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

Monday, February 28, 2011


One of my best grad students just sent me this from Jean-Luc Nancy's Corpus:

there's no “ego” in general, only the one time, the occurrence and occasion for a tone: a tension, vibration, modulation, color, cry, or song. Always, in any case, a voice, and not a vox significativa, not a signifying order, but the timbre of the place where a body exposes and proffers itself...Ego forever articulating itself—hoc, et hoc, et hic, et illic...—the coming-and-going of bodies: voice, food, excrement, sex, child, air, water, sound, color, hardness, odor, heat, weight, sting, caress, consciousness, memory, swoon, look, appearing—all touches infinitely multiplied, all tones finally proliferating. (Kindle locations 679–94)

The way Nancy writes reminds me of Levi on non-signifying differences.

I've made enough posts on timbre but perhaps not enough on its hyperobjective cousin, tone. I like how entities are unique in this quotation. I also like how tones are events that emanate from these entities.

These tones are aspects of what OOO calls the sensual ether.

Natural Selection Will Destroy Us

This is in fact a truism, and in a certain sense, who cares? There is no “us” from a Darwinian point of view, only unicities that I call strange strangers. Remember, The Origin of Species has a punchline: there are no species, and they have no origin!

Nevertheless, this piece in New Scientist is worth thinking with. It's an interview with
Christian de Duve, professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium and Rockefeller University, New York. Of course, this means that he's a teleologist and that for him, our genetic traits are “original sin.” Lamenting or celebrating our eventual or imminent doom is also a form of teleological thinking (sorry transhumanists).


I can't do better than this fantastic comment by Alex Reid on my previous:

I am reminded of a related tradition, the Tarot, and the figure of the Hanged Man, which represents the willingness to submit the self to the other. Letting go of our mental addictions is never easy as we tie our ego to them as you point out. For this reason surrender, an insouciant turning away, can appear an almost magical intellectual gesture.

I wonder whether there isn't something speculative realist in this card. The willingness to look outside the correlationist circle is a kind of openness to death. The sudden flipping upside down of Heidegger so that a universe of objects is revealed, or the exhaustion of the manifest, or the humiliation of the human. The readiness to cooperate in postcritique, for instance Reid's compositionalist ideas for humanities work.

And lo, Alex himself has a much more extensive post about this very thing.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

We Live Inside a Monster


Marina Zurkow is a genius

Dark Chemistry has a characteristically fine analysis of my Hyperobjects 4.0 at his blog.

The more I look at them the more I think Marina Zurkow's Elixir series shows us something speculative realism is also showing. The fragile glass decanters, containing their cartoon line drawing humans in their bottled worlds, are correlationist ships in bottles, storm tossed inside the hyperobject of climate. Dark Chemistry discusses the Cthulhu allusion in my talk, in which I compare hyperobjects to Lovecraft's mad god. It's as if we have woken up to find ourselves inside a monster.

Lingis on Realms of Existence and How to Work with Demons

Machig Labdron, founder of Chöd

Dirk Felleman just sent me these terrific essays by Alphonso Lingis that provide some support to my previous on the jealous god realm and the demonic.

“Fantasy Space”

“The Dreadful Mystic Banquet”

I can already see how the latter will be useful for my essay for Eugene Thacker and Nicola Masciandaro. It's profoundly powerful and it's really about ecology...


Akira Kurosawa knew about fighting demons

After the symposium on Friday, someone told me “I can't believe that you conceded my point so easily.” To which I replied, “But of course—you were right.”

My interlocutor seemed to find my response freshly disconcerting. Why?

I've been feeling somewhat reflective about this and other moments. They seem to be symptoms of the Asura Realm that is default academia.

There are six realms of existence in traditional Buddhism: human, animal, hell, hungry ghost, gods, jealous gods. You can imagine these realms as psychological states. The hungry ghost realm for instance is the state of addiction: nothing is ever enough. Hungry ghosts have tiny throats and enormous stomachs, and they're always hungry. Yet everything tastes of pus and poison.

means jealous god. The jealous gods are jealous because a beautiful wish fulfilling tree has its roots in their realm but flowers in the god realm.
The jealous gods struggle for an inch of ground from the gods, like First World War armies.

Doesn't this epitomize the psychological state of academia? Places like Hollywood are god realms, full of effortless bliss. That is, until the gods are thrown out or die—then they usually go straight to hell, until they can make it to the Oprah realm...

Academia, however, is a realm of conflict and jealousy. Everything is struggle, attack, defense, paranoia. My interlocutor couldn't believe that I'd given an inch, and so easily too.

It takes a lot of work, if you're a scholar, not to get drawn into this psychological realm. You find that the things we like to think and say, the very concepts we generate and the attitudes we have to them (see Alex Reid's recent post for more on this), are colored by the jealous god energy (guess what color is the traditional one? Green.)

Let them win. Disarm them. The best way to defeat a jealous god is to be pleasant to them.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Alex Reid on Learning a New Idea

Over at Digital Digs Alex has a characteristically insightful post about how hard it is to learn a new idea. In particular, referencing my talk at Rutgers yesterday, he discusses the rather pervasive culture of critique and “problematization” (yes I learned that one too) in the humanities, which actually inhibits the learning of new ideas.

In particular, this inhibition means that digital humanities and OOO have a bit of a rough time of it, and for related reasons that reveal quite deep affinities between them. It's not what you might think. It has to do with the attitude shift, Alex argues. It has to do with learning how to make and understand objects—often one and the same thing. I suggested again at the roundtable yesterday that we start making objects and affiliating with scientists and engineers on a regular basis.

Of course this “new idea” thing is overdetermined by the fact that OOO does indeed require a shift in attitude towards what we do in the humanities. Away from being armed and ready to undermine the other's position, to put her or him in a box. Since there is no top object and no bottom object—since undermining and overmining are no longer cool—OOO seems to code for a more curious, friendly open-mindedness.

There's a certain power that comes with being armed to the teeth with critique, but it's a brittle power. It makes you feel like you're learning something—I know this is how it struck me when I first started to do it just before I started as an undergrad. You feel “philosophical.” But there's a difference between feeling philosophical and doing philosophy.

Instead of being ready for the other—idea, thinker, object—to be wrong, you are ready to be wrong.

I'm not saying that there's no room for irony—far from it, I think (see Eileen Joy's recent comment here) that there is more room for irony when it doesn't harden into cynicism.

Zurkow and Bravo at Big Screen Project: The Nature of Chaos

Monika Bravo, The Vortex

This will inevitably be dark ecological and beautiful. In New York City on Monday. Featuring Monika Bravo and Marina Zurkow.

Marina Zurkow's website

Marina Zurkow, Elixir (video)

I just found out about Marina Zurkow's website—she's a dark ecological experimental multimedia and video artist. I was amazed by her Mesocosm last year.

Badiou Nails It

HT Graham Harman. I said this at Rutgers yesterday, more briefly.

The Eastern wind is getting the better of the Western one. How much longer will the poor and dark West, the “international community” of those who still think of themselves as masters of the world, continue to give lessons of good management and behaviour to the whole planet? Isn't it laughable to see certain intellectuals on duty, disconcerted soldiers of the capital-parliamentarism that stands as a shabby paradise for us, offering themselves to the magnificent Tunisian and Egyptian peoples in order to teach these savage populations the basics of “democracy”? What a distressing persistence of colonial arrogance! Given the miserable political situation that we are experiencing, isn't it obvious that it is us who have everything to learn from the current popular uprisings? Shouldn't we, in all urgency, closely study what has made possible the overthrow through collective action of governments that are oligarchic, corrupt and—possibly, above all—humiliatingly the vassals of Western states?

And dig this anarchistic bit:

That is, one day, freely associated in the spreading of their own creative power, peoples could do without the gloomy coercion of the state. And it is for this reason, for this ultimate idea, that a revolt overthrowing an established authority can determine unlimited enthusiasm throughout the world.

Ecology without Nature to be Anthologized

Or even more accurately, “Routledgized,” which is a doom that awaits certain texts. Stay tuned—I'm not yet sure what part of it they want for an anthology of ecocriticism.

Tim's Rutgers Presentation

For my talk “Hyperobjects 4.0: Emergency Human-Scale Study Guide.”

Rutgers Talk

Friday, February 25, 2011

All Rutgers Talks Now Have MP3s

Scroll down a little and you'll find them all. I just added them to existing posts, with the exception of the roundtable and my talk, which are new.

Rutgers Eco Conference: Roundtable (Morton, Heise, Nixon, Sandilands, Marcone) mp3

“Professor Morton, why is there a picture by Stamaty of a depressed looking boy sitting on a lawn?” I don't know yet, but it seems to work. The energy of the roundtable became quite intense.

Rutgers Eco Conference: Morton talk, response, Q&A mp3

Sizewell B Nuclear Power Station, Suffolk, UK. I used to swim near

Fun tip: In the response, I become the fall guy for OOO. And Buddhism! And science! And intellectuals! And the human! Listen out for it!

Rutgers Eco Conference: Ed Cohen response to my talk

MP3 of mine to follow soon. Here are Ed's comments. He was somewhat hostile, so it was a little hard to keep up with everything, but I managed to put most of his comments down in telegraph form.

Ed Cohen, Women's Studies, Rutgers

He's a member of Social Text collective
Latour: ecology as reasoning of how we live together
Meditation as well as healing
Hyper ness is a problem: I'm too fast, too hyper
Nietzsche's notion of rumination
Having to be a cow and not a modern person
Things take time
Stengers: cosmic idiot
Demanding that we slow down

Who are “we”? Cohen doesn't feel interpellated by the "we" in my talk
What about nonhumans? Or nonwesterners? I've read his blog and he never talks about them. (?)

Aboriginals protesting natural gas production vs. Morton on hyperobjects.
Songlines: what would hyperobjects mean to them? (They wouldn't care! Is his answer)
Multinaturalism as opposed to my “without-nature” (Latour)
I'm not taking account of nonwestern non-science, and I am taking account of Western science, therefore I am very bad.
Cohen has many issues with OOO, the most significant being, “So what? Don't we already know that about Heidegger? We don't need Graham Harman to tell us.”
Dalai Lama: the western opposition of subject and object has been greatly exaggerated

Rutgers Eco Conference: Ursula Heise talk + mp3

Isabella Kirkland, “Gone,” Taxa Series

The Anthropocene. Risk Society. Cultural representations of species extinction. Elegy, tragedy. Databases of extinct species (epic?). Clear distinctions between culture and science don't exist. Science conflicted on the inside with all kinds of assumptions.

Extinction is a normal part of evolution. We may be losing species at 50–500 times the background rate. Habitat destruction, invasive species, population growth, pollution, overharvesting (HIPPO, the acronym).

Biodiversity was very slow to restart after mass extinctions.

Possible collapse of some ecosystems. Disappearance of medical and other resources for the future. Disappearance of important cultural anchor points and assets.

The problem of biodiversity: the concept is normative as well as descriptive. Divergent definitions of species. Morphogenetic shape, genome, type?

Divergent assessments as to what the magnitude of the extinction is. The discovery of species is increasing as this happens.

If so many species are threatened that entire systems are at risk, who cares exactly what is disappearing? Yet diversity is a numbers argument that must be substantiated with numbers.

Huge discrepancies between numbers of species we've evaluated for extinction and numbers we think exist. We've evaluated one mushroom; we think 30 000 mushroom species exist.

Two hundred years of environmentalist stories behind it.

Focus on culturally significant species. “Charismatic megafauna.” Many conservationists are ambiguous about these species.

Extinction as cultural signifier. The Dodo as first example. Japanese Wolf, Minke Whales. Cultural focus points that articulate critiques of modernization.

David Quammen on the dodo. As icon of regret for modernization.

Biodiversity databases as a kind of nature writing as a genre in which our cultural concern finds expression. Media theorists have argued that whatever their scientific utility, databases are a form of cultural expression.

Hayles violently disagrees with this approach. Databases directly are narrative.

Heise thinks that she's positioned in the middle, though I'm not sure what's to the other side of her. An epic aspiration to encompass all life forms. (Me: Epic narrates the origins of a nation...?)

Conceptual decisions to design databases that are cultural in nature. Technological forms of cultural memory whose architecture determines what can become part of it. Metadata: criteria for selection. Justifications for species conservation are pragmatic, not theoretical.

Species are symptomatic and symbolic.

Red lists concerning species protection usually based on these lists.

Philip K. Dick, Androids. Vonnegut, Galapagos. Oryx and Crake. All have narratives that narrate multiple extinctions. Maya Lin, What Is Missing? site.

Isabella Kirkland, Nova, Taxa series. Like still lives with nearly dead animals. Challenging the logic of still life as well as the logic of extinction. As if to say “There is no more nature outside the social.” (This could easily be misheard as: only humans remain the final arbiters.”)

Joel Sartore, who photos species against a white or black background, to give equal attention to each, in line with his reading of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. They appear artifactual and mounted rather than embedded, frozen in movement. Clinical, classificatory. Lifeforms come to resemble aliens. Not caught up with beauty and tragedy of impending death. Desentimentalizing.

Homo sapiens is listed as “species of least concern” on the endangered species red list. Inclusion of humans in a biodiversity database is a big decision to reconsider as species among species.

Databases could help us turn from Romanticism in environmentalism.

Rutgers Eco Conference: Cate Sandilands talk + mp3

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. How to unthink heteronaturativity. Making the world safe for consumer capitalism and heterosexism. Queer there to give a liberal edge to a straight commodity. “Homonormativity.”

Colin and Justin's Home Heist. Another makeover show. The aesthetic intervention. But different. A married couple from the UK who live in Toronto. They flirt, bicker, have hissy fits. Desire to obliterate tackiness and blandness in the name of excess. “Because bad design, Canada, is a sin.”

Justin wears colorful corsages including large tree flowers. Bright paints. The virtues of an entirely pink household. The resulting intervention is not at all's loud but it works. Oddly pleasing.

Use of queer relational possibilities to imagine a different everyday.

Queer as description of more than human world and normative too.

To nodes in queer ecology:

(1) Queer nature as ontological condition. Myra Hird's work. Queerness found in every major animal group and so on. Intersexuality is common in many species. Sexual transitions within one animal's lifespan. (BTW here is my essay “Queer Ecology” on that.) Darwin's barnacles were gender ambiguous.

Making human cultural forms more curious by reference to the nonhuman. Making human forms uncanny. Patricia McCormack.

Cate does a very nice piece on my essay. Dawkins plus Butler as a queer coupling. “Species become themselves differently over and over again.” Rather like a drag queen in the literal performance of her life. Mesh as unimaginably open-ended set of possibilities. Desire to rethink what social science and humanities means by queer. Literary forms. A matter of being rather than perspective. (Sandilands puts the emphasis on perspective rather than being.)

I might question my inhabiting only zone (1) but no matter. And I might say that insistence on ontological queerness is political.

Limitations of humanist and anthropocentric assumptions about queerness.

But need to historicize and specify, hence

(2) Mode of Halberstam, Berlant, Warner etc. Politicization. Accounting for specific experiences and subjection.

Everything is queer impoverishes the notion of queer. We need a textured and specific history of the queer. Material reality of specific experiences and subjection. Where is the political challenge to ecological thought? Not just transgression for the sake of transgression.

Stein: conversations on rel between sexual politics and environmental justice. Contribution of lesbians to Eco thought (shout out to my buddies Vox Femina in Boulder CO—the deepest green witches you'll ever meet, and the queerest too). Struggles against oppression that is both sexual and environmental. Situatedness of stories of naturecultures. (Me: sorry, I kind of hate that term!)

Anderson and Erickson: life without future, lack of reproduction. Time space and life as natural.
Family time and time of inheritance. (But if this naturalization is talking about an illusion, isn't pointing that out very helpful?) Sandilands wants to think slowness in relation to reproductive continuity

Isherwood: heterosex as unpleasurable, merely mechanical reproduction.

The division of (1) & (2) is not absolute but pedagogically helpful, Sandilands asserts.

Good Point in the Response to Nixon

David Hughes (anthropologist): Turning slow violence into points. The difference between minus 5 and plus 5 centigrade water is immense. Photos of edges and margins turn long durational phenomena into points.

And a very good discussion of Sebeok: he couldn't think of a sign that would last 10 000 years, so he proposed a nuclear priesthood that would scare people...

Rutgers Eco conference: Rob Nixon's talk + mp3

The Madison Pizza place now only takes orders from the protesters. Via Paypal they take orders from Egypt to feed the protesters and so on...

The conference brings up the relation of public intellectuals and artists to popular struggles.

“Slow Violence” and its negative impact on the poor. And the generative responses that have emerged from these social movements.

Slow violence: we think violence as spectacular, instantaneous, event focused. What Nixon is interested in are forms of incremental violence, slow moving, transnational, or occurring at a cellular level. (Scalar problems.) It's a threat multiplier that fuels conflicts.

For instance: climate change, deforestation, toxic aftermaths of war, toxic drift.

Rachel Carson: innovative and rhetorically creative ways of talking about “oblique deaths,” “death by indirection.” Use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Intergenerational deaths discounted by temporal framing of Vietnam war (bookended by certain dates).

Edward Said's role as public intellectual: “the normalized quiet of unseen power.” Versus the hushed havoc and injurious invisibility that attends slow violence.

Johan Galton: structural violence. Structures that have violent effects that are invisible.

Time is mobilized as camouflage by anti-environmental forces. Noeliberalism as a systemic way of internalizing profits and externalizing costs. Offshoring. Risks moved. But now let's think in temporal terms as well. Externalizing of risk is intergenerational externalizing as well.

Our culture of speed is far more acute than when Galton was developing his theories in the 1960s.

Speed becomes its own self-propulsive ethic. Digital connection and distraction. How to accommodate our degraded attention spans to environmental degradation. Speed of news cycle and of electoral cycle also present challenges. Environmental issues are first out because they don't have the immediacy, not good campaigning material.

Image of Ken Saro-Wiwa—beautiful mural (above). Spokesperson for the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta. Unanswerable transnational corporations. Epic figure in the mobilization of the counter-movement.

Oil spillages of Exxon Valdez every year for 50 years in Niger Delta. (This is almost impossible to let sink in.) Offshore platforms, flaring.

The mural is in the west of Ireland, an impoverished county. Part of a larger effort to link the struggle against Shell in the west of Ireland to that in the West of Africa. Names of the Ogoni Eight on the top.

One of Saro-Wiwa's poems translated into Gaelic. Some street names in Roscommon were changed to Ogoni names. Sharing creativity across boundaries.

Toxic aftermath of war in era of “precision warfare.” Depleted uranium: a half life of 2.7 billion years. Heartless words of Colonel James Naughton: “I'm sure every soldier would thank God that he lived another forty years [after surviving a depleted uranium shell] to contract lymphoma.”

He doesn't address at all the impact on Iraqi civilians and the impact on the water, and so on.

Wangari Maathai, Greenbelt movement in Kenya to oppose slow violence of soil erosion. Incremental threat that if you sped it up would call for the mobilization of an army in defense—“Losing topsoil should be considered analogous to losing territory to an invading enemy.”

Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Mix of oil and Correxit (even worse! the dispersant). Correxit is banned in Europe for its renal repercussions. Incorporation of images and stories in legal stories.

Maldives: sea level rising, because island eroding, because coral reefs dying, because of global warming. Highest point is seven feet. Group in Maldives got together with They held an underwater cabinet meeting.

A ghostly sea change that is being brought to life visually. (This guy has a way with words.)

Russian claimed some of this underwater territory, sparking competition for it. Militarized rhetoric. The flag of desperation versus the flag of territory, another race to the bottom for carbon extraction.

Rutgers Eco conference: Jorge Marcone's opening talk + mp3

Lawsuit 1993 to sue Chevron for $8.6 billion in Ecuador. Amazonian residents sued Texaco for dumping billions of gallons of oil. Second largest total assessed for environmental damages. Big money. So Chevron is hinting that they may not pay, they will appeal. They don't live in Ecuador after all...

Texaco opened 300 wells, 900 open waste pits.

Impact of biodiversity, without a clear inventory of what species are affected. Narratives of documentaries such as Crude address human testimony. They take place on TV, Vanity Fair. Sting, Trudy Styler.

What is environmentalism. What is an environmental conflict?

Encapsulation Prose Configuration Space

Space is curved: Monet at the Orangerie

Something very strange happens at the end of the nineteenth century. It's the moment at which Einstein discovers relativity. It's the moment at which Husserl formulates his startling revision of Brentano's notion of intentionality. It's the moment at which Planck discovers quanta.

It's also the moment at which prose stops being poetry with very long lines. Lines so long that they are usually right justified in a printed text and called paragraphs. Instead, poetry begins to look like a less entropic little island in a giant ocean of prose. What happened?

The configuration space of literature jumped to a higher dimension. In part this was to do with poetry itself: Mallarmé treated the space of the page as a rubber sheet that was part of the poem, stretching it and separating the words. Suddenly lineation becomes part of a higher dimensional configuration space that includes the space around the lines. Whitman's Blakean experiments with long lineation and Rimbaud's prose poems (etc.) also play a part.

Realism's configuration space swallowed the epistolary novel. Naturalism's configuration space swallowed realism. The reader was given more and more of a role in the act of reading—not yet an interactive one, more like an interpassive one. The reader gets to fill in the moving blank in the text, starting with the untagged indirect speech of Jane Austen (genius innovator: see my talks on iTunes U for more information). There is a direct line here to role playing games and videogames, incidentally, which include realism in a still higher dimensional configuration space. (My essay on philosophy and Dungeons and Dragons is going to make this point.)

What we see here are all processes of encapsulation (Ian Bogost's term):
Prose encapsulates poetry.
Spacetime encapsulates physical objects.
Intentionality encapsulates thinking.
Quanta encapsulate waves.

Look at a late Monet painting (roughly contemporary with 1900). They're hyperobjects aren't they? It's particularly intense to see them at the Orangerie, immersed in them and surrounded by them. The space of painting encapsulates the objects in it. We aren't looking at the water lilies per se. We're looking at the water in which the lilies float. The configuration space in which painterly objects appear begins to float and ripple. Color begins to separate from form. Brushstrokes begin to separate from what they are depicting.

What does this mean? It means that OOO objects are beginning to appear.

New Age Weeds and Narcissist Objects

The term New Age works somewhat like the term weed. A weed is a flower in the wrong place as they say. New Age is what the other believes. It's what you, the smart scholar, don't touch with a bargepole.

In particular, there's an intellectual assault on self-care, eudaimonism applied to the self in particular. Who knows how long this has been going on, but I suppose it's probably a post-Reformation reflex.

We were talking in my undergrad class last week about how elegy works through grief, and we got into this area of self-care. I guess I probably said something like “ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ means you have to know how to love yourself.” You could quite easily see tears in some of the students' eyes. I think this is because in our Puritan culture (yes folks even now during maximum consumerist wipe-out) some people in the class had never heard of such a notion.

Quite a lot of intellectual issues, which appear to be to do with the other, dissolve once one begins some kind of appropriate feedback to oneself. The technical term for this feedback is narcissism. Only wounded narcissism would use the term narcissist as a weapon.

Remember that in a sense OOO objects are narcissists. They turn inward, hardly touching other objects except through the sensual ether. Yet we are intimate with this narcissists, they are under our skin—they are our skin.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

At Rutgers

It's been a while since I drove down the New Jersey turnpike, so doing it again is uncanny. It's almost the same physically, it's where my mind is at that's shifted.

Jorge Marcone is a brilliant catalyst of symposia, clearly. Everyone talked and enjoyed themselves at the pretty large dinner at the Rutgers Club this evening. I think this might be a very interesting day, this symposium tomorrow. If you're in the area please come.

Rob Nixon is fresh from Madison where he took part in the protests there, still happening. Something is stirring in America and it's not just a rearguard action. It's refreshing after the two years of Tea Party faux fascist clowning to hear of genuine displays of solidarity, such as firemen, whom Rob described as campy in their bright uniforms, standing with teachers, standing with nurses, and on and on. People camping out in central Madison. Interstitial care spaces where people did yoga. Food. Something is happening.

Tardis Objects

Flying from Sacramento to Newark involves two planes and a transit in the never popular O'Hare airport.

It strikes you immediately that inside a plane or an airport there are countless objects--people, clothes, food, conversations, all milling about differently.

In a flattish ontology where we don't discriminate against medium-sized objects in the name of the tiny (undermining) or the vast (overmining) we have to accept a truth that Levi refers to as strange mereology: there are more parts than wholes.

Or to put it another way, the inside of an object is bigger than its outside.

This startling intuition is just one way in which OOO escapes correlationism, reductionism and holism in one fell swoop. If you like it means that a feature of the Kantian sublime--inner space is bigger than outer space--is extended to all entities.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rutgers Talk: Hyperobjects are Phased

In the 1960s, Edward Lorenz was seeking to find patterns in long-term meteorological data. He used a three-dimensional coordinate system: phase space. Lorenz reduced the meteorological data he was examining to three variables which would describe the state of the weather at any moment. The variables formed the dimensions of the phase space. Plotting these moments in phase space, Lorenz discerned a striking pattern in the data, the Lorenz Attractor. The phase points coalesce around a particular area of the phase space. Lorenz could not predict where the next phase point would alight, but it soon became clear that it would appear somewhere in the resulting butterfly-like shape.

In the 1980s, more sophisticated graphics software explored similar types of "strange attractors," complex systems like the weather that seem chaotic but whose phase space diagrams reveal a coherent, if unpredictable, pattern. Computers were useful not only in crunching the numbers and generating the data, but in organizing those data into a useful visual form. The graphics were not incidental visual aids: the visualization was the scientific work.
Formal causes, people!

Software can see something you can only see in pieces and shadows: the transdimensional object called global warming. That's why hyperobjects are so hard to believe...they exist in a higher dimensional phase space. This is one big new point I'll be making on Friday.

Visiting Eco Professorship at My Place, Good Money




Departments of History and English

University of California, Davis

The departments of History and English are pleased to announce a two-year Visiting Assistant Professorship supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. We are looking for new or recent Ph.D.s in History, English, or related disciplines such as American Studies, for an appointment from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2013, in the department of History or English, as appropriate. We prefer a focus on California, the North American West and Pacific, or borderlands, and a strong interdisciplinary background with possible interests in human/nature interactions, geography, environmental justice or politics.

The Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor will participate in the Mellon Research Initiative in Environments and Societies, directed by Professor Louis Warren and based in the UC Davis Humanities Institute. This position will lie within either the Department of History or the Department of English dependent on the successful candidate’s background. Duties include teaching three courses per year and serving as organizer in the development of a colloquium and graduate seminar in environmental history, literature, and justice, based in the Environmental Humanities program of the Davis Humanities Institute. (

The Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor will receive a stipend of $50,000 annually plus medical insurance, research funds, and moving expenses. The campus at Davis has an excellent library as well as efficient interlibrary loan services. The Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor will join a vibrant community of scholars and teachers in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. UC Davis, twenty minutes from Sacramento, is an hour and a half drive from San Francisco and a two hour-drive from Lake Tahoe.

Review of applications will begin March 28, 2011 and continue until the position is filled. To apply, please send a letter of interest, CV, and three letters of recommendation under the label “Mellon Search” to Professor Louis Warren, Department of History, One Shields Ave., UC Davis, Davis, CA 95616. Applicants must have received the Ph.D. after August 31, 2008, and must have finished all requirements for the Ph.D. by June 1, 2011. The University of California is an equal opportunity employer.

How to Plan a Ph.D. 6: Mapping Your Archive

Archives are messy: they consist of lots of different types of material, and that material has been worked through in different ways by different kinds of analytical method. This will become important when you discuss the state of the field in your area. But it's also important for building
hypotheses, and for beginning to talk about methods.

So first you need to establish the details of your archive. Say it's agriculture: I'm using an example I talked about recently with one of my Ph.D. students. There are lots of different “mine shafts” here: there's agricultural history, there's plants and animals, there's agricultural tools and instruments and technology, there's studies of agriculture. There's art and music and literature and myths about agriculture.

To start sorting some of this you can think about the different databases available that map agriculture. So for instance you could open up one of the anthropology databases, put in a search term like “agriculture” and select a cut-off date. The ideal is to at least have a knowledge of everything ever written about it, and every aspect of agriculture, everywhere, on Earth. Yes
that's right! Of course you won't do this but approach each archive with that kind of wide-angle view.

Once you've figured that out for each archive, you can create some hypotheses. Just study your archives until some hypotheses emerge. These will be the cutting edges of the machines you will use to work on the materials you find in your archives. A hypothesis converts your archive material into dissertation material: material that you can use to explore your big topic(s).

A rigorous hypothesis is something you can train a C grade undergrad to do with no difficulty. Yes—your life will shortly be that of a C grade undergrad as you trawl through thousands of texts. You need to make it simple. A hypothesis that could result in a yes or no answer is best. You'll need about three per archive to get a good enough model, at this stage at
any rate.

Some examples:
“There is x in agricultural text y.”
“Agricultural instruments change from y to z at time a.”
Anthropological studies of agriculture contrast with historical studies
because of x.”
“Agriculture x was not practiced in location y.”

Speculative Realist Music

A supermassive black hole in Perseus emits the note B flat, if you had huge ears to hear it (terrifying!)

An interesting post was sent to me and Graham today about music and speculative realism. I think that without saying so explicitly this post has to do with the larger configuration space I call non-music, with Jarrod Fowler. I'll think some more about this and write something in response in a short while.

Revolution: "I used to watch television, now television watches me"

A great short piece by Peter Hallward in The Guardian on the opening of a new space (kind of a Badiouian read) in the so-called Middle East. (I can't help thinking we need drastically to undo this phraseology.)

Best line, from a protester: "I used to watch television, now television watches me." This is what Rousseau means when in his theory of drama he argues “Let the spectators become a spectacle for themselves.”

A Question of Form or, Sorry Mr. Spock

Ah. Pure energy. Matter without form...

Materialism has traditionally been good at exploring what things are made of. But it has a less good track record explaining why things have a certain shape or configuration. This is where a renewed attention to Aristotle at least helps to clarify things.

Materialism's comfort zone is reducing things to smaller things. So it's not surprising that it skews towards emphasizing what things are made of at the expense of the form they assume.

Incidentally, this is the major distinction between what Marx calls “metaphysical” materialism and his dialectical materialism. For Marx, materialism has to do with form: the configurations of economic relations, relations of class, between superstructure and base and so on. (The very terms “superstructure” and “base” connote a formal way of thinking.)

For Aristotle, there are four kinds of cause: material, formal, efficient and final. What is something made of? (Material.) What shape does it have? (Formal.) What does it do, how does it work? (Efficient.) And what's it for? (Final.)

From these, we get the rhetorical trope of metonymy, which applies to the four causes.

“Okay frog. Burn rubber.” (Material cause of tires.) (HT The Muppet Movie)
“I like your wheels.” A car has wheels as part of its form.
“Can I bum a smoke?” You smoke a cigarette (efficient cause).
“I don't smoke cancer sticks.” The final cause of a cigarette.

Metonymy is interesting because it's literalistic. Unlike metaphor, it uses parts of an object that really are genuine parts of that object. I shall have to think on this more when it comes to thinking about causality for my book project.

Materialism defaults to reductionism if it only considers material causes. Thus biology is good at reducing lifeforms to molecules, but not so good yet at thinking morphogenesis. Some big questions about form remain unanswered.

The therapeutic value of Aristotle is that he lets us see form as a cause, not as some kind of add-on, a bottle into which a liquid (the “real” thing) is poured. Form is just as real as content, and just as fundamental.

Sorry Mr. Spock—there is no matter devoid of form...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Producers: Processes or Objects?

The trouble with the substance–production debate (HT Levi Bryant) is that each side in the debate holds asymmetrical of what is being discussed.

For process relationists, production is different from substance. Substances are agglutinations, vortices, reifications, abstractions etc. of an ongoing production process.

For object-oriented ontologists, production is a substance. (Luckily the English term is a gerundive so you can sort of see what this means when you think of production as a noun.)

This is what “substance is anterior to production” means for OOO.

What it means for process relationism is that in the beginning, at time 0, there were solid lumps. Process relationism can't accept this. Of course it can't.

But what OOO means by anterior is that substance subtends production. What does this mean? Production is substance.

Think of a musical: it's a production. It has a producer. The production is a substance. The producer is a substance.

Production doesn't have to mean “process of production.” That already weights the scales in the process relational direction. We've also come to accept the Marxist notion that products are reifications of a deeper production process.

Seen this way, processes are simply objects that inhabit a higher dimensional phase space. When you look at them from the vantage point of the higher dimensional space, they are quite solid and static. They appear to flow in our dimension. So to some extent the notion that mysterious processes subtend visible subsances is a form of correlationism.

Climate Change is Now

Two papers just published in Nature demonstrate categorically that climate change has already started. Of course yours truly has been arguing this for three years now. Now is after the “end of the world.”

Put down the denialism and the apocalyptic rhetoric, and start dealing. For a radio show on it, go to BBC Radio 4's The Material World for February 17, 2011. You can easily get the podcast from iTunes too.

Medieval and Early Modern Everything and Speculative Realism

Good news: Eileen Joy is going to steer work in speculative realism with reference to what she charmingly calls “this side of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ divide.”

I came of scholarly age studying under the aegis of New Historicism and because of that, medievalists and early modern scholars in history and literature were my close colleagues at Oxford.

Recently I decided to give so-called “scholasticism” a go, because I think that label is part of a long history that sets up the correlationist moment circa 1800+.

So, good times!

Inertia, Chreode, Field

Levi Bryant has a good post or two up on the causal properties of inertia. Nonhuman objects can exert causal pressure on human systems just by virtue of being in them. Consider the notoriously fractal coastline of Norway. Who knows how much Norwegian culture has been shaped by the relative slowness of these objects to change over the last two thousand years?

Entering a fjord is a strange, wonderful, terrifying thing. By ship, out in the moving Rodin sculpture that is the North Sea, you start to see small black lumps in the water. These lumps become larger and more frequent until you realize, with a slight horror, that they were the tips of mountains reaching into the ocean. Then the fjord opens up before you as you come into port.

You realize you are already in a fjord, before you see it. This uncanny anteriority of a massive object (Levi talks about this term in a very recent post) defeats your wish to have a nice aesthetic picturesque distance from which to take a snapshot. The above photo captures this quite well. Picture postcard photos of fjords screw up by shooting them from the air and from some oblique outside angle.

An epigentic chreode is a biological version of a fjord. Organisms travel down them as they develop. A chreode is a certain kind of inertia in a lifeform's configuration space. Morphogenetic changes in the organism (sprouting a new limb or spores) are guided by channels demarcated in the configuration space. The little ball in the illustration at the top travels down the slope in a somewhat random fashion, guided by the channels on the surface that represent the chreode.

Like spacetime, the configuration space for an organism isn't flat. In other words, not just any old thing can happen. Distinguish carefully between the lack of flatness and teleology, which the configuration space doesn't necessarily have.

It's possible that the configuration space is a real object, a hyperobject in my terminology. This is Sheldrake's morphogenetic field, though I should add that you don't have to accept morphogenetic fields to accept hyperobjects.

We should expect these fields to be massively distributed in time and space, nonlocal, curvy and “viscous”—paradoxical for observers in various ways. We should also expect them to be physically real, not simply mathematical abstractions.

Again, I'm not asserting that we should give credence to them. But a view of hyperobjects maps out a way of looking at them.

Crystal Virus Ribosome

The protein capsule of a rhinovirus is a twenty-sided crystal. I guess that makes it familiar to Dungeons and Dragons fans.

A ribosome is also a crystalline form.

It's good to think of these components of lifeforms as crystals, if only because a) it's technically correct and b) it deforms the notion of “life” as some supervenient fact added on to physical objects.

Ribosomes are particularly interesting because

1) DNA can't exist without them. And vice versa. So there had to be some kind of pre-DNA world, which Sol Spiegelman calls RNA world (details in The Ecological Thought). Ribozymes might be remnants of this world. Ribozymes catalyze

2) They act rather like Turing machines (and they look rather like them in schematic diagrams). Ribosomes “read” RNA by passing along it and synthesizing proteins out of transfer RNA. The process is called translation.

Catalysis, translation, reading. No clunk causality there.

Humanism Daily

This post on causality made it into Humanism Daily. I like to use the term “humanism,” which has become freshly disturbing, and reminds us that we aren't yet. (Human that is.)

Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century

Routledge are about to publish this gem of a collection, featuring a whole slew of fresh takes on ecology and the humanities. Lawrence Buell wrote the introduction and Elaine Scarry closes it out. My “mesh” is in it. I think it comes out in April or May so watch this space. There are fifteen essays, including one on posthumanism, one on nuclear issues, and one on Chinese urban design.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Anarchic Objects or, Someday I Want to Burst Out of a Loaf of Bread

Michael of Archive Fire suggested that I think a little about Ian Bogost's ideas concerning exploded views for my project on causality (here's Bryant talking about them). Here's one I loved when I was a kid: Richard Scarry's diagramming of what goes on inside a ship. I guess almost any Richard Scarry would do but somehow Busy, Busy Town really does it for me. It's that drawing of the bakers bursting out of their own loaves of bread:

The point here of course is that the object has literally exploded, and the bakers are getting a literal exploded view of their habitual object, now uncannily large and totally delicious by the looks of it.

The exploded bread depicts the object as operational to use Bogost's term. It does things and you can do things to it. You can handle it and appreciate it from all different kinds of vantage. It invites a variety of explorations.

Each of these handlings and invitations is a sample of the object (to use my term). These samples may or may not be functional. Hence the wonder of Richard Scarry drawings: they show you “how things work,” but in so doing they show you a whole lot more things—and how do those work? And so on. At some point, one gives up. Apoleptic irony occurs because you see how the object in question just doesn't fit your master plan for it, and never could have done in the first place.

(This mirrors the common experience of parents who get asked to read the books. You figure out at some point that the books don't have to be read as linear narratives, but are themselves exploded views of book-reading, so you can skip around, go backwards, forwards and so on. If you try to read them linearly, heaven help you. Thus Scarry books give rise to apoleptic irony: “Oh, weird, there was no narrative I had to track...”)

The exploded view schematic that tells you how things work, then, is a relatively minute island of teleology floating in a giant ocean of anarchy. There is no particular rhyme or reason in the exploded bread. It's a monstrous, tasty product of a catastrophic baking accident precipitated by Able Baker Charlie's misuse of yeast.

In this sense every loaf of bread is a monstrous explosion, even when baking goes right. There is only so much of the breadness that our chowing down on it will sample. Or to translate into Graham Harman's way of talking about it, using a tool and breaking a tool are pretty much the same, ontologically: they sample a small slice of the loaf of tool-being.

Damn it these loaves are probably hyperobjects...

Aristotle, Homer, Rembrandt

It's funny. I was beginning to think of Rembrandt as an OOO kind of a painter guy, when along comes Frances Madeson with this marvelous comment on Levi's blog. Thank heavens Levi is blogging again. What was I to do without my daily fix? You can get a pretty decent education for nothing you know by going there... Anyway here's Frances's observation:

Before today I wouldn’t have up and thought, oh, Rembrandt’s critiquing Aristotle’s reification critique of Plato. But costuming him out of period, out of his own time, and in the attire of the Dutch expansionist moment? There’s an intensely political rebuke there, I think. For being too poor a student of Plato and too good a teacher of Alexander. Foregrounding historical consequences via anachronistic fashion statement.

The official rap on this painting is that it’s a comment on material reward, selling out, purity in art, etc. But as much as I love the Metropolitan and respect many of its painting curators, I don’t think so; not now; in fact those comments seem impossibly glib.

Rather, I suspect that Rembrandt painted an epic internal struggle, an intellectual and moral one with its measure of shadow and pain, pain derived from the act of rejecting a teacher’s valuable lessons, as Aristotle did to Plato. Billowing sleeves not as literal material excess, but rather an internal canvas on which to throw the light on this very issue of patterning; and to ask what if? What if Aristotle had been a Platonist and not an Aristotelian in this regard?

One hand on Homer’s head –that great patterner of language and narrative–the other on links in the chain. It’s subtle, but Rembrandt has him groping, feeling his way, almost as if Aristotle was as blind philosophically as Homer was physically.

What fuels the kind of greed that propels a mercilessly bloody and violent campaign such as Alexander’s, such as our own vampirish adventures, if not lust for the goddamned things themselves?

Now I'm going to read this a little bit upside down but what the hey. Lust, that's the right word. Tantra sees the world as made out of not billiard balls but lust. I like this idea of a blind, tactile, haptic approach to objects—reification seems to have to do with vision and the fetishistic properties thereof. But if, as Blake says, vision is really a form of touch (as are all the senses), all we do is feel our way along in a totally ingenuous way, without the possibility of distance. What fuels Alexander, then, isn't lust for objects, but desire for dominion.

There's something so earthy and warm about Aristotle, isn't there? (I speak up here for Aristotle rather than for cold, reified/reifying Plato.) Something soft and fallen and crumbly and hypocritical (see my many posts on that). Madeson identifies Aristotle as the hypocrite here, caught between the judgment of Plato and the dominion of worldly lords, feeling the bumps on Homer's head like a phrenologist, in that wonderful Rembrandt darkness, a darkness that is never a void but is always the warm presence of some object.

Clunk Causality or, Cynical Reasons for Humanist Disbelief

When humanists talk about causation within their specialist fields, they talk about all kinds of phenomena. Literary scholars and music and art historians talk about influence. Sociologists talk about the determining powers of various kinds of structure, for example Bourdieu's habitus. Psychology talks about mirror neurons and psychoanaysis talks about induction and transference. Marxists talk about economic relations ideological interpellation or determination in the last instance by the base, and any number of other theories of causation.

Actually this last one is a good example of early emergentism. In the famous chapter “Machines” in Capital volume 1, Marx says that when you have enough machines, in particular machines operated by other machines and making machines, you get a jump from a quantitative increase in machinery into the realm of the qualitative, into fully fledged industrial capitalism. Some kind of jump occurs.

So we have any number of a panoply of ways of talking about causation. We seem, however, to hold these views at a cynical distance, because when push comes to shove (pun accidentally intended), or “when the rubber meets the road” to use the current nauseating bureauspeak, we “don't really believe all that is how causation really works.” No, what we have at the back of our heads is, as Graham Harman has pointed out many times in his publications and on his blog, some notion of a billiard ball slapping another billiard ball. Atomism plus mechanism, or, as I shall call it from here on out, clunk causality.

Let's sum up basic clunk causality: atoms are more real than pop music, and they are little balls that clunk each other. And the clunking is more real than transference or overdetermination or habitus. We seem to believe this, even when we act as if we don't. Against this, even old-school-seeming phenomena such as influence appear positively whacky.

It would be interesting to figure out, along with seriously thinking about other ways of imagining causation, why we “really” believe in clunk causality, given that we spend most of our scholarly lives doing without it, and then some—all kinds of theories, including Marx's emergentism and psychoanalytic transference, have nothing to do with machine parts hitting one another in Cartesian space.

Marx's “Machines” is exemplary here. Marx explicitly argues that when enough of these machinic clunkings take place in a concentrated space such as nineteenth-century England, an entirely new regime of production and economic relations appears, a kind of quantum jump from a commercial age to an industrial one. He uses machines to demonstrate a non-mechanical causality.

Marxists should now be flocking to new materialisms and speculative realisms that explore emergence and nonlocality and hosts of strange causalities. With the notable exception of Levi Bryant, however, I mostly still hear the sound of crickets (to use another nauseating phrase). Why?

Is it because of their founder's injunction against metaphysical materialism, an injunction that unfortunately traps Marxism within the correlationist circle?

Or is it because of some wider cynical reason, which causes us to “know very well” that what humanists talk about is secondary to little balls hitting one another? And isn't this cynical reason also part of the correlationist circle?

Have humanists in general, despite their extraordinarily creative ways of thinking about causes at work, decided that the default clunk causality, a causality that no explanation of quantum scale phenomena supports? It's rather like the anecdote of the quantum theorist who acts one way in the lab, and another way in the pub.

Consider the Bohm-Aharonov effect: when you pass electrons close to a magnetic field, but not close enough for them to be clunked, the electrons are still affected by the field. Bohm plumped for a physical but nonlocal quantum field potential to explain the effect. You don't have to. But you can forget about clunk causality.

Lazy Idle Schemers

Greg is none of these people

My friend and next-door-office-neighbor Greg Dobbins just published his first book, Lazy Idle Schemers. It's about how laziness is not only a way of dropping out of imposed routines of work and imperialism (Greg's subject is Irish modernism), but also how laziness provides new ways of thinking about creativity.

It's a very good looking book and he's a very good bloke. He is my supplier of black metal and he knows more about music than anyone else I know. We had the best time meeting Sonic Boom a couple of years ago: a memorable evening...