In rereading the final chapters of Jeffrey Bell’s Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos: Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of Difference I was reminded of just how close object-oriented ontology and onticology are to Whitehead’s ontology. Of course, anyone who has been following Graham’s work is already aware that Whitehead is one of Harman’s key thinkers and influences. In my own onticology, my work with autopoietic systems theory (am I boring everyone to death with this stuff yet?) can be seen as an attempt to formulate Whitehead’s account of prehensions in object oriented terms. In Process and Reality Whitehead remarks that,

…every prehension consists of three factors: (a) the ‘subject’ which is prehending, namely the actual entity in which that prehension is a concrete element; (b) the ‘datum’ which is prehended; (c) the ‘subjective form’ which is how that subject prehends that datum. (23)

There’s a very real sense in which Whitehead’s pithy statement here of the three dimensions of prehension completely sums up the object-oriented position on inter-object relations, the concept of withdrawal, and the concept of translation (which some philosophers who use terms like “thick” and “thin” to describe reality accuse object-oriented ontologists of using in a completely metaphoric way, as if we haven’t already written a great deal as to what takes place in translation. Sorry, I couldn’t resist the poke). What we have here is a distinction between the substance doing the prehending or translating, how the substance prehends another substance (the “subjective form”), and the other substance (datum) prehended in the prehending.

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One way of understanding the thesis of withdrawal is in terms of this three-fold structure of prehension. If entities withdraw from one another, then this is because the “how” of prehension (the “subjective form”) is never identical to the other substance prehended. In my recent discussions here on the blog, I have tried to formulate this point in terms of second-order cybernetic theories of information. Perhaps the most crucial difference between first-order cybernetic theories of information and second-order theories of information is that first-order cybernetic theories of information treat information as something that is transmitted between a sender and a receiver. The question here is under what conditions the information remains the same between sender and receiver (and I think a good deal of social theory is premised implicitly on this concept of information). Information is here treated as something that remains identical across systems.

Second-order cybernetic theories of information are, by contrast, much more Whiteheadian. Here information is not something transmitted between systems, but rather is strictly internal to a particular system. Bateson defines information as the difference that makes a difference. The question immediately arises, “for who or what?” Difference isn’t laying out there in wait, as it were, in the world. Luhmann follows up with the thesis that information is the difference that makes a difference by selecting a system-state (or in the language of OOO, a “substance-state”). As a consequence, while other substances might perturb or irritate a substance, the manner in which that substance translates these perturbations into information. These translations, needless to say, are always the result of the distinctions structuring a particular system or its own organization (and here we should not forget that each event of transformation has the potential to transform the organization of the system or its subsequent openness to perturbations). In Whitehead’s language, information is only produced in terms of the subjective form of the substance doing the prehension. This is why we must engage in second-order observation of how substances relate to perturbations. We cannot work on the premise that a) all entities are open to the same perturbations (I cannot, for example, sense electro-magnetic fields but electric eels and many Amazonian fish can… imagine what it’s like to experience that world!), and b) that all entities translate perturbations into information in the same way.

Whitehead’s theory of prehensions and the theory of information arising out of second-order cybernetics gives us a way of understanding what Graham is getting at when he talks about “sensuous objects”. Harman distinguishes between sensuous objects and real objects, and sensuous qualities and real qualities (my schema is a bit different, but we’re close enough that we get along well and our variants of OOO can generate some resonance between one another). For Harman, every object is quadruple, embodying these four poles. When Harman talks about sensuous objects he is not talking about objects that we sense (though that too), but rather– and hopefully I don’t mangle it here –but rather objects that exist only on the interior of a real object. This sounds very strange initially, and it took me a long time to accept it (sorry Graham!), but if we shuttle back to Whitehead’s theory of prehensions and the theory of information in second-order cybernetics, I think we can see what Harman is getting at. Sensuous objects are the “subjective form” under which datums (other substances) are prehended by a prehending substance. They refer to the “how” of a prehension.

The point here is that the prehended (the datum) is never identical to the prehending (the subjective form). Here, I think, we get at the root of Harman’s famous and admirably notorious thesis that the difference between how a rock apprehends other substances in the world and how a human apprehends other substances in the world is a difference in degree, not kind. Each object relates to other objects in terms of its own particular “subjective form”. This would also be the root of Bogost’s “alien phenomenology” (which, I believe, would be a second-order observation of these relations that doesn’t dismiss the human but which doesn’t privilege it either).

While there is tremendous cross-over between OOO (I think Bogost are more or less agreed on these basic points, even if we articulate them differently) and Whitehead’s theory of prehensions, the point of difference arises with respect to OOO’s claims about the status of substances and Whitehead’s claims about the relationship between prehension and concrescence. Roughly, a concresence, for Whitehead, is the manner in which an actual occasion (substance) unifies its prehensions. So far so good. Problems emerge when Whitehead argues that the “…analysis of an actual entity… into its most concrete elements… discloses it to be a concresence of prehensions” (23). In short, for Whitehead substances appear to be their prehensions. The subtle difference between OOO and Whitehead here is that substances or objects cannot be reduced to their prehensions.

The argument is roughly as follows: In order for a substance to prehend other entities, entities must have a structure or organization. This structure or organization is properly the substantiality of entities. Were entities their prehensions simpliciter there would be no “subject” (Whitehead’s term in the threefold structure of prehensions above) to do the prehending and therefore would be no subjective form under which the “datum” would be apprehended. It seems to me, therefore, that where Whitehead proposes a threefold structure of prehension, OOO posits a fourfold structure. There is the subject/substance that does the prehending (the real object), the datum prehended (another real object), the subjective-form under which the datum is prehended (the organization or endo-structure of the real object), and the sensuous object (Harman) or system-state (me) produced in the prehending. The problem with Whitehead arises in running together the subject-substance doing the prehending and the sensuous object prehended. What’s lost here is the middle mediating term, or the subjective form (organization of substance) or organization that allows the sensuous object to be produced. Onticology and OOO can agree with Whitehead that prehensions can lead to the transformation of substances and generate entirely new substances, and can agree that substances evolve as “subject-superjects”, but this requires substances to take place.

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