“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Queer Objects

My essay on gender and OOO is almost done, and Michael O' Rourke wrote me yesterday with news of his very fine essay on gender, OOO and speculative realism more generally, forthcoming in Speculations II.

I find this turn of events very pleasing for a number of reasons. Chief among them:

(1) Levi Bryant's exploration of OOO through Lacan's graphs of sexuation was one of the first things I read carefully while I was thinking about OOO last year, figuring out the affinities with my work. To say this post is seminal is not to do it sufficient justice and I'm happy that it's made its way into The Democracy of Objects. The graphs are above; I'll point you to Levi's post because he does such a fine job of explaining them.

Levi argues that OOO objects comprise a “female” not-all set that is not subject to phallocentric totalization. There is no master signifier outside the set of all objects and there is no top or bottom object anywhere to be found.

(2) My work on lifeforms (the strange stranger part of my argument in The Ecological Thought) had led me to conclude that they were well explained through queer theory. It's just empirically the case that heterosexual reproduction is a small cork floating on a giant ocean of transgender switching, homosexual behavior and cloning. It's also the case more generally that life is performativity: if you look and quack like a duck, or like DNA, then that's what you are. This led me to write my “Queer Ecology” essay, which O'Rourke cites.

To get to queer objects you simply extend strange strangeness to everything.

Rather than hampering a theory of withdrawn objects, this performativity positively guarantees it. Nothing is as it seems; there is always an excess of “essence” not exhausted in manifestation.


Eileen Joy said...

But: if there is always an excess of "essence" not exhausted in manifestation, where is that "essence" located, positioning system-wise? I ask because my M.A. students and I, just last night, wrapped up our discussions of Harman's always-withdrawing objects [by way of his essay "Aysmmetrical Causation," but also by way of "Prince of Networks" and "Circus Philosophicus."

So, in order to [maybe] not let this excess-ive "essence" simply hover as a kind of Absolute or to have no locatable "hiding place," um ... where might it be hiding (interior), hovering (exterior)?

It's one thing to say something [whether a person, a species, a daffodil, an astral belt, whatever] is always "in excess" of what we can perceive, apprehend, touch, etc. It's another to start thinking about the location, taxonomy, material makeup, etc. of such an excess. How can I be sure we're not just reinventing animism [even your crossed out animism, which I love, btw], or soul? Haven't you also said, in other contexts, that it's "parts all the way down" ... and "up"?

Eileen Joy said...

I want to clarify, too, that I ask this question partly because, as I and my students were discussing Harman's essay, "The Sleeping Zebra," we were concerned to see if we could distinguish between Harman's comments that any object [in this case, a sleeping zebra] always

"rises above its own pieces, generated by them but not reducible to them. And second, it is indifferent to the various negotiations into which it might enter with other objects, though some of these may affect it,"

and your cautions against holism in "The Ecological Thought." You see, increasingly, and partly under the influence of reading *you* [TUI--"thinking under the influence"], I don't know if any object retains any sort of "life" or "essence" apart from its relations with everything else. And I worry a little, too, that "essence" is being treated in some of our discourses as a kind of Latourian "black box" that we take too much for granted, regarding how it supposedly "works," without peering inside as much as we, maybe, ought to. It might be an empty box. And that might even be okay.

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Eileen, great thoughts--I shall think on these before I respond.

Anonymous said...


These are wonderful questions and I'd love to see your thoughts on the issue. For me, the constitutive incompleteness of the graphs of sexuation entails two things: First, it entails the impossibility of any object being reduced or completely domesticated by another object. There's always something that slips away, that evades capture, that isn't caught. The subtlety of a medieval scholastic is required to capture this dimension of withdrawal. All the resources of scholastic distinction are required here to capture the hollow of the real and that which absents itself from any structural coupling. This is the lesson of feminine sexuation in the Lacanian graph. The masculine side is phallusophical masquerade, pretending to capture and master, under a signifier, all that constitutes the field of being. The masculine side of the graph of sexuation is the university discourse: The domestication of any residue or remainder. The feminine side is truth in that it marks the constitutive impossibility of this.

However, second, for me the far more important dimension of withdrawal-- and my claims are controversial here, perhaps --and the feminine side of the graph of sexuation is that it marks the space of becoming. What the incompleteness of every "not-all" in the field of presence marks is the *openness* of every entity to the future or the fact that no entity is ever reducible to its local manifestation, but rather that every entity is an open-ended process becoming otherwise and containing within it the principles of its own subversion. Or that's where my thoughts are going anyway.

Eileen Joy said...

Larval Subjects: thank you SO much for your further commentary here. On an ethical plane, there are some weird/interesting congruences between your thinking here and Timothy's ideas [expressed in "The Ecological Thought"], that--

1. "'feminine' inertia is the ground of coexistentialism

2. the essence of (feminine) subjectivity is radical passivity [which could also be your "openness"]

3. the feminine inhabits/performs(?)/dimensionalizes "pure semblance"

I worry a little bit about the gendering of this discourse, especially as it might relate to Levinas's idea of the feminine caress that never actually "touches," but in whose non-touching [and "warm"] caress we have the ethical gesture par excellence. Why am I worried about this? I'm not 100% sure yet. [I am a Levinas-lover, btw.] From your original post, "Lacan's Graphs of Sexuation," to which Timothy links here, this could be a pretty nifty encapuslation of Levinasian ethics:

"Where the logic of desire underlying metaphysics of presence is predicated on overcoming a loss and thereby attaining presence, the logic of desire underlying object-oriented ontology would emphasize the excess of all substances over their local manifestations (the arrow pointing to phi), and therefore the contingency of all local manifestations (there’s always more), and would welcome difference or those eruptions within stable regimes of local manifestation where the strange stranger surprises and indicates this excess."

And more importantly, through your commentary on Lacan's drawing, I think what you're saying is there is no "totality" of any one "sexuation" [this would maybe be true as well for Deleuze and Guattari's "thousand tiny sexes": there is no container for *any* sexuation, however we define that] that could be put in a "container" of some sort. And the "feminine" is maybe more open to this idea/state of affairs. As to your idea that,

"no entity is ever reducible to its local manifestation, but rather ... every entity is an open-ended process becoming otherwise and containing within it the principles of its own subversion,"

I definitely agree with you and would only say that, for me, the idea of an "open-ended process becoming otherwise" is much more appealing than the idea of an excessive "essence" that supposedly serves as a "secret" interior or an uber- [or Ur-] morphology. Perhaps there is only becoming, and all the time. And yet within all of this becoming, there are also enough iterations with slight variations to produce something like autonomous realities?

Timothy Morton said...

Yay, Eileen, I'm still thinking about this. Good to have you here.

Eileen Joy said...

So, I am sitting in my study on a beautiful sunny morning in Saint Louis and editing the sound-files from the "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods" conference that was hosted at George Washington University's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute this past weekend [organized by Jeffrey Cohen and Jonathan Gil Harris], and at which conference Jane Bennett gave a keynote talk on "the powers of the hoard: notes toward a material agency," and she mentioned a few things that relate to this discussion here and now also over at Larval Subjects. First, it should be noted that she described herself as a "humble word-worker" who seeks, not to "capture" things in her descriptions of the sensuous (yet resistant) emanations of things (which are always "otherwise" to representation), but rather to "tune" her own sense perceptions toward the "frequencies" of things, which Bennett believes are "vibrating" and even "calling." This will also entail making new words, NOT to nail things down, but to render the self "more susceptible" to the "non-linguistic communicability" between vibrant materials. [Does this not sound an awful lot like the "feminine"/queer (non)-relational ethics Levi sketches out in his most recent post and that you, Timothy, gesture toward in The Ecological Thought?]

Now, more in relation to our discussion here about "withdrawing," Bennett also pointed out some of the obstacles to her "tuning" project--for example, that in most philosophical discourses on "thing-power," many of the descriptors are "privative":

1. the "complex intractibility" of living organisms [Stephen Jay Gould]

2. "incalculability" & "withdrawing from representation" but still "calling on us" [Heidegger with further, important elaborations within OOO circles]

3. "non-identity" and "non-coincidence" [Adorno]

She summed up the caution of the intractable incalculable non-identical withdrawing-ness of objects with this quote from Deleuze [from "Difference and Repetition"]:

"Here, as elsewhere, becoming conscious counts for little."

[laughter ensued]

*to be continued

Eileen Joy said...


But why stop there, Bennett asked? Why not ignore Zarathustra's dwarf sitting on our shoulders and wanting to pour lead in our ears, and hazard some speculative terms for the "expressive or calling capacity of bodies"? She then turned to Foucault's "History of Sexuality" and his project to name a strange, new "power" that he "vaguely discerned around him":

"a productive power that did not operate by repressing or by refusal, blockage, and invalidation" [Bennett talking about Foucault].

So Bennett wants to extend Foucault's method and keep her "eye" trained on the "productive power" of things and their "expressivity." Yes, Bennett agrees, actants are, to a certain extent, intractable and incalculable [and always "withdrawing" ALTHOUGH Eileen would like to step into this parenthetical aside and ask if maybe we need a term, like Timothy's crossed-out animism that would be "withdrawing" with a line also drawn through it?], but can we thicken our descriptions of them a bit more, nevertheless?

Of course, I think that is what Harman, Timothy, Levi, and many others are mightily engaged in at present, but I guess I am still wanting to put pressure on the idea & geo-temporal spatiality of the *movement* [and it is a movement] of withdrawing. I want to hold it in place and also draw a line through it. I want to also see if we can turn it inside-out [or reverse its direction or give it curvature] and say that the reason there is a "certain something" [residue, excresence, reserve, secret interior, essence, potenitality/future, open-ended becoming] to every object [including persons] that is never capturable in words, ideographs, morphologies, images, systems of description, "our" philosophy, etc., then maybe that is also an *extensible* something that is always, not withdrawn, but just always just ahead of us, or in a "somewhere else" that is not interior, but always radically exterior, while also always being "here" which is the place we're all "in" all the time. Like sub-atomic particles that are always wrapped up together while being far apart.

Being more attuned to our radical implicate enfoldment while also taking [ethical] account of our different "calls" across and within this fold--always "inside" and "outside" simultaneously?

Obviously, maintaining a site of ultimate unknowability/impenetrability/recalcitrance allows for the safeguarding of the "open" as well as the "private," allowing each thing "its own thing," which might be a form of radical love to "let things be" while never really letting them be [alone]. But this safeguarding of the secret interior, or essence, when inflected in certain directions, also leads to ideas of the kinds of "precious" differences that, in my mind, lead directly to violence and war.

Well, those are my thoughts on this brilliant, beautiful day.

Eileen Joy said...

I want to add here, too, that Bennett also argued that our notions of our “embodiment” are really insufficient–

“it’s not like we’re something that *gets* embodied; we are through and through an array of bodies, many different kinds of *nested* sets”

–so this goes again to the question of *what* it is, exactly, that might always be “withdrawing”; is this withdrawing always an embodied one? Is there anything else?