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Saturday, 9 September 2017

Object-oriented vacuous actuality

Harman's Immaterialism sets out to contrast his object-oriented approach to social and historical explanation to what is loosely labeled "new materialism" and to actor-network theory in particular. After a quick presentation of his ontology of objects stressing the speculative move from objects of human knowledge endowed with a withdrawn element that eludes every sensorial contact to an image of everything as objects enjoying a secret in-itself dimension and a quicker presentation of the adversaries of the object-oriented approach, Harman illustrates the strengths of finding objects behind events with a historical narrative of the Dutch VOC. Following a provocation from Leibniz, for whom it would be outrageous to treat the Dutch East India Company as a real substance, Harman sets out to present the history of the company as the history of an object - that supposedly would explain more than accounts that rather undermine it in terms of its components (fleets, trips, employees etc.) or overmining it in terms of events (expeditions, conquests, alliances etc.).

The narrative is persuasive in showing how middle-sized objects like the VOC have to be taken as real protagonists capable of symbioses where a different objects are brought to alliances that involve not only its sensual qualities but also the real, withdrawn and elusive element behind the perceptually available. In a symbiosis, an objects bets in another. This is is fairly illustrated. However Harman is less convincing when it comes precisely to show how his approach fares better than Latour's ANT (Action-Network Theory) when it comes to explain features of the history of VOC. To be sure, it is not enough to say that we need to postulate individuated entities like the VOC - Latour would have networks of actants that are individual enough when they pass successive tests of resistance. Latour's individuals, nevertheless, are always up for grabs, always at the mercy of tests of resistance - and they have nothing concealed but only their successive display of actions. Still, networks that can be broken up into actants at any moment, are individuated enough. There is one important point that distinguish Harman's objects from Latour's networks: potentiality. Harman is adamant in saying that the VOC is to be understood as an object with dispositions - for instance, conquered the Spice Island in potentia even before its attack on Macassar in 1656. It is clear that capacities and abilities could be part of what a real object is and the link between real objects and real qualities is indeed conceived by Harman to be composed by those features, by those "causal powers". But ANT postulates no such thing as potentialities. In "Irréductions", around 1.5.1 Latour analyses potentialities in terms of the engagement of several other individuals and not in terms of an internal feature. He writes (in 1.5.1): "With potency injustice also begins, because apart from a happy few - princes, principles, origins, bankers, and directors other entelechies, that is, all the remainder, become details, consequences, applications, followers, servants, agents - in short, the rank and file.". Now, it is precisely the engagements of these other individuals that would explain, for instance, how the Spice Islands were in the hands of the VOC since the early 1620s: a network of actants composed by local alliances, more powerful fleets and Macassar residents that would make the conquest of Macassar less than a priority. It is unclear what precisely an object-oriented approach could offer that is better than the positing of networks together with an account of how the name "VOC" related to different networks in different times yet retaining enough of the network to go through several tests of resistance. Not only ANT would need no appeal to internal potentialities, but it would explicitly dismiss them.

Perhaps the gist of the difference is precisely in the withdrawn element in objects that ANT cannot contemplate: Harman's real objects elude any contact with other objects. Real objects are dangerously close to what Whitehead labeled 'vacuous actuality' - precisely what brings his position close to that of Hegelians as them too reject vacuous actualities such as things-in-themselves. Vacuous actualities affect nothing. I guess there are two different ways to view the withdrawn element in something. Consider Levinas conception that the absolute other is elusive to representation and ultimately to the exercise of my spontaneity. Here, the absolute other is withdrawn and yet capable of affecting me - of hurting my otherwise unlimited freedom and sovereignty. Levinas wants to make sure that the absolute other is not unnoticed - or rather, that it is not unnoticeable while it can be systematically unnoticed. It affects by resisting. The same can perhaps be said about the Kantian noumena: it is the resistance of the thing in the objects; it brings about the transcendental distinction. The other way of thinking about the withdrawn element is that it has no effect whatsoever: they are present and yet inert, not affecting anything. In this case, they are vacuous actualities. But if real objects are vacuous actualities, it is no surprise that they can make no (explanatory) difference in the explanation of the VOC. They would at most make an object-oriented account hostage to the explanations provided by an ANT history.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Perhaps a phenomenology + a monadology + a hauntology

Getting acquainted with Salanskis reading of Levinas and thinking of how, in perception, there are always traces of the still others in perceiving the others (language brings in the images of the masters when we look at anything but also every mediation is a trace in perception - think of the notion of importance in Whitehead's Modes of Thought, for instance) I've been elaborating on the account of three modes of existence I gave on Being Up For Grabs. There, each unit (which was a monad) was at the same time a composition, a fragment and a composer. There they relate to the others in a monadology. But this strikes me now as only part of the story. There is a monadology but on top of it and at the same time there is a phenomenology and a hauntology associated to the interiority of each unit. The paradoxico-metaphysics of these units is the (incoherent) juxtaposition of these three arrangements of units in each of their mode of existence. In each mode they enjoy a connection with the others, but a metaphysics of the others includes these three modes and the three arrangements. An ontology of the whole picture that provides a global view of all of them form an inconsistent totality.

Husserl himself felt like he needed a monadology to complement his phenomenology in the fifth meditation. Levinas provides an account of how the freedom of one's spontaneity needs to be hurt by the traces of the others - of how phenomenology should rather be juxtaposed with a hauntology where freedom is (morally) tainted. Further, Levinas himself makes room for a (monadological) dependence on what cannot contest one's freedom but could resist it. He embraces a bifurcation concerning what is my nourishment (nourriture) and what is the other that interrupts and is not something I depend on. Hence, for Levinas, I can go phenomenological concerning what is monadologically associated with me but I also find the absolute other whose hauntology can only command an ethical independent dependency. If we drop the bifurcation, we hint towards the co-existence of two modes of existence: I need nourishment for my chez-moi, but the absolute other can come from anywhere. To be fair, as far as the encounter is concerned, the image of a paradoxico-metaphysics of the others composed by arrangements of modes through a phenomenology plus a monadology plus a hauntology makes perhaps as much violence as the bifurcation. The difference is that it leaves a ground (hauntology) just for the traces of absolute others that are met.

Hence, in Being Up For Grabs I have proposed a monadology of fragments where each subjectivity exists at the same time in three modes. The three modes account for their being up for grabs because they are composed by others, they are fragments in other compositions and because they compose with what is provided by others. The three modes are constitutive of what there is. Now I want to explore these three modes further both as modes of existence of subjectivity and as modes of being up for grabs. It is apparent how these three modes relate to each other: they are incoherent, their blending together lies in paradox. Yet, each unit is at the same time
1) fractured and interrupted by all others – they being up for grabs makes them available like hosts for every other that can interfere in their interior life,
2) dependent on the others – they cannot be maintained or keep their defining relations to other units unless they are helped by all the other units (the monadological meta-stability),
3) sovereign to make use of all others found in the way (la indigne liberté) – their interiority is related to what they find around themselves with their freedom to engage with the others at their will.
It follows three arrangements: a hauntology (1), a monadology (2) and a phenomenology (3).

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Totality and object-oriented ontology

In his interesting "Levinas' triple critique of Heidegger", Harman presents Levinas as a critic of Heidegger in three respects: one to do with ethics (or rather the ethics of ethics, as Critchley would put), one to do with separation and one to do with substance. He points out, quite correctly in my view, that Levinas' original attempt was to provide a metaphysics devoid of any commitment to totality; totality, Harman writes, is his "strategic enemy". In Totality and Infinity (T&I) he exorcises totality thoroughly by proposing a metaphysics in the first person where one's selfishness and its interruptions form the basis of the narrative. Hence, the egoism of incorporating the others by the same in order to survive and the interruption placed by the other from outside through a metaphysical desire present in ethical demands as much as in the public language imposed on my selfish freedom or spontaneity. At the same time, Harman objects that the metaphysical project of Levinas restricts the interrupting other (the absolute other) to the human others that reveal my spontaneity as unworthy and make sure my freedom is invested as responsibility. Harman's objection could motivate an object-oriented metaphysics: every object affects every other through metaphysical desires (as much as through needs) and, as a consequence, there is transcendence not only in the human other. There is infinity - what Levinas contrasts with totality and associates with separation - in every object. Because separation is warranted, such an object-oriented metaphysics wouldn't be committed to totality (to an existence indifferent to existents). In fact, Harman plays separation against totality while discussing the friction Levinas imposes on Heidegger.

Now, to exorcise totality is not an univocal endeavor. There is a sense in which totality contrasts with separation and, more precisely, with exteriority. Levinas insists that exteriority requires interiority - interiority, he writes, is the holiday of totality. In that sense, an object-oriented metaphysics would avoid totality by entrusting each object with a withdrawn element (say, the Real Object of Harman). This element, conceived by Heidegger in connection to his reading of the Ding in Heidegger's Einblick as something that reveals and conceals itself of its own accord as an episode of zuhanden, would take care of the infinity in the interiority of the other that Levinas points out in a contexts very different of that of episodes of zuhanden (Levinas understands that only thematization, and not the coupling of things when tools are used, reveals the bite of the other, through word). In that sense, an object-oriented metaphysics could expand Levinas' metaphysics beyond the confines of the human other. But Levinas wants to exorcise totality in other senses. We can understand totality in Levinas at least in these four possible senses:
(1) The opposite of interiority (separation, exteriority)
(2) The commitment to a third-personal view, a sideways-on view in an expression of McDowell
(3) The use of the first person as an example, the other viewed as an alter-ego and my own experience as the basis for a speculative flight
(4) The commitment to neutral, impersonal terms
He is clear about senses 2, 3 and 4, as much as 1 in the opening pages of T&I. In 2A6 ("Le moi de la jouissance n'est ni biologique ni sociologique") he criticizes an impersonal view of the relation between me and the other. He wants to avoid any description in neutral, third-personal terms of my relation with the other which is thoroughly personal and cannot be described in a lateral way (from a sideways-on point of view) unless one is committed to viewing both me and the other as examples and the other as an alter ego. Levinas doesn't want any speculative flight from my own first-personal experience: this would amount to projecting myself and my relation with the other beyond my personal terms and therefore would entail a commitment to totality - and to understanding the other as an alter-ego.

It seems that an object-oriented metaphysics, as something other than a metaphysics made in the first person, would be committed to totality in the 2, 3 and 4 senses. The withdrawal of the other, for Levinas, is not the withdrawal of an object in general - which is neutral. I don't withdraw in the same way as the other does to me. An object that withdraws is a neutral structure speculatively achieved by expanding my first person experience. In his terms, such an object-oriented metaphysics is an ontology in the sense that it collapses the other into the same and turns my experience with the other into a concept (the concept of object among objects).

What interest me in all this is the metaphysical commitment to totality. Yesterday, in the Anarchai's group reading of Jean Wahl we were discussing a tradition in metaphysics (certainly a very 20th century one) that would start out by avoiding totality. This spreads from Levinas' insistence in a first personal metaphysics to Deleuze's n-1 account of multiplicity through Jankélevich's presque rien and je ne sais quoi and Derrida's deconstruction (and to what Heidegger proposes, for example, in the Kehre in the last lecture of the Einblick. We thought that maybe Jean Wahl could be placed as one of the origins for such a (20th century) tendency. It is interesting to understand the ontological turn (and the speculative turn) as a break with that avoidance of totality. It is, perhaps, a consequence of abandoning what Malabou once called "a culture of aporia".

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Levinas and immediacy

I'll write a bit about my class on the last sections of chapter 1 of Totalité et Infini (T&I) this morning. Specially about the section "e) Language et attention" in "Vérité et justice".

The issue of mediation. To be sure, when one claims that there is a mediation between A and B (call it C), one is still under the obligation of determining whether there is a mediation between A and C. This can lead to an infinite regress. Or to an arbitrary stop. Often one argues against the immediacy of our contact with the world but not against the immediacy of our contact with conceptual norms or a linguistic practices. Brandom once wrote that "we met the norms and they were us". That is, there is no mediation between us and the concepts - even when concepts are crucial to mediate our access to intuitions (and are what can provide content to them).

I take the issue of thematization (and not that of what is a theme) to be central in this sections of T&I. Levinas has Heidegger's zuhanden in mind when he insists that only through thematization - and not through what is ready-to-hand - we can reach truth (and reality). There is no such thing as a non-thematized connection with the world where things present themselves and withdraw of their own accord. His image of what is ready-to-hand is that of unconstrained and uninvested spontaneity - thoroughly morally unworthy and therefore thoroughly a product of my own unconstrained gesture of domination. It is through thematization that truth can emerge, and it is through it that my freedom is unmasked in an exercise of criticism (i.e. of diaphonia). Thematization, on its turn, requires the others. They have introduced themes (and content) into my mental life. In fact, they are present implicitly in my view of reality when it is a view, therefore something that has been thematized. Levinas says that the faces of whoever thought us about everything we access are implicitly present (never fully present as the Other is infinite) in our thinking about the world. The others are there, in my image of the world. I see my parents, colleagues and other companions implicitly in my view (in my thinking) about a book, a table or a landscape. Language covers the others - they leave traces on it. Just like for Sellars, without a language we wouldn't have anything to say. Language introduces the others and therefore thematization. The image is indeed very close to that of Wittgenstein on private language. The public language is where a constrained force is present so that content can emerge - without it, what is correct is what seems correct to me, and therefore there is nothing but an unconstrained exercise of spontaneity.

In other words, Levinas clearly is not buying into any form of empiricism where access to things are immediate. What is ready-to-hand is not accessible at all. Yet, just like with Wittgenstein, we still can ask whether my access to the Other is immediate. There's much to say about this. But there is a suspicion that there could be a problem with public language: how do I recognize the Other as an instance capable to thematize my world (and contest my spontaneity)? Is this recognition immediate?

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Linhas de Animismo Futuro available

Just out!

Levinas' infinitism

Today in my course on Levinas we were discussing his thesis, in "Vérité et Justice" (T&I), that criticism should lead not to the thesis that spontaneity is incompetent for knowledge but that it is unworthy because unfair to the Other. Doubt - as criticism should precede theory as much as metaphysics should precede ontology - is a moral concern. Although since Sextus the movement of doubting is described in terms of other voices, diaphonia, the insufficiency of reasons shown in cases of underdetermination etc, the idea that the trouble that epokhé creates was technical and not ethical prevailed. Levinas provides an ethical interpretation of criticism: one suspends judgement because of the Other, because the Other sets limits on my freedom and on my spontaneity - justice invests on my freedom, makes it worthy.

Now, Levinas holds that the Other is infinity. And that infinity is not anything theoretical but something related to moral transcendence through the Other. Infinity is perhaps never thought in terms of actual infinity - an actual infinity is put at service of totality just like what Deleuze describes Hegel and Leibniz doing in the first chapter of D&R. In other words, infinity is thought by Levinas in opposition to totality. There is no infinity leading to a totality (or to an absorption of all difference). He takes criticism to be an instance where the Other and a different world is revealed - and therefore an infinity is revealed. The alternative to that ethical reading of the epistemology of spontaneity (and of epistemology in general) that condemns freedom is to find criticism as pointing always as something technical that requires spontaneity to be somehow supplemented in the epistemological endeavor but never challenged. He believes that the technical fix - psychological or otherwise - would be found always wanting. And then he writes that this path would yield an infinite regress. Interestingly, the "infinite" in this diagnosis of infinite regress is not the one that is non-theoretical (but moral) as he advocates. Still, this is precisely the point: the infinite regress points at the theoretically (technically) incompleteness of any solution that could make theory immune to criticism. Only an infinitist solution is possible: acknowledging the Other, denouncing spontaneity. (This is the infinite regress that provides an epistemological solution - a moral one.)

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

"Amanhontem": the self-collapsing Goodmanian predicate

The argument against Humean critique of induction based on the factual or empirical (and therefore inductive) character of expressions like "tomorrow" or other expressions of the future. To doubt that the sun will rise tomorrow is intelligible only if "tomorrow" is understood and therefore if some inductions are accepted in order do doubt others. Specific doubts concerning the future cannot be formulated. Today in my epistemology course I was exploring the analogy between Hume and Goodman and therefore between the new and the old riddle of induction. Goodman's predicates are always defined in terms of temporal predicates - "green if observed *before tomorrow* and blue otherwise". To simplify, we can formulate all these non-standard predicates - grue, emerose, nexists (something that exists if observed before a given time and doesn't afterwards) - in terms of "tomorrow". Now, we can concoct the predicate 'tomorterday': something that is tomorrow if observed up to a point and yesterday if observed afterwards. A day is tomorterday if it is tomorrow with respect to yesterday (and any day before that) but tomorrow with respect to today. Tomorterday follows any day before today but precedes today. The formulation of all Goodmanian non-standard predicates (including 'tomorterday') could also be formulated in terms of tomorterday so the very formulation of the riddle is prey of itself and therefore already has to be making use of an entrenchment.