Lizzie got to play hooky from school today, spending a nice day home with me. In part we read portions of Graham’s newly released Circus Philosophicus. Graham opens the book by asking us to imagine a metaphysical ferris wheel that passes beneath the ground to a series of winding caverns below. The cars of the wheel carry all sorts of different objects, while there are other objects on the ground and in the caverns. As Graham remarks,
This image of a revolving wheel is a picture of our world. In it, the dramatic interplay of object and network becomes visible. Countless entities circle into and out of our lives, some of them threatening and others ludicrous. The objects in the cars and those on the ground or in the chambers affect one another, coupling and uncoupling from countless relations– seducing, ignoring, ruining, or liberating each other. This process is anything but a game: in it, our happiness and even physical safety are at stake. It would be easy to follow tradition and speak of a Wheel of Fortune. But in keeping with the metaphysical nature of this book, it is better to call it the Wheel of Events, the Wheel of Contexts, or the Wheel of Relations. As the ferris wheel circles, new and surprising events are summoned into existence. (4 – 5)
The ferris wheel is thus a sort of allegory for– among other things –how objects pass in and out of relations with one another. Lizzie was particularly taken with a passage about a celebration (she’s a big fan of parties). Graham writes,
Let’s develop an earlier example, and say that one of the underground chambers houses a union of steelworkers. As they await the appearance of their familiar grey flag with its black crescents and diamonds, the workers and the flag are two utterly separate realities. But once the banner moves into view, the room erupts in raucous celebration. Now, we cannot agree with the classical theory which holds that the piece of cloth is a substance and each of the workers also a substance but the celebration itself just an accidental intersection of two entities. For the celebration is no mere aggregate: instead, it is every bit as real as the physical piece of cloth or the human workers themselves. We admit that the celebration is unlikely to last for more than a few hours, while the flag and the workers may endure for decades to come. But this familiar criterion of durability is irrelevant to the metaphysical question of what can be regarded as a substance. [My emphasis] For as everyone knows who has taken part in especially intense gatherings, a celebration is a force to be reckoned with: a new entity to be taken into account by many other things. The workers may find themselves carried away by the mood of the party– a mood that exists somewhere beyond each of the individuals as a reservoir of surplus energy. Riot police may be summoned should the atmosphere deteriorate, and the celebration might resist police efforts to control it. Even the union flag that triggered the party will be affected by the celebration-entity of which it is a key component. For it may gain historic value from being the very flag that triggered this particular riot; it could become outlawed, and thereby attain wide popularity as a symbol of resistance. In addition, the flag can be physically altered by the smoky fumes or spray of champagne that the party unleashes. In short, the party seems to have all the features of a genuine entity. We cannot use physical duration as a standard of what is real and what is accidental. Chemists are aware of this fact, and feel no shame in using the same periodic table both for the artificial heavy elements that last for fractions of a second and for the hydrogen and helium that have endured since nearly the dawn of time. The difference between substance and accident is not decided by stopwatch or calandar. If we provisionally accept that reality equals resistance (an idea I reject for other reasons) then the steel-workers’ celebration is very much a substantial reality, as any riot officer will testify. (5 – 6)
I apologize for such a lengthy quotation, but this passage is just too lush and arresting to pass up. As I read Graham’s discussion of the celebration as an entity in its own right I’m forcefully brought home to the realization of just how far we have yet to go in thinking through the implications of OOO. Graham often speaks of the virtues of “weird realism”, and in the sheer pluralistic intoxication of Graham’s ontology we certainly encounter the strangest of realisms. This is a virtue, not a vice. We often speak of the subject and the object, yet paraphrasing James Bond, this world is not enough. Here the subject generally refers to the domain of humans, whereas the object refers to the domain of physical things.
Graham’s universe is a universe in which entities defy any neat categorization into the domains of “the subject” and “the object”. Rather, we get an entirely different understanding of objects, where objects can no longer be neatly reduced to physical things (where’s the solid clod that is a “celebration”) and where objects can no longer be treated as what is opposed to or stands opposite to a subject. Indeed, we’re no longer quite sure what constitutes a subject. Where before we thought we knew quite clearly what a subject is, now we find that we’re a bit puzzled. And if we are puzzled, then this is because relations are generative of a new, higher level, object.
If this is the case, then we are forced to substantially rethink, for starters, our ethical and political concepts. Hitherto, in the domain of ethics, we thought we knew what we were talking about when we talked about the good life, praise and blame, and ethical principles. We we thought we knew that we were talking about the actions of an individual person. Yet if Graham’s thesis is right, if it is true that relations are generative of higher level objects, we can no longer be quite sure. This entity composed of Levi+Computer is one entity. Levi apart from the computer is another entity. Levi with a gun or a knife is yet another entity. A couple is yet another entity. A girl and her dog or hawk is yet another entity. There are a plurality of ethical actors that differ from one another and that substantially change the nature of the ethical and political questions we ask. I’m not even sure where to begin in thinking these things, but I’m certainly very excited.