Prince of Networks#2: Conceptual Prehensions?

EDIT 26/07/09: Graham Harman has responded to this post on his blog. Apologies for the tone of the opening paragraph. Graham seems pretty cool, how can he not be after being a sportswriter! The opening para is for my non-academic readers who neither have an interest or the professional investment in reading, discussing and debating philosophy. I have friends and associates who read this blog and really don’t (want to?) understand what all the fuss is about. Oh, and he said very similar things regarding paranoia of US grad students in this interview.

Philosophy blog wars are a little bit lol and a little bit sad. I have little professional investment in some arguments/critiques over others as I am not a philosopher by profession. The political economy of the academic blogosphere in relation to the academy needs to be accounted for in these stoushes. Some academic have ‘professional’ blogs, others couldn’t think of anything worse. My interest in all this is purely on the level of interest: I am an enthusiast. Even though I have a PhD, I have had no formal training in philosophy at all except for some introductory units 12 years ago. I did not pass through the US grad system, which seems to produce eaither a certain kind of intellectual paranoia or a counter-movement against this paranoia. I pick up and read ideas to figure out if they seem to work. If they work then I run with them. If not, then they are mere folly.

Some parts of the philosphical blogosphere have been discussing Graham Harman’s book on Bruno Latour Prince of Networks. I have a PDF copy but it is annoying that the bookshop I buy my books from (and where I also worked while finishing my PhD) has not yet got copies in even though they were expected by June. Levi Bryant over at Larval Subjects has been following Harman and the discussion of Prince of Networks. He did a recent post on the notion of a Flat Ontology. I found Latour’s conception of a flat ontology equally problematic, and I think for any Deleuzian the notion of a flat ontology needs to be carefully qualified. Levi wrote: “What the onticologist asserts is not that there are two worlds, the real natural world and the ideal mental world of meaning, but that there is only one level: reality. Onticology thus draws a transversal line across the distinction between mind and world, culture and nature.”

I have a feeling that the so-called realists are far too preoccupied with discounting Kant’s philosophy than anything else! It is a dialectic, where there is a kernal of Kantianism implicit in their anti-Kantianism. Part of my comment was critical of the seemingly simplistic Kantian binary between mind and world. “There should be an infinite number of ‘mind-body’ splits if the mind and body are not reduced to a simple binary but the complex continuum between mind-brain-nervous system-body is taken into account and understood as a series of transformative affordances. If so, then language, perceptions and affections of all actants would need to be incorporated into a truly ‘flat’ analysis. Discounting the variable capacities for affection and perception between actants is an imposition of a human frame of reference when trying to comprehend the relations between actants.”

Graham Harman replied (on his blog) and so did Levi. Harman:

“No one is saying that it’s the same process of concrescence. Humans have language, dreams, and cognitive processes that I would never wish to ascribe to cotton or fire. But this continues to ignore the major question: is the difference between human and non-human relations to the world worthy of giving rise to a basic ontological dualism.”

I reply emphatically, ‘Yes, if by dualism you mean different kinds of multiplicities, not a simple anti-Kantian binary.’ Harman continues:

“I say No. So does Whitehead, whose term “concrescence” glen uses without signing up for Whitehead’s explicitly anti-Kantian position. The whole point of the term “prehension” in Whitehead is to put the human and non-human back on the same ontological level. Of course there are differences between humans and stones. But that doesn’t mean it’s justified to view human experience as a special rip in the cosmic fabric, incomparable to anything else.”

Well, Whitehead does have the notion of a ‘conceptual prehension’. From Process and Reality:

“Appetition is at once the conceptual valuation of an immediate physical feeling combined with the urge towards realization of the datum conceptually prehended. For example, ‘thirst’ is an immediate physical feeling integrated with the conceptual prehension of its quenching.” (32)

Why did Whitehead need a more specific kind of prehension to describe the conceptual valuation, which I would talk about in terms of affects and percepts, if the reflexive/aware entity (in this case a human, but does not necessarily have to be a human) is not different to other non-reflexive/aware entities? This is not a minor problem in Harman’s thesis.

Levi agrees with Harman’s comments, but then expresses my point much more clearly than I did and ascribes it to Harman and his similar position:

“I think one of the key points here– and I’m in a rush so I can’t develop it as much as I would like –is that OOP is not a representational realism. That is, it is not the epistemological thesis that objects themselves are like we experience them. Rather, the human-world relation is one way in which two different objects grasp one another. The manner in which a dog encounters a tree or water encounters wood is entirely different and has its own structure of translation. In other words, it seems to me that both my position and Graham’s is already making the point you’re making.”

To clarify, I was remaking one of Deleuze’s points. It is cool that the philosophical position they are developing is not one of representational realism, the ‘correspondence’ view of reality was one that Deleuze argued against. However, there is a disjunction between Harman’s response and Levi’s additional comment. The problem is with what happens to a given object when it is grasped one way and then another. For Harman it would not be the same object, I may agree, but only to the point that an object is determined by the events of which it is part. A fire does not have a conceptual prehension of quenching when it is doused with water. Is it more useful to talk about different ‘water-objects’ or a differential repetiton of the event of water as multiplicity? A dog does have a dog version of a conceptual prehension of quenching. A fish is something else again. In everything relation water is actualised as part of a different event.

Then I go off on a bit of tangent trying to remember Whitehead’s work and the function of temporality, which is problematic. I also try to come to grips with Harman’s interpretation of Latour’s conception of temporality. Admittedly, this could have been expressed better, and I have further comments already written that I shall post as a separate blog post:

Harman presents Latour (so far along in the book as I am still reading) as offering a temporality of pure alterity. ‘Time’ comes from another actant through the character of the relation, actants in themselves do not ‘have’ a temporality, they exist ‘in’ a temporality: a spatialised time the character of which is produced through the relation between at least two actants. Is this an accurate reading?

If so, then it troubles the notion of an allegedly flat ontology. Actant1 must ‘force’ actant2 to inhabit actant1’s purely external temporality. This relation is never equal as one actant (1 or 2) will be forced to ’sync’ with the imposed temporality, which does not, in turn, belong to the other actant at all, but to yet another actant which has imposed its temporality in yet another. Hence the paradox of infinite regress where nothing seems to get done because no one has any time (boom tish), it is always imposed from outside. When does the ‘happening’ happen? How can we know this if we form yet another actual occasion and another spatialised time from within which we can relate with objects? From where does the ’spatialised time’ come from? Following the argument then, actants can’t create a temporality because it is an infinite regress of temporalities handed down. To me this reads like an ontological version of Zeno’s paradox.

Levi replies:

The difficulty I have with Bergson’s understanding of temporality is that I find it difficult to see how anything could ever emerge from it. I think this is a difficulty with Deleuze’s ontology as well. We have the one-all of the virtual populated by singularities and whatnot, but it’s not at all clear why something would ever be actualized from within this pre-individual field. Similarly, in Bergson’s pure duration, it’s not clear why anything would ever become spatialized at all or why we wouldn’t just have pure and endless flux. Here I think Bachelard provides a convincing critique of Bergson in The Dialectic of Duration, though I don’t agree with his solution. Your discussion of Latour, and Whitehead for that matter, is unrecognizable to me. For Latour it is not that objects don’t have time but rather that time arises from objects or actants.

And my reply which is yet to be allowed through the moderation queue is:

I get the notion of a flat ontology as forwarded by Latour and others. The problem with existence is that it ebbs and flows, so if something is existing in a different ebb and flow to something else it seems problematic to reduce the difference in respective ebb and flows to merely purport that they ebb and flow in the same way. There is no difference in terms of the character of being in the world between things, for sure, but how they come into and out of the world depends on the rhythms of ebbing and flowing. Hence, the ontology is only flat along one dimension. I am not sure how useful it is to proclaim that this one dimension of ‘flatness’ is flat, with which I am in total agreement, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. Looking at different rhythms of becoming and the differential repetition of events, ie the bits of ontology that certainly are not flat, seems far more useful for actually thinking about and engaging with the world.

Now my response regarding time is the next blog post.

Fertile Ground

Terry Flew has posted on Marcus Westbury‘s discussion in The Age about the perceived conflict between “arts for art’s sake” and “creative industries”. Mark Bahnisch weighs in and suggests that Marcus has not “succeeded in overcoming the dichotomy [between creative industries and traditional arts] here.” I am not sure if the point is to overcome the dichotomy! In the above linked comments Marcus summarises his argument thus: “My argument is that governments should first and foremost foster the fertile ground rather than picking winners on either cultural or economic criteria.”

I think this a brilliant point and it moved me to leave a comment on Terry’s blog (now with ADDED COMMA!):

In complete seriousness the ideal situation would be to fund an entire social milieu. However much the tradarts and creinds are separated in discourse, in reality (ok, in my experience) the separation does not exist on the level of actual interaction. Creativity as such does not belong to one camp, it circulates and forms alliances. I would call them ‘scenes’ where creative types, admin staff, managers, marketers, etc. all may share overlapping, congruent or even similar professional interests but with vastly different professional competencies. Taking care of a space of communication and actual interaction is paramount.

No Man by Proxy

Yes Man is both sinister and refreshing. High concept cinema is oxymoronic by definition. High concept cinema needs to be explained in the briefest possible number of words yet be able to grab your attention quicker; there is nothing conceptual about it.

Yet, all well-crafted popular art highlights a truth or two. Germane problems of everyday life are magnified through the fantastic situations that characters find themselves in. In Yes Man Carrey plays Carl Allen a depressive and the film follows his reawakening from the social lethargy that people suffering from depression are often burdened with. In the diegetic logic of the film Allen breaks free of his depression by saying yes to everything. Zooey Deschanel’s character is the romantic interest in the film. She plays a quirky character that is the lead singer in a band called Münchausen by Proxy. Münchausen syndrome by proxy is a disorder in which a person deliberately causes injury or illness to another person, usually to gain attention or some other benefit.

If Yes Man is read symptomatically to trace the relations that in part produce Carl Allen’s funk, then the proxy for his depression is not a single person, but produced as a constellation of impersonal relations. He doesn’t say no becuase he is depressed, he is depressed because he always says no. He is a ‘no man’ by proxy for the social mechanisms of which he is part (e.g. ignoring homeless people, rejecting loans, deriving enjoyment from the spectacle at the expense of friends, etc.) In a simple sense the film sets up the power of affirmation — Yes — behind the creation of enriching and satisfying relations. Allen becomes a proxy for affirmation.

In some ways this is inspirational and I think I need to be more of a Yes man by proxy.

Harman: Prince of Networks #1

“The question is only whether we grant sufficient reality to objects when we say that a thing is not just known by what it ‘modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates’, but that it actually is nothing more than these effects. If the pragmatism of knowledge becomes a pragmatism of ontology, the very reality of things will be defined as their bundle of effects on other things.” (95)

It is unclear for me from Harman’s writing if this is meant to be a critique or a positive observation. I have a feeling that because Harman is attempting to develop an object-oriented philosophy and not an event-based philosophy he would say it is a critique. So far this is the best comment in his book, however, so I thought I better post about it.

If you are concerned with events as constituting reality, then you begin with a concern with onto-epistemological problems. I am still reading so I am not sure if Harman goes on to argue that we can somehow know reality and discuss it in any sensible fashion without relying on assumptions of what is happening beyond its effects (what with certain qualifications Deleuze would call an ‘event’). If reality is in part consituted by the relations formed with an observer, then we cannot even know the full extent of these relations let alone the ‘objects’ we form them with!

I already have about 12 pages of notes which shall form the basis of a critical review.

Book Project: I am recruiting

My current reading material leads me to believe that most of academic philosophy is careerist shit. There are a few worthy exceptions to this wide-ranging criticism, but not many. The mistake that all these authors make is that they assume their readers are in the same position as them.

So instead of simply getting onto my blog and having a whinge about it I decided a while ago to take other steps. One of the two books I am working on was meant to be a book of applied philosophy with the working title of ‘Event Mechanics’. However, instead of me writing the book on my own I want to write it with other critically-minded young-ish intellectual types. So I am recruiting co-authors for each of the chapters. After dinner with a friend on Thursday who has undergone a transformation from someone who was not really happy about the world to someone who has embraced this uneasy dimension and has reconstructed her life around this affirmation of uneasiness, I realised that there are others in the world like me and any sort of book on the subject should be a collective work that includes others. I don’t know if this will work or not! Could end in tears! So be it! Anyway, I have called this group of people the Uneasy.

So far I should have co-authors for one chapter and I am after more. Here is a list of chapter ideas from my original book with a brief description of what I imagined each of the chapters was going to be about. All of them already have content largely derived from my blog posts on the respective subjects, so long time readers will probably be familiar with the basic themes and ideas. I am open to modifying the chapters to better work with the co-author’s perspective and ideas, and certainly encourage anyone interested .

Let’s Get Down and Dirty
The introductory chapter that outlines what is forthcoming in the rest of the book and the rationale behind a book of applied philosophy.

1) War on Stupidity — need co-author(s), would love someone who works in government
This chapter is fun 🙂 The conservatives have their wars on everything, so why not have a progressive war? Stupidity is defined in terms of the structural constraints that transform very intelligent people into infantalised idiots. Case study here was going to be economics and governance. The chapter answers the question of how smart people do incredibly stupid shit on a grand scale.

2) Pedagogy as Practice –- should have co-authors for this already (my medical doctor friends!)
Current management practice has two focuses. 1) Extracting surplus value from workers by inciting workers to be enthusiastic about their jobs. This has a number of ramifications including the disolution of work time from other times and meaningless competition. 2) A punitive appreciation of error. Thinking of error as bad is stupid (see above). From a management perspective error should be a resource for improvement. The case study here is medical error. Gross negligence should be dealt with, but error is part of a learning process that should lead to better ‘outcomes’.

3) Uncolonise the Future — need co-author(s), someone from marketing would be fantastic
Our respective futures are colonised in two ways. Debt has long been a focus of critical philosophers and on a large scale debt is the model by which we suffer from a compulsion for a certain future. On a much smaller scale our attention is colonised by external expectations. We look because we expect to see. These expectations are acquired and are best understood as a form of affective programming produced by selling us a ‘world’ within which we desire to inhabit. There are two philosophical tools to be learnt here: How to slow down our perception to see and experience the world anew and how to depotentialise the false excitement of capitalist imperatives.

4) Fight for the Write — need co-author(s), not sure who would be best here
Language is a vehicle of oppression when used in the service of stupidity. How to free language and reclaim it. Kind of self-explanatory.

5) Romance as Truce — need co-author(s), maybe I should write this with an ex. That would be epic lols.
I have already written about this extensively (unsurprisingly, considering my abject failures!!). Fuck true love. Love is certainly a durable connection whereby individuals reconcile their individual perspectives of the world in which they live. For the Uneasy it is about becoming Uneasy together and facing the world, including the ‘world’ of each respective partner. Although I am a hetero kind of guy, I have been in too many weird relationship scenarios to restrict this to the classical hetronormative coupling.

6) Generations of Care — need co-authors, maybe I should write this with my parents? Not sure.
How to engage with older generations when they seem to own everything, be in all the positions of power, and have lived lives when aspirations were relatively innocent. This chapter is about the ethics of being worthy of the aging population.