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Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist?

Selections from The Prince of Networks

This posting works as something like a hypothetical dialogue, a reading and response to the first twenty pages or so of Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks. Each of the Latourian points below are largely the words and descriptions taken directly from Harman’s forthcoming book on the renowned sociologist of science, presenting him as a metaphysician). Here is an interaction with the metaphysical possibilities of Latour when considered in the context of Spinoza. The aim is to press as coherently as possible the correspondences between these two thinkers, and to find bridges in the analysis of events such that each may inform the other. More specifically could say that this comparison follows from a rough equation between the two which proposes that all of Latour’s actors are well seen as modal expressions of Substance for Spinoza, such that in many respects Spinoza’s philosophy is able to accomodate or even subsume Latourian descriptions. Of course such an overlay is not complete, for no thinker presents the thinking of another, but the similarities are greater than might otherwise be supposed.

Because the Latourian points are specifically drawn from Graham Harman’s description of them, the comparison also serves as a quick introduction to the kinds of characterizations Graham is making in his coming book. Even if you disagree with the Spinozist comparison, orientation to Graham’s coming book is worthwhile orienting oneself towards.

a = Graham’s description of Latour

b = My comment on how Spinoza bears on the same issue.

The Four Axioms

1a. First, the world is made up of actors or actants (which I will also call “objects”).
1b. Spinoza’s modalities.

1.1a All entities are on exactly the same footing. An atom is no more real than Deutsche Bank or the 1976 Winter Olympics, even if one is likely to endure much longer than the others.
1.1b All modal expressions have the same reality as any other, as perfect expressions of Nature, (though some may have greater reality than others, that is be more active and powerful, given number of combinations they can make.)

1.2a This principle ends the classical distinction between natural substance and artificial aggregate proposed most candidly by Leibniz.
1.2b The Leibniz distinction is non-existent in Spinoza, so does not need to be so ended.

2a. Second, there is the principle of irreduction, already cited above. No object is inherently reducible or irreducible to any other.
2b. To know a thing is to understand its causes. In this way no modal expression is “merely” a certain form of description. Which is to say, neither is an apple merely a collection of atoms, or a fruit of the tree, but also because Substance exists and acts through modal expression, an apple is not merely Substance acting and existing, but also the sum total of all modal causation. It can be neither reduced, nor is it irreducible.

2.1a Yet in another sense we can always attempt such explanations, and sometimes they convince others. It is possible to explain anything in terms of anything else, provided we do the work of showing how one can be transformed into the other, through a chain of equivalences that always has a price and always runs the risk of failure.
2.1b I believe that Spinoza would accept this. It is important to understand that all of our causal explanations for things occur in Spinoza within the imaginary horizon of human activity, the social field of actorly agents. It is not at all clear that Spinoza allows human beings to hold completely adequate ideas, so thus all that they can do is build more and more powerful chains of descriptions, marked by their internal coherence to each other.

3a. Third, the means of linking one thing with another is translation.
3b. What links one thing to another is a vectorial degree of power, organized around the power to act, and therefore know: all things are linked to all other things, translation being a question of perspective which is never complete.

4a. Fourth, actants are stronger or weaker not by virtue of an inherent strength or
weakness lying in their private essence. Actants gain in strength only through their alliances
4b. Spinoza agrees. This difference of power is a degree of Being difference along a vector of knowledge (see 1.1b and his General Definition of Affects).

Concepts of Concreteness

5a. [The] four metaphysical axioms all stem from a deeper principle: absolute concreteness. Every actant simply is what it is. This entails that all actants are on the same footing: both large and small, both human and nonhuman. No actant is just fodder for others; each enhances and resists the others in highly specific ways.
5b. Spinoza agrees, the conatus of each thing strives to preserve itself to the optimum of its capacity (this defines its actualization). The human being is on no more “footing” than a peanut. Each are perfect expressions of Substance. In human beings this involves imagining things that give them the greatest power to act, and aligning themselves with things which are imagined to empower them

6a. Though graduate students are usually drilled in the stale dispute between correspondence and coherence theories of truth, Latour locates truth in neither of these models, but in a series of translations between actors.
6b. Spinoza also by-passes the dispute, ultimately because coherence is correspondence, but in human beings it is expressed by degrees of adequacy and power. Spinoza’s theory is not one of Representational knowledge.

7a. Nothing exists but actants, and they are all utterly concrete.
7b. In a deepingly of the flat Latour model, there is a qualification of “exists”. Substance has Being, but its being “exists and acts” through modal actants. So only do actants exist, but the totality of actants are an expression of Substance, individual actants (and their clustered relations) holding degrees of Being powers to act. So the Being of Substance is expressed in the “utterly concrete” expression of the modes.

8a. His philosophy unfolds not amidst the shifting fortunes of a bland human world correlate, but in the company of all possible actants: pine trees, dogs, supersonic jets, living and dead kings, strawberries, grandmothers, propositions, and mathematical theorems. These long lists of actors must continue until their plurality and autonomy is no longer suppressed. We still know nothing about these objects and what they entail.
8b. Spinoza agrees with the plurality of modal expressions, but as we come to understand the causes of any modal expression we ourselves become more active, ultimately aiming to understand the causes of our own modal expression; thus the boundary that keeps us from the world is an non-categorical determination: we are in modal combination with the animate and inanimate.

Not Aristotle’s Notion of Substance

9a. This does not lead Latour to a philosophy of substance. Traditional substance can be defined most easily by contrast with its qualities, accidents, and relations. A substance can easily be distinguished from its qualities, such as warmth or villainy, since these traits may change over time without its becoming a different thing. In fact, one of Aristotle’s best definitions of a substance is that which supports different qualities at different times. In this way, traditional substance suggests something identical beneath all its trivial surface fluctuations. Latour emphatically rejects this rift between a substance and its trivial exterior.
9b. Spinoza changes the Aristotlean approach to substance. First of all, any modal expression of Substance is not trivial, but rather the perfect and determined expression of Substance becoming fully concrete. So the above critique of Substance is understood in terms of Substances, which Spinoza explicitly rejects. There is only one Substance, the only thing that can be conceive through itself being the cause of itself. Modal expressions of Substance in Spinoza are not “trivial surface fluctuations” but the very means by which Substance “exists and acts”.

9.1a A cat, a tree, or a soul would be substances, but not the nation of Egypt as a whole, or vast pieces of machinery with thousands of parts. But since Latour grants all actants an equal right to existence, regardless of size or complexity, anything in the world must count as an actant, whether natural or artificial, as long as it has some sort of effect on other things.
9.1b As mentioned, Spinoza would grant Substance to only one thing, the Totality of all manifestion, and no modal expression has a metaphysical priority over any other. Indeed, a nation, or a theory, or a the Ethics itself, in that it is an expression of Substance in both Extension and Idea, and thus is a ratio of parts in communication, would all count as a body, having as much right as any other body.

10.a For Latour, an actant is always an event, and events are always completely specific. An actant does not hedge its bets, lying behind current involvements like a substance eluding its surface fluctuations. Instead, an actant is always fully deployed in the world, fully implicated in the sum of its dealings at any given moment.
10.b This is quite in keeping with Spinoza’s ateleological, immanent metaphysics. Each and every moment is an ideational and extensional expression, completely actualized, fully deployed as it is possible to be (under a degree of power/being when considered in isolation, perfectly actualized when considered in terms of the totality.)

11a Unlike a substance, actants do not differ from their accidents, since this would create a hierarchy in which some parts of the world were mere detritus floating on a deeper sea, and Latour’s principle of democracy between actants would be flouted.
11b Modal expressions only differ from Substance in terms of degree. There is no hierarchy though, for Substance exists and acts through modal expressions. The “accidents” are Substance acting. In this way my words, the color of my shirt, my legal standing, all express themselves autonomically as far as their striving can take them.

The Power of Relations

12a Latour’s central thesis is that an actor is its relations. All features of an object belong to it; everything happens only once, at one time, in one place. But this means that Latour rejects another well-known feature of traditional substance: its durability.
12b. For Spinoza Substance is its modal expressions, thus any actor is composed of its relations. The only thing that truly endures is Substance itself. But in the ratio of parts in a communication can be understood to be preserved, what Spinoza calls the ratio of motion and rest which defines a “body”. But because this ratio is mind dependent and ill-defined, it is not clear at all why he cannot be read as an Occasionalist, like Latour. Because each body is only an expression of the totality, ultimately to speak of preservation is a question of perspective.

12.1a We always speak of the same dog existing on different days over many years, but for Latour this would ultimately be no more than a figure of speech. It would entail that we abstract an enduring dog-substance or dog-essence from an entire network of relations or trials of strength in which the dog is involved at each moment of its life. Ultimately the unified “dog” is a sequence of closely related heirs, not an enduring unit encrusted with shifting accidents.
12.1b For Spinoza indeed each thing has an essence which is exhibited in its conatus/striving, and whose existence depends on modal causations external to it, but whether it is the same dog over time, or a series of closely related essences/strivings is ultimately indeterminate in Spinoza (he writes of an aged and mentally stricken poet who seems like the same person, but is not, and how our essence as an adult is different than that when were babies).

13a. Since an actant cannot be split into durable substance and transient accident, it follows that nothing can be reduced to anything else. Each thing simply is what it is, in utter concreteness.
13b. Due to the wide-sense expression of Substance by its modes (not a split), the power of explanation, empowerment through the knowledge of causes, is grounded in immanent expression. This means that modal expressions are not “reduced” to Substance, because modes are the means of Substance’s acting and existing, but they are explained through Substance. This is the ultimate metaphysical grounds which establishes the power of knowing. But in the actualization of modes, human beings necessarily are passive, dependent things, expressing themselves largely through imaginary relations and affective reactions (that is, translation always has its price and effect). The causal connections we make betweeen one modal expression and another though are perspective determined, for all things are connected to all other things.

13.1a We cannot reduce a thing to some privileged inner core by stripping away its inessential features.
13.1b Spinoza is in complete agreement. There is no inessential feature of Substance. Understanding a thing is achieved through understanding its causes in each and miniscule manifestation and effect. As an example, nothing is more useful to man than man, due to the sharing of a nature (the possibilities of connection), but the individual particularities, the causal history of one man and another are signficantly needed to achieve this usefulness.

14a. [For Latour] A theorist is no different from an engineer digging a tunnel through the mountains near Barcelona. One studies the rock, carefully assessing its weak and solid points, the cost of selecting one path over another, the safety concerns of workers, the availability of drill bits needed for specific tunneling methods, and other such factors. The engineer is not a free-floating mastermind of stockpile and calculation, as Heidegger imagines.
14b. Spinoza compares human understanding to being that of a worm in blood. The human being is both a historical being, plagued by imaginary associations and inadequate ideas, but also achieves relative freedom and clarity by understanding that he/she is a expression of Nature, the uniform, parallel expression of thing and idea. In order to theorize something (explain it), the causal history of his/her own ideas, emotions, pictures of the world need to be incorporated, as well as causal expression of the thing to be explained.

14.1a [an] engineer must negotiate with the mountain at each stage of the project, testing to see where the rock resists and where it yields, and is often surprised by the behavior of the rock.
14.1b It is not clear if in Spinoza human beings can hold absolutely adequate ideas at all, but ultimately any attempt to understand something (explain it) is to combine with it, both affectively and ideationally. Theorization is always an experiment in material combination, and not just ideas.

15a Nothing is pure calculation, nothing follows directly from anything else, nothing is a transparent intermediary. Everything is a medium or mediator, demanding its share of reality as we pass through it toward our goal.
15b For Spinoza completely adequate ideas follow cleanly from adequate ideas (as an asymptotic limit), but it is very unclear if human beings can hold a completely adequate idea, so any tracing of explanation occurs with the gradated and real history of one’s necessarily passive position in the world, ever assuming the maximalization of thought and extension, of which one is an expression. Calculation is a material as well as ideational act.

16a A truth is never a simple correspondence between the world and statements that resemble it, since we only link a statement to the world through the most difficult set of displacements.
16b Spinoza agrees. A true idea corresponds to its object, but this correspondence is ever buried in the relations of the human mind to its body and its causal history of the physical world, and his theory is certainly not a representationalist one. Ideas are actions of the mind and body. My ideas about China and Scrabble and Latour are all actually ideas of my body being in various states.

17a Neither is truth a kind of “unveiling,” as in Heidegger’s model, since this still implies that we approach truth asymptotically.
17b Spinoza does not speak of truth as “unveiling” (but he does rarely call his propositions to the Ethics “the eyes of the mind”. Because he refuses a representationalist model of knowledge, running counter to all Idealism, truth is a relation. He does make our relationship to the truth asymptotic, an aymptotology which shows itself concordantly in our power to act (and feel Joy). This asymptotic vector is the actual vector of Being/Power/Activity/Knowing.

The Full Deployment of Actors/God

18a Actants are always completely deployed in their relations with the world, and the more they are cut off from these relations, the less real they become.
18b Spinoza’s degree of Being definition of knowing and acting corresponds quite well here. The greater capacity a thing has to act or be acted upon, the greater degree of Being it has. Connections make perfections.

18.1 A Pasteur begins alone in his fight with Liebig over the cause of fermentation, or with Pouchet over spontaneous generation. Yet gradually, Pasteur amasses a formidable army of allies. Since Latour is no Machiavellian, not all of these allies are human. Pasteur’s allies may include mighty politicians who grant him funding, pieces of glassy or metallic equipment, and even bacilli themselves.
18.1b Spinoza would completely agree, both on the level of human and inhuman alliances, but in terms of how alliance functions in the human realm. Though he would insist that alliance is made in the strongest sense by appeal to commonality and a knowledge of causes. A theory is always a material as well as ideational expression, and it shows its power in its ability to combine not only ideas, but also material relations as well. The mind is no more priviledged than the body, and that means any body.

18.2a We become more real by making larger portions of the cosmos vibrate in harmony with our goals, or by taking a detour in our goals to capitalize on the force of nearby actants.
18.2b Spinoza agrees in terms of harmonization of parts, and would judge any interaction which increases our capacity to act a “good” thing.

19a For Latour, the words “winner” and “loser” are not inscribed in the essence of a thing, since there is no essence in the first place.
19b For Spinoza a loser is something that simply was overcome by a stronger force, the ratio of its parts in communication scattered. There indeed are modal essences in Spinoza, but because the existence is not predicated of a modal essence, it existing or not existing is not “inscribed” therein.

20a All actants are equal; all actants can win or lose, though some may have more weaponry at their disposal.
20b For Spinoza this weaponry is largely the knowledge state of a body, its degree of a capacity to act. But contingent circumstances can intervene to upon any partial modal expression of Substance, no matter how knowing/active. That is, the sage might very well have a piano fall on his head. Spinoza has strong Machiavellian influences, arguing that each and everything thing has as much right to the degree of power it can marshall.

Playing with Machiavelli

21a. The impact of Bruno Latour as a thinker is deployed in the bookstores that carry his works, the admirers who recommend them to others, and the careers that are altered by contact with his writings…There is no central point in the network where we encounter the very heart of Latour and his philosophy.
21b Completely so in Spinoza. Spinozist philosophy must be understood as both an extensional expression, materialized in all its manifestions, from books printed, to neurological states in people’s brains, to vibrations of air in conversation.

22a In order to extend itself, an actant must program other actants so that they are unable to betray it, despite the fact that they are bound to do so…. We always misunderstand the strength of the strong. Though people attribute it to the purity of an actant, it is invariably due to a tiered array of weaknesses.” (direct quotation of Latour)
22b I believe that Spinoza would agree because his affinities with Machiavelli, but a primary weapon of such “programming” others, is freeing them from their own illusions so to think more rationally, to understand the causes of the states of the world and their own states, and to ultimately to seek their own advantage. In this way Spinoza is an ethical Machiavellian.

23a Latour scoffs at the notion that the imperialist West succeeded by purifying objective truth from the naïve superstitions that still haunted gullible Indians.
23b For Spinoza it is simply a question of becoming more active and stronger through the understanding of causes and becoming more active. I don’t know what he would say as to why the West ultimately overcame the Indians, historically, for there may have been many intervening contingencies. But he would say that knowing the causes of things (for instance knowing the capacities of gunpowder), played a determinative role. He finds the West in many ways far more superstitious and imaginary than otherwise granted.

24a “It takes something like courage to admit that we will never do better than a politician….[Others] simply have somewhere to hide when they have made their mistakes. They can go back and try again. Only the politician is limited to a single shot and has to shoot in public.” (direct quotation of Latour)
24b Spinoza also finds a “single shot” concept of power manifestation (though the rational understanding of something is a pivotal aspect of the freedom to act). Spinoza’s “single shot” public concept of action is that each and every thought that we have is an affirmation of the power of the body to act, and can provide a change in the degree of reality one has. Conscious thought has no priority over any other mental/bodily action. Our actions are not usually what we think they are.

25a Forces are real, and real tigers are stronger than paper ones, but everything is negotiable.
25b Spinoza provides the same notion of negotiability, but it is between the real increases in Being which result from increases in knowledge, amid seemingly contingent relations to the world. Indeed a pen-stroke can kill, but this depends upon the entire matrix of coherent relations between events, the knowledge of which would only increase one’s own capacity to act.

26a Harmony is a result, not a guiding principle.
26b Harmony is both, a constructed result and a guiding principle. Very often increases in harmony at one level can induce disharmony at another (for instance the reception of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, which he refused to allow to be translated into Dutch, in much distinction to the ill-fated strategies of his friends the brothers Koerbagh).

27a Even power, the favorite occult quality of radical critics, is a result rather than a substance.
27b Power is not a substance but an expression of Substance.

28a Latour holds that truth itself is a result, not a starting point. “A sentence does not hold together because it is true, but because it holds together we say that it is ‘true.’ What does it hold onto? Many things. Why? Because it has tied its fate to anything at hand that is more solid than itself. As a result, no one can shake it loose without shaking everything else.” We call “true” whatever has attached itself to something more durable, less vulnerable to the resistance of other actants.
28b Spinoza would say that this “solidity” to which true sentences are “tied” to is the very nature of Substance and its expression in parallel Attributes.

29aRecently there has been a tendency to privilege language…. Language was so privileged that its critique became the only worthy task for a generation of Kants and Wittgensteins…. What a fuss! Everything that is said of the signifier is right, but it must be said of every other kind of [actant]. There is nothing special about language that allows it to be distinguished from the rest for any length of time.” (direct quote from Latour)
29b Spinoza does not privilege language either, but makes the power of ideas most distinct from their linguistic expression (or their related images).

30a Since actants are always fully deployed in the universe, with no true reality lying in reserve.
30b God is always fully expressing himself, nothing is reserve.

31a Latour dismisses any distinction between literal and metaphorical meanings of words
31b Spinoza would make a strong distinction between the imaginary relationship (affects) caused by words, and the ideational linkings, which allow us to see the causes of things. I do argue that there is room for the power of metaphor in Spinoza, since it is through metaphor and imagination that human beings are bound to each other in increasingly powerful relations, but there is a deep distinction.

32a Like the works of Whitehead, Nietzsche, or Leibniz, Irreductions views objects as individual perspectives striving to impose their viewpoints on the rest.
32b Spinoza is in 100% agreement, we want others to love what we love.

33a “I don’t know how things stand. I know neither who I am nor what I want, but others say they know on my behalf, others, who define me, link me up, make me speak, interpret what I say, and enroll me. Whether I am a storm, a rat, a rock, a lake, a lion, a child, a worker, a gene, a slave, the unconscious, or a virus, they whisper to me, they suggest, they impose an interpretation of what I am and what I could be.” (direct quote of Latour)
33b I am ultimately an expression of Substance as it expresses itself concretely, and thus what I am is also expressed in all other things. As I go through this seemingly contingent world, passively exposed to things I have little control of, as a mode of Substance my power to act comes from my ability to combine with any other mode of Substance.

Conclusion

If there is a difference between the two it is that Spinoza grants greater ontological changes in being and power to the understanding of the causes of things, whereas Latour would like causal explanations to be understood much more haphazardly, productions of chance and not needing explanation themselves. One might ask, Does not with the relative suppression of the need to explain the power of understanding the causes of things come the suppression of an ethics of communication, the way in which our ability to form networks with others and objects primarily occurs through attributions of interpretive charity? One might also ask, if indeed actants are to be understood to only as real as the power they exhibit in their networks, has Latour privided enough traction for the strategies for self-determination and liberation, the kinds of which grant freedom through the understandings of our own causes?

[all selections on Latour are quotations from an unpublished PDF of Graham Harman's Prince of Neworks to be published this Spring by re.press]

Latour’s Translation? Everything is….

I have a weakness of the critique of the critique, that is the meta-turn that applies the picture of the world presented by a philosopher to their own work. Thinking about Wittgenstein’s normatives as if they too are language games, the Willing of Nietzsche’s Willing, the epistemic standing of the Propositions of Spinoza, so on and so forth. It can be considered a cheap trick, but still a compelling one. I woke up this morning having the first 28 pages of Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks in my head, and asked myself, given the Principle of Irreducibility and that ever reduction requires and exact tracing of equivalencies, carefully documented, to the degree that I am becoming refamiliarized with Latour through Harman, I have to ask, what is it that is lost, where is the translation, when Latour reduces everything to actants and networks? For instance, is even the term “actant” traceable? What change would occur if everything became reducible to Suppliants and Networks [a touch less Nietzschean, a touch less Democratic]. The color of the concept has changed. Everything is a Suppliant…Augustine tells us that things that do not know, wish to be known. What is the “translated” standing of Latour’s reduction?

The Bounce of the Being of Beings

 All things Great and Unmeasured [anaríthmêtos] Time

Births [phúei] unseen & having appeared [phanénta], hides [krúptetai];

(Sophocles, Aias; lines 646-647) 

Graham Harman’s Response: The Lock on Objects

Sorry that I have been out-of-computer for a day or so, for when I first read Graham Harman’s response to my earlier questioning of his work and term “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” I wanted to enter in quickly so that the tempo between us could produce some clarity, for it seemed off-hand that Graham did not address my thought too directly, and a quick up-take of his points would prove light-shedding. But given that circumstances have driven some distance, it was my sincere hope that by spinning his response over in my mind, turning its being-of-being center, looking at every angle, I could come clear to a positive relation to what he is saying.

But this has not happened. That is, as I have more than absent mindedly contemplated his response, this thoughts remain distinctly apart from much of the point I was making, not only about Husserl’s notion of intentionality, Heidegger’s opticality, but most importantly, his own return to object-centrality…that all stem from one Cartesian picture of how consciousness operates, a picture come at least in part from the new science of dioptrics and the metaphors of lenses.

What is nice though is that I have time now to engage his response piece by piece, and as is sometimes the case with a text, by teasing out its directions, woof and warp, one may come to feel what is being said more directly, more positively.

A Trinity of Points

The best thing is perhaps to begin with Graham’s three-point assessment of my questioning. As an excellent writer he gives me something to hold onto right off. And if we are to find the source of a misunderstanding, it likely would be here. These are the three points he feels that I am making:

1) Harman’s focus on objects represents a typical rut of the tradition that needs to be overcome

(2) it comes from a desire for a “central clarity” (rather than, I suppose, a comfort with the inevitable lack of such clarity)

(3) instead of the “game” of trying to recapture the essence of things, we should realize that accidents are the name of the game

Right off at number one it seems that we are in the same ballpark. But something in the rhetoric, in the words, tells me that he is hearing something I do not intend. “Rut,” what a wonderful word. Do I mean that those sons of Descartes that have taken the Central Clarity image of consciousness are in a rut? We can see the groves worn into the path, as the centuries of wagons carrying their ontic weight to argument market, the praxis of human habit has philosophical steered just where such wagons can go, is this what I mean? Yes, I can see that. But I do not see this “rut” as typical  in the sense that it is somehow mindlessly banal, as in the phrase, “oh, he’s so typical,” and nor do I want to be thinking of “types” or even of “the tradition” as if there is a necessary iconoclastic movement that has to be started. It is rather for me that there is an inheritance of an image, an expectation of the sufficiency of a take, what Wittgenstein would sometimes call a “picture,” and that this picture of consciousness (though it has its roots in the misty past of Greek Ur-texts, the kind of which Heidegger loved to play with) at modern times grounds itself in a particular moment in history: the development of optical prosthetics, and the experience of images seen through theoreticized lenses, which were taken to be models of consciousness itself. That is, the over-riding optical metaphors of Western Philosophy, in the person (and scientist) of Descartes, took on a very specific character as to how consciousness was to be “pictured,” carried forward through his metaphysics. When one realizes the origin of such framing, then the framing itself can at least be questioned. And I would say that at least as far as I read him, Harman’s work seem to be tensioned both inside and outside of this frame.

That is, like the tension that I read within Harman’s own work (soon to be noted), Descartes’ centrality of focus notion of consciousness was actually a concept which ran counter to his much wider semiotic Realism treatment of mind wherein ideas were thought of as actions. His philosophy of a sensing, communicating mechanism grew out of his main ambitions as a natural philosopher which likely superceded his interest in metaphysical grounds. It was Descartes’ theological need for a free, independent Will, (that is, an accountable soul), which lead him to insert into consciousness this notion of central clarity. The central clarity is what the Will (Soul) focuses on. And so too, as Graham Harman strains towards a post-human Husserl and Heidegger, one that does not privilege the human relation above all others, he (at least in my opinion) drags with him the heritage of the prime metaphor of consciousness as optical central clarity which Descartes originally inserted in order to privilege the human in the first place. Descartes’ semiotics of mind wherein the mind perceives the world directly through its bodily senses in the same (decentralized, non-optical) way that a blind man perceives the world through a stick, becomes a human soul which directs its Will, like a spotlight, on some core clarity…or really object.

His secondly summation,

(2) it comes from a desire for a “central clarity” (rather than, I suppose, a comfort with the inevitable lack of such clarity)

I like Graham’s second point, at least how it starts, but I am unsure where he got the sense that I am arguing for an inevitable lack of clarity (though I may suggest that in theories which I did not include in my response to Object-Oriented Philosophy). I suppose though this may be due to me not putting proper emphasis in my disagreement. My problem was not with a reduction of consciousness to Central Clarity, but to Central Clarity. Indeed there is clarity in consciousness (Descartes’ trope would not even function if there were not), and there may even be a Central Clarity (that is, there is a figure/ground feature to consciousness that is quite significant, and we say things like “can you make your point more clear?” or, “I can’t quite make out the bird in the bush”). But consciousness is not reduced to (or even super-achieved by) this centralization: no object constitutes it. The reason for this is primarily two-fold. The first is that I contend that if one looks to the very center of consciousness (that is, under the spotlight picture which imagines that consciousness is like something that shines out onto the world in some fashion, and reveals Being of whatever status at its center, leaving Non-Being at its wake or at its border), there in the center, the point of attention, is not a “clarity”. And there at the center is not an “object,” or even a “concept”. There is not even the apideîn of Heidegger’s Platonic abstractive seeing. If we are to think in terms of centers, the center of consciousness is a dissonance, an eruptive line. The second reason is that even if we cluster this dissonance center (might we say a laser center) with a broader object or concept center (the spotlight), this contrast in clarity is dependent upon the sense of all the lies beyond it…that is, the “clarity” would not even be restricted to this center (its object), but is spread upon a web of perceptions and beliefs, from which no dividing line can be taken. It is my point, at least insofar as I respond to Graham’s orientation towards the “object”, is that centrality itself (intention) when applied undermines the pure notion of clarity, but also, insofar as there is clarity, it is not centralized. The very character of consciousness is lost in the push towards central clarity.

Graham’s third point is an important one, because here at least I get the sense that he understands the very crux of argument against his treatment of “accidents” to essence, what he approvingly says Husserl calls the “gems” of a object:

(3) instead of the “game” of trying to recapture the essence of things, we should realize that accidents are the name of the game

What I would like to bring out is why the “accidents” are the name of the game. They are not the name of the game because they are more important than the essence (against which we are supposed to realize their very accidentally), but rather because in Graham Harman’s very dichotomy, the significance of what he calls accidents becomes lost. It is not that the accidents are what we should philosophically keep our eye upon, though I do insist that what Graham calls “accidents” are what our living line of consciousness is already on. It is that our very epistemic way of understanding bodies and relating to the world is one in which the contingent effects upon things in the world, and our ability to read those effects sensibly and make powerful, meaningful determinations, arises out of those effects. When a tree shakes unexpectedly, this is not an occasion of the essence of the tree suddenly exhibiting a new “gem”. We look into the air and at other trees, and may even attend to our own skin, searching for breeze. Then we narrow our gaze up into the branches, perhaps change our position unto the tree, and then see a squirrel flitting its tail energetically, perhaps territorially. We are not engaging a “real” object that is ever in retreat from us. The shaking of its leaves was not some apparitional shimmer of an essence caught on the intentional object of our minds. The shaking of the trees leaves was what directed our attention towards the shared world, towards a cause that has a bearing upon us (what shook the tree could shake us). The sound and spasm of the tree caught our attention because it was dissonant to our expectations and beliefs; not because the essence of the tree had acquired new gems. The accidents are the name of the game because events that catch our attention are those same events which direct us toward understanding the world better. Our “clarity,” far from being centralized, is composed and provisional. The world is largely transparent to us. We are not cut off from it, but are part of it.

Are Two Kinds of Objects Still Objects?

After these three digestions Graham goes onto make some important points, unfortunately these are directed more towards interpretations of Husserl and Heidegger, and spend less time on his own notion of the importance of “objecthood”. But because I link my trouble with his philosophical aim to a continuity in a tradition, perhaps this is fair. It is best then to see to what degree Graham is sipping from the Cartesian waters of consciousness as a Central Clarity insofar as he leans back on Husserl and finds objects in Heidegger.

He first finds a difficulty in a tendency he sees in me to treat “the theme of objects as if it were the same strategy” in both Husserl and Heidegger. Try as I might, I can’t quite see where he finds this, for I did not speak of the strategies of each thinker. Clearly Heidegger is in response to Husserl, and is not using the same strategy. What I do claim though is that the same fundamental optical metaphor for Being is exhibited in both, and this metaphor is one of central clarity. In Husserl this metaphor is taken to be definitive for consciousness (however then analyzed), in Heidegger, in a kind of Negative Theology, it is indicative of the failings of consciousness. The spotlight of the mind cannot see under  being. In both cases the metaphor is that which sets the pragmata, the issues at hand.

Graham wants to tell us that the “objects” in Heidegger (which he himself as unearthed) are very different than Husserl’s. Of course they are. We are in infinite agreement. The point is that the very characterization of object as object, (that is, in some implicit way as the central focus of a clarity of consciousness), whether it be the intentional “over-arching” object or the object/thing/being that hides, is an adoption of this rutting motif. Even where Heidegger crosses out the object altogether in its hiddenness, as he toggles optically between alêtheia and lêthê (preferring the outright visual trope of “coveredness” rather than the more readily “forgottenness” or even dull “obscurity” which are perhaps closer to the feeling of the word in the Greek), he is still enrapture by a primary aim of consciousness that is of Central Clarity. It is just a Central Clarity which is perpetually denied of us…we can never really see the object before us. I think that Graham is quite right to rescue the notion of object from Heidegger and to place it in front and center, but in so doing, I believe he is calling attention to a history of thinking about consciousness as defined by a Central Clarity (perhaps CCC). By crossing out this Central Clarity, imposing Non-Being over its Being, so to speak, one is still in the game of CCC. That Heidegger’s objects hide and that Husserl’s objects don’t hide at all really are effects of the same diagnosis.

Edge of Philosophy

Graham then says something else which puzzles me a bit,

But what I most object to is the idea that Husserl’s eidos is some sort of traditional game, and that rejecting it immediately stations one on the cutting edge of philosophy in our time.

First of all, I have not so much interest of getting to the “cutting edge” of philosophy, if by this one means a newness that is marked by its newness. I am interested in philosophy that is germane to our time, and as he knows, my reinvigoration of Campanella (via Spinoza) means for me that the “cutting edge” may involve some very sharp edges from the past. (Nexus points of historical change often involve philosophical branchings which were not taken up in the mainstream, branching which may prove rich in conceptual possibility when paths taken deadend: argued for in terms of Spinoza here.) Graham here seems to feel that I think that just by making iconoclastic gestures, jettisoning some tradition, one gets to hop their place to the front of the line. My critique of Graham’s Object-Oriented Philosophy (again, still a surface critique), is not that it is not “on the cutting edge of philosophy in our time,” but that the very post-human aims of his philosophy are not served well by the object-orientation he wishes to retain, in fact, emphasize. That is, historically and conceptually, the centrality of the object is what has been most in the service of centralizing what is human — as I said, this can be dated back to a fundamental tension between Descartes Natural Science and his Christian Theology. Where Graham identifies the object buried in Heidegger, and returns to Husserlian intentionality to speak of a fundamental dyad of the intentional and real objects to give the Heidegger objects life, he takes with him the poisoned-pawn of human centrality (despite his every intention not to). When Graham speaks of these objects, or the tool-beings which are never seen fully, as they hide from our spotlight consciousness, the dyad is set up once again, one which fundamentally mischaracterizes (or oversimplifies into a picture) consciousness. And there are two levels of this problem, the first is the presumed authority of the optical metaphor in the very concept of “hiddenness,” and secondly that the very nature of opticality as a central clarity is already flawed, because at the center of optical perception is a living line of dissonance.

For me, at least insofar as I share Graham’s post-human aims, the very notion of a hidden tool is missing what is happening in tool use. When using a tool we inhabit a tool, we join a tool, we become it… we do not strictly “use” it (wherein at some level we are “beholding” it, or attempt to “use it up”). Drive a car and the car is not “hiding from us”. In fact, the car and us become a pansensual revelation of the states of the road, an assemblage of collaborative and really cybernetic perceptions. The fullness of the car is there, as well as the fullness of the road. Because we leave behind opticality, it is not that the road is hiding from us at all, but rather, the road, the car and us are expressing themselves in a consonance, one might say, a degree of power. Could the expression be more powerful? Sure. But opticality, the missingness of the rest of the object (be it the road, the car or me) is not the best characterization of the optimalization of an expression. Our communications can be increased. The shocks could be replaced, I might have studied a map before I left, I might wear glasses, the road engineers might have banked the turns more, I might obey the speed limit, I might have put better gas in the car, I might have better driving music on the mp3 player, but none of these increases have to with whether the object of the road is more or less hidden from us. Opticality simply is not the best trope. In fact, the accidents of the road, the “phenomenal qualities” of it are the very things which direct us to a conceptual understanding and increase in our ability to act. If ice is clinging to the trees in a beautiful glassiness about every branch, as it was here last week after an Ice Storm, I am notified that the road might have “black ice”. I touch my break, I feel the road. I slow down, I drive more freely, with greater control and expression. Where there is a philosophical concern it is how taking a position, an orientation towards these qualities which compose the very changes in power and freedom that make up the most important things in our lives. I believe though that indeed it is in the direction of tools and use we must turn, as Graham tells us, but our very notion of tool must change from an object used (which remains hidden from our view) to an thing inhabited and combined with, to a degree of power.

Graham claims that the “upper-hand” tradition is the tradition of empiricism, and it is this tradition which Husserl leads us away from. (Is there the suggestion that if we overcome this tradition we have come to the cutting edge?) But this is an odd response to my claim that Husserl is in the Cartesian tradition. In fact, both the empiricists and the idealists are largely under the Consciousness as Central Clarity picture, come from Descartes. The idealism/empiricism divide (with Graham firmly, and properly, replanting Husserl in the Idealist camp) is already structured by the CCC. Husserl is argued by Graham to have been the very first to have placed a schism that formerly fell outside the Idealist realm, within the Idealist realm itself, what he calls a “true distinction”. This may well be that Husserl invented a distinction within the distinction, but my point is that he is already operating within a mistaken conception of consciousness itself, the very notion of central clarity as reductive of consciousness. To divide a mistaken category is not in my view helpful.

But because Graham spends so much time speaking about Husserl (and Heidegger) and not his own notion of the Objects which should make up the orientation of Philosophy, I am left unsure if he is defending their positions or his own (insofar as he has appropriated them). I have no desire to get bogged down into Husserlian and Heideggerian hermeneutics, two thinkers, on which if 9/10ths of the literature written were lost in a fire I’m not sure how much would be lost to Western Civilization (one can say this about any of the heavy weights, Spinoza included). I would much rather entertain what Graham means by the importance of the Object, at least enough for me to dispel my strong suspicion that by rescuing the object from Heidegger and combining it with Husserlian Intentionality, he has also rescued an implicit CCC and homo-centricism, which he then hopes to throw back out. Or at the very least, the way that he is going about it is the long way around, one which will eventually leave him with no choice but to embrace a panpsychism of such objects.

The Central Paradox of Objects?

Graham then ends with the imagination of the ironic:

The irony is that all the people who reject objects because they think they’re beyond traditional notions of identity, or whatever, are thereby missing the central PARADOX of objects: that they exist in constant tension with their accidents, relations, qualities, and moments. Objects are always sliding away from themselves in two directions along two separate axes. It is those who reject objects who lessen the tension and offer some crude simplicity in its place

I cannot tell if this is directly precisely towards me, for I am unsure what “crude simplicity” I would have put in place of objects. Rather I embrace the very eruptive qualities of things when engaged, but certainly deny that it is objects themselves that are either “splitting” or “in tension with” something or “sliding away” from themselves. It is a beautiful, indeed poetic picture. But it is a picture that is misleading in two ways. The first is that it is the eruptive that is the indicative of consciousness. The center of consciousness is the living line of dissonance. Nothing is ontologically sliding away from itself, there is no object wobbling which works as a cause directing our attention to something important (one might say conditions can wobble, erupt, fraction, expections, tempo, loose emotions, textures, so many things that are not proper objects of consciousness). It is not a paradox of objects, but a fabric of the very nature of what perception (and conceptualization) is. Our attention is directed towards things, features, elements, qualities, events, differences, and these differences indicate (sêmainein), they direct our attention outwardly towards the causes of these events. The book has that color now because of the angle of the sun. The room has that sound now because a book just fell from its shelf. That face has that expression because he just heard the news. To locate these accidents within the very object, as a kind of tension, a paradox is to loose what “accidents” do…they indicate and expand. Part of this reading of objects through their accidents (or qualities) is also a fundamental ability to place ourselves in the bodies of them. I understand why you are saying the things you are saying, why your arms are moving the way they are moving, because I know (as Wittgenstein would tell us) that you are in pain, or that you believe such and such to be the case (as Davidson would say). I inhabit you, and read the world through you, as you do through me, and it is this very readability, this affective reflection or imitation which becomes truly cybernetic, which denies the ultimate opacity of objects. Objects combine with us, and we to they. If they only combine to a certain degree of optimality at a certain moment, this degree is what is possible at that moment in time (strictly, there is no such thing as the McCain Victory Coalition, I would say). If we are to speak of optimal combinations of objects, or, simply things, res, then the very distinction of objecthood (in any notion of hiddenness) is forced to vanish. That is, it is only One Thing that is combining with itself, what Spinoza would call Substance, Nature or God. In a sense, it is not the object which is wobbling or splitting, but our very degree of the power to act freely. The second thing wrong with this picture is that the very notion of a central object that does all these things [before our implicit and floating, unstated gaze] trades upon a notion of consciousness as Central Object Clarity. The reason why the object bucks and sways is that the very frame under which we look to uncover the nature of such an object is a simplification.

As opposed to what Graham calls “lessening the tension” that is supposed to exist in every object [a kind of jouissance of the object perhaps], I suggest that one recast one’s eye to where this tension lies. It is not in the object itself (whatever its status), but in the living line of dissonance at the center of consciousness. What this does is open up the direction towards which the eruption points, and I might say naturally points, It points to other things, to other persons (there is a reason why Heidegger’s obsession with the peek-a-boo object never lead him to any theory of friendship or an richly interpersonal groundings of meaning). When the tension is taken out of the object (which is either rattling around eruptively in our heads, like a piece of radioactive yellow cake, or incandescing there in the grass), it is redistributed in our relationship to the world, the choices we make, the alliances we form (epistemic and otherwise), the bodily assimilations we bring about. The vibrancy of the object is our vibrancy, across domains. Graham, yes, I agree, the object shimmers. In fact the world shimmers. But its shimmer is always indicative, opening, expanding, couched in our felt combination with other things and people that we read as inhabited.

Essential Dyads, May They Never Die

Lastly Graham makes an appeal to the soterial benefits of his dyads, something that preserves something at the heart of objects:

In Prince of Networks, the final chapter (which no one but me has seen yet) begins with a criticism of “radical” philosophies, where “radical” means the attempt to reduce one aspect of entities out of existence. The “dyads” criticized by Kevin are not fossilized relics of olden times, but are the only way to preserve the weird ambiguity in the heart of objects.

Beside the obvious appeal that the heart of something should always be saved (we even, or especially, wince when the vampire gets the stake driven in), there is a curious recursivity to this thinking. One must have fundamental dyads because they save the heart of objects. This is suppose to counter my claim that the very notion of a (split) heart of object is generated by the dyads themselves, itself a product of Central Clarity Consciousness. It is not the case that such dyads are dead bones, but rather they are living generators of the very thing that are necessarily imposed to protect. In fact, Graham’s choice of words here is I believe telling. I think he does see the dyads as relic-ous, or at least, he sees them as preserving a heart of things which resistant to what we can say about them, turning objects into relics. The saint’s finger bone has something in it other than all the properties that seem to be external to it. The whole world is filled with saint-finger bones. I don’t even wish to reduce this resistance quality out of existence. I wish rather to place it in a living service of ever-renewed combination, the increase of our power to act and understand ourselves and things in the world. Perhaps we can say that objects are not living-dead secret-keepers, but living secret-tellers. Because I see this tension not as an irreducible property of objects (or of consciousness), locked in a eternity of ontology, but as part of the connective between bodies, the very notion of entities has changed. The dyad between me and my car is productive of a reading of a triad me-car-road. But me-car-road can become part of a dyad me-car-road/rain, which in turn can read eruptively into a third. There is no limit to the dexterity or subtlety with which these combinations can be, and are daily, momently being made. The wanted resistant holiness of saint-bones is spread everywhere in directions of power, freedom and knowing. If one is argue that there are the saint-bones of “real objects” in tension with their qualities, and then the unreal saintbones of “intentional objects” which ally uneasily with their accidents, and somehow our getting along in the world is explained, made more vivid, more dynamic through these two “objects” furtively matching up, one is really left to explain the role these objects play in the mechanism by which knowledge as power enables us to become more free, more transparent, more fathomable, but also more dexterous, more articulate, more resonant, more intense, more maliable by degrees, and the question of complete transparency falls to a change in the picture of consciousness itself.

This being said, I do consider Graham’s philosophy to be on the cutting edge, in the positive sense. It is engaging. I have to confesss that I did not matriculate (at) through endless quibbles over Continental texts as Graham has endured. His vision is no doubt hard-won, and I do not aim, nor even suspect I would be able to shake it. But discussions are fruitful. What is one to do when one has found their own “tool analysis” concept of Being quite apart from Heidegger when discussing things with someone who traces nearly every philosophical position theyhave back towards Heidegger’s influence? Unlike Graham (at least it seems) who traces the path forward on mainly  Continental terms, I see an synthesis of Analytic and Continental as the most opportune way forward, to work both before and after the breach. My encounters with Heidegger and Husserl were personal encounters. And like Graham, I was put off by the human-centric auras of these philosophers. And when I read Latour I too was struck by the deep metaphysical possibilities of his work. (But admittedly I was largely taken by the sense that all of this could be put in a much more usable philosophical framework, and Heidegger was not the philosopher I thought of, Spinoza was.) In fact I admire Graham’s renewal of Heidegger through a vigorous post-human inter-indices. I have yet to read his Prince of Networks to see fully what he does with it, perhaps it is convincing. I would want to add to all these thoughts that there is a very real and artistic sense in which objects do defy us, that they radiate, perculate, evanesce. I do not find this to be an ontological category, that is, a category which we must logically consider real in order to make sense of how we make sense of the world. The sculpter feels the radiation of the grains of marble, the traffic controller feels the tremble of the computer grid at a vital moment, just before snow fall there is such a terrible silence. Even a common water glass, if we hold it in our hand can strike us so weirdly. None of these do I mean to deny. This is a product of our cathexis of objects, that is the affective way we extend ourselves to them (and they to us). But instead of stopping their, and thinking, feeling that the “swerve” is in the object, pay closer attention to where your attention is going. It is not that the object is jumping, traveling away, wrargling, slipping. Your attenuation is traveling. And to where it is specifically going is something that is lost when it stops at the object, at something the object itself is doing. One can of course use the soft-focus of an emanating object as a crafting tool. One can get accustomed to its presence, its rise and fall. Like seeing gods in all things, there is something to it, but non-being is not there. Take it in your hand and do something with it, I say.

[Followed up here: Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod) ]

The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception

Some Considerations of Objecf-Object Oriented Philosophy

Recent engagement with Graham Harman’s “Object-Oriented Philosophy” as it stems from Brentano and Husserl, stirs in me a terrible disagreement (I use “terrible” in the Greek sense). It comes from the “picture” that for me lies behind phenomenological preoccupations with the object, and I think also is core to Heidegger’s, at least rhetorical, notion of hiddenness (dear Sophocles, your Aias  meditation on Time!)…this is the intensely visual metaphor for how the mind works, and thus how we are to orient ourselves philosophically towards the imagined “object”, philosophically equated with Being. The entire heritage in my view suffers from this essentialized orientation to the object, the thing that reveals itself only in part.

In a soon to be published text Graham Harman quotes to some effect Husserl’s object orientation in Logical Investigations:

“every intention is either an objectifying act or has its basis in such an act.” 

“whether I look at this book from above or below, from inside or outside, I always see this book. It is always one and the same thing, and that not merely in some purely physical sense [which plays no role in Husserl's philosophy- g.h.], but in the view of our percepts themselves. If individual properties dominate variably at each step, the thing itself, as a perceived unity, is not in essence set up by some over-reaching act, founded upon these separate percepts.”

As I have argued elsewhere (linked far below), and found in my research into Spinoza’s optical theories and practices, this modern conception of a picture of consciousness as somehow oriented towards the object, in a sense, being composed by its object, is something that has its modern origin in optical metaphors drawn from the rise of dioptics, the science of the lensed refaction of rays. The transition from the Perspectivist tradition which matched linear rays from points on an object to points in the back of the eye, to the philosophical meditation on what it takes to have “clear and distinct” ideas (Descartes), led us to understand consciousness itself as oriented towards a central clarity, a clarity which, however obscure the borders, as the object of the mind composes a kind of “truth”. Under such a view it is the very nature of consciousness to be somehow defined by this centrality, this clear picture, and the obscure boundary spaces do nothing more than “serve” this center (Kepler, Descartes).

The “Clear and Distinct” Center

As just suggested, Descartes is responsible for bringing to the fore this notion of consciousness through a pursuit of the “clear and distinct” idea. It is important to note that this phrasing comes directly from dioptrics where it carried a specific meaning. In an age wherein refraction was barely understood (the law had just been identified), the quality of glass incredibly fogged and bubble-ridden, and methods of glass grinding unsettled and under continual invention, an image in a lens that was “clear” (clare) was one which was bright, and one that was “distinct” was one which, if bright enough and the properties of the glass and curve optimal, all the parts could be made out. A bright idea was one that struck one with obviousness, a distinct one one that struck with detail, that is, as being sufficiently differentiated. When looking through a microscope a “clear and distinct” image was a good image. In keeping with his preoccupations with the future science of the dioptrics of microscopes and telescopes, Descartes felt that mentally the “clear and distinct” idea was the focus of mental perception, just as the clear and distinct image is the focus of visual perception. Emotions and sensations were indistinct quite often. A pain might be very “bright” (obvious) but indistinct as to its cause or nature.  

 

In my studies I find, following Graham Burnett’s inspiration, that Descartes’ hyperbolic lens, designed as it was to bring a central object into view as clearly and distinctly as possible, was related to his hyperbolic doubt, which was meant to help focus the mind on the most bright and disguishable ideas. In both Descartes hyperbolic lens and imagination, it is the visual center of consciousness which stabilizes truth. It is the object of one’s eye and mind. I argue that Spinoza’s objection to the efficacy of Descartes’ optical hyperbolic lens contains also an objection to the notion of a central clarity, a clarity that works to anchor the mind to truth.

The Dissonance Hole

Now back to the inheritors of a concept of consciousness which finds at is center an (object) clarity. These are the phenomenological sons of Descartes’s preoccupations with the optical metaphor. To this inheritance I would like to raise a deeper question than simply exposing a central metaphor (and its possible contingent relationship of the validity of arguments that depend on it: chose another metaphor, like for instance how Plotinus uses sound, and possibly end up with different conclusions). I want to suggest that if one attends to consciousness itself, and looks to the very center of consciousness, one doesn’t find a stability there at all. In fact, there is hole at the center of vision.

Richard Sennett’s recent, and thought-provoking The Craftsman  includes the importance of this “hole”:

The capacity to localize names the power to specify where something important is happening…Localizing can result from sensory stimulation, when in a dissection a scalpel unexpected hard matter; at this moment the anatomist’s hand movements become slower and smaller. Localization can also occur when the sensory stimulation is of something missing, absent or ambiguous. An abscess in the body, sending the physical signal of a loss of tension, will localize the hand movement…

In cognitive studies, localizing is sometimes called “focal attention.” Gregory Bateson and Leon Festinger suppose that human beings focus on the difficulties and contradictions they call “cognitive dissonances.” Wittgenstein’s obsession with the precise height of a celing in one room of his house [citing that the philosopher had a ceiling lowered 3 centimeters in a house he had designed just the construction was being completed] derives from what he perceivedj as a cognitive dissonance in his rules of proportion. Localization can also occur when something works successfully. Once Frank Gehry could make titanium quilting work [citing the design of a material of specific relfective and textural capacities], he became more focused on the possibilities of the material. These complicated experiences of cognitive dissonance trace directly, as Festinger has argued, from animal behavior; the behavior consists in an animal’s capacity to attend to “here” or “this.” Parallel processing in the brain activates different neural circuits to establish the attention. In human beings, particularly in people practicing a craft, this animal thinking locates specifically where a material, a practice, or a problem matters.

Pay attention to the dissonance that lies at the center of one’s attention. As the eye plays over the surface of an object, the gaze is not upon the “object” but at the living line which erupts out of the sense of it.  If we take up Husserl’s book, we don’t even have to look at its inside, outside and bottom. We merely need to look at its cover. The eye flits across it, an electric line that traces out the variations of its color, its choice of title typeface, its wear on a corner, its color that reminds us of a dress we saw. Yes, we are “seeing” the book, but it is an eruptive book. These are not accidents to the essence of the book, but rather are produts of our engagment with it. But more than this, the “book” is not a center of our consciousness, it is is not the “object” of our consciousness, or even intentionality. In fact there is no object at all which is the focus of our altering gaze. But it goes further than even this, for if the living line does erupt from the book, we understand that the book itself is present to us as a ground of sense for which this line depends. It is not that the book is somehow constructed out of these in some “over-reaching act” but rather that the book already serves as a ground, an under-reaching ground. The dissonance of our awareness depends upon an awareness of consonance. And this consonance is not though made up of the object of the book either, for the book is perceived as a book against (or in coherence with)  a vast array of other boundary perceptions and beliefs (I see that it is a book because that is a table, and I am in a room, and “I believe that writing exists, that there are authors” etc.). Not only is the “object” not at the center of our gaze, but neither is it the whole of the sense from which we do derive our center. Our awareness is a breadth. We say that we are “looking at the book” or “thinking of the book” as a kind of short hand for mutitudnal effects which are only understood as layers or degrees. And we also “picture” (retroactively) a stability of what we are looking at, paying less attention to what it is that we are attending to (a living line of dissonance, and a counter-boundary of outer sense) .

Intentional and Other Objects

When “object-orientation” concepts of Being flow from this notion of central apparition (and also for Heideggerians necessary hiddenness), the full sense of what the mind does, what consciousness is, I think gets lost. I have not read Graham Harman extensively (only an unpublished essay, a lecture listened to, and some informative comments), but I cannot help but have the sense that there is something of a central clarity conception of consciousness that he has taken from the sons of Descartes. What is interesting to me though is that tool orientation, a craft understanding of consciousness, actually is what calls our attention to the very hole at the center of vision. A craftsman is the one that focuses on the eruptive amid an organized sense, plan or workability.

So when we consider what Graham Harman takes to be the “object” of philosophy…

1. Intentional objects (such as phenomenal trees) exist in uneasy alliance with their accidents

2. Real objects (such as real trees) exist in uneasy alliance with their qualities

3. Real objects are deeper than the phenomenal qualities that emanate from them in relations

4. Intentional objects are unreal but are made up of real moments

This fourfold of accidents, relations, qualities, and moments can be restated in cosmologically more interesting fashion:

1. The tension between an intentional object and its accidents is precisely what we mean by TIME

2. The withdrawal of a real object from any relation is what we call SPACE

3. The duality between a real thing and its own real qualities can be called ESSENCE

4. A merely intentional thing’s possession of genuine qualities can be called, in a Husserlian sense, EIDOS

I feel that we need to ask how much of this falls back upon the essentialized notion of central clarity, the idea that our minds should be directed (philosophically) towards the focus upon “intentional objects” or “real objects” (or the interplay between them); how much does this direction rely upon a mistaken over-simplified “picture” of consciousness, and the historical inheritance of conceptions derived from Descartes fascination with refraction and the correction/enhancement of vision? It seems that when we realize that it is rather the “accidents” of an object that actually compose our intentionality, the eruptive semiotics of a dissonance that flows out from a ground of sense-making, the game of recapturing the buried “essence” of an object, the “real” object, apart from its intentionality loses its footing. It is the accidents themselves that connect us to the object, the flash of light across a surface that redirects our orientation to the object and causes us to care about it in a new way, to encamp it with a cathexis of our informing affects, and understand the world differently through these connective effects. When the intentionality of consciousness is understood not directed towards a clarity, an object (however present or hidden), but rather towards the breakdown of that object, not through an attention to the regain of an eidos behind it, but through a bodily reconfiguration of ourselves in orientation to the world itself wherein there is no accident for each accident signifies, then we understand the mind much more as an activity rather than a representation device (an important step I feel). It is in this constant re-vectorialization of the self through reporting others and a world that gives knowledge its uumph, its power and freedom. I am unsure how far Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy deviates from my thoughts on this, for we share a distinct interest in the post-human, a sense that flat ontologies should be in some ways deepened, and would work toward a cybernetic understanding. I look forward to a continual and edifying communication with Graham Harman’s writings, in particular the coming book on Latour, Prince of Neworks. These thoughts come out of what for me was a strong sense that he yearns for a solidity behind (or in front of) the orientation of philosophy, a solidity which he reads as “depth”, yet an anchor point which by my brief reading takes its cue from a tradition that pursues a central clarity in what for me are misleading metaphors of vision, a tradition which works to stablize and centralize the human self (soul) which he looks to de-centralize.

In addition to this, as a last remark, there is in modern philosophy a tendency to think in irreducible dyads, that is: How do we get from here (let us say, that intentional object) to there (the real object); or how do we get from here (a true proposition) to there (a state of the world); or how do we get from here (thoughts in my mind) to there (thoughts in your mind); or most generally, how do we get from here (the self) to there (the world). This binary thinking which haunts much of representational analysis is a continuation of the primary problem of much of theology, how to get the soul back to God. All kinds of mediating paths are offered to what is imagined to be a fundamentally binary relationship (we expect the mediations to vanish). Many of these philosophical conundrums disappear when the dyad turns into a triad (and not a Hegelian triangle), that is, when the A/B line becomes a triangle of orientations. This is part of Latour’s philosophy of the “same”, but also central to Donald Davidson’s triangulation. It is not self/world, but self/self/world. I think part of the problem of thinking in terms of mind/object-essence dyads is that the triangle does not become properly emphasized. What happens when we find a fissure at the center of consciousness is that the third term (be it another informing person/object, or a causal state of the world) comes into view to help consolidate the fissure, bringing it into a clarity which then erupts. The fullness of a philosophy should be directed towards the necessity of the third term in any binary preoccupation, the way in which the third completes the sense. Not Object-Oriented Philosophy, but Oriented Object Philosophy, perhaps.

As Plotinus tells us:

If they are two, the knower will be one thing, and the known the other, and contemplation (theõria) has not yet made this pair akin to each other (õieiõsen) (Enn. 3.8.8). 

For thoughts related to these:

1. A Diversity of Sight: Descartes vs. Spinoza

2. The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

3. Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters

Graham Harman’s La-deigger and Hei-tour

The Synthesis of Heidegger and Latour

Recommended is Graham Harman’s introductory November 29th, 2007 lecture on how Heidegger’s tool-oriented, human-centered conception of Being is strengthened by de-centralization of Latour‘s panoplies of actor networks (human and non-human), and Latour’s pure ontology of relations (an occasionalism), is deepened by Heidegger’s Four Fold Substance cryptology (pictured signficantly below).

Any Latourian actor (entity) in a Network is also claimed to have these four Heideggerian “dimensions”

The lecture mp3: “On Actors, Networks, and Plasma: Heidegger vs. Latour vs. Heidegger” [provided by Anthem]

PDF of the slides for the Lecture

To give a few immediate responses to the ideas presented: I was quite surprised by the points of correspondence between Harman’s Heidegger-Latour Synthesis, and my own attempt to expand Spinoza through the cybernetic potential of Campanella’s pansensism, and a dialectic with Davidson’s notion of epistemic Triangulation. Like Floris van der Burg’s treatment of Spinoza and Davidson in which Spinoza is used to deepen Davidson through a metaphysical appeal beneath description, Latour is seen here to be deepened in relationship to Heidegger’s notion of hiddenness. In both cases Substance provides a ground for real articulation.

There were some off hand homologies. Latour’s “any two things are always linked by a third thing”, something that Harman finds to be one of the most original of Latour’s thoughts, is in my opinion enlightened by Davidsons rational triangulation, which he grounds through regularities of response to regularities of stimuli, only confirmed through a third set of regularities. For this reason it is my intution that Spinoza’s imaginary triangulation of the world through the imitations of the affects (by which I mean to open up Davidson’s rationalism of translation and objectivity) fits neatly into this essential Latourian triangulation (“its the third actor that has to say its the same thing”). Further it is of interest that not only does Latour alleviate Heidegger’s human-centricism, but Spinoza would as well. In this Latour and Spinoza share. In this vien, Harman’s “tool analysis” post-human reading of Heidegger’s Being and Time, reflects quite well on the product of my proposed application of Campanella’s “cognoscere est esse” (to know is to be) to Spinoza’s bodies in epistemic composition, in an ontology of constructed freedom.

An apex of the lecture perhaps comes to the quandary Harman finds in Latours occasionalism, as he says, “If a thing is defined solely by its relations, I just don’t see any way to move from one step to the next”. The mode of becoming (which I believe he argues would just become another actor), is missing. It is not clear how Heidegger’s Four-Fold view of Being at all helps Latour answer this question though. Harman regularly returns to Leibniz, in his journey into pre-Kantian waters, but I cannot help but think that it is not Leibniz that would aid him, so much as Spinoza. It is Spinoza’s vectorial notion of Being, that is, an immanent Being of degrees that is played out on the register of knowledge which would provide dimension to the flat networks, not to mention an additional ethical texture. At times Harman approaches this principle of greater reality in his lecture, but it is not linked directly to the Spinozist principle of self-causation, freedom through the understanding (and embodiment) of cause. That is to say, Spinoza reads the change of things through a contant striving, the conatus, manifested directly as a capacity to act, which is itself a bodily affirmation. Networks in this way themselves persist through self-affirmations of their relations. What differentiates networks and the actors within them, and propells them to the next moment, from a Spinozist pov is the striving of God itself, expressed in degrees of freedom, along the fluxuations of action itself. Harman tells us that Latour knows that something called Plasma exists because networks collapse. One might ask, how is this Plasma differentiated from Spinoza’s Substance, other than to say that it has no formal Attributes (which are collapsed to the level of networks, in matter and the semiotic). It strikes me that Latour’s actor networks are simply the modal expressions of Spinoza(semiotic/material matching the mental and the physical in Davidson), without the depth of Substance. Much as how Harman sees Latour enriched by Heidegger, it strikes me that he would be even further fortified by an engagement with a cybernetic Spinoza, one in which all bodies are seen to be bodies in knowing assemblage, exercised on degrees of freedom.

This being said, Harman’s points about Latour’s networks do something rather signficant to Spinoza’s notion of bodily idenity (a shadow thought inherent in many of Spinoza’s positions). Because Spinoza defines a body as a particular communicative ratio of parts (something we might call a network of actors), and because Substance is one great consummate ratio of parts in communication, any notion of absolute identity, aside from a fleeting essence/conatus, must be denied. The networks extends out, and the bodies in communication do not cease.

I would add as well that Harman’s excellent unveiling of Heidegger’s notion of tool (unbroken and broken, like Spinoza’s adequate and inadequate idea), dovetails wonderfully into a Spinozist sense of bodies that are continually in assemblage (causes always being horizontally displayed toward the external, for nothing but Substance is the cause of itself), a cybernetic view of perception through combination with other bodies upon which we must depend (and thus mutually express in combination). Spinoza too, I feel, is tool-oriented in his metaphysical construction (as he even compares the development of thoughts to the making of tools), in which the limits of a human body’s capacity to act cannot be separated out from the tools used and engaged. In a symmetry to Harman’s metaphysical correction to a purely logical pragmatist reading of Heidegger (the use of tools does not fully reveal them, any more than theory does),  Spinoza’s often disembodied rationalist metaphysics needs to be re-embodied along tool-combination, lived-relation of bodies in combination as pragmatism, where pragmatism is understood to be an ideational expression of material power.

I am unsure though why Harman resists panpsychism, from which he distances himself at several points. But perhaps Spinoza’s panpsychism would prove more palatable to his project of deepening actor networks, or perhaps Campanella’s pansensism.

Harman’s Prince of Networks  forthcoming

Mark Fisher’s somewhat helpful, somewhat world-weary commentary on Harman’s Latour for Frieze magazine: “Clearing the Air

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