For some time now I’ve used my beloved blue mug to illustrate the concepts of virtual proper being and local manifestation. There are a couple of reasons I have used this particular example. First, my blue mug is usually sitting beside me when I write so it’s a privileged example that happens to come to mind. Second, and more importantly, it provides an intuitive example that others can verify for themselves, thereby helping, I hope, to allow my readers to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Like any example, the blue mug has its shortcomings, but the point is that it is a heuristic device that hopefully allows others to intuit what I’m trying to get at through a familiar example.
For whatever reason, I can’t help but think of the world and objects topologically. I first encountered this concept in the thought of Lacan (especially Seminar IX, L’identification), and it figured heavily in Difference and Givenness as well as The Democracy of Objects. As described by wikipedia:
Topology (from the Greek τόπος, “place”, and λόγος, “study”) is a major area of mathematics concerned with spatial properties that are preserved under continuous deformations of objects, for example, deformations that involve stretching, but no tearing or gluing. It emerged through the development of concepts from geometry and set theory, such as space, dimension, and transformation.
Topology is sometimes referred to as “dynamic” or “rubber sheet” geometry. When approaching a form, topology doesn’t think of that form in terms of it’s static metric properties, but rather in terms of the transformations it is able to undergo while preserving its basic structure. Thus, for example, where traditional Euclidean geometry thinks about the metric properties of, say, a right triangle, topology thinks about the mutations or transformations that form can undergo to become an scalene triangle, an equilateral triangle, a square, a circle, a rectangle, etc.
By way of analogy, you can compare topological thinking to the thinking of what takes place when the stress ball depicted to the left above is squeezed. What you see is that one and the same object undergoes a qualitative transformation, producing a very different shape. Where before we had a single blue ball covered in a mesh, we now have a multitude of balls that even change their color. Here’s the same basic idea seen dynamically:
As the object is perturbed we notice that it undergoes all sorts of qualitative transformations. It changes color, it changes shape, it rebounds back to other states and colors, and so on. This is the point of my infamous blue mug. The emphasis in the case of the blue mug is color. Color too has a topology. Depending on the source of light in which my blue mug currently exists, the shade of blue the mug embodies undergoes all sorts of variations. It shifts from being a beautiful azure blue in bright light, to a deep and dull blue in dim light, to being black when there is no source of light. The blue mug does not have a color, it does colors.
It is my thesis that all objects have these properties. The question is how we conceptualize this phenomena. We need an ontological vocabulary that allows us to think these transformations. And here I hasten to add that not only do we need an ontological vocabulary that allows us to think these transformations, but we need an ontological vocabulary that allows us to think the transformation between one object and the formation of an entirely new object. If, as I argue, we can’t equate objects with their qualities, then this is because, as we see in the video clip above, an object can undergo qualitative transformations while remaining that object. The squeeze ball in the video clip above is not another ball when it undergoes transformations in its color and shape (qualitative transformations), but remains that entity.
As a consequence, the squeeze ball cannot be equated with any particular qualities it happens to embody at that particular point in time. Here we arrive at the concept of local manifestation. The qualitative states an object happens to embody at any particular point in time are local manifestations of that object. One of my central claims is that the history of philosophy has had a tendency to reduce objects to their local manifestations. I have a theory as to why this is so– pertaining to the structure of academic life and institutions drawn from Bourdieu –but I’ll leave this aside for the time being. If an object or entity cannot be reduced to it’s local manifestations, then this is because it is able to undergo these transformations while remaining that object. If, then, we claim that the squeezed and unsqueezed ball are the same ball, we must distinguish between the object and how it manifests itself. The only conclusion that can therefore follow is that the ball is composed of its powers, not it’s manifestations. The ball must have a set of powers defining a field of manifestations that define it’s capacity to undergo these transformations. The ball is thus defined not by what it happens to be at any particular point in time, but by what it can do. Hence the ball must be defined as a field of affects, by a set of abilities, not by a set of qualities or states. It is for this reason that I define the substantiality of the ball, it’s being as an individual, as it’s virtual proper being (it’s powers) rather than its local manifestations. Local manifestations can change, those powers remain.
Clearly, the transformations that the ball undergoes require some sort of perturbation to take place. In order for the ball to undergo different local manifestations, it is necessary that it be squeezed by a hand. New local manifestations do not take place without the intervention of the hand. And here we should treat the presence of the hand as a parable teaching us all the shortcomings of representationalism when discussing knowledge of the world and object. Someone has to intervene for local manifestations to take place. Passive representations will forever blind us to active interventions through practice. However, there are two important points here: First, perturbations cannot be treated as direct (hence my claims about withdrawal). The squeezing of a ball produces results that differ from the squeezing of a hand that differ from the squeezing of the flesh and so on. Each system “interprets” or translates perturbations in a different way and produces different local manifestations as a result. Second, we should not assume that entities only produce new local manifestations as a result of perturbations from the outside. We should hold open the possibility that there are many entities that can undergo all sorts of transformations at the level of local manifestations– all the way up to and including becoming new entities –through the result of their own interntal dynamisms sans external stimuli. Nietzsche would have had utter contempt for a good deal of social and political theory, as well as science, for the manner in which it only approaches entities in terms of their reactivity. Many entities, perhaps all, have active affects in addition to passive affects.
However, the concepts of local manifestation and virtual proper being are not enough. We note that objects are able to embody a variety of possible states. As I observed in a previous post, there is the phenomenon of physical intentionality. There is a directedness of powers (virtual proper being) to local manifestations. But given that local manifestations are variable depending on the perturbations that instigate them, we need to distinguish between local manifestations (qualitative states in the order of time), virtual proper being (powers), and phase spaces, attractors, and basins of attraction. Attractors would be potential states towards which a system or object can be drawn. Phase space would be the set of qualities they can come to embody in local manifestations. Basins of attraction would be the variety of states they can create as a result of their internal dynamics and their perturbations. A good deal of what we do when interacting with other people, in our political activity, and in our scientific work consists in perturbing objects in such a way as to discover their phase spaces or the various points that a system will occupy as a result of its perturbations. “What will x be if perturbed in way y?”
So what’s the point? On the one hand, I see the schema I’m developing as a way of unifying the humanities and physical sciences. Here, for example, we’d get a renewed discussion of innate ideas in terms of development in terms of attractors, able to account for the pathological. Susan Oyama has made ample contributions in this area. Constructivist orientations in the humanities have explored, in my view, the manner in which social perturbations lead to differing local manifestations in physical systems. Above all, in the case of biological and social systems such as ourselves. What they draw attention to is the historicity of how a particular point in phase space has been actualized as a result of particular social and human interventions that– most importantly –could have been otherwise. Thus when someone like Foucault investigates the history of, say, surveillance, the key point is not that we live in a culture of surveillance– though that’s important as well –but that history could have been, and can be, otherwise if it had followed a different path. What so much cultural theory reveals today is the contingency of particular local manifestations. The problem is that it doesn’t mark the difference between particular local manifestations and virtual proper being and is therefore unable to account for how chance can take place (hence the reactionary and conservative nature– is it any surprise that they tend to gravitate towards Heideggerian piety pertaining to nature? –of all relational-processual approaches, based on actualism, that are unable to mark the transformative power harbored in all objects). More importantly, however, the point is not simply to locate the different points that occupy the phase-space of an object, but, above all, to identify the bifurcation points where old objects are both destroyed and where new objects come into being. Without the exploration of attractors and phase spaces, the strategizing of bifurcation points is impossible. Once again we discover the ultimate failure of reactionary and conservative process-relational approaches that reduce entities to quivering local manifestations, provide apologia for existing systems through their state-based ontologies, and are unable to theorize either change or process as a result of their reduction of entities to local manifestations.