Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Quasi-Objects and the Interconnectedness of Everything with Everything Else: A Response to Stuart Elden at "Progressive Geographies"

Figure 1. Bluebell Steam Railway [Sussex, UK]


[First, please begin with Jeffrey's post, "there are powerlines in our bloodlines," since it directly relates to my commentary below, among other very interesting lines of thought.]

As some of you may know, both Jeffrey and I are currently teaching graduate seminars that take up the subjects of objects, materiality, networks, agency, and the question of the constitution of "life," and Jeffrey has been writing a series of posts relative to readings and discussions in his class (go here and here and here) that have been moving and thought-provoking to read. Since I came back to teaching after the term had already started and have also had to deal with settling back into my house in Saint Louis after being away from it since last May, I'm running a bit behind all of the rich commentary he has offered, and I'm particularly keen, actually, to offer some thoughts on Jane Bennett's book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, and even more so, on Timothy Morton's book, The Ecological Thought, which, for one reason or another, has had a powerful impact upon me, on both intellectual and affective levels. Frankly, I'm still trying to process all of the ways in which this book has really blown off the top of my brain--on the one hand, it carries news to me that I have pretty much already received through other avenues and/or have felt in my gut for a while now regarding how everything in the universe is non-hierarchically and co-affectively en-meshed with everything else, but I also feel it offers some very productive, and newly affirming, avenues out of what is sometimes charted or signaled as human/nonhuman impasses, in environmental thinking, in critical "animal" studies, in posthuman studies, in "aesthetics as first philosophy," and so forth, and I also think his book recaptures, or recovers, the human as an important agent in new, non-violent modes of living "in the mesh," as it were. In other words, as Morton himself argues, we can neither "cancel" nor "preserve" the difference between "human" and "nonhuman," and agreeing to try to do neither offers, I believe, some thrilling openings for conceptualizing new modes of co-affective, "living" intimacies that would not, nevertheless, insist on the psychic violence of letting go of or canceling one's "human"-ness, which is also newly recognized, at the same time, as being wonderfully "strange."

But before I jump into a full-fledged post [or posts] on the subject of Bennett's and Morton's books, I want to respond to a question that Stuart Elden posed on his "Progressive Geographies" blog in relation to our recent "laboratory" at King's College London on "Speculative Medievalisms" [but also in relation to Jane Bennett's book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things]:
My question, or more of an observation, is that speculative realism has sometimes been portrayed as a movement away from commentary on texts within philosophy. Look at the blurb for The Speculative Turn, for example:

It might be hard to find many shared positions in the writings of Badiou, DeLanda, Laruelle, Latour, Stengers, and Zizek, but what is missing from their positions is an obsession with the critique of written texts . . . . As indicated by the title The Speculative Turn, the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.

What was interesting about the collision of medievalisms and speculative work in yesterday’s conference was the continuation of the commentary on texts. All the participants had provided a package of writings online for people to read in advance (you can find the links here). I have no problem with this -- on the contrary, one of the things I most admire in medieval scholarship is its attention to texts. But I thought it was an interesting tension and I’d have been interested in hearing different responses to the question. This goes back to the question I posed in the summer:

Another is the question of access at a historical distance. How can I write about ‘territory’ as a word, concept and practice, in the early modern period, for instance, without the mediation of texts of some sort? They might be works of political theory, they might be treaties or lawbooks, they might be technical manuals of landsurveying or maps, but in some sense they would be textual, and textual strategies would be the way of access. I want to write about something that isn’t itself a text, but the historical approach seems to direct a way of accessing it. I raised similar questions before in relation to Jane Bennett’s book.

For what it's worth, here is my tentative response to Stuart's important and challenging question:

I don't see a way around [or even a problem inherent in] what might be called some of the more text-centered models of speculative inquiry [as it is taken up under the influence of the so-called "speculative realists" or "speculative materialists" or "object-oriented" philosophers], and I think, first, of someone like Graham Harman, who, although of course he is primarily interested in a new, carnal phenomenology that would attend to "the things" themselves, and that would get us away from "correlationism" [philosophies and modes of thought that take human-other relations as central to thinking "the world"]--still, at the same time, Harman is very dependent upon the writing/texts of others [such as Husserl, Heidegger, Whitehead, Latour] to frame his own positions. Granted, thinkers such as Latour and Harman also spend a great deal of time thinking & writing upon actual objects or systems of objects [such as Latour does in his book on Pasteur and also in Aramis, or, A Love of Technology, and we must remind ourselves that Harman also departs somewhat from Latour's emphasis on objects understood only in relation to their participation in networks of other objects/actants, for Harman is also interested in the "cryptic" and "real" singularity of objects that are always, supposedly, withdrawing from us in some fashion and retaining a secret interior].

But we also have speculative thinkers such as Eugene Thacker [who was also with us in London], who in his new book After Life, which purports to raise the "challenge of thinking a concept of life that is foundationally, and not incidentally, a nonhuman or unhuman concept of life," spends most of that book excavating philosophies of life from Aristotle to Aquinas to Kant to Deleuze to Bataille to Badiou [with many philosophical pit-stops in between]. In other words, this is very much a text-centered approach to the very critique of what has historically been considered to be "alive," from a very much human- and language-centered perspective. So, in order to move to more radical conceptualizations of non- or post-human "life" [or even of the "after"-lives of everything], Thacker devotes the bulk of his book to the important texts of a long tradition of thinking about what "life" is, partly because Thacker also wants to make the argument that thinking upon "life" and thought itself have historically been so inextricably entwined as to be difficult to think apart from each other, and therefore the idea of "life" itself has actually limited thinking itself [in different ways in different "eras" of thought]--amazing argument, actually, and yes, difficult "to think." In other earlier work, such as Biomedia, Thacker has concentrated his thinking upon supposedly more "material objects," such as those studied by molecular biologists and computer scientists [although he does so partly to demonstrate the merging of flesh, "life," data, "code," "information," and language in emerging fields of bio-techno-science, such as bioinformatics, and therefore, the discursive and the supposedly "more material" entities are inextricably bound up together in ways that are difficult to disentangle.

Although some of those who have taken up the "speculative turn" have claimed that they are post- and even anti-the linguistic turn, I like what Graham Harman has to say about that in relation to an early homage to Bruno Latour that he delivered in 1999 as a talk at DePaul University, where Harman argues that both the "everything is language/reality is constructed" and "there is such a thing as reality/Nature is real" camps have both got it wrong. [This paper, never intended for publication, has been published in the recent collection of Harman's highlighting his early forays into object-oriented philosophy, Toward Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures, just out this year from Zero Books.]

This is not an either/or problem, or proposition. Harman argued in 1999 that, for Latour [and I think, also, for Harman at that time], the world is more of a Gordian knot, which we should not aim to cut but to re-tie: "The world is in each case a network of opinions, political institutions, chemicals, lakes, and written texts. The attempt to privilege one of these, to think the others out of existence, would be to repeat the attempted cleansing work of modernity" [p. 76], which is always trying to "purify" things/situations through relentless intellectual critique. So ultimately, for me [and I think also for Harman, following Latour], object-oriented philosophy attends to *networks* of animate and inanimate actors/actants, and as Latour has written,
Rhetoric, textual strategies, writing, staging, semiotics--all these are really at stake, but in a new form that has a simultaneous impact on the nature of things and on the social context, which it is not reducible to one or the other. [We Have Never Been Modern, p. 5]
And here is something beautiful from Harman, again following Latour, that relates [uncannily if also romantically] to Stuart Elden's work on territories:
In the end, access to my own private thoughts is every bit as mediated as access to the inner reality of a brick or a leaf. Reality is partly objective and partly perspectival. It is partly real, partly of a narrative character, and partly the effect of political displacements. Left in a thoroughly ambiguous situation, the zones of reality have a fate not unlike that of a stateless people: "The tiny networks we have unfolded are torn apart like the Kurds by the Iranians, the Iraqis and the Turks; once the night has fallen, they slip across borders to get married, and they dream of a common homeland that would be carved out of the three countries which have divided them." * [p. 79]

*Harman is here quoting Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, pp. 6-7.
So instead of "pure" objects, we have quasi-objects, which are part textual, part flesh, part mineral, part computer code, part cultural belief, part meteorological, part geographical, etc. [and I would add, too, that we ourselves are quasi-objects, as are texts--there is a kind of "quasi-objects all the way down" to this mode of thought/state(s) of existence]. And to a certain extent, modernity has tried to divvy these things up into discrete [yet, sure, also "imbricated"] pieces and categories which can then be de-materialized into discursive-cultural-historical constructs, and Latour's philosophy is neither only about "the things themselves" or only about thinking/discursivity, but rather returns things, and also thought, to their proper places: knotted up with everything else, and precariously at that. As the 1999 version of Harman writes further re: Latour's thinking:
Parrots and ice-shelves are not fully natural, since they are both absorbed and transformed by various networks of tourism, nature films, and ecological depletion. They not only appear differently to us due to all these factors, but their very reality is changed by them: parrots grow fat by stealing catfood from Caribbean villages, or are rendered extinct by bulldozers and acid rain. But by the same token, the internet is not something merely constructed. After all, the would-be human reformer cannot simply impose arbitrary renovations upon it, but must take its reality or resistance into account. Often the internet "crashes" with as much unpredictability as the arrival of a hailstorm; the fact that it is made of plastic and silicon is irrelevant. Once it is created, the internet simply exists: just like a snowflake, just like a jungle. These objects are not simple real objects in the naive sense, but quasi-objects. [pp. 80-81]
So, putting aside for a moment where Harman's thinking has led him since 1999 [to whit, read his recent book Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics], I myself would say to Stuart Elden here that there is not, and never will be, in our intellectual work, whether we are concerned with things, materiality, discursive structures, animals, persons, thought, history, etc., any way around the interconnectedness of everything with everything else, which is not to say that we don't also have to attend, for ethical reasons, to the "strange yet familar & intimate" singularity of everything as well [a subject to which I will passionately return vis-a-vis the work of Timothy Morton, and also Harman]. And texts, which are also quasi-objects, are just one mediator among many other quasi-objects scattered along the exchange routes or switching stations between ourselves (also quasi-objects, as is the work we produce) and this place or series of "textual traces" we call "the past." Another way of putting this more succinctly in relation to Stuart's question might be to say that, while there may be a more holistic "reality" of early modern "territories" outside of the maps, land surveys, law books, and the like that Stuart has read and surveyed and studied, that "reality" is itself a hybrid of many elements--environmental, atmospheric, agricultural, etc., but also including the textual. There is, I would argue, no "pure" territory, although there is a "real" one, and it is quasi-constructed over time, with stone as well as laws, with wheat fields as well as ideologies.

For those of us who primarily work within premodern and early modern studies and primarily with texts, and who are interested in the "speculative turn," I think Julian Yates has perhaps summed up best the task before us now, and so, for now, I will let him have the last word [this is from his essay in the inaugural issue of postmedieval, "It's (for) You; or, The Tele-t/r/opical Post-Human"]:
Welcome, one might say, by extension, to a model for the University Campus of a reconfigured ‘post’-humanities, which re-organizes itself so that its various disciplines are understood to represent different skill sets that each analyze a segment in the life cycle or some ‘thing.’ All of us, as the philosopher Michel Serres might say, two cultures or not, engaged in an inquiry into a general physis (Serres, 1982) or general theory of metaphor, clustered around a quasi-object that we are making.

It is here that the ‘thing’ we name a ‘literary’ or ‘cultural critic’ might be productively re-tasked or re-understood. Refigured by the call of the ‘post-human,’ I argue that we find ourselves reterritorialized in questions of form, rhetoric, genre and translation, understood now as ways of moving, ferrying or shifting things (persons, concepts, plants, animals) between and among different spheres of reference. When, for example, Latour issues the call for new ‘speech impedimenta’ (Latour, 2004, 62–64) or ways of speaking, Stengers studies modes of scientific authorship (Stengers, 1997), Hayles surveys modes of embodiment or the poetics of electronic literature (Hayles, 2008), or Haraway asks us to think about the mediatizing of entities by way of critter-cams, duct tape or agility sports for the dog/person companion species (Haraway, 2001; Haraway, 2008), we are being invited to try out new rhetorical and technical means by which to transform noise into news of an other. Taking the tele-t/r/opical call of the ‘post-human’ means, for us, I think, being prepared to understand our expertise in these terms, and so configuring the textual traces named ‘past’ as an archive or contact zone which may offer occluded or discarded ways of being.


Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this post, Eileen.

In re: this question from Stuart Eden,

Another is the question of access at a historical distance. How can I write about ‘territory’ as a word, concept and practice, in the early modern period, for instance, without the mediation of texts of some sort? They might be works of political theory, they might be treaties or lawbooks, they might be technical manuals of landsurveying or maps, but in some sense they would be textual, and textual strategies would be the way of access

The answer is material objects. Artifacts. Their disposition, arrangement, preservation, etc., says something to us if we are willing to attend to them. The problem of most of our encounters with our medieval/modern field is that it's too directed to written texts given over to us in printed editions, when there's so much more that we can use to have the Middle Ages speak. This is one of the reasons I find Jeffrey's rocks project so exciting, and it's one of the reasons I thought Kathleen Kelly's landscape paper at the MLA so great.

In re: interconnectedness. This is true for Latour, and maybe for Morton, but it's not true for Harman, for whom all real objects have a withdrawn existence inaccessible in their fullness from contact with other real objects. It's precisely this lack of full interconnection that preserves objects from each other, allowing for the existence of space,* and, as well, allowing for chance to happen.

Two things I love about Harman: a) the possibility of indifference: that fire, for example, can be indifferent to the color of the cotton it burns, but this doesn't mean the color of the cotton is any less real: by extension, I like that not everything is "for me" and that not everything will every be available for me, because, like everything else, I'm conditioned by my umwelt; b) all vicarious causation is also immediate. Or is this Morton? The distant galaxy that affects a butterfly does not do so distantly, but directly, because no touch is distant touch. This beautiful thought (from whom?) brings the medieval so close to me (while also preserving its distant itselfness).

* Harman: "Any attempt to describe space adequately must concede that space involves the relation of objects that do not entirely relate. In other words, the simultaneous withdrawal of real objects from one another and their partial contact through simulacra is space itself is the mutual exteriority of objects, and their partial contact with one another, however this might occur."

Anonymous said...

NOT '0' (zero) comments!

Eileen Joy said...

Karl: like you, I am very much enamored of much of Harman's thinking on the withdrawnness of objects, but I think I may ultimately disagree that saying everything is part of "the mesh" [Morton] or "networks" [Latour] means that there is no possibility of space and/or chance [indeed, in Morton's book "The Ecological Thought" he references Menger's sponge, which is a 3D rendering of the Cantor set [the basis of fractal geometry], which gives us a picture of the universe with as many "points" as "no points," as many "no places" as "places"--infinite, in both cases.

I'm also not sure that there can ever be anything like a pure/indifferent "for itself" of any particular object [whether fire, sunbeam, stalk of wheat, dog, person, whatever]. And that's because everything that exists [I really believe] is always already a sort of composite of different materials, forces, actions/reactions, etc. that can never just be off "by themselves" somewhere--there is no "inner molten core" as Harman sometimes posits it. Also, if I share DNA with chimpanzees as well as with daffodils, what part of the daffodil, or me, could ever be purely "for itself"? In what manner or form? I like to think that the idea that there is really no zero-point [or maybe 1-point would be a better way of putting it: there is no *one* unique factor that any existing entity possesses that no other entity possesses] for anything, identity and/or form-wise and/or "being"-wise, and I think this might eventually free us from the sort of identity politics that have brought about so many historical and other catastrophes.

You have no idea how much I want to believe there is, somewhere, a "for-itself"; I just ... don't believe it [although I've gestured toward it in some of my writings previously]. Ultimately, I don't believe there is any such thing as a "distant itselfness" [although for ethical purposes, we may have to posit that now and then to protect certain entities in certain ways "for the common good," with the common good reimagined more largely along the lines of Latour's "parliament of things"]. Nothing is really distant from anything else--here I side more with Morton who sees an intimate/strange proximity between everything [which we are often at pains to NOT acknowledge--more and more I see all of the defenses of "precious" differences as ultimately leading to violence, which is not to saw we should not be struck with ethical wonder at all of the beautifully strange forms of this world]--there is no "kernel" of the Real at the bottom or "heart" of anything: that seems more and more to me like an illusion we should dispense with.