Tag Archive: foucault


*[Update, Levi has written a recent post that is relevant for this post, discussing how objects act and the actual and virtual dimensions of objects, read here]

I have recently been thinking about what political praxis object-oriented philosophy (herein after OOP) can offer political analysis. In conjunction, I have been thinking about the differences between how an object is defined from reading Levi Byrant, Graham Harman, and Steven Shaviro. In the following post I want to focus on Shaviro’s reading of Whitehead’s “eternal objects’ in his book Without Criteria and his post (here). The aim is to defend an OOP that argues objects are both actual and virtual.

One of the main debates within OOP is between actualists (Harman) and virtualists (Byrant & Shaviro). My reading of the debate concerns if an object-oriented ontology requires a virtual dimension. Criticism of OOP arguing for a virtual dimension seems to put forward the argument that virtualists limit an object to what is possible. However, it seems that this confuses the difference between possible and potential. For an object-oriented philosopher of the virtual, the virtual is a crucial (and real) ontological dimension that enables one to contemplate how an object is not reducible or exhausted by its actual existence. In other words, any ontology that includes a virtual dimension attempts to account for potentiality.

Following Deleuze, Shaviro asserts that we should not differentiate between the virtual and the real, ‘the virtual…is altogether real in its own right…it is just that this reality is not actual. The virtual is like a field of energies that have not yet been expended, or a reservoir of potentialities that have not yet been tapped’ (Without Criteria, p35). As a reservoir of potentials, there are processes of actualisation, when certain potentials of the virtual are actualised. However, actualisations of the virtual do not exhaust the potential of the virtual. Shaviro is aware that Whitehead never uses the word virtual, but does argue that Whitehead’s distinction between the actual and the potential resembles the Deleuzian distinction between the actual and the virtual (Without Criteria, p37). Therefore, for Whitehead the potential is a real (virtual) ontological dimension of the world that needs to be acknowledged. We cannot only focus on actual identities (although actualists will contend this point).

We may then ask what Whitehead claim composes the virtual/potential aspect of his ontology. One answer is that the virtual is a composition of eternal objects. As Shaviro notes, ‘alongside events or actual entities, Whitehead also posits what he calls “eternal objects.” These are “Pure Potentials.” Shaviro defines Whitehead’s eternal objects in the following:

“’any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is a called an ‘eternal object’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality). This means that eternal objects include sensory qualities, like colors (blueness or greenness) and tactile sensations (softness or roughness), conceptual abstractions like shapes (a helix, or a dodecahedron)…eternal objects are ideal abstractions that nevertheless (in contrast to Platonic forms) can only be encountered within experience, when they are ‘selected’ and ‘felt’ by particular actual occasions” (Without Criteria, p39)

At least two things are noteworthy about eternal objects. First eternal objects are virtual, but nevertheless real. Second, eternal objects are actualised in particular occasions, but are not reducible to these particular local actualisations. To understand why eternal objects are virtual and not reducible to their local manifestations in particular point in time, it is necessary to regard eternal objects as neutral and indifferent:

“’Eternal objects ‘involve in their own natures indecision’ and ‘indetermination’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality); they always imply alternatives, contingencies, situations that could have been otherwise. This patch of wall is yellow, but it might have been blue. This means that their role is essentially passive…You might say that yellowness  ‘in itself’, understood as a pure potentiality, is utterly indifferent to the actual yellow color on this particular patch of wall…Eternal objects, like Deleuze’s quasi-causes, are neutral, sterile, and inefficacious, as powerless as they are indifferent” (Without Criteria, p41)

There seems an important argument that eternal objects need to be thought of as neutral. At one level, the neutrality ought to mean that the virtuality of eternal objects is not reduced to local or particular manifestations. In other words, we need to be careful about equating the virtual with the actual. In terms of thinking ‘yellowness’ as both an eternal object with particular manifestations it seems unproblematic. Therefore, the book that sits in front of me with a yellow cover does not exhaust the potentiality of ‘yellowness’ as an eternal object. However, it is perhaps worth considering if the neutrality of eternal objects has any significance for an OOP political analysis. We can maybe draw the political significance of eternal objects from a (re)reading of Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish. [I have also selected this example to provocatively suggest Foucault has the potential to be read as a type of object-oriented philosopher].

It might seem odd to (re)read Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon as an example of discussing an ‘eternal object.’ At one level, Foucault is examining the physical attributes and design of a particular building. Foucault’s fascination with Bentham’s Panopticon is that the design of the building allows an observer a fixed central position that makes it possible to gaze upon those people confined within the Panopticon. The result is that Foucault is able to consider how the Panopticon functions as a form of disciplinary power that produces the subjectivity of those confined. One of Foucault’s main findings is that as a form of imprisonment, the Panopticon differs from a dungeon as ‘full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is the trap’ (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p200). However, Foucault is aware that merely focusing on the Panopticon as a means of imprisoning delinquents is in itself a limitation. We could suggest that this type of analysis of analysis is too empirical and remains at the level of actual objects. In other words, it fails to conceive of the Panopticon as a (Deleuzian) virtual idea or (Whiteheadian) eternal object. Indeed, Foucault is aware that the potentiality of the Panopticon is more than particular local manifestations of a Panopticon. Foucault writes that the Panopticon ‘is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars into to work (Discipline and Punish, p205). In other words, the Panopticon as an eternal object is not reducible to those experiences that actualise a manifestation of panopticism, and Foucault warns that the Panopticon ‘is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use’ (Discipline and Punish, p205). In order to detach the Panopticon from any specific manifestation there requires the need to conceptualise as an ‘eternal object’ or what Deleuze and Guattari would refer to as an abstract machine. The effect is that a Panopticon is both virtual and actual.

One other issue needs addressed. Whitehead and Shaviro both understand eternal objects as ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’ to their manifestations in particular occasions, and it seems strange to claim that Panopticon – as an eternal object – is ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’. Indeed the Panopticon seems overtly political and not neutral. Yet such a criticism I would suggest would be too concerned with the particular and actual uses of panopticism in our actual experience. As an eternal object the Panopticon is indeed ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’, we need only think that particular manifestations of the Panopticon could be used from different and antagonistic political ideologies (Fascism, Liberalism, Socialism). Therefore, as an eternal object, panopticism is indifferent to particular manifestations and is not exhausted from these previous manifestations.

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“Why is this idea, apparently so simple, difficult to understand to the point where the ‘death of man’ has caused so much misinterpretation? Either the objection was raised that it was not a question  of real men but only a concept of man; or else it was felt that Foucault and Nietzsche saw a real man transcending himself and, they hoped, becoming a superman. In both cases, we have a total misinterpretation of Foucault as well as Nietzsche (we shall leave aside question of the malevolence and stupidity to be found sometimes in commentaries on Foucault, as the case with Nietzsche

In fact the question is not that of the human compound, whether conceptual or real, perceptible or articulable. The question concerns the forces that make up man: with what other forces do they combine and, what is the compound that emerges? In the classical age all the forces of man are referred back to a force of ‘representation’ that claims to isolate the positive elements, those that can be raised to infinity, such that the set of forces makes up God and not man, while man can emerge only between categories of infinity. This why Merleau-Ponty defined classical thought by the innocent way in which it conceived of infinity: not only did infinity predate finity, but the qualities of man, once raised to infinity, served to make up the unfathomable unity of God. In order for man to appear as a specific compound, the forces that create him enter into a relation with new forces which evade representation, even to the point of deposing it. These new forces are those of life, work and language, in so far as life discovers an ‘organization’, work a ‘production’, and language a ‘filiation’, qualities which put them outside representation. These dark forces of finitude are not initially human but enter into a relation with the forces of man in order to bring him down to his own finitude, and communication to him a history which he then proceeds to make his own.” (Deleuze, Foucault, p73) 


According to Deleuze and Guattari there is three major groups of Strata. These are inorganic (geology), organic (biological), and alloplastic (social). In the following post I will attempt to concentrate on the latter of these three and hope to outline its main features. I will also attempt to consider its significance for approaching technology. My belief is that Deleuze and Guattari’s third grouping of strata allows a way out of postmodern theorizing that regards everything as a text. [My next post is a critique of this type of postmodern theorizing in Ernesto LacLau and Chantal Mouffe, who i regard as social constructivists and not radical constructivists, despite their project of radical democracy]. 

 

         In accordance with Deleuze and Guattari’s model of stratification alloplastic strata contains (at least) two articulations of content and expression. What is specific about alloplastic strata is a new distribution of content and expression in comparison to inorganic and biological strata. Deleuze and Guattari define the content and expression of the alloplastic grouping as the following:

 

There is a third major grouping of strata, defined less by a human essence than, once again, by a new distribution of content and expression. Form of content becomes “alloplastic” rather than “homoplastic”; in other words, it brings about modification in the external world. Form of expression becomes linguistic rather than genetic; in other words, it operates with symbols that are comprehensible, transmittable, and modifiable from outside

 

Overall, the alloplastic grouping of strata is the combination of machinic assemblages of bodies (content) and collective assemblages of enunciation (expression). The machinic assemblages of bodies are the various and temporal assemblages formed between tools and hand (e.g. hammering) that modify the external world. The fact that machinic assemblages of bodies modify the external world means they are regarded as productive. These machinic assemblages of bodies have both substance and form. The bodies in the alloplastic strata are regarded as the substance, which have been captured or/and attracted into the strata. The form of the machinc assemblage of bodies is the actions and passions of these bodies once they are interialised into the alloplastic strata. In the second articulation, the collective assemblages of enunciation (expression), there is an operation of symbols that gives alloplastic strata a ‘linguistic’ dimension that is not an expressive component of inorganic and organic strata. The form of expression is alloplastic strata is a regime of signs and the substance is the emergent ‘social institution.’ Importantly, Deleuze and Guattari warn against reducing expression to words in the alloplastic strata, and argue it is reducible ‘to a set of statements arising in the social field considered as a stratum (that is what a regime of signs is).’ Overall, words, for Deleuze and Guattari need to be attributed to a regime of signs, or what Foucault would refer to as a discursive formation. At this point I will now describe an actual example of alloplastic strata from Deleuze’s book Foucault, which will help to illustrate how content and expression is emergences in alloplastic strata from a process of stratification.

            The example that Deleuze uses to illustrate the realness of content and expression is Foucault’s analysis of the panoptic prison in Discipline and Punish. Deleuze ‘maps’ the content and expression in the following:

 

The content has both form and substance: for example, the form is prison and the substance is those who are locked up, the prisoners (who? why? how?).  The expression also has a form and a substance: for example the form is penal law and the substance is ‘delinquency’ in so far as it is the object of statements. Just as penal law as a form of expression defines a field of sayability (the statements of delinquency), so prison as a form of content defines a place of visibility (‘panopticism’, that is to say a place where at any moment one can see everything without being seen)

 

It is from this example that Deleuze and Guattari’s process of stratification can be traced in the alloplastic strata. In the first articulation (content) there are the prisoners, as substance, being (literally) captured into the prison (form of content), which causes a modification in the external world. In conjunction the alloplastic strata also demonstrates expressivity. In this example the regime of signs is the penal law, acting as a form of statements to qualify what constitutes crimes and their punishments and the substance is the institution that transforms a person into a delinquent. Deleuze and Guattari refer to this process as the incorporeal transformation of a body that performed using order-words. The above example of the incorporeal transformation is when the judge, or jury, disseminates the order-word ‘guilty,’ which transforms the body from a suspect into a delinquent.

            How then do Deleuze and Guattari approach the phenomenon of technology in the alloplastic strata? Unsurprisingly, Deleuze and Guattari are interested in what assemblage is produced when technology connects and plugs into other bodies. It is this approach to technology that allows Deleuzian and Guattari to avoid an object oriented approach. The problem with an object, medium, oriented approach is that is would resemble technological determinism. Deleuze and Guuattari outline their approach to technology in the follow:

 

We think the material or machinic  aspect of an assemblage relates not to the production of goods but rather to a precise state of intermingling of bodies in society, including all the attractions and repulsions, sympathies and antipathies, alternations, amalgamations, penetrations, and expansions that affect bodies of all kinds in their relations to one another…Even technology makes the mistake of considering tools in isolation: tools exist only in relation to the interminglings they make possible or that make them possible. The stirrup entails a new man-horse symbiosis that at the same time entails new weapons and instruments. Tools are inseparable from symbioses or amalgamations defining Nature-Society machinic assemblages

Two important points emerge from this quotation. Firstly, the connections and assemblages produced between tool (technology) and (hu)man are literally regarded as a form of symbiosis. According to Deleuze and Guattari the machinic assemblages of bodies in the alloplastic strata ought to be seen as a similar to the symbiotic assemblage, for example, between the wasp and the orchid. Importantly, it is helpful to remember that wasp and orchid assemblage is not an essential relationship and a historical constituted phenomenon, where there is a becoming wasp of the orchid and a becoming orchid of the wasp. Similarly, the symbiosis of man and tool is also historically constituted that is both non-essential and non-totalising. In other words, the (present) connections made with (particular) tools are not the limit because there is always room for more alloplastic assemblages to emerge. Secondly, approaching tools from their relations to other bodies allows Deleuze and Guattari a ‘flexibility’ that avoids them either being technological determinist or social determinist. Tools, for Deleuze and Guattari, at the same time make possible the intermingling of bodies in the alloplastic strata and are only possible because there is an intermingling of bodies in the alloplastic strata. Tools (technology) therefore construct alloplastic strata and are constructed from alloplastic strata, which avoids the either/or argument between social determinism and technological determinism. Deleuze and Guattari would therefore take the view that technology is social and the social is technological. It is here that Deleuze and Guattari’s radical constructivist materialism becomes evident. The emergence of new symbiotic relationships in the alloplastic strata is a process that literal constructs the world. It is here that Deleuze and Guattari encourage analysis to focus on morphogenetic processes (human and inhuman) that give rise to a new products and a new reality. In other words, it is the intense immanent flows of matter in and through assemblages/strata that provides the ‘foundation’ for Deleuze and Guattari’s constructivism. 


Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus p68

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus p74

Gilles Deleuze, Foucault trans Sean Hand p41

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus p99-100

This approach of radical constructivism differs from social constructivism. The crucial difference is that social constructivism aims to understand how humans give meaning to the world, while radical constructivism aims to understand how the world is literally constructed/stratifed