Alien Phenomenology PoBC discussion: chapters 2 and 3

by Darius Kazemi on July 2, 2012

in Alien Phenomenology,philosophy

This is a continuation of my Alien Phenomenology discussion summary posts (see here for a description of what these are). This one covers chapters 2 and 3 of AP. Participants here include me, Michel McBride-Charpentier, Brendan Keogh, Daniel Joseph, Ben Abraham, and Cameron Kunzelman. There’s a monster discussion on speculative ethics (AKA p. 72-78 of the book), which I consider the most incendiary (pun intended) portion of the book.

Time and the meanwhile

Alien Phenomenology (50):

“Like painting, photography usually operates on the temporal scale of now. The landscape or the still life shows the corporeal arrangements of things, arrested before human perception. But Shore’s work rejects the singularity of the now in favor of the infinity of the meanwhile. [...] Meanwhile is a powerful ontographical tool.”

Darius Kazemi:

Whenever I think about time and OOO, my head spins. “Meanwhile” may expand to an infinity of moments as compared to a single instant of human perception coded in the “now,” but it still flattens out time into a single instant. It’s just an instant that has infinite human and nonhuman points of view, reminiscent of Giordano Bruno’s cosmology… nothing wrong with that. It just gets me thinking about time, and time is where I have the most anxiety about OOO.

Michel McBride-Charpentier:

You can’t reduce human perception to some smallest unit of time called an instant. “Meanwhile”, as I want to understand it, can consist of a nanosecond or 100 billion years. The element decayed, meanwhile the girl blinked, meanwhile the father drove home, meanwhile the universe is expanding. Are these equal instants? The girl blinking is certainly an instant in the timescale of the expansion of the universe, an irreducible thing if you want to put it that way. Anyway, I agree that time makes my head spin and the words we use don’t always help.


Alien Phenomenology (40):

“[A]lien phenomenology assumes the opposite: incompatibility. The off-pitch sound of lists to the literary ear only emphasizes their real purpose: disjunction instead of flow. Lists remind us that no matter how fluidly a system may operate, its members nevertheless remain utterly isolated, mutual aliens”

Brendan Keogh:

But for me, the power of works of Ontography such as Latour litanies or exploded views or Scribblenauts is thats no matter how drastically different the objects are, you almost can’t help but find a connection between them. To me, that is the power of ontography. Not how it separates objects and shows their incompatibility or recession away from each other, but how they bleed across commas into each other. But I guess this is where I have a fundamental disagreement with AP, anyway. I’m more obliged to go with Latour and how objects are always coming together, not with Harman and Bogost and how the objects are always distinct. ….Actually, I just flicked a couple more pages and found this: “To create an ontograph involves cataloging things, but also drawing attention to the couplings of and chasms between them” (50). So perhaps I am wrong when I think I am at odds with Bogost on this?

And I think this inevitable connecting is where the ‘meanwhile’ comes into it, right? I, too, try to avoid talking about time because it just makes my head explode, but the “infinity of the meanwhile” over the “singularity of the now” (50) is a fascinating concept to me. I think it highlights the continuous-ness of a network, that there is no single current of action, but just all this stuff happening all at once. Kind of related: I recently learnt of a sub-genre of casual games in Japan known as nagara games, where nagara literally means ‘while doing’. You add it to the end of a verb and then add another clause. Like, “I was watching TV while eating sushi” is “sushi o tabenagara, TV o mimashita”. There are games that you play while doing other things (iphone games or facebook games, for instance). This multiplicity of things you are doing at ‘one’ time I think is a good example of the infinity (and plurality) of meanwhile over the singularity of now.

Which, as an aside, relates nicely with my favourite quote from the game Dear Esther: “The difference seems banal now. Why not everything all at once?”. That could almost be a mantra for ontography.

I think, also, what ontography does is it allows the objects to be their own relations. If I can talk about Latour again, a key thing to ANT is that there aren’t ‘actors’ and ‘relations’ but that actors are the relations. I think ontography reveals this. By removing the verbs of sentences and replacing them with the commas of lists (or any other device of meanwhile-ness such as the gaps of an exploded view), the objects/actors/nouns do the work of relating themselves. Stuff isn’t removed (or face relations like verbs added) to show how A connects to B connects to C, instead ontography just shows ABC and their connections and intimacy speak for themselves. Which is why I like Bogost’s analogy of ontography as a landfill, not a Japanese garden (59). It’s not about drawing clear lines of intention or agency or presumed relationships, it lets the myriad objects within the frame of whatever the ontographical work is speak for themselves.

But this itself seems to go against OOO (or at least the Harman and Bogost OOOs) of objects always receding into themselves.

Daniel Joseph:

Basically, withdrawal is a move against reduction – if we slice open an orange and show you it’s endo relations (Bryant) and thus say – ah ha! “Orange is these!” we reduce, or undermine the orange. Basically we keep going down to atoms or quarks or whatever.

Whenever we say we can slice things up to see their insides or say they are a product of their exo relations we REDUCE, or undermine or over mine them.

Orange is atoms / Orange as part of universal whole / Orange is the flower of language etc are all just as reductive. Harman’s critique of Latour is that he is guilty of undermining things, reducing them to their relations. They still exist, but become more REAL the more allies they have. So really, object realness is reduced to networks of relations that reduce just as handily as post-modern language games.

Darius Kazemi:

Whereas I actually buy into relationism, as long as you accept that:

  1. relations are objects
  2. an infinite regress of relations is metaphysically acceptable

#2 there being a kind of withdrawl in and of itself.

Speculative ethics

Alien Phenomenology (77):

When we ask after the ethics of objects, we are really asking if moral qualities exist as sensual qualities. I’ll float a categorical response: no. When the vegan eats the tofu, she bathes in its moisture, its blandness, its suppleness, its vegetality. Yet the soy does not bathe in her veganism.

Ben Abraham:

In one of the later chapters of Prince of Networks I commented wondering if Latour’s relations weren’t always “reciprocal” and whether relations could travel in only one direction… and this seems like Ian is saying something very similar.

But I don’t know about Harman’s “sensual qualities”… I’m on the fence about Harman’s “fourfold object” model. Partly because too many people I respect think Harman is a crackpot (haha) and partly because I’m just a bit confused about it. Latour’s relationism makes sense to me. OOO’s “real objects” make sense to me. Sensual qualities… doesn’t, for some reason.

Alien Phenomenology (79):

To the hammer everything looks like a nail. To the human animal, the soybean and the gasoline look inert, safe, innocuous. But to the soil, to the piston? Ethical judgment itself proves a metaphorism [...] ethics itself is revealed to be a hyperobject: a massive, tangled chain of objects lampooning one another through weird relation, mistaking their own essences for that of the alien objects they encounter, exploding the very idea of ethics to infinity.

Ben Abraham:

Ian demolishes “ethics” and no one bats an eyelid? *shrug* Oh welp! =P

Cameron Kunzelman:

I think ethics are important, one of my closest friends is an ethicist, and I take life, and how we can live life ethically, very seriously. So when he writes that OOO explodes ethics outward so much that it becomes near-impossible to make political, ethical decisions, I become concerned. [Cameron linked to a blog post he wrote partly in response to this section of AP. -DK]

Ben Abraham:

As to your question about ethics… I have no idea about addressing the ethics of non-humans without being a correlationist and privileging life that’s more like us. Nick Land in an interview with Wired had the following quote which I think has some applicability to this issue (the whole piece is quite short, it’s worth reading):

NL: You have to understand that organisation involves subordinating low level units to some higher level functional program. In the most extreme cases, like in biological organisms, every cell is defunctionalised, turned off, except for that one specialised function that it is allocated by the organic totality. And hence the preponderant part of its potential is deactivated in the interests of some higher level unity. That’s why the more organised things get, the less interesting their behaviour becomes – “interesting” simply meaning here how freely they explore a range of possible behaviours, or how “nomadic” they are.

NL: Organisation is suppression. It’s more accurate to say that systems which avoid self-organisation whilst maintaining trajectories of productive innovation end up parasitically inhabited by organisms of all kinds, whether those organism are biological organisms, corporations or state systems. The history of life on this planet right through to Microsoft is of the successive suppression of distributed, innovated systems.

If I’m reading him right, Land is taking an almost ‘bacterial’ or ‘cellular’ perspective, from where we humans begin to look like oppressors/suppressors. I found this idea totally absurd at first, but the more I thought about it the more merit I saw in thinking like this. We may well be unethical creatures by virtue of our evolutionary path. If that’s the case though, I’m not going to lose sleep over suppressing cells, because there’s nothing I can do about it short of becoming a nihilist, a narcissist (if I’m not already there! ahaha) or ending my own existence.

Hmm, that probably doesn’t help answer your question, but perhaps it adds another example to add credence to Ian’s “multitude of correlations” angle… which isn’t really an answer either. Is it possible that there is no answer? Maybe it is an intractable problem (which can sometimes be useful in forcing us to try something different)…

Daniel Joseph:

[Speaking of postmodernists] For the most part I think some of the people who draw on [Foucault's] work forget that he argued pretty heavily against any kind of naturalistic or humanistic conception of ethics. They would be surprised to see that his opinion about normative ethical questions derived from ontology would be in the negative. BUT despite this, I think there’s something great here: a philosophy that doesn’t have an explicitly ethical component can still be used in very radical, thoughtful and ethical ways.

This goes for OOO too.

In fact I don’t even understand why this has become such a big point of contention for some people, because the only people I can see taking issue with OOO on an ethical basis are those who are humanists or the religious who believe in an inner ethical, rational core to our ontology.

Like, Marxists, should, in principle anyways, recognize that ethics comes after ontology (historical materialism). Marx never wrote about ethics because he thought we were historically constructed and had very little, if any, essence to our being other than “find shelter, eat food”. That’s it! We eat food and hide under things, because we are bags of fleshy meat!

In a sense then, this means we can still come back to reason to build our ethics. Reason seems alright, even if it sure has done a lot of bad things too. But it seems reasonable (ha!) that we can come up and think about what ethics means to us.

Marx’s reason for organizing workers in Paris? He saw them working in deplorable conditions. He read Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England and guess what? Those people were living in shit! Literal shit! Children working the machines for 12 hours, losing fingers and hands in the process.

Material suffering! It seems like, despite our being pretty apolitical, that our existence is rather political! Do we want children without hands? No? Okay! REVOLUTION.

It seems like, to me anyways, we are always going to be stuck in a correlationist loop, but that we can still guess and reason and make sense of things from the material. When it comes to our ethical acts, building up a solid understanding of what appears to be, say, suffering, or sadness, or pain, or whatever, as a category that we can then begin to think about in terms of inanimate things. One that tries its best to escape the correlation, even though we know we will fail seems important.

As far as I see it, this is about all we can do. It doesn’t devolve into a terrible miasma of inaction where I worry about the ethics of my apartment floor while I step on it, but rather a plan of action towards those things we have begun to understand better ethically.

Ben Abraham:

How does historical materialism fit with OOO though? I’m not completely across it, but if it’s a materialism then it’s not OOO, right? Are you suggesting that historical materialism comes before OOO?

Daniel Joseph:

Haha, I wasn’t actually trying to bring historical materialism into OOO, just as an example of ontologies that didn’t have a humanistic ethics built into them, and how they can be scaffolded with ethics.

Darius Kazemi:

We can recognize that people and pigs and desks are ONTOLOGICALLY equal, bracket that equality, and then make strategic decisions about ethics based on things you observe about the world around you. Where I feel like this breaks down is where you get folks who want an ethics that proceeds from their ontology. I think it’s probably because an ethics that proceeds from an ontology has more of a ring of truth to it, and it feels like less of a crass “social construct.” My response is always that I have no issue with an ethics that is a “social construct” as long as we don’t delude ourselves that it proceeds from some ontology or another. (Obviously the ethics you outline can proceed from OOO in that it can exist peacefully side by side with it, but it’s not a “pigs and humans are categorically different from desks” type of argument.)

I think Levi Bryant’s response to Cameron is very very worth reading:

He pretty much sums up my position but better than I ever could.

Cameron Kunzelman:

You should also read James Stanescu’s post in conversation with Levi Bryant and myself. A lot of my thinking about ethics is influenced by him, and he does a great job of talking through some issues that I would like an answer to from the OOO crowd.

At the end of the day, I just want someone in the OOO field to explain to me how thinking the ethical through their ontological project helps me understand who should get a heart transplant, you know?

Because taking OOO very seriously has some real political consequences–if plant life is as important as human life, which is what I take from flat ontology, then ethical questions come to bear on it. I have $10 to send to charity. Do I spend that money to plant trees or do I send it to a charity to help kids? I think this is the “lived” end of Bogost’s idea that ethics explode outward–we are forced to think of the multitude of ethical relationships that occur in the universe. At the end of the day, though, I have to make a decision about what to do with my money, and I do think that we need better mechanisms and thoughts about that while still thinking through a OOO frame.

I know that no one is going to answer it, and Levi Bryant is totally right: we can accept the OOO project and still have politics and ethics within that. That is definitely the “right” answer, but I’m not happy with it.
Daniel Joseph:

But what exactly are you looking for then? Do you want a normative ethics? There’s lots of work on that which is likely to fit inside of the OOO frame (I remember Bryant speaking about agreeing with a lot of Derick Parfit’s work, which is premised on consequentialism, is a “realist” stance), but that’s epistemological, rather than ontological.

I think one thing to really think about when reading Bogost’s book is that Bogost could write more on ethics, but he’s not interested in them. I see his book as more “methods for the practice of philosophy” than anything else. You could use these methods to develop ethics though, which I think is something worth pursuing.


Alien Phenomenology (62):

Nagel points out a problem with reductionist explanations like this one: even if the experience of the Twinkie can be understood as a neurochemical unit operation, such an explanation does not describe the experience of sweetness.

Ben Abraham:

Okay so here’s a bit of a problem for Bogost… the Eliminative Materialists (EM) believers suggest that actually experience doesn’t exist, as when we get to the point of a “completed” neuroscience (yes, they really suggest this) we’ll find that there isn’t any kind of place in the neuro-model for “beliefs” or “feelings” or “motivations” or “qualia” or a host of other terms thrown around by “folk psychology” (aka ‘common sense’ or what Ray Brassier calls the ‘manifest image’ of humanity/human experience/human inner life developed by philosophy, culture, psychology, etc, etc.). I’m sure Bogost knows about this movement but his argument rests on the reader also believing as he does that we have actual experience. (Hence his italic emphasis on “experience”)

The EM argument isn’t quite as crazy as it seems on the surface – after all, how do you really know you’re having an “experience”? Because we’re told that’s what we have – it’s the “received” model. I ended up rejecting the strict EM position which rejects the notion that there won’t be a smooth reduction from “experience” etc to whatever the scientific neuromodel comes up with (which I think is kinda bunk, and based in a misunderstanding of, um, the nature of the “manifest image” — Brassier (who I know these ideas through) has a semi-answer for this charge, but I didn’t find it convincing….)
Alien Phenomenology (63):
…even if evidence from outside a thing (be it bat, hookah, or cantaloupe) offers clues to how it perceives, the experience of that perception remains withdrawn. This state of affairs poses a problem for modern science.
Ben Abraham:

There’s a fuzziness here around the use of ‘experience’, and again I don’t think it’s a flaw but rather a property of the limits of language… in what possible sense is the whatever-it-is that happens to an object even remotely commensurable with “experience” (which carries with it a hint of the dreaded taint of the correlation), which is probably not the same as the whatever-it-is that happens to the human having the experience. Why do I say this? Because I know (believe? maintain a speculative commitment to?) that things happen to, in, and around me that “I” don’t experience… not in any meaningfully “experiential” sense.

So I guess what I’m arguing for is an avoidance of the term “experience” and instead think it’d be better (though more complicated) to be descriptive, even in a “whatever it is that happens to a thing” sense. We need a word for that but it’s not experience, because that word is loaded with connotations of consciousness/observance/subjectivity. It’s small wonder that (lazy?) critics accuse OOO, etc of panpsychism based on the use of “experience”….

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