© Levi R. Bryant and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. Bryant was interviewed by Laureano Ralón on May 11th, 2011.
Levi R. Bryant is a Professor of Philosophy at Collin College in Frisco, Texas. He is the author of Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence, as well as a number of articles on Deleuze, Badiou, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He is also co-editor (along with Graham Harman and Nick Srnicek) of the forthcoming The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Together with Ian Bogost and Graham Harman, Professor Bryant ‘masterminded’ what is known as Object-Oriented Ontology.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
I decided to become a university professor when I was in my second or third year of high school. I had a great love of learning and philosophy in particular. I couldn’t imagine a life that wasn’t devoted to reading, writing, and teaching. In my second year of high school I went through a very tough time. I failed a year of high school as a result of my school burning down and lost love. As a result, I began to spiral out of control, engaging in a lot of self-destructive behaviors. This led my parents to kick me out of the house rendering me homeless for a time. Prior to these events, while being a reader, I hadn’t been a very good academic performer. I experienced education as a sort of indoctrinating conspiracy and useless to my own life and interests.
However, during this dark period I discovered philosophy through a co-worker, Dan Pisony, who was studying philosophy in college. Philosophy was a gift that changed my life. Feeling deeply broken and full of despair, philosophy presented itself to me as a way of healing myself by giving me the tools to understand myself, the world around me, and by broaching the questions of how I should live my life and what is most worth pursuing. I suppose that you could say my outlook was very eudaimonistic in the Epicurean and Stoic sense of the word. The discovery of Spinoza was monumental for me. During this period there was a fundamentalist religious revival unfolding in my town. Books that were once taught in the school were being burnt because of their sexual content– ironically, Orwell’s 1984 –there was a big push to end the teaching of evolution, and there was a push for abstinence only education. It seemed that the town had lost its collective mind and there were extremely troubling totalitarian passions emerging in people who had before gotten along well. I was deeply troubled by this and wished to understand and perhaps contribute to changing it if I could.
Philosophy offered me a way of understanding my social world and perhaps acting to change it (here Spinoza’s Theologico-Politico Tractatus and Marx were crucial for me), while works like book 3 of Spinoza’s Ethics as well as the thought of Freud gave me the conceptual tools to begin understanding my own passions and work to develop them and direct them in more productive directions. Meanwhile, I believed that it wasn’t enough to understand psychological, sociological, ethical, and political dynamics, but that it is impossible to cultivate a flourishing self and society without understanding the nature of the world we live in. We can’t understand the ethical and political problems we face without understanding the manner in which the world poses certain problems to us. This led me in the direction of metaphysics or ontology and heavy immersion in Whitehead, Spinoza, and Heidegger. I believe that what I found so vital in these thinkers– and here I should also mention John Dewey –was an ecological vision of the world that emphasized patterns, relationships, and systems in which things are embedded. I came to believe that nothing could properly be understood and acted upon or changed without understanding these ecologies.
At any rate, philosophy transformed me. Now, suddenly, all the things in school that had previously filled me with loathing filled me with wonder; up to and including mathematics. I now became thoroughly immersed in the study of the sciences, philosophy, literature, history, the social sciences and so on. As a consequence, I discovered that the only meaningful work for me is writing, research, and teaching.
In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
Here I wouldn’t place these changes so much on the teaching side of the spectrum, but rather research. When my interest in philosophy, history, and the social sciences first began to develop in high school, books were rather difficult to obtain. At that time there were only small, mall style bookstores that specialized in bad fiction. I had to drive all over the countryside, scouring used bookstores, to find books. As a consequence, when I obtained my first copies of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, I felt as if I had stumbled across extremely rare and valuable treasures.
However, another peculiarity of this distribution system is that it made my intellectual development far more aleatory or chance driven. You read the books that you managed to find, not the books that you would like to find. In my case, this led to an eclectic reading list that involved Sartre, Nietzsche, James, Peirce, Freud, Marx, Dewey, Husserl, Heidegger, Locke, Dewey, Whitehead, Spinoza, Lucretius, Quine, Wittgenstein, Josiah Royce of all people, and a host of others.
It’s a cliché to say it now, but the internet changed all of that. Suddenly you could find books with low print runs because you had the capacity to easily search all over the world. However, it’s not merely the sudden availability of books that changed things, but also the very nature of discussion and research. I think we sometimes forget that academia is composed of networks of researchers that are linked in particular ways. In the pre-internet area, these networks tended to close in on themselves. People that worked in phenomenology only talked to other phenomenologists. They encountered their colleagues in their departments as well as other phenomenologists at conferences, but communication was largely restricted to those sharing the same research orientation and communication through direct face-to-face discussion, and the reading of articles and books.
The internet changed all of that, especially with the emergence of blogs. Suddenly the relations between nodes in networks opened up significantly, leading to all sorts of surprising encounters among researchers. This has led to people discovering theoretical orientations and trends that they might not have ever otherwise discovered due to the relatively restricted nature of the earlier academic networks. Additionally, communication has intensified such that discussion takes place between people from diverse backgrounds on a day to day basis. As a result, theoretical shifts and development have intensified as a result of cross-fertilization. I now find that I have to think about a wide variety of other philosophical orientations in my own work that I wouldn’t have even been aware of in an ecology prior to the internet.
What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?
Judging by discussions of education in the United States many seem to think of teaching as a mere exchange of information. Under this model the teacher has the information and is supposed to convey it to the student. The student has learned when they are able to repeat the information in a manner approximating its formulation by the teacher.
This is a rather impoverished notion of teaching and what takes place in learning. A good teacher is both aware of the cognitive ecology in which the minds of students are formed and the fact that all teaching necessarily involves desire or transference. I’ll take each of these points in turn. We need to take care not to assume that brains or minds have a fixed structure or nature across history. Minds develop in a technological milieu, in an ecology of media, and this plays a role in how they think, learn, and process information. As theorists such as Walter Ong, Friedrich Kittler, Marshall McLuhan, and Eric Havelock have argued, the technologies we use make a profound difference in how we cognize the world, how we retain information, what kind of information we can retain, and the nature of our sense of time and affectivity. In pre-literate cultures without writing, for example, cultural knowledge is transmitted through song and recited poetry. This is because the rhythmic nature of song is particularly susceptible to being retained in bio-memory. This is the same reason we teach our children– who cannot yet read –the alphabet, days of the week, and months through songs. The song is not a secondary feature of learning the alphabet, but is a memory encoding technique.
However, there are things that can be done in one medium that cannot be done in another. It’s very difficult to convey something like Hegel’s Science of Logic through speech. The paper itself is a necessary condition for the thinking of Hegel’s dialectic. It’s not a secondary prop or mere vehicle of the thought, but is a condition for the thought itself. In a written culture forms of thought and knowledge are possible that are not possible in an oral culture. Indeed, written culture changes the very nature of our brains. Your brain works differently if it develops in an ecology of written text. For example, your sense of time is different. To read a novel or Hegel’s Science of Logic you need to retain what you read earlier in the text and anticipate things to come. This leads to a linear conception of time. By contrast, the song of oral culture perhaps leads to a cyclical experience of time because of the manner in which these songs repeat with variation in order to encode cultural information.
Often teachers today talk about the problems they encounter with their students and it is implied that students have either become stupid or that teachers are failing in teaching them. What this misses is the media ecology in which the minds of our students are developing. We no longer live in a culture that is predominantly characterized by print, but rather our minds are developing in a hybrid media ecology composed of print, images, bodily interaction (the sort of coordination involved in video games), songs, and hyperlinks.
I suspect that this leads to a very different structure of cognition and temporality that poses special problems in the classroom which is still dominated by the paradigm of print culture. Take, for example, hyperlinks and visual-acoustic computer and television media. Temporally the structure of these media are very different. Rather than linear development where what comes before is retained in what comes after like a novel, we instead get a sort of flickering time that now jumps into the past, now jumps ahead into the future, where simultaneity gets spread out across diverse places, and where anything can link to anything else. Where classical novels develop in a sort of smooth, linear fashion and where a geometrical proof requires a step-by-step development, phenomenological space and time for contemporary minds have a non-linear structure that de-emphasizes the continuity of linear time. For brains that have developed in such an ecological milieu, this poses special difficulties when reading, for example, a novel or philosophical treatise. Because the hermeneutic temporal horizon of time involving retention and anticipation described by Gadamer hasn’t developed in these brains, reading something like Descartes’ Mediations or Spinoza’s geometry in the Ethics becomes particularly challenged.
The point is that it is not that students have lost their motivation or that teachers are poor at educating (though they are increasingly overburdened), but that the software run on our wetware has structurally changed as a result of the developmental milieu in which our brains are formed. Given the ingenuity and inventiveness the younger generation shows in playing alternative reality games, computer games and engaging in a variety of different activities in the new media environment, it’s clear that there’s a great deal of intelligence in these new brain structures.
Educational effectiveness needs to take this ecology into account and respond to it accordingly. My lectures are organized a bit like a hypertext. While I certainly want my students to understand the systematic structure of the texts we read, I also jump back and forth between elements of popular culture, history, the sciences, anecdote, and story as a way of illustrating the arguments and concepts of these texts. In this way I hope to create multiple inputs around which a sophisticated understanding of the material can develop. This also has the additional benefit of, I hope, being amusing, cultivating a sense of wonder, and provoking humour, shock, and surprise. All good teaching also includes an affective dimension. Is it that students have attention deficit disorder, or is it that educators are failing to find ways to produce affect in their students? As we now know from neurology and cognitive science, affect is crucial in the production of memory. As a consequence, it is crucial to produce experiences of humour, joy, sadness, disgust, and wonder if learning is to take place.
However, it is above all necessary to create desire. No learning is possible without desire. Here my point isn’t that we must have a “desire to learn”, but rather that the good teacher finds ways to link what they’re teaching to the student’s desires. Here’s what I have in mind. Suppose that I sit down to read a technical manual on the hydraulics of plane wings (maybe it happens to be lying around in the office of an engineering friend). It’s unlike that I will retain anything from this book or get much from it. This is not simply because I lack the requisite engineering knowledge to understand the manual, but because hydraulics just doesn’t pertain to any aspect of my life and engagements. In order to retain something from the text I have to see how it relates to my life projects.
A good teacher, as Socrates already recognized in the Symposium, is someone capable of creating transference with the material in the students, such that they come to see that material as responding to questions they are asking in their lives. This is a precondition of learning. With time the students will learn the questions that the texts are asking, but in the beginning it’s necessary for the students to see the texts as asking their questions if any access to the texts is to be possible.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
First, I’d say it’s important to value the process of writing for its own sake. A lot of students and people see writing is the end result of a process whereby ones ideas have already been developed. But that’s not really how it works; at least for me. The writing is the thinking, not the result of a thinking that has already taken place. The activity itself is what generates the ideas. It’s important to get into the habit of writing regularly to develop your ideas. This also leads to a diminution in the anxiety surrounding articles and conferences.
Second, participate and communicate with others. My experience online has been invaluable because it has forged relationships with scholars from all over the world. These relationships have not only created countless opportunities for articles and presentations, but have invaluably deepened and enriched my thought. There are a number of trajectories of thought that I would have never followed if discussions with others handn’t instigated them in me. No one knows that you exist if you don’t participate and communicate. While it’s certainly true that articles are more important on your CV, a mere handful of people ever read articles. It’s crucially important to get yourself out there and engage with the work of others. Not doing so both renders you invisible and denies you countless opportunities to develop your thought.
Let’s get a little technical. In part one of your Onticology – A Manifesto for Object-Oriented Ontology, you write: “We live in a world pervaded by objects of all kinds, yet nowhere do we have a unified theory or ontology of objects… Yet outside of a few marginal, yet elite, disciplines such as science and technology studies, the investigation of writing technologies, environmental theory and philosophy, media studies, as well as certain variants of feminism and geographical studies, this explosion of objects barely provokes thought or questioning, much less any sort of genuine or informed engagement at the level of praxis.” My question to you is: didn’t Marshall McLuhan address the effects of just about any imaginable object in Understanding Media? Not only that but, along with his son Eric, he also developed the tetrad to show that any human artefact can be understood as a medium of communication whose message can be said to be the totality of satisfactions and dissatisfactions it engenders. Aren’t the Laws of Media a sort of unifying theory of objects in their own right?
McLuhan is a fundamental figure and I believe that many, outside of academia, have still not heard his message and integrated it in their own work. We still live in a strongly correlationist era that perpetually traces everything back to representations in the mind, signs, and signifiers, ignoring the role that media, in McLuhan’s sense, play in the structuration of our cognition, affectivity, and social relations. McLuhan is particularly important as a result of the manner in which he de-emphasizes the primacy of the discursive, linguistic, and representational in his work, drawing attention to the material in the domain of technologies. He is able to both integrate the discursive, semiotic, and linguistic (these are, after all, forms of media), while nonetheless also drawing our attention to the role that technologies, resources, and other animals play in our world.
With that said and despite the fact that McLuhan informs all of my thought, I think there are three ways in which he falls short of giving us a genuine ontology of objects. First, while McLuhan teaches us much about the nature of objects in and through his tetrad, his work nonetheless is limited by virtue of its anthropocentric index. It will be recalled that, for McLuhan, media are “extensions of man”. McLuhan’s media theory is designed to shed light on how various media or objects extend, obscure, retrieve, and reverse the various sense-modalities of the human body, affectivity, and cognition. As valuable as this contribution is, a full-blown ontology of objects cannot restrict itself to a human index in this way. Humans are one type of object, substance, or entity among others and therefore cannot be treated as being at the root of being. In this respect, McLuhan’s work can be understood as a regional ontology of humans and their relationship to other objects.
Second, McLuhan tends to emphasize objects of mid-level scale such as hammers, lightbulbs, airplanes, written texts, and so on. Yet objects exist at a variety of levels of scale. Not only are there very small objects such as quarks and dust mites that might live in your eyelash, there are also larger scale objects such as the Coca Cola corporation, cities, solar systems, galaxies, classes, etc. In short, there’s an entire class of objects that Timothy Morton has entitled “hyperobjects”. An adequate ontology, I think, needs to be attentive to these objects and their specific natures.
Finally, third, McLuhan’s focus is on relations among objects, not objects themselves. McLuhan investigates the manner in which one entity (humans) make use of another entity. However, a complete ontology would, in addition to investigating the nature of relations, also investigate objects for their own sake or as they exist for themselves.
I am aware that you are co-authoring a book about McLuhan with Ian Bogost. What can you tell us about it? How might your interpretation of McLuhan’s work differ from that of, say, media ecologists?
When Ian and I finally get the time to write the book on McLuhan we’d like to radicalize McLuhan’s thesis , arguing that media are not simply extensions of man, but rather are extensions of any object. Here media theory would thus become a general theory of object-relations. We are proposing this as the fifth law of media: A medium is any object that extends another object. This overcomes the anthropocentric index in McLuhan’s media theory and significantly extends the domain of media studies.
The boats that shipped the cane toads to Australia were mediums for those cane toads. Street lamps are mediums for a variety of different insects. Sharks are mediums for remoras, while coral reefs are mediums for a variety of plant and animal life. The wind is a medium for sand in Egyptian sandstorms. Within this framework, media theory is really ecological theory. To investigate media is to investigate the way in which entities extend one another, enhancing them, obscuring other potentials they might have, and so on.
You have written several articles on Deleuze. What attracted you to his work?
When I was doing my graduate work, Continental philosophy was heavily dominated by the linguistic turn and phenomenology. The former emphasized the manner in which language structures the world about us. The latter emphasizes the manner in which humans experience or encounter the world. Deleuze was unique among the French theorists arising out of the 1960s in developing an ontology or metaphysics that didn’t restrict itself to the human and what the world is for humans. While Deleuze certainly has plenty to say about language, human experience, embodiment and so on, for Deleuze these things hold no privileged place in his ontology. You can just as easily discuss the worlds of other animals, sedimentary rocks, the manner in which soap bubbles form or that eggs develop, technologies, and ecosystems. Deleuze thus struck me as one of the few philosophers coming out of Continental thought genuinely developing a post-humanist and post-correlationist metaphysics that took beings seriously for their own sake and that didn’t try to trace them all back to human experience, language, representation, and society. In short, I found Deleuze more resonant with my own broad range of interests. In addition to this, I have a deep fascination for process, emergence, and ecological relations. In Deleuze you find a robust and highly general theory of these things that makes him an exceedingly rich conceptual framework for investigating the world.
You are the co-editor with Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman of the forthcoming book, The Speculative Turn. How was your experience working with them, and how would you define the so-called “Speculative Turn”?
Graham and Nick were both excellent to work with. Both were tireless in bringing this project to completion and were extremely generous and thoughtful in their interactions with me. My encounter with Graham fundamentally transformed my own thought. As a consequence of our discussions I became an advocate of object-oriented ontology and developed my own ontology that I refer to as “onticology”. In many respects, I feel that this project led me to shift from being a commentator on the work of philosophers to becoming a philosopher myself. That would have never happened had I not encountered Graham. While I do not share all of his positions and commitments, he has certainly been a profound and continuing influence on my own work.
As for what the “speculative turn” might be, I believe it consists in three interrelated themes: First, the speculative turn departs from the model of self-reflexive analysis as a precondition for metaphysics or ontology. With Kant it became customary to argue that we must first investigate the nature of mind prior to making any substantial claims about the nature of being or existence insofar as mind is the medium through which we relate to being. In other words, through this self-reflexive analysis we will determine whether or not this tool is adequate to the task of knowing existence. In one way or another, this has become a central and unspoken axiom of subsequent theory. We thus get the phenomenologists claiming that we must first engage in a reflexive analysis of intentionality prior to any substantial claims about the being of being. We get the linguistic philosophers claiming that we must first engage in a reflexive analysis of language prior to making substantial claims about being. We get the new historicists claiming that we must engage in a reflexive analysis of discursivity and power prior to making any substantial claims about being. And so on.
The speculative turn, as I understand it, does not reject the value and importance of these kinds of inquiries—we’ve certainly learned a lot about ourselves and our social world through them –but it does authorize itself—and not without argument –to investigate, theorize, and discuss the being of beings without first passing through the detour of a reflexive analysis of the knower.
Second, and in a closely related vein, the speculative turn de-emphasizes the centrality of the human in being. Here humans are not the custodians of being nor any special recipients of sendings of being. Humans are certainly beings, but they are beings among beings. As a consequence, the speculative turn is a form of thought that refuses to index all of being to the human. Rather, the speculative turn is a form of thought that authorizes itself to range freely over the variety of beings even where they have no relationship to humans. Within the framework of object-oriented ontology and onticology, for example, the speculative thinker is every bit as interested in the being of a kangaroo as the human, and this interest doesn’t revolve around whether or not the kangaroo is somehow impacting human society or whether it sheds light on our own nature. Rather, the kangaroo is of interest for its own sake and in its own being.
Finally, third, in the domain of social and political theory I believe the speculative turn places special emphasis on the material in the form of technologies, resources, infrastructures, environments, geography, and so on. The last century was dominated by a focus on the cultural in the form of the linguistic, discursive, meaning, and representational. There was a tendency to focus on the textual dimension of the social world, its narratives, discourses, and cultural artefacts like films, literature, and works of art. While certainly theorists are not mistaken to have a lively interest in these things, there’s more to the social world than text, narrative, discourse, meaning, and representation. Ocean currents play a key role in shipping routes. Weather patterns and events substantial affect how people live their lives and social patterns of organization. New forms of technology overturn regimes and bring people together In entirely new ways, eroding local customs, beliefs, and norms. Those working in the speculative turn, I think, believe that we need to be far more attentive to these material actors and worry that the promiscuous focus on the discursive and linguistic has thoroughly obscured these things. Sometimes the reason that people don’t drive electric cars isn’t because there’s an anti-environmental ideology preventing them from buying such cars, but because there are charge stations along the highway making such cars feasible modes of transportation.
What else are you currently working on?
My next book, The Democracy of Objects, should be released in the next few weeks. Currently I am working on a book entitled The Domestication of Humans. Where The Democracy of Objects developed a general ontology of objects drawing heavily on cybernetics, systems theory, developmental systems theory, and autopoietic theory, The Domestication of Humans attempts to develop a general template for a post-humanist social and political theory. The title is, of course, a bit tongue in cheek. On the one hand, I’m trying to “domesticate” the role that humans have played in social and political theory. All too often all explanation in social and political theory is traced back to features of human thought, language, representation, and meaning. This leads the theorist to ignore the role that nonhuman entities play in forming the sorts of collectives or forms of social organization we see in the world around us. On the other hand, “domestication” refers to the manner in which a variety of nonhuman agencies ranging from technologies to microbes to cows and grass have contributed to giving us the biological, cognitive, social, and affective form that we have today. Above all, I wish to draw attention to the manner in which we’re entangled in a variety of different nonhuman intentionalities that significantly impact our lives and societies and that don’t necessarily mesh with our own aims. Failure to understand this, I believe, leads us to pose the political and ethical questions that face us in an entirely inadequate fashion.
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