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.

5 thoughts on “Prince of Networks#2: Conceptual Prehensions?”

  1. Can you clarify what you mean when you say, “I reply emphatically, ‘Yes, if by dualism you mean different kinds of multiplicities, not a simple anti-Kantian binary.’”


  2. hi scu, how’s it going? hmmmm

    The classic distinction that Deleuze draws from Bergson is of course between virtual and actual multiplicities. The Deleuze presented in Harman’s book is a brief Bergsonian version. For anyone who has read most of Deleuze’s works and the literature based on his work, they will know this is a mere taster. So I reckon that Bergson is a good place to *start* thinking about multiplicity, then to read it back through logic of sense and the fold as well as helpings of a thousand plateaus. Tracing this line of mobile concepts through Deleuze’s respective works here is what I can remember without consulting my books.

    A simple definition of the virtual is that it is an incorporeal materialism. A good example of this is the boiling point of water. The boiling point 100 degrees Celsius is a pure virtuality that when actualised as an individuated amount of boiling water as the event ‘to boil’ shifts through the possible amount of thermal energy required per ml of water, which has a mathematised ideal, but when actualised depends on the purity of the water, pressure of the container, and various rates of convection and the circulation of heated water in whatever container it is boiling in. All these things render actual the virtuality of the boiling point as the singularity in the phase space between water and steam. There is never an ideal boiling point, however, when ‘to boil’ is individuated as an actual event only a virtual multiplicity of boiling points organised around the singularity of the relation between energy levels of the elecron cloud surronding the nuclei of hydrogen and oxygen. So what though? This does not explain the virtual as an incorporeal materialism.

    The boiling point although abstract (in that the ideal is a product of the matheme, of scientists using formulas to extrapolate according to the accuracy of the instruments to produce a model of water’s specific heat capacity) is entirely real. We interact in the world in proximity to the purely virtual boiling point without there ever being an actual ‘boiling point’ except in actions and in discourse. Water is heated, boils and turns into steam, therefore actualising the boiling point. Mothers ward of injury to their young by warning them of scalding by boiling water. NGO care agencies invest in a device that uses the sun’s rays to boil water and clean it. These actualise the virtual multiplicity of boiling water in different ways without exhausting the potentiality of ‘boiling water’ to be further actualised.

    A virtual multiplicity is a term to describe the relations between all contigencies that are actualised in the world. I follow Negri and Hardt to suggest they are possibilised in sentient minds (human, etc.), this possibilisation is stratified in discourse and conditioned by poltics. There are other far more complicated versions of virtual mulitiplicities produced through non-linear temporal relations. “Do I act now because of how I shall be remembered?” This is where all the cool shit happens.

    An actual multiplicity has zero representational correspondence with the virtual multiplicity from which it emerged and into which it desolves. Not one drop of water is boiled or has been boiled the same way in the entire cosmological existence of water. An ideal of boiling water can be abstracted and backformed from the possibilisation of boiling water, but this is an assumption. Putting boiling water into practice depends on the virtual conditions of the event ‘to boil’ in question. Are you making a cup of tea for your grandmother or the lover that spent the night? Are you living in the third world where boiling water could literally be a matter of life and death or are you in the first world frustrated by boiling water’s incovenient materiality? I boil the kettle and make a cup of coffee then use the rest to clean my dishes, it is a thing in the world and can be divided or diminished.

    As soon as I get absorbed in writing blog comments and forget about my dishes, leaving the boiled water to cool in the kettle.The potentiality of actualised boiling water as boiled water is exhausted by its cooling, but the virtuality of the cooled water is refurbished with yet further virtual multiplicities of the event ‘to boil’.

  3. “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?”

    I didn´t read the book, but if this is Harman´s reading it doesn´t seem to be an accurate one. To see about time in Latour you can read this article in wich he responds a lot of the questions raised here. :

    It is specially a dialogue with humanists.
    Hope it is useful 🙂

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