attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: realism

Object Oriented Demonology

What follows is still an attempt to work through Realist Magic. It is a working through that accompanies my reading the book. As such, any misunderstandings are my own fault and not those of Timothy Morton’s superb writing.

By embodying them with human privacy and imbuing them with our own personality, things are reduced to silence. If they speak, it is only our own voices that are heard.

Bjørnar Olsen, In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. 2010.

All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred

– Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations.

Demonic forces, spectrality, white noise. These seem to me the key terms of Timothy Morton’s concept of casuality. For Morton ‘actual, real things are happening a multiple levels and involving multiple agents’ (RM). Things are complicated. Yet as I have argued their is a split in the real between an ‘originary object’ which is withdrawn and multiple ‘hermeneutic objects’ that the complex enmeshment of ontic being produces. These hermeneutic objects are effects and entities in their own right. There are as many hermeneutic objects as their are aesthetic translations of originary objects: the multiplicity of hermeneutic objects is identical with the the number of relations in the cosmos. These relations are translations. To ‘trans-late means “carry-across”‘ and so each hermeneutic object is a kind of carrying across of the originary object. Causation is the total structure of these translations.

It strikes me as strange to call these hermeneutic objects sensuous. The sensuous names the realm of sensory rather than cognitive work. There is an immediacy to the sensuous that the work of translation doesn’t sit well with. For someone like Albert Camus, sensuality was the answer to answer. It was an answer that refused to diminish that absurdity. All sufferings and miseries could be endured because of the felt relation of skin and sun, body and water, the touching of lovers. Camus evokes the intimacy of things played out on the surface his flesh. There is no effort in his voluptuous realism, except that of arms and legs slicing through the waves.

Morton gives numerous examples of ways translation occurs. A frog’s croak becomes a word to a human; strategic intelligence to a mosquito; a trigger to a female frog’s endocrine system. The passages concerning this ignoble noise, a small noise of darkness and cold waters, are, like much of the book, beautiful. In these examples we have ‘actual, real things happening’. The neurocognitive process of senseless noise fashioned into a linguistic tool; physical perturbations in the air being ‘read’ by the mosquito; biological stimuli and response priming physical systems for reproduction. Are these things really translations? The metaphor in which the croak is “interpreted” or “read” starts to seem less like a metaphor in Morton’s causal system. What does it mean for these things to be “trans-lations”?

To carry-across convokes a polysemy the genericity of which centres on ideas of movement across a distance. This isn’t surprising given that the problem is causation. The evil realm of aesthetics seems to be being established as the realm of demonic causation; the production of difference in object-object relations at a distance without a mediate third. This is why causation is magic. Specifically, causation is black magic. As Morton says ‘[C]ausality is an illusion-like play of a demonic energy that has real effects in the world’ (RM). The paradoxical structure of causation is that the disincarnate incarnates the incarnate; causality is disclosed as a kind of spiritual possession. What is it that carries-across that which is carried-across? The frog’s croak is carried-across by the air packets that constitute unique moments in emergent wind. Speaking of Dante’s Inferno and the way that demonic possession operates on “black winds” and trees and so forth, Eugene Thacker (DP) reminds us that ‘possession is not just the possession of living being but includes the nonliving as well…demonic possession in the Inferno is not just teratological, but also geological and also climatological’. In the Inferno a suicide that has become a tree remarks ‘we were men once and have now become brush’. The scene doesn’t depict a tree with a man’s soul trapped inside it. It is not a material prison for an immaterial soul as in the Gnostic vision. The soul is the tree. So not a tree as a prison for the soul but a soul-tree. Demonic possession operates by invading, colonising, settling in, naturalising, identifying. It makes the host-body uncanny to itself in a hideous becoming. And this is necessary because ‘a perfect translation of one object by another object would entail the destruction of that object’ (RM). To carry-across is to imperfectly possess an object, to tune into it, to pick up its transmission and to carry the signal out of it, across oneself, and deliver it to other objects. Possession suddenly resembles electronic transmission. There is the withdrawn and the sensuous; the essence and the appearance; the originary and the hermeneutical; the signal and the noise. The irony is that as me-ontic void, the signal can never be recovered from the noise. The object is en-crypt-ed.

If causation is a kind of demonic possession then the claim that it is magical makes perfect sense. I still feel that there is a slippage from the metaphorical to the real. Despite his gripping explanation, one that appeals to me in almost every facet of its own aesthetic potency, that draws me in and holds me with it, inside it, this slippage is still the crack in the wall, the unevenly paved floor: it causes me to trip over it. The spell is broken. The distance between the tool and the task gets lost somewhere so that the metaphor gets taken for the real. Its ot that nothing like this “translation” is going on, its just not as literal or as autonomous as it seems. Objects are bodies, and bodies aren’t absolutely encrypted.

‘Every object is a marvelous archaeological record of everything that ever happened to it’ (RM). The conflation seems to be typified in this sentence and the passage that follows. The archaeological record is not a record in the sense of a list or narrative. True, archaeology does assemble lists, litanies, narratives, a whole hermeneutics of civilisation, but it does so on the basis of “the archaeological record”. In his Understanding the Archaeological Record, Gavin Lucas cuts the term an elegant three ways. He claims that it refers first to ‘artifacts and material culture’, secondly ‘residues and formation theory’, and finally to ‘sources and fieldwork’ (p.10). For Lucas artifacts refer both to archaeological artefacts and “ecofacts”. Ecofacts are objects of “natural” origin such as seed or bones that archaeologists tend to separate from artefacts based on the tool definition of the latter. Lucas points out that ecofacts are equally tools as are built tools. We don’t just use hammers to hammer but in the past have used bones to hammer. To go beyond Lucas’s example, the agricultural revolution couldn’t have taken place if human being ad not used climatological conditions themselves as a kind of tool. As Lucas states the ‘artefact-ecofact distinction is really a manifestation of a deeper “culture-nature” dichotomy’ (p.10) of the kind that we are familiar with from Bruno Latour. For now all we need to note is that the this record is not just a matter of reading traces. It is also about material objects, material culture, and places and practices. Morton’s view of the object as an archaeological record seems to correspond to an idea of the object as residues.

This might seem unfair as Morton is keen to point out that ‘[T]his is not to say that the object is only everything that ever happened to it’. The object isn’t just the interpretations made of it by other objects. Objects can’t be fully possessed, their signal ever fully recovered from the noise. There is always more kept back. The secrecy of the object. When it speaks it does so in silences. Nonetheless, this is still an archaeology without artefact and without pragmatics. Even the example of the frog provide us with a pragmatic comportments; the female frog’s endocrine system interprets the male frog’s croak in order to prime herself for the potentiality of reproductive activity. This isn’t simply a chain of interpretations but a chain of activities aimed at possible activities. I like the claim that objects are archaeological, that bodies have memory, but it can only be the case if they are corporeal realities existing in a shared tactility. I take such an enmeshed tactility to be constitutive of the intimacy of bodies. Morton comes close to this tactility when he states that [the] ‘before and after [of causality] are strictly secondary to the sharing of information’. But without the corporeal aspect that his concept of withdrawal forbids, Morton’s highly appealing archaeological image of the object remains an ‘ontogenetic history’ of a mimetic ability that is generalised to all objects. In Walter Benjamin’s words

To read what was never written.’ Such reading is the most ancient; reading prior to all languages, from entrails, the stars, or dances. Later the mediating link of a new kind of reading, of runes and hieroglyphs, came into use. It seems fair to suppose that these were the stages by which the mimetic gift, formerly the foundation of occult practices, gained admittance to writing and language. In this way, language may be seen as the highest level of mimetic behaviour and the most complete archive of nonsensuous similarity: a medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic.


The characterisation of object-oriented philosophy as a pancorrelationism is starting to look like a panmimeticism. In keeping with Morton aesthetics as first philsophy, is the idea that we take one another for runes and hieroglyphs, as language, but in reverse- in residue. The frog is a residue of a frog. It is the star as the star appeared to palaeolithic man. Morton’s hermeneutical objects, the objects that we encounter in everyday life, are only our reading of what was never written. The Benjaminian notion of aura is important here. For Benjamin the aura of the object consisted of ‘a distance as close as it can be’ (HP). This proximate distance could be read as an intimacy or as a possession. There is either a corporeal aura or an aesthetic concept of aura. Benjamin asks us what the aura is ‘actually’, and provides his answer thus:

a strange weave of space and time; an appearance of a distance, however near it may be. While resting on a summer’s afternoon, to trace a mountain on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer- this is what it means to breath the aura of those mountain, that branch.

There is no doubt that Morton would take issue with this idea of the aura, having rejected it himself as presenting nature as

‘a reified thing in the distance, “over yonder,” under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener, preferably in the mountains, in the wild.


But this is a proximate-distance. It is the appearance of a distance. In emphasising the apparent distance he misses the ‘strange weave’ that is precisely characteristic of the radical interconnectedness of things that a concept of the ‘wild’ refers to. The wild or the wilderness is exactly the place where humans may enter but can’t dwell. In the wilderess man is not absent but he is not at home (unheimliche). It is the place where an archaeological concept of the object that conditions it ‘artefactual’ breaks down. The ‘apparentness’ of distance that the ecological concept of mesh was supposed to undo is replaced by a concept of withdrawal that absolutises a distance beneath the mesh, between it and substance. The point Benjamin’s idea of the ‘”auratic” capacity’ of bodies is precisely to explain their ability to affect and “speak” to rather than be read by us. Somewhere along the way in his encounter with object-oriented thinking Morton’s project has left its orbit of constructing ‘a properly materialist ecology’ (EUA) in favour of an ontology of spectrality where the “real” in its “realism” has disappeared into demonic white noise. It is for this reason that the distance I am making between myself and Morton is also a proximate-distance… but it is a real distance, not an only apparent one. I remain with the tactility of the strange weaving of bodies.

DP- Eugene Thacker. 2012. In the dust of this planet. Volume one: horror and philosophy.
EUA- Timothy Morton. 2008. Ecologocentrism: unworking animals.
RM- Timothy Morton. 2013. Realist Magic.
HP- Walter Benjamin. [1999]. A little history of photography.
MF- Walter Bejamin. [1999]. On the mimetic faculty.

Hermeneutical and Corporeal Objects: withdrawal and causation

Everything exist; nothing exists. Either formula affords a like serenity. The man of anxiety, to his misfortune, remains between them, trembling and perplexed, forever at the mercy of a nuance, incapable of gaining a foothold in the security of being or the absence of being.

– EM Cioran, The trouble with being born.

…The life of the living in the struggle for life; the natural history of human beings in the blood and tears of wars between individuals, nations, and classes; the matter of things, hard matter; solidity; the closed-in-upon-self, all the way down to the level of the subatomic particles of which physicists speak.

Levinas, Entre Nous.

Causation is corporeal, not aesthetic. In this post I want contribute to the argument that causation is a matter of bodies acting on bodies. This is also part of a response to Timothy Morton’s beautifully evocative book Realist Magic (2013, all references to Morton refer to this text). It is a wonderful, touching, and almost viscerally moving book in places, even if, by its own concept of withdrawal and causation, it could never touch or engage anything viscerally. To be fair, I haven’t yet finished reading Morton’s book owing to too many responsibilities and too poor time management. As such, any mischaracterising of his positions are all my own fault and I deserve to be publically flogged for them. What follows began as a set of notes but has (I hope) transformed into a more cohesive blog post.

Withdrawal and encryption.

Objects are a ‘reading, an interpretation’, of one another. Early on Morton provides us with two out of what I consider the three strong definitions of withdrawal presented in Realist Magic (as far as I have read so far):

They [objects] have withdrawn, yet we have traces, samples, memories. These samples interact with one another, they interact with our us, they crisscross one another in a sensual configuration space. Yet the objects from which they emanate are withdrawn.

Withdrawal means that at this very moment, this very object, as an intrinsic aspect of its being, is incapable of being anything else: my poem about it, its atomic structure, its function, its relations with other things … Withdrawal isn’t a violent sealing off. Nor is withdrawal some void or vague darkness. Withdrawal just is the unspeakable unicity of this lamp, this paperweight, this plastic portable telephone, this praying mantis, this frog, this Mars faintly red in the night sky, this cul-de-sac, this garbage can. An open secret.

Withdrawal is set into play with the ‘unspeakability, enclosure….secrecy’ that Morton holds is the essence of mystery. He states that ‘things are encrypted’. On encryption, Tom McCarthy (author of the fantastic Remainder “leader” of the International Necronautic Society) notes the immanent etymological relation of the word; encryption. In an encrypted communication only the person with the key can access the message but Morton states that the encryption of objects is ‘unbreakable’. If objects were messages they would be messages that were destined to go undelivered (later in the book, Morton will discuss appearances-perturbations as deliveries in a specific sense- a house is a delivery, an mp3, a book, etc). For now, I want to stress the crypt. McCarty points out that the crypt is simultaneously the space of encryption and the space of burial. In an interview with McCarthy, Cerith Wyn Evans says that

‘the crypt is perceived as a model whereby the subject is unable to…as they say or as Freud would say…mourn properly’.

It is no accident that Morton also speaks of objects being mourned and mournful in his Introduction. I can’t help but get the feeling that the withdrawal of the object is its encryption both as the secrecy of the coded message that can never be read (picture the Rossetta Stone pre-translation, or the “schizophrenic speech” before people realised it wasn’t asignifying non-sense), and as the secrecy of the corpse in its tomb. It is because of this unbreakable withdrawal, this uttermost mystery of the object that causality is said to operate at on or as ‘the aesthetic dimension’, a dimension often identified as the ‘realm of evil’, although Bataille might disagree. There is a lyricism to this treatment of withdrawal, presented as it is in much the same way as death: an secret everyone knows prefer flee from.

An odd statement: ‘aesthetic dimension floats in front of objects. If causality operates on the aesthetic dimension, and this dimension floats in front of objects, then it isn’t really objects that are interacting with each other. In my own terms, bodies don’t seem to be acting on bodies but on incorporeals. Morton says this floating in front of is figurative but I suspect this doesn’t mean not real or not literal. Figurative in this case is less likely to mean metaphorical, more likely to mean derivative of real objects as it does for figurative art. Withdrawal and causation are what Realist Magic are all about.

Causation and varieties of emptiness

Morton makes reference to a ‘meontic void’ being concealed, This concealment is clearly the concealment of withdrawal, the concealment of what the object can’t ever express of itself, what the object can never share. In art theory there are two main kinds of representation:

1. Mimesis: the reproduction of what is able to share itself; the nonwithdrawn. This is representation of what is experienced. It is a species of fixing presence.

2. Me-ontic: This is the attempt to represent what is not there, what does not show up, what can only be imagined or speculated on; precisely the withdrawn. Obviously, the meontic is a void. A species of absence.

At the moment I have the sense that causality is being painted as mimesis (against Plato), but that this mimetic pseudo-contact- the caricaturing of objects as ‘object x-for-object y’- is always going to have this ambiguous pull of the me-ontic, the suggestion that that is what is being aimed for? Every causal interaction is going to be suggestive of something more; every aesthetic interaction is a testament to the distance and isolation of objects from each other. The me-ontic is, after all, also the not-ontic and this makes sense as non-actual, non-evental. In this form of withdrawal the object does not exist in space or time as to delimit it this way would be to make it an event, a causal and therefore mimetic thing. It is also non-actual in the sense that despite being absolutely real it is absolutely absent. We can understand this by way of analogy: the meontic void is exactly void, the kind of void that the Epicureans thought that atoms moved through. Yet it gets weirder, because the void in this sense is the ontologically autonomous real object and not some emptiness that it is situated in and through which it moves. The situated and the mobile belong to the causal dimension, the aesthetic dimension. As such we should think of Epicurean void as being divisible- every atom moves in its own particular void. The atom is the sensuous object, the void the withdrawn object. So every atom, every sensuous object, moves in its own void, its own withdrawal. But this doesn’t make sense in Morton’s terms because the aesthetic objects is the causal object and therefore it is only this that is involved in interaction. As such, and here Baudrillard rears his head once again, we have reversibility: it is the void that is ‘within’ the atom.

There is another sense of the me-ontic as a being’s origination, the source of its being the being that it is. This could have the spatial sense of ontological ground or foundation, but it could also have the temporal sense of being a being’s pre-being (the being of a being before it becomes what it is). The sense of me-ontic void here would signifying the lack of ground and foundation, and emphasise the idea that there was no primordial being out of which the particular being produces itself, no permanent Being subsisting ontic beings. In this way, we start to get a sense of withdrawal as

(not) hard to find or even impossible to find yet still capable of being visualized or mapped or plotted. Withdrawn doesn’t mean spatially, or materially or temporally hidden yet capable of being found, if only in theory. Withdrawn means beyond any kind of access, any kind of perception or map or plot or test or extrapolation.

(Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

The me-ontic of the ontic, the absent real of the casual presence, is not a ground, foundation or origin. The me-ontic is void because it lacks all determination and all possibility; the me-ontic, that is to say the withdrawn, is under this reading the object’s horizon of im-possibility. This makes sense if we put recall that for other variants of object-oriented ontology the withdrawn aspect of the object is precisely the domain of the object’s capacity for action. In Levi Bryant’s formulation, the withdrawn ‘virtual proper being’ of a machine is the domain of its pluri-potent volcanicity, its capacities for propertising itself and producing local manifestations. Bryant’s generative concept of withdrawal retains a Deleuzianism insofar as it is a philosophy of production involving a concept of the virtual; whereas, in Morton’s concept of withdrawal as absolute absence, the withdrawn dimension of the object seems to be an absolute spectrality, an insubstantiality at the heart of substance. This might be related to Morton’s Buddhism, so here, a quick trip down another version of withdrawn, a version that Morton has called attention to him; emptiness (sunyata).

Sunyata is a fairly difficult idea to isolate and talk about without doing it injustice, largely because it is not a concept in the sense that, say, “power-knowledge” is; sunyata belongs to a long, live, and self-differentiated Buddhism. Interestingly though, sunyata has been translated into English as “emptiness”, “nonsubstantiality”, and “voidness”. This list doesn’t exhaust the translations of sunyata but they do nicely display the resemblance between withdrawal in object-oriented ontology and sunyata in Buddhism, at least in the what seems to be Morton’s understanding of it.

The monk Nagarjuna systematised the thought on sunyata and is seen as one of the pivotal expressions of its meaning. According to Douglas Berger of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Nargarjuna’s intellectual project was an attempt to undo all ‘systems of thought which analysed the world in terms of fixed substances and essences’. For Nagarjuna, it is only because things lack essence and are insubstantialities that they are capable of change or of becoming something else entirely. I only introduce this idea because I think it might become important for understanding things later.

But back to the text, Harman states that things withdraw from total access. This, at least here, suggests that objects don’t withdraw completely and offers a chink of access. We can still “get at” them and they can still “get at” each other.

Attuning to emptiness

‘Tuning is the birth of another object: a tune, a reading, an interpretation’. (Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

Objects seems to be tunings, readings, interpretations of one another. In this sense, they aren’t mimetic. After all, an interpretation isn’t a mirror of the thing itself in the way that mimesis is- although of course, mimesis can be more or less faithful, more or less distorting. The point here is that the interpretation, the mimetic object, is not the original object. My experience of the sun is not the sun itself, it is a reading of it. My reading, my experiential object, and the sun pre-experiential sun, the sun in itself, are not the same. Here, Morton is restating the Kantian noumena-phenomena and producing a pancorrelationism: every object-object relationship sunders the object between noumena and phenomena. Every object is an experiential object and a pre, or non-experiential object. What is fascinating though is that Morton doesn’t say that this object is split from itself. What Morton actually says is that mimetic work is ‘the birth of another object’. I can only conclude that the experiential and non-experiential objects, the sun-for-me and the sun-in-itself, are not dual aspects of a single object but two distinct objects. This is sort of the core of object-oriented philosophy. Indeed, it also accords with an enactivist approach in which the sun such as I experience it is co-enacted by my neurology, my lived and biological body, and the sun itself. Except that the warmth of the sun can’t be my interpretation of it, unless we’re talking about interpretation as impoverishment of that which is being interpreted. My experience of the sun’s heat is thus an impoverishment of the sun itself.
But isn’t this reminiscent of Plato’s Cave? Aren’t we then living in a world where all we have the shadows cast on the wall? Morton states this is the case plainly, describing the ‘interobjective space’ as exactly that.
The new object is real-for-me but only sensuous-for-itself. Yet does the object itself experience my experience of it? Is the new born object fully fledged or still-born? To put it otherwise, to whom does the third object belong? To me, to itself, or to the sun? These questions are premature given that for Morton the object is withdrawn from total access in such a way that I can only interpret it. But:

Yet when you tune, real things happen. You are affecting causality. You are establishing a link with at least one other actually existing entity.

(Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

It is true that tuning is efficacious, that interpreting produces effects. When you interpret a text you make a new text and that new text is link to the original. These things can even happen simultaneously. I am re-reading Marcus Aurelieus’s Meditations, and it has a few annotations. The annotations are interpretations of Marcus and are therefore not part of the Meditations. Some complexity is present here because the interpretation and the text (the new and the original) are contained in one object (the book), which is itself a translation (an interpretation). I think this is what returns us from the mimetic to the me-ontic. The me-ontic is what is what does not show up, what is not present but is nevertheless real. An interpretation is what does not show up in the thing interpreted. The annotations about Marcus are not the writing of Marcus, nor are they Marcus himself, even though a link is established between all of these moments. The link is tenuous and mediate. It is through the interpretation I can know the text; after all, even without the annotation my own interpretation of the words on the page would filter and frame them. If this is how we consider affecting casuality to operate then it seems like it is merely the ‘establishing a link’ that counts, and not the nature of that link. This is understandable when we consider the strangeness of the phrase “affecting causality”.

Causality usually refers to material causality, to bodies acting on bodies. As discussed in my post on corporealism, I take ‘bodies’ to be materialities that possess a capacity for action (to be acted upon, or to act on). Causality is the name for the system of bodies acting upon and being acted on by other bodies (a discussion of incorporeal subsistence remains to be undertaken). In this material causality it is bodies that interact with bodies. I repeat this point in order to emphasis the idea that acting on causality seems strange. If causality is bodies acting on bodies then acting on causality is acting on bodies acting on bodies, which is causality. The link that one establishes with bodies seems not itself to be a corporeal one and therefore exist outside of the domain of causation. What exactly is this link? In my own post I suggested it may have something to do with a concept of virtuosity but that still involves direct contact between bodies.

In terms of this virtuosity, Morton does go on to state that

We must tread carefully here, to avoid the thought of overmining. This doesn’t mean that there is no table, but rather that how I use the table, including thinking about it, talking about it, resting my teacup on it, is not the table.

In the philosophical perspective of “mereological nihilism”, almost defended by Peter van Inwagen (Material Beings), there are no wholes, only parts that fail to cohere into wholes. Inwagen’s only exception to this ontological rule is living organisms that do manage to cohere into composite units. Inwagen is rather like the Epicurean atomist in that he claims everything besides live organisms are ‘simples’ and that these are independent of one another. So, Morton is discussing a table. He is discussing this table in the context of the Sorites paradox and states that we can’t say a thing is a table because of its use or because of parts. If we go with its use then the table can fail to be table, it can break, or I can use other objects as tables (hence he calls this “overmining” process the tables ‘as-structure’). Likewise, if we go with the table’s components then we could infinitely divide them without ever locating the table hidden within that heap. For Morton, these upward-downward reductionism fail to visualise, map, plot, find, perceive, test, extrapolate or otherwise access the object itself because the object itself is not ‘as-structured’ or heaped but withdrawn. This withdrawal is such that

The total vividness of this actual table, this tode ti (Aristotle), this unit, this unique being here, wooden cousin of the friend of many philosophers, is what is unspeakable, ungraspable.

Unspeakable, ungraspable. Once again, we see Michael’s contention of the epistemic (unspeakable) and the structural (ungraspable) relations being conflated, as if the being-able-to-say-the-object is the same thing as the being-able-to-touch-the-object. The particularlity of this particular table, this table that I am sitting at now, is withdrawn to the point that its vividness to me, its ‘as-structure’ is a certain tuning, a definite interpretation.

So when I link to the table, when I engage in a causal relationship with the table, it is not this table “tode ti” that I am linking up with. It is instead the system of casual relations that comprises the interobjective aesthetic realm. Of course, when ‘I’ link up to the table this ‘I’ is not necessarily me, Arran James, but might instead be the coffee cup resting on its surface, or the laptop, or the lightwaves colliding on its grainy surface, or one of the wood chips that the table contains without being reducible to. Object-object relations are mediated through a causal system that stands separate from them.

To return to Buddhism and sunyata with Morton, we are told that

Emptiness is not the absence of something, but the nonconceptuality of reality: the real is beyond concept, because it is real.

This nonconceptuality is really another way of saying that the real is not epistemic. Emptiness in this sense is a kind of substractive principle akin to the workings of mysticism: the negative theology of Meister Eckhart; Zen; the Gnosticism of Thunder Perfect Mind. At this point, Morton recalls Graham Harman’s account of occasionalist vicarious causation in order to show that emptiness can serves as this kind of occasional link between objects, a link that Morton now calls a ‘magical illusion’. There is a strong sense that theological-mystical concepts are operable in this metaphysical system, and this gives us a pretty clear idea of withdrawal for Morton. If something is nonconceptual then it can’t be cognised and thus presents a limit to thought. It is for this reason that the object can’t be epistemically accessed through the ability to visualise, map, plot, find, perceive, test, extrapolate etc. In order to discuss the object in itself it becomes necessary in this system to eliminate what it is not, to dissolve it in reciprocal contradictions, and to give to its substance all the (non)qualities of the insubstantial. Consider Nagarjuna:

One may not say “there is emptiness” nor that there is ”non-emptiness”. Nor that both (exist simultaneously), nor that neither exists; the purpose for saying (“emptiness”) is for the purpose of conveying knowledge.

(Nagarjuna quoted in Magliola 1984, Derrida on the mend).

A kind of pragmatism

Talking about objects is already too much if we want to have any access to them. “Emptiness” is itself an epistemic link to the object rather than a way of gaining direct partial contact or intimacy. Here we might just as well quote Wittgenstein, a philosopher accused of mysticism himself, and his famous dictum that ‘whereof one cannot speak thereof one must pass over in silence’. The point is that in discussing withdrawal we aren’t really legitimated to say anything at all because whatever can be said can’t possibly be withdrawn. Again, the “speculative” of “speculative realism” is obviously part of the (il)legitimation of speaking about beings themselves. I can’t speak of my table, or of Morton’s table, but I speak about it all the same, always missing it, always somehow falling short of it. Here is another example of such emptiness taken from Stephen Bachelor’s highly accessible Buddhism without beliefs (1997), and its one that almost anyone reading this can take part in:

Pick up a ball point pen. Take off the cap and ask: “Is this still a ballpoint pen?” Yes, of course- albeit one without a cap. Unscrew the top part of the casing, remove the ink refill, and screw the top on again. Is that a ballpoint pen? Well, yes, just about. Is the refill a ballpoint pen? No, it’s just a refill- but at least it can function as a pen, unlike the empty casing. Take the two halves of the empty casing apart [or break it in two if it’s a nice cheap bic]. Is either of them a ballpoint pen? No, definitely not. No way.

This is the same kind of example that Morton provides for withdrawal, and we can recognise in it the bi-directional reductionism that Morton already discarded. I like this example because I can engage with it right now without much effort at all. I engage with it corporeally in an embodied interaction. In this case it is my embodied manipulation of the thing that reveals its emptiness; it is my coping-with-being that exposes the objects innermost absence. Yet this absence could only be reached because the body that I am corporeally manipulated the body that the pen was. Of course here I am attempting to return to the very virtuosity that has already been rejected. To accept virtuosity is to accept that interobjective space is in fact a kind of intercorporeality in which bodies are virtuous agents. For Stephen Bachelor the above example is evidence that objects ‘emerge from a matrix of conditions and in turn become part of another matrix of conditions from which something else emerges’. If we follow this argument then

Withdrawal = sunyata = emptiness = conditions of emergence.

Batchelor doesn’t go into whether these conditions of emergence are corporeal or transcendental, material or formal, and this is very clearly the horizon of this post (and those it is inspired by and alongside). I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer, but to me it seems that the question is answered by the consideration of how we “get at” the fact that we can’t “get at” the sun, the pen, or the table, and that is through corporeality. I “get at” the emptiness of the table by attempting to chop it to pieces or by it failing to do what I wanted it to do. The fact is that these are structural relations between bodies; they are embodied relations wherein I discover the excess of the withdrawn over my conceptualisation of the real. In order to realise that bodies withdraw from their embodiment I have to approach them in a pragmatic, embodied way. Emptiness is itself empty except ‘for the purposes of conveying knowledge’. The epistemic relation attempts to cope with withdrawal by saying too much of nothing.

But emptiness isn’t just a metaphysical principle in Buddhism. As Batchelor points out emptiness also names the awareness of emptiness, naming an ethos, a way of being that is

A life centred in awareness of emptiness…an appropriate way of being in this changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn, and ambiguous reality. Emptiness is the central path that leads not beyond this reality but right into its heart. It is the track on which the person moves.

It is clear that the awareness that Batchelor is talking about is fully existential. It is a ‘way of being’ as much as it is the condition of being. A way is an orientation, a chosen direction that I move in; a form of life, replete with political engagements and ethical commitments; it is a style or a particular mode of doing that requires cultivation; it is a threshold, a “way in” or a “way out”, and as such involves a kind of territorialisation; and it is a skilled doing, the way of being as analogous to the way I draw up a medication from a phial into a syringe, having first to assemble that syringe and then to administer it into the exposed flesh of the patient, careful not to hit blood vessels or the sciatic nerve. In this polysemy there are notions of a conscious and engaged movement, an appropriated practicality. Emptiness as a way of being is not something passively undertaken but is an active engagement with my own being and the very onticity of ontic bodies. What runs throughout this pragmatic orientation to living is precisely a sense of embodied activity, of the embodied capacity to act that the ancient stoics called God. Furthermore, insofar as emptiness is conceived of as the very conditions of emergence, this existential emptiness is a commitment to live with ontological emptiness:

the “empty life” is not naked life; the empty life is the life lived in awareness of ontological intimacy, material vulnerability, and the radical incompletion of all beings, including myself.

Obviously, not all bodies can embody emptiness as “empty life”; this is the problem at the heart of debates surrounding animal ethics and personhood. We could say that persons are those beings that appropriate an awareness of emptiness. If this sounds all-too-Heideggarian, I can only apologise. I have commented elsewhere that my own problems with Heidegger centre on Da-sein’s tragic heroism, more than anything to do with his ontology (as far I am capable of understanding it). At any rate, we could say that the appropriation of emptiness as empty life is what we mean by consciousness. If this is the case, obviously nonconscious bodies can’t have emptiness as a way of being in that sense, but they can in the minimal sense of simply being-empty. Whilst the two modes aren’t in duet with one another, they do share the same choreographic space. The point is that nonconscious bodies- objects without minds- don’t grasp emptiness epistemically. They don’t interpret emptiness, they enact emptiness. This is also true for conscious bodies insofar as their capacity for reflexivity is emergent from but irreducible to their specific carnalities. In this way, I completely agree with Morton’s footnote that states that ‘this refreshes the Buddhist idea that different sentient beings inhabit different sorts of reality’, but it is an agreement with a disagreement, a repetition with a difference.

I turn my gaze back to my table. It has a cup on it, now empty of coffee, a laptop heats the surface beneath it, my forearms rub and bump against it as I type, a stack of books extend vertically from its horizontal plane, extending the choreographic space (the space of activity) upwards. Also on the table, invisible to me, are countless microorganisms. These microorganisms crawl out from gorging on the pages of my books (they chew on The Trouble with Being Born as if in parody), and from my poorly covered coughing mouth and sneezing nose. Bookbugs and cold germs mingle with grounded dust mites and their excrement. The invisible life proliferates whether I know it’s there or not. And all these organisms are also pragmatically concerned with the environment, but in radically different ways than I am. From the environment, in it, as it, across it, involving so many more bodies, there comes multiple worlds- mine being the only one I have epistemic access to. The books? They are real bodies, they act and are acted upon, but this doesn’t mean have their experience their own ‘reality’; they constitute worlds but lack the capacity to experience their worlds. My ballpoint pen, now lying in ruins, can’t ‘read’ the book its pieces rest upon, and the books can’t translate or interpret the ballpoint pen. Virtuosity, the practical orientation of bodies towards one another, the very activity of their being active, is explainable by the stoic materiality of God. There is no need to interpret, translate, or otherwise operate ideally. Intercorporeality is always a mutual making use of, even if that making use of is, in Harman’s word to describe the fire-cotton relation, “stupid”.

Photographer Trevor Paglen, in an interview with ‘Smudge’ recently published by Punctum Books in Making the Geologic Now, (thanks to Adam at knowledge-ecology for pointing it out) says that

I often think about this notion of geology, or geomorphology, in relation to hu¬man institutions. Consider a place like Guantanamo Bay, for example. I would submit that the reason why Guantanamo Bay still is there is because it’s there. The chain link fences and the brick and mortar that the buildings are made of actually have a kind of historic agency. They actually want to reproduce themselves. We’re all familiar with the 19th Century idea about the “annihilation of space with time” but the obverse is also true. Space also annihilates time. Whether we’re talking about nuclear waste or Guantanamo Bay, we can see how materialities produce their own futures. This is a way in which materiality and politics intersect. Material¬ity is not politically neutral, so I think that you can talk about Guantanamo Bay as a political phenomenon. I think that materiality can explain some things.

This “geomorphology” seems to me to be proximate with DeLanda’s morphogenic capacity, the same capacity I have identified with the stoics materially immanent God; it is the capacity for matter to self-organise, for bodies to embody themselves. This is far from the image of material causation as ‘clunky causation’. This hypnotic notion that ‘materialities produce their own futures’ is also incredibly close to Morton’s own concept of ecological crisis in connection with the burial of nuclear waste in the Earth.

In other words, there is no need for causality to be magical or to seem like an illusion when God is the operations, and the interoperations, of bodies. Bodies are both cause and effect. This stoic doctrine is closer to Buddhist codependent arising than I can see realist magic allowing. The table-for-my-books, the table-for-my-forearms, the table-for-me, the table-for-the-cup, the table-for-the-laptop and the table-for-the-table aren’t going to be the same kind of table-for. I take this as part of the reason for attending to what Michael calls onto-specificity, and what has come to be known as Buddhist mindfulness practice. Virtuous beings, pragmatic bodies, are not always sentient beings, and are therefore not always centres of an “alien phenomenology”. At the same time, emptiness does not translate as spectrality but the perishability of all corporeal existences: bodies reach their apotheosis in dissolution, destruction, and death.

Final words then, I get the sense that for Morton any assertion to the effect that ‘reality is mingled and uncanny mesh’ is mistaken. The mingling and meshing is a property of the ‘sampling’ effect of object’s interactions in the aesthetic domain- a domain he seems to think is derivative of but not coexistensive with objects. Causation thus seems to be something like the transcendental conditions of possibility for the emergence of objects, akin to codependent arising in Buddhism. If causation is an illusion and a non-illusion, it is magical and mysterious, for Morton then that is because it is ’empty’ (shunyata). If I’m right about this (and I’m in no way certain that I am), then the problem is really about what it is that is casually interacting. Objects as samples of other objects? Objects as interpretations of other objects? Sensuous appearances? These hermeneutical objects seem to be the objects of causation, and causation seems to be the hermeneutic labour undertaken by objects on other objects. My disagreement with Morton, if I have understood him at all, is over the question of whether objects and causation are corporeal or hermeneutic.

material vulnerabilities

I want to do two things in this post. First, to explore the idea of ‘ontological vulnerability’ a little, and second, to look at absolute and contingent withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy. I want to do this in order to try to get a grasp of Michael’s problems with Harman and Morton’s version of OOO, and to make a start on answering questions about pan-correlationism.

Michael rejects the idea that objects are absolutely withdrawn from one. Instead, Michael suggests that all objects are’ ontically open to one another in such a way as to establish an ‘intimacy’. This would also be the grounds of possibility for the intelligibility of alterity: how could we speak of alterity if things never encountered one another at all? The point is that if objects were absolutely withdrawn they would recede from any point of access whatsoever. In such a world no thing could ever be touched, held, burnt, used, left, ignored, known etc. In a bid to revalorise substantiality in a world seemingly obsessed with flux, we give discover the undiscoverability of the in-itself and remain forever imprisoned within the for-us of our own delusive experiences. Absolute withdrawal is a thesis of absolute autonomy of every substance from every other substance to the point where all and every thing vanishes. But that isn’t the world we live in. We live in a world of violence and suffering, of bullets and bombs, of fast food and big screen TVs, of kissing lovers, and 4 year old boys who refuse to let you write blog posts. We live in a world where we’ve gathered a fair bit of knowledge. Hard knowledge garnered from natural science. In other words, it seems that the claim that objects are absolutely withdrawn is false.

As a psychiatric nurse I know that such a claim is false. I use drugs synthesised by psychopharmacologists that, once injected into the flesh, directly do things to the patient’s nervous system. Conversation and phenomenographic accounts of patient experience also relate how this can profoundly alter the way patients couple to their environments. This leads to the enaction of profoundly different worlds. Thinking on such an example is illustrative. I can only do my job because people have had direct if partial access to things. I can only do my job because other things have direct access to still more things. The generation of and radical difference between my experience of an episode of medication administration and my patient’s is only possible because of the specific ways in which we and the things involved in that situation are open to each other. That openness constitutes the kind of intimacy that provides us with experiential evidence of the impossibility of absolute withdrawal. Instead, situations or worlds are produced by the unique ensemble of interoperating operations of uniquely relating substances. Onto-specification is the product of multiple coexisting intimacies, or intermatrices.

We should note here that what I’m calling intermatrices pertain to ‘contact’ between objects. Intermatrices are simply the ensembles that produce effects that we typically call things. Just as for the Stoics,objects are both cause and effect. The point to note is that it is only because of intermatrices that we have access to things at all, and that such interoperability is fundamentally a matter of enaction. That is to say onto-specification is the activity of the ontic co-determination of substances by those substances. There is a sense in which we can say this is an eroticism: things enact worlds by touching each other. As such, absolute withdrawal would constitute an auto-erotic atomism in which touching is mediated via the metaphorical screen as in cyber-sex. In Levi Bryant and Ian Bogost’s expression, the object-oriented ontology is a promiscuous ontology.

So objects/ensembles/etc are able to touch one another only partially but nonetheless directly. This means that something is always going to be absent in their touching, even if that absence is not absolute. Here, the split in an objects identity, the heterogeneous admixture preventing total autonomy, means that their is a porosity to the object’s membrane. The membrane might be thought of as that fuzzy boundary between what remains withdrawn aspect and what is touched-touching. Much like skin, the object’s membrane is porous, permeable, otherwise it would be either fully actual or fully virtual. What this also means is that with any specific object/ensemble the porosity of the membrane will differ. As such, rather than absolute withdrawal across all objects there is a continuum of withdrawal, degrees of absence, a mobility between presence and absence. I will return to this later.

So what is this ontological vulnerability? It is precisely what has been discussed above. Yet as human beings we are a particular kind of thing, and we have put ontological vulnerability into play for other reasons. For us, this kind of vulnerability is part of our facticity. We are the species that is composed of individuals that know that they will die. We are the kind of being that is always exposed to death and which has complex affective and cognitive responses to that awareness. Ernest Becker is among those who has posited that human civilisation is in fact a huge coping mechanism composed of other elaborate coping mechanisms. By identifying with a heroic system, such as religion, the individual attempts to transcend their own mortality, fraught as it is with uncertainty of time and manner of arrival, by being part of ‘something bigger’. Becker joins in that chorus of voices that declare that such means of pretending at immortality, of avoiding death, have been undermined by modernity’s disenchantment of the world. The cultural-subjective nihilism that accompanies the desacralisation of the world by instrumental/administrative reason and the rise of industrial capitalism has eroded the possibility of sustaining our various heroisms. (I have a sense that Heidegger’s being-toward-death is really little more than his attempt to make the absence of heroism into a heroism).
The point here is that we are left without any kind of affective or intellectual defence against our awareness of our mortality and that this is paralysing. For some this means that we put all our efforts into sequestering death (Mellor and Shilling 1993, The sequestration hypothesis: modernity, self-identity, and death), hiding it from view through the operation of a taboo just as under the repressive hypothesis power was supposed to operate an effective taboo on sex. For others (Christopher Lasch) this degenerates humans into narcissists obsessed with youth and beauty, terrified of ageing and any form of commitment whatsoever. It is a fairly familiar story, one we don’t need to completely retrace here. We have always been exposed to death and we have always attempted to attenuate that exposure.

Importantly, ontological vulnerability has been discussed by Judith Butler (Precarious Life; Frames of War) as our corporeal vulnerability to others because of the way our being is constituted by, remains dependent on, and is finally extinguishable by, other corporeally vulnerable beings.Just like with Becker’s hero-systems though, there are those who attempt to make themselves appear invulnerable (Butler identifies the USA and Israel as examples). In trying to be invulnerable these objects are hiding their vulnerability from themselves, turning away from it, and simultaneously increasing their vulnerability. Our lives are precariously interdependent and this exposes us to violence, possibly to death. The logic is similar in Becker, for whom civilisation is a massive system of meaning-production that attempts to give death the appearance of sense, to domesticate it’s dark absoluteness, and to make us feel like we are ontologically invulnerable. In both instances, attempts to evade such vulnerability actually intensifies it by building up defences that can’t do anything but fail.

In the pessimistic understanding of vulnerability we are talking about an exposure to death that renders suffering senseless, arbitrary, our world a dangerously vertiginous swirl of risk. The very fabric of social and institutional life is endangered by the cultural nihilism that sweeps through liquid modernity because death is revealed to be ‘the absolute other, an unimaginable other…an absolute nothing…the end of all perception’ (Bauman, Mortality immortality, and other life strategies). Ontological vulnerability is the threat of a dissolution so complete as to be unthinkable, unimaginable, an horrific alterity that the individual (and increasingly the collective) can’t domesticate. Death is perfectly unthinkable.

Our ontological vulnerability is ultimately rooted in a carnal vulnerability, and this should tell us something about ontological vulnerability in general (although we must be mindful of onto-specificity). First, ontological vulnerability is openness. This openness does not merely point towards the partiality of withdrawal but also points towards the exposure of objects to dissolution. Secondly, in humans (and probably other animals) this dissolution is death. Thirdly, it seems as though the first two claims follow from openness of objects, from the incompleteness of ensembles, their plasticity. Fourth, partial objects mean that all objects are interdependent rather than autonomous. All objects may be agencies that act, but they do so within the constraints of the worlds that are available to them to enact. Fifth, if death is unthinkable then absolute withdrawal is unthinkable. In this way, absolute withdrawal would pose itself as a limit to thinking, to what could be thought. It could be countered that this is precisely where the speculation in speculative realism steps in but I feel that the positioning with death is telling. What it tells us is that to go beyond this limit, to speculate on what is absolutely withdrawn and so is an unimaginable other, an absolute nothing and the end of all perception, is to produce a supernaturalism. Specifically, a commitment to the absolutely withdrawn would seem to be a kind of mysticism.

As we have seen, what is partially absent is not necessarily absent. Objects are capable of change, the cosmos itself is capable of change. What is now withdrawn may be put forward, what is now touched-touching may be withdrawn. In other words, what remains withdrawn only does so contingently. There remains the possibility of some other part of the object’s latency being manifested. There is the ‘distinctive presence of that which withdraws or has withdrawn’ as Alva Noe has it in Varieties of Presence. Drawing on the example of a baseball player’s glove, or Heidegger’s example of the craftman’s hammer, Noe talks about the withdrawing of these objects as alive in the sense that a straight up absence as not-presence is not. If something is not-present it is of no concern. Other possible ways of thinking absence might be related to occupation. If something is occupied it’s space has been filled by something not-it. This clearly isn’t what withdrawal is referring to. Alva Noe suggests that we think of a kind of absence that is a presence, a presence-in-absence. He asks us to imagine a tomato. When we perceive the tomato we see it as a whole tomato. Asked to describe it we would list its visual perceptual properties. But we would probably exceed what was actually presented to our eyes. We would say that it had a back and even if we couldn’t see that back we would not doubt that it existed. We would display a kind of perceptual faith, in Merleau-Ponty’s words. For Noe, this isn’t because we make a cognitive inference about the tomato but because the tomato ‘looks to have a back. It looks solidly three dimensional’. There is no actual seeing of the occluded portion of the fruit but there is a relation to the fruit that is undeniably visual in which it’s having a back, it’s being the thing it is, is obvious. In this sense, the back of the tomato (the back of a house) shows up. This showing up is its being as a presence-as-absence. No sooner has Noe stated that the back of the tomato is absent and present to human perception than he generalises this to every instance of human perception. ‘Consider the front of a tomato. You see it. But do you see all of it’? For Noe, every object of perception is ‘hidden’ in the sense that my experience of it, my embodied perceptual engagement with it, is always fragile and incomplete. In other words, it is always open; always ontologically vulnerable.

Noe’s access to the presence-in-absence that is everything, or as he put it access to ‘the virtual all the way down’, is based on carnal ‘sensorimotor integration’ with the physical environment. The point is that while everything is hidden it can nonetheless be accessed practically through the structural coupling of the organism with it’s environment. By turning my head, by casting my eye, my changing my posture or walking a few footsteps, I alter that coupling and achieve a different angle of access. Our access to the withdrawn, and what remains withdrawn, is dependent, at least in part, on our practicality and virtuosity.

This might still both Michael. It remains within the pan-correlationism that attaches cognitive powers to all object-object relations. The kind of virtuosity that I have talked about is the kind that has been sketched in terms of human perceptual capacities and intentional agency. Hairdryers and clouds are unlikely to be just these kinds of virtuosos. Yet if part of all of this has been to call attention to the onto-specificity of ensembles then we ought to recall that the human is precisely that ensemble that grasps the world in a fully corporeal sense. We are that kind of ensemble for whom cognitive, affective, and embodied capacities are utterly enmeshed together. As I hope my mentions of death showed, our corporeal vulnerability and our ontological vulnerability are of the same kind. The being of beings has to be understood as corporeality. If it is the case that ‘nothing incorporeal exists’ then there is nothing that lacks materiality, nothing that can’t be made to show up. Mind can only emerge out of the complex intermatrises that enact it, and it can’t be reduced to its human side or to the brain. Perhaps the pan-correlationism or panpsychism that Michael is wanting to avoid is something that shows up in OOO because it is spread across all relations that we can look at. We can never look anywhere where mind is not. This is not the same as to say that we can never look anywhere that the human is not, or where discursivity, or power is not; instead it is to suggest that each and every object that the human touches, every human-human/human-object relation (and the object-object relations that those depend on) are the corporeal mechanisms of the logos spermatikos of mind. The point would be that mind or ‘mind-like’ encounters between objects would be neither something that belonged to humans or to nonhumans but to the cosmos itself. Rather than a panpsychism this might resemble a material pantheism. At the same time, we might consider that practicality and virtuosity might not be traits that only humans engage in.

This hasn’t even begun to get at Michael’s point or to answer it. As ever, I stumble onward in my dilettante contributions. Maybe this one will be expanded on.

Realist magic and disappearance

Timothy Morton’s new book Realist Magic is now available to read online, and print and pdf copies will be available soon. Here, a quick point of possible connection between Morton and Baudrillard, who I have written about previously in relation to realism



An object is not an illusion. But it is not a non-illusion. Much more threatening than either is what is the case, namely an object that is utterly real, essentially itself, whose very reality is formally ungraspable. No hidden trapdoors, just a mask with some feathers whose mystery is out in front of itself, in your face. A miracle. Realist magic. This all means that the skills of the literary critic and the architect, the painter and the actor, the furniture maker and the composer, the musician and the software designer can be brought to bear on the workings of causality.


And Baudrillard:


Objects are such that, in themselves, their disappearance changes them. It is in this sense that they deceive us, that they generate illusion. But it is in this sense too that they are faithful to themselves, and we must be faithful to them: in their minute detail, in their exact figuration, in the sensuous illusion of their appearance and connectedness. For illusion is not the opposite of reality, but another more subtle reality which enwraps the former kind in the sign of its disappearance.


Of course, Baudrillard can’t easily be mapped onto an object-oriented framework, but I wonder if there isn’t something in here, especially given Morton’s buddhism. 


Neglected embodied realist

Researching for work on embodiment and psychiatry I came upon psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. Here is an extract from his paper ‘The primacy of the body, not perception’, a reply and intensification of Merleau-Ponty.

An artist stands before an unfinished picture, pondering it, seeing, feeling, bodily sensing it, having a … . Suppose the artist’s … is one of some dissatisfaction. Is that an emotional reaction, simply a feeling-tone? No indeed. Implicit in the … is the artist’s training, experience with many designs, and much else. But more: the … is also the implying of the next line, which has not yet come. The artist ponders “what it needs.” It needs some line, some erasure, something moved over, something … . The artist tries this and that, and something else, and erases it again each time. The … is quite demanding. It recognizes the failure of each attempt. It seems to know precisely what it wants and it knows that those attempts are not it. Rather than accepting those, a good artist prefers to leave a design unfinished, sometimes for years.

In this example, the design is new; it has never existed before, and neither has the next move. A bodily … can very demandingly imply something that has never existed before. And, if it doesn’t come, it may never exist at all, except as implied by a … .
[Page 349]

Should we think of this as an unaccountable intuition? Or can we think of the living body in such a way that it could have or be such information and such demanding novelty?

The body urges and implies exhaling after we inhale. It implies feeding when hungry, and defecating when digestion is done. Living bodies imply their own next steps. This implying and shaping of next steps is usually attributed only to repetitious processes. But we see that the body also takes on the elaborations of quite novel situations, and then it also implies a next step, and may shape one.

The living body is an ongoing interaction with its environment; of course it therefore is environmental information. The bodily … can contain information that is not (or not yet) capable of being phrased. But can we conceive of the body so that we could understand how it can contain (or be) information? It is not the usual use of the word “body.”

Elizabeth Grosz interview

Here’s a snippet from an interview with Elizabeth Grosz, to be published in the inaugural issue of Interstitial Journal (if you’re interested in submitting, the deadline is December 31, 2012):

Q: To begin, you’re often recognized as a feminist materialist, yet materialism, itself, is a hotly contested theoretical frame, and one whose traditional parameters are being challenged by new philosophical trajectories, like speculative realism. How has materialism informed your political and ontological commitments? Moreover, why do you think new feminist materialism has been so heavily utilized in thinking through twenty-first century social problems, even beyond feminist research or women’s studies?

A: Materialism is an ontology, one that is often set up in opposition to the ontology of idealism. I would not call myself a materialist at all because of how strongly this opposition has figured in the history of Western thought in framing what materialism is, whether it is understood in terms of atomism, of physicalism or in terms of dialectics. I am interested in an understanding of the real or the universe that does not reduce what is there to matter but is capable of conceptualizing the nuances and layers of ideality that matter carries within itself. For me, this ontology is a politics (and an ethics) to the extent that this is the open ground on which we exist and the forms the horizon of possibility for all out actions. It does not give us a politics (or an ethics) in itself, but it does orient us toward political and ethical action.

Do you think that ‘new feminist materialism’ has been so heavily used in thinking about social problems? This would surprise me. I would not accord it quite this power. There is a convergence of interest on the part of a number of feminist theorists that has returned to the question of materiality that was so powerful with the rise of Marxism and its reliance on historical materialism in the 1960s and 1970s. But with the demise of that project that so interested many feminists, the so-called ‘new materialism’ that has been published in a few anthologies recently, looks like a revitalization of materialism. Almost everyone—especially in the natural sciences—is committed to some sort of materialism. The more interesting question is: what kind of materialism? I am not at all sure that the ‘new feminist materialisms’ share a common concept of materiality. Certainly there is not a close fit between speculative realism and feminist materialism. This is in part because speculative realism doesn’t address itself to the questions of power and resistance that are so central to feminist (and other politically oriented forms of) materialisms, but also because speculative realism, and its cognates, including object-oriented philosophy, situate themselves so clearly in the tradition of a post-Kantian epistemology that denies any specificity to the corporeal form of the knowing subject.

Further notes on becoming-noncorporeal

Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism– H.P Lovecraft, The Tomb.


For Deleuze becoming-animal is also the becoming of a ‘zone of the indiscernible, of the undecidable, between man and animal’ [1]. This undecidability means that one cannot isolate and fix the separation between man and animal. The spectator, who might be the living reversal of the image subject to such spectatorship, is unable to separate the low from the high, the dirty from the clean, the brute from the humane, the instinctive from the rational. In becoming-animal all dualism that extracts the human from the animal or subtracts the animal from the human collapses whilst remaining in fraught operation. I cannot say that I am this or that; I am both and neither, the point at which I cannot speak through the logic of identification. This undoing of molar surfaces is the undoing of the engine of meaning-production [2] that Giorgio Agamben has termed the anthropocentric machine [3].


The anthropocentric machines carves out human from animal and as such serves as the motor for those political philosophies that seek to delineate regimes of humanity. A regime of humanity is at once this system of meaning-production, or anchoring* in Zapffe’s nihilistic formula, that separates man from his other and elevates him ‘above nature’ and is also what allows for the creation of an aesthetic regime of degrees of humanity. As such the Jew is conceivable as nonhuman animal, the woman is conceivable as something to be tamed and domesticated- turning her wild sexuality into the regulated affection of the pet-, and the slave before both is conceivable as just within humanity. This anthropocentric machine is properly engine of meaning-production that gives humans the sense that they are other than nature and which serves as a self-reproducing system of domination that paints itself as nondomination. Anarchism responds to the effects of this system without always having the balls to attack it’s basis. For the mythological ‘classical anarchist’ this wasn’t a problem because the world had not yet been revealed as catastrophic.


Becoming-noncorporeal operates based on an engine of meaning-production that takes the body as it’s site of operation. As Deleuze writes ‘The body is the Figure, or rather the material of the Figure’ which must not be conflated with the ‘material structure in space’. For Deleuze the body is not reducible to the biological matter of physiology and anatomy. The body remains material without suffering from this reduction. How? Elsewhere Deleuze is engaged in a discussion on the body in Spinoza when he remarks that the latter’s God, which is a substance to which all attributes belong (a pure virtuality of which all actualisation is an expression), is ‘the speculative figure of immanence’ [4]. If the body is not identical or reducible to biological matter but remains material then this materiality is the materiality of the virtual.The actual body that we talk about when we talk about embodiment, about corporeality, about conditions of health and sickness, is dependent upon but never coincides with the virtual body. Zizek understands this as the ‘incorporeal/immaterial’ real of the body but this does Deleuze a disservice [5].


The materialism here is the materialism of affect, of affection, of the virtual’s potency to condition, to alter, to perturb, to disrupt, to delimit or delineate the actual in any number of given ways. Deleuze goes on to state that For Spinoza ‘the individuality of a body is defined by the following: it’s when a certain composite or complex relation (I insist on that point, quite composite, very complex) of movement and rest is preserved through all the changes which affect the parts of the body ‘ [6]. A body then is virtual and all actualisations of this virtual are expressions of the that virtual. A body also only appears through relations of movement and rest- we might say of being moved and of resisting being moved- by other bodies**. There are ‘all sorts of relations which will be combined with one another to form an individuality of such and such degree’ so that ‘the body’ is not the material structure at all but the Figure. How to understand the Figure? As the combinatory relations that solidify into distinct objects that can then appear to the spectator. As such it is not an immaterialism but an immanent materialism under which organisation is the self-organising performances of the engines of matter. The human body of anatomy and physiology is the actualised dynamic encrustation of the powers of the virtual body to act and be acted upon. The Figure is the name of this virtual-actualising body that differs from itself without being separable from itself (no physicalism without virtuality). This is what I mean by the skin of the world; it is an encrustation, a dead form, that is nonetheless dynamic and constantly in performance.


The materialism of the virtual implies a virtuosity of the body. To return to the sense of the lived body of embodiment- the dancing body, the fucking body, the eating body- this tells us that what a body does is to constantly make itself actual in such and such a way. The Figure is constantly Structuring. From moment to moment the substance of my body only continues to exist due to the immanent performances of each degree of individuality. This is revealed in the body of the clown. The clown’s is that body which purposely refuses its own virtuosity- it is the body in deliberate failure to perform and constantly catching itself before that refusal becomes total. The dancer also perfectly puts in motion this virtuosity; the dancer’s relation to choreographic space is always one that is modified, adapted and corrupted by degrees of physical inability to perform such and such a motion just so but also by way of her body’s idiosyncrasies and her own improvised insertions. Choreographed space becomes corrupted space and the priority given to one over the other is no longer maintained. At the same time the hierarchy of the choreographer, the choreography and the choreographed (the dancer) breaks down into a ‘zone of the indiscernible, of the undecidable, between’ the dancing and the danced. Becoming-dancer and becoming-clown are modes of immanence being put on display, and of the strategic assembling and disassembling, of positions in space and spaces in position of being obviated. The dancer and the clown are privileged Figures for me. I watch them move and I watch the entire skin of the world; the surface that is its own depth.


In social media the body is lost. The temptation is to experience the body as lost. The hyppereality of social media obliterates the body leaving nothing behind. The body as structure, as organisation of organs, is what is lost in this. The hyperreal of social media stimulates the production of a hyperreal identity- an identity that increasingly comes to precede my IRL identity and which does not rely on my IRL identity for its truth. This is the point of critiques of social media activism, of critiques of social media as digital dividuation, as the disorienting proliferation of plastic identities, of ‘trolling’ and of the use of the use of social media as a predictor of human political behaviours. All of these phenomena, really epiphenomena of the internet itself, are coming to be seen as the real of our society. It forms the core of critiques of media technology such as those launched by Sherry Tuckle that are based on a dualism between the physical universe and the digital universe. As Tuckle has it

‘texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right. [7]

Tuckle’s major text, Alone Together, has a string of dualist claims. She states that “If Facebook were deleted, I’d be deleted…’ and ‘Second Life gives me a better relationship that I have in real life’. These two short quotes show that Tuckle is involved in another dualist machine such that Deleuze’s becoming-animal wanted to undo. This is a dualism for which facebook deletes the body, edits the flesh, in which Second Life- the online world- is literally a second life detached from the physical realm. There is the physical and the digital and while they may interact they are fundamentally different. Indeed, the thrust of Tuckle’s criticisms of media technology is that the digital and the physical are incompatible, antagonistic towards each other, and that they compete against each other for us- (why they would do this and where the agency comes from, I don’t know).


Tuckle thinks I edit myself online. That this online persona is an obliteration of my authentic fleshly self. I am nothing but body but that body is gone and all that remains is the simulation of a self on the shimmering desolate whiteness of the screen. The body edited, deleted, I am nothing. But this is to fundamentally miss the point of the ontological virtuosity of immanence. As I have hopefully shown to some degree of competence, the body is not identical to its physical organisation. Materiality does not depend on flesh and blood and if it did then anything that was not subject to the law of evolution, any nonorganic matter, would not be real. If this seems a hyperbolic claim and one that is unfair to Tuckle then let me illustrate further. If her problem is that I can edit my appearance online then she misses the point that I can edit my appearance in flesh and blood as well, and in more or less extreme forms; I can have my haircut, change my style, tattoo permanent cosmetic improvements onto my face, I can ‘delete’ parts of my body through extreme elective surgical procedures or other interventions, such as the incredibly common removal of fatty tissue. I can also add to myself, making myself excessive of my ‘authentic self’ and therefore destroying myself in the opposite direction. All that Turkle has discovered is that there is a good degree of negotiation surrounding identity and that such identity appears as the metastable resultant of a combinatory logic of identification and disidentification (of movement and rest) that makes identities more or less malleable, more or less fixed, more or less corrupt, multiple or singular. Indeed, Turkle has discovered that we engage in interpersonal strategies through which we perform our personhood through both our bodies and our ability to present ourselves in digital spaces. There are practices of the self which are practices of embodiment and those which do not seem to be practices of embodiment.


This kind of digital dualism is hung up on the moment where practices ‘do not seem to be’ those of embodiment. This seeming is the seeming of the separation between the physical and the digital. It is the distribution of the sensible of the new social that social media are generative of; the spectral electronic social that disavows and dreams of a liberation from matter. Turkle’s analysis is in fact part of this social insofar as it is part of this dream: it is the dream in its wish-fulfilment function. The social of noncorporeality. [8].


The practices of the body that do not seem to be of the body are nevertheless only playing at not being of the body. I mean this in both the sense of the being of the virtual body and the actualisation of that body as it is experienced as embodiment. First of all, the body is affected by and affects the digital. The digital sphere is not one in which I am passively caught up as a victim and it is not one in which we are necessarily ‘alone together’. Banal examples proliferate: last night I was at a birthday party that had been organised entirely through Facebook, I met new people I would not have otherwise met because of the digital. In my previous post I focussed on agitation. The problem that Turkle talks about when she talks about techniques of communication having supplanted the art of conversation (the eternal conservatism of this is ringing) is really that of a diminution of social relations. This can only be a problem for Turkle if the techniques of communication and the art of conversation, the former belonging to the digital and that latter to the physical, are mediations of some plane of immanence. To phrase this differently, there can only arise a concern that two modes of interaction that exist on two separate and separable ontological domains are relating with each other in such a way that one does harm to the other if they are not finally separate or separable at all. The digital dualist’s critique can only make sense if it fails to make sense.

Another example: my eye. Deleuze uses the eye as an example of a body in his lecture on Spinoza and states that the eye is a born out of the complex relations between it’s own parts and the parts of other objects that surround it, which it is affected by and which it in turn affects. The eye is set in the orbit which is a structural feature of the skull which sits on top of a spine which forms a part of a skeletal and nervous system that are protected and moved by a muscular system which is coated by a dermal system which is a threshold traversed by bacteria, food, air, blood, itself, and that touches and is touched, and that sits in front of a computer which is itself a body formed microchips, plastic molds, wires, nickle atoms, light and so on and so on. In order that my eye see the computer there must be a light source- thus the sun or some artificial means of lighting are brought into the equation of my sitting on Facebook or Twitter and being able to be disembodied. But my eye also relies on other eyes for its existence. My eye is not ex nihilo but is the eye I have inherited from the genetic information of my parents and all less immediate evolutionary ancestors. The computer had to be built by men and women in factories and laboratories, which had to be built with tools and by people who had received training, and the computers themselves had to be built with tools and by people who had to be trained in how to do build computers and so that I could post this post on my WordPress blog there has to be telephone lines and streets and engineers and and and and and and

a vast material network of bodies.


This is the what I am saying when I say that the social of social media is ‘the spectral obliteration of materiality through the simulacrum which leaves the material in place’ [9]. The ontosclerosis of the social generated by social media is one in which we leave the body without leaving the body behind; a disembodied embodiment. Noncorporeality is never achieved. It is neither a utopian nor dystopian condition although it has the potential to be either of these. Noncorporeality is neither actual nor virtual but the demand that we shed our physicality and dive headlong into the digital. It is the demand that we do something impossible. Yet it is at the same time precisely what exposes and undoes the digilogical machine. Becoming-noncorporeal is a becoming precisely because it is a zone of indistinction, undecidability. It is also a becoming because it is this impossibility of its own completion.


All this points to the notion that bodies have always been products of simulation. The simulacrum never engaged in any procession but was always already. Bodies, objects; these are always already simulations.

As soon as behavior is focused on certain operational screens or terminals, the rest appears only as some vast, useless body, which has been both abandoned and condemned. The real itself appears as a large, futile body [10]’.

And bodies, or their actualised portions, are these operational screens and terminals. The inexhaustibleness of bodies and, for humans, the potentially inexhaustible ways of being a body means nothing. The nostalgia for the body which has has not been lost, the nostalgia for a unitary solely physical body belies the nostalgia for the soul. It is not the body that is in question in becoming-noncorporeal if the question is a loss of materiality. I have emphasised throughout that this loss of the material, this destruction of the real, is an effort that is incomplete and impossible. That every time we deny the real that is precisely when it is resurgent; this is what makes radical denial a strategy of realism, and why one can state as fact that reality itself is speculative [11].


The real is a large and futile body. This is a nihilistic truth. That the body/real is futile means that it is without purpose, without telos, without justification. This is perfectly in keeping with a naturalism that takes Darwin seriously. There is no point or purpose to anything in nature and nature, via selection, mutation, heredity and all its other materialist magic tricks, has always been a process of artifice, of recomposition, of experimentation, of the production of doubles without origins, the generation of bodies that are not copies of some original: that nature has always been simulation. If being a body means nothing then the Spinozo-Deleuzian question of what a body can do becomes the question of a post-nihilistic pragmatism***. It is not what bodies mean but what they do that concerns us. In the breakdown of the anthropological machine, the digilogical machine and all the other machines of meaning-production we are left with transparent meanings that although real have lost the sufficiency to motivate us. Meaning now suffers a failure. We built it up and it was there but now that we know that we built it it appears as a ruin. The body itself, our body, can no longer be identified and held in place by being fixed in an image of itself… not its physical image or its digital one.


There are massive problems with social media, with electronic culture being plugged into our nervous systems…it produces anxieties, agitation, unrest, insomnia, an inability to concentrate, a kind of traumatisation and so on… but these are problems of immanence and not dualism. They are problems of ‘the advent of hyperstimulated man’ [12], changes in speed and quantity rather than ontological quality of being. They are problems that can only be problems, dangers that can only be dangerous, if the physical and the digital are not antagonistic categories of being that we must choose between. The choice is not between brains and clouds but to see where brains are situated within clouds. This is not the place to go into those problems or to trace the braincloud machinery.


In all of this there are competing images of the body and of embodiment. The image is what fixes the body in place. Ontology is an aesthetics; actualisations are the surfaces of a depth; the skin of the world; the self-organised displays of matter. Becoming-noncorporeal is indifferent to binary distinctions and forces us to think of a spectral kind of embodiment and the possibility of such a disembodiment that we might adopt instead of react against. If becoming-noncorporeal obliterates materiality and leaves it in place, if it is a simulation that teaches us that everything is simulated, then it is also an invitation to address the Image afresh. What is at stake in these notes on becoming-noncorporeal is the body and its images; the withdrawn depths and the ways we access those depths. What is at stake is the prospect of leaving the mirror stage behind us without mourning the unitary body and finding instead that we have always been bodies without images capable of life after and inside of the catastrophe.


Dancers and clowns are of the debris of the catastrophe, the seducers and satirists of things falling apart- artists in love with catastrophe. The body without image represents only that there is nothing to represent, that the only ethic is one falling, faltering, tumbling.

References and apologies

[1]. Deleuze, G. The body, the meat, the spirit: becoming animal. Here.

[2]. Meaning-production is my own term. I discuss it here, here, and here.

[3]. Agemben, G. 2004. The open. Man and animal. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[4]. Deleuze, G. On Spinoza. Here.

[5]. Zizek, S. 2007. Deleuze’s Platonism: ideas as real. Here.

[6] Op. cit. Deleuze, G. On Spinoza.

[7]. Turkle, S. 2012. The flight from conversation. In the New York Times. Here.

[8]. See my notes on becoming-noncorporeal. Here. The current work forms a second part to this set of much shorter notes.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Baudrillard, J. 1983. The ecstasy of communication. NonPDF. PDF.

[11]. This is my idea of the Radical Denial which is taken from a more sustained engagement with Baudrillard and object-oriented philosophy. Essay 1. Essay 2. Aphorism.

[12]. Virilio, P. Future war: a discussion with Paul Virilio. Here.

* Anchoring is the “fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness”. The anchoring mechanism provides individuals with a value or an ideal that allows them to focus their attentions in a consistent manner. Zapffe also applied the anchoring principle to society, and stated “God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future” are all examples of collective primary anchoring firmaments. (text taken from wikipedia).

** In this connection, it is a shame that the dromology of Paul Virilio isn’t read in an ontological light. Deleuze is framing his assemblage theory materialism as a materialism of movement and rest that is dispersed, as all Deleuze’s antibinaries are, on planes of intensity. The language for measuring these intensities that exist in the interstitial space between movement and rest is speed or temporality. It should be recalled that Deleuze and Guattari’s identification of deterritorialisation is inspired by Virilio’s use of the same term.

*** I owe Michael of ArchiveFire entirely for this phrase which I liked so much I’ve stolen it.

Initial thought on Prometheus

The theological readings proliferating in critical columns does a disservice to a film that is, by turns at least, a metaphysical treatise of ontogenesis and the groundless nature of the Creator-Creation relationship. Prometheus is less an action-horror peice of ponderous mysticism and more an elaboration on the indifferent contingency of the construction of reality.

All scales of the cosmos are brought into the narrative, and it is a narrative that at times makes no sense without falling into nonsense- the criticism of the failures of plot in this sense is also a critique of the philosophies of access, of anthropocentric epistemologies. In Prometheus the nonhuman is horrific, remote, uncanny because so similar.

The question is no longer, as it was for Bishop in the Alien films, what it is to be human but what it is to be nonhuman, for the human to be a mere accidental appendage. In this way, the character of David is so central because he too is an ‘engineer’, another cold indifferent aspect of the real.

If any theology remains in the ‘search’ it is a Gnostic theology in which God, or the Absolute Origin of things, is infinitely withdrawn.

The very figures of the ‘Engineers’ and the various monstrous hybridisations of the alien and human life forms is also a perfect cinematic aesthetic of the speculative nature of the real.

Also, I enjoy the sense of the Scottish landscape as extra-terrestrial.

Thesis on radical denial

A capsule form of the radical denial, a proposition:

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to destroy it. This is the road to an (ir)realism that confronts us with the malignant indifference of cosmos.

Child-eating sharks galore!!! Ethics, objects, death and Darwinism

Thus, when people obtain the right to life, the fact is that they are no longer able to live. – Jean Baudrillard [1] 

 There have been all sorts of things posted about flat ethics recently. My previous post was on the same topic but I’m peripheral to the whole thing, just an interested observer. I particularly like this point though, made by Alex Reid:

In [a] soccer match, those ethical relations are mediated by a grass field, white lines, goal posts, nets, flags, a soccer ball, uniforms, shin guards, cleats, a whistle, a timing device, etc. They are also mediated by language,which is also nonhuman. In fact, one could (and often does) say that one must compete not only against the other team but field conditions, weather, ref calls, and so on. So in imagining ethics, a flat ontology requires us to see that there is no such thing as “human” ethics. All ethics are nonhuman in the sense that “human” refers to a particular modern, ideological context. As such perhaps it is better to say nonmodern ethics than nonhuman ethics.

I also like Jeremy Trombley’s point:

I don’t have a clear answer to this dilemma except that I would consider the ecology of relationships that are involved – the relationships between myself, the child, and the shark, as well as those that extend beyond this specific spacio-temporal interaction.  What would the child’s parent’s think if they knew I could have saved it, but chose not to?  What would the court system think?  Is the shark an endangered species?

(emphasis added)

 All ethics are nonhuman ecologies in which humans may appear.


Yet I think it is crucial to remember that in the first quote the key word is that the ethical relationships between players of a football (soccer) game are mediated by nonhuman operatives. Likewise, a trip to the zoo is mediated by the animal feed producers, train operators, railway lines, animal handlers, money, the machinery used to produce a ticket handed over at the gates… but would we say that a trip to the zoo consists of these things? Or rather, would we say that the ethics of a trip to the zoo consisted of these things?


I think we would. If the ticket-machine were produced by a corporation who exploited workers in order to  produce that machine, or some other of its product line. We might feel the same way if the animal feed being given to animal X were made out of intensively farmed animals of the same species as animal X. Yet while we might say they are agents within an ethical ecology, that they are composite operatives within an ethical system, I doubt that we would ever suggest that  either the ticket-machine or the animal feed are ethical agents in that ecology. To risk a paraphrase of poor taste, they really are ‘only following orders’; the banality of evil become the banality of the object. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that it is wrong for the animal feed to allow itself to be fed to animal X.


I suppose the thing I’m getting at is that an ethical relationship is much like the love relationship that I believe (I think I remember) Levi Bryant theorised a while ago on his blog; a third, independent object. There is me. There is my partner. We do not fuse into a singular object (two does not become one) but both of us remain autonomous, nested within the third object called the relationship. While we are busy talking about ethical relationships we’re forgetting that each particular ethical ecology is singular (which is the point in Trombley’s quote). the point here is that the ethical ecology is an ontological ecology and not an ecology of ethical actants. In the original shark-child relationship nobody thinks to include the ocean, the sand on the sea floor, the moon and it’s capacity to effect the tides, sea-going vessels.


It appears absurd to me to include these things in an ecology of ethical operatives even though they are ontological units involved in the original ethical ecology, playing a part in determining the shark’s behaviour. Likewise, we might consider why the child is near the shark. Is this a holiday bought by its parents? Should we then include the travel agent that sold the holiday in the ethical ecology, or at least as an operative that aided in the sculpting of process of causality that arrived at that juncture? I suspect we wouldn’t.


That there is a flat ontology does not necessarily imply that all the things that build or generate a particular situation should be considered being ethical agents. I suspect that because things exert an influence on each other, that is because they have powers or capacities to act and act in concert with each other to generate the situations in which ethical problems arise, it is easy to be led to think that they too are subject to ethics. To labour the point let’s return to Alex Reid’s example. There is a football game. A problem of ethics arises in the playing of this game. This ethical problem is mediated by nonhuman things, including language. Here was the ethical problem:


Last week, we found ourselves winning 6-0 about 15 minutes into a 70-minute game. I pulled our strongest players, but we were still up 9-0 at half. In this league, goal differential is a potential tie-breaker for determining the champion, so I suppose there is potential motive for running up the score. But that’s just not something you do with 11 year-old boys. At half-time a instructed the boys that only those who had not yet scored that season should really try to score and that otherwise their job was to make good passes. Again, I kept my best players mostly on the bench, and the final score was 11-3. It probably could have been 22-0. And I’ve seen scorelines like that in my time as a coach, though our team has never been on either end of one.


The question is over the ethics of competition and whether it would have been unethical to give the opposing team a thrashing. Reid suggests that in part this is done out of respect for the game of football. To have won the game by 22 clear goals would be to play football ‘out of the spirit’ of the game, to disrespect football as ‘an emergent object’. Yet why would football care? It can’t care. Here Reid alludes to a kind of spirit and to respect. A sense of fair play and tradition then? I don’t understand why one would need a flat ethics to highlight two pretty standard reasons for playing the game without taking the piss. (A far more compelling reason might be that if you keep playing games where your team- Reid is the coach of child’s football team- constantly embarrassed other teams- composed of kids- you may risk losing having anyone to play with).


Reid is the coach of this football team and he writes about what he can do to have an impact on the emergent object of the game in order to highlight how we can have an ethical relationship the thing called ecosystem:


 As a player or coach, I can’t affect the game directly. As a coach I can put players in different positions, suggest tactics, and prepare players in practices. As a player, I can make decisions about how I play. Those decisions participate with others to create the game experience. I can modify my decisions in response, but there isn’t a direct relationship with the game only with other actors in the game. The extent to which I realize that whatever decisions I make to win require that the overall game continues


Neither Reid, nor myself or any body else, can have a direct relationship with the ecosystem wherein they can directly affect that ecosystem. Instead, Reid might be able to affect petrochemical companies through lobbying against them by joining a lobbying group with other people. You might organise a coalition of environmental or ecological activists to carry out direct actions ranging from tree-hugging, to consciousness-raising, or from occupying an airport to committing acts of ‘ecoterrorism’. I might simply be the kind of person who refuses to recycle and thereby assists in the mass anonymous effort of building the giant debris filled landscapes of landfills (which, I must admit I do find aesthetically pleasing and intriguing). None of these decisions and actions will make direct contact with the thing called ecosystem (things are withdrawn), nor could it ever do so in a unilaterally determinative manner (just as the coach is within the football game, so I am within the ecosystem), and finally because the ecosystem as a thing is emergent from all those other things that we have made contact with (other people, lobbying organisations, parliaments, airports, just as much as trees, oceans, clouds, frogs, catfish and children and sharks).


In Reid’s example we ought to act in a way that allows the game to continue, so by extension we should also act in ways that allows the ecosystem to continue in order to consider ourselves as being ethical in relation to the ecosystem. For Reid these considerations mean that  ‘I am engaged in an ethical relationship’.


A couple of brief problems before returning to the ethical. First, I’m not sure if we can say that winning a game of football 22-0 would mean we were no longer playing a game of football. Playing by the rules and regulations, associated objects (a football etc), the people required (players, coaches, referees and linesmen) are all that are minimally required for us to consider ourselves playing a game of football. In the absence of any of these elements we are not playing football; these are the things in the assemblage that minimally form a game. If we play outside of the spirit of the game, if we do not respect it as an emergent object, we are still playing football but we are playing badly. The second point is whether Reid is talking about a specific game or the game of football itself (is there a ‘the game of football’ that exists in any other form than metaphor? Surely that would be a kind of ideal game or ur-game?)


This reveals the actual problem of the ethical here. Each ecosystem, including that planetary ecosystem as a whole, must be considered in it’s singularity. Isn’t that the point of object-oriented strains of philosophy? If we treat all ecosystems the same, and if we treat ecosystems the same as games of football/the game of football then aren’t we performing a kind of reduction of the singularity of each to the abstraction of all? The pragmatic deployment of Reid’s metaphor might have a material impact on how we conceive of the ethical relationship we have to the ecosystem in a way that draws attention to the complexity and partiality of that relationship but I still don’t see that this is something new to an object-oriented approach or that is inaugurated by a flat ethics.


The original question was whether or not the shark should eat the child. This question is the question of the shark’s ethical relationship to the child, of whether it can be considered an ethical operative. Is a shark the same as a football or a football player? A shark is no more the same as these things as it is the same as a ticket-machine or a batch of animal-feed. The point I’m making at some length is that it makes no more sense to say that the shark should or should not eat the child than it does to say that the goalpost should or should not be an obstacle to scoring. And there is a very good reason for this that Alex Reid hits on: the ethical relationship is one burdened with decision. A shark cannot be said to count within it’s capacities that of making an ethical decision. This is not to say that no animals can make ethical decisions, it is probable that many of them can. This is also not to say that no nonhuman nonanimal things can (or could) make ethical decisions. If we listen to the technoevangelists and transhumanists it might soon be possible for AI to make such decisions, or to simulate them so perfectly as to baffle these considerations even further.



I believe that the entire issue of whether we should let the shark eat the child is centered on this mistake. A shark cannot be held responsible. It can only be held accountable. We can say ‘the shark is going to eat the child’ or ‘the shark ate the child’ but the should has no place in anything. (The question of whether we should kill the shark for what it has done is a separate issue).


A further point emerges from Trombley’s quote- and from others- regarding evolution. Levi Bryant has written in the past about how we have failed to take Darwinism and the lessons we have learned about evolution seriously. Nature, all of nature (and there is nothing that is not nature) is utterly pointless. That is, it is without ultimate purpose. Nature, life, existence, is useless. I think that Levi Bryant hasn’t taken this lesson in fully either. I don’t think any of us can really. We are nature…the pointlessness of the cosmos and of the subatomic particle is the pointlessness of arranjames who is sitting here typing. All ethical problems arise in this context, to those species that have an evolved moral sense…a moral sense that is, in impossible last instance, useless. Yet because the final cause of ethical decision making is pointless does not mean that the affective life of the one making the ethical decisions are pointless; they are immediate and do not require much of a point beyond themselves.


Should the shark eat the child? From the ontological position there is absolutely no reason why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. It would upset me, that is all. Human ethics boil down to ‘this is good, this is bad’.


So it is that I agree with Bryant’s assertion that there is no nonanthropocentric ethics. It is always humans judging what it is that they consider ethical, making their ethical decisions. Other animals might also make such decisions and so might other beings in the future- thus it might not be a human ethics that remains human for all time. The separate question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should hold that which cannot be held responsible responsible. Why would we do this? I think because, in some sense, our ethical attitude to other things arises from the blind, stupid, pointlessness of the evolutionary processes that compel us to fear death and reproduce. The question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should pretend to ourselves that their is a meaningful, ordered universe. The clash between the stupidity of nature and our desire for a meaningful (or just) nature is what produces the question of the shark. The shark eats the child because it is a shark; we kill the shark because we are terrified of a cosmos in which children can be eaten.


Like Levi Bryant I don’t think the shark has a right to live. At the same time I don’t think that the child has a right to live either. Bryant’s concern is with the way neoliberalism has deployed rights-discourse, and one could also point to Deleuze’s concerns over rights-discourse being a (non)political sleight of hand where the rabbit is pulled out of the hat only to disappear in a puff of cigarette smoke [2]. I am not concerned here with rights discourse as such but specifically with the idea of a right to life. Life is something that simply happens. As Thomas Ligotti [3] has cogently argued, it is also a phenomena that doesn’t always get off the ground (abortions, miscarriages, still-births, mother and neonate dying during labour). It is imaginable that some process in the Big Bang could have failed or that the Earth did not exhibit the conditions required for the emergence of life. That a conscious operative, capable of making ethical decisions, were somehow to survive a possible Earth swallowing blackhole created by the CERN particle accelerator, could we really imagine that being bemoaning the right to life of all that died and was destroyed? I don’t think so, but I’m sure it’d be extremely upset. There is nothing new in claiming that the right to life is little else than a hangover from a society still enthralled to Divinity; the shark and the child’s right to life are equally fictions pertaining to the sacredness of life that is directly contradicted by the science of evolution; the right to life is a Sacred Left-over. And here, in the divine, lives are considered something inaugurated for a purpose, given a purposeful function, guided and developed…in short Created by a Creator. An ethical Creationism.


It is possible that the ethics we set up, as we necessarily will and do, are rooted in our fear of death, our evolutionary heritage, and our emotions. In the mixture of all these elements. It is a question of finding ourselves with questions about our conduct, questions that are often immediate and in no sense hypothetical (I’d take this juncture to remind people that I’m a nurse), where we don’t know what to do but know we must do something. As such ethics remains a human problem…for now. It is a human problem that is intricately bound-up with (often radically) nonhuman beings.  It is even possible, I am spontaneously inclined to the thought- the feeling,  the sense- that our ethics are a kind of therapeutic aesthetic; a production in the Ballardian sense of a real that finds its reality as a stage-set that may be pulled away. The therapeutics of ethics in this sense would be that ethics are that production that codifies our monstrous awareness of suffering, of ontological vulnerability, of the Inevitable; the disavowed denial of the metaphysical truth of Darwin. None of which prevents there being better or worse ethics, and none of which prevents the production of ethical truths being real or any more or less worth holding on to. It is just the case that in this instance we realise ‘a definitive recognition of nature as waste’ [4], and there is nothing that isn’t nature. To borrow from an earlier post by Alex Reid not concerned with all these sharks and children, it is possible that ethics are a therapeutics that we deploy in order to fix the glitches of reality.



All ethics are human problems embedded in fragile nonhuman ecologies. 








A disclaimer: if I misrepresent anyone’s positions, any ideas or arguments I take fully responsibility for that.






[1] Baudrillard. 2007. Darwin’s Artificial Ancestors and the Terroristic Dream of the Transparency of the Good. Read here.

[2] Deleuze. 1996. On Human Rights. Read here.

[3] Thomas Ligotti. The Conspiracy against the human race.

[4] Baudrillard. Ibid.