responses. Reid writes,
Let’s be clear: object-oriented philosophy may champion the ontological equality of objects with human beings, but this equality comes at the price of the dehumanization of man, of his destitution and defacing, his reduction to (almost) nothing. And it seems that, rather than bear the horrors of confronting oneself – as a man, as a philosopher – in such a hideous state, object-oriented philosophy, as quickly as it grants liberty to objects, must imprison man: he must be punished before he can commit his crime of becoming a thing. Far from leveling the playing field, of granting the same rights to objects that we enjoy, object-oriented philosophy is rather more interested in an exchange of prisoners. This is evidenced in the reluctance, even refusal, to talk about human beings as embodied abysses, and the rapid condemnation of any philosopher who foolishly invokes man if not to ridicule and denounce him.
Right at the outset, I believe Reid mischaracterizes the aims of Object-Oriented Philosophy on three fronts. First, Object-Oriented Philosophy does not champion the ontological equality of objects with human beings, but rather the ontological equality of objects simpliciter. That is, the central thesis of any Object-Oriented Philosophy is that ontologically all objects are on equal footing or that humans do not hold a superior or privileged place within the order of the real or being. It is this that I try to get at with my Ontological Principle drawn from Deleuze. The Ontological Principle states that being is said in a single and same sense for all that is. What my Onticology or version of Object-Oriented Philosophy proposes, in part, is, following DeLanda, a flat ontology. Flat Ontology must be contrasted with Vertical Ontology. In a recent post I jokingly distinguished between two versions of Vertical Ontology organized around what I called the Big Demiurge and the Little Demiurge. This reference to the Demiurge, of course, is a reference to Plato’s Timeaus where we are told of the Demiurge giving form to formless matter. A Vertical Ontology would be any ontology that posits a single Demiurge– whether that Demiurge be God, man, the subject, or language –as the origin of form in the world. If I refer to these ontologies as “Vertical Ontologies”, then this is because one being or one type of being– whether God or the ego or the transcendental subject or the subject –functions as the exemplaryreality from which all other realities flow. Like the sets of set theory where every set necessarily includes the empty set, all Vertical Ontologies share the common feature of including the Demiurge in every objectal relation.
Flat Ontology, by contrast, differs markedly from this position. For Flat Ontologies there is no exemplary reality that overdetermines or is included among all other realities, but rather there are only realities. In short, there is 1) no being that is necessarily included in relation to all other beings. Indeed, Object-Oriented Philosophy rejects the thesis that all beings are related to all other beings. And 2) Flat Ontology places all entities, all objects, on equal footing. This brings me to the second point where I believe Reid significantly mischaracterizes my position. Reid claims that in granting liberty to objects, Object-Oriented Philosophy both refuses to talk about the human and wishes to imprison, even punish man. Few things, I think, could be further from the truth for, from the standpoint of Onticology, man too is an object. The thesis of Onticology is not that the human is to be banished or excluded, but that the human is an object among other objects no more or less exemplary than any other object. In this connection, Reid’s criticism strikes me as resembling those critics of civil rights that protest that the majority group is being oppressed when the call is made for all groups to be granted equal rights. The thesis of Onticology is not that humans have no place, but rather that humans do not ontologically have a central or exemplary place within the order of being. Where anti-realisms treat all relations as necessarily involving human-to-object relations, Onticology holds that there are human-to-object relations, but also object-to-object relations that do not involve the human in any way.
In this connection, I’m led to recollect a passage from Bruno Latour’s magnificent Irreductions. In a note to proposition 2.4.5, Latour writes,
Recently there has been a tendency to privilege languages. For a long time it was thought to be transparent, to be alone among actants in possessing neither density nor violence. Then doubts began to grow about its transparency. Hope was expressed that this transparency might be restored by cleaning language as we might clean a window. Language was so privileged that its critique became the only worthy task for generations of Kants and Wittgensteins. Then in the fifties it was realized that language was opaque, dense, and heavy. This discovery did not, however, mean that it lost its privileged status and was equated with the other forces that translate and are translated by it. On the contrary, the attempt was made to reduce all other forces to the signifier. The text was turned into “the object.” This was the “swinging sixties,” from Levi-Strauss to Lacan by way of Barthes and Foucault. What a fuss! Everything that is said of the signifier is right, but it must also be said of every other kind of entelechy (1.2.9). There is nothing special about language that allows it to be distinguished from the rest for any length of time. (The Pasteurization of France, 184 – 185)
Everything said of the signifier is right, but it must also be said of every other kind of object. From the standpoint of Onticology, we can vary this thesis in a variety of ways, all of which are endorsed by Onticology:
* Everything Kant says of the nature of minds, concepts, and intuitions as they relate to the world is right, but it must also be said of every relation among objects.
* Everything Heidegger says of the relationship between Dasein and objects is right, but it must also be said of every other relation among objects.
* Everything Husserl says of intentionality is right, but it must also be said of every other relation among objects.
* Everything Foucault says of power and epistemes is right, but it must also be said of every other relation among objects.
And so on.
What Onticology contests is not these theorizations per se— obviously I have continued to work with thinkers like Lacan, Bourdieu, Foucault, etc., with abandon –but with the fall into Vertical Ontology where one type of actor or object comes to be treated as overdetermining the reality of the rest such that it is held to be included in every inter-object relation. This is the upshot of what I have called the Principle of Translation and the Principle of Irreduction. The Principle of Translation (or Latour’s Principle) states that “there is no transportation without translation”. By “transportation” I am referring to the transport of a difference from one object to another object in inter-actions among objects. The common premise of Vertical Ontologies lies in treating objects on the receiving end of processes of transportation as passive matters that receive these differences without contributing any difference of their own. In claiming that there is no transportation without translation, I am claiming that in the clash between any two objects something new is woven. In other words, I am merely claiming that we must mark the manner in which differences come to be woven together in the inter-action among objects. This moment of weaving, where the receiving object asserts its own difference, is always lost in vertical ontologies. Vertical ontologies always hold that form is imposed without remainder, thereby missing the singularities of the second object the form-to-be must navigate in seeking to impose its difference on another object. If it is true that there is no transportation without translation, then the Principle of Irreduction follows as a matter of course: Nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else. The Principle of Irreduction merely draws attention to the manner in which there is always a remainder. Or, alternatively, in Graham’s language, the Principle of Irreduction draws attention to the manner in which the object receiving difference always withdraws.
These considerations, I think, help to shed light on my problems with Badiou. Reid writes, and here I quote at length, that:
Badiou – that friend of the wicked must be condemned as well.
Throughout Logics of Worlds we find Badiou pre-occupied with questions of how to measure, identify, and evaluate objects. However, these are all epistemological terms that have little or nothing to do with the ontological status of an object as real. Badiou tells us that his account of the transcendental and objects makes no reference to the subject, but with the exception of a very brief discussion of galaxies, all of his examples of worlds refer to cultural phenomena.
These sorts of claims make me want to pull my hair out in frustration and ire. Such a thesis can only be epistemological and made from the standpoint of a viewing subject because the degree to which a being is or is not is an absolute binary such that it make not one bit of difference whether or not some appears intensely to us or not. From the realist standpoint something either is or is not, it is absolutely actual. (”On Cleaning One’s Hands” – Levi Bryant)
There are two glaring problems with the frustrated condemnation. First, lest we forget, Levi’s own onticology explicitly depends on a scale of existential degrees, in which an object exists to the degree of difference it makes, and this difference is made precisely by way of trans(re)lations with other objects. Without this feature, onticology is lost in a night in which all cows are black. Either that, or he may claim that such degrees bear on the ontic register of relations, whereas being and non-being is a strict binary when it comes to the ontological register of univocal difference, in which a being either makes a difference or it is not a being. Yet if this is his defense, then it seems odd that he would ignore that it is the same for Badiou: on the ontico-apparent register, objects appear in different degrees by virtue of their relations with other objects in their given contextual world, whereas on the ontological register, there is a strict binary of being/non-being.
Here I think Reid misses the entire point of my criticism. When I claim, in my Principle of Reality, that “the degree of power or reality embodied in a being is a function of the extensiveness of the differences that entity produces in other entities”, I am making a claim about properties or notes belonging to entities per se, objects themselves. In short, I am making a metaphysical claim about the nature of entities. By contrast, when Badiou speaks of measuring the intensity of an entity, he is making a claim about the relationship of an observerto objects. It is only on these grounds that Badiou can claim that one pillar has a lower degree of intensity than another pillar. The problem, for me, is that Badiou never gets inside the objects themselves. Take, for example, his talk of the “count-as-one” in Being and Event. In Being and Event Badiou argues that consistent multiplicities or objects come into being through the operation of a count-as-one. From the standpoint of Onticology this is a tremendously problematic claim because it renders the being or, better yet, reality of objects dependent on an external operation. And where there is an operation of counting there is a counter. This is Badiou’s updated version of Kantianism. Thus, where Kant argues that an object is only insofar as it is subordinated to the categories of the understanding– it falls under the categories of unity, reality, subsistence and inherence, and existence, synthesized with the forms and matter of intuition –Badiou argues that objects come-to-be through the operation of the count-as-one. The problem is that the object itself is left without its own internal principle through which it takes on being.
Here, as always, I think it’s important to distinguish between how a philosopher interprets his own text, and what his text actually says. Badiou again and again claims that the ontology and the ontology he develops makes no reference to the human and does not depend on the human in any way. However, throughout all of his writings, he continuously makes reference to operations like counting, measuring, identifying, etc., which are all cognitive operations. In suturing his ontology to this language, he inevitably falls into an anti-realist idealism regardless of his own express intentions. My claim is not that identifying, measuring, counting, etc., are not important and that they do not take place. Rather, my claim is that these operations do not get at the per se being of objects.
Reid goes on to write:
Finally, there is one further proximity between Levi and his object of derision: whereas Levi maintains that every difference-being is defined not only by extrinsic differential relations, but also by an internal difference which defines the inexhaustion of that being by these specific differences, signaling a capacity to be otherwise without identifying substantial possibilities, Badiou similarly maintains that every apparent object contains an inexistent element that marks the contingency of its being presented as such, rather than otherwise. In other words, they both maintain that that the being of objects is irreducible to trans(re)lation, or to intra-objectal appearance. (I say intra-objectal because, for Badiou, human animals are simply one object amongst others, with no special capacities. The possibility of being incorporated into a truth-procedure is equivocally open to all objects, insofar as they possess an inexistent element. Of course, the criteria of the sufficient body to support such a process are not so equivocal, but nor are they a priori limited to human animals over other learning objects.)
Here it seems to me that there is a major difference between my claims about internal difference or the enduring essence of objects and Badiou’s claims about the inexistent. Within my ontology, internal difference is a positive or affirmative feature of objects. It is not a negative quantity. By contrast, within the framework of Badiou’s ontology, the inexistent element is a void. More importantly, for Badiou truth-procedures only pertain to subjects and therefore the domain of the human. While it is certainly true that Badiou draws a distinction between human animals and subjects of truth procedures, it is no less true that for Badiou subjects always supervene on humans and humans alone. By contrast, within my ontology, the emergence of the new shares no special or privileged relation to the human, while certainly we are especially interested in the emergence of the new among humans.
In addition, Reid writes:
Moreover, while Levi is seemingly accusing Badiou of a sophisticated sort of anti-realism, he inadvertently reveals his own latent anti-realism. He says Badiou cannot claim that objects have measurable differences or degrees of affinity and incompatibility without implicitly presupposing a subject doing the evaluating. Badiou, of course, has no problem making such a claim, which means Levi himself must believe that objects do not have measurable differences or degrees of compatibility unless we are looking at them. Yet is this claim consistent with realism? Can a realist truly believe that objects have no relations or differences unless we are looking at them? Badiou seems to believe objects don’t need us to have such properties, so why does Levi demand that they require a subject? The answer is plain: Badiou does not make appearance dependent on the subject, but does allow it to encompass humans and other objects equally, whereas anthrophobic ‘realism’ wants humans to disappear… This is why Levi can’t stand, and is genuinely angry about, Badiou’s examples that involve humans and their products: we should be barred from even mentioning human beings; any ontology that can accommodate them is forbidden.
Here is an excellent example of what I call, following Roy Bhaskar, the Epistemic Fallacy. Nowhere have I made the claim that Badiou cannot claim that objects do not have measurable differences or degrees of affinity. What I have claimed is that this is an epistemic issue, rather than a properly ontological or metaphysical issue. Issues of how we measure and evaluate objects are independent of issues of what objects are. The problem is not that Badiou speaks of measurement and identification, but that he treats these issues as the central issues of his ontology in Logics of Worlds. In other words, Badiou is speaking at one step removed from the objects themselves. From the perspective of Onticology objects are measurable and identifiable precisely because they do possess differences. If I am so insistent on distinguishing between epistemological issues of measurement and identification, then this is because ontologically it is entirely likely that there are all sorts of objects that both possess differences, but differences of the sort that are not measurable or identifiable by us.
Here I will draw a parallel between Aristotle’s notion of essence as the real correlate of a definition as analyzed by Zubiri in On Essence (cf. 101 – 117) and the problem I see with Badiou’s approach to these issues. It is a commonplace to claim that there can be no science of the particular or the singular. If this is the case, then this is because, as Hegel so compelling observed in the chapter on sense-certainty in the Phenomenology, the particular cannot be said. Throughout Aristotle’s work on essence, he is constantly attempting to juggle essence as belonging to phusis or as a real moment of the entity, and essence as it functions in logos or judgments we make about the world. As a moment of phusis essence is a real moment of the being that makes that being the being that it is. Essence consists of those notes of a being without which the entity would no longer be that entity. As logos essence is what we can say of the entity. However, because language is only composed of general or universal terms, we can never articulate the pure thisness or singularity of the entity, but can only allude to this “thisness” or singularity. So far so good. Problems emerge, however, when we confuse logoswith phusis. At the level of logos we only get general terms. If we confuse logos with phusis, we then transpose these general terms into the being of the object itself, the object per se, confusing the requirements and limitations of our knowledge with the being of the object itself. We thus end up claiming something absurd, for example, like suggesting that the essence of Socrates is “man”. While it is certainly true that Socrates is, indeed, a man, it would be a grave error to argue that the essence of Socrates consists in being a man. No. The essence of Socrates consists in those notes or differences that make Socrates Socrates and no other, or in those notes without which Socrates would not be Socrates. When Badiou sets out from the standpoint of identification and measurement, he risks a similar error, for he subordinates the being of the being to our ability to measure and identify it, rather than getting at those differences that themselves make up the composition (in the musical sense) of the entity itself. This error is already evident as early as Being and Event where Badiou defines ontology not as the investigation of the being of beings, but as the investigation of what is sayable of the being of beings.
I’ll close this lengthy post with what I take to be Reid’s third mischaracterization of my position. In some truly inspired prose, Reid writes:
That every man is, in himself, an abyss, yawning infinitely, an eternal descent into the most obscure depths of what is, this is certainly a terrifying prospect. It rightfully provokes recoil from those who catch a glimpse. Yet it would be in bad faith to deny the full consequences of immanent decomposition, or the endless withdrawal of the non-ground. I suspect this is the motive force behind the mandatory anthrophobia demanded by object-oriented philosophy. The leveling of the ontological ground underlying human beings and objects is done in the name of the denial of even this equal ontological status, because of the terrible revelation it would demand: that we are, as much as objects, withdrawn from ourselves, we are absent even from our relation-to-self, there is nobody home: this nobody, or insider, anontological intruder I am (not)…
The interior immanence of an object, of the object I am, is also the elimination of every identity it can have, or of every object it is (/ I am). It is identity itself which is not identical to what identifies with it. This is the real as void in the flesh, and it is the real that I am, in person. The nightmare of object-oriented philosophy, of having to face oneself as an object, to vainly identify with one’s own elimination in the face of…
Not only in its obligatory anthrophobia, but also in its fetishistic obsession with discrete individuals populating the real, does object oriented philosophy show its true colors. Clinging desperately to the remnants of the world without humans, it refuses to draw its radical conclusion: the withdrawn interior or substance of an object, which is to say, its identity, can not, having no properties, qualities, or relations in itself, be identified with one individual over another. Identity, or the extimate real, no more belongs to one bundle of qualities than another. Far from being the identity ‘of’ a given object, it is the intruder that invades and defiles all objects equivocally, including you. It is inside you now and you believe you are it. But it does not believe in you, you are nothing but residue, you are already gone.
To the first two paragraphs here I declare a resounding “Here! Here!” However, I find myself deeply perplexed by Reid’s suggesting that somehow Onticology and Object-Oriented Philosophy have a phobia of the flesh. On the one hand, if Merleau-Ponty is to be followed, the flesh has generally been understood to be that which is other than the subject. In other words, in having recourse to a phenomenology of the body, Merleau-Ponty sought another beginning in philosophy no longer founded in the transparency of consciousness or the primacy of the ego. This was the heart of the debate between Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. This move opened a door out of the philosophies of transparency that is very much in line with my own Principle of Translation. On the other hand, if I were to situate anti-realisms and Vertical Ontologies in terms of psychoanalytic categories, I would say that anti-realisms fall under the category of obsessional neurosis. That is, just as the obsessional is characterized by a belief in the omnipotence of thought– hence all the rituals and the painful compulsive thoughts where the obsessional experiences his thoughts as risking the death, for example, of a loved one –anti-realism is premised on the sovereignity of thought in relation to all else. If Onticology and Object-Oriented Philosophy argue anything, then it is that thought is not sovereign, that it is not omnipotent, that it is not transparent to itself (as every object withdraws from itself including the subject), and therefore that the thinking subject is not included in all relations. But enough of this for now.
I’d like to thank Reid for play the sand to my oyster and giving me the opportunity to better flesh out some of my positions.