Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Friday, August 27, 2010

Chris Schaberg takes off

Top grad student and all round nice bloke Chris Schaberg just got a contract with Continuum for his book Airport Passages: Literature, Culture, Theory. Those Brits know a good thing when they see it.Chris thinks about airports as environmental constructs.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

He defined neuroplasticity

...when his ECG went 500% above normal in the pre frontal cortex. It's my teacher's brother, Mingyur Rinpoche. They asked him to do formless meditation.







Wednesday, August 25, 2010

OOO, It's Object-Oriented Buddhism

Levi kindly asked me to write an essay for the OOO anthology. Mine is called "Buddhist Objects." I happen to be here on this retreat with a few moments to spare and my over active intellect wants to post this, so here goes.

In no sense do systems theory and process philosophy have a monopoly on Buddhism. Let's consider Buddhist practices (ethics, if you like, in some sense). I've been realizing this week how unit operational they are (thanks Ian).

Only consider the specific practice I'm doing, ngondro (Tibetan: preliminary). First you do 108 000 prostrations (don't ask...). Then you recite a certain mantra 108 000 times. There are two other phases. I just completed prostrations and I'm on to mantra.

Now when you start the mantra part of ngondro, at the beginning of each session, you do 7 or 21 prostrations. See how prostrations have been encapsulated, a feature of Ian's "units" that corresponds to Graham's and Levi's object withdrawal.

Consider the syllable of a mantra. It's highly compressed information that also has a unit operational function. For instance, take the Prajnaparamita Sutra, in which Buddha explains that nothing has "true" existence (hey I'm not going to get into any emptiness debates here...yet). So there is a version of the sutra in 100 000 lines. There's one in 25 000 lines. There is one in 25 lines quite common in Zen. Heck there may be many more versions. But for me right now the most interesting version is the ONE SYLLABLE version, AH.

That's right. An entire sutra compressed into a highly encapsulated unit. Handy, yes? Especially because AH is how you sound when you breathe out...

So AH is not a sign in a Saussurean system of negative difference. It has a positive, densely encapsulated significance that performs a kind of algorithmic function--it does something.

Now AH is Sanskrit. Tibetan as a written language was devised specifically to talk about Buddhism. No surprise then that it's a wonderfully compressible language. You can encapsulate whole swathes of teaching in a syllable, then join it to another syllable (they're all quite nicely detachable units) and hey presto. I think this tells us something deep about Buddhism.

Now consider basic shamatha meditation, "calming the mind" common to Buddhism and Hinduism. It is highly algorithmic and unit based. The formula is simplicity itself: sit comfortably; focus on an object (could be breath because we all do it unless we're dead, but anything will do); when you lose focus go back to step 2.

Visualization is shamatha with a buddha or whatever whom you're visualizing. Each element of the visualization is highly encapsulated and unit based. Like gaming software filling in a background, there are all kinds of aesthetic and physical laws etc encapsulated in the formulae for visualization. Which is why Tibetan teachers are VERY interested in software that would enable you to see how to do it with a mouse click.

If you've ever seen those animated prayer wheels online you'll see that they are in perfect accord with the purpose of physical prayer wheels--I even saw a water powered one in Tibet. The point is to fully automate and encapsulate a mantra--why not? (Of course this is what Zizek finds most suspect about Tibetan Buddhism, which kind of makes me like it even more.)

 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Aristotle

Thanks to Graham Harman's many recent posts on Aristotle (howsoever oblique) I started reading the Physics. Very very good. Should be required reading for scientists--that'll learn 'em (atomists and Star Trekky matter deevoid of form, Captain, people alike). And very funny. The stuff about being pale and educated...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Derrida part quoi?

This post over at Levi's talks about something close to my heart so I thought I'd repost my comment here.

I’m writing about this very passage right now. As a lit crit guy you would expect me to have a militancy about the supposed universality of Derrida’s claim. But actually, respect to Adam, as a lit crit guy I always read this passage as much LESS than that.

Remember how D loves to cleave close to the text he’s analyzing–why he appeals to lit crit close readers in the first place. I (and apparently Spivak, who offers a very different translation of the sentence in question) always thought (ie BEFORE converting to OOO) that D was ONLY saying, “Given the kind of closed system textuality that Rousseau prescribes, there is NO OUTSIDE-TEXT.”

That is, *Rousseau can’t go around making claims about nature, not because there is nothing out there, but because the way he models thinking, he sets textuality up as a black hole.

It’s PRECISELY the kind of generalization about reality that D’s fans (and critics) think he’s making that is at issue. This kind of sweeping statement is what becomes a black hole.

When I’m feeling charitable towards D I imagine he thinks that by imploding this sort of generalization he is leaving non-textual objects intact.

In fact then, D is claiming that texts are OBJECTS. They can only have *vicarious relations with non-texts.

Which is why I argue in EwN that there are coral reefs and bunnies, but NO NATURE.

(Then I am accused of being a nihilist by the eco beautiful souls, and receive threats of having bacon fat poured over my head, literally. Wash rinse repeat.)

When I formulated this interpretation

1) 9.9 out of 10 Derrideans thought exactly what Levi is arguing they thought.
2) I was writing a Deleuzian diss. on food and for sure held that food was REAL.

Addendum: notice the rather rigorous difference between my argument and what some have claimed on Levi's blog, that D is OOO avant la lettre. Nothing could be further from the truth.

D ABSTAINED from ontology for the simple reason that he thought it tainted by the generalization-disease I note above. Unfortunately this defaults to various forms of antirealism, as noted by Levi.

For me, Derrida's is a sin of OMISSION.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ian Bogost meets the black box radiators


Good news: I'm writing my very first essay on OOO, for the journal Qui Parle...it boldly tests OOO against theories of physical matter, notably quantum theory. Here's a little teaser. (Please forgive the lack of references. I'm away from my work.)

Antirealism has been known to pit quantum theory against its opponents, since quantum theory supposedly shows reality is fuzzy or deeply correlated with perception etc.

Wrong! Quantum theory is the only existing theory to establish on a firm basis the fact that things really do exist beyond our mind (or any mind). Quantum theory positively guarantees that real objects exist! Not only that--these objects exist beyond one another, let alone (our) mind.

Quantum theory does this by viewing phenomena as quanta, that is as discrete unit operations. If you haven't yet had the pleasure of reading Ian Bogost's book Unit Operations, get thee to a bookseller. For more online about units as Bogost describes them, see Levi Bryant's many excellent posts. For now, realize that thinking in terms of units counteracts some problematic features of thinking in terms of systems. And that "unit" strongly resembles Harman's and Bryant's "objects." They are so elegantly described, you should just read Bogost's description directly.

It turns out that a kind of systems thinking avant la lettre posed big problems for nineteenth-century physicists. Only consider the so-called black body radiation problem (uncanny name, no?). Classical thermodynamics is essentially a systems approach that combines the energy of different waves to figure out the total energy of a system. The black box in question is a kind of oven. As the temperature in the oven increases, results given by summing the wave states according to classical theory become absurd, tending to infinity.

By seeing the energy in the black box as discrete quanta, the correct result is obtained. Max Planck's discovery of this approach gave birth to quantum theory.

Now consider perception, for the sake of which which antirealism usually cites quantum theory. What does quantum theory show about our mental interactions with things? Perceptual, sensual phenomena such as hardness and brilliance are at bottom quantum mechanical effects. I can't put my hand through this table because it is statistically beyond unlikely that the quanta at the tip of my finger could bust through the resistance wells in the quanta on the table's surface. That's what solidity IS. It's an averagely correct experience of an aggregate of discrete quanta. This statistical quality is not a problem--far from being a problem, in fact, it's the first time we have been able to formalize supposedly experiential phenomena such as solidity. What some people find disturbing about quantum theory (once in a gajillion times I can put my finger through the table) is precisely evidence for the reality of things.

But wait--there's more. Quantum theory specifies that quanta withdraw from one another, including the quanta with which we measure them (thus opening a door to the idealist misinterpretation of the theory). In other words quanta really are discrete, and one mark of this discreteness is the constant (mis)translation of one quantum by another. Thus when you set up quanta to measure the position of a quantum, its momentum withdraws, and vice versa. More generally, complementarity ensures that no quantum has total access to any other quantum.

OOO is deeply congruent with the most profound, accurate and testable theory of matter we have.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Strangely strange

Son and fish at the zoo






Survival 3

There is a deeper problem with taking the trace in Derrida as a literal account of survival. Let's follow Hagglund and take it literally, and trace the trace as it were. Is there an origin point? If so, at least this origin is unaffected by the problematic of survival. Hagglund produces a prime mover--hardly radical OR atheist.

Then let's assume no origin point, traces all the way down and back forever. Then the trace is infinite, coextensive with say a Spinozan God. Radical, but not atheist.

So let's say neither is the case. Not a very strong position.

This kind of "atheism" is simply nihilism's refusal to admit that it's a form of BELIEF.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bryant on rhetoric

Some really good observations here on speed bumps as rhetorical agents.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bryant and Cogburn chime in + a Buddhist Remix of Self-Reference




Jon Cogburn and Levi Bryant have each posted fascinating responses to the Gödel post, each one far more rigorously done than my running up of a flag to see who salutes.

Levi taks about strange loops (a feature of Hofstadter's landscape, starting with the Epimenides paradox) and withdrawal. I really think he's on to something there. Yet I have a little more time for the strange loop than him, perhaps.
It's exciting in the sense that for Hofstadter, strange loopiness is what characterizes intelligence (artificial or otherwise). Hence his I Am a Strange Loop.

Levi, however, raises the possibility of extending this loopiness to all objects. I find this very attractive.

Levi also observes that strange loopiness might tend towards pathology. I disagree on this. Sure, it might. But saying so risks sounding a little bit like Hegel's critique of Buddhism (I wrote on this here)—that it's navel gazing (meditation as putting yourself into a strange loop).

Hegel actually cites a Hindu picture of baby Krishna sucking his toe but Hegel is also thinking of the ouroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail. I'm off to suck my own tail in a few days (in Crestone CO)...
This stuff has a bad rap in the West where it's dismissed as narcissism.

I think this dismissal unnecessarily carries on the heresy-hunting mission of the anti-Gnostic early Christians, who basically stamped out anything like meditation and the kind of do-it-yourself vibe common to esoteric groups. I don't think we should continue this mission unconsciously. In fact, thinking about it some more would get us back to a lot of what is extraordinary about Plato and so on.


Narcissism is also highly functional, in the sense that you need a good feedback to yourself to do things like brush your teeth and make cups of tea. It's only when that narcissism is wounded that you start acting funny. The closest thing to narcissism in Buddhist thinking is maitri, which means loving-kindness, and it starts with yourself.

Monks in Tibet are still trained to practice generosity, first by passing a ball between one hand and the other...you have to start somewhere...

Much more excitingly, a thoroughgoing reworking of strange loopiness would also help us decisively to break with the humans (and more generally subjects) vs. objects, non-humans etc. regime...


Two final thoughts. Derrida (gasp) is on record for a good argument about narcissism. Narcissism is everywhere, he argues, and it can be extended or narrow, and the lack of extension is the problem, not the self-reference. I like this argument.


Two: Derrida is also responsible for carrying on the mission of separating the human from the non-human.

Monday, August 9, 2010

“Somewhere Out There, There's a Bullet with Your Name on It”




Imagine a record player (remember those?). Now imagine a record called I Cannot Be Played on This Record Player. When you put the record on, the sounds that are recorded on the disk cause the record player to vibrate in such a way that it falls to pieces.

Douglas Hofstadter, author of the wonderfully capacious and multilayered Gödel, Escher, Bach, talks about the exploding record player as an analogy for Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. The theorem states that any well formulated system will be unable to account for at least one statement that is TRUE on the terms of the system itself. This put paid to Russell and Whitehead's attempt to systematize mathematics. Alan Turing's Turing Machines provide a graphic, physical version of the Incompleteness Theorem. You can't design a Turing Machine that will be able to predict whether all algorithms will halt or go into an infinite loop: “Not-All algorithms are predictable.” (Did someone say “
Entscheidungsproblem”?)

On iTunes U and in some essays I've thought about the record player as more than just an analogy. I mean, it's true, isn't it? If you make a record that produces the right tones, you could blow up a record player. In fact, this was a specialism of creators of rave music in the early 90s. I remember going to several raves where the speakers would explode because of a tune called “LFO”—Low Frequency Oscillator, a boondoggle on old synthesizers, but also a joke metaphor for “I Cannot Be Played Through These Loudspeakers.”

(Which reminds me: I once told a composer friend to call a particularly intense electronic tune “I Can't Believe It Isn't Music!” Anyone can steal this idea for free. Go on.)

(And which also reminds me of what I've heard of Ian Bogost's and Levi Bryant's forthcoming work on media as objects.)

Hofstadter gives the example of a virus. A virus is basically a piece of RNA or DNA code in a protein packet that says to your genome, “Hey, there's a version of me somewhere in your system. Go fetch it will you?” This is a version of a Henkin Sentence. The trouble is, this Henkin Sentence comes bundled with an Epimenides Sentence, along the lines of “It is true that I am lying in this sentence.” So you go into overdrive producing copies of the virus, then you die—just like your computer. Thus begins the race between viruses and other life forms to detect and destroy viruses and, conversely, to slip through the net.

The record player story is a story about life forms. There is at least one entity out there (it could be lurking in your genome) called something like “If Tim Downloads This, He Will Auto-Destruct.” That's what mortality MEANS. Life forms exist precisely to the extent that they are fragile. I kind of concur with Martin Hägglund on this point, via a different route.

Then I got to thinking about OBJECTS in general (see my previous post—yay, I am an object oriented ontologist). Not just living, but all objects. There is an EVEN LESS metaphorical sense in which the record player story is true for objects. I mean, we were just talking about record players a minute ago. There is at least one other object out there that could bring it about so that a certain object was annihilated. This object is not inscribed with code that “says” something like a Henkin sentence. It wouldn't matter to the record player if the record that blew it up was called Pierrot Lunaire, not I Cannot Be Played on This Record Player.

So I was wondering whether there was a deep congruence between Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and the notion of withdrawal in OOO. Thinking as Levi Bryant does of objects as systems, and coherent ones at that (otherwise they couldn't be operationally closed, in the lingo), would this not imply that there is at least one genuine element of any object-system that we can't account for? In other words, objects are systems that we, or any other object, can't “know” everything about, PRECISELY to the extent that they TRULY exist.

(This comes from a discussion of Xavier Zubiri with Graham Harman, who as I'm sure you know has opened up a treasure trove of philosophy old and new. Zubiri talks a little about Gödel in On Essence. Thanks Graham and forgive me if I made any errors here. And please correct.)

Might this not be a way to account for the beautiful symmetry between the fact that objects do seem to relate in some sense, yet in some deeper sense are totally withdrawn from one another? Objects are vulnerable and withdrawn simultaneously, and I wonder whether this is just a coincidence.

I have a problem which is that I tend to think in metaphors and images rather than in logical or otherwise well formulated ways, so I'm putting this out there because I think it's interesting, not because I think it's right.

The Fremdsprache Ambush

Graham Harman has an excellent post on a form of one-upsmanship that might be one for his Gallery of Grassholes or whatever it's called... It's apropos (in a humoresque way) the ongoing conversation about languages on various blogs today. He calls it The Fremdsprache Ambush, which is a fabulously recursive thing to call it, and sounds vaguely like a chess move or an event in the Franco-Prussian War.

My absolute favorite example of this? “
Entscheidungsproblem.”

Nagasaki




I spent one of the most upsetting nights of my recent life a couple of days ago, reading John Hersey's accumulation of eye witness accounts of Hiroshima. Today it's Nagasaki's turn. It's strange to think about the energy flash that the witnesses experienced as a silent, sudden bathing of everything in light so intense that they couldn't quite see. This gets towards what I'm thinking about hyperobjects. Light ceases to be a neutral transparent medium in which everything is illuminated, and becomes a potent force. I'm thinking about this over at the Tate Britain Urbanomic exhibition scheduled for early September. There's a painting by Turner (Death on a Pale Horse) that seems as if it was photographed using gamma rays.

Let's Talk about Text, Baby

No matter what you think of the issues, you should stop by Levi's place where there are now SEVENTY ONE comments on one of his entries on Derrida. This is what internet thinking is all about for me—a very good sign on the whole.

I do appreciate Ian Bogost's tweet that Sunday is a day of rest, not a day of Derrida : )

Friday, August 6, 2010

All You Need Is Love

“Say, dad, what did you do for the summer vacation?”
“Well, son, I became an object oriented ontologist.”
“Gee whizz, dad! Is that like a character out of D&D?”

So this has been the big event of the summer—of the decade really—and in a broader sense my intellectual life. I mean it. I was teaching Plato last quarter (wow, seriously—so fresh) and I got a strong sense of what philo-sophy could be: like there's a reason why it's got “philos” in it. I've loved some philosophies before, but I can honestly say that I've never been IN LOVE with a philosophy before; didn't really realize you could be. Until now. (Pause while half the readers gag or hit the back button.)

I'm an English Prof. who was trained at the height of New Historicism, which meant that you had to run to the library every couple of hours to read a few hundred more books and pamphlets. It felt like being a dwarf in the mines of Moria. The object of the exercise if you're a historian is to get a big grant, go to some mine (library) that no one looks at very much, and find some unknown stuff, then bring it back and show everyone your jewels. It's kind of lonely–ironically, because history is supposed to be about society and all.

So when I figured out somewhere in the mid-90s (it took a while longer to really sink in) that I was more inclined towards the philosophy side of things (literature occupying a kind of middle place, as Sir Philip Sidney says, between philosophy and history), I felt a lot more at home. Because suddenly there were all these people who CARED about ideas and wanted to THINK about them, and quite often talk about them with me. Research turned gradually into, “Well, what kinds of book should I be mining for? Let's figure that out before I rush off to the book mine” to “Hmm, maybe I should just sit in my room and not go to the library. That way I can really chew this over.”

So THEN when I found out that people were blogging all over the shop about speculative realism and OOO, I became quite excited. I know it has its limitations and all but talking almost live around the world about philosophical issues—I dunno, it makes me feel alive. I'm quite clumsy with reasoning things out—my head seems to make lateral leaps all the time, so I get a lot of essays rejected (because to publish an essay you have to write slightly BEHIND the curve, he bitched. It's really about journals as systems—think about it, you're an editor with 90 essays in the pipe...but I digress.) Books, no problem. Essays? If I had a dollar for every report that said “This isn't an essay”...So OOO hit me like that. Very intuitively, it made sense. Before I started figuring it out.

At first I had all these objections to OOO. But I gradually realized, thanks to the infinite patience and kindness of Levi Bryant, that I was already thinking OOO things. It was like looking at one of those magic eye pictures. (I'm very bad at that.) At first you see nothing, then suddenly your perspective shifts. Joseph C. Goodson put it very well in a comment on Levi's blog, something about going through the looking glass. One suddenly finds oneself, well, in a Universe of objects. Doesn't sound like much when you put it that way.

I think you really can be in love with a philosophy. I know, because I am...I believe this is something very like being in love with a person—you see all kinds of infinite possibilities and you see that things are not totally revealed to you, and that the world is not “for you” but instead you're drawn out of yourself. There is magic in the world. It's not all totally explicit. Of course this feeling is deeply bound up with a central tenet of OOO: objects withdraw. Yet you also feel strangely at home, like you were always there, and everything else just melts away or fits in somehow, but in a larger space.

Here is a small example: I have been struggling with materialism for a very long time. Thinking about it, thinking I'm a materialist, talking about it...OOO gave me a very simple reason why I was struggling: this idea of matter as a substrate of everything is a FICTION, like Santa Claus. You sort of have to believe in it, vocally, so as not to disappoint the kids.

There: I said it. I'm out as an object oriented ontologist. Couldn't be happier. Graham Harman you are a genius. You too Levi and Ian. More to follow.

Levinas, Element, Strange Stranger, OOO

I'm finishing an essay on Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a Levinasian encounter between strangers (not simply human, though).

I became so obsessed with Levinas a couple of years ago that in the process of reading everything I could get my hands on I had to devise a whole new note taking system. The usual underlinings and ticks had to be supplemented by exclamation marks. Soon these were not enough and I found myself drawing smiley faces when I found really good points.

But there's one page of Otherwise than Being—164 in Alphonso Lingis's translation—that contains all these and also a fierce smiley, with some kind of forked tongue coming out of it—my way of making sure I'd remember this jackpot page. Now I turn to it and discover that it also has a lightning bolt (!) and a note: “This is it—the dark ecology manifesto” (Ha, Levi). What was I thinking?

It seemed to me that this was the one moment at which we might possibly see what Levinas calls “the element” not simply as an anonymous lump (Harman is spot on about this) that needs to be articulated/cut up by humans (Harman also spot on about that).

The element is of course very suggestive for thinking about what an environment is. Levinas' incredibly creepy notion of the there is, of existence without existents, strives to imagine the hidden core of this element, which creeps or rustles or splashes around us like the inertia of the night. (Thanks for the clarification there Graham.)

Levinas' prose enacts the element in its wave-like iterations, in which ideas seem to wash incrementally up onto a strange seashore. I deeply love this aspect of Levinas' writing.

The element itself seems to become a strange stranger, and a necessary condition for strange strangeness: “the absurdity of the there is...the insignificance of its objective insistence, recommencing behind every negation, overwhelms like the fate of subjection to all the other to which I am subject...the surplus of nonsense over sense.”

Or in Coleridge's language: “The ice was here, the ice was there / The ice was all around...”

This alterity of the there is is the ground zero for real receptivity to the strange stranger...it is the strange stranger...

Some more gold:
“There there is is all the weight that alterity weighs supported by a subjectivity that does not found it.”
“But one must not say that the there is results from a ‘subjective impression’.”
“There is deliverance into itself of an ego awakened from its imperialist dream, its transcendental imperialism, awakened to itself, a patience as a subjection to everything. In this spirituality infinity comes to pass...”

Now all you have to do is extend this insight to all objects, so that its' not just a for-us kind of a deal.

See? I told you: it's all on page 164.





Melancology

A very interesting looking symposium on black metal and ecology.

Levi, Levinas

Levi Bryant's post on Levinas and OOO got me thinking today. I have a post on Gödel in the works but it can wait.

Update: Graham Harman pitched in with a most informative post.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hiroshima




This remains one of the most horrifying events caused by sentient beings.

I have trouble driving through Nevada because I keep visualizing mushroom clouds—as John Lydon sings, “Mushrooms on the horizon...”

And the creeping horror of driving past Rocky Flats on I93 in Colorado.

John Heresy, Hiroshima.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Speculations 1


Speculations 1 has arrived. Have you downloaded your copy?

The Real and the Sublime

I'm working with a number of artists and philosophers on an exhibition at the Tate called The Real and Sublime, curated by Urbanomic, the entity behind the extraordinary journal Collapse. I'm going to find out whether the exhibition will be available online.

Invited participants include:
Robin Mackay (Urbanomic)

Kenna Hernly (Urbanomic)
Paul Chaney (Urbanomic)
Timothy Morton (Philosopher)
Iain Hamilton Grant (Philosopher)
Ray Brassier (Philosopher)
Amanda Beech (Artist)
Matthew Poole (Curator)
Pamela Rosenkranz (Artist)
John Gerrard (Artist)
Manabrata Guha (Scholar in history and theory of warfare)
Éric Alliez (Philosopher)
Nigel Cooke (Artist)
Kristen Alvanson (Artist)
Jeremy Millar (Artist)
Shaun Lewin (Ecologist)
Reza Negarestani (Philosopher)