bordering on coherence

[NOTE TO ANY READER: this post is a classic example of pinball thought, ricochet rather than writing, a ‘thinking out loud’.  Beware of any apparent seriousness and discussion.]

In a recent post on his blog Poetix discusses the ‘object oriented’ philosophy of Graham Harman.  I have only recently come across Harmans’ work, primarily because I have only recently returned to work on Heidegger and his various books began appearing in 2002, when I was deeply immersed in Deleuziana.  His approach looks fascinating and is one I hope to more familiar with by the end of the year.

Poetix begins his post with the claim that an object cannot be fully understood through relationality because it must maintain an unrelatable element.  It must maintain this ‘occult’ aspect of an unrelated element because if it did not then “there would be no object as such, but only the differential field of appearances itself“.  The use of the phrase ‘differential field’ here immediately enables a connection to Deleuze’s philosophy (amongst others perhaps), not least because of his Nietzschean inspired claim that an object is nothing but a conjunction of forces (cf NP).  For Deleuze, then, an object is nothing but that which is produced by a differential field of forces.  It looks like we might have two very different answers to the problem of object-ness at work here, two different answers to a question such as ‘is an object nothing but the relations which constitute it?’  When you can get two clearly different solution vectors to a specific question then there is an opportunity to think a problem (in this case that of the object-ness of objects) through conceptual confrontation, through the tensions of thought.

Turning to Poetix’s argument here, the first thing to say is that it seems to mix two very different categories, those of differential fields and those of appearance-reality distinctions.  A philosophy of differential fields cannot be refuted with the claim that its account of objects ‘reduces’ the object to nothing but the ‘differential field of appearances’ since an appearance would be nothing more than a mode of the differential field, at best distinguishable from another mode.  The distinction of modes of a differential field might then be read ‘onto’ the appearance-reality distinction in an attempt to suggest the latter is illegitimate and better thought as modes of differential fields.  Such a move, like all reductionism, seems to me to be little more than a stratego-political move, not a philosophical one, since reduction implicitly claims something like an inferiority of the reduced language/conceptual scheme, an inferiority that is constituted on the basis of something like a concept of error, understanding error on a Nietzschean basis as something like a value grounded in an evaluative framework (a ‘mode of existence’ – NP)

To avoid the stratego-political move and attempt to think a conceptual distinction implies some other category than error or correctness, one of Heideggers’ great insights.  This category of evaluation is, I would suggest, that of greater inclusivity – though I hesitate here because I think understanding inclusivity on the basis of class (or ‘set’) is liable to end in disaster.

In this context, can the scheme of differential relations ‘include’ the scheme of appearance-reality completely?  Each side of the distinction can be understood as a mode of differential relations but more importantly the distinction between appearance and reality can be understood as a mode of differential relations.  Think of the duck-rabbit image.


Both the duck and the rabbit can be understood as modes of differential relations along the following lines: in the mode of the duck the animals eyes are orientated in one direction – to the left in the picture here – whilst in the mode of rabbit the eyes are orientated to the right, thus in the first mode the ‘face’ of the animal is to the left and in the second it ‘faces’ to the right.  However what is most important about the duckrabbit is not that it is now a duck, now a rabbit but that it is both at the same time and yet can only be encountered in the mode of an aspect that dawns and disappears.  The instability of the aspects within the duckrabbit, the fact that the image can ‘flip’, is a third mode of relations and the most important, for pedagogical purposes at least.

Returning to the appearance-reality distinction we can understand not only each side of the distinction as a mode of relation but the distinction itself as a third mode that is given with the distinction.  The concept of differential relations can thus include both the terms and the relations.  Can the same be said of the appearance-reality distinction, can it include the concept of differential relations?  What would this mean?  To include, in the first instance here, appeared as synonymity – the ‘appearance’ is a mode of differential relations.  The theoretical category is being used in this sense, it might be thought, as an existential determinant.   To slip into this way of thinking, however, is to slip back into reductionism, which operates on the basis of existential determination (‘X is really P’ or ‘X is better understood as P’).  Instead  we need to think in terms of existential indication in which the explicated is thought as a ‘case’.  This is not a reductive but rather an inclusive logic, in which the form is not ‘X is really P’ but rather ‘X is a case of P’.  Existential indication is both explication of P and explication of X, in other words, a case both ‘illustrates’ the class (token-ing of a type: typified) but also ‘constructs’ the class (token of a type-ing: typifying).  There is a ‘to-and-fro’ in this process, a kind of negotiation as to what constitutes a type on the basis of which tokens we gather together as that type.

There are two crucial points here, I believe.  1) – adhering to the idea that it is always the cases and not the classes, the tokens and not the types, that are the determining ground of distinction.  Cases form evidence for class (tokens form evidence for types) not the other way around and 2) – no class (type) is anything other than a contingent negotiated gathering of cases (tokens).  Classes are inherently problematic in the sense that they are formed as a result of a productive process of thoughtful encounter – they are tools of thought which arise from contexts of encounter.  A class or type is always on the borderlines between philosophy and stratego-political thinking, there’s always ‘point’ to the production of a class or type in that it is always responding to particular needs and desires that arise in encounters.  A class or type is never an object, therefore, but an ‘objectifying’.  A class makes distinctions and in doing so makes objects but the fact that it results from a process of negotiation means that it is never finalised but always bordering on coherence.  That is, that a class is the border of coherent object-ness, occurring at the point at which the object is difficult to classify but resulting from the negotiation between the obvious and the curious.

What exactly is a distinction?

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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