(Very Belated) Reply to Graham, and some Hjelmslev for fun

So this post is a response to a post that Graham wrote in regard to mine on August 6, and unfortunately, due to traveling, I haven’t had a chance to answer properly until now. But I really didn’t want to give it short shrift, or two write all jetlagged or preoccupied.

And this is because I think his response gave me some food for thought about object-oriented approaches in ways that some others hadn’t.

I do want to start off with one area where I disagree. Graham says that:

“The main problem the object-oriented approach faces is, I believe, a cultural one. People are so used to thinking of autonomous reality as being a tool of bad essentialism, oppressive patriarchy, bland traditional school philosophy, and boring rich heterosexual white people, and so used to thinking instead of process and relation as being the flower of liberation, creativity, experiment and diversity, that they instinctively react against any theory involving anything that has reality in its own right. But you have to fight those prejudices. You have to work through the logic of the two theories, and then I think you will see that there is a crippling incoherence at the heart of all theories of process and relation.”

My concern with OOO has never been the metaphors and their associations. I’m more than fully prepared to come out in support of OOO, IF I can see it cohere on its own terms. THAT is precisely what I feel to yet see.


But Graham’s last post clears up several things for me. I really LIKE what he says here:

“The fact that Ahmadinejad does not exist qua Ahamdinejad for the electron does not mean that Ahmadinejad doesn’t exist. Entities exist at all different scales, and no one can recognize them all. We can see this without even going outside the human realm. I have access to a whole range of objects of which my 6-year-old nephew Rainer is unaware, but this doesn’t mean that whether or not they exist is simply a matter of perspective. It is certainly true that I can pay attention to metaphysical systems, university administrative business, and a few weird marine species I just read about, in a way that my Rainer cannot. He probably knows nothing about any of these things, and (even though his mother was a Philosophy major) he probably has no idea what metaphysics is. But why would one conclude from this that whether or not metaphysics exists is a matter of perspective? Rainer might possibly not have heard of the city of Alexandria either, but I go there all the time and can assure you that it probably exists outside my mind.”

My take on this is that Ahmadinejad is encountered by those who see him as such, but an electron sees patterns of density, charge, etc. – all in the same spacetime location. That is, there are an overlaying of objects here, and they can all be ‘right’ in their way.

This brings up some fascinating issues related to incompossibility and boundaries. There is nothing incompossible between the views of Ahmadinejad as himself by a journalist, and as a pattern of density and charge by an electron. But what happens if there are contradictories involved (for what its worth, I also see the binary between contradictory and contrary as a matter of degree, but that’s for another time)? We can see this most clearly with adjectives – to one person, he is a holy savior, and others, an evil man. At the level of description, we can say that these adjectives are simply predicates, and don’t touch objects in their existence.

But can’t we perhaps see good an evil also substances? Might we say that evil is a substance, and it ingresses (to use a Whiteheadian term), to an extent, in all evil things?

But what if one person thinks the boundary of evil includes Ahmadinejad, while another thinks it doesn’t, and rather, he is
included within the good? While an argument can be made that these are simply predicates, and not the proper subject of ontology, I’m not sure there CAN be a hard and fast distinction between essence and qualities in this manner. While I often find aspects of Derrida’s work problematic, here’s where I would find a Derridean approach to this sort of binary valuable. Because how we draw such a distinction is ultimately a question of the criteria one chooses, and whether or not one considers such a distinction an ontological one, and if so, why. That is, is such a distinction, which determines the boundaries of ontology, itself ontological, or does it ground itself outside of ontology? Or, following Lacan, could we say that we have a sort of ex-timate foundational gesture (of the sort anchored by a master-signifier)?


This is where I find something like Hjelmslev’s notion of purport to be helpful (and while I could be wrong, I believe this term isn’t one mentioned by D&G in their writings on Hjelmslev). For Hjelmslev, purport is the gooey, unformed stuff that exists before symbolization. Now, being a structuralist, Hjelmslev doesn’t take the radical Lacanian step of saying that purport is UNsymbolizable, and resists every effort at symbolization as excess. He seems in fact to waffle on this question, its a question that simply wasn’t on his horizon of interest. But what IS interesting is that he argues that purport comes up on BOTH sides of the symbolic divide, at the levels of content (matter) and expression (meaning). Hjelmslev is useful precisely because the levels of content and expression are completely reversible, unlike in Saussure, which is why someone like Delanda can use these terms to talk about things like layers in rock formation, for the hierarchy is all about position, not
about differences in kind.

The result is that there is a split, in a sense, that can be seen in the Lacanian real, it doubles when filtered through Hjelmslev, such that if we radicalize Hjelmslev’s notion of purport, we can frame it as the unsymbolizable remainder at BOTH levels (this is Hjelmslev a la Zizek, perhaps!).

To return to OOO, let us return to Ahmadinejad. Each phenomenal object produced at the boundary of the spacetime location known to me and Graham as Ahmadinejad on the day in question seems, to me, to be equally ‘true’, such that there are potentially an infinity of objects there in his spacetime location. We could even describe these phenomenal objects as symbolizations, if we use this term extremely broadly, but this is precisely how Peirce viewed semiotics, and I see
no reason why we cannot extend Hjelmslev into this terrain, mixing semiotics with ontology in this manner. Let us grant that there is unsymbolizable purport at the level of the phenomenal. Is there then unsymbolizable purport at the level of the real?


This has gotten a bit baroque (but fun!), so let me simplify a bit. Graham says that: “the fact that my experience of Paris depends on my presence here doesn’t mean that Paris is dependent on my presence

What I’m asking, if indirectly, with my Hjelmslevian excursus, is the following: sure there are lots of Parises (my Paris, Graham’s Paris, Henry IV’s Paris, etc.). But is there an ontological Paris, a ‘real’ Paris underneath all these, for OOO?

If so, I can’t get on board. Because then I feel that OOO brings a God’s eye view (which is a version of ‘our’ own filters) through the backdoor, in the name of ontology. I don’t think we get unmediated access to ANYTHING. But this does NOT make me a standard ‘correlationist’. Rather, following Bergon’s presentation in Matter and Memory, or Deleuze’s commentary on this in the Cinema Books, I believe in what I’ve described elsewhere as the ‘absolutization of the correlation, with a multiplicitous twist.’ Its all images, all perspectives, all grapsings, all the way down. But there is no ‘correct’ underneath at any given spacetime location – even spacetime is a grasping of the universe by itself by means of its constituents. The boundaries between semiotics and ontology break down in this sort of generalized, radicalized epistemology, to the point at which the very distinctions between these become one of aspect rather than firm distinction.

That is, to return to Hjemslev, I believe that there’s an unsymbolizable, ungraspable kernel, at both levels of symbolization –
phenomenal and real, expression and content, meaning and matter. But I do NOT believe this because of some sort of metaphysical commitment, a la Lacan. I believe this because the universe is, as Whitehead would say, extended. This has nothing to do with humans, for the human impasses to symbolization are simply echoes, at higher levels of
scale, of those which exist in nature itself. And this is what makes this approach a speculative realism, rather than OFM (old fashioned metaphysics) or OFC (old fashioned correlationism).

The ramifications of all this will be expressed in MUCH more systematic form as the networkologies stuff comes out in print. The first section is available now in Speculations, and now that I’m back from Spain, I’ll get back to work on finishing the editing of these damn manuscripts! I have a little more prep to do for upcoming classes in August, but soon I should be able to return to work.

So my question for Graham – is there A REAL Paris? If so, I just can’t jump on the wagon. But if not, if there’s an infinite number of potentially incompossible graspings layered on the spacetime location of Paris, then sign me up!

~ by chris on August 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “(Very Belated) Reply to Graham, and some Hjelmslev for fun”

  1. […] post by Vitale (can anyone tell that I’m laying about sick today trying to distract myself?). Vitale writes: “What I’m asking, if indirectly, with my Hjelmslevian excursus, is the following: sure there […]

  2. […] as a Eureka moment. It is what process-relationalists have been saying for a while now (see, e.g., Chris here and me here, here, and elsewhere): that the problem with what Meillasoux calls […]

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