As I begin composing the final chapter of The Democracy of Objects in my mind, I find myself thinking a lot about the thesis that the world does not exist. In addition to the arguments I outlined in my post “Wither Went the World”, I find myself, in particular, thinking of Lacan’s graphs of sexuation. However, rather than reading these diagrams in terms of sexuation, I would instead, following Zizek, prefer to read them in terms of ontology. And here, to be precise, in reading these diagrams as diagrams about ontology, we should read these diagrams as referring to ontological discourses rather than being as such.
On both the masculine and the feminine side of the graph of sexuation, what we get are two different ways of handling the withdrawal at the heart of being. The left side of the graph refers to masculine sexuation, while the right side of the graph refers to feminine sexuation. Over at Lacan.com we find a nice summary of the formalizations found on the two sides of the graph:
The phallic function, of course, refers to castration or lack. Rather than referring to a masculine and feminine side of the graph, we can instead refer to a side of the graph that pertains to ontologies or philosophies of presence (the masculine), and a side of the graph that refers to object-oriented ontologies (the feminine). Moreover, rather than treating phi as the “phallic function”, we should instead treat phi as withdrawal. What we get in this schema are two fundamentally different ways of discoursing about being. Accordingly, we can reformulate the formulas for masculinity and femininity in terms of philosophies of presence and object-oriented ontologies as follows:
Philosophies of Presence: All are submitted to withdrawal with one exception. There is one that is not.
Object-Oriented Ontologies: Not all are submitted to withdrawal. But there is no exception. There is none which is not is not submitted to withdrawal.
As I have often argued on this blog (and as has been argued copiously in the Lacanian secondary literature), the graphs of sexuation are both ways of dealing with the real, impasses of formalization, or the paradoxes that emerge whenever we attempt to totalize being or language. Here readers can do a Google search for “Larval Subjects sexuation” if they’re interested in reading my various posts on these issues. On each side of the graph we get a formal deadlock between the upper formula on the top of the graph of sexuation and the lower formula on the top of the graph of sexuation. Lacan’s thesis is that there’s a “masculine” and a “feminine” way in which this impasse occurs (he’s never quite clear as to why he attaches these formal impasses to sex, but I’ll pass over that).
Additionally, it has often been suggested (Copjec is exemplary here) that the two sides of the graph are to be read differently. The first side of the graph (the masculine side) is to be read in terms of standard first order logic. For example, on the masculine side of the graph the upper proposition should read “there exists an entity that is not subject to the phallic function”. On the feminine side of the graph, however, it is suggested that we should read these formula in terms of Aristotlean logic. Here the upper portion of the graph should not read “there does not exist an entity that is not subject to the phallic function” but rather “not all of an entity is subject to the phallic function”. In other words, there is something of entities that escapes the phallic function. Here it is interesting to note that for Lacan it is the masculine side of the graph of sexuation that is semblance, not the feminine side. It is the masculine side that obfuscates the split in being. This is why Lacan playfully remarks that only women are “hetero-sexual”. The point here is that the masculine side of the graph is the logic of identity and therefore only loves the same (men, the story goes, are only interested in women insofar as they are a semblance of objet a, which is to say, a semblance of the man’s own reflection in the mirror). As a consequence, all masculine desire (as Freud noted in Civilization and its Discontents is “homme-sexual”. If the feminine side of the graph is hetero-sexual, this isn’t because women desire men, but because only the feminine side sustains a relationship to difference as such and a difference that is not subordinated to identity.
If the graphs of sexuation are rewritten in terms of ontology and withdrawal (and I apologize for moving so quickly here), we can see how we get radically different ontologies depending on whether or not we’re dealing with a metaphysics of presence or an object-oriented ontology. What the metaphysics of presence seeks and is always dependent upon is an exception or an entity that is not subject to withdrawal. In other words, it seeks an entity that is fully present without any withdrawal whatsoever. This can be the classical God of traditional theology. It can be a subject that is fully self-present to itself without remainder. It can be a metaphysical master-signifier (a transcendental signifier) that becomes the ground of all else. It can be an eschatological vision of being such as we find in some versions of Hegel where being and essence, substance and subject, identity and difference are finally reconciled with one another. It can be a normative law given to reason by reason that functions as the ground of all thought and social relations. In other words, metaphysics of presence always aim to find an exception that eradicates the gap between presence and withdrawal. There are an infinite number of variations, yet all these variations ultimately share the same structure and basic structural logic.
With object-oriented ontologies, by contrast, we get a radically different schema. Here there is no exception to withdrawal. It belongs to the being of all beings to withdraw without exception. Not only do beings withdraw from one another, but they also necessarily withdraw from themselves. If, for example, someone someday writes an object-oriented theology that theology will have to argue that all beings other than God withdraw from God (i.e., that their volcanic internal worlds are inaccessible to God) and that God withdraws from itself. In Lacanese, even God would have to be a “split-subject” (sic.), or rather a split-object. However, while it belongs to all beings to withdraw, something of beings does not withdraw. Beings manifest themselves even as they withdraw. In The Democracy of Objects I have characterized this dual nature of objects as the thesis that objects are such that they simultaneously withdraw and are self-othering in and through their manifestations. Something of objects escapes withdrawal.
Underneath the two graphs we see a series of arrows leading to very different symbols. On the masculine side we see an arrow pointing from the barred subject ($) to objet a (the remainder, residue, or surplus of every manifestation. The logic that metaphysics of presence generate is one in which withdrawal is seen as a loss rather than as a constitutive dimension of being. A loss is something that can, after all, be refound. Here the objet a, when treated as a loss, takes on a paradoxical status within metaphysics of presence. On the one hand, it generates a sort of obsessional or compulsive logic where the missing object, the object that is lost and that prevents full self-presence, is perpetually sought. Yet, like the paradoxical book of Lewis Carroll that is never where we expect it and which moves the moment we gaze at it, the moment we think we’ve recouped the loss the loss is reproduced yet again, pushing the pursuit on yet further. On the other hand, objet a takes on the semblance not of something lost but rather as a usurper, an instigator that prevents full presence from being achieved. Here the metaphysics of presence generates a much more nefarious logic in which various groups and ideas are persecuted and we strive to eradicate them as that which prevents presence from being attained. We get a police logic of the sort depicted in Children of Men, where the immigrant must be rounded up and eradicated as that which is undermining the social order.
On the side of object-oriented ontologies, by contrast, we see a very different logic. Here we have the feminine article “La” that is represented as split (~La~) or divided. This discourse begins from the constitutive split in being. On the one hand, we see an arrow pointing to the symbol for withdrawal (the phi) indicating an orientation not to the presence or actuality of entities, but the manner in which entity is always in excess of its manifestations. Likewise, we see yet another arrow directed at S(~A~). In Lacan, this symbol stands for the signifier of the barred Other. Within the framework of onticology, however, we can treat this as the strange stranger so eloquently spoken of by Timothy Morton, or that which is haunted by surprise in local manifestations. Here we might think of Harman’s profound analyses of those states where objects can be in strife with themselves in a sort of conflict between real objects and sensuous properties (Harman’s analyses of humor and so on). The arrow pointing to the barred object would thus indicate a desire oriented to welcoming the stranger or that which disrupts the familiar world of local manifestations. Where the logic of desire underlying metaphysics of presence is predicated on overcoming a loss and thereby attaining presence, the logic of desire underlying object-oriented ontology would emphasize the excess of all substances over their local manifestations (the arrow pointing to phi), and therefore the contingency of all local manifestations (there’s always more), and would welcome difference or those eruptions within stable regimes of local manifestation where the strange stranger surprises and indicates this excess.