Saturday, July 09, 2011

The potato chips did it

Bennett's ontology is also perhaps the first to make room for potato chips: 
In the case of ... potato chips, it seems appropriate to regard the hand's actions as only quasi- or semi-intentional, for the chips themselves seem to call forth, or provoke and stoke, the manual labor 
And further: 
˜To eat chips is to enter into an assemblage in which the I is not necessarily the most decisive operator™ (p40)...eating does not mean conquering raw material and assimilating it to ourselves, as Leon Kass holds (p47). Instead, the food-actors with which we engage constitute our individuality...
From a review by Graham Harman of Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, apparently the state-of-the-art in neo-vitalism.

I was trying to make a clever post title, somehow inverting "I ate the potato chips" where the chips are the subject's hard to do! "The chips made me eat them" expresses the idea but retains traditional grammar roles. We need a new verb, like "The chips eta me". Which is just to say that our ideas about agency are very solidly embedded in language and it requires quite a heroic effort to get around them.


Ben Hyde said...

I'd leave a longer comment, but the sembe crackers need me.

scw said...

To invert "I ate the potato chips" so that the chips are the subject, all you need to do is to use the passive voice: "the potato chips were eaten by me." This works in French, Latin, and other more highly inflected languages as well as in English.

"The potato chips made me eat them" introduces the suggestion, absent in either of the former constructions, that dead matter (the potato chips) somehow has the ability to compel a living being to engage in an action. In this particular case, the expression sounds like something a person who had lapsed from a weight-loss diet would say to excuse his lapse. Of course, a similar compulsive power was suggested by the old advertising slogan of Lay's potato chips - "you can't eat just one."

More seriously, the difficulty that language poses in expressing the notion that dead matter has agency of some sort has never stopped people from trying to imply that it does. Years ago there was a public service advertisement that encouraged people not to leave their keys in their cars and to lock the doors, with the slogan, "don't make a good boy go bad" - as if anyone who really was a "good boy" could in any event be converted into a car thief by the mere sight of an unlocked car with its key in the ignition.

Such reasoning reflects the common propensity to evade the moral burden of one's actions by blaming them on some other person or thing. It is akin to the drunkard blaming the availability of liquor, or the addict blaming the availability of narcotics, for their wretched conditions; the murderer blaming his access to a deadly weapon, or the rapist the presence of an attractive and provocatively dressed female, for their crimes. To all such claims, the response must be: how many people can get liquor or drugs without becoming sots or dope fiends? how many people have access to a firearm without committing murder, and how many men see attractive and scantily clad women without ravishing them on the spot?

Individual miscreants have always made excuses like this for their bad behavior - usually without attracting much sympathy. Unfortunately, modern society is especially gullible when it is presented with such excuses, and its gullibility has led to some terribly counterproductive jurisprudence and policy.

mtraven said...

Using a passive construct makes the chips into the subject but not the agent, which is what I meant (post has been corrected).

Re moral responsibility, you seem to miss the point entirely. I don't believe in acausal free will, so there are always causes behind everything, including people's actions and characters. Moral responsibility is a fiction, albeit an essential one.

Here's a way to look at it that might appeal to you: there's some good evidence that one of the factors underlying criminal behavior is poor impulse control. Eg, to use your example, I certainly couldn't pass by an unlocked car with its key without the idea of stealing it briefly flitting through my mind, and I doubt you could either, but we also probably aren't going to act on that idea. Some people can't resist such impulses. Now, you can deal with that fact by locking them up, or by removing temptation from their path. Or you could just call them names, but that doesn't really solve the problem.

scw said...

The problem you describe has long been addressed by theologians under the heading "occasion of sin." For example, a car with the keys left in the ignition provides such an occasion of sin. Occasions of sin are types of the temptation into which, in the Paternoster, the Christian prays not to be led.

There are different types of occasion of sin. A useful outline may be found at:

Of course, all sins are not crimes (nor are all crimes sins), but the distinction between proximate and remote occasions can as easily apply to one as to the other. A car with the keys left in the ignition is a remote occasion of sin and/or crime for the great majority of people. You are wrong in suggesting that "the idea of stealing it" would "flit through" most people's minds. The thought that someone else might steal it (which isn't the same thought) undoubtedly would. After all, does any normally intelligent person, in the ordinary course of his life, WANT to steal a car? Quite apart from the normal moral sentiments against such acts that have been inculcated in him from childhood, and the great likelihood of being caught and punished, what on earth would he do with it?

What is a remote occasion of sin/crime for the great majority of people may be a proximate one for particular persons having special weaknesses (your "poor impulse control"). For example, the great majority of people use alcoholic liquor responsibly, the great majority of the time. Does it make sense to "remove temptation from their path" because there is a minority of people who do not? The United States tried this from 1919-1933, with results generally recognized as disastrous. This is an example of the terribly counterproductive policy to which I referred earlier.

Similarly, if we wish to remove whatever temptation to commit rape may be posed to men by women's immodest dress, then we have only to look at the examples of Saudi Arabia or Iran for our precept, and require all women to wear burqas. The question then is whether the cure is worse than the disease - is this the sort of society in which we wish to live?

If "moral responsibility is a fiction, albeit an essential one," what difference does that make? When a fiction is "essential," we might as well conduct ourselves as if it were true.

Eric said...

Have you read Harman's book on Latour?

mtraven said...

Eric: yes, parts of it. Pretty good I thought.

mtraven said...

The thought that someone else might steal it (which isn't the same thought) undoubtedly would.

I believe it is the same thought, but probably am not going to try to defend that in a blog comment thread.

Quite apart from the normal moral sentiments against such acts that have been inculcated in him from childhood, and the great likelihood of being caught and punished, what on earth would he do with it?

Why would the sentiments against bad acts need to be inculcated if the impulse to do them wasn't there? And it seems unlikely that the impulse goes away just because it's overridden by later teachings.

I guess we are in vanilla Freud territory. Maybe I'm just in better touch with my unconscious than most people; what you repress I'm fully aware of.

If "moral responsibility is a fiction, albeit an essential one," what difference does that make? When a fiction is "essential," we might as well conduct ourselves as if it were true.

Well, indeed we must and we do. That doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to be aware of the fictional nature of our beliefs.

And if you can't manage to handle a multiplicity of conflicting systems of knowledge and belief you won't get far in this world.

scw said...

Again, theologians have long addressed the reasons why sentiments against bad acts must be inculcated. Indeed, the impulse to commit them is naturally there, because man is sinful by nature. He must be educated to resist the temptation to sin when presented with an occasion of sin. Amongst normal people, the inculcation "takes" rather well, and the great majority of occasions of sin are remote. Amongst those whose character has not been well formed, or is perhaps inherently defective in some way, occasions of sin are more often proximate.

Thus, the respectable citizen will pass by the car with the keys in the ignition, see them, and not dream of stealing the car himself, but will fear instead that some low-life could do so. And some low-life probably will! Similarly, persons capable of the responsible use of liquor may keep a few bottles of whisky, gin, etc., in their cupboards for months, consuming them slowly and prudently. Access to the liquor is a very remote occasion of sin for these people. It would be an immediate and proximate one for an alcoholic, whose health and safety necessitate a complete banishment of booze from his household.

Granted, an intelligent person of good character may be able to conduct himself decently and harmlessly while believing that moral responsibility is a fiction. A prominent British academic of the mid-1900s, commenting on the atmosphere of the ancient universities, observed that they were so imbued with the habits of centuries past, that his contemporaries generally behaved as Christian gentlemen, even though most of them were neither Christian nor gentlemen.

Be this as it may, the world is not populated solely with Oxford dons. Few people are fortunate enough to live in such an atmosphere today, nor intelligent enough to appreciate it. Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi.