Within the framework of onticology I’ve had difficulty articulating just what I have in mind by the concept of a “flat ontology”. The term “flat ontology” is, of course, derived from the work of Manuel DeLanda. In Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy DeLanda describes flat ontology thus:

…while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. (47)

For DeLanda, then, flat ontology signifies an ontology in which there is only one ontological “type”: individuals. Thus for DeLanda the relationship between species and organism is not a relationship between the universal or essence that is eternal and unchanging and the particular or the organism as an instance of the species. Rather, both species and organisms are individuals that are situated in time and space. If species are not eternal essences or forms defining what is common to all particulars of that species, if they exist in space and time, then this is because species, as conceived by biology are not types but rather are really existing reproductive populations located in a particular geography at a particular point in time. For DeLanda, then, being is composed entirely of individuals.

While I find much that is commendable in DeLanda’s ontology, where the sorts of entities that populate being are concerned, I’m a bit more circumspect. At present I’m not ready to throw in with DeLanda and the thesis that there are only individuals. I am agnostic on the question of whether universals exist, and my intuitions strongly lean in the Platonic direction of treating numbers as real objects in their own right that have being independent of human minds. If this is the case, if numbers are real, then I have a difficult time seeing how they can be treated as individuals in the sense that DeLanda intends and, moreover, I do not think that the genetic concerns that preoccupy DeLanda are relevant to questions of number, i.e., a genetic account of how numbers come to be– if, in fact, they do come to be and are not eternal objects –does not get at what numbers are.

read on!

Consequently, if, within the framework of onticology, “flat ontology” doesn’t signify that only individuals exist, what does it signify? On the one hand, it signifies the trivial thesis that all things that are are objects. Objects differ amongst one another having their own unique properties and qualities (e.g. numbers have a different structure than organisms, obviously) but they are no less objects for this reason. On the other hand, and more fundamentally, flat ontology is designed to stave off strategies of what Harman refers to as ways of undermining and overmining objects. In short, a flat ontology is an ontology that refuses to undermine or overmine objects.

What, then, does it mean to undermine or overmine objects. Of the two strategies, the concept of undermining is the easiest to get. Undermining is that operation by which the thinker attempts to dissolve the object in something deeper of which the object is said to be an unreal effect. Consequently, the minimal operation of undermining lies in 1) the assertion of a fundamental strata of reality that constitutes the “really real”, and 2) the dissolution of the object in and through that stratum. Lucretius is a prime example of an underminer. When Lucretius compares atoms to the alphabet and objects and states-of-affairs to words and sentences, what he is claiming is that atoms are the “really real” and that objects composed of atoms are bare epiphenomena that do not really have being in their own right (this is somewhat unfair to Lucretius as he does nod here and there to emergent properties that result only from relations among atoms). Likewise, when Plato distinguishes between the forms and appearances, he reveals a strategy of undermining. All the entities and states-of-affairs we see in the world around us are, under one reading of Plato, mere copies of the forms that lack genuine and full being in their own right. When Badiou claims that being qua being is pure multiplicity without one, he is an underminer, treating structured situations as mere ephemera that are not true realities in their own right.

Consequently, one claim of the flat ontology advocated by onticology is a vigorous rejection of this sort of reductivism. To be sure, the mereological considerations borne out of OOO dictate that objects are composed of other objects, or that a rock also contains atomic particles and perhaps even “strings”, but the being of each and every object is irreducible in its own right. While it is certainly true that rocks are made up of atoms, the atoms are not more real than the rock and the rock is not less real than the atoms or atomic particles. This is the “weird mereology” of OOO, so forcefully developed by Harman and presenting a real challenge and alternative to the infinite multiplicities of Badiou, that undermines our traditional understanding of part-whole relations. The atoms are objects in their own right. The rock is an object in its own right. The being of the rock is not shorthand for “collection of atoms”. There is a link between these objects but it is a link between distinct objects. Within the framework of onticology, the proper being of an object is its virtual endo-relational structure and that endo-relational structure is not a property of the parts that compose the object, but rather belongs to the object itself. The parts of my body, for example, are constantly changing (cells die, cells are produced) but my proper being as an object or substance, my virtual endo-relational structure, remains the same. The flatness of flat ontology is thus first and foremost the refusal to treat one strata of reality as the really real over and against all others. It doesn’t forbid or reject talking about interesting correlations among objects such as the relation between atoms and a rock or a person and the neuronal web of the brain, but it does hold that this is a relation between objects, not a relation between appearance on the one hand and reality on the other hand. In this respect, flat ontology endorses Latour’s thesis that “nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (Irreductions, 1.1.1).

Harman’s concept of overmining is a bit more difficult to follow. Where undermining treats the object as a false appearance produced as an effect of what is alleged to be really real being such as atoms, overmining charges objects with being “falsely deep” and dissolves them in a more superficial strata of phenomena. What does this mean? First, when we describe an object as being “deep” we’re talking about the way in which no description or set of relations ever exhausts the being of the object. Objects, as Adorno liked to say, are never identical to their concept. There’s always something about the object that eludes any description or experience of the object. Thus, properly speaking, objects are one and all infinite in their depths. They can never be exhausted. The overminer is one who treats this depth as a false depth or a sort of illusion by treating the object’s being as really the result of something far more superficial. Thus, for example, Hume overmines objects by treating them as mere bundles of sensations. There is no substantiality, infinity, or depth belonging to objects, Hume claims. Rather what we call objects are just aggregates of sensation. Likewise, in the force and understanding chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the thing-in-itself is treated as an illusion of the ego or transcendental subject projecting itself into the experience of the object. Flat ontology refuses any overmining of objects that would treat objects as mere effects of actions, events, language games, intentions, signifiers, signs, sensations, a transcendental subject, economic forces, etc. In this respect, onticology and flat ontology practices the irreducible difference between concept and object. To be sure, language games, signifiers, signs, sensations, economic forces, and all the rest really exist. The point is that things cannot be dissolved by these other entities. The relationship between things and, for example, signs is like the relationship between a duck’s feathers and water. Those feathers are a real thing. That water is a real thing. The one cannot be reduced to the other and there’s always something of the thing that exceeds any of these encounters. That’s the central lesson of flat ontology: A refusal of our intoxication for undermining and overmining. Investigate mereological part-whole relations all you like, investigate relations among actants all you like, but do not dissolve things!

Bogost captures the central intuition of flat ontology nicely in his recent post on materialism:

I get the sense that many people misconstrue object-oriented ontology as a singular material affair, as a reductionism: “everything’s an object.” But instead, proponents of OOO hold that all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The funeral pyre is not the same as the aardvark; the porcelatta is not equivalent to the rubgy ball. Not only are neither pair reducible to human encounter, but also neither are reducible to one another. In this respect, McLuhan is a better place to look for materialism than is Marx.

Notice Bogost’s skillful inversion of the difference between equally existing and existing equally. The two concepts are not identical. To say, as flat ontology says, that things equally exist is not to say that things exist equally. Both the sun and my coffee mug equally exist, but it is not the case that they exist equally. In terms of its range of effects, the sun has a far more extensive impact on other objects than my coffee cup. Both entities are, but it is not the case that both entities affect other entities to the same degree. There are a couple of points worth making in this connection. First, flat ontology is not a prescriptive thesis or a moral thesis. And this for two reasons. On the one hand, it is not the moral call to treat all beings as equal. These are ontological matters, not ethical matters. Each entity relates selectively to other entities and as such does not relate to other entities equally. If we distinguish between object, world, and environment we can see how this is the case. The world is the infinite totality of objects that exist, whereas the environment consists of the selective relations dictated by the structure of an object. Thus, for example, an automobile belongs to the world in which a snake exists, but it does not belong to the environment of a snake. For the snake automobiles might as well not exist. The snake’s environment is instead populated by all sorts of scent and heat signatures pertaining to mating and food. The point here is that the snake relates selectively to the world.

On the other hand, ontologically we want to, as Plato put it, “carve being at the joints”. If this is to be possible we need to recognize the inequalities among objects, the degree to which they unequally affect the world about them, if we are to properly understand the being of beings. Yes beings equally exist but they don’t exist equally amongst themselves. However, it should also be borne in mind that this determination of inequalities amongst beings is a moving target. The most humble pebble can suddenly take on maximum impact on other entities if it enters into the right assemblage. Drawing on Harman’s example from Prince of Networks, the emperor of the Roman empire can choke on that pebble and die, generating a whole cascade of consequences for the empire of Rome. These are variable determinations. Likewise, drawing on Bennett’s example, a humble tree can fall on a power line contributing to the 2003 Northeast blackout that had a whole cascade of consequences for people’s lives, economy, the institutions that provided power, and government regulation. Here it’s worthwhile to recall Deleuze and Guattari’s contrast between the games of go and chess.

Second, the claim that all beings equally exist is not the claim that all beings are the same. Beings, one and all, have their own internal structure, essence, or nature and these internal differences should be tracked and understood. The fictional world of Avatar might have an equal claim to existence with the sun, but nothing about this suggests that there aren’t important differences between fictions and natural entities like the sun, or that the two entities exist equally. Avatar produces all sorts of effects in the world as Adrian Ivakhiv has noted, but this is not to make the absurd claim that you can jump on one of those winged creatures and fly about as they do in the film. The film has a claim to being because it produces aleatory effects that exceed any of the intentions of the writers, directors, and producers and that can never be summed up by any of the viewers, but the differences or effects this fictional entity produces differ from the sorts of effects a natural pterodactyl would have if it came back into existence. The latter can eat fish, is very light (around 165lbs), flies about, makes all sorts of sounds, etc. The former can do none of these things. Part of ontology consists in the activity of regional ontology, and a big part of regional ontology consists in determining the internal ontological structure of different types of beings. Yes, they both equally exist but they do not exist in the same way or have the same kinds of causal powers.