Responding to the second part of my manifesto for onticology, Paul Bains asks about the thesis that objects withdraw shared by a number of different object-oriented ontologists. Paul writes:

This might need more than one go to get it right.

I’m partly referring to Graham Harman’s thesis that objects have no direct contact – one that you ‘partly share.’ Altho onticology is ‘flat’ – all objects have the same ontology…

What I’m wondering is that, even if we accept objects exceeding an given encounter, why we cannot say that there is ‘direct contact’, even if only partial. Objects really do have contact – they don’t have to use up all their possibilities in that encounter.

When the rain drop hits the pavement there are other possible things it could have done (I could have opened my mouth to the sky and let it straight in) but it still has direct contact with the pavement…???

Partially anticipating Paul’s question, Harman writes:

People ask me: “Why do objects need to be withdrawn from all relation? Why not just say that they are *partially* in relation?” And I’m pretty sure that’s what Paul means here.

My response to this (not that different from Leibniz’s in the Monadology) is that an object isn’t pieced together out of parts. It’s not as if humans can touch trees directly, but due to some sad epistemological limits we can only ever know 85% or 90% of the tree. No, the point is that the tree is not something pieces together out of a finite number of accessible qualities, and hence to come in contact with some of those qualities is already an *indirect* relation to the tree. Qualities are already mediators with respect to the things to which they belong.

Harman and I share a number of similar philosophical intuitions– which is why we can both safely number ourselves as belonging to the genus “object-oriented ontology” –but I am never quite sure whether onticology (me) and object-oriented philosophy (Harman) ultimately arrive at these conclusions for the same reason. In other words, there’s a question of whether we’re expressing the same thesis and set of concepts using different conceptual vocabularies, or whether we arrive at similar conclusions from very different and perhaps even opposed conceptual frameworks. This ambiguity is part of what makes my engagement with Graham so productive. In many respects we come from very different theoretical backgrounds (Harman coming out of phenomenology, me coming out of French structuralism, post-structuralism, and neo-Marxist thought), so there’s a question of just how our positions overlap and diverge.

read on!

First, the major point of agreement. With Harman, I hold that objects are essentially split. I’m not sure whether Harman uses this precise vocabulary or not (I seem to recall him speaking of objects as split in Guerilla Metaphysics or Prince of Networks), but here I don’t know that the vocabulary matters much. When, above, Harman distinguishes between objects, parts, and qualities he is alluding to a split between on the one hand parts and qualities and, on the other hand, the being of objects as substances (a term that Harman has gone a long way in redeeming in ways that don’t fall into the traps of onto-theology or the metaphysics of presence).

This nature of the object as split can be schematically represented through a very simple diagram such as the split circle above. Place “qualities” and “parts” in the yellow region of the diagram (this works nicely as yellow is a quality). Place “substance” or “object” in the white region. Harman’s thesis, and one that I share, is that the object is neither its qualities, nor its parts. Why? On the one hand, parts can be taken away– within certain limits –and the object still remains that object. Likewise, as Harman as so fond of reminding us through Aristotle, substances or objects are that which are able to entertain or possess contradictory qualities at different times. Put otherwise, the qualities of an object are able to change without the object ceasing to be that object. In pointing out these two simple features, then, Harman undermines the empiricist dogma wherein objects are conceived as bundles of qualities, as well as the classical atomist dogma (Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius) where objects are conceived as aggregates of parts.

Two interesting metaphysical problems arise as a consequence of this line of thought: First, the object-oriented ontologist, whether she be an onticologist or an object-oriented philosopher, is obligated to give an account of the relation between qualities, parts, and objects. One of the major aims of Guerilla Metaphysics lies in working out this relation. Similarly, much of my Democracy of Objects is occupied with this question. Second, and perhaps more profoundly, if we begin from the premise that objects are not their parts or qualities, then we are led to the ontological question of just what constitutes the being of substance or objects.

On both of these points and questions then, Harman and I are agreed. No matter how deeply you look into the parts that make up the multiple-composition of an object you will never find the objectness of objects. Likewise, no matter how deeply you look into the qualities of objects you will never find the objectness of object. The objectness of objects or, as I call it, the “proper being” of objects, is something other than aggregates of parts and manifested qualities. In this respect, objects are somewhat like apparitions, spectres, snarks, or ghosts. Or better yet, objects are like poltergeists. In many instances, objects, like poltergeists, make quite a ruckus and produce a lot of noise, but, adopting the language of Merleau-Ponty, we never encounter the poltergeist in the flesh but only the effects of the poltergeist. It is this way with objects. It is something along these lines, I believe, that motivates Harman’s talk of objects “withdrawing”. For every manifestation of an object what takes place in the world is, indeed, a manifestation of the object but the manifestation is not to be confused with the object qua object. The object always disappears behind its qualities and parts, such that it is necessarily an excess over any of these manifestations or this multiple-composition.

Now it is developing the nature of this withdrawal and the mechanics of manifestation where I’m led to wonder whether or not Harman and I are making the same point using different vocabularies, or whether we have pretty divergent ontologies that are nonetheless affable in a number of respects. Within the framework of onticology the proper being of substance or objects, the “objectness of objects”, is the virtual. Clearly I’m strongly indebted to Deleuze here, though I do not endorse all of his claims about the nature of the virtual. How, then, am I thinking about the virtual? It will be recalled that in my last post the proper being of objects was referred to as generative mechanisms. Within my own framework I refer to these generative mechanisms or the objectness of objects as “difference engines” because a generative mechanism is precisely that which has the power to produce differences. An object or difference engine is thus a virtual structure defined by internal relations and singularities possessing the power to be actualized in a variety of different ways as a function of both the objects own internal dynamisms and the relations the object enters into with other objects. These singularities are attractors belonging to the virtuality of the object (i.e., tendencies of the object towards which actualizations tend under a variety of conditions), while the internal relations or the endo-consistency of the object is that which presides over the identity of the object throughout variations in parts and qualities.

For me then objects are powers, capacities to act, or tendencies. If objects withdraw behind their qualities and parts, then this is because in actualizing a particular quality or an extensive form (a spatial configuration) the virtuality of the object or its endo-relational structure and attractor-singularities are not exhausted. Different external or exo-relations among objects will generate different actualizations or manifestations. Yet across these variations the object or difference engine is still that difference engine. Within this framework, the problem with claiming that objects directly “touch” one another is that this leads to a reduction of objects to their qualities and extensive parts, leading us to forget that objects are different engines in excess of any of their local manifestations.

Now there are two potentially strong points of divergence between Harman and I on these points. First, Harman is a strong actualist, holding that objects are always completely deployed. Clearly the model of objects I’m working towards here is one that strongly identifies objects with powers and potentials. In Prince of Networks Harman approvingly quotes Latour’s thesis in Irreductions that “the concept of ‘power’ [capacity] is the original sin of philosophy.” Harman’s (and Latour’s worry) seems to be that the concept of power undermines the creative dimension of being by placing treating the actualized being of the object as already containing the actualized being of the object “in vitro” as it were. I won’t get into my views on this here, but it does not seem to me that this is the case. The actualization of potentials or powers is, in my view, always a genuine creation and event, never simply the enactment of a pre-existent model or essence (in the bad sense of the word), and this because 1) actualized states never resemble the virtual that they actualize (Deleuze’s thesis), and 2) because powers must always navigate the network of exo-relations to other objects in actualizing themselves, producing something new as a consequence.

Second, I have a difficult time understanding Harman’s arguments against relationism in Tool-Being and Prince of Networks without the concept of power or potential. On those occasions it will be recalled that Harman argues that were objects nothing but the totality of their relations to all other objects then 1) objects would be nothing but a hall of mirrors with no being at all (i.e., there must be something independent of relations to account for the being of objects), and 2) we would be unable to account for the conditions under which change is possible. It is this second argument I want to focus on. Clearly I agree with both of Harman’s arguments against relationism. In the second argument, the point is that were it not the case that objects are in excess to their relations it would be impossible to account for how any new relations come into existence. Harman’s line of argument here reminds me a lot of Deleuze-Nietzsche’s arguments against entropy in Nietzsche & Philosophy. There the idea is that being must necessarily contain asymmetries in order for being to be at all. It is difference that precedes identity and which conditions all manifestations, not identity that precedes difference. Harman’s point is that were objects the totality of their relations to all other objects in the universe we’d get a crystalline universe where structure is fixed and no change can take place. Change does take place, ergo objects must be in excess of their exo-relations. However, this sounds suspiciously like potentiality or power to me.

Another point of divergence between Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my onticology is that I do not adopt the thesis that objects cannot touch. For me the point is that actualization or manifestation is always selective. No object ever fully deploys itself in and through its relations. There are all sorts of interesting ontological questions to be worked out here pertaining to what conditions these selective actualizations, why actualization takes place in certain ways in certain exo-relations and not at all in others. Here I have a number of strong intuitions drawn from information theory and the selective nature of openness to other entities in the world. For Harman, by contrast, the withdrawal of objects from one another is so absolute that no object can ever touch another object in any way. However, when I read the development of Harman’s account of vicarious causality in Guerilla Metaphysics and Prince of Networks it sounds to me like we’re grappling with very similar questions and issues, i.e., how are we to account for the selective and partial nature of manifestation or actualization and what is it that allows two objects to “resonate” with one another (“resonance” should be understood in musical terms here) and to be completely in-different in other relations. In both of these ontologies, however, I think what is crucial is to defend the autonomy of objects and to avoid any move that would reduce objects to either their relations to other objects or to textual relations, semiotic relations, and various relations to the humans (all variants of anthropocentrism in my view).