Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Transcript of Comments between Levi Bryant and Myself

I have responded to Levi Bryant of Larval Subjects recently in a series of posts. For those who do not wish to wade through a long and raucous comment section that generated the responses, I have reproduced the comments below. I include only Bryant, Ian Bogost, and myself, along with a few others to whom they are responding. I consider this post to be more a matter of archiving than an expression of something new, but it does document what I claim.

I did answer Levi's questions about ethics, but he didn't come back, and Adam Kotsko shut down the comments. In short, Levi is appropriating the parts of Dewey that he likes and ignoring the rest, and I cannot tell how aware he is of this.

I think I’ve made it quite clear over the years that my political tendencies lie in the direction of Marx, Badiou, Zizek, Sartre, Foucault, Ranciere, and Deleuze. When I encounter an argument like Galloway’s, I’m just not sure what’s being asked for. Asking for a politics from pure ontology makes about as much sense to me as asking for a politics from chemistry or physics. Ontology is concerned with what is, not with what ought to be. But asking questions about what is, in no way foreclosesquestions about what ought to be. They’re just questions that arise in a different domain of inquiry. Let’s take Alex’s example of Monsanto and Exxon Mobile. Somehow Alex moves from the claim that Exxon Mobile and Monsanto exist, that they’re real, to the claim that we ought to advocate them giving unlimited campaign contributions. But how does this in any way follow? I can readily recognize that Jeffrey Dahmer once existed and was entirely real, but this is entirely different than claiming that we ought to endorse his murder and torture of countless young men. Further, what would be the point of struggling against unlimited corporate greed and the likes of Dahmer, if they weren’t real and didn’t have real effects in the world? It seems as if there’s an elementary is/ought confusion that’s at work in Galloway’s argument.

Following thinkers like Foucault and the science and technology theorists, I readily recognize that ontology and sciences can be contaminated by unconscious political prejudices, but that’s quite different than claiming that politics is the ground of these inquiries. Suggesting that politics ought to be the ground of these inquiries strikes me as a catastrophe. It amounts to the claim that “is-ness” is legislated by whatever our political sympathies happen to be and that if something doesn’t fit with our politcal commitments we should pretend it doesn’t exist. We thus end up back and the era of, for example, Stalinist science where biology was set back for decades because it was seen as contrary to Marxist thought, and where linguistics became an utter mess. And since Galloway evokes Badiou in this context, he seems unaware of Badiou’s argument that philosophy encounters a catastrophe whenever it is sutured to one of its conditions: science, art, politics, or love (Manifesto for Philosophy. For example, he criticizes Stalinist theory for suturing being to politics, criticizes Heidegger for suturing philosophy to the poem, and criticizes Althusser for suturing being to science.

I agree that Harman’s politics tends in the liberal direction– one that I don’t advocate –but that’s quite different than suggesting that his ontology necessitates that politics. This, again, is because questions of what is and what ought to be are distinct. I end up in quite a different place because of my focus on larger-scale entities like social systems and their dynamics, which push me in a Marxist direction. At most, I think OOO allows us to critique shortcomings of various political theorists by drawing our attention to questions of human agency. For example, while being sympathetic to much in Adorno and Zizek, I think their positions suffer from being overly focused on the discursive as the stuff of which society is made. Their thesis seems to be that it is signifiers and cultural contents that are the exclusive glue of society. While I agree that these are an important glue or binding mechanism, I think they miss the domain of objects that also exert significant power over us, binding us in a variety of ways. A failure to take into account this agency of things will entail that we get at only half of power and that we thereby fail to produce the change we want. I think this is a Marxian (not Marxist, because “Marxism” became so discursively driven in subsequent years) insight; e.g. his discussions of the working day and the factory and how they bind and form us in particular ways. However, while an ontology can point out that a particular conception of social assemblages is inadequate, you have to go elsewhere, to get a political theory of what we should do. That’s why I lean on people like Sartre, Badiou, Ranciere, Zizek, etc. So for me, two questions: 1) Is Galloway claiming that politics legislates what is? Is he willing to say this for Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, etc? And 2) Why does he not recognize that discussions of what is do not exclude discussions of what ought to be?

Rob Myers Says: 
“Asking for a politics from pure ontology makes about as much sense to me as asking for a politics from chemistry or physics.”
Agent Orange and the atom bomb are just objects, after all.
“But why limit the political to the human?”
Citizens United.

Levi Says: 
Again, you’re missing the point. Are agent orange and the atom bomb existents in the world, or are they not. Your idea seems to be that pointing out that agent orange and the atom bomb exist somehow authorizes their use. But ontology doesn’t entail that at all. The question of whether they should be used is an entirely different question than whether theyare. Nothing about pointing out that they exist entails that they should be used, nor does it foreclose questions about whether or not they should be used and if so how. Indeed, the whole ethical and political question doesn’t make much sense if agent orange and atom bombs don’t exist? Why would we get worked up about something that doesn’t exist and that isn’t producing real effects in the world?
As for the question of whether or not politics should be restricted to the human, the question here is one of the sites of politics. Where is the political and what is politically relevant? Is the site of the political merely the domain of legislation and the state? Is the “private” home a political space? What about the workplace? Many struggles over the last century have revolved around demonstrating that sites previously understood as being outside the political are in fact sites of the political: gender, sex, the home, the workplace, etc. When I ask why politics should be restricted to the human, I am trying to point out that things that are often seen as apolitical are, in fact, sites of the political: information technologies, water resources, oceans and their fisheries, algae blooms, how we raise animals, ecosystems, the presence and absence of roads, plumbing, etc. I am asserting both that these things exert power over us, contributing to oppressive relations in particular ways, and that they are issues for all of us. How does this exclude also seeing decisions like Citizen United as sites of the political?

terenceblake Says: 
I see no confusion of “is” and “ought” here, only the fairly simple remark that to remove politics from ontology, as Harman does, is a political act that amounts to the neutralisation of politics. Galloway has a right to evaluate Harman’s system according to criteria that are not contained in that system. He finds that system woefully incomplete, which Bryant does implicitly, given the huge amount of supplementation he mobilises to compensate for what is a lamentable regression compared to Deleuze, Lyotard, Badiou and Zizek.

Levi Says: 
Let’s switch up the question a bit. How do you account for the normative? I take it for granted that human’s make normative judgments, that this is one of the powers of humans. I see thinkers such as Brandom and Sellar’s as having done this work and thus find I have little to add. My only caveat is that as a naturalist I can’t endorse transcendent grounds for normativity such as Platonic forms or God. At any rate, how do you ground normativity?

Fail to see how I’m suspending referentiality given that, well, I’m referring to the atom bomb.

Jason Hills Says: 

I do not mind at all as this is my speciality, and my blog is named after the answer to this question, “immanent transcendence.” Feel free to read more details in my recent Transactions article (of the C.S. Peirce Society).

Normative judgments are not a “power” of humans, as you imply, but a natural process that anything in nature does. I affirm the reality of purposes in nature as emergent, dynamic teleology. Hence, when a human being “values” something as food, this means that thing becomes something beneficial for human life within a human context. There is nothing supernatural or magical about it other than noting that nature has dispositions, e.g., electron charges. Hence, valuation is not foremost an issue of judgment, but of life in the case of valuing food. If you are implying a Kantian viewpoint, I reject it for reasons I am willing to share in more detail. Judgment is only necessary for organisms such as humans that live in societies and require language and culture to live well. We require a semiotic homestasis as well as a physical one, else destroying someone’s mosque would not get the reaction we would all expect.

There are not transcendent grounds here, and the private joke about “immanent transcendence” is that the transcendence is temporal, and thus there is no more ultimate foundation of normativity beyond growth, which points to what we know best at the time with all the seriousness and rigor that one can apply. I can respond elsewhere to the obvious criticisms.

What about Brandom’s and Sellar’s work? They are neopragmatists, so anything I say is tangential to them at best. They are not working in the same tradition of philosophy as I am, so it would be best not to presume too much.

In conclusion, I do not affirm the “moral equality of all objects,” because morality is something that humans do, though since humans are continuous with nature I gain many of the same joyous platitudes that OOO or even Whiteheadian positions trumpet. Since 1867. Yous are all youngins.

Levi Says: 

I don’t affirm the moral equality of all objects either because I think that morality– as far as I know –is an exclusive domain of humans (I leave open the possibility of whether entities such as dogs, dolphins, other hominids, octopi, etc., make moral judgments). You write:

"If one heads for pragmatism, as I noted on my blog, then one either contradicts oneself or OOO becomes irrelevant. The contradiction occurs because any practical claim requires invocation of criteria that elevate a particular object. How so? The answer either ignores the question of value, in which case calling for “pragmatism” is really “just doing what I want” or it reduces value to practicality for someone, in either case the human object is elevated. (See my blog, where I argue that Bryant cannot be a realist about this.) Both of these are variants of antirealism, in which case OOO’s political promises are empty since any instrumentalism will do the work regardless of its ties to OOO, in which case a major selling point of OOO is BS. This still catches OOO in the Animal Farm dilemma wherein some objects are more important than others even though they are equal. Harman is likely safer than Bryant on this point."

I think the contradiction you’re claiming exists here is based on a confusion. I do indeed go the pragmatist route with respect to value questions. Nothing about flat ontology denies that particular entities value other entities more than others; or, in your language, nothing about flat ontology denies that humans “elevate particular objects over others”. I elevate my daughter’s existence, for example, over that of a strangers. I elevate a stranger’s existence over the bubonic plague bacteria. We make these value judgments all the time. Claiming that all objects equally exist or are equally real is entirely different than claiming that one values one object more than another. There’s no contradiction between saying “I would like to eradicate the bubonic plague” and claiming “The bubonic plague is as real as its victims.” Flat ontology affirms the latter, without denying the former. These are two very different types of claims. In order for a contradiction to exist they would have to be the same type of proposition.

Are you really claiming that rocks make value judgments? This seems to be what you’re suggesting here:

Normative judgments are not a “power” of humans, as you imply, but a natural process that anything in nature does.

I think something must minimally be living to make a value judgment or any judgment at all, but that’s just me.

Jason Hills Says: 

If value is relative to the object, all objects are singular, and all objects withdraw from each other, then each object must have its own proto-morality, no? If you disagree, then note the following. Given that you affirm nominalism, which is to say that only particular things exist and cannot be described in general terms, then how can you speak about the morality of human objects? Since one neither has access to the object, and nothing general can be said, does this not explode any concept of morality at all?

Anything you say is prima facie, what Levi Bryant-as-object says. Jason Hills-as-object says something else. Since we do not share “humanity,” or even “community,” I suppose coming up with standards can only be pragmatic, no? So, how ’bout you don’t tase me, bro? That’s pragmatic! Do you not see how nihilism is on your doorstep? I have compared your words to Nietzsche before–would you disagree with the characterization per certain readings of Will to Power?

I have not taken into account your processional take on objects. Perhaps there is something I am missing?

Rocks do not judge. They value, which humans describe in third-person scientific terms best expressed in geology. You could say that I “naturalize” value, and since you’re into Whitehead, this move should look familiar. Family resemblance. A value is a purpose, telos, etc. and only in the human case does it become potentially “moral.” We did eat of the fruit, you know.

I did not mean to imply that you claimed a moral equality of objects so much as a value-neutrality since morality is apparently perspectival for you. To be clearer, I am using your positions and methods against you like an intellectual judo. I might have misunderstood, but every time I go back to your blog and the Democracy of Objects, I see a disconnect between the methodology and position and the content of your claims, especially in value fields.


You seem to be confusing my views with those of Harman. For me withdrawal means something quite different. It doesn’t mean that objects never relate, nor that they can never encounter one another, but rather that they are operationally closed or posses only selective relations to their environment– for example, we can’t see color in the ultraviolet spectrum of light –and that objects intergrate information according to their own internal organization. These days I’m trying to get away from using the term “withdrawal” because it invites this confusion. You can read a bit more about what I mean by operational closure by consulting this post or chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects.

In my view, we can know all sorts of objects through engaging, observing, and acting on them in the ways described by theorists like Roy Bhaskar in A Realist Theory of Science, Latour, or Pickering. As I’ve said before, I basically endorse Dewey’s theory of inquiry.

You’re right, I’m a nominalist if by that you mean that I hold that only material things, their relations, and void exist. I take it this follows from any naturalism or materialism. Within that framework there’s simply no place for universals as entities that exist in their own right like Platonic forms. Nothing about this denies the possibility of speaking about generalities or regularities. It just entails that they must be predicates of another entity and, like the color green, they don’t exist independent of the entity in which they exist. In mathematics, for example, we can adopt the stances of formalism, structuralism, or intuitionism, showing how maths are constructed or built in their universality according to rule-following and the grammar that emerges from that rule-following.

You write:

"If value is relative to the object, all objects are singular, and all objects withdraw from each other, then each object must have its own proto-morality, no? If you disagree, then note the following. Given that you affirm nominalism, which is to say that only particular things exist and cannot be described in general terms, then how can you speak about the morality of human objects? Since one neither has access to the object, and nothing general can be said, does this not explode any concept of morality at all?"

This assumes that morality is a feature of individuals, but for me moral and political questions only arise when we enter intorelations with other entities. Robinson Crusoe on his desert island has no morality, nor is he immoral, simply for the reason that he doesn’t interact with other people (or, making room for Craig’s worries, Robinson Crusoe, suspended in a void where nothing else exists, has no morality nor immorality, because he doesn’t interact with anything else whether human or inhuman. Moral and political issues only arise when collectives emerge and the elements in that collective encounter theproblem of how to organize this collective with one another or “live with” one another. Here norms begin to emerge regulating interactions and relations. There’s no such thing as an “individual ethics”– just as there’s no “private language” –an ethics based purely on personal whim and taste, for the simple reason that 1) our actions are never entirely our own but are enabled and impeded by all sorts of other human and nonhuman entities, and 2) because we must navigate a network of entities with which we must perpetually negotiate. That navigation is part of what generates norms. The norms do not comebefore, but are results of these collaborations and negotiations between entities in response to the problems that arise through their collective existence.

I write about this in greater detail in my article “The Ethics of the Event” in Deleuze and Ethics, but you can also read this post for a significantly abbreviated version:

I see this as very much in the spirit of pragmatism, especially of the Deweyian sort.

Jason Hills Says: 

Sunday, June 3, 2012 at 7:16 pmI am a pragmatist, and I affirm pragmatist ethics, but the devil is in the details, and what Levi affirms is utterly alien to classical or neoclassical pragmatism. SO, if you’re doubling-down, you’re doubling-down on something else. That’s just an issue of communication, not disagreement.

Pragmatist ethics is an instrumental ethics, and a central problem is how to adjudicate judgments. This is a human problem and not a “rock problem,” because rocks don’t judge. Moreover, moral responsibility acrues to agents, and rocks are not agents. So the difference between valuing and judgment is synonymous with the difference between moral responsibility and not. Humans have no special power, and even what they use to make moral judgments is not unique to the species, but just more highly developed, i.e., symbolic/semiotic systems of homestasis. Rocks do not die of wounds of the heart.

Sentience and humanity alone are not sufficient reasons not to tase someone in instrumentalism. The pragmatist says faaaaar more than “they’re good if they work,” and even invoking that phrase is a bastardization of pragmatist ethics.

Don’t apologize. Let me keep it short. Pragmatist ethics is very complex, because the instrumentalism at is core recognizes that people chose “by their own lights” as Rorty used to say, but unlike Rortian neopragmatists, the tradition combats his anti-realism. It’s an ethics of transformation, where we do our best in the situation, but also add criteria to aid becoming better people both as individuals, as a society, and as a race.


You fail to state how anything I say is contrary to a pragmatist ethics. What I say is quite in accord with what Dewey argues in The Public and Its Problems, with the caveat– following Jane Bennett –that this extends beyond humans to nonhumans as well. A public is not just humans, but a collective of humans and nonhumans and sometimes just a collective of humans. Additionally, I haven’t seen you develop any arguments for the grounds of ethics. You’re good at making charges that others don’t, even where untrue, yet you don’t say anything substantive yourself. You just claim that you’re a follower of this thing called “pragmatism”, without bothering to spell out what you understand by that, giving your interlocutor no means of evaluating what, precisely, you’re claiming.

Returning to the issues of universals, am I to understand that you reject naturalism? You claim that “x is impossible if universals don’t exist”, but this really isn’t an argument, but, in terms of informal fallacies, an instance of wishful thinking. It’s equivalent to someone arguing that “if God does not exist then everything is permitted. That would be horrible, therefore God must exist!” Or it’s equivalent to Habermas’s argument that fields of inquiry like neurology threaten to undermine our humanity, therefore we should deny the findings of neurology and banish it from the field of inquiry! If you’re going to defend the existence of universals you’ll need a form of argument different from this argument from wishful thinking that shows legitimate reasons for introducing these weird things into our ontology. Suggesting that we need them to make generalizations– and surely you’re aware that a generalization and a universal are two quite different things; on Aristotle’s square of opposition the former belongs to the logic of the particular –is not an argument because it might very well be the case that, as horrible as it may be, we never successfully make a universal statement and that all universal statements are just statements of particularity or generalization parading as statements of universality.

Additionally, if recognizing the distributed nature of agency, seeing norms as arising from problems rather than preceding them, and recognizing the roles of humans is contrary to pragmatism, so much the worse for pragmatism. Perhaps we need neo-neo-pragmatism then. John Muse pretty well describes my own views on these matters.

Jason Hills Says: 

Perhaps you have a point about conflating Harman and you and on withdrawal, and I think it a good thing to step back from the term. There is a truth at the heart of it, but I think Harman goes too far. Thank you for the reminder.

If you endorse Dewey’s logic without his metaphysics, epistemology, or phenomenology, that is fine, but be aware that you are just appropriating it, and we’re using those terms in very, very different sense. You’ve gutted its heart. For those not familiar, it’s a logic of inquiry that unifies metaphysics, phenomenology, and science and has little relation to standard formal logic. It is an exquisite tool for those who like to naturalize, except they hate its grounding and cut it out just like Levi did.

Dewey’s universal are called the “generic traits of existence,” and you can read all about them in Experience and Nature or his articles. He is not a nominalist, though I am a stronger realist that he was. Neither he, nor Peirce, nor I would say that “there’s simply no place for unviersals as entities that exist in their own right like Platonic forms,” and Matt and I have argued about this with you for at least 6 months, because you try to paint us as Platonists. You don’t understand Whitehead on this point for the same reason; you see what’s not there.

Your explanation of universals shows the confusion. There is no “green” if every instance of green is predicated differently in every case in principle, which is what you say. There is just a pattern noted by convention; this is a basic point of logic. You need a better explanation, especially one that doesn’t commit you to anthropocentrism, else you must admit that you as an object cannot speak for other objects. Harman recently blogged a criticism of you that is related to this. Also, feel free to read my glod posts on scholastic realism wherein I give long, detailed arguments that I will not repeat here.

Returning to universals and generals, there is a difference between those and a “generalization” such as a Lockean abstraction, and that is the distinction that you are making. I have not erred in it, as depending on the thinker a universal and general are the same thing. I prefer distingusihing them, as you do, but I confused too many people when I made it. I recommend reading Peirce, founder of pragmatism and formalizer of abductive logic, if you’d like further insight into exactly what critique I am making. See my reading list of pragmatism on my blog.

I am intrigued by your discussion of norms, and I thank you for a complete answer and references.

As for my own claims, I could deliver a book manuscript, but responding to my questions by turning them back upon me is not prima facie an acceptable argumentative tactic, especially since you are making the positive claism about ethics and I am not. I will still respond in the spirit of fairness. As for how what you are doing is contra a pragmatist ethics, I will grant that you have appropriated pragmatist ideas, but that you over-state your case. If you want to know, feel free to become a regular reader of my blog, wherein I explain and even cite which line of interpretation I follow (which would be the aesthetic reading of Dewey via James Gouinlock and Thomas Alexander thought against phenomenological readings of Sandra Rosenthal, Victor Kestenbaum, and Mark Johnson, etc.) I could explain in greater length, but will not do so here.

Concerning naturalism, of course I am, but I define naturalism as Dewey does. All that exists is nature; it’s a monism. But it is not a materialism and is not reducible to the objects of science in either a hard or soft naturalism (as analaytics call it). There’ much more to say without going into minute details, since Dewey held what is called an “open” naturalism that doesn’t claim that anything doesn’t exist, and only claims that whatever does is natural. Scholastic realism is compatible with naturalism, but not with materialism.

Concerning your last post. I’m not a neo-pragmatist; you seem to be familiar with them and not the other contemporary tradition, and I suspect that’s why you don’t see my critiques coming. Dewey would disagree with you–or at least be neutral–on that, but I agree with you and am against Dewey.

Thank you for directly responding to the questions and for the references. I actually do read them when people give them to me.

Ian Bogost Says: 
I’m just dropping in to say that I’ve read Alex’s article as well as many of the comments here and elsewhere. It won’t surprise Alex or anyone else to hear that I take issue with a lot of what’s said in both, but I’m not going to say much more about that for the time being.

I will say something Alex didn’t, namely, that he and I have been friends for many years, that I currently serve on a PhD committee for one of his students (Aaron Pedinotti, who briefly commented above), and that we often interact in both the domains of digital media and of theory. It often confuses me to see Alex’s aggressive personal attacks in the name of a certain kind of righteousness, but I like to think that I do an admirable job trying to understand and synthesize the complexities of individuals and groups, even if I fail at it sometimes too. As someone who was reared during the same theoretical era as Alex (and as many of you, I’m sure), I thought part of the aim of that project involved such an embrace of nuance and accuracy. I hope that many of you may choose to take Alex’s thoughts as an invitation to read our work again, or perhaps for the first time.

Karen O. Says: 

[content removed]

Ian Bogost Says: 
I don’t know if we’ve interacted online or in person, but I’m sorry to hear about the experiences you’ve had, and I apologize for them. As Jason notes, we all do have our moments, and one of the downsides to the upside of the online spread of philosophy is the generally abysmal quality of conversations online in general. I think this is what Graham was trying to get at in the post that you quote, although I can see why you could read it as making excuses. We’re all trying to figure this out, and certainly that’s gone poorly in some ways and well in others. The things that go poorly are often more memorable.
I realize you’re in a strange position as a graduate student, but perhaps it will come as a surprise to hear that we full professors often feel the same–set up, scorned, backed into corners, and so forth. For example, I’m a bit exhausted from generic and unspecified accusations like yours, which have become quite constant and often nasty. I’m human and err, but I’m also human and feel. I’ve tried my best to deal equitably with others online and off, and where I’ve gone wrong I’m happy to be reproached specifically. But I simply can’t accept the blanket comments you’re making, and I don’t think my actions or reputation bears them out. It’s situations like these that lead to unfortunate stakes-raising, and I think we’re all guilty of contributing to that particular positive feedback loop.
In any case, I’ll admit a little confusion here, because I didn’t see Alex’s post as reproaching the modality of online conversation at all–if it does, it’s perhaps hoist on its own petard in that regard. Rather, I meant to refer to the very specific characterological claims Alex makes about Graham here, claims that seem incendiary for no reason and that don’t have much to do with his argument (no matter if I agree or disagree with it).

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