Nick Srnicek: Toward an Immanent Ontology

“Bring something incomprehensible into the world!”
— Gilles Deleuze (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia)

Commenting on Charles Taylor’s, The History of Secularization, Nick Srnicek tells us that this “work holds interest to me insofar as he defines religion in terms of a belief in transcendence. The history of secularization, therefore, is the story of the emergence of immanence over time.”[1] Now Srnicek is a bonafide member of that new breed of thinker who questions the humanistic post-Kantian traditions in political, religious, secular, and philosophical thought as it pertains to our grasp of the Real, which has emerged under the – not so tranquil – umbrella of speculative realism. In his Master’s Thesis, Assemblage Theory, Complexity and Contentious Politics, which he has published freely on his blog, The Accursed Share he follows a trajectory set out by the philosophical and political writings of  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. His main thesis is based upon Deleuze’s concept of assemblages as “particularly powerful ways to conceptualize the complexity, dynamism and differences that are inherent to the political world” (ibid.).

He quotes Deleuze who defines assemblages as a text that produces real material effects, rather than solely transmitting information:

An assemblage, in its multiplicity, necessarily acts on semiotic flows, material flows, and social flows simultaneously (independently of any recapitulation that may be made of it in a scientific or theoretical corpus). There is no longer a tripartite division between a field of reality (the world) and a field of representation (the book) and a field of subjectivity (the author). Rather, an assemblage establishes connections between certain multiplicities drawn from each of these orders, so that a book has no sequel nor the world as its object nor one or several authors as its subject. In short, we think that one cannot write sufficiently in the name of an outside. The outside has no image, no signification, no subjectivity. The book as assemblage with the outside, against the book as image of the world.

He is seeking an ontology designed to account for the “ingrained nature of conflict” he sees within our political and social reality (113). He offers no easy solutions, and sees no Utopian vision ahead of us, but instead offers a path that will “manage irreducibly different differences”, forming new assemblages “in a productive way that increases the potential for new connections (113). With the rise of postmodern theories that tend toward micro-histories and localized perspectives that anathematize grand narratives and systemic theorizations of the political he offers a systemic theory based on the non-teleological movement of “contingent and unpredictable interactions involved in assemblages” (114). But to do this we must move beyond a political science based on ontologies that are limited to characterizing the general “furniture of the world”, as well as “a type of theorizing that begins by establishing immutable building blocks and then fits them together in various ways in a futile attempt to capture real dynamics” (114-115). Instead we need to rethink “the ontological basis of contemporary political science in the belief that such self-reflection on our theoretical foundations can open new avenues for thought, practice and policy based upon a theoretical framework capable of articulating complex singular individuals, their relational contexts, and the immanent potentials of a situation” (115).

He points out that he has concentrated in his thesis on several concepts that are “designed to account for the complexity and systematicity of the political world” (115). Two of the major concepts he detailed out in his thesis concern individuation and ontological dynamics. In his essay, The Problem of Individuation, he clarifies his stance regarding the concept of individuation and its importance telling us that the only way to face the “irreducible complexity of the social world” is to meet it head on “by understanding the relational network within which individuals emerge as constituted subjects, objects and systems” then we can “say that our concepts grasp real things” (ibid.). He adds a qualification to this stating “if individuals are of the order of the actual, then what we need to focus on is the intensive register of individuation in which individuals are considered as a process that is more or less stable, and which always retains a reservoir of virtual potentials” (ibid.).

He goes on to tell us (which I feel is important to copy at length): “The problem surrounding individuation can be stated succinctly enough: “how is it that something comes to be counted as one?” The emphasis on ‘something’ (which is precisely not ‘some thing’) already highlights the mystery surrounding such a question. On the other hand, despite the simplicity of the question, its significance is enormous, as aptly summarized by Alberto Toscano:

“It has been argued that the notion of individuation emerged alongside an image of philosophy as a search after conditions of intelligibility, whose central requirement was that of accounting for the division or differentiation of the real into distinct, discernible or determinate entities. [It was] an attempt at determining the ‘correlates’ of thought, and at securing this grasp by accounting for how thought could carve the real at its joints.”(ibid.)

As for how individuals arise and are individuated at all he tells us contra Aristotle that “material being is itself active and generates individuals, which thought can then encounter in all its novelty, wresting similarities and identities from the experience” (ibid.). Continuing he relates as “Deleuze will succinctly state it, “determination itself presupposes individuation.” It is notable, in this perspective, that being is subsumed neither to representational thought nor to the form of identity. Being is not simply productive, but also creative, generating new individuals that elude current classification schemes. Being, therefore, is that “something” from which individuals emerge”(ibid.). Instead of reinstating identity as the foundation of ontology, which would be to “state that the preindividual was composed of this negative difference” (ibid.) he offers Deleuze’s solution to the problematic of ontlogy that “leads him to claim that the actual (the world of individuated objects, subjects, and systems) does not exhaust ontology; rather, in order to account for the emergence of individuals out of “something”, and in order to account for their change through “something”, Deleuze argues that we must also take into account the virtual and the intensive registers of being. These levels will allow Deleuze to paradoxically determine being as both more than one (being includes a virtual excess of potential) and less than one (being as not yet individuated). It is these registers which Deleuze will outline in terms of differential relations and intensive differences, thereby resisting the tendency to fashion the transcendental (individuating intensities) in the image of the empirical (constituted identities)” (ibid.).

Ultimately he is moving toward an “immanent ontology” one that does not take “recourse in principles occupying some supernatural realm – we must eschew with all transcendent determinants of individuation. This includes things like “immaterial laws, eminent entities or separate aspects of being”” (ibid.).

In summation he tells us that his “ontology’s attention to complexity, emergence, individuation, molecular change, the unique, the new, difference, potentials, conflict, and heterogeneity, makes it a rigorous philosophical and political ontology vastly different from what is presently available to political science. With our era characterized by a multiplication of local, regional, state, and global initiatives, combined with a proliferation of conflicts and the increasingly dense relational networks within which such events are embedded, we believe that it is only through a re-thinking of our ontological presuppositions that political science and policymakers can keep pace with the complexity and dynamism characteristic of the modern world” (117).

1. The History of Secularization, The Accursed Share (11.2006)

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