Friday, January 21, 2011

Object-Oriented Dickens?

             This is more or less a short essay I just wrapped up for seminar on Victorian Labor. Other than being about Great Expectations, it has little to do with labor. Rather, it begins to trace what I tentatively call a Dickensian ontology -- which, in closely following Dickens's text, emerges as curiously object-oriented: 
Imploring Pip to keep isolated the moat-surrounded Walworth and the criminal-teeming Little Britain, Mr. Wemmick remarks: “Walworth is one place, and this office is another. Much as the aged is one person, and Mr. Jaggers is another. They must not be confounded together. My Walworth sentiments must be taken at Walworth; none but my official sentiments can be taken in this office” (288, emphasis added). While Wemmick’s petition stems from a desire to separate the personal from the professional (a separation mimicking his employer, Mr. Jaggers’, ceaseless abdication of personal sentiments), his comments point towards a more widespread field of separations. Not only must the personal Walworth be isolated from the professional Little Britain, so too must the persons who inhabit each sphere. Yet, Wemmick’s final sentence further widens the scope of separation. While the modal “must be” hints at the potential collapse of the personal into the professional, Wemmick’s final “none . . . can be” insists on the impossibility of thinking any personal–professional collapse. After all, the sentiments of Walworth are unintelligible to the sentiments of Little Britain.
            Wemmick gives us, on the one hand, a material plane of seemingly tenuous separation, and, on the other hand, a conceptual sphere of irreducible isolation. Simply: things appear able to connect, while thoughts cannot. Yet, Wemmick presupposes not only this dichotomy, but also the conditions of possibility requisite for the collapse of places and persons. Wemmick’s modal “They must not be confounded,” indicates that while Walworth and Little Britain, the Aged P and Mr. Jaggers are equally one and another, they can, potentially, be confounded – thought of as not one and another, but rather one and the same. Only through such confounding thought, Wemmick anxiously argues, can an underlying isolation be mistakenly collapsed. Or, to shift the valence slightly, places and person can be connected only through the medium of thought.
            Wemmick’s implicit ontic claims hint at a larger Dickensian ontology. Once we see the curious isolation–connection model girdering Wemmick’s petition to Pip, we begin to see Great Expectation as teeming with isolated objects connecting with other objects only through the mediation of some third object: Pip serving as a “connubial missile” between his sister and Joe (9); Pip’s fantastic translation of Miss Havisham’s connecting working class with middle class (66-67); Wemmick’s “portable property” yoking former clients to him (199); the “avenging phantom” linking Pip to London’s lumpenproletariat (216); the “oath” ensuring communion between Herbert and Magwitch (336).   
            Given the two constraints I find myself under – Great Expectations’ preponderance of object mediations and a blog format – I will isolate a singular instance of object mediation: Mr. Jaggers' appearance at the Blue Boar. This prolonged yet demarcated scene offers two main advantages. First, Mr. Jaggers can, with relatively little mental agility, be read as emblematic of Dickens’s insistence on the isolation of objects; second, while Mr. Jaggers is fully aligned with the juridical concerns of Great Expectations, he can nevertheless be more easily isolated from the larger social contingencies of the novel, namely class. Like Dickens and his characters elsewhere, I can, with Mr. Jaggers’ entrance, trace an autonomous object’s mediated contact with other equally autonomous objects.
            An unidentified Mr. Jaggers arrives at the Blue Boar amidst a thoroughly one-sided discussion of a recent murder. Immediately isolated from the “that group” of which Pip “was one” (130), Mr. Jaggers is, at first, dimly noticed by Pip as “a strange gentleman,” and then, his presence being made known to the group itself, he appears “as if it were the murderer” (131). As a narrator, Pip sets up a fundamental opposition between Jaggers and the group not simply by marking him out as strange, but by further reducing him to the vague pronoun “it.” Such a nameless and genderless Jaggers stands as an object (an “it”) radically opposed to the group. Out of this second object (the group), Mr. Jaggers enacts his own condensation by separating out Mr. Wopsle as a metonymy for the group. So, instead of a Jaggers–Group opposition we get a Jaggers-Wopsle–Group mediation. Yet, once Wopsle becomes a metonymic mediator between Jaggers and the group, he also becomes an autonomous object by immediately establishing an opposition between himself and Jaggers (“‘without having the honour of your acquaintance’”), an opposition (Jaggers–Wopsle) that demands further mediation.
            Misleadingly, the medium between Jaggers and Wopsle appears to be simply language – the mere fact of their engaging in conversation. Yet, the mediation here is far more complex than any Jaggers–language–Wopsle mediation. Indeed, while the content of the discussion provides the impetus for communication, its initial modality provides the conduit through which it can pass. Jaggers’ demanding from Wopsle a hypothetical verdict on the murder suspect shifts the entire discussion into an abstraction of the conversation’s manifest content, the murder. Immediately, Jaggers comports himself towards Wopsle not simply through language, but through the special modality of abstraction, a gambit Wopsle quickly adopts by identifying himself through the equally opaque appellation, “Englishman.”
            Having entered into an equally abstract modality of language, the potential for any Jaggers–Wopsle mediation appears met. Yet Jaggers not only refuses Wopsle’s “Englishman” response – “ ‘Come . . . Don’t evade the question’” – but also initiates another form of mediation: the act of “biting his forefinger at him.” In pattern that will repeat moments later, the potential mediation of Jaggers and Wopsle through a modality of language is foreclosed upon, immediately substituted with the mediation of finger biting, and then shifted back onto new modality of language – a pattern spatially sketched by the narrator Pip: “ ‘Come!’ [cessation of previous discursive mediator], said the stranger, biting his forefinger at him [gestic mediation]. ‘Don’t evade the question. Either you know it, or you don’t know it [new discursive mediator]” (emphases added). Jaggers’ “it” condenses the previous discursive mediation (the abstraction of a hypothetical verdict) into a crystalline yet vague pronoun. Nevertheless, this condensation of discursive mediation carries with it an exigency for physical mediation; the finger biting is again repeated before Wopsle seemingly connects with Jaggers: “‘Certainly I know it’” (132).
            Nevertheless, Wopsle’s entering into contact with Jaggers through “it” is, for Jaggers, insufficient. So, after another bite and point of Jaggers’ forefinger a new discursive mediator is introduced: the question of the murder suspect’s cross-examination (a procedure to which Jaggers clearly suspects Wopsle). With this new discursive mediation something curious happens. Whereas the mediations of the hypothetical verdict and condensation “it” were only sequentially connected with the physical mediation of finger biting, this new discursive form is irrevocably tied to its own materiality. Wopsle is not simply implored to consult the discursive fact of the suspect’s cross-examination, but also the material vessels through which that fact is made intelligible:  “‘the printed page’” and Wopsle’s “‘eye.’”
            Provisionally, then, we can plot the scene’s overall mediation dynamic like this: Jagger -- Discursive (verdict, it, cross-examination)/Material (finger biting, printed page, eye) -- Wopsle. Rather than a simple Jaggers–language–Wopsle mediation, we have instead a mediation through an intermediary field of discursive and material objects. To read the entire scene as one act of mediation is, therefore, to diagram a mediation not merely through a field, but rather through an object that is simultaneously discursive and material: Jaggers–Material/Discursive–Wopsle.
Overall, my provisional, diagrammatic sketch allows for a tentative assertion: real objects (Jaggers and Wopsle) are mediated not merely through sensual, intentional objects (Jaggers-in-thought, Wopsle-in-thought), but another type of object entirely, one that has “real” content (materiality) and “ideational” form (discursivity): the gesture. Accordingly, in the Blue Boar scene the actual mediation is Jaggers–Gesture–Wopsle. Such a hybrid object as the gesture may allow a more nuanced reading of class (perhaps the parting welded together that Great Expectations is most concerned with) than orthodox Object-Oriented Ontology would allow. The splitting of the gestic object that connects Jaggers and Wopsle into a simultaneously material and ideational form is precisely what enables the mediation to occur, as if the gesture’s dual-frequency alone is what allows for complete resonance between disparate objects.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Levi Bryant on Pseudo-Left Ideology

         If you haven't read this yet, check it out. Levi does a great job pointing out the Liberal Humanism at the core of the purported "left" in contemporary American politics. Faith in the universality of human nature does nothing if not reproduce the horrifying structures of racial, economic, gender inequalities. As Levi concludes, the "Kumbaya left" must be filled with the white, bourgeois. Hence all the recent and silly "post-racial," "post-homophobic" assertions ("We" elected a black president, so race isn't real anymore; "we" repealed don't ask, don't tell, so homophobia has vanished).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Arcimboldo and Object Oriented Ontology

And now for something not depressing. I recently stumbled across the amazing Renaissance paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo:
Here we find emblemized an Object Orient Ontology framework. Composed of autonomous objects (flowers, fruits, vegetables), this portrait expresses OOO’s assertion that there exist “objects all the way down” – that each autonomous object is composed of smaller objects. Yet, precisely because this portrait resembles a historical person (Rudolph II), we also see that the painted object, which is composed of component objects, exceeds the sum of its component objects. The resemblance or portrait-ness of the painting is irreducible to any sum of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. And because of this excess beyond component parts, the resemblance itself marks the withdrawnness of a real object. 
Arcimboldo has, then, translated the real object-ness of his subject into a sensual object (the portrait) much as the subject translates the fruits and vegetables that constitutive it. 

Addendum to "Liberal Humanist Zombies"

             In my last post, what did I signify and intend by my invocation of a philosophical re-formulation of political, subjective, and epistemological models? Why is a wholesale reformulation exigent at this particular historical moment?
Philosophical paradigms have concrete, material impacts on concrete, material existence. That is what the Tucson shootings tell us. The bankruptcy of Liberal Humanism literally resulted in the deaths of six people. If we continued to think under the rubric of Liberal Humanism and its concomitant model of critique, we would accordingly treat the philosophy behind this tragedy as merely so many ideas that are barred ontologically from material embodiment.
            But such a critical bracketing of ideas from materiality has concrete impacts on the world. By treating ideas as divorced ontologically from all concrete, material impacts, Liberal Humanism is unable to properly and fully think through the contingencies of our contemporary cultural condition (or, for that matter, any condition). The bracketing of ideas – a gesture Marx labels as fetishism – divorces their real impacts from themselves. Liberalism and its model of epistemology (critique) take ideas and fetishize them, therein jettisoning them from their historical and material contingencies into a separate and alien sphere. What this movement performs is precisely the obscuring of the historical and material ground the jettisoned ideas both draw their existence from and produce their impacts within. Further, with this fetishism of ideas we are left dramatically ill-equipped to confront the fullness of any idea’s reality – that is, its ideality and its materiality, its reflective/signifying capacity and its actantial power.
            So what we are left with is exactly what happened in Arizona last week. We treated ideas and discourse as fetishes, ignoring their agentive force. And in the aftermath of the event, all of our retreats into our Liberal hovel will do nothing to either conceptualize or influence the agentive force of ideas in our contemporary condition.
            Because ideas are real entities with real impacts on the real world, we must strive for a radical re-philosophizing of subjectivity and collectivity – call this project a “coming philosophy” or Object Oriented Philosophy. Because discourse and ideas have effects they themselves produce, we cannot continue to bracket political discourse and ideology off from material existence. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Liberal Humanist Zombies: Why We Need Post-Kantian Thought Post-Tucson

The following reflection on the Tucson Shooting will be deeply and intentionally polemical.  And necessarily so, as the philosophical foundations of not only the act itself, but America’s reaction(s) to it will bear out. I aim to be polemical for another related, yet, deeper reason. We are not merely told to refrain from “partisan” politics at such moments of national tragedy, but, more fundamentally, inclined towards such restraint. What I want to get at is this implicit sense of restraint. We are supposed to see such moments not as political moments, but as moments of unification in remorse and healing. Fine. And I fully agree that this is an American tragedy -- that is precisely what animates this post! Except that such implicit demands do little more than shore up the status quo of an ideological (meant in the Althusserian sense) system repeatedly shown (the gulf oil spill, the financial meltdown of ’08) as being utterly bankrupt and yet, as this latest tragedy shows, ghoulishly functioning. In other words, a Liberal Humanist zombie lurks about not only in the raving and murderous desires of a lone gunman, or in the infantile political discourse of the far-right, but also in the very sentiments of a purportedly “leftist” president’s call for national healing. All of these things are, ultimately and fundamentally, the same. (Reminder: Liberal does not mean leftist. I will always use "liberal" in its proper, philosophical meaning as a system based, amongst other things, upon the cult of autonomous subjects who are constituted through a subject-object dialectic; i.e. all that boot-strap jargon about the efficacy of the individual over and against the contingencies of any system. Hence liberal means conservative!)
            Let us commence with the link between the shooter and the far right’s neoliberal/libertarian discourse. As Tim Morton recently expressed, it only tacitly matters that the shooter was a borderline personality – that he is “crazy.” Tim’s reasoning is profoundly spot-on. The right’s role in the shooting is that of an enabler. Far from providing an excuse as to why the Palins of the world are not responsible, the argument of singular insanity in fact places more responsibility on their discourse. What the instance of insanity brings forth is multiformed. First, according to an illogical logic, such an argument claims that this shooter is an autonomous individual acting independently and who should accordingly be held individually responsible. The philosophico-juridico basis of such an argument is clear: the cult of the liberal subject asserting that everyman is, insofar as he is free-thinking individual, autonomous and hence a subject fit for all the rights offered to members of a democratic society.
            So from one perspective, Palin and others' argument that they are not responsible in any way for the shooting rest on such logic. The shooter is a liberal subject and hence should be able to read the right’s discourse and iconography critically.
            But, the lynchpin of such a defense is the shooter’s insanity. The right is ultimately not responsible because an autonomous yet crazed man misread their discourse. The right is having their cake and eating it too. The shooter is to be held responsible, not their discourse, because he is a liberal subject; yet the shooter is also responsible, not the right’s discourse, because he is crazy and cannot read critically. Yet, clearly, the later defense cancels the first. If the shooter is insane and hence not in control of his mental-faculties, he cannot be a liberal subject. Precisely because of this contradictory logic, the right is ultimately responsible for the shooting. According to their own paradigmatic model of thought (liberal humanism, no matter how bastardized it may have become in neo-liberal formations – formations that pathetically pay lip service to the rich philosophical tradition of liberalism, i.e. Kant), the shooter is not a subject and thus not juridically responsible; instead, those who are (or claim to be) liberal subjects are responsible because they are, purportedly, in control of their critical, language-producing faculties. Palin et al, as liberal subjects, are directly responsible for the shootings. No ethical firewall separates them from the shooting – according to their own logic.
            As for the shooter himself? We can say, according to a liberal humanist model, that he is simply parroting the ideological blather of the right, merely carrying out uncritically their inane discursive threats (those cross hairs targeting Representative Giffords). However, assume for a moment that he was not troubled with a clinically diagnosed illness. Assume for a second he was Timothy McVeigh or the man who recently flew his airplane into a Texas tax office. While such persons have been stigmatized as insane according to the same excepting-machine that produces our conceptions of Islamic radicals, they were, at least clinically, sane. Likewise, let us rule out “temporary insanity.” No, what we have here, hypothetically, is a person by all means fit for liberal subjecthood that has, nevertheless, been controlled and possessed by radical political discourse.
            One of two avenues of thought opens up for us here. First, we can make such individuals into the exception figures who prove the paradigm of liberal subjecthood’s rule, therein demanding more rigorous liberal education. In other words, their uncritical, interested, and possessed comportment towards radical discourse proves the necessity of a liberal education that, had such individuals only listened more in school, would have trained them to reflect critically, disinterestedly, and self-possessedly on radical discourse.
            Yet, here is where both the president’s call for national unity and our own implicit desire for non-partisanship undermine such a call for liberal education. (And even deeper and more terrifying: the philosophical ground from which the president petitions for national consolation and that out of which the shooter emerged are the same) Because, under all the liberal ideology (and again: liberal does not in any way mean leftist politics) there is a presupposition of man’s innate potential to be radically influenced – his/her actions, discourse, thoughts being little more than socially constructed. Kant, the great liberal himself, was very much aware of this. His definition of freedom was, after all, rule-bound. Hence all the liberal apparatuses (broadly construed: education, discourse, etc) and their stress on critical separation and disinterestedness. To be a fully actualized subject one must be fully self-divorced. Or, in Kantian speak: that which is most subjectively my own (freedom) is what is most radically universal and thusly not my own.
            But that presupposed flux of powerfully influential goop (in the shooter’s case, the right’s discourse and iconography) remains in force despite any critical disinterestedness. Liberal humanism and the subject its logic produces is, in the end, a passive observer. He or she is simply a “beautiful soul,” to steal a phrase from Tim Morton.
            So what happens in tragedies like this is painfully obvious. We construct the shooter as a lone agent, crazed or not. We critically sever him from the historical, social, material, and ideological contingencies out of which his actions arise. Why? Because we have been taught (explicitly, sure, but more powerfully, implicitly) to perform such critical divorcing, but also and ultimately, because it does not demand a rethinking of our political and ideological ground – how we form a collective and what it means to be an singularity in that collective.
            That is the other path opened up by such “lone” murderers. Their heinous acts momentarily tear asunder the fabric of liberal political and subjective belonging. And our reactions to such acts model and repeat that torn fabric, tearing it further apart even as we attempt to patch it back together.
           While now may seem be the time for "non-partisanship" and the avoidance of "polemics," it is, in reality, the time for a philosophical (and hence polemical) inquiry that refuses unequivocally the liberal framework of politics, subjectivity, and critique. Without such a wager in the seeming abyss opened by moments of tragedy, we will have repeated Tucson shootings, oil spills, financial collapses.  
So far, 2011 looks just like 2010, and 2009, and 2008, and . . .