object-oriented rhetoric

toxic autonomy

I've been thinking about Levi's recent post on freedom and Deleuze. Here he discusses something that I also discussed in The Two Virtuals, that the sensation of thought and choice is preceded by the thought itself, at least as such things can be measured in the brain. To paraphrase Levi, rather than authoring our thoughts, we are authored by them. In searching for a way to make our experience of thought play a role in choice, Levi thinks about the impact thinking could have on future choices. As he writes:

Gradually, through the retroactive production of reasons I create reasons that become grounds or causal factors in subsequent encounters such that I am no longer heteronomously determined but such that these reasons I’ve produced come to guide and determine me (such would also be the case for social systems that become over time self-directing through the formulation of missions, goals, aims, etc).

This may be. Certainly it works on the level of muscle memory, where the expert archer, for example, uses different parts of her brain than the novice to fire the arrow. Through repeated activity the brain's functioning is altered. I.e., habits count. At the same time, this approach may just defer the problem as one might wonder if the impact our thoughts have on future actions is something within our control or not. For example, that thought you had late the other night about "never drinking tequila again" may not stick.

However, I want to take this issue on a tangent. We all recognize the "problem" of agency in the postmodern, and yet we all have this experience that we have thought of as "free will" or autonomy. In some fundamental sense, it shouldn't make a difference how we explain this experience we know we have, and yet it clearly troubles (some of) us. We are able to recognize on a subjective level the difference between being compelled (by a literal or figurative gun to one's head), pressured, tempted, or obligated to do something we wouldn't "freely" choose to do from those actions we describe as freely chosen. It worries us though, at least in the humanities, when we find ourselves in a philosophical box where all our actions seem determined by ideology or the unconscious or some mechanism other than autonomous choice. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the contemporary pursuit of autonomy, of pursuing personal happiness and goals, of doing things for oneself, of this near obsession we have with expressing our own will, makes us miserable. Needless to say it is also crippling to communities and cultures.

Personally I find it a great relief to realize that "I" am not my thoughts. As I think Levi is suggesting, I would appear to be some reflexive element of cognition. I am that which sees my thoughts, though as with all object relations I and my thoughts withdraw from one another. 

And I am so thankful for that!

In this context, the value of understanding agency and thought as emerging through relation, through exposure, becomes more apparent. My thinking, my actions, are "for others." On the surface this claim my appear to contradict the kind of arguments that OOO wants to make, such as Levi's autopoieitic, operationally-closed, objects. On further examination, however, these two concepts function well together for me. When the autopoietic object is perturbed by its exposure to an external force/relation, it might produce thought. And we can follow along with autopoiesis here, with the idea that such thoughts relate to the object's self-perpetuation (e.g., the frog sees what the frog needs to see, as a frog). All of these things, for me, are bundled together on a level (to use a term Harman borrows from Lingis). That is, the frog, as an object, emerges in a particular set of relations. Without the general conditions of the Earth, there is no life as we know it. Without a particular history of life, frogs do not evolve. Without the continuing existence of a particular environment, this particular species of frog may not thrive. Thus even though the frog's cognitive processes are self-reflexive, they are also necessarily for others. They allow the frog to relate to the frog's world, and they emerge in relation to that world.

With that in mind, I return to this notion of autonomy. So, yes, my body-as-object is autopoietic and operationally closed. It has developed in order to provide itself with the sensory information and cognitive capacity it requires to thrive. (E.g., I can only see a particular spectrum of light.) That said, such systems are not perfect, nor are they strictly limited on an evolutionary scale. That is, my mind is apparently capable of doing things that would not seem to have been driven by evolutionary pressures. For example, it is difficult to say that the emergent capacity for symbolic behavior could be explained by autopoiesis. Indeed, autopoiesis has a hard time in general with explaining change. In short, it would seem apparent that objects have these alien encounters that can spur mutation, that alter the operation of the system. Pharmakon anyone? For this reason, I find the addition of a concept of distributed cognition to autopoiesis to be necessary (as I discuss in my book).

So where does this all lead in terms of autonomy and misery? In recognizing that thoughts and actions are for others, we establish an ethos that can lead us out of the dissatisfaction of freewill. Now obviously servitude doesn't make us happy either! But when we frame the experience we call freedom as an agency that is "for others" rather than for ourselves, we have an opportunity to escape from the micro-fascistic, self-destructive urge to cut ourselves away from exposure.

The freedom of relation can be a joy whereas the freedom from relation is mind-numbing. That said, obviously both are necessary (eros/thanatos if you like). And relations in OOO are always partial and withdrawn. And this is important too, as these qualities of relation are part of our ethical obligation to the other, because relation is hard and unlikely. As you may have heard on TV, relationships take work to sustain themselves, and if we are only in relationships for ourselves then they don't last long. Witness what we've done to the planet over the last couple centuries.

In short, if you want the experience we call freedom or autonomy (and I think we all do), then you can find it in the relations we have for others. For it is only in such relations that thought and agency become possible.