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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