January 2012

For some time I’ve argued that objects or substances (individuals) are “spacetime worms”. What does this meaning? It means that substances are four-dimensional. As Theodore Sider articulates it, “…four-dimensionalism [is] an ontology of the material world according to which objects have temporal as well as spatial parts” (Four-Dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time, xiii, my italics). We are all familiar with the idea that objects have spatial parts. My body has smaller spatial parts such as lungs, a liver, a heart, my brain (though some doubt I have one), atoms, molecules, etc. We are less familiar with the idea that an object or substance has temporal parts.

It seems to me that much of the so-called debate between processualists and object-oriented philosophers is a debate between a four-dimensional conception of substances and a three-dimensional conception of objects. The three-dimensionalist holds that “…objects [are] ‘three-dimensional’ [insofar as they are]… ‘enduring’, [and are] ‘wholly present‘ at all times at which they exist” (Sider, 3, my italics). In other words, for the three-dimensionalist objects are only mereologically composed of 1) spatial parts, and 2) those spatial parts are always present as the substance endures in time. In other words, substances, for the three-dimensionalist, have no temporal parts that can come to be and pass away.

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Just some quick remarks on materialism as I’m in the midst of completing paperwork today. One of the fault lines among the OOO theorists is the divide between the materialists and the realists. Harman describes his position as a realism, while I describe mine as a materialism. I take it that materialism is necessarily a realism insofar as it begins from the premise of human-independent entities that are not dependent on thought. In certain respects, materialism is ontologically a more restrictive position than the sort of realism that Harman advocates. On the one hand, Harman’s object-oriented philosophy wishes to hold open the possibility that while there are material entities, it’s possible that other non-material objects exist such as, for example, numbers. On the other hand, Harman contends that materialism is one way in which objects are undermined or erased. As he remarked at the CUNY round-table in New York with me, Jane Bennett, and Patricia Clough, the New York Stock Exchange cannot be accounted for in materialist terms as it cannot be reduced or properly understood in terms of the brick and mortar of the building, the windows, fiber optic cables, etc. If I understand Harman’s critique of materialism correctly, the point is that the New York Stock Exchange has an organization that is greater than the sum of these parts. Indeed, many of these parts can be removed, while the New York Stock Exchange will, within reason, continue to exist. Computers break down and are removed, yet the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) endures. New phones are added and the NYSE continues. Buildings are changed, yet it’s still the NYSE. To ignore this is to miss what is proper to the NYSE as an object and to undermine this object by absurdly reducing it to its material parts. It is something over and above these parts that constitutes the NYSE, not those parts as such.

In addition to the label “onticology”, my position could be called “object-oriented materialism” (OOM); and, were we specifying “Bryant’s object-oriented materialism” we could call it BOOM! I generally share Harman’s critique of reductive materialism, agreeing that we cannot reduce objects to their material parts. The cat that walks around my living room and the cat that some cruel bastard has blown up in a microwave both have the same material parts, yet clearly they are two distinct objects. In other words, it is not just the parts that matter, but how those parts are organized or related. However, here I don’t see why this observation should lead one to reject materialism. The materialist need only claim that all entities are materially embodied, not that all entities are reducible to elementary parts. In other words, there’s no inconsistency between materialism and theories of emergence. And, of course, emergence pertains to the organization, the relations, among those parts and not simply the parts simpliciter.

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The ontology of events is extremely difficult to think. No doubt this arises from difficulties surrounding just how events are to be individuated and their porous nature. As philosophers such as Whitehead and Deleuze have noted, events are both unities and multiplicities. We speak, for example, of a concert, a battle, an encounter, a meeting, etc. In speaking of events in this way we seem to treat events as unities or units, treating them as possessing a sort of identity that pervades them and strictly individuates them. A football game is an event, and is distinct from other football games. One supernova is distinct from another. Yet as we begin to look more closely at events we notice that they also seem to lack unity or identity. On the one hand, each event is composed of a variety of other events. A soccer game contains all sorts of plays that are themselves events. On the other hand, these events seem to open on to other events. One play, one interaction between the players and the ball, opens on to other plays. Similarly, the soccer game opens on to other soccer games in the season, deciding which team plays what team in, for example, the finals. In other words, the season itself seems to be an event that contains other events.

Here events seem to resemble Harman’s description of objects drawn from Husserl (Hegel makes similar observations in the open to the Phenomenology as well as the Logic). There it will be recalled that objects are both a unity and a diversity. On the one hand, objects have an irreducible unity such that each object is one and cannot be treated as a mere summation of their qualities. An object, it seems, is never exhausted by a list of its qualities. On the other hand, objects are multiplicities or manifolds (language Husserl uses in Cartesian Meditations and elsewhere) in that they consists of many different qualities. So too in the case of events insofar as they seem to be a unity that is also a multiplicity. Yet when we look at issues surrounding how to individuate events we find ourselves faced with the question of whether there is genuinely an ontology of events or whether what we call an event is merely a matter of convention. In other words, do things such as battles, soccer games, and supernovae exist as independent events in their own right, or are they merely the result of linguistic conventions surrounding how how we arbitrarily delineate events? Clearly the realist will wish to treat events as entities in their own right. However, the realist will also wish to distinguish genuine events from events that are merely the result of some linguistic or social convention. She will recognize that not everything we call an event will necessarily be an event in its own right.

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One of the central claims of Luhmann’s sociological autopoietic systems theory is that societies consist entirely of communications. For those not familiar with autopoietic theory, an autopoietic system is roughly a system that 1) produces its own elements, and 2) that has no direct relationship to other entities in its environment. Thus, for example, a cell produces the elements that compose it through interactions among these elements. Each event that takes place within the cell is a response to other events that take place within the cell. Moreover, since the cell is contained by a membrane, it shares no direct relationship to its environment or is operationally closed. While the cell can be perturbed by events in its environment, the manner in which these perturbations will affect the cell will result from the cell’s internal organization, not the instigating cause. In other words, an autopoietic system will always process perturbations according to its own organization.

One of the key claims of autopoietic theory is that these systems are without teleology or goal. While from an outside observer’s perspective, we might perceive the cell as having a particular function as in the case of nerve cells relaying information, from the standpoint of the cell’s internal functioning the only “aim” of the cell is to continue its operations from moment to moment. From this perspective, the cell serves no particular function, but rather merely operates in such a way as to maintain its own existence.

Luhmann sought to apply autopoietic theory to society, arguing that societies are autopoietic systems. In approaching society in this way the claim was that societies produce themselves and their own elements (various social roles, positions, and institutions), and as operationally closed systems, they share no direct relationship to their environment or that which lies outside their boundary. For Luhmann, the events or elements of which societies consist are communications. In other words, one of the most disturbing Luhmannian claims is that societies are not composed of persons, but rather communications. As such, persons belong to the environment of such systems. They are literally outside of societies. As a consequence, because the elements of a system can only respond to other elements of a system, humans cannot communicate with societies and societies cannot communicate with humans. To be sure, humans can perturb social systems, but those perturbations will always be “processed” or registered in terms of the organization of the social system, not what the person intended. As Luhmann strikingly puts it, “communications can only communicate with communications”.

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For the last couple of days I’ve been mulling over a passage that Andre Ling quotes from Brian Massumi’s Semblance and Event. There Massumi writes,

Nature itself, the world of process, ‘is a complex of passing events’ [...] The world is not an aggregate of objects. To see it that way is to have participated in an abstraction reductive of the complexity of nature as passage. To “not believe in things” is to believe that objects are derivatives of process and that their emergence is the passing result of specific modes of abstractive activity. This means that objects’ reality does not exhaust the range of the real. The reality of the world exceeds that of objects, for the simple reason that where objects are, there has also been their becoming. [...] The being of an object is an abstraction from its becoming. The world is not a grab-bag of things. It’s an always-in-germ. To perceive the world in an object frame is to neglect the wider range of its germinal reality. (Semblance and Event, 6)

I have not yet read Massumi’s book, but I do have the greatest respect for both him (he’s a great person) and his work. For some time now I’ve been perplexed by certain responses I get from others when I refer to “objects”. In this connection it is not unusual, upon hearing someone claim that being is composed of objects and relations, to hear others exclaim “it’s not objects that exist, but rather processes!” or “it’s not objects that exist, but rather events!” I confess these responses leaving me scratching my head, for why should there be an opposition between objects and processes? Or put a bit differently, what prevents us from thinking objects as processes?

I think the Massumi passage above nicely articulates what is lurking in the thought of those who denounce objects in this way. When we see Massumi contrast objects with “complexes of passing events”, becoming, and derivative of processes, it becomes clear that there’s a diacritical opposition in his thought such that objects refer to “being”, the “static”, the “still”, and that which is without movement. In other words, objects are, for Massumi, static clods that simply sit there without becoming or changing in any way. Under this model, insofar as we live in a world of becoming and change, insofar as “we can’t step in the same river twice”, it would follow that the universe cannot consist of objects. However, this would only be true if “object” signifies that which is static, still, and free of all becoming.

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A number of interesting things are going on in the world of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender, and Culture volumes 8.1 and 8.2 are now out. Volume 8.1 includes contributions from Levi R. Bryant, Jelisaveta Blagojevic, Brian Massumi, Claire Colebrook, Boyan Manchev Roberto Esposito (Author), Mladen Alexiev, Lee Edelman, Bojana Kunst, Stanimir Panayotov, Ivanka Apostolova, Igor Stojanovski Lamija Kosovic (Author), Slavco Dimitrov (Editor). Here you’ll find my article “Of Parts and Politics: Onticology and Queer Politics”. I engage heavily with Ranciere, Luhmann, issues of mereology, and present my sorting of objects into dark, dim, bright, and rogue for the first time in publication. Volume 8.2 includes contributions from Reza Nagarestani, Anthony Paul Smith, Artan Sadiku Ray Brassier (Author), Michael O’Rourke, Nikola Andonovski, Stanimir Panayotov Ben Woodard (Author), Katerina Kolozova and Stanimir Panayotov (Editor). Michael O’Rourke’s interview is especially interesting in this issue.

Over at Intra-Being, Andre Ling has written a series of excellent posts on objects and processes here, here, here, here, and here.

Graham Harman has been approached by David Chalmers to edit the Speculative Realism section of PhilPapers. I guess this means that SR and OOO have now become legitimate areas of academic research. This Spring Jon Cogburn (Associate Professor, Philosophy) will be teaching a course on Object-Oriented Philosophy and Graham Harman. Over at O-Zone there is a podcast of Ian Bogost’s “Seeing Things” along with a response by Robert Jackson. Speaking of O-Zone, don’t forget to submit your articles for the first issue on Ecology. Remember, for this issue “ecology” is not synonymous with the investigation of natural ecosystems, but refers to the investigation of any relations among objects. There’s an ecology of cities no less than Yellowstone Natural Park or a coral reef. We already have a number of fantastic papers lined up as well as outstanding interviews, so don’t miss out on the fun!

I want to flag this issue for further analysis in the future, but one of the key features of more “advanced” units, objects, or systems is the dimension of memory. In Difference and Givenness: Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence I already drew a lot of attention to this, but I’m not quite sure that I fully drew out the implications of systems that have the capacity for memory. In many respects, memory changes everything. The reason for this is that memory fundamentally transforms the causal circuit. Here we should think of memory as a scale with many gradations, ranging from simple organisms that have genetic memory to more complex systems such as psychic systems, social systems, and perhaps certain forms of artificial life and computers that have recollective memory.

If memory as a virtual dimension of a being is so important, then this is because it transforms the nature of the causal circuit both between entities and between one moment and another (and here it’s important that I define “moments” not as the smallest possible units of time, but rather as the smallest possible units within which an object can complete an operation, e.g., moments differ for entities such as the US congress and individual human minds). If memory so fundamentally transforms the functioning of a system, then this is because the immediate past no longer holds sovereignty over what takes place in the present. Rather, we get a threefold relation between present, immediate past moment, and the broader past that follows the system. Compare a simple allopoietic system like a rock and an autopoietic system like a bacterium. In the case of the rock the events that it currently enjoys in its ongoing self-reproduction will be a function of the event that immediately preceded the current event. We will get one phase of the rock passing into the next.

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In a previous post I argued that politics necessarily deals with questions of relations. There can be no coherent politics that does not deal with relations because the field of political engagement is always a field of conflicts or antagonisms between different entities. For example, the struggles of adjunct professors revolving around issues of job security, pay, benefits, the courses they can teach, etc., is a field defined by relations between adjuncts, tenured and tenure track professors, administrators, the manner in which institutions of higher learning are funded by the state, and hence legislatures, tax payers, and government. There simply is no coherent way of understanding these political issues without understanding these networks of relations.

In this regard, the real distinction in an onticological politics is not between relational and non-relational politics, but rather whether relations are treated as external or whether they’re treated as internal. The internalist sees relations as “organic”, such that all entities are internally related to one another in such a way that the position of any particular part is natural within that collective and other forms of social organization are not possible. The externalist sees relations as extrinsic such that there is no natural ordering of entities and such that it is possible for collectives to be organized in other ways. Historically externalism has been the position of leftist political theorists whether we’re speaking of thinkers such as Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Marx, Foucault, Butler, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on. Again and again there is a demonstration that the organization of a particular social order is contingent and that therefore it is possible for it to be otherwise. There is a perpetual focus on the analysis of relations not for the sake of demonstrating that everything is a product of relations, but rather for the sake of showing that these relations are contingent and can be changed. The aim is to understand the mechanisms, the relational processes, by which certain oppressive orders are produced precisely so that those mechanisms can be contested and changed.

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In response to my last post, Paul Bain’s remarks that it will be interesting to see where this new concept of withdrawal goes. Over at Speculum Criticum, Skholiast has an interesting post up, remarking that,

for Harman and Bryant, the problem arises on the side of the (real) object–it withdraws, so how does it interact with anything else?

I suppose I should have been more clear in my last post, but first, the concepts of withdrawal are not the same for me and Harman, and 2) the concept of withdrawal I propose at the end of my last post is not a new conception of withdrawal for me, but one I’ve advocated for quite some time. Harman’s thesis is that real objects are withdrawn from all relations and that they can only relate to one another vicariously. I’ve never understood the thesis that objects can’t touch and the idea that they only relate vicariously. If objects are relating vicariously then they are affecting one another and touching. That’s a relation. While I can certainly see the epistemological problem of causality vis a vis Hume’s skepticism, I don’t understand the ontological property of causality. I take it that causality is just a primitive ontological given and that we don’t need any special account of how objects can relate. To be sure, objects can break with relations and share no relations to all sorts of things, but this is very different than claiming that objects are withdrawn from all relations. I assume that because my friend Harman is quite brilliant, I am simply somehow misunderstanding him, yet he does repeatedly remark that objects can never touch and that they are unable to relate to one another. I simply can’t figure out how this is possible if objects are not affecting one another in some way.

In my work I’ve tried to theorize “withdrawal” (maybe I need a different term) in terms of 1) the manner in which objects are split between their virtual and actual half, and 2) autopoietic theory’s concept of “operational closure” (in Whitehead the term would be “subjective form”). In the autopoietic framework framework, the thesis is not that objects cannot touch but that 1) entities only maintain selective relations to their environment (e.g., I’m unable to sense light in the infrared spectrum), and 2) that entities structure perturbations from their environment in terms of their own internal organization. In other words, the cause or perturbation doesn’t predelineate the effect. Obviously it plays an important role, but the effect will be a function of the perturbed object’s internal organization. I outline all of this in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects. Not incidentally, it allows me to retain most of critical theory and post-structuralist thought and critique, albeit in a modified form.

For me, the important thing about the virtual/actual structure of the object is that we can’t reduce an object to its current qualities. On the planet earth, for example, I weigh, unfortunately, about 195lbs. A naive approach to objects might treat this quality (what I call a “local manifestation”) as an intrinsic feature of my body. Here the thesis would be that a body, substance, unit, or object is nothing more than the some of its qualities. However, when I go to Mars I very quickly discover that seemed what so apparent and obvious– that I am intrinsically 195lbs; thank God I’m 6’1″! –is, in fact, an event on the part of my body. Qualities are not something an object has, but something an object does. On Mars my weight would be quite different because Mars is about half the mass of the planet Earth. In other words, the relations an object entertains to other objects play a tremendous role in its “local manifestations”, generating very different qualities under different networks of relations. I call these networks of relations “regimes of attraction” because these relations among objects draw out different qualities. These claims are dealt with in chapter 3 and 5 of The Democracy of Objects.

So here is what I was trying to diplomatically suggest in my last post. It’s difficult to see how objects thoroughly withdrawn from all relations and incapable of affecting other objects can make any practical difference in our dealings with the world. Such a thesis seems to lead to something akin to the claim that the world doubles in size every 30 seconds. By contrast, the thesis that the qualities of objects are variable under shifting conditions and that objects only relate to other objects under conditions of operational closure has profound implications for inquiry and practice. On the one hand, the thesis of operational closure entails that we can’t just assume that other entities (including other humans and social organizations) do not encounter the world in the same way, but rather that they encounter the world selectively and in terms of operational closure. Off the top of my head, this has massive implications for both pedagogy and political theory. It’s rather difficult to educate a kid if you’re unable to communicate with him at all (i.e., you’re using speech acts that don’t fall in the field of his selectivity) and it’s difficult to act on social institutions if you’re not engaging them at a level they can register. We need to map the internal organization and fields of selection in these other entities.

Second, the thesis that qualities are events resulting from a regime of attraction entails, at the level of practice, that we shouldn’t just reduce objects to a list of qualities (the old Aristotlean species/genus sortings), but that in investigating entities we need to vary their regimes of attraction to see what differences are produced. To see this point concretely, take the Humboldt squid. The Humboldt has a reputation for being extremely aggressive. In other words, we treat aggressivity as an intrinsic quality of the Humboldt’s essence. But what if Humboldt behavior results not from an internal essence of the Humboldt, but rather from features of the regime of attraction in which it is studies? Marine biologists investigating the Humboldt often do so around fishing boats throwing all sorts of discarded bits of fish in the water and that inadvertently capture Humboldt’s in their nets. What if the behavior of Humboldt’s we’re witnessing is the result of being under assault, and not the result of some sort of intrinsic essence? I’m not suggesting that this is the case. My point is that the distinction between the virtual dimension of objects as powers, potentialities, or capacities, and the actual dimension of objects consisting of local manifestations makes a real difference in how we investigate things. Rather than locating qualities in the object as intrinsic features, we instead see them as events that refer to a context of relations (a regime of attraction). In doing so, we come to conclude that the investigation of entities requires 1) acting on them in controlled ways to see how they’ll respond (this is what takes place in a super collider, for example), and 2) requires varying their regime of attraction or environment to see what differences these variations elicit. Such variation gradually allows us to build up a diagram of the object’s virtual powers or a concept not of what an object is, but of what it can do.

In “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, Peirce proposes his infamous pragmatic principle:

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object. (Philosophical Writings of Peirce, 31)

While I don’t accept the highly positivistic reading of this principle that Peirce proposes– for him it must make some difference to our five senses –I do nonetheless think he here articulates a good rule of thumb for evaluating concepts we should entertain and concepts we should just ignore. Here are a couple of examples. Suppose someone approaches me with the claim that everything in the universe doubles in size every 30 seconds. While this is certainly a provocative and interesting thesis, it is not clear that it’s something that we should entertain for long. If everything in the universe doubled in size every 30 second, then this “phenomenon” would be undetectable because everything, relative to everything else, would be exactly the same size. Thus, for example, while my ruler at T2 would now have inches that are two inches long compared to my ruler at T1, I would have no way of knowing this because all of the relative sizes of everything would be the same. Consequently, while it might be true that this is happening, there’s just no way anyone can know anything about it and thus it makes no difference in our thought.

Now, it’s likely that there aren’t many people arguing that everything is doubling in size every 30 seconds, but we do find philosophical debates that are analogous to this. One debate that comes to mind is the debate between free will and determinism. The determinist argues that insofar as we are a part of nature, all of our actions are predetermined such that we have no say in them. If I commit murder, for example, it wasn’t that I chose to commit murder. I no more chose to commit murder than the ocean tides choose to rise or ebb. Rather, this action was ineluctable given causal chains that begin with the beginning of time (if time has a beginning). Following Peirce’s principle, it is likely that even if this thesis is true, we’ll be inclined to simply ignore it. Why? Because even if it is true we will still experience our actions and the actions of others as actions we chose and that we’re responsible for. I simply cannot escape the impression that I’m the one that chooses to walk across the room.

It is these kind of claims that Kantian, post-Kantian, Anglo-American, and scientists denounce as “metaphysical”. A metaphysical claim is a claim that makes no difference. Consider the arguments that some conciliatory religious believers try to make. The scientists are right, they say, to claim that the account of creation depicted in Genesis is untrue, and that species evolved through a process of evolution. However, they continue, there is no contradiction in the claim that God fulfills his plan through evolution. Quite right! There is no contradiction in the suggestion that God fulfills his plan through evolution. However, the problem is that the introduction of supernatural agency into evolutionary processes produces no difference in how we investigate evolutionary processes. In other words, the supernatural supplement adds nothing to our account of evolution and therefore we’re left wondering why we should include it at all. This is a perfect example of a metaphysical thesis in the derogatory sense.

It seems to me that one of the single greatest challenges that proponents of withdrawn objects face is this charge of proposing an empty metaphysical abstraction that makes no difference. I resolve to treat the object as withdrawn from all relations such that we have no access to it whatsoever (this is not, incidentally, my concept of withdrawal). In this way I seek to preserve the object form all erasure under relation. Yet in doing this, what has happened? Have I not won a Pyrrhic victory? Insofar as I’ve claimed that the object is withdrawn from all relation and access, I’m also led to the claim that nothing can be said of the object qua object because the object is withdrawn. As a consequence, the object becomes, at the level of concepts, an empty point. As thoroughly withdrawn, I am unable to say anything of the object. Any quality that I might attribute to its reality is necessarily a quality for me (in relation), and not a quality of the object itself. And this is true both metaphysically (in the non-pejorative sense) and epistemologically. It’s not just that the object is empty for me, the person seeking to know the object. No, it is also that the object is empty for any other object, because the real being of the object is withdrawn from each and every object, existing in a self-contained vacuum, unable to touch any other object.

read on!

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