art-wag-chuckHarman has an interesting post up clarifying his views on the difference between real objects and fictional objects. As those who have been following my posts know, this issue has caused me endless headaches and I am still not entirely sure where I stand. At any rate, as Graham writes,

In a number of references to my work in the blogosphere lately, I’ve read that I think all objects are equally real. This is untrue. I believe, instead, that all objects are equally objects. But real objects are only one kind for me. The other kind are the intentional objects.

These two kinds of objets differ from each other in various important ways. Real objects are not dependent on the entities that relate with them. They withdraw or hide from all contact. Intentional objects are completely dependent on the entity that encounters them (which, for me, need not be a human or even an animal). Moreover, intentional objects do not hide. Saying otherwise is a frequent and understandable mistake, but Husserl’s intentional objects are by no means “concealed” in the way that Heidegger’s are. It is true that for Husserl there are an infinite possible number of profiles of a mailbox. But it doesn’t really matter, because a mailbox is not a sum total of profiles for him. Intentional objects are always already present for Husserl (and for me). They are simply encrusted with additional, accidental information that is not part of the essence of these objects.

I suspect that I am partially responsible for this confusion as I do hold– or am strongly inclined to hold at this point –that fictional objects are real objects. Here it is worthwhile to emphasize that “object-oriented ontology” does not refer to a single ontology. Leibniz, Whitehead, Latour, Harman, and myself are all object-oriented ontologists in that we all begin from the premise that being is composed of objects, yet there are vast differences between these different ontologies. It is for this reason that I refer to my own position as “onticology”– which sounds like a branch of medicine that studies cancer, and I suspect there are those that think of it as a cancer –rather than simply calling it OOO. Perhaps, for the sake of clarity, I will refer to Harman’s ontology as “ontography“, drawing on a term he playfully entertained a couple months ago.

read on!

At any rate, some differences between Harman’s ontography and my onticology are readily evident in the second paragraph quoted above. With Harman I argue that objects withdraw from other objects, however I arrive at this position for a very different set of reasons. In my view, the withdrawal of objects is the result of the difference between dimensions of objects or Ø and O1. Within the framework of onticology Ø or the matheme for the split or barred object refers to the endo-relational structure of the object. This endo-relational structure consists of a system of attractors defining the phase space of an object or all possible ways in which an object can actualize itself. Attractors are states towards which a system tends, whereas a phase space consists of all possible states a system can occupy. Thus, for example, if you roll a marble down the side of a bowl, the final point at which the marble comes to rest is a fixed point attractor of this system. By contrast, the phase space of this system is all the points the marble can occupy as it rolls up and down the sides of the bowl. I argue that objects are split or divided– or in Harman’s parlance, that they “withdraw” –because no object actualizes all possible points within its phase space. In this connection, O1 refers to an actualized point within a phase space that the object currently occupies.

Similarly, with Harman I hold that objects never “encounter” each other as the objects they are, but again for very different reasons. Where Harman holds that objects have no contact with one another, in my view objects perpetually enter into relations with one another but never encounter the objects with which they relate as the objects they are. Within onticology, this inability for objects to encounter other objects as they are follows from the ontic principle and is what I call “translation”. The ontic principle stipulates that there is no difference that does not make a difference. From this it follows that when one object interacts with another object, the second object receiving the difference of the first object also contributes its own differences, such that the difference of the first object is modified rather than transported from the first object to the second object without remainder. Evoking one of my favorite examples, the plant doesn’t encounter sunlight as sunlight, but translates this sunlight into sugars through a differential process of photosynthesis. In short, the differences issued by one object always become something else in the receiving object. In this regard, it is not, within the framework of onticology, that objects have no contact with one another– they rustle against one another all the time –but that they transform the differences they receive. In this regard, I partially accept Leibniz’s thesis that “monads” have no windows by which anything can go in or come out, while simultaneously expressing the world about them. The difference here would be that whereas Leibniz appears to argue that monads do not interact with other monads at all, but rather unfold as a consequence of their own internal principle, I see objects as information processing systems that interact in all sorts of ways with other objects while nonetheless transforming the differences they receive.

Returning, then, to the issue of fictional objects, I have a number of reservations about the distinction between real objects and intentional objects. Within the framework of onticology, I, of course, want to maintain a place for what Graham calls “intentional objects” or objects that are dependent on a relation to the systems in which they inhere. My worry, however, is that treating fictional objects as intentional objects doesn’t adequately account for the being of these entities. In this connection, fictional objects are an extreme example of a more general class of entities that can be referred to, for lack of a better term, as “collective entities”. Here I have in mind things like money, nations, cities, signifiers and signs, corporations, police officers, college graduates, presidents, kings, and so on.

The worry I have with Harman’s distinction between real and intentional objects is that none of the entities listed above seem to fit his model of intentional objects. Whether or not something is money, whether or not someone is a college graduate, a president, or a king is not the result of an intentional relation. I cannot make something money by intending it as money, nor can I make myself a king by intending myself as a king. I am not claiming that these collective objects are not dependent on the existence of humans. I am perfectly happy to concede that without the existence of human beings none of these entities would exist. The existence of human collectives, in other words, is a condition for the possibility of these entities.

field_bigHowever, while the existence of human collectives is a condition for the possibility of these entities, I do not see why this dependence relation makes these objects any less real than other objects. Here I reason by analogy, citing two examples of other dependency relations outside the domain of human collectives. The emergence of eukaryotes was a necessary condition for the evolution of more complex organisms because they transformed the nature of the environment, introducing massive amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere over long expanses of time. Without this transformation, other organisms could not arise. The existence of the moon was a necessary condition for the evolution of much of the life as we know it on this planet to evolve in the way that it did. If the moon did not exist, the earth would spin at a far faster rate than it does now. There would be about four hours of day and four hours of night. Moreover, as a result of this rapid revolution, climate conditions would be far harsher, generating blinding winds and powerful storms. Moreover, in the absence of the moon coastal tides would amount to only a few inches. On the one hand, it is likely that these wind conditions would prevent the evolution of a number of birds and insects as flight just wouldn’t be adaptive in such an environment. On the other hand, it’s likely that low tides of this sort would have significantly impeded the formation of tidal pools that many biologists believe were responsible for creating the pre-biotic soup out of which life emerged. A similar point can be made about the earth’s electromagnetic field. Were the earth’s electromagnetic field stronger, it is likely that evolution would have taken place at a far slower rate as far less solar radiation would enter our atmosphere, causing fewer genetic mutations. These are all instances of one entity producing all sorts of differences in other entities.

My point here is that in these instances we have all sorts of dependence relations functioning as conditions for the existence of other entities, yet these entities are no less real as a result of these dependencies. The bird is no less real by virtue of depending on the moon and eukaryotes to exist. All things being equal, it seems to me that there’s little reason to suggest that collective entities like money or kings are less real as a result of depending on the existence of humans. Just as humans depend on the existence of eukaryotes but are no less real or autonomous for that reason, money depends on the existence of humans but is no less real or independent for that reason. Money is like a highly specialized organism that can only exist in an Amazonian ecosystem, but just as we wouldn’t diminish the reality of that organism by virtue of the fact that it depends on this highly specific organism populated by all sorts of other organisms, we shouldn’t treat the existence of money as merely an intentional object.

In this connection, I find that my position is close to the one that Graham attributes to early Latour. As Graham writes:

The notion that “all objects are equally real” can be ascribed, not to me, but to Latour in Irreductions. The reason Batman is just as real an actor as neutrons, in Irreductions, is that Latour defines actors as anything capable of modifying, transforming, perturbing, or creating something else. It is a relational definition of reality. And given that Batman can indeed affect other actors, by causing a heroic or sad mood, or by motivating the attendance of films or the purchase of toys, then in that sense Batman is real. But it is important to note that Latour no longer holds to this position. His “modes of existence” project treats fictional entities quite differently from scientific ones and other kinds. There is no account of the “later Latour” in Prince of Networks simply because Latour hasn’t published his book yet. He has a few articles out on the modes of existence project, but not enough yet that I can safely say I grasp what he’s doing.

But even in the early Latour (the only one we know in the published books so far), if all actors are equally real, not all are equally strong. It is by no means true that Latour regards any random superstition as no worse than the most rigorous theory. He simply has a different definition of what “rigorous” means than scientific realists generally do. He doesn’t think it’s a matter of the mind accurately copying states of affairs outside the mind. He thinks, instead, that truth is a matter of translation, and that translation requires allies.

With Graham I accept the thesis that the being of an entity or an object has nothing to do with whether that object produces a difference in another object. In onticology, if an object produces a difference, then it is. That difference production can take place in a thoroughly remote portion of the universe, unrelated to any other entity. It can consist in the simply “differencing” of its being in its act of existing. I am led to this view insofar as I hold that entities are acts or events. The issue of whether an entity produces a difference in another entity and the extent, scope, or scale of that difference is secondary to whether or not an entity is, and belongs to the onticological dialectic or issues pertaining to inter-ontic relations, not to the onticological analytic or those conditions under which an entity is.

Nonetheless, we can talk about differences in the strength of entities or in their ability to exist. Here there are all sorts of degrees of difference, ranging from entities that are capable of maintaining themselves durably for millions of years like stars to entities like Batman that are comparatively very weak or easily subject to change and modification. A king is stronger than Batman in the sense that the kingliness of the king is more durable than that of Batman. As Harman notes, this durability is a function of an entities ability to enlist other actors or objects in its ongoing autopoiesis or self-maintenance. Yet I need to flesh out the dynamics of these dependency relations in greater detail.