One of the things I’m particularly interested in accounting for is why, if objects are always distinct from whatever qualities they might happen to actualize or manifest at a given point in time and space. Here the concept of manifestation or actualization should not be confused with experience. There can, of course, be no experience without actualization of some sort, without exo-relations of some sort, but the category or dimension of local manifestation or actualization is broader than the category of experience. Local manifestation or actualization takes place throughout the universe, but experience does not. Local manifestation is thus an ontological category, not an epistemological category. Local manifestation is not the givenness of an object to a subject or a receiver, but is rather one half of the real with respect to objects.
If, then, local manifestation is not givenness, then what is it and why is it local? Local manifestation is that domain of being or existence composed entirely of events and nothing but events. As I argued in my post “The Mug Blues“, qualities of an object are not predicates or possessions of an object, but are rather verbs or actions on the part of an object. Qualities of an object are not something an object is but something an object does. Thus, for example, it would be a mistake to say that my blue coffee mug is blue. Why? Because the color of my mug changes depending on the lighting conditions. In bright sunlight the mug is a brilliant and radiant blue. When I share a romantic moment with my mug– yes I’m polymorphously perverse and have a pathetic romantic life (philosophers seldom fare well in that department, wonder if there’s a connection here) –and enjoy a cup of coffee by candlelight while listening to Barry White, my mug is a deep, flat blue. When I turn out the lights, the mug is black.
Our spontaneous common sense conception of the relationship between qualities and the substances in which they inhere is to claim that the mug is really blue and that we just can’t see this when the lights are out or by candlelight. I reject this thesis. Within the framework of onticology, the brilliant, radiant blue of the coffee mug in sunlight is the actualization of a coloring power of the mug, it is not what the mug truly is. Among other things the mug truly is this “coloring power”, it is not any of the particular colors it happens to do. Note that I’ve referred to a coloring power not a bluing power.
Were we to plot a two-dimensional graph on an x-y axis, the entire range of points on that graph would denote the coloring power of the mug, while the radiant blue of the mug in bright sunlight would be a point on this graph, not the entire line of the graph. Accordingly I distinguish between attractors, phase spaces, and qualities. Attractors, within the framework of onticology, are powers that refer to an entire range of qualities an object can actualize. Phase spaces refer to all possible points (usually infinite) that can be occupied within the space of that attractor. And qualities refer to points actualized within that phase space such as a specific shade of blue. The photograph at the beginning of this post is a particularly nice illustration of this as we see that the mug is two shades of blue, thereby actualizing two different points in the phase space of its attractor or power at once. We here encounter the rationale behind the terminological choice to refer to qualities as “local manifestations”. First, these are manifestations in the sense that they are events or occurrences that take place within an object. Qualities are things that happen, not something that an object has.
Second, if these manifestations are local, then this is because they occur or happen under specific circumstances. The two shades of blue locally manifested in the photograph of the mug at the beginning of this post are local manifestations of the powers of that mug that occur by virtue of its exo-relations to other objects such as the milieu of light in which it finds itself bathed (and who, aside from the Impressionists, have more profoundly explored the local powers of light?) as well as the white saucer upon which it finds itself situated.
I challenge anyone who claims that I, or object-oriented ontologists in general, ignore the importance of relations to meet me on the terrain of my account of local manifestation. For it will be noted that the local manifestation I have just described with respect to my beloved blue mug (remember I’m polymorphously perverse) is thoroughly relational. It involves relations between different wavelengths of light, the mug, and yes, various neurological systems. My difference with the relationists is that I hold that these relations are exo-relations, rather than endo-relations. I refuse the move whereby an object is its relations, following Harman in the thesis that no object can ever be reduced to or undermined by its relations. And I do this, contra Harman, by distinguishing between the powers of an object and the qualities of an object. Many, but not all, of the local manifestations belonging to an object are what I call exo-qualities. These are qualities that only emerge in relation. Hence the qualification “exo”. However, the proper being of an object, I argue, consists of its powers or what an object can do.
The key point not to be missed is that local manifestation takes place regardless of whether or not anyone is there to perceive it or experience it. I therefore salute Bruno Latour when, in Irreductions, he remarks that the zebras running across the African steppes have no need of our gaze to do so. Local manifestation is not manifestation for us, but is actualization within being.
The enemy that the distinction between virtual proper being (power) and local manifestation is designed to attack is what Roy Bhaskar refers to as “actualism”. I would argue that actualism is the single most corrosive assumption governing the history of philosophy. We might say that actualism is Bhaskar’s version of “philosophies of presence” or ontotheology. One encounters actualism in any ontology or epistemology that conflates the being of objects with their local manifestations, thereby denying the withdrawn dimension of objects, their excess as attractors or powers, and actualized qualities or states of objects. Lucretius was an actualist in reducing atoms to their positions in the void and their shape. Hume was an actualist in attempting to reduce objects to their sensible impressions. Hume’s assumption regarding impressions is later taken up by Kant and nearly all subsequent strains of philosophy deeply influenced by Kant’s correlationism. The move always consists in a denial of the power of objects over any of their local manifestations. Ontological relationism is an actualism in that it rightly notes that the qualities or local manifestations of an object are often dependent on their exo-relations or relations to other objects, while denying that objects harbor volcanic powers in excess of any of these local manifestations.
Returning to the question that first animated this post, we can now ask what has made actualism such an attractive position within the history of philosophy? In my paper at Georgia Tech, I suggested that objects belong to what I then called “sticky networks”. Sticky networks would be milieus of exo-relations that produce repetitive exo-relations, thereby generating a sort of “ontological transcendental illusion” in which objects appear to be identical with their qualities or local manifestations. The idea here is that throughout most of history we have existed in more or less stable entanglements, such that the hidden volcanic powers of objects are invisible. We are therefore led to actualism as a result of discerning nothing more to objects than their local manifestations. I believe, for example, that liquidity is the true essence of water because I don’t encounter it boiling away in outer space, and I believe that height is something that a person has rather than something a person does because we’re born on the planet earth rather than the Moon or Mars.
A “sticky network” would thus be a détente, a stable state among exo-relations, inter-ontic relations, or relations among objects that 1) creates the illusion that the being of objects can be equated with the qualities of objects, and that 2) consists of ongoing and stable exo-relations among objects thereby generating repeated actualizations of objects in a particular way. However, I don’t particularly care for this terminological choice. It would be better to refer to “sticky networks” not as “sticky networks”, but rather as “regimes of attraction”. A regime of attraction would be a set of exo-relations among distinct objects that repeatedly evoke, in one another, the same qualitative actualizations. The concept of regimes of attractors seeks to get at stable states (fixed point attractors?) that tend to produce the same local manifestations or qualitative actualizations.
The concept of regimes of attraction has both an ontological import and a political import. Ontologically, the concept of regimes of attraction accounts for why objects encountered on this earth tend to be relatively stable in the qualities they actualize. Politically, however, the concept of regimes of attraction accounts for why certain social relations within collectives involving human beings tend to be fairly stable. Marx, for example, was one of the great cartographers of regimes of attraction. Marx analyzes not only how entities like class come into existence, thereby doing Latour proud in his nuanced actor-network analysis of the interplay of money, commodities, labor, wages, means of production, exchange-value, use-value, and value, but also how these relations tend to reproduce themselves over the course of history once they have come into existence. Marx shows both why capitalists are compelled to continuously produce surplus-value in the pursuit of capital (it’s not necessarily a matter of greed or avarice, though that happens too), and how divesting wage earners from the means of production creates certain compulsory relations in which wage laborers are forced to work against their own interests to maintain their jobs. As a consequence, Marx analyzes a regime of attraction among actants (ranging from factories, workers, money, natural resources, investors, etc) emerges and reproduces itself.
The splendor of Marx is two-fold. On the one hand, the splendor of Marx lies in showing how this particular regime of attraction immanently contains certain instabilities that are generative of crisis points that tend towards its own undoing in a variety of ways. Within the language of OOO and Onticology, this is quite easy to articulate. Marx is an analyst of exo-relations. In analyzing catastrophe (Rene Thom) or crisis points within certain regimes of attraction, Marx is marking the difference between objects and their exo-relations. What Marx discovers in his cartography of “sensitive points”, catastrophe points (Rene Thom), or crisis points within a regime of attraction is the difference between objects and their local manifestations. Put less cryptically, he is a cartographer of the virtual, of the potential, of proper being, rather than the actual. He identifies precisely those points within a regime of attraction where the regime of attraction for a particular set of actors (wage earners) might be not released, but unleashed. And part of this cartography, like any good map– even when it’s a virtual map –lies in intensifying the tendencies within a regime of attraction that would intensify these tendencies.
Second, Marx perpetually practices the difference between exo-relations and endo-relations. While Marx is a thoroughly relational thinker, the critical edge of his relational thought is always volcanic in character. Marx is an object-oriented philosopher and onticologist through and through. His point is never to say that objects are their relations, but to mark the difference between local manifestations borne of exo-relations and the volcanic, yet hidden powers of objects in excess of all exo-relations. His point is to release the volcanic potential of the non-relational, of that which is in excess of all regimes of attraction, or to mark the difference between qualities and their substances. This is precisely what Marx means when he points out that such and such a set of collective relations in a regime of relations is historical. To say that such and such a set of relations within a collective is historical is to say that we must not confuse substance with local manifestation, that each object harbors within it a volcanic power waiting for the appropriate shift in exo-relations to be unleashed upon the earth, not as locusts but as a verdant power allowing for something else.
It follows, therefore, that our job as onticologists and object-oriented ontologists is to avoid actualism and the pessimism it breeds of all sorts, becoming cartographers of the virtual or the verdant power, and locating those points in sticky networks or regimes of attraction where the volcanic powers might be unleashed. We must become cartographers of the heterotopia of collectives, practicing a democracy of objects where the reduction of any object to another object is refused, where all hegemonies are refused, where all operations of overmining and undermining in the domain of theory are refused, to map the virtual powers of our collective so as to unleash those verdant or volcanic powers that reside unactualized within the actors of a collective. And this entails that we must play with two hands, that we must be simultaneously male and female without being “bi-sexual”, that we must be polymorphously perverse, for our task is to simultaneously refuse any undermining gesture that would reduce objects to their relations, that would reduce objects to signs or narratives or signifiers or ideologies or discourses or matter or technology or economy or texts, while also acknowledging that all these things, too, are actants in the collective whose catastrophe points we would like to map. Our job is to become actants precisely by rejecting our reduction to exo-relations and local manifestations of all sorts.