For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:
In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”
In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.
I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).
Some Points About the Metaphysics of Actants
To (hopefully) make this point more clearly, map the distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation of a being on to the more traditional distinction between substance and qualities. Traditionally we say that objects are substances that have qualities. If we distinguish between substance and quality, then this is because qualities of an object can change while the object remains that object. The substantiality of an object is thus treated as that which persists through time, while qualities are the variations that the object undergoes. For example, the dandelion (substance) my daughter picked for me at the park yesterday was then about two inches long, with radiant yellow petals, a green stem, this particular smell, etc (qualities). Now this dandelion (substance) is wilted and browning, its stem is a bit shriveled, etc (qualities). Despite the fact that the qualities are different, traditionally ontology would have it that the dandelion is still this dandelion. The substantiality of the dandelion thus refers to the this, while the qualities refer to what can change in the object. And here object-oriented ontology agrees with traditional ontology in arguing that objects cannot be equated with their qualities.
Part of what I’m objecting to in traditional substance/quality talk is the idea of an object having properties. Rather than treating properties as something in a substance, my weird idea is that properties are something that objects do. Consequently, were language to suddenly conform to my rather weird ontological thesis, we wouldn’t say that objects have or possess qualities, that qualities are in substances, but rather that objects propertize or qualitize themselves. The qualities of an object are a doing, activity, or action of the object, not a “possession” of an object. In this respects, properties are, within the framework of my ontology, something closer to washing your hair than a possession or something that an object has. And if I distinguish between virtual proper being (substance or powers of acting) and local manifestation, then this is for the very simple reason that an object can always do more than it is doing at any given time.
To understand this point about “propertizing” contemplate the video clip below of a balloon being inflated:
In traditional ontology we would say that the balloon (substance) is spherical, has such and such spatial dimensions, etc., etc.. While I find this sort of language harmless, I also don’t see any reason to treat language as a guide to metaphysical truth. First, metaphysically, this description of the balloon conflates a local manifestation of the balloon with its virtual proper being. It is not the case that the balloon qua substance is a spherical being that has such and such spatial properties. No, the local manifestation is doing these qualities. The balloon qua substance is the power of the balloon to manifest itself in a variety of different ways, and this variety is in excess of any particular way it happens to manifest itself at a particular point in time. If we’re analyzing the balloon qua substance, what we’re interested in is the virtual attractors or powers the balloon possesses and how these correlate with a phase space, not with a point the balloon happens to have actualized in phase space (the attractors of a phase space defining maxima and minima for the entity in question). We could call any description of the virtual proper being of an object its virtual diagram.
Second, and more importantly, it is not the case that the balloon is spheroid and has such and such dimensional properties, but rather the balloon, even after being inflated, extensionalizes or is spatializing itself. That is, even properties that appear to be completed, fixed, and still are activities or doings, rather than havings. It is not that activity has ceased when the balloon is inflated and that it now has these properties, but rather that activity has reached a stable state where activities are continuing and ongoing presiding over a stable state in the balloon. In this case, the struggle that defines the propertizing that characterizes the local manifestation of balloon is the struggle between the internal pressure of the air in the balloon and the tensile strength of the rubber that makes up the balloon.
To illustrate this point, let’s shift examples to one that might be more clear from an experiential point of view. Suppose Nate and I were standing before one another, face to face. We both extend our palms outwards, pressing them against one another, and begin to push. Because, like Buridan’s Ass, Nate and I are both equally whimpy, as we push against one another neither of us are capable of toppling one another. Rather, our equal whimpiness reaches a point of equilibrium where both of us are fixed in terms of how far forward we can move. However, it by no means follows that we have ceased acting by virtue of the fact that we remain “still” and neither of us topples over. No. We continue to push against one another’s palms with all our might, straining every muscle continuously, without being able to best one another. Likewise with the balloon and its color. And again, if I am inclined to call the leaf of my dandelion green then this is because the power of the dandelion, coupled with the light of the sun, remains constant, forming a sort of détente where no variation in color can take place. The activity continues but an equilibria or actualization of a point in phase space has taken place.
Life After People
Nate and his dissertation director contend that the interest of the show Life After People lies in its attempt to present or portray a world where significance or human meaning has disappeared. For those unfamiliar with the show you can get a taste of it from this clip:
While I certainly agree that this angle is there, I would delicately say that this is an interpretation that a rhetorician could give (hopefully my rhetorician friends won’t take too much offense at this suggestion). While I am no great fan of the show, I would argue that far more profoundly, and somewhat in agreement with Nate’s thesis, Life After People attempts to render visible what is invisible. The problem with Nate’s thesis is two-fold: First, the problem lies in the suggestion that the show merely shows that objects act (more on that in a moment). The second problem with Nate’s thesis lies portraying the attempt to see a world without significance in merely privative terms.
The whole problem lies in the use of the “merely” and with the focus on significance (the focus on significance being the reason that I claim that only a rhetorician could interpret the show in such a way). Nate concludes his post with the following:
So if the goal of OOO/P is to remove the human subject as the pole around which the tether-ball of the world circulates, then surely it must be a blind ontology. By removing the look, or the gaze, it sees nothing/everything. The object oriented philosopher’s gaze, then, is one of an impossibility, of a type of void or a field of vision without a blind spot (where infinity is as limitless as nothingness). But in this way, I wonder what more can be said of objects besides “objects act.” Isn’t any move beyond this an act of signification, where objects become monads, vacuum-packed withdrawals, or differences that make a difference? Aren’t all of these now significant objects?
Note the passage in Nate’s final paragraph that I have written in bold face. “I wonder what more can be said of objects besides ‘objects act’”. What is curious is how anyone could possibly write such a sentence after watching Life After People, for Life After People does not merely show that objects act– a perfectly trivial and uninteresting thesis –but rather shows how objects act in our world. In this respect, it could be said that Life After People effects what could be called an “onticological epoché“. Within the framework of Husserlian phenomenology the epoché suspends belief in the independently existing world to attend to how objects are given through intentionality to consciousness. So long as we remain within the framework of the natural attitude or maintain our belief in the transcendentally existing world, we pass right through the givenness of the phenomenality to get at the object. By exercising the epoché, by contrast, we are able to attend to how the phenomena gives itself in intentionality. Likewise, in the onticological epoché we attempt to suspend our relationship to significance or meaning, so that that which was hitherto invisible– the action and activity of objects –might come into relief.
If the objects of our world are invisible, then this is because they exist in a state of détente, perpetually humming and acting there in the background, but becoming invisible precisely because they hum away doing what they always do. In attempting to disclose a world where one group of objects, humans, are absent, Life After People nicely brings into relief all the work that is required to maintain a particular type of collective. Consequently, as we witness the decay of all these human artifacts, what we’re really learning about are the assemblages and networks that function for the conditions under which our systems of significance, our forms of politics, our forms of life are dependent. Life After People strives to get at the non-signifying differences that render signifying difference as we live it possible. Or alternatively, Life After People strives to get at that by which the given is given for humans. If this bubbling domain of nonhuman actors are invisible then this is because they are ubiquitous in their activity and tend to run more or less well.
And in rendering the in-visible (the non-correlationist transcendental condition of the given as we know it) of the invisible visible, onticology renders a service to social, political, and rhetorical thought by bringing to light those non-signifying differences that keep collectives of humans and nonhumans from changing. As Whitehead liked to say, the problems with a philosophy are not generally that it has said something categorically false, nor that it has failed to produce valid, sound, or strong arguments, but rather overstatement. And with Continental philosophy and the humanities this has certainly been the case. Change or the lack of change has been seen primarily as resulting from signifying differences. And it is true, signifying differences can both contribute to preventing things from changing (e.g., the role that ideology plays in a collective), or in producing change. However, to treat change as issuing exclusively or predominantly from these signifying agencies is to significantly overstate the issue and to think like one who only deals with texts and concepts. No, major shifts in collectives are every bit as much a product of tsunamis, monsoon seasons, the presence or absence of roads, whether or not fiber optic cables are present, worms, topsoil, etc, etc., etc. The monsoon season, for example, played a major role in structuring Asian trade during the fourteenth to eighteenth century.
In this respect, Life After People is thoroughly Braudelian, Ongian, or McLuhanian. When Braudel looks at monsoon seasons, epidemiologies, ocean currents, and epidemiologies, when Ong looks at whether a culture is “literate” or “oral”, when McLuhan examines the advent of the lightbulb and networks of electrical wires throughout the United States, all of these thinkers are attempting to get at nonsignifying differences that significantly impact signifying differences. The presence or absence of written text determines whether or not higher mathematics, philosophy, or certain forms of law are possible. The emergence of the clock during the Middle Ages will subsequently come to regulate the working day. The monsoon season and its ocean currents will trace lines of flight for entire civilizations, structuring inter-human relations in all sorts of ways. The lightbulb will create night time labor, will create “night life”, and will keep scholars working into the wee hours of the morning. Rhetorically Nate seems to think that it’s of no significance that his post was written on the internet, requiring fiber optic cables, a particular platform, news feeds, electricity, etc., that created the opportunity for our thoughts to be brought together and preserved despite the fact that we live an hour apart.
Yet these agents are invisible because they are so ubiquitous. And to think these agents one needs to be a little less “literate”, and a lot more of an engineer, a scientist, a science fiction fanatic, and, above all, an acrobat of the counter-factual. One must become fascinated with what differences temperature, altitude, gravity, population density, ocean currents, Spring winds, etc., make to collectives. One needs to undergo a perceptual shift. Not a perceptual shift where signifying differences are abandoned, but where their pride of place is diminished. And the “cash-value” of such a gestalt shift is that suddenly a whole slew of agents come to the fore such that if they are changed certain changes in collectives become possible, even probable, as well. Do you want to change U.S. politics? Get busy providing fiber optic cables, free internet access, and free wireless for all, and, above all, for rural areas. Let an activity such as this– and an infinity of other similar activities –be a mark of your “truth-procedure”. Strive to discern how a collective is transformed when new actors– often nonhuman –are introduced to that collective and when others are strategically undercut. Become a bit more of a mad scientist or creator of science fiction than an interpreter.
I close with a couple of tangentially related points. Repeating a strain of thought he had suggested in his musings about zombies, Nate suggests that somehow OOO is erasing humans. But this isn’t the thesis at all. The OOO thesis is that being is composed of objects. It rejects the thesis that there are two distinct ontological domains, one consisting of subjects and the other objects. No. There are simply objects or, if you prefer, actors. Humans are an instance of these actors or objects. In his post on zombies Nate suggested that this amounted to claiming that humans are zombies. However, OOO is not committed to the thesis that objects are all the same, nor that objects are brute and inanimate clods. Only a modernist ontology that is premised on a distinction between the animate and the inanimate could assert such a thing. Humans are different than trees and rocks are different than birds and stars are different than moons, and so on. In no way is it the case that OOO erases humans. What OOO rejects is the idea that philosophy is to be exclusively organized around the pole of the human-object relation. Yet while OOO rejects the thesis that all philosophy ought to consist in a single investigation of the human-object relation, nothing OOO has proposed forbids or undermines the analysis of human-object relations. All OOO rejects is that this type of relation is the only type of relation or that every relation implicitly includes the human-object relation.
Second, I find myself deeply perplexed by Nate’s suggestion that OOO is somehow suggesting a view from nowhere. What OOO argues is that the difference between a human-object relation and an object-object relation involving no humans is a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. In other words, the OOO theorist doesn’t reject the thesis that we have no access to things-in-themselves, but only appearances, but rather that what Kant says about the relation of our mind to objects is true of all relations between objects, regardless of whether humans exist. All objects are characterized by “blind spots” with respect to other objects, such that, to employ Harman’s favorite example, the flame that burns the cotton no more encounters the cotton than I encounter my pen. Rather, it is only at the level of qualities or local manifestations that any object ever encounters another object. And if this thesis is of significance, as trite as it may sound, then this is because it prevents any reduction of objects to their qualities. And if the rejection of the reduction of objects to their qualities is of significance, then this is because it opens the door to emergence of unheard of infernal powers bubbling in the nuclear heart of objects, opening the door to other possible arrangements beyond those that are manifest in local assemblages. In short, it announces a χώρα from whence change becomes possible.