I have been a supporter of Levi Bryant's work for years. I certainly have moments when I grumble about this or that technical-theoretical issue but in the main I'm fascinated by how Levi's framework balances a consideration of the substantial existence of assemblages or units ("objects") with an appreciation for the complex subsistence of things, as they partake of and interface with a wider field of materials, forces and processes. Levi's recent turn to "machines" as a technical concept designed to code the compositional activity or powers of things offers a refreshing Deleuzean option for moving beyond the false antagonisms of those who privilege objects over process, or visa versa.
In the lecture above Levi re-works Lacan's borromean knot formulation to tease apart three distinct but interacting ontological registers which - when appropriately mapped and respected on their own terms and for how they contribute the fabric of the world - call for a more inclusive critical and political theory. Note that Levi deviates from Lacan's own usage of the three registers by recoding 'the Real' with a more materialist and naturalist resonance.
As Levi has written previously:
The three orders are phenomenology (or the Imaginary), semiotics (or the Symbolic), and the material (or the Real). Phenomenology or the Imaginary investigates the lived experience of human and nonhuman entities such as bats, octopi, computers, queer bodies, and so on. It investigates the openness, through channels, of various beings to a broader world. Semiotics explores various structures of coding where they exist. Materialism and naturalism (the Real) investigates the features of materiality and how they influence assemblages (natural geography, physics, neurology, the speed at which communications can travel, the calories needed to live and work, and so on)...
With Borromean Critical Theory we thus get three reductions (in the Husserlian sense), because certain things can only be understood within each of the three orders. With the Imaginary we get the “phenomenological reduction” which consists in observing the observer, or how particular entities such as tardigrades, wolves, rocks, and satellites encounter the world about them. With the Symbolic we get the “semiotic reduction” which attends to how discourse, narrative, language, signs, and the signifier structure the world. Here we bracket the referent (the Real) and the lived (the Imaginary), and instead just attend to the diacritics of language in parsing the world. Finally, we get a “naturalistic reduction” in the domain of the Real that brackets meaning and the signifier (the Symbolic) and lived experience (the Imaginary), instead adopting what Husserl called the “natural attitude” and attending to the constraints of chemistry, physics, neurology, physiology, natural geography, and so on. There are certain things that can only be understood and know within the natural attitude, which is why we must here bracket lived experience and semiotic analysis. Paradoxically, we today live in a theoretical context where we need the resources to return to the natural attitude to discern the power that materiality exerts on life. [source]To relate Levi's project here to some of my recent posts I suggest that discerning differences between 'the Symbolic' and 'the Real' is roughly equivalent to my proposed separation between epistemic relations (semiotic activity) and structural relations (material-energetics). Corresponding to the mode of openness that humans are there we experience a structural presentness between things prior to their being inscribed in epistemological regimes of truth. As complex assemblages with emergent capacities our mode of openness is both bodily (structural/corporeal) and reflective (epistemic), but never entirely one or the other.
Where things get tricky in the translation between Levi's model and my own distinctions here is where each of us might suggest phenomenal experience or 'the Imaginal' fits in. To do justice to this topic I would need a separate and much longer post, but in general I will suggest that 'subjectivity' or human experience is wholly Real: which is to say, material and therefore does not require 'its' own register. Our situated animal experience is generated from the sensual-material opening of our bodies among other bodies, and as an activity-in-the-world without ontological remainder.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others, was rather clear about the fundamental corporeal nature of subjectivity. In The Phenomenology of Perception he wrote, "the body is our general medium for having a world" (p.169). Worlds open up viz. bodies. And this sensual-tangible horizon is entirely of the material-energetic plane of existence. When we perceive and experience the world we do so as sensitive-coping bodies vulnerable to being affected and able to affect the Real precisely because we partake in the consistency of structure and force that is matter-energy. We are experientially open to the world as Real because we are of it:
"Nothing determines me from outside, not because nothing acts upon me, but, on the contrary, because I am from the start outside myself and open to the world. We are true through and through, and have with us, by the mere fact of belonging to the world, and not merely being in the world in the way that things are, all that we need to transcend ourselves" (p.153).And as Evan Thompson (2011) notes:
"Merleau-Ponty rejects the idea that conscious experiences are interior states of the mind or brain that stand as causal or epiphenomenal intermediaries between sensory inputs and motor outputs. Consciousness is rather a form or structure of comportment, a perceptual and motor attunement of the whole animal to its world. In our human case, this attunement is primarily to an environment of meaningful symbols and the intentional actions of others." [source]Comportment is how we take a stance in the world as structured beings among actual assemblages and material flows. Merleau-Ponty borrows the notion of comportment from Martin Heidegger, who wrote:
Comportment stands open to beings. Every open relatedness is a comportment. Man’s open stance varies depending on the kind of beings and the way of comportment. All working and achieving, all action and calculation, keep within an open region within which beings, with regard to what they are and how they are, can properly take their stand… (Essence of Truth)And this experiential-bodily comportment is entirely of the order of the Real (material-energetic), just as 'consciousness' is nothing other than the dynamic expression of vibrant materials in action and milieu.
For me the point at which Levi's Borromean framework breaks down is precisely where subjectivity as phenomenal experience is abstracted from our fundamental way of being-open-in-the-world, of being sensitive material-energetic systems. As interesting as a neo-Lacanian ontology is for all sorts of projects (as Levi demonstrates above) I believe bracketing out the phenomenological from the material is a fatal mistake. It is fatal in two senses: first, it reinforces an explanatory gap between 'consciousness' [sentience] and materiality that evokes and supports all sorts Cartesian conceptual dead-ends and confusions about how embodied experience, intentionality and animal judgement emerge and operate in the world; and secondly, it generates all sorts of epistemological problems in terms of how we might traverse registers and gain access to the Real (issues of knowability).
In short, I think there are pragmatically more productive ways to conceive of the existence and relationship between the material-structural, semiotic-epistemic and human sentience that do not reinforce traditional metaphysical dualisms that produce their own philosophical impasses. Instead I propose a deflationary view of hominid phenomenology where 'the clearing' (or emptiness) that is situated biological perceptual awareness can be understood as an immanent feature of the Real, and radically open to the affective forces of elemental life. We need to re-cognize the sensitivity, sense-ability and sense-making nature of flesh beyond the binary of subject and object in order to become more fully conscious of the practical consequences of embodiment and our lived situations. Our practices, sciences and politics are now demanding of us something other than traditional categories.
What I find most intriguing in the quote above is Levi's claim that we now require the conceptual resources to "return to the natural attitude" which takes materiality seriously. I obviously believe this to be true, and attempting to understand and track why this is so continues to be a major pre-occupation. In a world where the ecological degradation of all systems capable of sustaining human life is accelerating, becoming and being more sensitive and responsive to our own materiality and the transcorporeality of the conditions of our existence is vital. We must become better at sensing, relating, coding and communicating about 'the Real', material-energetic tangible structureality of things if we are to be capable of coping, adapting and changing our relationships, politics and socioeconomic systems and arrangements within the current and ever shifting planetary (dis)order.
“From the vantage point of a philosophy of immanence set in a sensibility of care for this world, a pressing need today is to negotiate deep, multidimensional pluralism within and across territorial regimes” (William Connolly 2011: 83).So while I have some reservation of the Borromean ontology Levi is working with here, I welcome his exploration of any discursive move that respects both the phenomenological and semiotic aspects of contemporary existence while also strongly emphasizing the need for critical reflection on how we understand and more importantly interface with the non-linguistic, non-conceptual potency of matter-energy at both personal and political levels.