Adrian has what looks like a first rate post up elaborating on our debate about objects and relations in response to my recent post on ethics (I haven’t gotten to read it all yet). I have to say I’m pretty irritated with Adrian for writing all these interesting things lately when I’m in the final push to complete my share of the editorial work for The Speculative Turn. Curse you, Adrian! I did want to briefly address one point. In a beautifully crafted passage, Adrian writes:

“I” am not restricted to “my body” nor to a given state of “mind.” But “I” am also not a permanent, self-subsistent entity that is separate from my relations (including those “I” may be conscious of but probably many, many more of those that “I” am unconscious of but mutually co-dependent with). What am “I,” then? A congealment of consistency, creativity (capacity for action), and recognition to which I ascribe the subjective identifiers “I,” “me,” “mine.” These congealments are changing, dynamic processes, which wouldn’t arise if there wasn’t an action of self-ascription. But it’s all action, all process, all becoming; there’s nothing permanent “behind” it. There’s certainly a carry-over from one moment to the next, a memory that persists through duration, existing simultaneously with the perception of the world that arises moment to moment, with both always changing, renewing, recalibrating, structurally coupling with its environment and accessing its available resources (available in and through the materiality of what it carries with it and of what it encounters). It winds its way up, works its way through various occasions (relational encounters, etc.) and eventually winds its way down, smoothly and slowly or quite suddenly, becoming something quite different (which it is always doing to some extent, but which it fully does only when the recognizable human social-body-subject “dies”).

When I read remarks such as this, I’m inclined to wonder what assumptions the person is making about the nature of objects? In other words, why are these seen as objections to an ontology composed of objects? Everything that Adrian here says about objects are claims that I make about objects within the framework of onticology. Objects are dynamic processes, events, acts, temporally distended or elongated, changing, etc., etc., etc.

read on!

There are two points of contention here: First, with Harman I reject the thesis that an object is identical to any of its manifestations or appearances. Manifestations or, in Deleuzian language, actualizations, are one dimension of the object, but the proper being of the object is, in my view, something else. It is here that I part ways with Harman. Within the framework of onticology, the proper being of objects consists not of their actualization in any particular set of properties or qualities (here Harman and I agree), but rather the proper being of an object is the virtual or a set of potentials and internal relations presiding over its ongoing existence and adventure throughout time. Objects are powers, capacities to act (and here Harman and I part ways). The problem with reducing objects to their actualizations of specific properties or qualities, is that it misses the dimension of power, potential, or virtuality that characterizes the proper being of an object.

The object gets reduced to its actuality, or its being as frozen. Following DeLanda, I argue that this virtual dimension of objects consists of a set of singularities or what he calls “attractors” defining a “phase space”. Attractors are tendencies of an object, whereas a phase space is all possible points that an object can occupy within the basin of those attractors. The relations among attractors belonging to an object are what I call the “endo-consistency” of the object.

These are all rather abstract concepts, so examples help to illustrate what I’m trying to get at. Often I have waxed poetic and philosophical about my blue coffee mug (I’m not sure why, it calms me I guess and is usually nearby). Now, I argue that objects are split. Every object is a split object. It is split between its virtual dimension and its actual dimension. The actual dimension consists in any of the properties it happens to embody at a particular point in time. The virtual dimension consists of an endo-relational structure (it’s “endo-consistency”) composed of singularities or attractors, which are potentials or powers. To be an object is to be a set of potentials, powers, or a generative mechanism. The actual is thus to be thought as an effect of objects, not the object itself. It is a local manifestation within being of the object.

Now, how to illustrate this thesis in relation to my coffee mug, roughly depicted above. We say the coffee cup is blue, but attend to your actual experience of the coffee cup. Sit there, open the shades to the window of your study, and witness the coffee cup over the course of a day. What happens? Is the coffee cup genuinely blue? Absolutely not! The coffee cup is a heterogeneity of qualities. You wake up at five AM. It’s still dark. The coffee cup doesn’t appear at all. You turn on the light in your study. The coffee cup appears as a brilliant royal blue, glimmering nobly in the early morning light. As the sun rises you turn off your lamp and suddenly the color of the coffee cup changes. It becomes a deeper, more opaque, less brilliant, less glassy blue. It becomes a “thick” or “flat” blue without any sort of reflectivity to it such as the glassy reflectivity depicted in the picture above. As the sun moves across the sky, filtering in various ways through the window of your study the color of the cup perpetually changes. There’s a tree outside of the study window. Wind blows, causing the leaves to rustle. Like a harlequin or a kaleidoscope, the colors of the cup constantly shift as they’re made to dance in the rustle of the leaves. And as that sun sets, the blue of the mug becomes a deeper and deeper blue until, finally, at last, it becomes black.

Everything is already here in this simple example. The variations in color are actualized states of the mug. As philosophers, however, we cannot remain with the appearances or manifestations. No, we need to answer the question of the conditions under which these variations are possible. What must an object be like that it can be so heterogeneous from itself? And my answer is that if these variations are to be possible, objects must be composed of attractors, potentials, or tendencies, that govern the actualization of any particular qualitative state in the cup. If the cup can change colors, then this is because the cup and its colors are not identical, but because the color of the cup at any point in time is a point in phase space of the virtual structure or proper being of the cup.

But that’s not the whole story. How are these points in phase space actualized in the cup? Adrian is worried about relations and thinks that I’m ignoring relations. No! Notice that minimally all variations in the actualized qualities of the cup were relational events. In other words, each actualization involved an external relation to another object; to wit (gotta use this pompous expression), the photons of light. The external relation, what I call an “exo-relation”, is in this case, a condition for the actualization of a point in phase space of the basin of attraction with respect to the virtual structure (its endo-consistency), of the object. However, if the equation of the object with its actuality or its exo-relations or inter-ontic relations is a move to be vigorously avoided in ontological theorization, then this is precisely because the phase space of the object in its virtual being is always in excess of any of its manifestations or actualizations. Transcendentally, these variations of the object are incomprehensible without this virtual dimension of objects as a phase space of potentials that exceeds any of its local manifestations. Hence objects must be conceived as split between the virtual and the actual.

Adrian’s concern seems to be that an object orientation undermines an attentiveness to relations. But as I see it this is not at all the case. Exo-relations are not being denied, nor is their role in the actualization of local actualizations or manifestations being denied. What is being rejected is the thesis that objects are constituted by, or equivalent to, their local manifestations. No, the proper being of objects is in excess of any manifestation or actualization brought about by exo-relations to other objects. Where the actualization of virtual endo-consistency, endo-structure, or endo-relations is concerned, there are two ways in which this occurs: First, as in the case of the coffee cup, there are local actualizations brought about by entering into exo-relations with other objects (the photons of light). Second, in the case of living systems, information systems, and cognitive system, there is local manifestation as a consequence of internal dynamisms of the system itself independent of its exo-relations (what is often referred to as “freedom” in the history of philosophy). The point then is not to reject relations, but precisely to maintain the place of this phase space or excess that is always greater than any local manifestation of an object. All of this said, I actually think Adrian and I are quite close both and what we wish to analyze and in our aims. Additionally, I am quite taken with Adrian’s lush and rich descriptions of relations, their heteronomy, their rhythms, and movements. I really wonder whether, in addition to the OOO conference at GA Tech in April, all of us don’t need to get together and put together another conference on relations and objects. This is all, I think, exciting stuff.