Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Overview of ‘Unit Operations’ by Ian Bogost (part 1)

February 4, 2010

This is a structured series of notes on the book to give an overview of its contents and its main arguments. I don’t have any problems with the book, and consider it a well written, entertaining and provocative book that I will no doubt re-read and recommend. Never before have I encountered any analysis of any kind with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City interwoven with James Joyce’s Ulysses. Truly bizarre, yet it works, because of the ‘unit operations’ active in both mediums.

The complaint that computer games are ‘not the real world’ is as unconvincing as the idea that reading is ‘pure escapism’. When we watch movies or television, read book and listen to radio we are not somehow disconnected from the world and vaulted into a virtual reality beyond out own, one which is less valuable serious and meaningful than the everyday world of our concern. When we do these things we are engaged with ‘unit operations’. Bogost’s book is an important comparative textual study that considers any modus operandi encouraged by any medium to be worthy of the same level of textual analysis. Using examining video games, movies and literature at the level of its unit operations, Bogost can illustrate the core meaningful units of expression these mediums demonstrate. I believe this to be a valuable book, as it places disparate mediums onto an equal level of intellectual importance and thus undermines medium specific elitism.

The ‘unit operation’ is contrasted with the term ‘system operations’. A unit is a building block, a materiel element that makes up a system or is autonomous as a system itself. It can be any object, human or non-human (just like Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy) yet also “encompass the material manifestations of complex, abstract, or conceptual structures such as jealousy, racial tension, and political advocacy” (p.5). “An operation is the means by which something executes some purposeful action”. Together the ‘unit operation’ is a powerful measure of meaning that is necessarily universally applicable, which bypasses the form/content problem by unfolding at every level.

Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems” (p.3). Unit and system analysis can encompass a wide selection of fields such as “software technology, physics and cybernetics”, but most interestingly, unit operations are also applicable to literary theory, as unit operations “interpret networks of discrete readings” while “system operations interpret singular literary authority”. Systems are still needed, but they are no longer rigid deterministic structures: they are the “spontaneous and complex result of multitudes rather than singular and absolute holisms”. Bogost gives the name ‘unit analysis’ to the type of practise based upon the “discovery and exposition of unit operations at work in one or many source texts” (p.15).

A distinction is needed between systems that are controlled at the level of of units, which “derive meaning from the interrelations of their components” and from systems which “regulate meaning for their constituents”. Works of literature, economies and anatomies are all system assemblages of units, but are not held rigidly in place by a deterministic totalizing structure. Systematization is an explanatory process that Bogost wants to banish from unit operational analysis. Systematization represents the quest for “stability, linearity, universalism, and permanence”, it is problem of Gestell (enframing) that Heidegger saw as the fleeing from being into technological determinism, as everything would be ordered to stand by for our calculated use (p.6). In contrast to this, Bogost asserts the important of complex systems over deterministic systems, as they open new possibilities and formations, rather than limiting them. We cannot escape from systems, just as we cannot escape from technology, thus instead of fleeing from it we should look to the “possible reconfiguration of its elements” (p.7). This reminds me of the Malabou’s notion of plasticity derived from her Hegelian-deconstructive approach to neuroscience, where the brain is a closed system yet the subject has a certain plasticity in its ability to morph into new formations.

It is evident that Bogost’s comparative literature background has had a profound impact on his work. Rather than specializing or undermining in one area, he opens up credible and well thought analyses in the areas of movies, literature and gaming that cuts across each other to reveal the unit operations that sustain them as meaningful worldly mediums of engagement. To get to this stage, however, Bogost takes us through a mini history of the systems bias in literary theory, computation and media analysis, but one that is challenge by his ontology which is is influenced by Spinoza, Badiou, Deleuze and Harman. The systematization of Levi-Strauss’ cultural myths and the predefined windowless monads structured through divine order of Leibniz are rigid deterministic systems in contrast to the open universe of Spinoza’s nature=God and the set as multiplicity of multiplicities of Badiou’s set theory ontology. The set is never a unity and thus underscores the problems of configuration at the heart of all kinds of structures. Bogost understands the ‘set’ in his terms as a ‘unit’, where he acknowledges the ‘count as one’ as “closest extant philosophical concept” to what he calls unit operations: “an understanding largely arbitrary, certainly contingent, of a particular situation, compared and taken as a whole” (p.13). It is this counting mechanism that configures the set as a distinct unit. The mathematical representation draws in computational as well as philosophical and cultural analysis together, springing the potentiality of a comparative procedural criticism.

It is important to note that the unit operation is not just a critical tool we can wield in front of any text. It is an intrinsic part of the texts themselves. Unit operations have a textual and critical existence. It is the job of the critical analyst to examine how these unit operations work with each text, whether computer game or literary classic. For example, Bogost analyses the unit operations of Spielberg’s The Terminal, with Tom Hanks. He draws the conclusion that ‘uncorroborated waiting’ is the main unit operation of the film. A unit operational analysis is based on the procedures that medium is demonstrating, not on any narrative structure. Unit operation, as a procedure measure of meaning cuts across mediums and exhibits their main message, whereas narrative, as Bogost will later examine, is not quite so simple to define. Therefore, his film analysis succeeds, as he thinks the film does, not because of its aesthetic or narrative attractions, but on the importance and profundity of waiting as a procedure part of the viewers watching experience. The point of the film is not the story, as such, but the unit operations that are demonstrated and held together by the “glue” of the story.

Bogost goes on to examine linguistics, post structuralism and the work of Slavoj Zizek in order to show how the relationship between unit and structure cannot be determined entirely from above or below. For instance, Levi-Strauss distinction between langue (structure) and parole (content) of language focused upon the systemic structure that gives shape and meaning to what is articulated through signs. The structuralism of Levi-Strauss examined myths at a structural level, grouping them through their units of meaning, rather than their contingent content. The post-structuralist used the parole/langue understanding of meaning but placed emphasis not on its systemic stability, but on the instability of meaningful sign systems, and the stability of supposedly universal unit operations. Deconstruction’s emphasis on the polysemic was aimed to perpetually destabilize totalizing systems, yet deconstruction itself could be said to be a closed system of the eternal recurrence of the same system: of fundamental instability prioritized over stability. Badiou thus characterized Derrida as an anti-philosopher of polysemic deconstruction which results, critically, in “polyvalance over truth” (p.25). Instead of prioritizing instability, Badiou’s sets, as well as Bogost’s unit operations place system and unit operations on a non-hierarchical plateaux by defining the unit/set as a unity defined as a multiplicity of multiplicities.

To be continued

Notes from ‘Confessions of a sinner’ by St Augustine

December 6, 2009

“Who can recall to me the sins I commit as a baby?” (p.4) questions St Augustine. He continues “was it a sin to cry when I wanted to feed on the breast?”. These questions begin section 7 of confessions and set the tone for the whole book. These type of probing questions with a particularly Catholic flavour are expressed and reasoned through without shame. The question of innocence and of sin stalk St Augustine at every Holy turn. This autobiographical series of questions and confessions has some juicy gossip (“she was nearly two years too young for marriage, but I liked her well enough” p.53), yet overflows with rambling stream of consciousness style eruptions of loving verbiage for ‘O God my God’. It is a series of prayers admitting to the All Knowing One his past history where he found himself dominated by moods of lust or pious awe. He swung from pleasures and temptations of the flesh to the love, beauty and devotion to the Divine. What remained throughout was a sense that any act of sin was always under the shadow of God. He never faltered in his faith, but agonized over his inability to do Gods will. The result was the turmoil and agony when faced with Hellish temptations and the silence of the Lord: “I was tossed and spilled, floundering in the broiling sea of my fornication, and you said no word” (p.13).

St Augustine parades a keen understanding of the dilemma of sin and its relations to pleasure: “our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden” (p.15) and after stealing pears as a young boy he notes “If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavour” (p.16). On the whole, it seems an excellent guide to the long road to achieving what Lacan would call feminine ‘jouissance’. From the tentative beginnings of minor transgressions, always under the paranoid thoughts of a vengeful and almighty God, St Augustine eventually learns that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthy light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even mention, besides the happiness of the life of the saints” (p.79). This supplementary jouissance is attained by looking towards the Other (in this instance, the Almighty as source of pleasure) and not phallic jouissance, the prohibitive ‘No’ of the father, in this instance, God. In part 11, he makes note that as his father was not a believer, his mother “did all that she could to see that you, my God, should be a Father to me rather than he” (p.7). St Augustine learns that the seeking of pleasure always within the shadow of prohibition is only a stealing of jouissance that affords a pittance of pleasure: his stealing of pears as a young man represents his seeking of pleasure through the transgression of the phallic lack and  restriction, which later he would recognize as inferior to feminine religious jouissance. St Augustine was always aware of the dangers of pride and the quest for the selfless will of God, which is why he was able to archive the desubjectified ecstasy that only comes from the complete reconciliation with the object cause of desire, ‘object a’. At this point, jouissance is obtained not through the attempt to achieve non-castrated phallic jouissance, but through the staging of St Augustine’s appropriation of the will of God. This is staged in the gaze of the Other. As Lacan says “desire is the desire of the Other”, thus St Augustine learnt to be true to his desire, which was to fulfil the will of the Other, God.

This philosophical meditation on belief is revealing. It shows how the religious mind solidifies its belief even in the face of the impossibility of knowing God through reason. St Augustine notes “we are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone” and that no reading of any philosophical proposition dissuaded him from his belief in “your existence and in your right to govern human affairs” (p.51). This reminds me of my reading of Quentin Meillassoux, whose book After Finitude, tells us that “even after successfully critiquing meta-physico religiosity, this does not disprove God but only a type of God which appeals to natural reason to declare the superiority of its own beliefs. To remove proof of the ’supreme’ supported by reason reverses the process of the destruction of polytheistic religion suffered at the hands of monotheistic religious reason (p.45). What does this produce? Fundamentalist fideism: a defence of religiosity in general which promotes the superiority of piety over thought, thus removing reason from any ground to a belief in God or gods. The result is a religionizing of reason: beliefs are legitimate as nothing but beliefs, not as reasonable beliefs (p.47)” [this is a block quote from my notes]. It looks as if the battle for man’s soul, if it is to be won by the atheistic philosophers, they will need to come to terms with the structures of desire and the jouissance generated by the belief in the divine and to overcome regimes of signs that perpetuate the Other’s jouissance through religious piety.

Next week, I will read and review Charles Darwin’s ‘On Natural Selection’

Notes from ‘Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation’ by Gilles Deleuze

October 19, 2009

DavisDeleuzebook500These are my reading notes from this excellent book. I would recommend reading the book while looking at each picture he expands upon   HERE This book works not only as a piece of art commentary but as a practical and highly readable introduction to Deleuze’s anti-representational philosophy.


Notes from ‘After Finitude’ by Quentin Meillassoux

October 17, 2009

9780826496744_THUMBThis is not a review as there are many reviews all over the net about this book. These are only my notes which constitute a (very) basic overview of the books arguments. If you read philosophy, reading this book gives a clear idea of the task that lies ahead for speculative metaphysics. If you do not have time to read the book then I hope these notes are clear enough to give you a solid enough background to the text as to be useful and thought provoking.

QM starts by reminding us of primary and secondary qualities. Primary are those qualities of an object which exist without me (thing without me). Secondary qualities are an object’s sensible relations (thing with me). Primary qualities are mathematical measurements which equate to the object in-itself. Thus the understanding of primary and secondary qualities was changed by Kant from ‘what is the proper substrate?’ to ‘what is the proper correlation?’. The effect of this we have seen the the 20th century, where the media of correlation has been language (analytic philosophy) and consciousness (phenomenology). The problem, as QM sees it, is that “contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers” (p. 7). This is evident in such thinkers as Heidegger, where the priority is given to the relation of being to man via Eriegnis.

To challenge this view, QM comes up with a term he hopes to make corelationism squirm: the terms ‘ancestral’, which is any reality anterior to any life on earth, and the ‘archi-fossil’, which is material which indicates any ancestral history (p.8, 10). This creates a challenge to correlationism and science (which is ancestral discourse) to understand the meaning of ancestral statements. This will prove difficult for the scientific principle of the ‘falsifiability thesis’ as advocated by Popper, that states that all scientific theories are falsifiable.

For philosophy, making claims about the nature of the cosmos have changed considerably. QM looks at Descartes claim that mathematical properties exist in themselves, where as Kant claims that mathematical properties exist only for us. What then is the truth of a scientific statement? Truth of ancestral scientific statements comes from its inter-subjective verifiability, not the naïve notion of a world without the givenness of the world via a retrojection of the past on the basis of the present (p.16). The archi-fossil and the correlation are incompatible and disqualify each other. Where does that leave us? Ancestral statements are illusory via a priori demonstration and thus opens up the possibility of ‘Young Earth’ theories. There is a test of faith inherent in both claims: if you acknowledge the correlationist claim, then any ancestral claim has to be taken on faith if it is to be believed. And the religious arguments concerning the creation of the earth are still valid based upon their claim to the truth of the a priori correlation.

In clarification, the archi-fossil is in no way similar to an ancient event. An ancient event indicates an occurrence within a linear history. The archi-fossil designates an event anterior to terrestrial life and hence anterior to givenness itself (p.20). Archi-fossils are anterior to time, not just un-witnessed in time. QM then proceeds to ask the question ‘how to conceive of a time in which the given as such passes from non-being to being?’ (p.21). Time before being to time with being and thus being with thought. The task is to think a time of being without thought.

‘The transcendental subject simply cannot be said to exist, which is to say that the subject is not an entity but rather a set of conditions rendering objective scientific knowledge of entities possible’ (p.23). Speculative idealism posits subject as its bodily individuation not apart from it (like transcendental idealism does). Thus, for the moderns, to be is to be a correlate. Yet science continues to ask us to discover the source of its own absoluteness (p.28). The question of necessity and contingency of the absolute now arises. For Descartes, the proof of the absolute is its necessity for us, not in itself (p.30). For Kant, the thing in-itself is thinkable but unknowable, such that we can think the a priori condition, but not categorical cognition to the thing in-itself: there is a real necessity for the absolute, such is the position of Kant’s dogmatic metaphysics (p.31).

The principle of reason rests on God being necessary in-itself, thus supporting a reasonable deduction built upon this ground. This absolutism legitimates political ideologies as correlate necessities: thus we must not return to the ‘principle of reason’.

QM advocates speculative thinking which has claims to the absolute which doesn’t rely on the principle of reason to necessitate its claims, while metaphysical thinking only claims access to the absolute through metaphysical thinking. Thus with Heidegger and Wittgenstein we have an end to the possibility of the principle of reason legitimating claims to know the absolute. This ‘strong correlationism’ proposes we cannot think let alone know the absolute thing in-itself. There is thus a nihilistic nothingness beyond the human.

Even after successfully critiquing meta-physico religiosity, this does not disprove God but only a type of God which appeals to natural reason to declare the superiority of its own beliefs. To remove proof of the ‘supreme’ supported by reason reverses the process of the destruction of polytheistic religion suffered at the hands of monotheistic religious reason (p.45). What does this produce? Fundamentalist fideism: a defence of religiosity in general which promotes the superiority of piety over thought, thus removing reason from any ground to a belief in God or gods. The result is a religionizing of reason: beliefs are legitimate as nothing but beliefs, not as reasonable beliefs (p.47). Philosophical works such as by Levinas pursue a sceptico-fideist closure of metaphysics dominated by the ‘wholly-other’ (p.48). Fideism is merely another name for strong correlationism. The correlationist cogito can thus be non-representational and institutes a species solipsism (rather than individual solipsism – Heidegger’s being-in-the-world could be a species solipsist claim).

QM wants to challenge modern philosophy’s appropriation of facticty as limit to revealing knowledge of the absolute. Facticity tells us about the nature of the absolute. If all we can know is the contingency of facticty, then there is no reason for things to remain so rather than otherwise. Yet saying ‘everything is equally possible’ is an absolute claim, thus metaphysical. The only claim that can be made is based upon our facticity, not as limit but as absolute: the absolute is the absolute impossibility of a necessary being (p.60). This is the absolute truth of the principle of unreason: this is an anhypothetical principle, which is a proposition that could bot be deduced from another proposition, but could be proved by argument.

QM then looks at the relation of time and fixed universal laws. A time which promotes fixed universal laws is banal. The time QM premises is the time of lawless destruction of every physical law: it is the absolute necessity of everything’s non-necessity (contingency). This is non-banal (p.63). QM points out that we cannot take contingency empirically (as precariousness, of a perishability that is bound to occur). Only absolute contingency as pure possibility should apply here: this is that which may never be realized). However, to say that ‘everything must necessarily perish’ is a metaphysical statement that posits the absolute, where a determinate situation is necessary. This lawless time is not Heraclitian time of becoming, as this is an eternal law. Destructive time is the eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law (p.64). ‘It is a time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis and death’ (p.64). Philosophies of sensible becoming hide a stabilist structure as their ground, this is an illusion.

‘For even if I cannot think the unthinkable, I can think the possibility of the unthinkable by dint of the unreason of the real’ (p.58). QM then undertakes an imaginary dialogue between correlationist, idealist and speculative philosophers, which recaps each position examined so far and how the each respond to each other claims. QM them states that necessarily, anything is possible except a necessary entity. Thus, we can start to determine the absolute properties of chaos (p.66). ‘It is because the entity cannot be necessary and not because the entity must be logically consistent, that we infer the impossibility of contradiction: the absolute cannot be necessary and contingent (p.68). If the principle of reason is absolutely false (proven by the principle of unreason), then the principle of non-contradiction is absolutely true. This is because strong correlationism de-absolutized the principle of non-contradiction and reason. (p.71).

For Fideist, being is an unreasonable pure gift, which wonders at why there is something rather than nothing, sprung from the miraculous coming of sometime from nothing (p.72). Thus we must take a strong interpretation of the principle of unreason: things must be contingent and there must be contingent things. This is because facticity is not just a fact in the world (it is not a fact that things are factual), it is an absolute necessity that factual things exist. Kant understood the thing in-itself to not be knowable because of facticity (but it is thinkable). The speculative approach says that the thing in-itself is nothing other than the facticity of the transcendental form of representation. Thus there is a logos of contingency, which states that contradiction is logically conceivable providing not every contradiction is true. Thus an inconsistent being is impossible because it would be necessary if it existed (p.78). But even so, there can only ever be contradictions in statements and not with the real world. Contradictions can be ontic but not ontological.

QM then creates the term ‘factiality’ which stands for the speculative essence of facticity such as the facticity of everything cannot be thought as a fact (p.79). The principle of unreason is then changed from a negative statement to a positive one: the principle of factiality. For factiality, contingency alone is necessary (not contingency is necessary, which would be a metaphysical statement, as the necessity of contingency is not derived from contingency alone, but from a whole that is ontologically superior to the later) (p.80).

As stated earlier, Popper promotes the falsifiability principle to scientific laws and facts, but he never advocated that the universal laws themselves could change, only the theories which can become infinitely refined. For Popper there is a necessary stability to absolute laws. For Kant, causal necessity is a necessary condition for the existence of consciousness and the world it experiences. For Hume, there is no causal necessity, only habitual projection of stable phenomena (p.87). For Leibniz, God is unconditionally necessary, his essence alone guarantees the best of all possible worlds. Thus the world must remain the same in its consistency. However, Hume never doubts causal necessity, only our capacity to reason for it (p.90). He says that we cannot know the reason for the ultimate necessity of universal laws but there are universal laws (Hume is a sceptic of human reason, not sceptical of natural laws).

For Kant, ‘there is no consciousness without the possibility of a science of phenomena, because the very idea of consciousness presupposes the idea of representation that is unified in time’ (p.93). The necessity of laws is a incontrovertible fact once one has construed it as the very condition for consciousness’. Stability, rather than the necessity of phenomena can be defended. Thus stability does not generate necessity. The response to this is that if laws of nature were contingent we would have noticed. This is not the case. Whatever is equally thinkable is equally possible. ‘If physical laws were actually contingent it would be contrary to the laws that govern chance. There must be a necessitating reason, albeit hidden’: No. Saying that it is chance through innumerable dice throws that we get what looks like a stable universe pre-supposes the necessity of stable conditions for the dice throws themselves from one to the next. (p.99). Chance is an undeterministic physical law and thus must be eliminated from contingency (Epicurus’ Clinamen are indeterminate within determinate conditions).

The contingency of natural laws remains inaccessible to aleatory reasoning (p.100). Therefore, we must try and articulate a principle of contingency that is district from the concept of chance. The only way to do this is through the use of Cantor’s set theoretical notion of the ‘transfinite’: “the (qualifiable) totality of the thinkable is unthinkable.” (p.104).The totalization of the thinkable can no longer be guaranteed a priori – the conceivable is not necessarily totalizable by the detotalization of number. Badiou reveals the mathematical conceivability of the detotalization of being qua being, thus using mathematics to escape from calculative reason. Thus, aleatory reasoning is only extendible to the objects of experience not to the laws that govern the universe, because a totality must be posited which can govern the conditions of chance, such as a dice. Since Cantor, we cannot claim to any logical or mathematical necessity, thus any a priori necessity (p107). Being and chance foreground a dice’s totality as a calculative enclosure of the number of the possible (p.108).

The contingent, is thus, something that finally happens. Events which are incalculable and unpredictable continue to be mathematical over the artistic, poetic or religious (p.108). Wittgenstein was interested in finding out how it is possible (and how it is still possible that you, the questioner being proof of it) to be perplexed by such ‘pseudo-problems’ of metaphysics. Contemptuous belief in the insolvability of metaphysical questions is merely the consequence of the continuing belief in the principle of reason.

The factical stance abandons the dissolvent approach to metaphysics as a procedure that has itself become obsolete (p.109). It is not that there is no longer a problem, it is that there is no longer a reason. If the absolute is contingent it is because of our facticity that we must note the super immensity of the chaotic virtual that allows the imperceivable stability of the visual world (p.111). Thus statements about the world which are ancestral (dia-chronic), how are these meaningful regardless of their inter-subjective testable correctness? Dia-chronic statements express the very essence of modern science, These can be integrated into knowledge as opposed to myth. Science’s dia-chronic statements assume that the question of the witness has become irrelevant to knowledge of the event (p.116). Thus what is mathematizable cannot be reduced to a correlate of thought (p.117).

Kant’s Copernican revolution was based on his discovery that knowledge doesn’t conform to objects: objects conform to knowledge. Since 1781 (year of Kant’s 1st critique) philosophical Ptolemaism (the earth is the fixed centre of the universe around which the sun and the other planets revolve) harbours the deeper meaning of scientific Copernicanism. Scientific realism is thus ‘naïve’ or ‘natural’, a derivative of the primordial relation to the world that falls to the philosopher to uncover (p.119). For Kant, the man of science becomes the ‘piston of knowledge’ rather than the metaphysician. Science alone gives theoretical knowledge of nature, speculative metaphysics can no longer reason its knowledge of higher reality (cosmos, God, or souls). With this, philosophy lost sight of science’s revolutionary aspect to thought: speculation. Philosophy continues to narrow the correlation to being-in-the-world (facticity) or epochal Being, or a linguistic community: this is so the philosopher can be master of his brand of knowledge (p.121).

The de-absolutizing implications of renouncing the absolute and metaphysics are threefold: Descartes ratifies the idea that nature is devoid of thought (life = thought). Thought can think de-subjectivized nature through mathematics. This destroys a priori knowledge (metaphysics) of physics. Hume demonstrated the fallaciousness of all metaphysical forms of rationality. Which led Kant to turn correlational knowledge into only philosophically legitimate forms of knowledge. After this philosophy’s task consists in re-absolutizing the scope of mathematics – thereby remaining, contrary to correlationism, faithful to thought’s Copernican de-centring – bit without lapsing back into any sort of metaphysical necessity which has indeed become obsolete (p.126). This leads QM to two types of absolutizing: ontical: possible entities can be thought indifferent to thought, and ontological: the Cantorian non-all accounts for the structure of the possible as such (the possible as such is necessarily un-totalizable). QM ends his thesis by stating: ‘If Hume’s problem woke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, we can only hope that the problem of ancestrality succeeds in waking us from our correlationist slumber, by enjoining us to reconcile thought and absolute’ (p.128).

Review of ‘Politics of Nature’ by Bruno Latour

September 24, 2009

POLNAT‘Political ecology has not begun’, says Bruno Latour, so he is going to start it. ‘The politics of nature’ looks quite alien from anything else I’ve seen. It proposes something quite radical yet remarkably simple. It is not a work of political philosophy as such, but an inter-disciplinary challenge to politics, economics, philosophy and science to organize themselves so as to formulate a non-discriminative collective of the common. The problems arise from the concept of nature. For Latour, this word is more trouble than it is worth. As he exclaims ‘Thank God, nature is going to die. Yes, the great Pan is dead’ (p. 25). I will explain this using a diagram provided in the book. This diagram is really all you need to think about to understand his entire argument.

politics of nature 01

On the left we have the current political model. Nature is split off as something that requires the philosopher-scientist hero to go out into this hidden world of primary qualities and bring back precious knowledge. This as Latour makes clear is reminiscent of Plato’s Cave allegory. This makes a true democracy of actors impossible from the start, as some people are prioritized over others by their access to ‘reality’. Things and humans are separated in order to support the notion of multiculturalism against mononaturalism. The notion of nature thus is shown to have always been an illusion. The natural world is set against culture as either a chaotic force that needs to be controlled (i.e. modernism) or mother nature is in balance and we need to become attuned to her laws so as not to destroy her and ourselves (Gaia spiritualism). For Latour this distinction is something that only the west has done. It is not that non-western peoples are better at living in tune with the environment and listening to mother nature. No, they are capable of vicious acts of environmental degradation and disequilibrium as western civilizations. We should not aim to marry culture and nature together, but to dissolve the distinction entirely. Non-westerners do not have problems with nature, as they have never divided the world in such a manner.

On the right side of the diagram we can see what it means if we don’t split culture and nature and instead have a collective of non-human and human actants. The collective is in charge of collecting the multiplicity of associations between humans and non-humans. This is because the subject/object distinction has been removed and a politics proper can begin. Politics is ‘the entire set of tasks that allows the progressive composition of a common world’ (p. 53). Constructing the common must be done through an experimental metaphysics, where things are no defined permanently, but can engage in exchanging properties. The common is formed through articulations. These are not linguistic statements, but uncertain propositions, speech impediments, which do not take positions in polemical style. These propositions push forth matters of concern, which replaces matter of fact. Facts neglect the theoretical work that is needed for their construction. Therefore, propositions must be put forth by spokespersons, but these are not just people (as if people can be separated from the world) but relations between humans and non-humans. This is what is meant on the diagram by ‘collective in the process of exploring’.

Latour wants to reorganise how the roles of politicians, scientists, moralists and economists are complimentary and only become disordered when they try and do each others jobs. They should not put into a hierarchy of importance, but given a reciprocal relationship the collective must utilize to the maximum capacity. This will allow us to articulate and represent the common. Politicians can compromise and make enemies, as an enemy is ‘one who is rejected but will come back the next day to put the collective at rick’. An enemy is not human specific (Latour uses the example of prions and mad cow disease). Economists must economize and offer scale models of precisely what is taken into account by the collective. They make sure the collective knows what is internalized and what is externalized using a common language and make the collective describable. Moralists venture out of the collective to see things from the outside. They ask ‘what do those things want?’ and make sure we treat all things as a means and an end, not just humans. Scientists have the instruments and laboratories to detect new things, and so can tell us of anything that should be taken into the collective and naturalized. Put very simply, all these things are brought together and kept consistent by good administration.

One of the main arguments in this book is against Realpolitik. Political ecology is in favour of a ‘politics of reality’ which is ‘nourished’ by moral issues not distracted by them. However, Latour does not intent this book to be anything revolutionary. He wants its banal message to be read and understood as a simple reflection which aims to rid us of concepts which have and are continuing to handicap any chance of a true politics. As he says ‘I have no utopia to propose, no critical denunciation to proffer, no revolution to hope for’ (p. 163).

This book is a fascinating yet simple thought experiment that needs serious consideration. It does not promise a perfect world, only a chance to push towards the best of all possible worlds. As the collective is defined by movement, there is no teleological end point or utopian moment, but the perpetual throwing out of entities by the power of rank ordering where, if they must, they can return as appellants in the next iteration, to trouble the power of the collective into taking into account. This banal process never stops. This is a kind of all embracing realism that makes power politics look like children squabbling in a sandbox. I think he is right that things need to be reoriented away from the unfreedom of supposed democracy we have now toward a more inclusive common world. I suggest if you want to get a glimpse of a new type of world based on a proper attempt at political ecology that doesn’t rehash the old myopic visions of the deep ecologist and the Gaia spiritualists, read this book.

Review of ‘Tool-being’ by Graham Harman

September 23, 2009

tool_beingIn this book, Harman alludes to truth being more like a key to a lock than adequatio or the revealing/concealing play of alethia. The mind numbing drudgery of thousands of pages of Heidegger’s gesamtausgabe are unlocked from their semi-mystical confusion (as Harman points out, Heidegger does get confused by his own discovery) and brought into a profoundly simple freshness and engaging clarity.

As a confessed Heideggerian now for more than two years, I’m constantly stuck by the tiniest of details that can reorient myself towards his work in quite bizarre and absurd ways. Last year I was decrying the absent gods and celebrating the call for their return, vouching to set on a course for the poetic reawakening of beings towards being, leading the charge against the technological dragon that stalks our essence, causing us to flee from being by cutting us off from the its own questioning. I even become obsessed with the mystical and religious currents of Heidegger’s talk of gods, which led me to read Caputo and other such religio-Heideggerians. From this I came away with wonderful answers and new insights into figures such as Meister Eckhart and D.T. Suzuki and the world was now a more magical place. Now, in contrast, I’m about to drink to the health of what I, and many others in the know, see as a redefining phase of philosophical brilliance… the speculative realism movement and in particular the work of the object-oriented philosophers and ontologists (most notable are Graham Harman and Levi Bryant). How right old Paul De Man was when he said that each profound moment is one of insight and blindness.

There is always a level of total bewilderment and deep understanding with Heidegger. When I first read ‘Question Concerning Technology’ which quickly made me a convert, I feel I grasped Heidegger almost as much as I do now, although now I am several thousand pages of dense text the richer. This is because, according to Harman, Heidegger has actually very little to say, he just says it in lots of fancy ways about many thing over many years. Heidegger’s master key, the famous hermeneutical ‘destruction’ runs thus: anything that prioritizes presence (PAH) is metaphysics, thus metaphysics is bad and I can clobber any philosophy which prioritizes PAH with a great big hammer for being a sucker to destiny of being they inevitably fall victim to. What we then get, says Harman, is 18000 pages of historical writings which appraise philosophers in their relation to the metaphysical myopia they are destined to regurgitate. This means that from Plato onwards all succumb to Heidegger’s tag line: metaphysics of presence. Harman seems to have learnt a similar trick from Heidegger as a condition of his object-oriented philosophy (OOP). Harman re-reads and re-constructs the history of philosophy from what could be described, in Deleuzian terms, as Harman’s minor literature: that which can be appropriated into something new outside the context of its own creation. Harman re-reads not only the past masters (neglected or well known) of philosophy against the lens of his OOP but those so called Heideggerians, who confidently decorate the halls of academia with their butchered interpretations of Heidegger’s basic concepts.

Chapter 1 puts the record straight: Heidegger is still within metaphysics because there is a world outside our own that we do not have access to. This is the ready-to-hand (RTH), the  endo-relations of objects (to use an expression from Levi Bryant). Objects are always more than their ontic present-at-hand (PAH) relations. No object, human or otherwise, can draw any deeper from the dark well of the object’s being than each other: there must necessarily always be withdrawn, subterranean aspect of an object. All modes of absorption in the world are ontologically identical: Buddha does not have any special ontological privileges any more or less than ‘Berlin lawyers’ or electrons. If this point is taken seriously, Harman discovers that the ‘question of the meaning of being’ must be a reverse tautology, as I will explain.

Objects have two dimensions (at this point in the book they do anyway): their references and their withdrawal. Their references point to something beyond themselves, to something else, as a relation to another object. When an object is at work there is always a part of them that is in withdrawal. Harman takes the word ‘refer’, which in German is Sinn, to be ‘to mean’. If an object refers it is being. Thus to be is to mean. Sinn = Sein. The meaning of objects comes from their relatedness to the world, this is true for Dasein, who is a being ‘in’ the world of relations, but for all objects. Objects are being ‘in’ not being ‘for’: they are not representations. Thus Dasein is no longer elevated to be the only entity that has meaning and can uncover the meaning of being. All objects refer and must therefore have meaningful being. Which means all objects are Dasein! Ta da!

This may seem like some semantic chicanery, but following Heidegger’s own stance regarding the depths of objects, this logic must be taken to its fullest conclusion, which Harman sees as a the start of a full blown realism. He then goes on to trace the interpretations of Heidegger’s tool analysis from the Aristotelian continentals, such as Bernasconi who understands Heidegger’s notion of historicity to be the imperative to read the history of philosophy. As such Bernasconi reads Heidegger with and against Aristotle’s notion of poiesis. Harman emphasises that Bernasconi reads RTH as production. Which has a disastrous logical domino effect: production is teleology, teleology is PAH, PAH is metaphysics, thus Heidegger is still within a Greek ontology of PAH.

After more or less demolishing this position he moves on to the analytic pragmatists. These guys (and it mainly is guys) are obsessed with the idea of tools in use. Whereas Bernasconi saw Heidegger’s tool analysis not to do with actual tools but with the ‘exchange of presence’ between an objects RTH and PAH. The analytic pragmatists got one look at those tools and though, yes! The world is there for us to ‘understand’, to gain knowledge of in the form of ‘competence’ in its practical use: being = understanding. Harman say: wrong! Verstechen does not mean ‘knowing how to do something’ but is an unthematic ‘being-with’ that occurs in every moment of Dasein. Thus Okrent, Rorty and Dreyfus are seen off, although he is more favourable to Dreyfus for suggesting that Heidegger could be used for a ‘robust’ realism.

Harman seems to pull all this off through what seems to be his own interpretive trick-shot stating, “Heidegger must not be regarded as the absolute authority” on his own ideas! For Harman, all the interpretations of Heidegger have got themselves in a twist because they have tried to stick to the masters order of prioritizing human Dasein as something that has ontologically superior access to being than all other beings. Harman suggests to read tool-being against Heidegger’s own anthropocentricism and his failed experiments to explain it (such as his discourses on animal and insect ‘captivation’, Dasein’s ‘profound boredom’ and worldless rocks). Harman thus knocks Heidegger from his anthropocentric high-horse and, in true clockwork orange style, makes him watch the carnival of objects unleashed by a flat ontology.

The icing on the already overly ornate cake is Harman’s analysis of the fourfold. Put simply:

sky = the revealed process and tangible forces to be reckoned  within our lives. It reveals entities which are events unfolding as processes. It is an ontological category for ontic specific things.

earth = the withdrawn serving-bearer (load bearer?) of being.

gods = who comes to presence only in the absence of what is present. The Godhead is the ‘concealed sway’, the gods are the hidden messengers which remind us to wonder at being.

mortals = things capable of death as death. It is a grasping of the finitude of all that exists. Mortals means being as being. It is for all Dasein and not only human Dasein.

Harman has finally removed any hint of ontic appropriation or absurd taxonomy of beings from Heidegger’s mysterious das Geviert (fourfold/quadrate). What this means is that we can start having serious conversations about this later work and not snigger behind his back at the obscurantist later moments of Heidegger. The result of this is very important for tool-being as it helps to remove Heidegger from the hoards of linguistic philosophers who have pounced on his later writings on language. Harman makes it clear, Heidegger can teach us as much about non-language as he can about language (if you remember, ‘silence speaks’, apparently). His position can be summed up as this: the speaking of language summons the differentiation of the onefold of the world and thing, but is not the only thing that does so, and so shouldn’t hold a higher ontological importance than non-language in the questioning of being.

Zizek is a tougher nut to crack, although he necessarily has to be ousted. He too prioritizes the human subject as that which has an ontological passport to reality. However, Harman, like a bully in a playground, pushes Zizek out the way to grab Zizek’s flashy theoretical toy: retroactive causation. Harman however wields it not to gather all the other kids in the playground to marvel at it, but strides out into a vast jungle of objects: retroactive causation is a global ontological structure. The Real is that which is the gap between what is revealed and concealed by all objects where objects fantasies the ‘what is’ of other objects in specific configurations, contrary to their unknown depths. For example, not only do I fantasize my relation to other people by thinking they are complete beings who are what they display, but objects interact with other objects, deny their depths and engages in a phantasmatic relation to that object as a projection of its own desires. Abstraction is something all objects do, it is not unique to human Dasein.

What we are left with are Harman’s best friends: Levinas, Zubiri, Ortega y Gasset and Whitehead who encircle the now born-again realist of Heidegger. They join him for what look like his first tentative steps towards an object-oriented philosophy that he is still building. I have not yet read ‘Guerilla Metaphysics’, but I’ve read ‘Prince of Networks’, so I can see how the questions he left at the end of ‘Tool-being’ have been taken up fiercely in his recent work. For me, one serious consequence of Harman’s analysis is how he treats Heidegger’s work on technology. But I will leave that for another post. In conclusion, if you want to ‘get’ Heidegger (and become very unpopular with many Heideggerian’s in doing so), if you want to be part of a new wave of exciting philosophy now optimistically called ‘the speculative turn’, read this book.