Friday, 24 December 2010

Seasonal Good Wishes

Adrian at Immanence got there first with the Happy Solstice greetings of a few days ago (shame on me with my blog prefix for not doing so first), so I will simply offer good wishes to everyone over the Christmas period instead. Hope everyone enjoys this festival of medium-sized object exchange (and Christian celebration and joy too). For those of you with young children, beware the "thing-power" unleashed on the day and the importance of the phrase 'batteries not included'. A good day for meditating on the differences between sensual objects and real objects. Happy translations.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Beyond Belief

Some of you may be aware of the case of the disabled man pulled from his wheelchair by police in the recent protests (here, for footage). However, here is a BBC interview with the victim, Jody MacIntyre. Steel yourselves, any respect you may have for the BBC (I still have a lot) is likely to take a severe hit. It is quite simply beyond belief. MacIntryre acquits himself very well, the BBC journalist though ... well, I leave it to you to decide.

This inspiring piece comes from the Coalition of Resistance Conference 27th November, the speaker, fifteen year old Barnaby, talking very eloquently about his experience of the first wave of protests.

Sinks and NDEs

Not sure if Graham appreciates how his near-miss with electricity and his bathroom sink could have translated him into one of those "amusing deaths of philosophers" stories. I can just imagine the headline: "Father of Object Oriented Ontology killed by Bathroom Sink". Clearly the ultimate revenge of the Latour Litany would be to meet one's end through the mediation of the kitchen sink, but the bathroom sink is nearly as funny. Be careful Graham, you have a lot of books to write and work to do.

Monday, 13 December 2010

OOO and a Month of Militancy

K-Punk has some reflections on the past month of protests in the UK, capturing well the mood of many who are resisting the capitalist realist "logic" tearing into the fabric of our lives. The following point resonates particularly well with Object Oriented Ontology:
Trying to be part of a crowd without being kettled proves all but impossible. The cops' ontology of the crowd is at least interesting: to enter the crowd is to be responsible for anything that any member of the crowd does. You wouldn't have been hurt if you weren't there. (One is struck by the way that this is the complete opposite of the "corporate irresponsibility" that applies to the cops themselves.)

Monday, 6 December 2010

Student Protests

Just thought I'd draw attention to Bath Spa University students protesting in the BBC news, they were applying pressure to the local MP today, prior to the vote in the House of Commons on Thursday for massively increased tuition fees. A group of students have also occupied our Sion Hill Campus, they can be followed on Twitter.

Firehoses, Colanders and Lava Lamps

I have very much appreciated the coverage of the UCLA and Claremont OOO Conference events, so particular thanks are due Tim Morton (for organising the streaming and recordings of the former) and Graham Harman (for his live blogging of the latter); plus obviously thanks to the speakers and organisers for the quality of what they delivered. What were the highlights? Apart from the general creativity and rigour of the papers overall, as with a number of other people's comments on these events, I particularly enjoyed Ian Bogost's elaboration of the idea of "firehose materialism".

Why? Personally, it made me remember a quote that I had been very proud of locating and utilising in my PhD thesis. It was part of Christine Battersby's account of how one could derive form and identity from the flow of becoming. I repeat it here, drawn from her The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity, p. 101.
Patterns of fluidity can have their own forms and stabilities. Becoming does not always have to be the underside of being. Thus, to give an example ... if the speed is great enough, water through a colander in the sink can remain a stable 'form' - as long as the speed of flow into the vessel exceeds the flow of water out of the vessel. Flow, flux , becoming, do not always have to be envisaged in terms of a movement that is alien to persisting identity or to metaphysics itself.
What can I say, in 1998 we had colander materialism. I will also take a cheap and easy shot about the gendered nature of metaphysics, or preferred metaphysical metaphors and models at least: Ian reaching for the firehose, Christine for the colander. One may of course read the lava lamp as one wishes, a gloriously and knowingly kitsch image from Tim.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Neo-Pagan Witches and Speculative Realism

Just glanced at Harman's blog summaries of the talk by Isabelle Stengers and response from Donna Haraway at the Whitehead conference in Claremont. Given my research and teaching interests, I was literally blown away by these two comments:
7:34. Isabelle Stengers has learned a great deal form the abstractions of the neo-pagan witches.
8:01. Stengers. Neo-pagan witches are important, and she discusses them with her philosophy students.
Bizarre, surprising and exciting, all at the same time; perhaps the time of the speculative realist pentad is approaching.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

UCLA Comments

Just a quick note that I've very much appreciated the OOO event at UCLA being livestreamed and the talks made available. They can be found here. Many thanks to Tim Morton for organising and extending, in the McLuhan sense, this gathering so that so many of us could engage with it. I haven't been able to watch all of it yet, but it was an odd experience sitting at home, with my sleeping and rather ill one year old son, at 7pm GMT, watching Graham Harman speaking.

The only points I will make at the moment, not having taken in the whole event yet, relate to Graham's blog comments about Tim Morton here.
Morton’s also a fellow old-timer to join me on the porch in a rocking chair, born in ’68 just like me. The youngsters Ian and Levi provide the energy and exuberance, while Tim and I impart the stern, grey-haired lessons of time.
Certainly makes me feel an old under-acheiver as a child of '66 - though I was something of a late-entry to Higher Education, at the stately age of twenty six, so I'm hopeful of a late burst of productivity.

Also spotted a reference again to the possibility/challenge of a theology of OOO early in one of the Q&A sesssions, something that I am at least thinking about at the moment.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Eumerdification

I was reading through Dennett’s Breaking the Spell again yesterday and came across an endnote that raised a laugh. Dennett is reflecting on the value and uses of incomprehensibility, mystification and paradox in religion, specifically as mechanisms for bedazzling the mind (effective marketing strategies or tools of transmission), when he notes in a side comment his first secular experience of this phenomenon.
My introduction to this somewhat depressing idea came in 1982, when I was told by the acquisitions editor of a major paperback publishing company that her company wasn’t going to bid for the paperback rights for The Mind’s I, the anthology of philosophy and science fiction that Douglas Hofstadter and I had edited, because it was “too clear to become a cult book.” I could see what she meant: we actually explained things as carefully as we could.
OK, not funny so far (although perhaps evoking a knowing smile). Dennett then proceeds to explain a related story.
John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: “Michel, you’re so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?” To which Foucault replied, “That’s because in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.” I have coined a term for this tactic, in honor of Foucault’s candor: eumerdification.
Brilliant.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

OOF in Indiana

After hearing of the Object Oriented Feminism panels at the 24th Annual Conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts in Indianapolis, I just had to track down the abstracts. I suspect I will soon be pestering one or two of the speakers for copies of their papers. It would be interesting to know what Ian, or indeed anyone in attendance, made of the papers.

Object-Oriented Feminism 1: "Programs"
Chair:
Katherine Behar
Object-Oriented Feminism 1: Programs" seeks to sketch priorities and parameters for Object-Oriented Feminism. What would a program for Object-Oriented Feminism (OOF) entail? We begin from commonplace object experiences like the sociological and economic continuities Veblen noted between women and commodities, the subsequent exploitation of tools in Harman's reading of Heidegger, and our own everyday objectification as women and men–which is to say as humans–dancing cheek to cheek with Bogost's "Latour Litany" of consumables. In Haraway's term, objects are starting to look a lot like feminists' "companion species." From these coordinates, OOF undertakes to account for contemporary object practices. First, beginning with an invented etymology, we look to digital practices. By questioning the seeming thing-less-ness of software, is it possible to reverse-engineer a feminist connection to object-oriented programming? Does the model of software set the program for Object-Oriented Ontologies? Moving next to language, we ask what becomes of the subject in the turn toward object-oriented practices? What orientation describes this now evacuated point of view? Lastly, we approach the issue of relations to question both the ethics and tenor of inter- and intra-object relationships. Can deadening and objectification from within, as in the practice of Botox injections, inspire an inert object camaraderie among objectified feminists? Can OOF recuperate love?

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun.
Programmed Visions: Software and Memory
Recent legal and theoretical debates over the status of software focus on whether or not software really exists. This paper argues that these debates miss what is most interesting and important about software: its status as a “thing,” as something both concrete and ambiguous that refigures relations between subjects and objects. It traces software’s historical emergence as an invisibly visible (or visibly invisible) object, linking it to gendered (among other) hierarchies embedded in its vapory structure. Lastly, it situates the recent rise of “thing theory” and “object oriented philosophy” as themselves responses to—not simply theoretical tools necessary to examine—new media.

Patricia Ticineto Clough.
Let us Stipulate that What is Left in a Point of View is a Subject: Language and Object-Oriented Ontology
Taking up the move from the linguistic turn to the speculative turn of an object-oriented ontology, I want to revisit those psychoanalytically informed descriptions of infant-child and mother that have been a starting point in discourses about the constitution of the human as a (speaking) subject. In the move to an object-oriented ontology, how is a subject to be understood? What is the relationship of language to a subject where a subject is not only human but rather a point of view left as a virtual residue in what Graham Harmon calls “the interior of some intentional whole?” As point of view is placed outside the ocular-centric tradition and intentionality is no longer restricted to the human, rethinking the relationship of language and a subject also raises questions about bodies, desires, phantasms. Drawing on Deleuzian philosophy both to elaborate the use to which I am putting “virtual residue” and to take up the idea of series, I will suggest a different way to think of language and a subject that insists on the poetic and the vast role that Harman imagines aesthetics deserves to play in ontology.

Katherine Behar.
Facing Necrophilia, or "Botox Ethics"
Just as Object-Oriented Feminism incorporates human and nonhuman objects, it must extend between living objects and dead ones. This paper explores how self-objectifying practitioners of body art and plastic surgery incorporate inertness and deadness within the living self. First we discuss body art and plastic surgery through Catherine Malabou's concept of brain plasticity, the constitution of oneself through passive reception and active annihilation of form. Malabou associates plasticity's destructive aspect with plastic explosives and its malleable aspect with sculpture and plastic surgery. Yet seen from under the knife, plastic surgery and body art seem to make plastic objects in Malabou's full sense of the term. The plastic art object of surgery kills off its old self to sculpt a new one. This brings us to Botox, the snicker-worthy subject at the heart of this paper. In Botox use, optional injections of Botulinum toxin temporarily deaden the face, Emmanuel Levinas' primary site of living encounter. With Botox, living objects elect to become a little less lively. Botox represents an important ethical gesture: a face-first plunge for living objects to meet dead objects halfway, to locate and enhance what is inert in the living, and extend toward inaccessible deadness with necrophiliac love and compassion. "Botox ethics" hints at how Object-Oriented Feminism might subtly shift object-oriented terms. Resistance to being known twists into resistance to alienation. Concern with qualities of things reconstitutes as concern for qualities of relations. And, speculation on the real becomes performance of the real. Botox ethics experientially transforms empathy for dead counterparts into comingled sympathy. Setting aside aesthetic allure, Botox ethics shoots up.

N. Katherine Hayles.
Respondent

Object-Oriented Feminism 2: "Parts"
Chair:
Katherine Behar
"Object-Oriented Feminism 2: Parts" takes an Object-Oriented Feminist view of bodies and body parts. As objects, bodies provide a case study of how Object-Oriented Philosophy introduces an unusual, nearly topological, imperviousness to scale: objects are composed of objects. Body parts are objects, having the same value and integrity as the body objects they are arranged to comprise. This regressive modularity leads to questions about when a body object is considered a living object or a dead one, and about how body parts can be differently systematized. In Object-Oriented Feminism, bodies are programmed objects par excellence. How are bodies programmed differently when practices like cardiology construe hearts as different kinds of objects (as electrical systems or as hydraulic systems)? How do transgenic art practices challenge quid pro quo bioethics in the "art object" of a living (or dead) organism? In transgene infection, what determines how art objects and objects of science attain legal standing or ritual value? As a specific, historical, cultural object for segmenting the body, can a corset provide anamorphic insight into objects in general? And how does this complex mereology (the theory of relations between parts and wholes) intersect with practices of the self that employ the corset, like fetishism?

Anne Pollock.
Heart Feminism
When feminists theorizations of the body have foregrounded particular body parts, whether breasts or uteruses (too many to cite) or more recently brains (Wilson) and bones (Fausto-Sterling), they have rendered feminism and the body in distinct ways. What might starting analysis from the heart offer for feminism? The heart’s mechanical and hydraulic aspects have been important in articulating implicitly male bodies since early modern medicine, and the organ’s electrical aspect is also evocative. Spurred by the etymology of “articulation” – from ancient Greek, both dividing the body into parts and segmenting speech into intelligible language (Kuriyama) – this paper grapples with a heart-centered feminist articulation of the body.

Adam Zaretsky.
Object-Oriented Bioethics: gene application technology, trans-normative bioethics and posthuman(e) sacrifice of Transgenic Devices
We look at hereditary alterity as a technologically gendered art of forming bodies and as a way towards actuating beings born under the aegis of authored morphological predeterminism. Transgene infection is achieved by engineering gene cassettes/constructs considered inert until they are reincorporated into a nuclear genome beginning a hereditary cascade. Actual transgene infection involves human application of gene insertion machines targeted towards the nuclei of germ cells (vertebrate, fly, worm, plant, etc.) The apparatii include standard viral vector design as well as the microinjectors, biolistic devices, electroporators and coprecipitation transformations. Once parented by these symbolically gendered tools, the pressed gonads belong to the living world, the machinic predecessors and to the artists who drive/test/keep/display them. Unfortunately, most modified beings must be contained and some must be humanely sacrificed to protect the environment from foreign species invasion, to defend programs of society from their-selves and to reduce the suffering of living sculpture. Aesthetic cathexis towards other-body expressions point to the applicator’s desire and intention: objectified dominance (scope and poke), lust for reproductive signature (living fame) as well as the standard libidinal taboos – incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, coprophilia, zoophilia and ritual murder. In Object-Oriented Bioethics the questions pertain to the living or quashed remainders of anti-anthropocentric contact relations. Object Oriented Ontological Feminism critiques through a mix of object oriented code aesthetics, psychoanalytic object relations and contemporary feminist readings of the potential for use value in working resistance from the POV of objectification.

Frenchy Lunning.
OOF! The Corset: An Anamorphosis of Ambiguous Objects
Represented on ancient wall paintings, historical advertisements, political cartoons, famous paintings and histories of fashion, fads and femininity, the corset stands as a particular object in a closely circulating assemblage of objects that condense around the feminine and the fetish. I submit that the corset reflects and represents the same distortions, slant progressions and “miss-shaping” as does the object in the same anamorphic entangled fields of the feminine and the fetish. This paper will attempt to describe the assemblage or field of these objects and trace their circulations, progressions, and constructions through their histories, linkages, conflicts and alliances to discover or uncover the potential of a Feminist reading of object-oriented philosophy.

Ian Bogost.
Respondent

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Bloody typical

Only just spotted this post on object-oriented feminism on Graham Harman's site. Just when you think you are perhaps the only person working away at a problem, along come eight papers on the very same topic. It seems to be some law of the cosmos, governing such things as the arrival of buses in the UK (none, then three or more at once) and quite clearly academic papers and publications.

I suspect this may give some credence to the doctoral student's anxiety and belief that somewhere in the world, no matter how esoteric or obscure their topic, there is someone working away at the same question ... and they might get there first.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

On Knowing Otherwise

Tim Morton has a post on the epistemological shock of encountering Object Oriented Ontology here. I have made similar points about my own encounter with OOO just over a year ago (indeed several of my posts seem to descend into this kind of self-reflection and navel-gazing), but it's interesting to see those points being made by someone else. The sense of looking at past philosophers in a new manner and thinking philosophy otherwise than one has before is particularly intense.

For many people there is a quite reasonable uncertainty about how far OOO (and SR) can be developed, but for those of us who are working with it there is a very real excitement and optimism about the possibilities and payoff. Time, as always, will tell, but this doesn't alter the fact that I am still enjoying the echoes of my own eureka moment.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Grim Times

Well the attack on Middlesex Philosophy will soon seem like a very minor event in the face of the forthcoming massive governmental cuts in Higher Education in the UK. Cuts are likely to be about £4.2 Billion, with that manifesting as a 79% reduction in the teaching grant. It is difficult to speculate on precisely how this will work out in reality. Indeed, I find it particularly difficult to think and write about. However, there is a clear agenda to specifically target Arts and Humanities subjects, plus a move towards more of a 'free market' model, where universities can and will have to dramatically raise their fees in order to survive. The exact details will appear in the next couple of weeks, with university Vice Chancellors then having to look carefully at their emergency plans and make some difficult decisions. One can probably expect many courses and departments to close, plus an indeterminate number of universities to perish.

This is a massive trauma to Higher Education in the UK, likely to (re)create a two tier system where a university education is only a live option for the children of the rich. In the current language of 'impact' - the much debated term in research assessment reviews of late - the effects are likely to be immense, distorting the opportunities of generations to come, reducing the nation's cultural capital and resources, and economically undermining all of those industries that are largely reliant upon HE (publishing obviously springs most easily to mind). Grim times.

The only upside would seem to be a large increase in the number of independent academics with time on their hands to do the research that they have always wanted to.

[Addendum: a good summary of some of the issues, with comments, can be found here.]

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Lovelock / Lovecraft

Just reading a post by Graham Harman that was an odd experience for a couple of reasons. First, I was undoubtedly skimming the piece and was primed to see something that wasn't there. Phrases such as "scariest lecture" and "our species will have dwindled" all served to compound and confirm an initial error, namely: I read Lovelock as Lovecraft. It undoubtedly took me several seconds before all the countervailing evidence gained sufficient strength to overcome the initial mistake (e.g. talk of climate change, Lovecraft having been dead for quite some time - although this would certainly contribute to the lecture being the "scariest" Harman had been to). Plenty of good reasons why I was primed to misread this: Harman writes about Lovecraft with some regularity, I had pointed to a Lovecraft article in the recent past and this was in my visual field on my own blog, plus the key phrases. However, the switching of Lovelock and Lovecraft in my mind has provoked other questions. For example, is the Lovecraftian world of immense, impersonal alien powers somehow similar to the Lovelockian world of Gaia transformed, with humanity displaced, reduced, starving and in conflict over resources. This is certainly a theme to explore.

This neatly leads to my second reason for viewing this post as interesting. Namely, climate change, ecological degradation and species extinction are precisely some of the happy topics that I am currently immersed in, both for a book manuscript and an approaching public lecture. Yes, I agree with Harman that this is a sobering topic, and also not one that it is easy to retain in the mind for any length of time; we simply have too many effective psychological mechanisms for dodging and deflecting this kind of painful data. Wonderfully, though, this has reminded me of the Lovecraft quote that "the most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." A very pleasant convergence, I suspect I will now be testing this out in the talk.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Who Do You Write Like?

I Write Like is another of those writing analysis sites that are so addictive, enter a few paragraphs of text and find out which famous writer your style resembles. Not sure of the size of the database or the heuristics, but I tried it with a recent article and some blog entry paragraphs and got David Foster Wallace each time. Bizarre but fun.

Tragedy and Cthulhu

Given the popularity of Lovecraft in Speculative Realist circles, I thought I'd drop in a link to this piece by Mike Lobossiere 'Tragically Defining Horror' at Talking Philosophy.

As has been noted, the end of tragedy is the production of particular emotions. This is true of horror as well. As Lovecraft says, “…we must judge a weird tale not by the author’s intent, or by the mere mechanics of the plot; but by the emotional level which it attains at its least mundane point."

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

OOO and SR Round Up

It’s been a few weeks since I last blogged, and it’s also nearly a year since I first encountered Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology and started blogging, so, a round-up and provisional map for the year ahead might be in order.

Looking Back

Philosophically, I am now happy to utilise Speculative Realism as a general term of introduction, a useful banner of identity and also a good conversation starter. Academic colleagues and friends are generally familiar with some of the variations of idealism, materialism, realism etc., and adding a new term to their lexicon is usually met favourably. More narrowly, though, it is Object Oriented Ontology that I have hitched my wagon to and it is this that I have been seriously mulling over for the last twelve months.

What have I read? On the Speculative Realist front there has been Meillassoux’s After Finitude and Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, both of which warrant re-reading, but aren’t occupying my thoughts in the same manner as the Object Oriented materials. In this regard Graham Harman’s Tool-Being, Guerrilla Metaphysics, Prince of Networks and a number of articles have been significant. Prince of Networks remains for me the most accessible and illuminating of these works, although I still seem unable to retain a clear understanding of the quadruple object for any length of time (I hope that the forthcoming work on this will help, diagrams much appreciated). One can also add to this list Harman’s Object Oriented Philosophy and Bryant’s Larval Subjects blogs, the reading of which has probably amounted to a several hundred thousand words over the past year. Currently, I’m about half-way through Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which is an agreeable read. She is, in most respects, preaching to the converted, and the book is not particularly challenging as yet. My main hope is that it has political reach and impact beyond its immediate readership.

What has the effect of these works been on me? Well, somewhat awkwardly, the early upshot of encountering OOO and SR was to make me fervently wish that I had read more philosophy as an undergraduate student. As the product of a joint honours degree, comprising Religious Studies and Philosophy, followed by postgraduate specialism and subsequent University teaching post in Religious Studies, it is fair to say that I spent a lot of time during the last year regretting not having studied Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Plato, Spinoza etc. in far greater detail than I did. Fortunately, I have at least now moved past this particular regret, or, more specifically, I have modified my expectations and aims somewhat. My attitude at the moment is that I ought to simply get on working with what I do know, incorporating and combining OOO and SR with that as creatively as I’m able. There is admittedly nothing simple about this, but it has allowed me to get past what was a poorly veiled procrastination strategy and move forwards with some OOO related projects of my own. This usefully brings me to looking ahead.

The Future

The next couple of years look to be bright and productive for Object Oriented Ontology, with an outpouring of works and mini-treatises by three of its main contributors. Graham Harman has Towards Speculative Realism, Circus Philosophicus and The Quadruple Object coming out over the next year with Zer0 Books, in addition to a Treatise on Objects with Open Humanities Press a little further in the future. One could also add to this list his proposed works on the more broadly SR-related subjects of Meillassoux and Lovecraft. Levi Bryant has his own Object-Oriented magnum opus, The Democracy of Objects, with Open Humanities Press, and Ian Bogost is working away at his intriguingly named OOO project, Alien Phenomenology. On top of this, there is the volume edited by Bryant, Srniek and Harman, The Speculative Turn, which looks to draw together a number of very interesting articles and perspectives.

All in all, an exciting period. One can expect the OOO positions to be elaborated and formalised further during this time, although this has already been happening through the growing network of blog entries and responses over the last couple of years. There is a part of me that wants to postpone my writing until I have a better sense of what Bryant and Bogost will contribute, and also what Harman will clarify in the Quadruple Object. However, this is just more procrastination. I suspect I will need to adapt on the hoof, so to speak, to the OOO materials emerging over the coming year. I’ve already noted that I will be attempting to combine OOO with what I know, rather than trying to read my bodyweight in Hegel, Kant or Leibniz, regretting degree choices from the early 1990s, or simply attempting to create OOO from the ground up. The heavy conceptual and metaphysical groundwork of OOO I happily leave to the triad of Harman, Bryant and Bogost. My aim is to interweave my own interests and projects with an OOO informed approach. This is somewhat tricky, in terms of the current constraints imposed by institutional and personal life, but I’m pushing forwards with some renewed commitment now.

I already owe Speculations and/or Hypatia an article on feminism and OOO, drawing figures such as Braidotti, Grosz and Haraway into a conversation. This could easily develop into a larger project, as I already have some extensive notes dedicated to feminism, metaphysics and technology (notably the GRIN technologies of transhumanism), but time will tell. The two major projects that I am working towards, though, are somewhat different. The first began as a critical response to post- and transhumanism, hence the aforementioned feminist notes. It has, though, subsequently mutated into something rather different. Drawing on more and more of my teaching materials, it has a acquired a broader critical perspective and currently fits firmly within the genre of global threats analysis - or “Is this our last century?” - of the kind that Levi Bryant touches upon here. It begins with an overview of likely global threats we will face in the next century and then proceeds to an analysis of the maladaptive psychological mechanisms, behaviours and beliefs that render it difficult for us qua humans to respond effectively to those threats. I retread some of the points made by Clive Hamilton in Requiem for a Species in this analysis, but my main targets are the versions of optimism and hope embedded in certain forms of humanism and religion, notably the hopes of transcendence through technology at work in transhumanism and the hope of eschatological and soteriological transcendence in Abrahamic religions. Both of these I argue to be deeply problematic in terms of not allowing humans, as a species, to respond effectively to particular types of danger and threat.

My second work in progress is located firmly within what may be identified as applied OOO. I will probably write more about this when I have secured a contract, but I’m excited about being able to philosophically unpack one particular version of what Bennett would call “thing-power” in world history. I’m doing some interesting interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work here and exploring collaboration with colleagues in other Humanities subjects. I’m not quite sure about the size of this project yet: I can foresee a workable succinct version that could fit within the Zer0 Books short book series, but I can easily envisage a far more expansive work that could hit eighty thousand words. Unfortunately, this is a decision that I need to make soon.

Nonetheless, an interesting year in OOO behind me and a particularly interesting one ahead.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Middlesex Latest

There is an update here of the campaign to save Philosophy at Middlesex. Nothing too hopeful, I'm afraid. There was no official response to the UCU ultimatum, which was not particularly surprising, indeed I would have been very shocked if there had been a reply. UCU will now move into official dispute with a timetable for industrial action. Unfortunately, the procedures for official disputes can be a remarkably slow, which typically suits management just fine.

Also, on the topic of time, universities in the UK will soon be moving into the summer vacation and it will be necessary to maintain this and other campaigns - without many students and staff - over this period. Again, this is all good for management. Indeed, it is a remarkably common practice in education to deliver news of closures, job losses, restructuring etc. during this particular window of time. The logic is simple, academics are usually at their lowest ebb at this point, usually after a year of teaching and several weeks of marking, and may suddenly find themselves unable to contact colleagues or other parties in order to respond to such news. Moroever, with regard to camapigns such as Middlesex, people typically cannot sustain interest and outrage over the long term, people forget, campaigns lose momentum and organisations falter. I always have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I am about to enter this liminal period at the end of the academic year.

The Middlesex update also notes the removal of the "all staff" option on their e-mail system. Again, this is I suspect quite common practice and I wonder at how many universities around the UK this has happened. There is usually a plausible rationale, but one can also read it as a divide and conquer strategy, a movement to limit the ability of staff to communicate. Depressing stuff.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Mother of All Endorsements

I'm just about half way through my three week end of year block of grading and not finding much time to monitor the blogosphere. I did, however, spot the blurbs for Graham Harman's two new books with Zero Books, Towards Speculative Realism and Circus Philosophicus, and was dazzled by one of the endorsements. Olivier Surel in Actu Philosophia notes of Towards Speculative Realism, "The style of Harman often evokes that of a William James joined to the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft." Now that is an evoactive fusion of styles.

Friday, 28 May 2010

"I'm Spartacus"


The latest developments at Middlesex are glorious. In an effort to help management identify and prosecute those "guilty" of occupying the campus buildings, the students and staff have usefully supplied names and photos.

More power to you, I wasn't with you, but there is a part of me that wants to subvert this managerial desire to identify and prosecute.

[Addendum: not wishing to undermine the achievements of those who did occupy Middlesex, but if every student and member of staff at Middlesex held one of these placards, well then management could happily suspend/crucify everyone for daring to question the rule of Rome ... hmmm, sorry, I'd better drop this analogy. Anyway, if they suspended all their students and staff there would be no more possibility of dissent and they could just sit back and collect all that RAE money for the next three years]

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Middlesex Madness Continues

The insanity at Middlesex continues with several Philosophy staff and students now being suspended from the university. Leiter and others have commented on how such treatment, given these particular circumstances, would be met with civil lawsuits in the US. The question then asked is whether this could work in the UK?

Usefully, this is precisely the point at which the neo-liberal, economic model of Higher Education can be subverted and potentially 'comes a cropper'. Increasingly students are referred to as consumers and, as anyone who watches prime time evening television knows, consumers have rights. As educators we may frequently despair at the managerialism that treats the student qua consumer as always right, rendering curriculum design and delivery as a kind of popularity contest meets entertainment exercise. But the thing that management fears is the students who take their complaints and dissatisfaction as consumers in a legal direction. The safety net is that the UK doesn't, as yet, possess quite the culture of complaint that is embedded in the US, plus UK students tend, and I emphasize tend, to be politically and socially demotivated to do this. That said, we do have a National Union of Students and they can potentially be remarkably helpful and empowering to students. I hope that the battle soon shifts to a level that the governors and management at Middlesex can understand.

As a corollary to the last point, while the international academic condemnation of the decisions at Middlesex has been heart warming, I have a certain pessimism about the management's engagement with that condemnation. Namely, the management has already revealed itself to have decoupled itself from the values of scholarly debate and the research ethos of a university. I would strongly suspect that the management worldview of Middlesex is now almost entirely incommensuable with that of the academics who have written letters of regret and complaint. One can imagine management saying 'Who is this Zizek or this Nussbaum anyway?' before consigning their letters to a folder to count simply as two more letters amongst many. The qualitative content of these letters is unlikely to matter. One may easily view management as a paradigmatic withdrawn object here. The causes and relations that will likely connect to it are, sadly, legal and economic ones, and even they are unlikely to touch the qualities of a university that matter most to us.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Not-shocking at all

Graham Harman makes a point about the most shocking feature of the events of the Middlesex closure, namely the RAE money earned by Philosophy continuing to accrue and benefit the university for many years to come.

I suspect that many who are familiar with British HE and the distribution of RAE funds internally within universities do not find this shocking at all. Capitalist realist business as usual.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Middlesex Closure


Difficult to know what to contribute to the righteous fury over the closure of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University. Check out the updates and background at Infinite Thought, sign up to the Facebook group and the petitions; more importantly, write to the main players with influence at Middlesex. Do what you can because, in my view, Middlesex has a better fighting chance than most. The logic of capitalism is grinding its way through HE at the moment, intensified and accelerated by the recent recession.

What more can I say without channeling some deep pessimism? Wading through the comments of philosophers at Leiter Reports, I was fortunate enough to come across Grahame Lock's wonderful post. I find myself in near total agreement.
The broad lines of the above comments are of course true.
But what explains this "madness"? I am terribly sorry to use the following old-fashioned term, and it certainly involves simplification, but I think it is at least more adequate than any new-fangled vocabulary: in a word, what explains the madness is the logos of capitalism, in its consequent form.

Capitalism is concerned, in its pure variety, solely with quantifiable results, quantified in the last instance in money terms. Thus all other than such quantifiable criteria of success are deemed to be eliminable: that is, all intrinsic values (if this short list is not too "edifying": beauty, learning, morality, even the quest for truth, except in the instrumental sense) are "for the chop".

Many (but not all) academics usually, at some level, still believe in the intrinsic value of scholarship and learning. Thus they do not fit into the new world of British (or western) "education policy". So they are eliminable too, to be replaced by a new, conformist generation of manipulable academic technicians. All government audit and control instruments, like the QAA, RAE and REF, are oriented towards the slow but sure, even if de facto inefficient, production of this result.

Existing academic postholders express their disagreement and anger in reactions like the above. However, theirs is a rearguard action, for an evident reason: power in western society is not in their hands.

Up to fairly recently, say a quarter or half century ago, many liberals (in the broad sense of the term) were not consequent: they believed in the market, but made exceptions, like the family, or art, or music, or religion ... or the universities. This exceptionalism has largely come to an end. The political and business classes are ever more characterized by a philistine mind-set. (There are some admirable members of these classes who still support such intrinsically valuable activities, but e.g. fund-raisers will know how difficult it is to locate them.)
What is happening at Middlesex will therefore be repeated elsewhere, even though we do not know the exact timetable, which depends on many contingent factors, and will take some time to come close to being fully implemented.

There are still niches, and many colleagues fighting to keep them intact. This is a marvellous thing. But they are fighting against the Zeitgeist, which is (broadly) a spirit of barbarism. Many "deans" and the like, those who implement particular plans of destruction, are agents or bearers of this Zeitgeist, but otherwise, for this reason, of very little interest. As the system demands, they too are interchangeable.
What to conclude?

Indeed, what to conclude, but also, what to do?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Weird Fiction and Unheimlich Bedtime Stories

Just resumed made-up bedtime stories with my five year old daughter after a considerable hiatus. We migrated to book stories (a) because dad was feeling increasingly exhausted and unimaginative at the end of the working day and (b) because said daughter was hijacking the stories with ever greater regularity. To be fair her embellishments were sometimes fun and very creative, and I was often more than happy to work them in to the stories, but they were becoming the norm and added to the storytelling being a high energy investement. Anyway, we returned to them this evening with a visit to her favourite characters and their newest adventure - and boy did she add some scary elements to the mix. Basically we had the set up of the main protagonists, two princesses (mother and daughter), and their magical but morbidly obese cat, being roped in by the King of the Faeries to rid Faery Town of some horrible monster created by goblin magicians; moreover, said monster was hiding in the sewers and had been abducting faeries from the town for several weeks.

What did my dear daughter add to the mix? Here are some unprompted elements:

On what the monster might be like: "The monster is made of all the goblins ideas ... and even nastier ideas than they can think of, all the nasty ideas in the world and nastier than the whole universe."

I was scared. Personally, I wouldn't like to see my daughter's Monster-X (see Prince of Networks for that particular reference).

On the age of Faery Town: "Older than God." Brilliant.

On what might be happening: "The goblins are getting all the faeries magic. They are getting better and stronger every day." A classic of fantasy literature.

I fully accept that parents can be easily impressed by their children's accomplishments, but the imagination of the young can be a powerful thing. We may praise the unheimlich of Lovecraft, the weird fiction of Mieville and others, the small town horror of King, but just tap in to the creativity and imaginations of some children, absolutely amazing material.

P.S. It can be mundane and very practical too. She was quite clear that the goblins would have special clothes to keep them dry and clean in the faery sewers.

Immanent Response to Relations

Adrian at Immanence has made a careful response to Graham and my posts on relationality. I duplicate his response to my points below.
Moving on to Paul's post: Having some familiarity with the kinds of relational and processual holists he is describing -- Goddess thealogians, Gaian pantheists, Neo-Pagans and New Paradigm thinkers, et al. -- I can sympathize with his conundrum, which he expresses poignantly and, in the following passage, evocatively:

"It is one thing to bask in the warmth of an intellectual hot-tub of Heraclitean flux, asserting that all things are transitory stabilities in a cauldron/continuum of becoming. It is quite another to explain how the things themselves, qua transitory stabilities, do relate to one another and/or how they do form parts of larger complex wholes. Goddess feminism, for example, was strong on the metaphors and models of becoming, but remarkably weak on the actual nature of the mereological relationships themselves."

What surprises me about this -- though I'm guessing that Paul's frustration arises out of a very specific and personal academic trajectory, so I don't mean to be hard on him here -- is that he would have expected detailed explanations of "precisely how things relate to one another" from theologians (or thealogians), ecosophists, and spiritual activists, and not from the many social scientific and humanistic accounts of such relations -- detailed post-constructivist (or co-constructive, material-discursive) analyses of a tremendous array of socio-technical-political-ecological ensembles, all of which draw on relational and processual theories in nuanced and empirically oriented ways to make sense of real-world processes and events.

Adrian is appropriately sensitive to where my frustrations emerge from here, although I certainly don’t mind being called on these issues or the kind of hard questions that he generates. My main answer to the question of why ‘theologians (or thealogians), ecosophists, and spiritual activists’ ought to be doing this complex mereological and metaphysical work is quite simply that many/most of them don’t need to be. However, I do have a more substantial argument, that, in religious terms – basically in terms of long-term survival and growth and applicability of religions beyond a local level – there will be a need for some members of a religion to do this. Once a religion starts to deploy a set of concepts at a suitable level of complexity, there is a need or responsibility, and I recognise this may be contentious, for further systematization. That is, a particular kind of philosophical work ought or needs to be done, at some point in a religion's development, if it is developing its models and concepts of reality beyond a certain point and if it is committed to growth/survival.

To begin listing names here is probably unnecessary, and I've named many of them here on this blog before; but a casual look through the leading theoretically sophisticated journals in human geography, anthropology, science and technology studies, environmental history, and a host of other fields, should be enough to indicate what I mean. What one finds in that literature is reference to thinkers like Latour, Foucault, Haraway, Deleuze, Guattari, Harvey, Lefebvre, Massey, Law, Stengers, Massumi, Thrift, Maturana and Varela, Luhmann, Connolly, and others, all of whom can be reasonably considered "relational" thinkers. What one doesn't find (yet) in the vast majority of that literature is any reference to object-oriented ontology. While Harman, Bryant, et al. may begin to infiltrate that literature over time -- and more power to them -- comparing them to Goddess thealogians as a source for "explaining precisely how things relate to one another" seems like comparing apples with tulips.

I recognise the value of many of these theorists of the relational and the processual. Moreover, I think it is of value for any systematic religious thinkers – whether Pagan, New Age or otherwise – to draw upon and adapt their theories in order to aid in the articulation of their own positions. My main point would be, though, that some of these figures provide better conceptual resources for some of these religions than others. For example, my suspicion is that Object Oriented Ontology will provide better resources for Goddess feminism than some others. However, to be honest, I have now moved some distance from the thealogical commitments and I am working on the metaphysics for the sake of my own intellectual curiosity.

Paul's question “have you ever actually seen a relation?” could be answered with the rejoinder, “Have you ever actually heard an object? Smelled or tasted one?” Seeing is a relation. Is it possible to see anything outside of a relation? Failing to recognize that the thing you see is something that you see seems to me a fairly serious error.

I will hold my hands up to this one and simply acknowledge that the question has a largely pedagogical and rhetorical function. The question prompts further reflection and opens up a number of interesting avenues of enquiry; although it was the product of a certain grumpiness with regard to some overly vague account of relations in a first year philosophy class.

Adrian continues with some very useful commentary which I can't quickly do justice to:
This is not to suggest that we cannot say anything about things in themselves; it's just that relations are fundamental. There's the relation between myself and the words I'm typing on the screen in front of me, but each of these is already a manifold of relations -- relations which include my nervous system, fingers tapping a set of plastic keys, the English language, computers and electrical cables spanning the world, people sitting in front of some of those computers who read the same books as I and ponder similar topics, and so on. The fact that each of these is something specific -- my nervous system, the English language, a particular keyboard and monitor (and a particular model of keyboard and monitor) -- doesn't mean that it's not a product of a series of (specific) relations unfolding in time, coming together in specific ways, coming apart in others, and working together for a while as long as conditions allow it.

The same sort of thing can be said of the impact of the La Garita Caldera volcanic eruption 28 million years ago, or of the damming of a lake by a family of beavers. The volcano, the eruption, the dam: what is each of them apart from the forces that move through them, except the singularity, the signness, that we observe and name as such? The "volcano" is our name for something, it is not the name nor the perception that a flock of geese or a stream of lava have of that same "object," though they may perceive and reckon with something that overlaps with our "volcano." The "objects" of the world are our objects; other subjects have their own objects, with the two categories slipping over into each other in every moment, and no wishful thinking will eliminate all that subjectivity and chiasmic interperceptivity from a world that is bursting with it.

What exactly is gained by calling these things "objects" that isn't already there when we call them by their (everyday, human-given) names and recognize their temporary, processual, and at the same time very specific nature? The latter is what Latour tries to do when he makes sense of the (planned but never built) Aramis transportation system in Paris or the pasteurization of France; it's what Haraway does with cyborgs and primatologists, what Cronon does with Chicago and White with the Columbia River, Tsing with Indonesian rainforests and Whatmore with global wildlife networks, Helmreich with microbial oceans, Protevi with the Columbine massacre and Hurricane Katrina, and DeLanda with the last thousand years of germs, languages, and cities. It's what I tried to do with the red rocks of Sedona and green hills of Glastonbury (and with some of the same thealogians and eco-Gaians that Paul got frustrated with). These studies aren't definitive, but unless one puts an object in its context, one doesn't know the object; and when one does, that object becomes a meeting-point of so many other processes and flows. It's still a point, and I appreciate OOO's question, which seems to be something like "but what is the invisible underside of that point?" Or "once you've delineated all the processes and flows that make up a point, what's left over?" Their answer is different depending on the theorist, but what they all seem to insist is that it isn't "nothing." That's interesting to me, and if their ontologies tell us something important that's missing from the accounts we get from relational (and other extant) theories, then they'll have gained their place at the table of useful tools for understanding the world.

But maybe the point, for a philosopher, is that all of those empirical studies of real-world phenomena are based on one or another kind of philosophical hodgepodge (as most are), and that the task of producing a pure and perfect ontology still lies ahead of us. Since that's not really my game, perhaps it's unfair for me to be critiquing it. I would like object-oriented ontology to be part of the game I'm playing, part of the palette of ideas I can bring to the task (in my case) of theorizing the intersection of cultural and environmental changes as these occur in the world today. I hope its tools will be useful for that. But I don't see any reason to ditch the relational ones that have already been well honed.


Swift response is that I have no wish to throw the relations out of the window, it just seems to me that the contexts in the above examples can be considered objects too. This, though, warrants far more work.

I also apologise to Adrian, as I had forgotten just how much work he had done on the Pagan, New Age and other ecospiritualites (particularly Glastonbury, which is on my doorstep).

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Dark Vitalism and Worlds Without End


I am rather attracted to Ben Woodard’s ongoing theorization of a weird nature, complete with slime mechanics, dark vitalism and other matter(s) over at Naught Thought. At many points his work converges with the metaphysical framework that I spent my PhD elucidating, albeit with the sacred/goddess taken out. I find it particularly intriguing in its usage and synthesis of Schelling and others, plus its tropes of a nature that is unheimlich, wild and ontologically strange. I tend to diverge, though, on the topic and usage of nihilism. This is for reasons that are broadly cosmological in character. I read Ben’s nihilism, perhaps mistakenly, as reliant on a cosmological extinction or omega point (e.g. big crunch, heat death, whatever), and it is this with which I disagree. My own preferred cosmological model is that of the maternal space-time of the physicist Andrei Linde. His work theorises an ongoing/eternal process of cosmic inflation, wherein universes emerge, bubble-like, from the space-time of other universes/bubbles (see here and here). This is a framework within which all talk of origins and teleology becomes remarkably problematic. Now I fully accept that one may still speak meaningfully of the death of our own universe in some deep time frame (not upsetting, in this sense, Brassier’s thesis that is grounded in the certainty of “our” own extinction). However, it seems quite reasonable to conceive of a vitalism, similar to the one that Ben is working with, that stretches beyond the horizons of our own universe’s space-time. I won’t dabble with past and future tenses here, suffice it to say that, in Linde’s cosmological framework, it seems plausible to contend that it is simply universes all the way down and also all the way up. Ben’s version of vitalism just doesn’t seem to warrant the description of dark in this cosmological framework, except in the sense of some dark, Kali-like mother who is both fecund but also remarkably destructive. Fair to say that I may have misunderstood the nature of Ben’s nihilism, but it seems more plausible to me to posit a cosmic natality – as a metaphysical principle – wherein vitalism is the crystallising, emananting and processual spread manifesting itself through/as infinite space-time bubbles/universes. This would be a vitalism that propagates worlds without-end and certainly does not seem to warrant the prefix dark. Now, of course, whether one can specify metaphysically what this vitalism means in more detail is where Ben’s work gets interesting. I just don’t happen to get the nihilistic edge of his work in progress.

Relations, Objects and Pendulum Swings

There is an interesting debate going on between Adrian Ivakhiv at Immanence, Graham Harman and Levi Bryant. This is my third attempt to write a response to this exchange. It has been difficult largely because the debate goes to the heart of my thoughts on Object Oriented Ontology, and also because there is considerable overlap between Adrian’s interests and my own. My ecological philosophising is probably a little more nuanced by gender and religious issues than Adrian’s, but I suspect we share a great deal. Significantly, though, I seem to have shifted on the topic of relationism in the last year or two. While I would in the past have been firmly located in the metaphysical camp of those who Graham characterises in Prince of Networks as concerned with a ‘primal unified womb of becoming’ (in addition to Heraclitean flux, relational networks and Whiteheadian processes), I have become increasingly unhappy with this stance. I’ll endeavour to elucidate with some context as it may help clarify my current position.

My main published work, Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy, was a slightly revised version of my doctoral thesis, and it was this that set the agenda for much of my early and rather undeveloped metaphysical speculations. Briefly put, the work was a philosophical reading and elaboration of the largely implicit metaphysical worldview of Goddess feminism. This religious movement grew out of second wave feminism during the 1970s and was a largely grass-roots phenomenon, the product of women (and some men) who were disillusioned with or repelled by patriarchal and mainstream religiosity and were interested in exploring and/or creating alternative pro-female and/or feminist modes of religion and spirituality. The movement gave rise to a disparate number of religious collectives, ideas and practices, entailed a syncretistic appropriation of goddess myths, narratives and symbols from across the world and history, incorporated and formed alliances with contemporary paganism and slowly articulated models of deity that were severely at odds with the monotheistic norm. My concern was with the nature of these models of deity and their ultimate coherence in metaphysical terms. More specifically, while recognising that the Goddess movement was rather suspicious and critical of the intellectualism of the academy (and particularly philosophy), I was interested in systematising and constructively elucidating the reality claims being developed within the movement. These reality-claims were intriguing, to me at least, specifically because they were formed from a synthesis of contemporary science (ecology, Gaia theory, chaos theory), religious models of relationality and becoming and a range of feminist political and ethical commitments. It was an attractive cocktail of ideas and values, and one that I had considerable sympathy with. The thesis ended up being a half-way house between a work of analytic philosophy of religion and a form of constructive thealogy, although it also produced what I hoped might be some useful resources for feminist metaphysics

The major limitation of the work was that, while it was possible to demarcate many of the beliefs and claims of the movement in a broadly coherent fashion, many of the details clearly needed to be worked through with greater rigour than was possible within the remit of a doctoral thesis. It was one thing to identify and stretch out some analogies between the organicism in Gaia theory and that of the cosmos as a pantheistic unity, or else establish some plausible links between the nature of ecological networks, chaotic systems and processes of flux. It was quite another to specify how they might work or fit together in the details. I was always aware of this oversight, but I was also quite confident that I was doing something exciting, innovative and original. Becoming rather than being, chaos and complexity, ecological networks, process thought, it all seemed challenging to the analytical philosophy that I was most familiar with, and also relevant to the future too. Except, that is, post-completion, somewhat distanced from the main Goddess feminist orientation of the thesis, I came to realise that I wanted to get the metaphysics to work; and I was painfully aware that this wouldn’t be easy. There followed several years in an academic post at a teaching-led university and a hiatus from the kind of systematic speculation and analysis needed to move this metaphysical project forwards. My thinking, in this regard, simply stalled.

Fast forward then to the summer of 2009 when I discovered speculative realism and object oriented ontology and also enjoyed some much needed time for thinking and research. What did I know at this point? Basically, I knew that I wasn’t happy with the kinds of relationism and relationality that had been alluded to in my previous research. Frankly, I was confronted with a relationality that lacked content and specificity. While one may boldly lay claim on the pervasiveness of relational networks (often, for many of the people I was reading, misleadingly reduced to the soundbite: “everything is connected”), many of those relations just do not seem to make a difference, or rather a significant difference, to the way the world operates. Now one may of course play the chaos theoretical card at this juncture and point towards the Lorenz “butterfly effect”. But again, the very fact that small perturbations in a suitably complex system can have long range and large scale unpredictable effects, does not permit an anything goes attitude to the contents and/or causal processes of the world. The moon does not turn to cheese at the drop of a hat. My movements typing this blog entry do not impact on the tides of a chlorine ocean on a planet seventy three light years away.

I should state that I am not pushing this view on Adrian, or indeed process relational philosophers who can offer more nuanced accounts of relationships at different ontological scales. Indeed, Adrian notes very clearly in one of his recent entries that “all relations aren’t the same.” I am simply venting my frustration at those religious and other advocates of relationism who do, maximally, come close to treating relationality in the aforementioned anything goes, or all relations are cosmically significant, manner; or else, minimally, gloss over or ignore the problems of explaining precisely how things relate to one another. It is one thing to bask in the warmth of an intellectual hot-tub of Heraclitean flux, asserting that all things are transitory stabilities in a cauldron/continuum of becoming. It is quite another to explain how the things themselves, qua transitory stabilities, do relate to one another and/or how they do form parts of larger complex wholes. Goddess feminism, for example, was strong on the metaphors and models of becoming, but remarkably weak on the actual nature of the mereological relationships themselves. There certainly remain many elements of my earlier engagement with feminist philosophy, paganism and process metaphysics that I want and aim to take forwards, but the vagueness of some relational rhetoric has made me rather grumpy of late. [Indeed I seem to have extended a Humean scepticism about causes into the realm of relations and networks; as I asked one student recently: “have you ever actually seen a relation?”]

Usefully, though, Object Oriented Ontology seems to have cut through some of my problems, permitting the articulation of a position that coheres and converges more comfortably with my intuitions and current stock of conceptual resources than the alternatives. First, one engages with and speculatively theorises the objects of the world. These objects are never wholly knowable, but, nonetheless, exhibit an autonomy that makes sense of our encounters with and experiences of them. Second, one theorises the relations. Objects are not hermetically sealed, although much of the interesting stuff takes place inside them. But the relations that arise between them are always moderated/mediated through a third party. This democratised, vicarious community of objects, within which all objects possess a significant sense of autonomy and identity, just seems a more productive avenue of enquiry to me than the ‘relations all the way down’ or ‘transitory stabilities’ approaches. If this is indeed a penduluum swing away from relationism, I seem to be riding it - although I would contend that I have good reasons for doing so.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Atheist Barbie

Just spotted this over at Feminist Philosophers and the point of origin BlagHag. It certainly raised a chortle, particularly as I have been immersed in the world of Barbie for the past couple of years thanks to my five year old daughter. My male feminist consciousness is always a little stressed out by toys such as this, and it is always nice to subvert them and the gender stereotypes they support where we can.

Atheist Barbie is, I should note, a response to the Reverend Barbie, the creation of Reverend Julie Blake Fisher, an Episcopalian priest from Kent, Ohio. I don't have any particular problems with either, save for the body politics underpinned and policed by each. I'm just waiting for Dianic, Lesbian sepratist, Wiccan Barbie. More work for the Barbie Liberation Front and Barbie Liberation Organization.

[Addendum: a quick Google search reveals quite a few Wiccan Barbies out there, I just doubt that there are any Dianics]

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Dundee, Dragons and Hegelianism

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the ‘Real Objects or Material Subjects’ Conference at Dundee, a victim of what myself and a colleague jokingly call academic and domestic realism. It seems to have been a particularly good conference, though, and I have been enjoying some of the reflections of the attendees, particularly here, here, here and here (and becoming increasingly nuanced here and here). I suspect I would have been playing catch up and join the philosophical dots for much of the time, like many HE academics in the UK today there seems to be little time for actual reading and research and we frequently feel a little distanced from some of the materials. I remember just smiling and nodding at one of my professors when he advised me to do as much reading as I could while I was a postgraduate, because, he explained, there would be little time for it if I got a job as a lecturer - how right he was!

Anyway, Hegel seems to have loomed large at the conference and it is a long time since I read any. Even when I was an undergraduate it tended to be the young Hegelians who I was reading, most notably Feuerbach and Marx, rather than the man himself. One of few notable phrases I could remember about Hegel was that of the Prussian King Frederick William IV when he courted Schelling to ‘battle the dragon seed of Hegelian pantheism’. It has always stuck with me because of an ongoing interest in pantheism. But I include it today (a) because the dragon seed of Hegelianism is clearly still strong (Zizek perhaps being its leading exponent and incarnation) and (b) self-referentially, because it links so nicely with my previous post.

Come to the Dungeons of Dundee and fight the Dragon seed of Hegelianism, with that kind of advertising I would have been there in a shot.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Dungeons, Dragons and Philosophy

There are few things more powerful than nostalgia. Despite the weight of admin, marking and child induced sleep deprivation, that has kept me away from blogging for some time, Graham Harman's recent posts on Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy have stirred me to emerge. Along with many others, I can confidently say that few things exerted such a profound influence on my adolescent, teenage and later intellectual development as roleplaying games. Discovering D&D in 1977, with the Basic Boxed Set, opened a whole world of imagination, creativity and socialisation to me. I had recently read Lord of the Rings and my favourite section therein was the Fellowship’s journey through the mines of Moria; the discovery of D&D a few weeks later, via a miniscule advert in the Model Soldier magazine, seemed fated. There followed many years of making friends with people I would certainly never have met otherwise (plus probably fifteen plus hours per week of social gaming for many years), discovering countless other role playing systems and games (including that RPG of SR’s favoured fantasy genre: Call of Cthulhu) and an exploration of the joys and frustrations of writing and world-making. It is the latter two of these that are probably the most philosophically significant.

The writing is the easiest. I probably wrote hundreds of thousands of words through my teenage years for role playing games such as D&D. The work I produced for school was minimalistic at best, but D&D and other RPGs motivated me to write, and write extensively; a source of some despair for my teachers when my parents revealed this fact to them. For this alone I owe the game a considerable debt of gratitude with regard to my subsequent academic life.

The world-making, though, seems to have been a vital developmental step in my movement into philosophy, religious studies and – specifically – metaphysics. World-making in RPGs seems to demand certain philosophical virtues and I can, for example, still very clearly remember obsessing over such diverse topics as cosmology, economics, history, geography, politics and theology in an effort to create comprehensive and coherent fantasy worlds. Indeed I can think of very few other activities that converge with the commitments of the philosopher qua metaphysician as closely as those of the gamesmaster of a role-playing game. While I have heard the argument that all RPG GMs are frustrated authors and novelists, I suspect that many of them are would-be philosophers too. A corrolary of this is probably also apparent in the gamer's critical stance towards the RPG systems themselves. Debates over “realism” versus “fun” and “playability” circulated in many of the RPG support magazines during the 1980s (and probably continue to do so today), and I can remember grappling with those issues for some time. The alignment system in D&D, for example, worried and irritated me. The idea that personalities and characters could be essentialised along the lines of lawful, chaotic, good and evil always seemed, to cite Mackie, “queer” to me - and this was one of the first things that I eventually felt confident enough to move beyond.

There was also something distinctly object-oriented about early Dungeons and Dragons, albeit in a rather worrying sense, that is the whole emphasis on acquiring objects/things (e.g. wealth, artefacts, experience points) by encountering and overcoming other objects/things (e.g. monsters, traps, dungeons), all of which was enabled with the help of other objects (e.g. miniatures, the wonderful dice (Platonc forms anyone?), maps, rule books, character sheets), and intentionally contained with the imaginations of the particpants.

Perhaps more later, time to go and teach now, although appropriately the seminar topic is: Are Pratchett, Rowling and Tolkien religiously significant?

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Haraway and Object Oriented Ontology

I’m pasting some elements of Levi Bryant’s response to my proposed paper on Feminist Metaphysics as Object Oriented Ontology below.
In the world of cultural studies and the humanities, I think there have been a number of privileged sites that have been directed towards bucking the primacy of anti-realist or correlationist thought than other disciplines by virtue of the nature of the objects that constitute their object of investigation. These theorists have not, of course, in most cases baldly stated their work as a debate between realism and anti-realism, but their work has nonetheless inevitably led them to thinking being in such a way that it is not simply a discourse, language, or a correlation with the human.
Paradoxically, these privileged sites have largely been marginalized in the world of academia and the humanities; no doubt because of the hegemony of anti-realist thought or the status of correlationism as the establishment position. Among these privileged sites I would include environmental philosophy and thought, science and technology studies, critical animal theory, geographical studies, writing technology studies, media studies, queer theory, and, of course, feminist philosophy and thought. I am sure that there are many others that don’t immediately come to mind for me. If these have been privileged sites for the development of significant conceptual innovations in the field of realist ontology, then this is because all of these sites of investigation force encounters with real and nonhuman objects and actors that cannot be reduced to correlates of human thought, language, perception, or use but that have to be approached in their own autonomous being to properly be thought.
...
The point here, then, is that these privileged yet marginalized sites of realist thought are, in so many respects, ground-zero for object-oriented ontology. The conceptual innovations and creations, the ontological discoveries, that inhabit these sites require, demand, from object-oriented ontologists the most careful scrutiny and attention for there is a wealth of ontological riches to be found in these sites. Here OOO/OOP learns from these sites of research and engagement, not the reverse. For these thinkers were all object-oriented ontologists before anyone thought to name themselves “object-oriented ontologists”.

To the above points I must simply agree. Moreover, Levi’s words here and elsewhere reminded me where some of my positive predispositions towards a future “Object-Oriented” and anti-correlationist stance probably began. Specifically, it was sometime in the mid/late 1990s when I encountered the writings of Donna Haraway and was particularly interested in the manner in which her ecofeminist and cyborg manifesto commitments converged. It was definitely one of those rare eureka moments when you discover someone who is saying something that you have been struggling to articulate for some time yourself. Looking back on her work now - that is, following my recent encounters with OOO and SR - it is quite amazing how many parallels and resources there are that need revisiting (as Levi notes, ‘these people were ... object-oriented ontologists before anyone thought to name themselves “object-oriented ontologists”). I can’t lay my hands on my copy of Penley and Ross’s (1991) Technoculture, where Haraway makes some of these intriguing claims, so I'm using a segment from Jim Cheney’s exellent article ‘Nature/Theory/ Difference’. He begins by noting Haraway’s
idea that we reconceive the object of knowledge (the world – not just humans) as “agent in the productions of knowledge.” Pointing out that Western conceptions of objectivity and the object of knowledge are historically constructed and “can seem to be either appropriations of a fixed and determined world reduced to resources for instrrumentalist projects of destructive Western societies, or ... masks for interests, usually dominating interests,” Haraway argues that objectivity in our accounts of the natural world require that we understand the “objects” of the world as actors and agents to be understood, not through a “logic of discovery,’” but through a “power-charged social relation of ‘conversation.’” She envisions “feminist theory as a reinvented coyote discourse” with actors who “come in many and wonderful forms” ...
She stresses that in speaking of the “objects” of the natural world as actors/agents she is not thereby characterizing them as subjects with languages. Hers is the “project of finding the metaphors [e.g. coyote and trickster] that allow you to imagine a knowledge situation that does not set up an active/passive split” ... What she is searching for is “a concept of agency that opens up possibilities for figuring relationality within social worlds where actors fit oddly, at best, into previous taxa of the human, the natural, or the constructed.”

Now anyone reading this who has some familiarity with the current state of Object Oriented Ontology is probably thinking of points of cross-over and similarities that warrant closer examination. Indeed, this is something I’m starting to do myself, specifically with regard to publication. One of my recent thoughts was, ‘Did Haraway read or draw upon Latour?’ A quick check of the bibliography of Simians, Cyborgs and Women reveals a couple of Latour endnotes. I copy one of them here, emphasis is mine:
Latour’s brilliant and maddening aphoristic polemic against all forms of reductionism makes the essential point for feminists: ‘Mefiez-vous de la purete: c’est le vitriol de l’ame’. ... Latour is not otherwise a notable feminist theorist, but he might be made into one by readings as perverse as those he makes of the laboratory, that great machine for making significant mistakes faster than anyone else can, and so gaining world-changing power.
This is from her 1988 paper ‘Situated Knowledges’, I will be checking her later works in due course. Interesting material for anyone searching out allies for Object Oriented Ontology, though.

Friday, 22 January 2010

IOC Sexual Objectification Madness

On the subject of treating persons as irreducible and not objectifying them, I would draw your attention to the move by the International Olympic Committee to consider mandatory gender testing and therapies in response to cases such as that of Caster Semenya. See Sentient Developments post here. A genuine case of medicalization and biological reductionism imposing itself on the world once again in the most invidious way.

Harman on Objectification

Just a quick note that Graham has responded to Levi's response to my post here (apologies for the painful circle through blogspace). Usefully he is clarifying what was one of the concerns in my paper, namely that "the objects of object-oriented philosophy have nothing to do with objectification. In fact, they are what resist all objectification." This is rather obvious when one reads some OOO, but probably far less so if one doesn't. In terms of PR, it is one thing to claim that pepsi bottles, cacti and snow flakes are objects, but claiming that people are objects will frequently cause "objectification alert" alarm bells to start ringing. Unfortunately, if OOO wants to build alliances with the Humanities, this topic will need to be tackled with some regularity. Indeed, when I thought about introducing OOO to a feminist journal a couple of months ago, this seemed to be the problem or misconception that would need to be addressed first and foremost.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Foreshadowing Dundee

Interesting to see Paul Ennis mentioning the 'Real Objects and Material Subjects' Conference here and some of the content of Levi Bryant's post on Inhuman Ethics here. I'm aiming to attend the conference and have submitted a paper that will be touching on some of Levi's claims about the need for a re-engagement with Haraway . I think that her work can be productively read as ontology, notably OOO, and - as Levi suggests - it was perhaps unfortunate that her work was located precisely when it was in history.

My abstract for the conference reads as follows, not sure how closely I can stay to it, but it is vague enough to allow me to formulate some ideas over the next couple of months.

Thinking Sex(es)/Object(s): Feminist Metaphysics as Object Oriented Ontology
Three main claims are advanced and defended in this paper, albeit with some brevity and increasing gradations of tentativeness. First, it is noted that feminist philosophers, in both analytic and continental traditions, have been reluctant to engage with metaphysics, or, far more commonly, they have been active critics and opponents of it. This attitude may be explained, in part, by the masculinist and misogynist use of “essentialism” in the history of women’s oppression, although a number of other reasons can be mobilised with relative ease. Second, contra these considerations, I propose that the marginalisation of metaphysics by feminists has been overly hasty. Indeed there are good reasons to move the discipline of metaphysics towards the centre of feminist philosophy. Third, I identify some feminist philosophers whose work may be read as metaphysics and whose commitments mark them out as holding realist ontologies (e.g. Christine Battersby, Donna Haraway and Luce Irigaray). I then bring to the table of continental metaphysics some concepts developed by those selfsame philosophers and propose that an Object Oriented Ontology may be the most appropriate means of developing and exploring these ideas. The irony and/or perversity of proposing this alliance, given the history and weight of feminist analyses of sexual objectification, is not lost on me. However, I contend that an Object Oriented Ontology does not run afoul of ethical, political and social feminist critiques of objectification; rather, it delivers fertile resources and research possibilities for tackling a pre-existent feminist interest in the status of objects.

[ADDENDUM: Just been informed that my paper hasn't been accepted, so it is likely to be worked up in a more developed form for Speculations or Hypatia. I'll still probably be attending Dundee and soaking up the SR and OOO atmosphere, although it will depend on how my institution feels about funding the trip].

Monday, 11 January 2010

Circus Philosophicus trailer

Graham Harman gives some tempting insights into his Circus Philosophicus here. Amongst many carnivalesque spectacles you will encounter Graham in "verbal dispute with China Miéville on a Gulf of Mexico drilling platform, leading to [their] discussion of the horrific model of an occasionalist polytheism, in which oil rigs embody the countless deities of the cosmos."

Where do I buy my entry ticket. Yowza, yowza, roll up, roll up ... see the performing idealists, stare at the contortions of the folded Deleuzians.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The contradictions of the modern university

Just read this by Nina Power at Infinite Thought and nearly choked on my drink, unfortunate for the undergraduate essay I was marking at the time, I really shouldn't multi-task too much, but the tea stains aren't too noticeable. Very funny, I really should read her blog more often. This is taken from an interview that she did with the German newsaper Taz.

Has the introduction of the RAE affected your capacity to publish outside academia? How?

Not really. Universities want you to demonstrate all kinds of contradictory things at once – in-depth scholarship yet accessibility, value-for-money yet long-term outcomes, and so on. The contradictions of the modern university are simply a microcosmic version of the bastardised form of neo-liberalism fused with state bureaucracy that characterises contemporary life. In this sense, universities love academics who can at once be ‘scholars’ and ‘populists’. They don’t even seem to mind if you write scornful pieces about the very nature of academia itself, so long as the journal you publish in has a high enough rating. The thing that should take up most time is teaching – yet this is the one area (unless it involves getting overseas or postgraduate fees) that universities are not really interested in. When the students find this out, they can’t believe it. We shouldn’t either.

I won't add much comment on this, suffice it to say that my university has identified itself as teaching led for some time, albeit while emphasising all the other things too.

Friday, 8 January 2010

In Praise of Dark Vitalism

I really must note that I very much enjoy Ben Woodard's Naught Thought blog (I've been intending to mention it for some time), stylish and I must hold my hands up to feeling many intellectual affinities with it. I haven't waded through the back catalogue of blogs yet, so don't have a complete picture, but there are plenty of parallels with my final assessment of the Goddess as Nature (i.e. Kaliesque, frequently unheimlich (bloody strange and scary), and a fluid/protean force that incorporates/embodies the organic and inorganic alike); no wonder we all reach for Lovecraft with such regularity. I probably differ with regard to the nihilistic edge of Ben's dark vitalism, for which I honestly will try and find time to give reasons in the near future.

Starting Out in 2010

In the interests of further clarifying my position vis-a-vis Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, it is perhaps worthwhile stating something about my previous work and current commitments. My first book Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy was very much an attempt to unpack and philosophically elaborate the metaphysical worldview of an emergent religious movement, namely the Goddess movement and - more specifically - Goddess feminism. My main contention in that work was, and remains still, that the worldview of this relatively young NRM (1970s onwards) was both more coherent than many of its critics claimed and also contained some concepts, metaphors and models of the nature of reality that were novel and warranted some philosophical and specifically metaphysical exploration. This movement embodied an effort to re-think nature, through a radical feminist lens, in terms of agency, chaos, complexity, ecological networks and organicism. Some of the elements, individually and also in combination, were not particularly new (for example, some close affinities with process philosophy), but the constellation of ideas as a whole was original and worthy of note.

Significantly, though, what I was not able to do in that book was pursue many of the concepts that interested me with anywhere near the freedom and commitment that I wanted. The project was constrained by the demands and structural limits of a doctoral thesis, on which the book was based, and the particular problems that I had set for myself therein. My efforts were directed towards providing a plausible reading of the reality-claims made by some influential members of the movement and elaborating their coherence. The book was in part a hermeneutical reading of the emergent worldview of Goddess feminism, in part a constructive project – in the tradition of Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague’s constructive theologies – and in part a work of analytic philosophy of religion. Awkwardly this meant the work had several disciplinary mistresses, and probably suffered from the demands of most such interdisciplinary endeavours. In my case, it was perhaps too selective in its hermeneutical reading to be very useful to sociologically inclined scholars of new religious movements, too analytic and systematic to be tolerated by most thealogical insiders and less analytically rigorous than some Anglo-American philosopher of religion would accept. That said, though, it did the job I initially envisaged and there is much within it that I am still wedded to and motivated by. Indeed, my current concerns are the same as many post-doctoral academics who are still moderately close to their completion, namely to examine the attractive threads, frustrating problems and interesting avenues of enquiry that could not be explored in detail during the doctoral process (typically because of the constraints of wordage, time and perhaps ultimately coherence). I accept the tales of many doctoral students who claim that they grew to hate their research and were glad to see the back of it. But this just doesn’t square with my own experience. Yes, in the end it simply wrote itself, there were things that needed to be said and the structure was what it needed to be. But there was much that was only a beginning, a seed for future work. Retrospectively, I despise the style of the book; it may have been clear - that cherished analytic virtue - but it probably wasn’t evocative or memorable. Importantly, though, there was plenty of fuel within it for future work and I can now walk down those rich and stimulating avenues free of my prior doctoral constraints, although they have now, admittedly, been replaced by a rather different and weightier set of constraints.

What are my concerns today? Broadly they fall under the canopy of what might be termed feminist metaphysics and ecological philosophy. I am interested in theorising the autonomy of the world, via a flattened ontology, wherein the human-world relation has no special status. Consequently I am attracted to Object Oriented Ontology and its anti-correlationist commitments. Somewhat awkwardly, though, given the feminist and ecological prefixes noted above, there are also tensions to be addressed with regard to any relations that I might posit to obtain between ethics, politics and ontology. But this is work to be done – and I will have to see what gives way as I think it through. One pressing concern is that feminist philosophies tend to be firmly situated within the correlationist camp (given their constructionist, social and political commitments, plus their sympathies with much continental philosophy); although this may be resolvable in terms of being able to jointly hold an antirealist epistemology and a realist ontology without problem (see Levi’s post here); but again, work to be done. I am also particularly interested in some of the resources and themes being brought to the fore by feminist philosophers (e.g. Christine Battersby, Rosi Braidotti, Catherine Keller, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Luce Irigaray, the late Grace Jantzen, Val Plumwood) whose work can be read as addressing aporias, conceptual blind-spots and areas of neglect in the history of western metaphysics. Natality is one case in point, a rather different existential, metaphysical and phenomenological avenue of enquiry than the dominant preoccupation with being-towards-death (or, increasingly, being-towards-extinction). The meaning of sexual difference is the other major player here, a broad field that is giving rise to, amongst other things, new philosophical perspectives on identity and subjectivity, as well as alternative theorizations of space and time. As Grosz notes in Space, Time and Perversion (1995: 100):
It is not clear that men and women conceive of space or time in the same way, whether their experiences are neutrally presented within dominant mathematical and physics models, and what the space-time framework appropriate to women, or to the two sexes may be. ... [T]he bodies of each sex need to be accorded the possibility of a different space-time framework.

Previously I have closely allied myself with those philosophies that are concerned with organicism, vitalism and what Graham Harman identifies in Prince of Networks (2009: 154) as ‘a primal unified womb of becoming’; hence, perhaps, my interest in Goddess feminism. This has meant that since my undergraduate years I have been reading Whitehead and his interpreters (despite severe misgivings about much of the Christian theistic baggage that is imported), Bergson, some Deleuze, a number of ecological philosophers and, amongst many others, the feminist philosophers noted above. Throughout this period, though, and particularly coming through the thesis, I was becoming progressively more and more frustrated with explaining the autonomy and emergence of things within the metaphysical frame I was working with. I was never entirely happy with the solutions proposed by process metaphysics, and given more time and familiarity I may have thrown my lot in with Deleuze. However, the demands of my first and current teaching post interrupted, committing me more forcefully to the religious studies thread of my academic interests rather than the philosophical. This only changed earlier this year with my with my discovery of Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, the impetus to get my philosophical research interests back on track (although I had also been teaching some philosophy for three years by then with a major/minor Philosophy and Ethics subject pathway at my university).

For those who may be interested, my religious studies teaching and research interests are based around New Religious Movements (notably Paganism, the New Age and the Spiritual Revolution), the Psychology of Religion, Method and Theory and, in past years, Religion and the Media. These inevitably cut across and inform some of my philosophical interests, sometimes in unusual ways, but they are not central drivers for my current philosophical interests. There may, as I noted in an earlier post, be some compatibility between animism, panpsychism and object oriented ontology, for example, but I don’t think I will be tackling that particular topic for some time. At the moment I am grappling with the relationship between feminist metaphysics and OOO, both for an article for Speculations and for the ‘Real Objects or Material Subjects’ conference at the University of Dundee in March. The clock is ticking on the deadlines for both.