A while back, Mickhail, of Perverse Egalitarianism, asked me whether there was any particular reason that I formulate the Ontic Principle in negative terms. That is, rather than formulating the principle as stating “there is no difference that doesn’t make a difference”, why not instead state it as “all differences make a difference”. At the time, I had no answer to this question. The Ontic Principle, of course, is a variation of Gregory Bateson’s definition of information. Bateson defines information as the “difference that makes a difference.” If information is the difference that makes a difference, then this is because, loosely speaking, it is a difference that brings about a change in the operations of a system. When, for example, someone shouts “fire!” in a crowd theater, this counts as information because it brings about a change in the organization of this group of people. The second time “fire!” is shouted it no longer functions or counts as information, because it no longer makes a difference. Information, for Bateson, thus brings about a shift in a system and functions to select elements of a code. For more on this I strongly recommend Niklas Luhmann’s wonderful Reality of the Mass Media, which is far more accessible than his daunting Social Systems.
While certainly indebted to Bateson– and it’s truly sad that Continental social thought didn’t take the path of cybernetics and systems theory rather than structuralism –the Ontic Principle nonetheless says something different (though not necessarily in contradiction) than Bateson’s definition of information. Where Bateson declares that information is the difference that makes a difference, the Ontic Principle states that “there is no difference that does not make a difference”. In other words, Bateson’s definition is restricted to a particular kind of entity– information –whereas the Ontic Principle declares that the most basic essence of being an entity consists in making a difference. To be is to differ and make differences. There is no entity that is not composed of differences and that does not make differences. Here, perhaps, I part ways with Harman while sharing his insight, for where Graham understands objects as “vacuum packed” or infinitely withdrawn from relations to all other objects, the concept of objects as composed of differences, as being composed of differences, making differences, and as differing in themselves, both allows the preservation of Harman’s insight of objects as infinitely withdrawn while also explaining why they are infinitely withdrawn. If objects perpetually differ from themselves by virtue of constantly changing, they will be infinitely withdrawn insofar as none of their predicates will be fixed once and for all. Like Leibniz’s monads that were constantly changing and contained this principle of change within themselves, objects differ from themselves in undergoing constant activity and process. Thus it is not that objects differ from their predicates, but that these predicates are endlessly coming-to-be and passing-away, though often in ways too minute for us to perceive.
Perhaps, like Derek Parfit’s account of personal identity, the “self” of an object is not something in excess of its predicates, but is rather a temporal relation of connectedness among predicates. Like the famous question of individuation pertaining to the Ship of Tarsus where everyday a from the ship is removed and replaced by another board, the identity of the Ship of Tarsus is not based on its matter (the boards), nor even on maintaining the same pattern (we can imagine the ship also being modified in a number of ways just as London changed dramatically after the 17th century Fire of London, but lies rather in the temporal connectedness of the entity across time. This would allow us to say that events do not befall objects, but rather that objects are events. The important caveat would be that events are not instantaneous, but rather are temporally extended or “stretched” like ripples produced in a pond when throwing a rock. A football game, for example, is an event that is also composed of a number of other events.
At any rate, back to the question at hand: Why the negative formulation of the Ontic Principle. The term “ontic” (όντος), of course, refers to real being or existence. On the one hand we can speak of being qua being or the properties of being, what can be said of being, independent of any existing beings (this could be called “essence”), whereas on the other hand we can refer to existence, to the real, beings, or the there is. If we wished to describe the bookends of Badiou’s Logiques des mondes and L’Être et l’Événement, we could subtitle these two works The Ontic and the Ontological, for the former refers to Dasein, being-there, or ex-istance, whereas the latter refers to being qua being or what can be said of being regardless of whether or not anything exists.
Here the rationale behind the negative formulation of the Ontic Principle begins to come into relief. The virtue of the negative formulation as opposed to the positive formulation is that whereas the positive formulation (“all differences make a difference”) works in the ontological register, the negative formulation brings to the fore the “there is”, the “il y a“, or the “es gibt” placing us squarely in the domain of the real, Dasein, or existence. There is difference. “It gives difference.” “Being gives difference”. Prior to any questions of epistemology, of what we can know, of our access to being, there is the astonishing fact of the “there is” and the giving of difference. It is this giving of difference which is, precisely, existence. As the etymology of the term “existence” teaches us, to exist is to stand-forth or appear. Existence is that which distinguishes itself, that which differs, for in standing-forth something differentiates itself. This appearing is not an appearing to you or me– though often it is –but is rather a standing-forth in a world or a making a difference in a world… A world that is itself a composition or weaving of differences.