Over at Immanence, Adrian has thrown in his two cents regarding the debate that unfolded last night between me, Graham, and Vitale. I’m still waking up so my thoughts are a bit scattered. Hopefully I’ll be forgiven for just outlining some basic points.

read on!

The Greatness of Whitehead

Ivakhiv suggests that us OOO theorists have a rather dualistic conception of the relation between being and knowing, and object to Vitale because he is talking about knowing. As Ivakhiv writes:

This is a beautifully lucid passage, and I hate to muddy its waters, but I fear I might have to. I think the point Chris is making, and I agree with it in principle, is that reality is not accurately describable unless we include perception (or prehension), and therefore the naming of things, the semiotic referentiality that helps stitch reality together, in our description of that reality. For humans this involves words, thought it’s certainly not restricted to words. But for all things it involves something, some way of interpreting or “prehending” things, some event of meaning. The question is how to separate the being from the meaning (ontology from epistemology), and Chris and Levi are simply slicing that matter up very differently.

For me, the problem has never been that Vitale talks about knowing, but how he talks about knowing. This point can be made clearly, I hope, with reference to the greatness of Whitehead. Within the field of contemporary philosophy– and this is a point Graham repeatedly makes –Whitehead’s greatness consists in his democratization of experience and knowing. For Whitehead, experience and knowing are not an exclusive domain of humans, nor even animals, but rather of all entities regardless of their type.

In this regard, Whitehead is thoroughly posthumanist. For Whitehead, the human-world relation has no particular privilege, but is merely one particular relation among others. This relation is privileged, of course, for us insofar as we tend to be human and are rather narcissistic, but it enjoys no ontological privilege. Thus, for example, in Whitehead it is perfectly legitimate to talk about how rocks experience and know the world. This is a position thoroughly embraced by those of us in the OOO camp. Our aim, among others, is to deflate the valorization of the human-world relation and the practice that follows from it in which all questions of philosophy must be posed with reference to the human.

Now, in discussions with Vitale it is fairly clear that he hasn’t taken this posthumanist turn. On the one hand, his analyses almost always revolve around human perception, language, and signs. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that he holds that humans have an ontologically privileged place within being and philosophical discussion. Now, to be clear, the point is not that Vitale is wrong to point out that humans perceive and talk about the world in a particular way. The point is that he is confusing issues of regional ontology with questions of general ontology. Whiteheadians and object-oriented ontologists can concede all of Vitale’s points about the peculiarities of human relations to the world, while still pointing out that this is a purely regional affair and that what Vitale says of humans grasping/prehending the world in a particular way is true of how all entities grasp/prehend the world. The problem is that Vitale’s discussions are far too human centered.

The Last Man

In a previous post I discussed the example of the Last Man to illustrate the difference between being and knowing. In The Road, Vigo Mortensen and Robert Duvall’s characters have a discussion about the horror of being the Last Man. Mortensen’s character remarks “how would you know if you’re the Last Man”, to which Duvall’s character responds “you wouldn’t, you would just be it.” (Incidentally, this novel is a quick and terrifying read.) In response to this, Ivakhiv writes,

agree with Levi that one can be the last man without knowing it. Being the last man would be a virtual possibility for as long as there are men. Once there are no more men, however — or women or other creatures that understand the concept “last man” — and at least until another entity comes along that would understand what “last man” means (or meant), not only is the last man gone, but so it the concept “last man”: it’s winked out of actuality, gone dormant (at best), becoming resurrectable perhaps as a rather different concept, in an indefinite future, that would pertain to the past race of “men” and not to the possible present or future. That is, unless men were to arise again, in which case the “last man” would retroactively no longer have been the last man (except relatively speaking, just as last night was not the last night). “The last man” is therefore a concept with a kind of life of its own (so to speak), and I agree with Chris that such entities — whether they are seen as Whiteheadian propositions, Mortonian hyper-objects, or some other kind of virtuality — must be taken into account in our description of reality.

This is all (or mostly) true, but, I believe, beside the point. The point of the Last Man example is to underline the manner in which questions of knowing and questions of being are distinct from one another. Put differently, what something is cannot be reduced to knowledge or perception of a thing. The issue of conceptualization is different from the issue of the existence of things.

Now, recently, on a number of occasions, Vitale has talked about OOO and his own approach being like two sides of the same coin. Kinda. In one dimension, OOO investigates the existence and nature of things. Vitale’s focus, by contrast, is one how one thing grasps another thing. Vitale begins by the existence of the perceiver as given and then investigates how that thing (usually humans) grasps other things. If I am hesitant to accept the thesis that OOO and what Vitale is doing are two sides of the same coin, then this is because it seems to imply that OOO is not investigating this other side of the coin. In other words, Vitale’s suggestion– and Ivakhiv’s in the quoted passage above –seems to be that OOO is ignoring something; to wit, the manner in which one entity grasps another. But that simply isn’t true.

Prehensions and Translations

What is it that process-relational approaches seem to claim OOO is ignoring? Prehensions or the way in which one entity grasps another entity. Take the passage quoted above. Ivakhiv talks about the conceptualization of humans, etc., giving the impression that somehow OOO is ignoring these issues of conceptualization (which are a form of prehension). But this simply isn’t true. Rather, for OOO entities can be regarded in two ways: They can be regarded in terms of their existence and they can be regarded in terms of how they grasp or relate to other entities. Within OOO, the term for the latter way of analyzing entities is translation. For Whiteheadian process-philosophers the term is prehension. So long as caution is excercised, “prehension” and “translation” can be treated as synonyms with one another.

Before proceeding, I’ll say, as an aside, that the failure to recognize the Janus-faced nature of the object for OOO has been one of the most frustrating aspects of my discussions with Vitale. Vitale’s criticisms of OOO repeatedly imply that we’re ignoring the manner in which one entity translates or prehends another. This, I think, is an effect of the overwhelming epistemological orientation of Vitale’s thought. What seems to be going on is that when he hears me talking about, for example, cane toads he hears me as making claims about knowledge. Vitale seems to hear me making claims about what the cane toad is for us. Yet when I make claims about the cane toad, I am not making claims about what the cane toad is for us, but what the cane toad is for itself. In other words, these claims about the cane toad are not claims about our knowledge of the cane toad, but about the being of the cane toad for itself. Vitale perpetually slides these two things together.

Returning to the discussion of translation and prehension, I argue 1) that each and every entity translates the world in its own particular way, and 2) that the manner in which an entity translates another entity is never identical to the identity translated. There are thus three dimensions to every translation: the translated, the translation, and the translator. The translated is the entity being translated. The translation is how that entity is translated. The translator is the entity doing the translating. Somewhere in his post Ivakhiv gives the nice example of echolocation. In this example, the translated would be the insect detected through echolocation. The translation would be the way in which the bat experiences this insect. And the translator, of course, would be the bat itself or its structural composition. Likewise, Amazonian electric eels sense the world about them in terms of electric signatures. The translated here might be a fish with a particular electric signature (what’s it like to experience the world that way! Are other fish, for the eel, like pulsating rhythms?). The translation would be the way the eel experiences the fish. The translator would be the eel. In the example of the Last Man that Ivakhiv gives above, the translated would be humans, the translation would be the way in which humans are apprehended through, perhaps, a particular differential system of signs, and the translator would be whatever creature happens to be doing the translating. Jakob von Uexkull, in his work on animal ethology and the umwelt of animals can be seen as a great explorer of translators and translations. OOO can thoroughly get behind von Uexkull’s analyses with the caveat that what he says of animals and humans is also true of rocks, quarks, and stars.

Now clearly I am glossing the relationship between translation, the translated, and the translator rather quickly (it is a blog post, after all). For any specific translator, we can get into all sorts of details pertaining to the mechanics of translation. This is what I try to do in chapters four and five of The Democracy of Objects, and what Bogost does with his alien phenomenology. My point here is that translation is a central focus of OOO.

Now my impression is that Vitale has tended to elide the dimension of the translated altogether in his theoretical framework. For OOO the translated can never be reduced to a translation. There is always a difference between what is translated and the translation. This is part of what we mean when we say objects are withdrawn. The insect cannot be reduced to its “acoustic signature” in that form of translation known as echolocation. OOO in no way denies that bats translate insects and other things through echolocation. What it denies is that the translated can be reduced to its translation.

We see this elision all the time in Vitale’s “who decides” questions. Vitale, in his epistemological orientation, seems to assume that for OOO there is a translation that is the “true translation”. Thus, in an anthropocentric reference, Vitale is prone to ask who is right when translating the cane toad: Vitale himself, his 9 year old nephew that has trouble distinguishing one frog from another and frogs from toads, or the herpetologist who studies amphibians for a living. Recognizing that all of these perspectives are valid, Vitale then seems to conclude that the cane toad does not exist; that it is simply the perspective that is real. This is a line of thought that Vitale repeated in the discussion of Paris that occurred on Graham’s blog months ago. Recognizing that every person has a different perspective on Paris, Vitale seemed to conclude that Paris is nothing but these perspectives. For Vitale, the translated thus disappears in the translation and the translator. As I’ve argued in the past, this gives rise to problems when Vitale tries to account what he is when translated by the cane toad. You can’t have it both ways. If Vitale is not exhausted in being translated by the cane toad, there’s no reason to suggest that the cane toad or the city of Paris is exhausted in being translated by Vitale and others.

Now one of the more frustrating aspects of the debate with Vitale is that he repeatedly seems to think that the objectologists are arguing that the herpetologist gets at the true cane toad. Vitale seems to take us to be suggesting that his nine year old nephew is wrong and the herpetologist is right. This arises, once again, from his epistemological orientation. But this isn’t our point at all. Our point isn’t a point about knowledge, but about being. Objectologists can happily agree that the herpetologist, Vitale, and his nine year old nephew have different translations of the cane toad and that each of these translations has its own validity, while vehemently rejecting the thesis that the cane toad itself can be reduced to any of these translations. The cane toad, for objectologists, has a being over and above, in excess of, any of the ways in which it is translated. That’s a pretty modest and simple point, I think.

At any rate, the three points to draw from the foregoing are as follows: 1) OOO does not ignore translation or prehension (it’s a central area of focus for us), nonetheless 2) OOO maintains that no entity can be reduced to how it is translated by other entities, but always exists in withdrawal or excess from these translations, and 3) the fact that entities cannot be reduced to their translations is not identical to the claim that there is a true or privileged translation such as that of the herpetologist or the city planner. Objects are withdrawn from all their translations.

Fault Lines and the Exteriority of Relations

In his post, Ivakhiv reiterates common ground between OOO and Whitehead, yet still, I think, misses the crucial fault line. I agree that there is much overlap between OOO and Whitehead, but there is nonetheless a fundamental difference. For Whitehead entities cannot exist independent of their prehensions. They literally are the creative concrescence or apprehension of that which they prehend. Take those prehensions away and nothing is left. For OOO, by contrast, entities can be detached from their prehensions or relations and continue to exist. Without a deeply modified version of Whitehead that fundamentally transforms the importance that prehensions play in his thought, this is simply an irreducible difference. Does this entail that OOO thinks exo-relations are unimportant? Does it entail that objectologists are indifferent to the fact that mice must exist in a certain milieu or regime of attraction to locally manifest themselves as alive? Not at all. All it entails is that the substantiality of the mouse does not consist of an inextricable relation to such a milieu or regime of attraction.

Flat Ontology and the Linguistic Turn

The shift to a flat ontology which Bogost and I advocate entails a rejection of the linguistic turn. The linguistic turn is premised on a vertical ontology in which signs or the signifier structure all of reality. Insofar as object-oriented ontology is an ontological pluralism, it simply can’t accept a vertical ontology that gives a privileged structuring function to a particular type of entity such as the signifier. I have argued that the shift from vertical ontology to flat ontology entails a shift from thinking in terms of unilateral determination to thinking in terms of compositions

Unilateral determination has one agency doing all the work. In the case of the linguistic turn, it is the signifier that does all the work of structuring reality. Thus, for example, in Lacan the signifier structures all of reality and all other elements are treated as effects of the signifier. Objet a, for example, is a remainder produced by our alienation in the signifier, and the Real refers to formal paradoxes or structural impossibilities that emerge as a result of the signifier. The signifier has a privileged function that unilaterally determines reality, and therefore has an inextricable anthropocentric reference.

Thinking in terms of composition, by contrast, entails a variety of different types of actors interacting with one another, without one type of actor or object unilaterally determining the rest. Thinking in terms of compositions entails thinking in terms of mixtures. In this regard, I have often used the example of cooking to illustrate thought in terms of compositions. When we cook, a variety of different actors are at work. There are, of course, the ingredients. Then there are the tools or implements used. There are the human beings that do the cooking and the role they play in terms of both their activity, their aesthetics, and their tastes. Additionally, there are semiotic components such as the recipe, but also cultural semiotic dimensions such as what the food signifies (think of holiday meals, meals particular to different classes and ethnic groups, etc., etc., etc). Finally there are ecological and economic aspects of cooking, such as how the raw food materials are produced (the manner in which BBQ opens on to an entire meat production industry) and what foods are available as a result of economic relations.

A flat ontology wishes to think all of these elements together and how they interact with one another to, in this example, produce the dish. However, this requires we foresake unilateral determination or vertical ontologies. The point is not that we shouldn’t explore the semiotic dimension of food. We should. The point is that a number of different actants are involved in food beyond signs and signifiers, and that these other aspects become invisible if we adopt unilateralization. We’re doomed to miss the biological, preparatory, technological, and economic aspects of food if we focus on the sign and signifier alone. As is always the case with objectological cultural studies, the aim is not to reduce or exclude, but to expand the field of analysis. The problem with the linguistic turn is not that it analyzes signs and signifiers, but that it renders all sorts of other things invisible.

Now, Chris has often lambasted OOO for ignoring the semiotic, suggesting that it was just last week that we first mentioned semiotic entities as genuine objects or actors (not true). This isn’t unusual for Vitale. For example, in the past he gave us a hard time for ignoring queer theory. There are a few different reasons for this, however. First, OOO is trying to develop a general ontological framework of what is characteristic of being in general. If we aren’t currently focusing on queer theory or semiotics, then this is because these are restricted domains of being. We do, however, welcome others who would take up these projects. It’s impossible to do everything at once, and its unfair to request others to do everything at once. That said, I ardently hope that we’re creating projects for others. Second, the domain of the semiotic is a restricted domain that isn’t operative in all regimes of attraction. Semiotics is highly relevant when investigating food and cooking, but doesn’t have a whole lot of relevance when investigating Mars and the assemblages that exist on Mars. Finally, third, there is a pragmatic decision at work here. Thought focused on semiotics and semiology has dominanted large swaths of philosophy and theory for the last century. In order for OOO to clearly articulate what it’s trying to get at and what’s been missed in so much theory, it’s necessary to deflate discussions of semiotics, linguistics, and semiology for the time being so as to bring into relief other things such as technologies, animals, and inanimate objects. As Whitehead argues, prehension takes place through a system of contrasts. Contrasts always bring certain things into the foreground and push other things into the background. Right now it’s necessary, in our view, to push language and signs into the background so other things become visible.

Apologies for the length of this post.

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