[-empyre-] Meillassoux / Harman

davin heckman davinheckman at gmail.com
Fri Jun 15 18:11:05 EST 2012


Since we are on the topic of OOO, I was wondering what the ontological
status of something like a song is?  I have to admit, I have a real
hard time swallowing a pure ontology that essentially defines the
subjective as outside of being, as a sort of on or off proposition, as
opposed to also a turning on (or is it being turned on? Or simply to
be turned or to turn?) (I am generally skeptical about a variety of
posthumanisms that go beyond a critique of a monolithic Humanism,
because I think that consciousness carries specific tendencies that
seem to fundamentally frame all possibilities for knowledge).  However
it is entirely possible that I am missing out on a discussion that has
been unfolding without me.

But here's my thought:  With a song, you have something that can be
rendered in "objective" form....  maybe an mp3 file or a sheet of
notes or record or something.  If this is what we mean by a song,
then, fine, that's an object.  But a song only really starts doing
something when it is unfolding within the context of memory and
anticipation.  It only is a song when it is listened to by a subject,
which is to say it is an object that has a singular temporal being as
it is listened to, which is distinct from how it is being listened to
and replayed even by the same user.  (And we aren't even beginning to
talk about non-recorded music).  The only way a song becomes a purely
discrete object is when it is removed from its temporal existence and
understood as a totality, and detached from an audience.  And while we
can sit around and all talk about, say, "Another One Bites the Dust,"
after we squeeze it into a conceptual file type and label it, the fact
that we can discuss something that can only mean something if is
experienced as a process AND an object within the context of a
experience, suggests that sometimes being is realized by the relations
of things, rather than the things themselves.  My suggestion is that
the ontological nature of the song cannot be described in objective
terms without missing what a song is.  Without the non-objective
component of its being, a song is just sound.  If we say, well, "Hey,
when this sound occurs, people do X, Y, and Z," we can find ourself
thinking that these effects are produced by the object, but this sort
of thought experiment only gives us half an understanding of the
object's being.  You also have to think of that song in relation to
the current context, to itself over time, to the individual and
collective experience of its audience, to the culture, etc. Again, a
great means to produce estrangement, but not the complete account of
what the thing is.  At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I can see
that it might be expedient to regard a distant moon without regard to
its historical relationship to the human.  It's useful to think of a
distant moon as a quantity of data.  But the closer we get to human
existence, the more likely we are to encounter types of things that
exist, but that cannot be understood properly as a bundle of discrete
data.  Maybe there are some texts that address precisly these sorts of

This is where I think ontology cannot simply be objective.  It must,
of course, be able to establish the differences between things, to
render those things it claims to understand in discrete form, insofar
as they can be considered as such.  On the other hand, we know that
most of what the world is made of is common and that the laws of
physics, for instance, harness discrete things under a kind of
continuity.  So, along with the conditions of radical difference that
a philosophy of objects implies, there are the conditions of radical
connectivity.  Both features are equally present, which is to say they
offer us little in the way of productive knowledge EXCEPT insofar as
we can bind and sever, cut or tie, digitize or analogize within this
framework of matter.  The 21st century loves digitizing things.....
it helps computers see the world, it helps them count us, predict our
behavior, weigh it, value it, direct it, etc.  But the digital is only
half of our existence....  the analog process is equally present in
language and cognition....  and it is just as equpped to help us
understand the world by creating categories of things and identifying
common qualities.  In "Notes on the Uncanny," Freud identifies this
struggle as productive of a kind of unsettling (the person that acts
like an object/the object that acts like a person)...  but it does not
simply have to be a "scary" process....  the move from discrete to
connected or from one into multiple can also be deeply satisfying and
reassuring of being.  If both processes are equally useful, then what
presides over these two tendencies?  Temporal consciousness that can
mobilize processes of digitization and analogy?  Another place to
think through this is in relation to a variety of attempts at
taxonomy.  At some point, a poodle has to be a poodle and a wolf has
to be a wolf, but in relation to squids, both can be canines.  We
could say that well, we are talking about layers of qualities that
enable us to categorize this object or that object.  But without the
history of the poodle we don't really know how one canine can be a
fashion accessory and the other is a part of a wild ecology, all of
which (domesticating work dogs, turning tool animals into fashion
animals, thinking about animals as people, killing wild animals,
restoring wildness, etc) radically alter the parameters of being based
on thoughts about being.  To take it back to queer thought, around the
bend of singular identities is the knowlege that such queerness does
not preclude deep relationality.  My reading is that the fruits of
this thought are an affirmation of the idea that the well-worn paths
of prescribed human behavior do not necessarily lead to earnest
relationships, it is not to reject relationship itself in favor of
individualism because capitalism has been doing this since the
transformation of labor into commodity.

Why does this matter?  I care about politics, but I am not going to
say that OOO cleaves to this or that kind of politics....  it doesn't
matter.  If a statement is discernibly true, then I have an obligation
to bend my ideas around the true statement.  And my sense, based on
very limited reading, is that OOO is trying to figure out what we can
know about being.  So, while it is worth considering the political
implications of speculative thought, I think Galloway is a bit wrong
to suggest that something is "bourgeois" or something just because
financial markets also offer a flat ontology via capital.  The only
thing that really matters is whether or not a philosophy can get us to
a mutually agreed upon knowledge of the world that can be transmitted
effectively from one context to another and continue to be useful.

I have been lazy about following this month's discussion, but I like
the idea of queering technology, of the productively broken tool.  It
is an area that has affinities with regards to my own reading of
electronic literature.....  taking Jakobson's discussion of poetics up
through Darko Suvin's discussion of "cognitive estrangement," and
looking at the ways that digital literary practices perform a similar
process with regards to instrumental languages. My thought is that OOO
is productive in that it asks us to engage in a thought experiment
about pure objectivitiy, and in doing so, reveals the critical
necessity of subjective and intersubjective aspects of human being
that are embedded in our broader assertions about being.  I think that
a lot of the "posthumanisms" try to simply go beyond something that we
have never understood in the first place: that being human is
essentially a kind of queer existence, all the much more so when we
insist that it is not. For my part, I want my human rights.  So while
I am sympathetic, generally, with many of the aims of the
posthumanists I encounter, I generally think that "Humanism" has yet
to adequately describe being human.  Like Habermas said of modernity,
it's daunting and messy and incomplete (like most things worth doing).
 Living in Norway right now (moving in a couple weeks, unfortunately),
humanism seems to be working out pretty well here.  The problems of
the world do not stem from a love of humanity, they stem from our
growing estrangment from humanity and increased clustering into
paranoid, exclusionary enclaves (Why do you think everyone watches
Zombie movies? Blasting away at legions of dirty anthropoidal morons
trying to eat what you have, a perfect gospel for post democratic
capitalism).  In a world of Darwinian evolution, we are not entirely
selected, we alter the landscape of an objective process through our
dialogue with an objective sphere that exists, that we inhabit, and
that we think about, but which does not simply constitute us.

I admit these thoughts are poorly formed....  and I am very busy these
days....  so I might not be able to reply as quickly as I would
normally.  But am very interested in these conversations.


On Thu, Jun 14, 2012 at 4:16 PM, frederic neyrat <fneyrat at gmail.com> wrote:
> Hi,
> I would like - if possible - to get one or two examples about the
> objects concerned by your statement:"all objects equally exist, but
> not all objects exist equally." I guess - but I just guess - that the
> first part of the sentence is ontological and the second part could be
> political, but maybe I'm wrong. Thanks in advance.
> Best,
> Frederic Neyrat
> 2012/6/14 Ian Bogost <ian.bogost at lcc.gatech.edu>:
>> Ok, sigh, let me try this again.
>> The "as much as" is not a judgement of value, but of existence. This is the
>> fundamental disagreement that played out in the comments to Galloway's work
>> and in the many responses elsewhere. The world is big and contains many
>> things. I've put this principle thusly: "all objects equally exist, but not
>> all objects exist equally."
>> It's possible that such a metaphysical position isn't for everyone. But if
>> your idea of "being political" is as exclusionary and deprecatory as both
>> Galloway's post and my limited experience thusfar here on empyre, then
>> perhaps you can explain why that a model worth aspiring for? Why that is
>> virtuous and righteous?
>> Ian
>> On Jun 14, 2012, at 2:57 PM, Rob Myers wrote:
>> On 06/14/2012 07:02 PM, Ian Bogost wrote:
>> As for queer and feminist formulations, I agree with the spirit of what
>> you say, but I'll reiterate my observation that SR/OOO is moving in a
>> slightly different direction—one that concerns toasters and quasars as
>> much as human subjects (note the "as much as" here). Why not take this
>> work for what it is, at least for starters, rather than for what it
>> isn't?
>> The "as much as" is precisely the problem.
>> Galloway's critique of OOO that Zach mentioned explains why:
>> http://itself.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/a-response-to-graham-harmans-marginalia-on-radical-thinking/
>> But I wouldn't lump Meillassoux in with Harman. I think Meillassoux's
>> philosophy can indeed be interesting for this debate because of its
>> embracing of contingency and possibility.
>> - Rob.
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