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The Sprache of Achilles: The Panoply of Speech

The Man that Does Not Think by Oneself

I want this post to both grow out of a comment Carl from Dead Voles made on the thread Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says… and also to be an expansion upon the thoughts I began on my recent post Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend. There is a certain compatibility between Wittgensteinian language game approaches and the speaking strategies of Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad, and it is my hope to use the figure of Achilles to point forward toward a way that is neither tragic, nor alienated in the world of objects, a post-human world of forces and coherent assemblage.

Carl was responding to a line from the neo-Marxist/Spinozist Etienne Balibar, that that reflects something of Wittgenstein’s well-known Private Language Argument: “If no man ever thinks alone, then we might say that to know really is to think ever less by oneself”

This is making me think of Wittgenstein’s private language problem. Perhaps we’ve come full circle and back to your original post. In with the not-said is all of the rules and tools that any particular language game makes available to take for granted. These are the conditions for any intelligible and communicative statement. In practice they arise out of discourse communities, which are associated with ways of life, which are conditioned by all sorts of things starting with food and up through durable institutions. I trust I can wave my hands like this and convey a gist.

We make our own worlds, but not in conditions of our own choosing, as Marx said. So I couldn’t agree more when you say “I find it more valuable to see how we can invest the tradition itself with new possibilities, to change the tradition from within. And whether it is the tradition that is doing the thinking, or us as originals, really doesn’t matter.” Except I’d say it’s both, always both…

We had been discussing Graham Harman’s appropriation of Heidegger’s notion of Dasein and implied objecthood, coupled with his stout refusal to grant that Heidegger held such an idea as is originally his own, that objects other than human beings could have their own Dasein determination. The idea is meant to be both implicitly found within Heidegger, but also excluded from Heidegger. In a sense, it partakes in the authority of Heidegger, but aims to be immune to critiques of the same. In this regard, Carl suggests (at least it seems to me) that within a Wittgensteinian terminology, the language game of Heidegger’s description of the world might be seen to have within its possibilities of Graham Harman’s assertions regarding forever hidden, real objects, although these possibilities were not develped by Heidegger.

Achillean Immanence vs. Odysseus’s Instrumentality

In my previous post on the difference between the heroic figures of fierce and woeful Achilles and the table-turning, wandering Odysseus, I pointed out that Western Philosophy, particularly in its modern manifestations, took on the wrong Greek hero. Instead of the radiating Achilles who defines himself by his bonds and presents himself as a pure man of action (or inaction), of which speech was a considerable means, philosophy concerned itself with the No-man traveler of endless turns, the serial human being whose only defining characteristic is his mind’s capacity to dexterously articulate itself amid the contingencies of Being, all the while largely homeless, spread across the earth.

There is an important factor in the story of Achilles though that narrows the point and brings us directly back to the comparison to language games that Carl draws. And this is Achilles’s linguistic strategies as found in his speech of the Ninth Book of the Iliad. For those who are unfamiliar, or need to be refreshed, Achilles the greatest warrior of the Greeks has withdrawn from the Trojan War because his rightfully awarded prize Briseis was taken from him by Agamemnon who is nominally the chief of the Hellenic contingent, as some sort of recompense for his own war-prize, a daughter of a priest of Apollo having to be returned. The Hellenic warriors now are loosing the battle without their most powerful ally, and Agamemnon is faced with the shame of having acted unrightfully. Achilles has been convinced to come to a great hall meeting where he is to make a plea articulating his being wronged. As it has been put, “Achilles needs to be paid, but he cannot be bought off”. 

Now this is the interesting thing. Achilles in our collective memory is largely thought of as some kind of glorious and blood splattered athlete, a kind of brute beauty perhaps, a pure articulation of body. But this is not at all the case in the minds of the listeners of Homer. He is a master of the lute and song, learned in the secrets of medical arts, and adroitly mesmerizing in speech (muthos). In his speech to the hall, in rebuttal to Odysseus’s finely constructed argument, he combines personal expression and ethical character argumentation (I am this way, Agamemnon is that way) to present a plea which strains the very form of the heroic hexameter verse in which it is to appear.

The Book 9 Speech: The New and the Old

There has been debate about the unique uses of language forms by Achilles ever since Adam Parry’s 1956 article “The Language of Achilles” which claimed that Achilles’ abuse of the heroic form actually indicated his pure and existential alienation from the rigidity of human ordination. He was in a sense, cut off from history, and in the end performs some sort of transcendental and divine reconsilation. David Claus in his 1975 “Aidös and the Language of Achilles” denied Parry’s conclusions, rather arguing that Achilles in speech only melded the heroic code to its new possibilities, bending and transforming its rules. The context of these interpretations can be seen in the informative essay, “The Language of Achilles: Reconstrution vs. Representation,” Steve Nimis (1986)[click here]. There Nimis sums Claus’s understanding of Achilles’ maneuver as the following,

Achilles, Claus argues, does not simply negate the heroic “code” (taking this term to mean a pattern of meaningful behavior and speech), but rather stretches and bends it in order to articulate his own ideal view of that code. Hence despite the formality and rhetorical predictability of his overt statements, [Achilles] manages to suggest a division of the heroic world into men who feel and love, who can fight, who have proper joy in their possessions, and those who rely on “things” to defend themselves against heroic sthenos, who seek to be kinglier than others, whose possessions are nothing good to them, who do not even know what a life is worth. Again, while this rejects Agamemnon and all his ways, it leaves the heroic code, at least as Achilles idealizes it, intact.

It is this I would like to focus on, the way in which an Achillean ideal type, through the force of his Being, his ideational and bodily capacity to act, takes hold of the existing “language game” and torques it to express what cannot otherwise be expressed within it. And in so doing, idealizes it by living out the expression he/she has formed. And it is specifically at the nexus of valuation that Achilles draws his distinction within the heroic realm. There are two kinds of men:

1. Men who feel and love, who can fight, who have proper joy of their possessions.

2. Those who rely on “things” to defend themselves against heroic strength [sthenos], who seek to be kinglier than others, whose possessions are nothing good to them, who do not even know what a life is worth.

Beneath this division is really the instrumentality of valuation, the unbodied, placeholder conception of “things” (objects and situations) as separable units of deploy vs. the lived and built bonds of enfleshed alliance. It is the difference between instrument and prosthetic grafting. Achilles forms his words out of his very fleshed circumstance, fully committed to what he can do. Agamemnon (and Odysseus) has politically weighed and buried self-interest against the possibilities of advance.

Nimis, taking both interpretive positions of relative alienation in hand, then qualifies Achilles’s speech act within the linguistic distinction of rule-governed creativity, and rule-changing creativity:

Both Claus’ analyses of Achilles’ speeches and Parry’s notion of Achilles’ alienation can be rethought in these terms, taking our cue from the distinction linguists make between rule-changing creativity and rule-governed creativity. All communication occurs in terms of conventions, but such conventions are constantly being used to “say” new things by various creative strategies. Rule-governed creativity is defined as the production of a new phrase or message which is a combination of conventional units in a way governed by prior conventions. Thus the sentence “there is a golden mountain on the moon” would be a “new” expression, but able to be understood given the existing conventions of English. Wallace Stevens’ famous line, however, “green colorless ideas sleep furiously,” is an example of rule-changing creativity, since the production and interpretation of this phrase require the establishment of a new convention which does not yet exist. Achilles’ speeches can be said to be examples of such rule-changing creativity. Like Wallace Stevens, he is a sign-producer who wishes to change the “code”, to articulate a meaning for whose communication and accurate reception no adequate conventions exist as yet. The situation seems to be paradoxical: if communication is based on conventions, how can it occur where no conventions exist? Yet unless we assume that language is “natural” in the strict sense (i.e., that it is immanent), all language must have become conventional by some form of rule-changing creativity (4)

Aside from the fact that Donald Davidson does have an answer for how language can occur without shared conventions, we can glimpse at the way in which Achilles’s speech act is to be idealized as the exemplar of almost all creative artistic activity. It is the attempt creatively change the rules of the game that refuses your articulation, rather than play by the rules (and break them secretly when you can). And in so doing attempt to isolate and express the purpose of the language game in the first place.

Now there is something a bit Hegelian about this take of Nimis’s, and it really shows up in his conclusion, but I would like to focus on Achilles’s alienation. He is not alienated from human beings as a class, for he gets along well with his Myrmidons who he leads, and Protroclus who he loves, and Briseis, and Phoenix his old mentor (despite disagreements), and his mother the goddess Thetis. He alienated from his moment in history, the condition he has found himself in, as an injustice has been suffered. And he experiences this not as a personal injustice, which it is, but as a crisis in leadership itself, in the unkingliness of the said King who does not fight nor act equal to his position. This is shown much later in the Hellenic games Achilles presides over, after Agamemnon has left the narrative, showing the correct form of generous rule. Fair is not a calculation. So Achilles’s is not an ontological alienation under which he is somehow removed from his very Being, but a contingent insufficiency of expression, wherein his constitutional bonds are stretched. In this way, Achilles creatively stretches the heroic form, and with great expense steps away from the game so to affect it with his absence. A great portion of the tale is told with his absence as the main actor until finally it is only his armor that arrives. Achilles is the full inhuman and divine breadth that is in what’s human.

Achilles as Actor

When I suggest that the Achillean answer to the traditional Odysseus problems of philosophy is available, it is this that I emphasize (to select a few).

1. A substanced capacity to live through your bonds and attachments, and not simply use or deploy them.

2. The capacity to realize that speech acts are fully material acts, and that we can readily use rule-changing creativity to express what is within a rule-governed game.

3.The rhetor and the gnostic become the same person because the difference between the political and performance is collapsed.

4. Maintaining the hyper-human (divine) and trans-human (inanimate, elemental forces) spectrum of action, drawing on all our capacities to manifest (Solar Achilles).

5. Employ the immanence of one’s power as necessarily a limit reachable by mercy, the affirmation of custom renewed (Priam).

6. The value of things is fate.

7. Don the Achillean armor of immanence carefully, prudently (Patroclus); you are already wearing it.

8. When you make the corpse (Hector), turning the living into surface through the inscription of your desire, you must release it.

This is far from the self-negating existentialism of Odysseus (at least before he comes home to Ithica, as he becomes qualified by later Attic Tragedy). The human being takes its place within a panoply of historical objects, each fighting to bring forth its full expression. And bonds formed between living an inanimate things are as solid as atomic bonds, the forceful living through, and by the others around us. Man does not travel on his own temporal river, sequestered from the world, blessed/cursed only with the negating power of his consciousness. Man does not travel cloaked with the negating power of his own mortality. In the figure of Achilles it is not the illusion that man is both angel and animal, and therefore neither, the gap between them, but rather as all things are so constituted, man is a spectrum of forces brought to bear in their moment of history, finding the articulation that is best possible for them, those voices and those continuities.

Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend

 

Carl at Dead Voles wrote a pair of ruminations that flowed from an all-too-honest confession of how to write a philosophy paper by Graham Harman (apparent Graham linked to the comments, and then deleted the link, finding the criticism out of bounds). First he critiqued Graham’s very helpful suggestions on how to structurally spruce up a paper, things like breaking it up into sections, identifying tensions with positions other than your own, and then mixing in a Classic thinker, drawing our attention to how as a historian Carl finds this process (expanded into a prescription for how to read books, and dovetail papers with talks) to be painfully different from the kinds of closer examinations he must carry out. Then in “Shopping at the Black Box Store” he draws heavier consequences from this kind of text and thought production, summing up the problems with the Latourian proposal that Theories operate primarily as Black Boxes, calling for perhaps a better, more lucid metaphors (linking parts of Metaphors We Live By), ultimately pointing towards the Black Boxes of Marxist thought:

This is an interesting metaphor to me, because in my dissertation I used it to characterize marxist approaches to revolutionary consciousness and suggested that its darkness contributed to enabling some pretty serious errors and atrocities. Perhaps a more transparent and reflective sort of thinking (not to mention a more glassy set of metaphors) might have contributed to a more humane revolutionary practice?

Part of this response falls at the feet of philosophy itself, with a real mourning that Graham Harman’s lessons how how to produce and package philosophical ideas does describe the requirements of a real environment for philosophy production. One really must roll one reading into another talk. One really should through in a Classical thinker every now an then. I mean, there is a brand to keep up. Distinct from the real sense that theories can be seen as Black Boxes that can indeed be opened up to see how they work, there is also in Latour (and Harman’s celebration of the same), the sense that the way that a theory succeeds is by Black Boxing itself, keeping its hidden mechanisms opaque to the viewer.

Two Kinds of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke said brilliantly in his Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  There is the sense that any theory that is to be successfully put forth has to operate as a kind of magic, and a magic that happens when we don’t quite know how they did that. This is distinct of course from the kind of magic one feels when we “see how they did that,” when we see how things connect and manifest. There seems to be a fundamental tension between these two kinds of magic.

Graham Harman’s behind the scenes “tricks of the trade”  benevolent advice to up and coming thinkers perhaps invests in both kinds of magic. This is how it all connects, what Carl calls the glimpse behind the curtain: this is how you can create the illusion of deep and analytical thinking, and gather momentum in your profession and your brand. And there is a beautiful magic in “How to be a Successful Philosopher” perhaps in the same way as magician in training would feel relieved to know now how to saw the lady in half. Much of Graham’s professional insight seems to fall into this category of “there is no mystery for how to make the mystery appear”.

But as I read it, Carl’s problem isn’t with Graham’s successful procedures, but with the very social conditions which reward and reinforce just these habits of reading and paper building. Do theories only become accepted through a kind of magical allure, a seduction into a willing-suspension of disbelief, a refusal to let others look under the hood? I believe that what flows from Carl’s objection to skim reading and antique philosopher insertion is something of the same objection to mass-produced objects of consumption. There is the sense that yes, you can do it that way, but perhaps I want something hand-carved. When philosophy bases itself upon idea and text production of this sort, does it not take as its very material that which is most malleable to such a process?

Achilles Contra Odysseus

With these thoughts in mind throughout the intermittency of morning I found my mind turning to a comparison which was somewhat prevalent in Athenian society, the contrast between Achilles and Odysseus. There is something to Carl’s appeal for a glassier set of metaphors, and his dissatisfaction with Graham Harman brand-building Black Box stores that for me invokes this antique difference. Odysseus was he man of many turns, polytropos. The word is rich in meanings. Because clever he can turn in any direction, he is a swiss-army knife of mentality and action, full of devices. Yet because of this, his life (despite the homecoming at the Odyssey’s end) is also in quintessential Heideggerian and Holderlinian fashion, a life of wandering, turn upon turn, endlessly thrown into and against the world. He is thought to be in many ways the essentially modern man. To some degree he embodied both the positive and the negative values of contemporary Athenian citizen ideas.

But Achilles was a different sort of figure, a man of a different sort of Age, someone who the Athenian Greeks often felt put the Odysseus of tricks to the pale. A man perhaps who no longer it seemed could exist. Contrary to Odysseus’s adaptability, Achilles was someone who exerted the pure force of his ability to act and manifest itself directly (even it its absence). He was something like a direct radiation of Being. His story in the Iliad told of how man is to act amid social injustice, when one’s nominal leaders lack the community of values which are required to lead. It is told that he is both a rhetor and a doer  in such a way that we understand that speaking is a kind of act and not something readily separable.

There is a very real sense that as the history of Western philosophy, particularly in its modern form, turned to the Greeks for their blueprints of questions and answers, the wrong, or least desirable Greek ideal was absorbed. People like Heidegger rejoiced over the alienations of Odysseus, his homeless machinations, and did not see the simplicity of force found in Achilles. A man conditioned by his loves (Briseis, Patroclus, Thetis, the Myrimdons, then lastly affimed custom, reconsiliation and mercy), and driven to personal yet mutual justice, someone who bent the rules of the very discourse available to express his dissatisfaction, and through a combination of refusal and action morally shaped both his community and historical events. Achilles was man before Man, something that could manifest both itself in surplus of the spectrum of the human, and become god-like, or in deficit of what’s human and become a mere force of Nature. It was the necessary capacity to bestride these two that he embodied to a far greater degree “what is human” than did the later Odysseus who articulated a specific historical domain, which he remained within. 

As philosophy recovers from the Idealisms which plagued the Rights of Man, and seeks to reorient itself within a Real World of forces and objects, it must be wary of ontologizing the Odysseus of what is human, the specific alienations we have generated through our choices (much of it imported through the ontology of the Negation, how his name can only be pronounced as “No-man” by the poly-phemic One). There is a real choice in philosophy I believe, whether to start with the Achilean man (woman), or the Odyssean one, a beginning which directs the kinds of answers we find.

My sense is that as sufferers of modern and post-modern conditions, it is best not to ontologize these to the degree that we cannot imagine ourselves beyond them. Yes, perhaps it is good to learn the tricks of the trade, to bring forth black box powers as a matter of survival, but it is better I suggest to learn the glow of an other competence, the competence of bond, withdrawl and speaking action. I think that there is something to Carl’s glassy metaphors that speaks to the proposed unifications of Achillean force. The ways in which powers are better read and expressed as Real.

What Does Odysseus know that Achilles does not? And what does Achilles know…ontologically?

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]

Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says…

The Ghost of Kant

Graham Harman wants us to pay very close attention to what a metaphysical thinker says, and not what his framework for thinking implies:

What sorts of relations, then, would inanimate things have amongst each other? Well, “Heidegger never says.” But does this mean we can draw no conclusions about it? After spending so much time talking about how entities are both veiled and unveiled for human Dasein, it would have been quite easy for Heidegger, if he had thought of it, to say that “even cotton is both veiled and unveiled for the fire that consumes it.” If he ever had such a notion, why wouldn’t he have said it? It would have been a wonderfully shocking statement, and he would have wanted to draw attention to such a theory. And if it’s really so compatible with his philosophy, then why do orthodox Heideggerians treat me like I have three heads whenever I say it?

The reason is simple… Heidegger works within the framework of the Kantian philosophy of human access to the world (more)…

[update: the material quoted and quoted below no longer exists as Harman deleted his entire blog wherein such discussions and comments occurred]

In this “methodological” move, it seems to me that he conflates two things. There is the very framework that a thinker is thinking in, and then there are the cares and concerns of that philosopher, the perhaps the very reasons why he is using particular assumptions and assertions. And while we do go about imagining that we as philosophers are attacking merely the “structure” of thought, quite honestly we are doing so because of the intentions that it is put to (either consciously by the philosopher, or to some quiet degree, its social effects in history).

The Shock of Claims

So when Graham asks, it would have been quite easy for Heidegger, if he had thought of it, to say that “even cotton is both veiled and unveiled for the fire that consumes it.” If he ever had such a notion, why wouldn’t he have said it? The very plain answer is simply that Heidegger did not care about objects in this way. It likely was meaningless within his interests to point out the possibility, even if there are aspects of it buried in his approach. Perhaps it would be something like pointing out to the writers of the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal” implies that in their proposed country blacks should hold equal rights with whites, and the Jefferson might consider freeing his slaves. It simply wasn’t the point of the equality.

(It is notable that Graham sees as a very good reason Heidegger might have for making a philosophical claim (the one Graham has been currently making), “It would have been a wonderfully shocking statement, and he would have wanted to draw attention to such a theory.” Call me naive, but making a splash and turning heads really isn’t what drives most large scale thinkers, though I can see Graham’s love for Nietzschean style showing through here. He does not seem to consider as essential factors other than the “shock value” of an idea. And in Nietzsche’s defense, at least the Nietzschean outright methodology of shock was coupled with a metaphysical valuation of shock…said he trying to “save” Europe. For some reason the argumentative point, “Philosopher X certainly did not believe Y, for if he did he would have made the claim because it would have gotten him so much attention,” seems more self-revelatory than critical.

Evidence of Harman’s over-sensitivity to shock value can be seen in the introductory comments of his talk “Intentional Objects For Non-Humans”. There he faced the problem of how to alarm an audience of panpsychists:

Normally, a panpsychist theory would be the most shocking part of any lecture- but at a conference on “non anthropological subjectivity” like this one, listeners will already be prepared to grant subjectivity to beings such as flowers and grains of dust. The part about objects will be the more surprising of the two parts today.

Perhaps this is key to understanding the motivations behind Graham Harman’s otherwise entertaining characterizations of the world. They are meant to be surprises, and possess a kind of surprise-value. The problem with “surprise-value” is that it can either point to a radically new idea, or simple incoherence of concept, the difference to be made in explication.)

Taking this into our stride, Chris [Graham’s interolcutor] was confused by Graham’s foreclosure against extrapolations upon a thinker’s beliefs,

“I cannot tell if you’re claiming that philosopher X thinks no relations happen between inanimate objects that are isolated from humans (IOTAIFH?), that philosopher X may think they do but can’t account for them, that philosopher X may think they do and maybe could account for them but thinks they are uninteresting, that philosopher X may think they do privately but metaphysically excludes the possibility, at least implicitly, that philosopher X is more concerned with access, or what. I’d like to respond a bit about Heidegger at some point but I’ve lost a sense of what you’re claiming.” (here)

It seems that we can get closer than this and broadly say that Graham wants to be credited with an invention of the possibilities of Heideggerian thinking, and not let them be attributed to Heidegger himself. But he would also like to use in whole cloth the Heideggerian object-orientation that he does feel largely Heidegger carried out. In a sense, he wants to take Heidegger out beyond the orbit of his own human Dasein planet. We can see this in his clarification to Chris,

But here’s the simplest form of my claim…it’s not so much a matter of whether things can exist apart from humans (it’s all too easy to stave off the solipsism charge by conceding that there might be some uninteresting lump of something out there beyond us), but of whether things can relate apart from humans. And furthermore, whether this relation is taken to be ontologically of the same order as the relation between human and world. Kant and his heirs are typified above all else by putting the human/world relation at the center of the picture.

The question for me is, Heidegger is clearly in Harman’s view one of the heirs of Kant, Is Graham one of the heirs of Heidegger? He certainly methodologically puts the “human/world relation” at the center of the picture, for he works exclusively with Husserlian and Heideggerian concepts, and explicitly states that we must “think down” from “human cases”. Is he trying to keep the authenticity of traditional concepts, yet declare himself immune from their critique? He wants to be Kantian, but then excuse himself from such by projecting such “relating” onto all things (to my ear largely without any rigorous explanation).

The Question Answered

While he wants us not to think along with Badiou or Heidegger and credit them with aspectsof authorship of his own position, (he distinctly does not want any allies to his claims that would threaten their originality), he also wants us not to press too closely similiar critical attributions to his own work. He got very upset when I suggested that as an heir to binarizing Idealism and thus importing optical analogies of hiddenness, his concepts and colorful metaphors for the exotic inner world carry with them a problematic eroticization of the “sensual other”. This is a problem which is distinctly political in consequence in terms of real people in the world.  His counter-claim, “I never said that!”

One really has to acknowledge, apart from dramatized appeals to originality, that the great joy and significance in philosophy come in investigating just what philosophers “never said”. We want to uncover the implicit possibilities with the horizon of a philosopher’s thought. Part of this comes from the decided fact that philosophies arise in answer to specific questions. All the terms, concepts and illustrations are pulled into resource to address questions that pre-exist that philosophy, and in some sense work to re-frame the question as it had been previously answered. “He never said…” is often a product of “The question being answered did not require it”. But when we engage a particularly interesting philosopher, not only do we want to see if he/she answered the question that they have redescribed well, but we want to think along with them and see, imagine for ourselves, how they would then answer this other question? And while there may be a division between how would the “person” answer this question, and how would the philosophy itself answer the question, it is the latter of these two that is perhaps the more interesting.

And there is a further aspect of investigating a philosophy. We also ask, what questions is the philosophy repressing, keeping from being asked? What is being hidden by the very form of the answers given?

Loxogonically, The Picture, the Path and the Hand

 

The recent orientation towards objects in philosophy which has been sponsored by Graham Harman’s radical claims has definitely got me thinking about how objects have appeared to me, have entered into my experience as a thinker over the years. Always they ripped apart at the seams and showed so many dangling strings I never really understood the philosophical concentration on them, as principal.

Loxogonospherical Moods

This preoccupation has caused me to consider again something undeveloped, my drawing style, if it can be called that. For as much as we like to grasp the situations in the world through our language and relaying concepts, when one takes pen and ink into hand and “copies” the world, or some corner in it, generally one realizes that “representation” is not fully what is happening. The hand itself begins to speak and tell. There is a commuity between the supposedly distant object, the host of our affections, and the concretization of the living line at pen’s tip. It is never the case of a “gap” unless exact, mythological reproduction is your aim (there is no such thing). There is just a question of grades, intensities, dullings, pointednesses of continuity in communication. The product is immediate, and its connection sensed as sharp and true (even if the drawing is felt to be a failure by the artist or a viewer). There is always the causal connection of the link, the sense that what is produced is evidently there due to the effects of the thing drawn and the sedimentary effects of the drawer (intentions, histories, skills, physiologies, phenomenologies, ideas, beliefs, etc.) Something comes through. And none of it cloaks.

Topography

So with these thoughts I’ve begun a new topographic space, in parallel to this one, where merely drawings of objects will be placed. The meaning is two-fold. For one, I would like to investigate what my hand might tell me at this stage. What about objects is it that I may learn. I am hopeful that my rudimentary style will develop my eye and show me something more about objects and my body. It is a type of phenomenological investigation, not internally directed, but rather connectively produced. The intensional object being the extensional one, folding the viewer into the viewed. This is related to the secondary and perhaps much more minor hope, that those who have read my philosophical critiques might by seeing “how I see” (and I really do see in this way), might come to weigh my philosophical points a bit differently. And lastly, I have a number of friends who are not very conceptually driven, and this alternate weblog will give them perhaps a way into my abstractions which for me are extremely concrete, and significant realities.

I hope to be posting pen and ink investigations into objects there frequently. It is a place for very few words.

The Coming Medieval Scholasticism of SR

A Debate “Worth Having”

Responding to Splintering Bone Ashes prediction that there will rise up an eliminativist (materialist) branch in the Speculative Realism debate, Graham dreams of waking up in a world where the Scholastic Realism vs. Nominalism debate had been permanently revived (part of his love for irreducible tensions):

What if I could wake up every morning and the big debate was between the eliminativist and non-eliminativist wings of the post-SR landscape?

And not only “every morning” but a debate confined to the wings of a post-SR landscape. It is a wonder when a “school” of thought [σχολαστικός (scholastikos)] dreams of the ideal intellectual activity as an internal split between the wings of its own party (a desire seen in Graham’s humorous title for a new talk, “Realism Good, Materialism Bad“). Perhaps it is notable that this confessed fantasy is that Graham himself could wake up to such an endless debate, and not that “we” a community of collective thinkers could. Apart from the self-revelry aspect, we might say, yes, this debate was one worth having, in fact they had it for nearly a thousand years, so why not have it within the SR landscape. But when it becomes so intrasquad and arbitrary to SR, will it not simply exhibit the worst aspects of Scholastism, with angels on heads of pins being “count[ed] as one”?

There is one interesting part of this nouvelle Scholasticism, Graham Harman seems to find himself a bit on both sides of the traditional Realism/Nominalism divide. As an Idealist of the Aristotlean tradition he favors the “intentional objects” of reductive Nominalism, but as Old World Latourian he wants perceived wholes, any collection of objects, to be considered as Real and actorly. As such he positions himself as something of a conceptualist, but wherein all objects hold conceptions, each one a little Kantian Copernican sun (collapsing into red giants, as Graham would have it). I have yet to be able to make sense of this claim except as the most poetic of appeals: what does it mean for my bank account and rusted lawn mower to both be continuously making metaphors about the world? Huh? But one could see how happy an environment this would make for such a claim. Never mind if this position is completely cogent or coherent, let it take its place in opposition to something that is also incoherent. Let me be oriented in opposition. In my view, quite apart from Graham’s love for irreducible and tensioned pairs, when two halves of a characterization perpetuate continous dispute and even sub-divisions, there is very likely something wrong with the initial binarization itself. Fixing it does not involve taking a little from each side. The answer just isn’t found there. (As much fun as we might have looking.) Each side brings about the other. A self-perpetuation machine.

Perhaps it is better to not be so Scholastic. 

The Whiteness of Metaphysics: Colored Readings of the Same

The Murderer of Agamemnon

ἆ ἆ, ἰδοὺ ἰδού: ἄπεχε τῆς βοὸς
τὸν ταῦρον: ἐν πέπλοισι
μελαγκέρῳ λαβοῦσα μηχανήματι
τύπτει!..

Ah, ah, See, see! Hold off from the cow
the bull!  Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina
striking!

Agamemnon (lines 1125-1128)

Ἀργεῖός εἰμι, πατέρα δ᾽ ἱστορεῖς καλῶς,
Ἀγαμέμνον᾽, ἀνδρῶν ναυβατῶν ἁρμόστορα,
ξὺν ᾧ σὺ Τροίαν ἄπολιν Ἰλίου πόλιν
ἔθηκας. ἔφθιθ᾽ οὗτος οὐ καλῶς, μολὼν
εἰς οἶκον: ἀλλά νιν κελαινόφρων ἐμὴ
μήτηρ κατέκτα, ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν
κρύψας᾽, ἃ λουτρῶν ἐξεμαρτύρει φόνον.

Argive I am, my father – you fairly inquire –
Was Agamemon, the nautical Riveter of men,
With him you the Troad uncitied Illion city
Claimed. His end was not so fair come
Home; but he blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled game
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder.

Eumenides (lines 455-461)

[apologies if the Greek fonts don’t come through]

Examples of Greek Otherness

I wish to briefly examine conceptions of othernessas found in the Greek notions of the world, so as to get a grip upon how deviant from these the modern appropriations of the same are in concept, with a particular eye upon Heidegger’s evocation of invisivibility and presence. Above are two descriptions of the method of Clytemnestra’s murder of the returning Agamemnon. The details of which will cue us unto the Greek otherness of “woman,” and relatedly (though she is not Eastern like Medea), the otherness of the East, Persia, Phrygia, and finally perhaps otherness itself: Same vs. Different.

The first from Aeschylus tells us that she smote him with a device, a machine, horned and smothered in a mantel.

Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina
striking!

The second is even more interesting, for the wordplay is excelerated:

blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled [poikilois] game [agreumasin]
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder

We must see in these means and their characterizations the very nature of her own representational otherness, her exotic quality and powers. With grammatical ambiguity she cloaks either herself or her husband in ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν, itself an intricate phrasing. The poikilois has multiple meanings all of which point to things varigated and potentially confusing. To quote the Greek lexicon, “”many-coloured, spotted, mottled, pied, dappled, of leopards, fawns; of robes, wrought in various colours, broidered; intricate; metaphorically changeful, various, diversified; intricate, complex; subtle; of persons, subtle, wily” (LSJ); and the agreumasin, can mean both the hunter’s snares used to catch prey, but also the game animal itself. With remarkable economy of words, Clytemestra hid within and struck by means of the very intricacy of her plans, and a garment, as a dangerous, even technological force camoflaged by the powers of its own complexity. Complexity, folded-in-ness was the mark of a power of otherness. For the Greeks intricacy, such as that which typified the craft skills of Asia Minor, bore in its very profound and natural interconnection the magical danger, the trap and the power of animal forces to both hide and kill. It was not so much the lack of transparency, to be understood in a fundamental binary of invisible/colored, but the actual production of confusion on the part of the viewer, a “how did they do that!” born of the very incalculable implications expressed in variegation itself. A tangle, if betwitching knot of things, labyrinth in need of a “poria” a ford in the river of it. The mention of the labyrinth is not accidental. What is forewarned against is the very Daedalus, work-man skill of the foreign hand, the mythological name taken from the verb δαιδάλλω:

[to] work cunningly, embellish, “σάκος . . πάντοσε δαιδάλλων” Il.18.479; “λέχος ἔξεον . . δαιδάλλων χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἠδ᾽ ἐλέφαντι” Od.23.200; of a painter or sculptor, Opp.C.1.335, IG14.967:-Pass., to be spotted, marked, “σφραγῖσι” Opp.C.1.324.

It was the imported capacity to beguile through complexity that made the Greeks wary. And thus it was this very complexity, into which Clytemnestra as a woman folded herself and executed her action. The last line from the Eumenides above, “…the witness of a bath’s murder” leaves us to feel that it was the intricately woven robe (somehow both animate and inanimate) that alone stood as legal witness to the murder which was folded up into it. It is as if the very fibres and twistings make up the eyes of the action. Complexity for the Greek not only revealed itself in surplus of detail, but any hyper-complex manifestion also was read as its complimentary, a kind of fog, an obscuring haze out of which the unpredictably occurs. In a certain sense the Greek mind did see the world itself as dangerously manifest of variegated complexity, obscurely verging on the threat of a cacophony, much as how a coming storm is both richly folded in cloud-effects, but also fogging to human vision. It is for this reason they sought the harmoniously and to some degree unseen wholes behind it.

Translating “true”: from Greek ἀλήθεια (un-forgotten, un-escaped), to Heidegger’s Alêtheia (un-concealed)

Why do I bring these details of the description of Clytemnestra’s murdering under examination? Recently I have been weighing against the metaphysical inheritance of a fundamental white/colored, colonialist conception that has been passed down to Graham Harman through his continuation of a Heideggerian dichotomy: ready-at-hand  invisibility and present-at-hand  cloakedness. (I have promised to leave off this critique so I will only stay at its specific surface here.) Under Harman’s interpretation of Heidegger the invisibility of working tool-beings carries the purity of object essences, their very whiteness (what he terms as “retreat”), while the colored cloak of “presence” necessarily occludes by virtue of its very shaded deception that invisible white. It is enough to point out that the projections of magical powers of inter-connectivity upon the East did not begin with German Idealism, but as is well known, but in the rough cut of Western culture with the Greeks. Phrygia and the surrounding areas passing all the way to Persia embodied the feminizing dangers of excessive wealth, sensuality and deceptively intricate skill (and it is not without coincidence that the entire Amazonian inversion of Athenian society was projected to the shores of the Black Sea). This is not to lessen the idealizations of wisdom and wealth to the South, Egypt and Africa. Eastern projections, orientalizations, are as old as Western civilization as it is classically conceived.

So as metaphysics proper, as a certain kind of study of the the idea of the Same and the Different, Unitary and Multiple, takes its main root from Greek Society, upon which there can only be a partial mapping of a Anglo-Germanic notions of purity of essence, there is the duty of the tracking of the concept. When taking European metaphysics in hand, one has to ask the cultural question, in tracing the dichotomy of Greek Same-Harmonious/Variegated-Dangerous onto a largely invisible/visible, How White is Metaphysics itself? Can one currently metaphysize upon primary binaries of same/different within a primary optical metaphor of invisible/colored and not be caught up in the historical contrast between white/colored?

From Intrication to Shaded Color

The question otherness as variegation or coloredness is complex for Greek society, for their divisions of Same and Different did not meet the same racial and necessarily optical categories that have been privleged in modern European thought since the 17th century. As I have mentioned, for the Greek there is an emphasis on manifestation, but it is not so much as optical manifestation as a kind of textiled conception of plexity. The world is in a way woven together of elements, forces, powers, and even the Platonic notion of forms is misunderstood if it is only conceived of optically as invisible or hiddenly white. Those modern Europeans for instance were the recievers of a image of the Greek which did not realize that the Parthenon was painted. The plain Greek marble forms were not the full expression of their art. The painted Greek was something that the 19th century wonderful and brilliant Gottfried Semper finally told only to dulled ears.

 

So when German Idealists pursued the white invisibles of pure Greek perception, they were handicapped in a sense. Not only did they have a historically incorrect view of Ancient Greek concepts of whiteness and form (so prevalent and enchanting are those stripped-away statues and columns, weathered of their colored “accidents” which a Classicists imagined were never there), but the pure, white receding essence of things had to be also discerned within a cultural context imbued with valuations of color which were much more over-determined than any in the Greek city state. The confusions of color, variegation and pattern now had become more shaded. There was the Asian, the Moor, the Jew, the New World Indian; and each of these skins themselves were reconstructed by European poltical and economic dealings. This being admitted, the question remains. Are our own metaphysics spun from the categories of European metaphysics not caught in the very white/colored ethnic projections which include those euphanic eroticizing ones of Eastern idealization (their sensuality, interconnectivity, wisdom, attachments, transgressive gender forms, connection to the world); and are not these concepts additionally polarized by the often suppressed animalizing real of the concept “black”? Did not the 17th century’s rise of black slavery in historical terms re-mark what foreign and mediating color meant in severe economic and ideological terms such that mediations on opticality necessarily carry with them include mediations on race and color?

I am interested in this because I do see how Heidegger’s metaphysics (and its attachments to the East) embody a possibly virulent white/colored dichotomy, [ The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman) ];  and thus I weigh criticism against all philosophies derived from Heidegger’s essential optical terms (including Graham Harman’s as I have outlined here and here). But still, I am an appreciator of metaphysics, and in particular that of the philosophy of Spinoza, and so I am curious as to how closely we can press this criticism to others of the modern metaphysics family.

I have said in the past the I find strong correlates between Heidegger and Spinoza, and that Substance in the latter speaks to Being in the former. Is Spinoza’s unity of Substance, its very invisibility like Heidegger’s, an invisibility of whiteness, an essential whiteness which lies behind colored deception?

The question of white and colored is an interesting one for Spinoza. As someone like Graham Harman would like to make the sensuous, interconnecting, enwealthed kinds, to be kinds of mediation, the 17th century Sephardim Jew serves as quite a likely fantasy space for just such a projection. The Jew, newly freed from really centuries of Inquisitional brutality at the hands of the Spanish, families having hidden within the Christian world as converted merchants, now became the ultimate vicarious mediators of European economics. And Spinoza’s family was part of an epicenter of growing Jewish commercial wealth, his father for a time a very prominent merchant of some standing in the community of Sephardim, who bore their Spanish/Moorish stain in the shade of their skin. It was the un-Christian Jew as the licentious, greedy other, the dirty human oil that helped the rising capitalist machine work. Long had they performed the marginal act of interest-charging usary, the unsaintly making of money on money, something out of nothing but relations. Come from such a mediating people and a merchant family, does Spinoza’s metaphysics also work with bias against the mediation of the colored and varigated? 

Spinoza’s metaphysics certainly keeps to a notion of the Imaginary which is marked by its confusing conflations of images and traces. The colored world of pictures for Spinoza certainly was a beguiling one, one that tricks you into not seeing the true causes of things. But we should temper; it was not so much for Spinoza that very the concrete complexity of the modal world was deceptive or dangerous, but rather that the profusion of inner imaginary associations that defrauded the “eyes of the mind” of greater power and self-determination.

Spinoza and Slavery

The question of color for Spinoza and his time is historically not that simple. In the 17th century not yet has “black” come to embody and polarize “white” such that all deviations from White became aspects of Blackness. Black was still “African” or “Ethiopian” and not yet a pure category, which does not mean that there was not an active white/colored binary informing social and economic structures. This complexity of color can be seen in the question of the role of Jews in the black slave trade, especially as it began to rise almost exponentially in the sugar trade, something the Jews of Amsterdam were thoroughly invested in. There is a notable historical absence of evidence of the direct involvement of Sephardim Jews in the Slave trade, but they were intimately involved the entire economic processes which relied upon it [ Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade; Evidence for connection of the Spinoza family to the Sugar TradeSpinoza Sugar Time Table; The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian” ]. Was this relative abstention of contact with black and indigenous slave trade the respect the otherwise persecuted Jews had for people of color, or is it a sign of their careful buffering through New Christians. It seems history does not know. So there is no clear way to position the 17th century Amsterdam Jew within the white/colored dichotomy that was developing [Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]. In any case the question of clarity and invisibleness had not yet reached a polarizing limit, one in which black and white formed an entire spectrum of opacity and color.

So when investigating Spinoza’s metaphysics in terms of social color we are left without a solid place to stand. His family was likely involved in the sugar trade (a central investment of the Amsterdam Sephardim community), and it may have even been that trade that drove him to the pursuit of metaphysics and lenses (see, the collapse of the Recife colony). Both his brother and sister both later in life moved to Caribbean locals dominated by slave production. But, Spinoza was an excommunicate of his own Amsterdam Jewery; they were forbidden to even stand under the same roof as him. So he was twice removed from the “white” of Same.

Yet, this does not make him immune to the critique that metaphysics of invisible essence embody white/colored social dichotomies. In fact his ostricization may have further propelled him towards the dichotomy’s perfection, as he sought in letters to make himself a citizen of the world, quietly championing a radical democracy of freedoms. His ultimate appeal to the Same of Substance is difficult to assess. But it is notable that he very seldom appeals to metaphors of optical clarity or even to light itself, despite the naturalness of such an appeal. Not only was he a lens grinder and an telescope maker, but the Spiritual Collegiants with whom he had connections regularly used the trope of the light of God to forward their unitarian views. For some reason Spinoza found optical metaphors (in fact all metaphors) misleading. He wanted to speak of how things were, not what they were like, and even the notion of “hiddenness” was unhelpful. He even moved from Descartes’ optically inspired “clear and distinct” rather quickly, wanting to focus on bodily experiences of power and Joy, and the concrete connections between things and ideas. It was all of the body that had to be pulled into view, and not just its eyes. For this reason Spinoza’s is a philosophy of proximity I believe. Nothing is distant.

It is really this reluctance of Spinoza to engage in optical metaphors as the primary means for getting to the radical non-human truth of things that I believe keeps him from falling into the problematic of Same = White. Because most things in the world (objects) do not possess a visual cortex, while optical might make a good rhetorical/conceptual base for a metaphysics of purely a human realm like Heidegger’s, it is hopelessly distorting when trying to describe the dyanamic realities of things that cannot see. Once the colored veil is fully employed, historical notions of color find their anchor point. For the Greeks the notions of freedom and of color were not so determinatively overcoded, even for the Romans, and one might argue even for the 17th century (though I cannot help but see something quite “White” in Leibniz’s foundational reflective monads and his vision of universal rationality in response to the threats of democracy: Leibniz’ “optical” Response to the Theologico-Political Treatise ).

Further, insofar as Spinoza does accept a colored veil of confused “imaginary knowledge” he explicitly does not privilege this of foreign peoples, but sees it as explicitly constructive of the Jewish Nation, not to mention modern European society. The layering of the colored is a question of degree and isn’t one of mediation really. The colored complications of concrete manifestation and our imaginary states are the full-figured expression of God and Substance. Totality expressing itself to its limit. In this way Spinoza is much more in the “distaff tradition” (if I recall the Deleuzian term correctly), the tradition of weaving rather than of appearance.

Indeed it is the entire “veil of ideas” tradition that Idealism took up – carried on through Malebranche’s interpretation of Descartes, and then Reid’s of the same, that came to treat the opticality of ideas (or their phenomenal apperception) as object mediations between the self and the world. This approach to mental objects makes of actions of our minds an intermediary thing which might or might not pass us through to the world.

Distinct from this object-orientation, it is said that the very form of the Parthenon, its high lintel above subtly weightless columns, was readily understood by any Greek in the city to be of the form of the woman’s loom that dominated each and every hearth of the home. Perhaps it with this conception we should consider the internal play of colors and light, understanding that our mental actions not only knot and unknot things in the world, but also are cross-knottings themselves, expressions of the loom we find ourselves in.

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

The Gleam of Gold and the Pasha of Causation

Graham was generous enough a spirit to take my cultural criticism of his metaphysics at a distance, and to allow my commentary to largely remain at the level of theory. In my last two posts, The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman), and then The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert I attempted to lay out the bare bones theoretical framework for such a critique, along lines of an essential “invisible but working” and “visible but broken” dichotomy, buried at the heart of Heidegger; and then, stretching into example, to show that the very words, metaphors and topics of Graham’s characterizations of the realm of “sensuous objects” bore a significant resemblance to the Orientalizing descriptions of North Africa, offered by Gustave Flaubert, an author that Graham has strong resistence to, due to his Orientalization of the land of Egypt. My point was that Graham’s Heideggerian and Husserlian essentializations, and in particular his use of them, carry with them a, perhaps historically unconscious, colonialist white/colored dichotomy which operates through much of our social stereotypes of the East and the Exotic, positioning these sensuous “essences” in a problematic role opposite necessarily retreating invisible essences (especially when one buries them in the heart of a universal theory of causation).

This was his response to the offered critique. He at first dismisses it, bluntly, and honestly, but then makes some important and debatable points:

I don’t think much of the connection, to be blunt. But there’s a certain beauty to the post, with its commentary on hilarious phrases that I’d forgotten I’d even written (“like streamers on a maypole or jewels on a houka”) and the always stunning wealth of illustration that is part of Kevin’s package in every post.

But no, I don’t see why binaries or hiddenness lead to orientalism in the bad sense. They do lead to orientalism in the sense of exoticism, and I do love the exotic. But you have to remember that I don’t think you need to be around non-white peoples to get the exotic. You can already get it from a cheap hammer withdrawing into its subterranean tool-effect in places like Logan, Utah and Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t have to come to Egypt to get that sort of concealment.

Incidentally, I am made very suspicious by the fact that it’s almost always Westerners who accuse people of Orientalism. I’ve never been accused of this by an Egyptian (nor even a Westerner before Kevin). The West loves to accuse itself of horrible, apocalyptic crimes, but isn’t it clear that this is just the flip side of patriotic hubris? It’s a way of making the West a privileged term by saying “if we’re not the best, then we must be the worst.” And when people call themselves the worst at anything, it’s usually a way of fishing for compliments. (source here)

I have to say first off that I cherish the way that Graham is able to laugh at himself, especially when aspects of his old writing are brought back to haunt him. This is a golden capacity. Graham’s prodigious use of metaphor in his metaphysics is something that he savors. I recall him in a recent post being resolutely unapologetic for his metaphors, saying something of the sort, “Should I apologize for writing well?” (it made me genuinely smile). So to have your own metaphors turned against you, or exposed as a kind of “bad writing” (which I don’t really see them as), can’t be all that pleasant. But it is exactly to his metaphors that one is forced to turn. In part, because he uses them profusely, and in part because he leverages his entire theory upon metaphorization itself, folding his style into his content. If the strength of his theory is metaphorical, so there it must be tested.

And it was exactly his metaphorically charged synthesis of the objects of Husserl and Heidegger which exposed for me that hidden cultural, colonialist dichotomy to be found in Heidegger’s invisible-white/colored, working/broken, sense of the world. It wasn’t until Graham started talking about the sensuousness of the Intentional Object world in terms that were to my ear quite tribal and orientializing that the full picture came into view. There remains the larger question of whether Heidegger or Husserl fall to this critique (I believe that in the very least Heidegger does), but Graham Harman’s unique product from the thinking of these two seems specifically organized around a orientalizing projection. One might say that it makes up its allure.

“Good” Orientalism and the Money Changer

But I’d like to take up, anew, his appeal to the exotic through binarism. (I did post a response to his commentary which I will follow to some degree, found again here). He says, quoting from above,

“I don’t see why binaries or hiddenness lead to orientalism in the bad sense. They do lead to orientalism in the sense of exoticism, and I do love the exotic.”

It strikes me that though he explicitly denies my point in the first part, not seeing the “connection” I am making, he apparently does see that there is a connection. Binaries which emphasize hiddenness do  lead to orientalism, just not the “bad” kind of orientalism. This confuses me a bit for a variety of reasons. The first is the seeming outright contradiction (I see no connection, then I see a connection), but secondly as I pointed out in my response, he feels that there is a good kind of orientialism, ignoring the obvious tendency of “good” essentializations of peoples to flip themselves into “bad” essentialization. As I wrote in response, I am forced to state some rather obvious social facts, how a positive “exotic” quickly becomes the basis for a negative “exotic”:

One may eroticize the American Indian, and see them as spiritually attuned to Nature, but this too can animalize them, and make them unfit for self-determination, or in need of Salvation. One can see how great the American Black dances, how much rhythm they have and “cool” they are, and also realize by virtue of this, you really wouldn’t want them in charge of your money market fund.

Is this fair? Is Graham really stating that there are positive exoticizations of persons and cultures but remaining blind to the shadow of such a process? To take a historical example, does he not see that the exoticness of the Jew allowed him to historically stand outside of Christian law in a nether world, and make money through the otherwise un-Christian charging of interest? Is not the “Jew” (and there are so many other kinds of historical examples), an ideal model for Graham’s internalized, mediating Orientalization, becoming in the 16th and 17th centuries the very exo-teric mediating form for Capitalized growth? There is that spectacular story of how in Spinoza’s lifetime English royalty – I’ve forgotten which – had to literally come to the Jewish Ghetto in Amsterdam to secure funds to continue the war. How ex-otic. Talk about Vicarious Causation. And where does the “positive” of this binarization of the exotic stop? When does “they are so good at communications, calculations, accumulations” becomes “they want to rape our women, blaspheme our God, overturn our government”? These are obvious inversions, but I have to raise them if only to understand just how Graham imagines the fully positive role the exotic plays in the world (and I do believe that it does have a positive role). I love the exotic too. One just must realize something of the freight that gets carried with exotic, what processes are involved.

Veiled Whiteness and the Working Tool

Graham rightfully stresses that his notion of the exotic necessarily must be found not only in Bejing, but also in Logan, Utah:

You can already get it from a cheap hammer withdrawing into its subterranean tool-effect in places like Logan, Utah and Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t have to come to Egypt to get that sort of concealment.

This is certainly an important aspect of his theory (but notably he spends little rhetorical time speaking in such terms to put forth the power of his descriptions). He, even more than his predecessor, wants to get away from actual tools and actual craftsman as fast as possible. Tool use is much more a launchpad for a great binarizing abstraction. And as I argued in Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr, if one paid attention to actually tool and instrument use, and were not governed by such optical metaphors as “hidden” and “veiled” and “invisible” one might end up with a very different metaphysical sense of the world. Rather, because Graham starts with Heidegger’s optically driven rhetoric of objects, he is already caught up in an invisible/colored dynamic, one which provides a near magnetic attraction for colonialist projections of “other” peoples. As I have tried to put forth, the very characterizations of sensuous objects, their properties and difficulties, are racially conditioned. This does not make them unvaluable, but it can make them entreching of binaries better left aside, something to be watched and tested. (And it does put political critique high on the agenda of such an otherwise to be assumed, apolitical ontology).

Because Graham’s comments were no doubt off-hand, I do not have a clear sense of the full grounding of the positive binarization which produces the exotic as solely “good”. Nor can I separate out his own writing, rich with orientializing rhetoric and conception, from that of Flaubert’s Salammbo, to which I draw explicit comparison? Is not Flaubert engaging in the very same “positive” orientalizations of the exotic as Graham suggests result from binarization? Is there a way to separate these out? I am unsure if Graham is denying that his theory is an Orientalizing one, or if he is simply saying that it is Orientalizing, but only in the Good Sense.

The inevitable question of Graham’s biography comes forward. There is the sense that if Graham’s theory orientalizes, then he is an orientalizer? He lives and teaches in a country he truly loves, Egypt. And has come to find his homeland of America more exotic than he does Cairo. I think it important to parse the man from the theory, in part because it is very hard, and actually unfair to critique a man, though much easier and fair to do so to a theory. (Not to mention, Graham seems like the more integrity-laden and intellectually generous of fellows.) Additionally though, I believe we all carry with us into our thinking the opposite for which we might otherwise stand, an importation that actually drives the creative process forward, such that work then allows the occasion to (perhaps unconsciously) engage with the material one objects to, to a give it a place. And as I have said, the importation of the orientalizing exotic in Graham’s theory actually may give us too a means for processing and forwarding the appeal of these rhetorical terms, the very “stuff” of his theory. Personally  I would rather work from different metaphors than those of visual color and hiddenness, especially when we are trying to describe a world beyond merely human conception such as Graham is attempting to do. But if one does engage in the exotic as a means of metaphysics, metaphors of color, wealth, vicars and all the jewels of perception, one should do so consciously, in full critique.

In answer to that path, I believe that when Heidegger begins with a principle trope of invisibility he is partaking in a cultural sense of Whiteness (one that he traces to a perceived whiteness of Greece). And when presencing works to coloredly veil the real being of something, this coloredness inevitably is caught up in the cultural dynamics of skin color and projections of the exotic. It is by the virtue of a primary optical conception of the mind and being that questions of color and visibility occur, and one cannot really separate out questions of color from cultural projections of color. In the 17th century these indeed occurred in a variety of shades and stereotypical fashions. The shade of one’s skin gave it a certain sensuous inner character, and the Asian, the Semite, the Moor, the New World Indian, all had their own internal and exotic qualities. But we also have to stay aware that these shadings which obscured pure and transparent white became entirely polarized by the enslavement of the “black”, particularly for the American consciousness, which re-inscribed the existing invisible/colored binary with an entrenching human limit. “Black” the opposite of “white” became the touchstone of what shading meant. In my opinion all optical metaphors of consciousness have to pass through the historical sieve of how color has been conceived in human beings. And any metaphysics that simply ignores this risks simply re-establishing the radical means by which it is carried out. Part of the satisfactions of the Continental school flat ontologies, ones that refuse a hidden and transparent essence, those of the kind that Graham and I both have some dissatisfaction, is that they have freed themselves to some degree from this white/colored optical projection, and have turned to new metaphors that do not carry so much unconscious and historically brutalizing baggage. Instead of invisible/colored, there are mechanisms, structures, genetic virtuals, networks, intensiities, layers, molarities, planes, etc., etc, etc. 

I do not feel that the recognition of severe cultural mistakes, the way that we have violated some of our most cherished values, is necessarily a kind of “patriotic hubris” as Graham puts it, or even the “fishing for compliments”, though I can see that this is a possibility. It is much more a question of learning from the past, and recognizing where we went wrong, where we have done things we would all be better off not repeating. And part of this recognition is realizing that otherwise seemingly benign conceptions even in the greatest abstraction helped forward certain social judgments to which they did not seem to be immediately connected. The result of a sensitivity to just this kind of connection is not the humorously self-contradictory slogan “Binaries are Bad”, but rather the idea that binaries, fundamental binaries, should be dug into, thought about, and checked.

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

A mix from Salammbo and “On Vicarious Causation”

I recently attempted to draw out the implicit white/colored, colonialist conceptualization that I see in Graham Harman’s rather poetically depicted Object-Oriented Philosophy, in particular of its theory of Vicarious Causation. Further, I tried to point out that Graham actually exhibits in the very core of his concept of the sensuous vicar, much of the Orientalism he resents in Flaubert, and I presume Hölderlin. While this comparison to Flaubert may seem dubious, at least to Graham’s own ear, and rested only on my instinct of comparison, I thought it best to dig a little deeper into it, especially for those who have not read his engaging essay on causation, which can be found here [highly recommended]. I do this digging somewhat hesitantly because I have confirmed respect for Graham as I have encountered him, and he has declared Flaubert “unforgivable” (at least as the author of The Letters From Egypt); and in a vexing moment Graham said he would not think kindly on the man’s grave. Even in hyperbole, such a vehemence is not something to be trifled with. But if Graham’s feelings toward Flaubert are sincere, as I suspect that they are, a comparison is perhaps even more in order. In this service I have extracted some of the most oriental of Graham’s points, which, in order to understand my argument must be taken within the larger critique vicarious mediation itself, contained in the post before this.

Besides these I also place selections from one of Graham’s least favorite writers, Gustav Flaubert, taken from the “historical” novel Salammbo, interestingly enough, the work that most marked the author’s departure from the Realism of Madame Bovary. Aside from these juxtaposed citations which form only loose but instructive correlates, I will also comment when I can on the colonial, or white/colored contrast that seems to be evoked by Graham’s depictions of what is real, in the hope that my argument would become even more textually based. This is not  to say that Graham thinks like Flaubert thought of the Egyptian (or Carthaginian), for at most Flaubert was a surface traveler, and Graham an invested resident (a biographical fact to to be cheated); but rather it is to say that in his conceptualization of binaries, as inherited from Heidegger, and perhaps due to his own place and time in history, Graham’s theory of causation partakes in something distinctly colonial in flavor as he characterizes the properties, powers and role of the vicarious realm. This aptitude toward the foreign is a germ of Idealist, largely White, European thinking, the line from which Graham has come. Perhaps any other orientalizing fictional writer could be chosen beside Flaubert. It is only Graham’s stated resistence to Flaubert, and the association within me that this resistance started that brings this precise  comparison to bear.

Gustav Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Place of the Sensuous Intermediary

Generally, if we assume a colonialist stance of the White on behalf of the “real” but retreating object, we have the distinct analogy of white powers communicating with, and inflicting themselves upon, each other, only through some passive and otherly colored mediary, a vicar from the sensuous realm:

GH: “For as I will contend, objects hide from one another endlessly, and inflict their mutual blows only through some vicar or intermediary.” (189-190)

But, as we seek to get a grasp of things, we must acknowledge that both the most primative or pragmatic of relations do not quite capture the hidden essence of things, the retreating whiteness of them. The scientist and the tribesman is deluded by the colors of its use-perspective, something with which Flaubert roughly agrees:

GH: “The tribesman who dwells with the godlike leopard, or the prisoner who writes secret messages in lemon juice, are no closer to the dark reality of these objects than the scientist who gazes at them.” (191)

Salammbo: All modes of worship, as well as all races, were to be met with in these armies of Barbarians, and consideration was had to the gods of others, for they too, inspired fear. Many mingled foreign practices with their native religion. It was to no purpose that they did not adore the stars; if a constellation were fatal or helpful, sacrifices were offered to it; an unknown amulet found by chance at a moment of peril became a divinity; or it might be a name and nothing more, which would be repeated without any attempt to understand its meaning. But after pillaging temples, and seeing numbers of nations and slaughters, many ultimately ceased to believe in anything but destiny and death;-and every evening these would fall asleep with the placidity of wild beasts.

Though because all of our real object, transparent states are cut off from each other, as isolated white objects, we must meet each other through the vicarious mediation of a third, something of the sensuous kind, those that lay side by side like entwined slaves in a harem. Yet behind this phenomenal incestual mix lies the retreating essence of an absent object, again, Flaubert assents:

GH: “Whereas real objects withdraw, sensual objects lie directly before us, frosted over with a swirling, superfluous outer shell. But this difference seems to give sensual objects the opposite causal status of real ones. Given that real objects never touch directly, their causal relations can only be vicarious. But sensual objects, far from being withdrawn, exist side by side in the same perceptual space from the outset, since we encounter numerous phenomena simultaneously.” (195)

Salammbo: The plain, which was wholly bounded by mountains, expanded around them. Here and there a palm tree leaned over a sand hill, and pines and oaks flecked the sides of the precipices: sometimes the rain of a storm would hang from the sky like a long scarf, while the country everywhere was still covered with azure and serenity; then a warm wind would drive before it tornadoes of dust, and a stream would descend in cascades from the heights of Sicca, where, with its roofing of gold on its columns of brass, rose the temple of the Carthaginian Venus, the mistress of the land. She seemed to fill it with her soul. In such convulsions of the soil, such alternations of temperature, and such plays of light would she manifest the extravagance of her might with the beauty of her eternal smile. The mountains at their summits were crescent-shaped; others were like women’s bosoms presenting their swelling breasts, and the Barbarians felt a heaviness that was full of delight weighing down their fatigues.”

In such a sensual realm, the problem is actually of over-sensuousness, the tendency to run like colors into each other into a muddy mess. For this reason sensuous objects have to be “buffered” from each other, kept off each other. It is the very precosciousness their sexuality that need to restrained:

GH: “If real objects require vicarious causation, sensual objects endure a buffered causation in which their
interactions are partly dammed or stunted.” (195)

GH: “Sensual objects, by contrast, are so inclined to interact with their neighbors that we wonder why they fail to do so at every instant. In other words, the only place in the cosmos where interactions occur is the sensual, phenomenal realm.” (195)

Sincerely Mining the Black Noise For the Invisible Signal

And when the real white objects do indeed pierce through the veil of richness, the result is incendiary. With timely reference to the unexpected bombs in marketplaces and hotel lobbies, real, planning objects that cannot touch reaching across and “touching” each other through the mediating connectivity of a feeling people:

GH: “The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie side by side, buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensual plane to allow them to make contact, just as corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb – separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by distant signals.” (197)

The sensuous people/kinds are actually composed of their qualities and even their accidents which seem to float about them as if in a halo of “noise”. But this noise tellingly is not the noise of whiteness (the unstructured sound of untuned Western television or radio technology). It is a black noise, due to its very structuring, “buffering”, quality. It mysteriously keeps the sensuous types apart and functioning. Again, Flaubert has a taste for the same thing:

GH: “Finally, the sensual tree never appears in the form of a naked essence, but is always encrusted with various sorts of noise. Elsewhere I have called it ‘black noise’, to emphasize that it is highly structured, not the sort of formless chaos suggested by the ‘white noise’ of television and radio.” (198)

Salammbo: A noisy throng of people filled the streets from morning to evening; boys shaking bells, cried at the doors of baths; steam rose from hot drink stalls, the air resounded with the din of anvils, white cocks sacred to the Sun crowed on terraces, oxen bellowed in their temples as they were butchered, slaves ran carrying baskets on their heads; and in the depths of a portico appeared a priest, draped in a dark mantel, barefoot, and with a pointed hat.”

In a colonialist light, Graham draws on the mining metaphor as ideal of causation. Real, transparent objects have to tunnel into the rich sensuous earth in shafts, and draw out the freight of the connection. These contact-starved objects have to almost parasitically draw on the wealth of the intimacies of the colored world:

GH: “In seventeenth-century terms, the side-by-side proximity of real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intention and another real object lying outside it. In this way, shafts or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remain quarantined in private vacuums.” (201) 

And in keeping with the Orientalist flavor, the mere intentionality of real objects, the way that they are able to hone in on definite sensuous objects with what Graham calls “sincerity” is itself an austerity of Asian source, absorbed into its very contemplation:

GH: “For instance, I may be sincerely absorbed in contemplating glass marbles arranged on the surface of a table. This is my sincerity at the moment, since I forego other possibilities of greater and lesser import to witness this austere, Zen-like spectacle.” (205)

But despite the colonialist rhetoric and conception, Graham denies both the banality of pure white exploitation, making a grey mud of the mined third world, or even the “sexiness” of a fixed melodrama cast against that background. Instead it is an eruptive field of white and colored intermixtures, of cold objects and their warm though foreign intermediaries. The world is shot through with post-colonial shiftings and residues. And here Flaubert too sees the vivacity of sensuous people stirred (wow, one can almost see the conflation of the romantic European traveling through Greecian fragmented cult temple islands, and the modern Westerner threatened by the unpredictable human-bomb, epiphanically Delphic/Al Qaedic, Classical Terror):

GH: “The world is neither a grey matrix of objective elements, nor raw material for a sexy human drama projected onto gravel and sludge. Instead, it  is filled with points of reality woven together only loosely: an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment only to generate new sequestered temples.” (211-212)

Salammbo: There were people in the square of Khamon shouting for arms. The Ancients would not provide them, esteeming such an effort useless; others who had set out without a general had been massacred. At last they were permitted to depart, and as a sort of homage to Moloch, or from a vague need of destruction, they tore up tall cypress trees in the woods of the temples, and having kindled them at the torches of the Kabiri, were carrying them through the streets singing. These monstrous flames advanced swaying gently; they transmitted fires to the glass balls on the crests of the temples, to the ornaments of the colossuses and the beaks of the ships, passed beyond the terraces and formed suns as it were, which rolled through the town. They descended the Acropolis. The gate of Malqua opened.”

But within our inner sensous field, our inner and tribal primitive, we search for the lost transparent object on the other side, much as how Hölderlin speaks of  “Fernahnend mit/Dem andern” (sensing-distant with another) as I mentioned in my last post. All of our orientalized inner realm sparkles with but the hints of what lies beyond. And Flaubert too feels this with passion, as he describes the tele-communication of Salammbo to her distant father:

GH: “In the sensual realm, we encounter objects encrusted with noisy accidents and relations. We may also be explicitly aware of some of their essential qualities, though any such list merely transforms the qualities into something accident-like, and fails to give us the unified bond that makes the sensual thing a single thing. Instead, we need an experience in which the sensual object is severed from its joint unified quality, since this will point for the first time to a real object lying beneath the single quality on the surface.” (215)

Salammbo: She did not know what was happening to Hamilcar [her father]. At last, weary of her thoughts, she got up, dragging her small sandals, with the sole clapping against her heel at every step, she walked at random about the great and silent room. The amethysts and topazes of the ceiling made made quivering patches of light here and there, as she walked Salammbo turned her head a little to see them.She would go and take the hanging amphoras by the neck; she would cool her bosom beneath the broad fans, or perhaps amuse herself by burning cinnamomum in hollow pearls. At sunset Taanach would draw back the black felt lozenges that closed the openings in the wall; then her doves, rubbed with musk like the doves of Tanith, suddenly entered, and their pink feet glided over the glass pavement, amid the grains of barley which she threw to them in handfuls like a sower in a field. But on a sudden she would burst into sobs and lie stretched on the large bed of ox-leather straps without moving, repeating a word that was ever the same, with open eyes, pale as one dead, insensible, cold; and yet she could hear the cries of the apes in the tufts of the palm trees, with the continuous grinding of the great wheel which brought a flow of pure water through the stories into the porphyry centre-basin.” 

GH: “In instances of beauty, an object is not the sum total of beautiful colors and proportions on its surface, but a kind of soul animating the features from within, leading to vertigo or even hypnosis in the witness.” (216)

Salammbo: He felt very near to the subterranean deities. It was as the joy of one of the Kabiri; and the great luminous rays striking upon his face looked like the extremity of an invisible net linking him across the abysses with the centre of the world.”

Yet, in this sensuous realm, the realm of the colored, it is the autonomous, need we say White, agent, he that holds court over all these undisciplined types. Over the local customs and their disputes is the law of the subject which trumps all appeals of those types:

GH: “Different sensual objects within the same intention are described as contiguous; they do not melt together, but are treated by the intentional agent as distinct, and this agent is the final court of appeal in the sensual realm.” (217)

Any connection between white objects is enabled solely through the principle of allure, illustrations of which either come from Germany’s pagan past, or the Middle Eastern traditional indulgences of tobacco or cannabis. But is not the object itself, but merely the thing that dangles from or sticks on the eastern “thing” that catches the westerner’s eyes:

GH: “Accidents alone have the dual status of belonging and not belonging to an object, like streamers on a maypole, or jewels on a houka. Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.” (218)

Only by becoming sensuous in some fashion does the white object actually bring real causation into being. It must brush and stir the inside of another white object. It must become oriental…tele-kinetically.

GH: “I make contact with another object, not through impossible contact with its interior life, but only by brushing its surface in such a manner as to bring its inner life into play. Just as only the opposite poles of magnets make contact, and just as the opposite sexes alone are fertile, it is also the case that two objects of the same type do not directly touch one another.” (219-220)

But one must not become too indulgent, lost in one’s own eastern driftings. Other real, white objects must be brought into the dulled opium phantasm. One must receive the distant transparent signals. This after all is the need for the sensuous kinds to be cultivated in some sense, to bring their overly connected types into some kind of real connection, real order. Much in the same way Flaubert describes the march of the Barbarians into Carthaginian civility, the inventions of the wisdom of received distant signals:

GH: “But in the case of real objects, the only way to touch a real one without touching it is through allure. Only here do we escape the deadlock of merely rolling about in the perfumes of sensual things, and encounter qualities belonging to a distant signalling thing rather than a carnally present one. The only way to bring real objects into the sensual sphere is to reconfigure sensual objects in such a way that they no longer merely fuse into a new one, as parts into a whole, but rather become animated by allusion to a deeper power lying beyond: a real object.” (220) 

Salammbo: On the following day the Barbarian’s passed through a region that was covered with cultivation. The domains of the patricians succeeded one another along the border of the route; channels of water flowed through woods of palm; there were long, green lines of olive-trees; rose-coloured vapours floated in the gorges of the hills, while blue mountains reared themselves behind. A warm wind was blowing. Chameleons were crawling on the broad leaves of the cactus.

The Barbarians slackened their speed.

They marched on in isolated detachments, or lagged behind one another at long intervals. They ate grapes along the margin of the vines. They lay on the grass and gazed with stupefaction upon the large, artificially twisted horns of the oxen, the sheep clothed with skins to protect their wool, the furrows crossing one another so as to form lozenges, and the ploughshares like ships’ anchors, with the pomegranate trees that were watered with silphium. Such wealth of the soil and such inventions of wisdom dazzled them.

[A response from Graham and my commentary found here: Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic ]

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

 

Thinking about the Politics of Objects

As an aftermath of my thinking about Spinoza and Heidegger it occurs to me that Heidegger ready-at-hand contains something of a notion of “Whiteness,” in the idea of invisibility (and his present-at-hand something of that of “colored”). I suspect that this probably has some strong correlate in Derrida’s critique and continuation of Heidegger, but it has been a while since I have engaged Derrida, so I want to think on it a bit myself.

The very invisibility  of the ready-at-hand, which someone like Graham Harman would like to emphasize as absolute, conceptually has of it the whiteness of society, the unseen but pure transference of power across the object such that nothing within them, about them, inhibits or retards the fullness of their expression. Such beings, what Graham calls “tool-beings,” are like what we learned white light is, a certain combination of all colors, but as to be completely transparent to our sublunar eyes.

If this generalization stands, then we might want to ask the political question, How much Whiteness is in Graham’s ever retreating objects which hide entirely from our view? Or worse, how Causacian are his tools?  (It seems odd when you put it that way, but perhaps “odd” is what is necessary to expose this proper aspect.)

We then must follow, Does not Heidegger’s veiledness of present-at-hand itself give us the very tried-and-true sense of interfering “color,” the drape of instantiated sense which forever keeps us from what something really is? (This is what you get when you love to play with binaries, you get history’s binaries.) So we ask a series of questions of a Heidegger follower. Of the sensuously rich vicars that are said to be buried in the intentional hearts of objects, the very mediating and jeweled indulgences of perception, are these really “colored people” idealizations, euphanies generated by the binarization of social terms (invisible/colored) in the first place? Is not the whiteness of society the condition of its very invisibility? And is Graham’s binarized ontology of the Real into mediating pairs then thus racially conditioned (or Colonialist)? I say this meaning no personal offense, since I believe that we all are in some sense, or even many senses Racist, by virtue of our histories. But these are questions that indeed must also be asked because Graham (as do most classical metaphysicians) asserts a certain independence of ontology from politics, and hence any ontology must defend itself when it seems to be unconsciously carrying out political forms. So are the exotic, frosted-over, accident-bedecked vicars from within, colored?

And if so, what does it politically mean to give such a representationally bestowed role to the colonial, to place the lavishly enjeweled other as our vicarious mediator? One must consider the accidental but significant fact that Graham does work out of a country he loves, Egypt, which is in a certain sense is the most resistant, and yet accommodating of colonial of countries, in my opinion. So long has Egypt been the repository for both economic wealth and the projection of esoteric wisdom for the West, it has inured itself to that cultural incursion, creating an autonomy within its representational, mediating force, strangely having insulated itself from the West, from the inside (I recall how viscerally Graham reacts against Flaubert’s idealizations and dehumanizations of “the Egyptian,” while at the same time feeling that there was an intimacy between Graham’s frosted-over and encrusted internal objects and Flaubert’s saturated depictions of Carthage in Salammbô). As I have suspected for a while, it is the qualities of object that Graham really is most concerned with. 

Hölderlin Sings of the mediating Fremde

One has to ask in this continuing vein, Are these projections of sensuous, mediating and colored vicars not the very mechanisms of whiteness, in the sense that the colony becomes the necessary and mediating extension of the homeland (a homeland that ironically enough, as Heidegger likes to dream of it in Hölderlin fashion, we are expelled from). We are all caught between our Whiteness which we can never reach or return to, adrift in a colored East which forever mediates our connection to what invisibily lies below.

Again, I recall that Graham has a repulsion for Hölderlin, Heidegger’s laureate, something he attributes to the ad nauseum  Heideggerian forays into the poetic. But Hölderlin himself seems to sum the juxtaposition perfectly, the weird world of Object-Oriented metaphysics connections, as our real states are forever mediated by what is alien to us, caught in a transferal between like and unlike:

 

Ein Zeichen sind wir, deutunglos
Schmerzlos sind wir und haben fast
Die Sprache in der Fremde verloren. 

A sign we are, meaningless
Painless we are and have nearly
The Tongue in the “East” [The Foreign] lost.

Mnemosyne (lines 1-3) [rough interlinear translation here]

And is not the “bedeutend” [indicated] of the snow that gleams and glances on the Alpine meadow just like lilies, the very principle of “allure,” the metaphorical transfer that Graham claims is the mechanism of all causal connection?

Denn Schnee, wie Majenblumen
Das Edelmüthige, wo
Es seie, bedeutend, glänzet auf der grünen Wiese
Der Alpen, hälftig
Da…

For snow, like Maylilies
High-nobility, where
It would be revealed, gleams on the greening meadow
Alpine, half
There…

With Harman-like efficacy accidental allure brings each distant, retreating object across to another distant and retreating object, the “distant signal” of whiteness communicating, poking through the rich, veiling mediator vicars of a too-sensual world, a connection which Hölderlin calls in the hymn, “Fernahnend mit/Dem andern” (sensing-distant with another). The poet to his lost Diotima? Is Graham’s theory of causation in some determinative sense, Hölderlinian, the way that real objects of the home pierce through the richness of the foreign veil? Could it be that Graham’s strong resistances to the idealizations  of the East in both Flaubert and Hölderlin are the very condition of his projections of the same into this metaphysics of mediating coloredness? And thus are this metaphysics intimately colonial of source, and accidentally so in project?

But there is a significant difference between Graham’s neo-Heideggerian position, and Heidegger’s own caught-in-the-middle universe. There is no wistfulness of detachment, or explicit longing to return home from the vicarious world; although the importation of the exotic pervades his object-universe, in a quest for the weird, (but we have yet to read his coming treatment of Orpheus, the veritable picture of lost retrieval). So though he has not been able to formulate a detailed explication of just how  vicar-mediations might operate at the inanimate level, there is no sense at all that objects as such do not in fact continually interact with distinguished flow. The existential gap of sojourn is not at all immediately present for objects, in fact, objects of each type (the real white, and the sensuous colored) are actually barred, not from interacting with the the opposite kind, as if whites cannot mix with blacks, but rather are barred from mixing with each other. The white and distant objects in retreat actually need the colored vicars to touch each other. So if we allow a political extension, the Caucasian West needs the colored East to communicate at all with the Caucasian West, and the foreign is already internal to real object state connections (in fine dialectical fashion).

This is an interesting line of analysis. Graham tells us that the color world of inner vicars is one that is externally connected to those things of its own kind (an intentional object is composed of its qualities and even accidents, each sharing the same “conceptual space”). The problem in the intentional realm is not one of isolation,  how each sensuous part might come in contact with the others of its kind, for they are ever ready to bleed into each, almost with lude enthusiasm. For this reason the colored world is somehow internally “buffered,” Graham says, keeping its characteristically natural gravitational collapse of sensuality at bey from one great con-fusion (one might read in separation of the sensous types, the ethnographic buffering of traditional or tribal customs, often to be contrasted with rational laws, a contrast then thought characteristic of “foreign” peoples). The white world of real objects have exactly the inverse of the difficulty. They are not ever-crossing the boundaries of each other, incestuous of their realm, ready to produce unexpected catalytic changes, but rather are forever in retreat, imploding, “vacuum packed,” in withdrawl from each other in isolating and unique distance. They are tellingly in tension with even their own qualities. Their qualitative manifestions they merely wear like clothing they are not quite comfortable in, like a restrained, northern people from colder climes. Little soul-cores of white essence shrink back from color (How White  are Leibniz’s monads? Do we have to ask?). In this perpetual retreat of real objects do we see the rationality of Anglo austerity and Laws, strict non-contact formulations against the body and the senses, the puritanical clean of objects/citizens themselves? Is it no wonder that for Graham these two complimentary projections indeed form a necessary pair? We must ask, insofar as these are projections of a political, sociological creation, how much does that naturalize, metaphysicalize our political products?

The Vicarious as Ideal

As mentioned, the positive for Graham’s metaphysics is that these two, the colored object of sensuality and the white object of cold removal, are interdependent upon each other. He concentrates more it seems on the way that the white object needs the mediation of the colored object, and there is some sense in which the colored object only persists because it is enveloped in a greater real/white object (in his theory of causation, The Intentional as a Whole, which holds as somehow private the asymmetical meeting ground  between white and colored objects). These are slight biases against the place of mediating sensual representation figures. But all in all he also seems to see them as completely interwoven kinds which from the wider view is really the interweave of two equal realms. They form complimentary “problems.” Each realm is seemingly autonymous but still needful of the properties of the other for communication with its own kind.

If any of this analysis of color is correct, then where does that leave the political imprint and force of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy? It conceptualization seems to be derived from a colonialist inspired history of idealized foreignness, the dripping wealth of the native which is always placed in a mediating (vicarious) position towards whiteness itself. As with idealizations of the noble savage, one knows that such esteem always harbors the dangers of its suppressed reverse, the projection of the negative shadow of whiteness. In this Graham’s depiction of vicars does not explicitly, or even implicitly participate, which does not mean that it is not present. 

But then there is that extraordinary metaphor of the bomb found in his essay on vicarious causation, which must have strong political resonance given the time and country that he inhabits:

 

Something must happen on the
sensual plane to allow them to make contact,
just as
corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb –
separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by
distant signals.

(“On Vicarious Cauation” 197)

I put it in a stanza because Graham is an evocative, poetic writer at times and the point he is making is indeed the point of contact that subsumes the sensuous as part of its means. The “bomb” of the unexpected comes from the very proximity of the sensous colored ones, which somehow corrode into catalytic action, bringing real white objects into explosive collision OR, the bomb comes from the distant signals of real white objects sent to each other. (Actually, in the greater passage it is not quite clear to me just what is lying next to what, or what doing something to something else.) In this extraordinary analogy the bomb of the middle east goes off out of the very sensuous communicabilty of colored interactions, the provoked collapse of their customed bufferings, by the clean signal sent by white objects to one another, through their foreign medium. And all of causation in the world is seen to be something of a terrorist bomb.

Cairo, the Weird of Causation and the Democracy of Objects

Equal authority is granted to the colored realms – remember that the first occasionalist Graham turns to is notably Islamic, Al-Ghazali, though Object-Oriented Philsophy strips him of his God.  That power is given to the colored facility of connection, in that it is at least rhetorically a form of political, fringe, violent protest against the West that becomes a model for causality itself, one sees through to Graham’s “democracy of objects” where each object has the same rights, the right to erupt from depths; and thus all things are imagined as engaged in a mutuality of two inter-locking realms even if in mysterious and unpredictable communication, beneath the surface. But the great problem is, at least for my theoretical ear, that much of this evocative and explanatory language has not only a deep entrenchment in the Idealist tradition (something I have argued at length from various directions), but also in the very ethnocentric projections of a determinatively White West. The very attributes of positive characterists that imbue the internal vicars that allow all these cold, distant objects who can’t touch, to touch, are charicatures of Eastern or more widely, colored rich. In this way they perpetuate the image of their own enslavement. And the very poetic gravitational centers which make such a description attractive (that give it its allure), are those aspects which retard us from being able to conceive of the dynamics between things as fundamentally and conceptually different than these projections of our historical past. Is it necessarily true that the white must depend upon a vicarious colored? And if so, is not this logical dependency born of its very imaginative split, upon the assertion of “white” in the first place?

But the attractiveness of such an exotic theory does not  merely condemn it to a simple repetition of past forms. One must admit that the very lure of it is also the means by which it may allow a transformation of the projections it uses; that is, the exotic language of vicar description as it puts colored obects into more centralized mediating roles, may in the service of a “democracy of objects” allow us or future others to metaphysically write themselves out beyond such idealizations, at the proper time. And there is the sense that come from a Western writer in an American University, within Cairo, it is just such a “weird” metaphysics that is incredibly timely, expressing a logic of ethnic tension in a materialistic, capitalized Age. Yet if this is the case (and that remains to be argued), such a metaphysics I believe must also be strongly critiqued for its inheritance, as colonial, so as to trace the transformations it brings to Heideggerian (and Hölerlinian) whites and coloreds, so to fully allow the directional “bombs” of Graham’s conceptions to go off most soterologically. If we are going to binarize, we must keep track of our binaries, where they come from, and where they lead. 

For my part, though I admit this possible  productivity of the rhetoric, I find these kinds of metaphysical plays with binaries highly problematic, especially when they put forth the form of a naturalized “kind” which embodies much that really should be examined in a more rigorous way. And I wonder if Latour’s resistance to Graham’s retreating objects behind his own ANT occasional actors of ever kind and color is an instinctive retreat from any explanatory oppositional whiteness. The reason why actors may be enough for Latour is that coloredness is enough, there is only colorness, so to speak, not just as a matter of our condition, but of the condition of the world. While I do not find Latour’s flatness of actors and networks satisfying, and agree with Graham that a deepening is needed, I am suspect of any good that a binary of absent, invisible things does. Rather it strikes me that it is more in the very structural dynamics of power, into the depths of causal explanation itself, the way that understanding how something works gives real ontological change in the capacity to act, that we better turn. In this way we side step both the positivity and negativity of theoretical allure, rather to make of our philosophy the most articulate grammar of an effective communication across the currents of these rooted identifications.