In response to my recent post on Endo-Relations and Topology, Will writes:

“Rather, the proper being of the object is not its performance or manifestation, but the generative mechanism that serves as the condition under which these performances or manifestations are possible…”

“…No one has ever perceived a single object, but we do perceive all sorts of effects of objects….”

So far so good…

“Fortunately we do occasionally manage to cognize objects through a sort of detective work that infers these generative mechanisms from their effects; without, for all this, ever exhausting the infinity of a single object.”

What I fail to grasp is how we do not introduce the unity of the “single object” through this retroactive cognition.
Alternatively, what lets us suppose that these “effects” can be “owned” by a single object?

This is a good and fair set of questions. The first point to note is that these are epistemological rather than metaphysical questions. That is, they are questions about how we come to know objects, not questions about what objects are regardless of whether or not we know them. It is important not to conflate these two domains of philosophy. The properties of a being are no less a properties of a being if we don’t know them. All I’m minimally committed to metaphysically is the thesis that objects are generative mechanisms and that generative mechanisms can fail to actualize such and such a property when they function in open systems. When I say that an object can fail to actualize a particular property in an open system I am not making a claim about our perception of the object. I am making a claim about the manifestation of the object in the world, regardless of whether any perceivers exist or not. Manifestation is first and foremost manifestation to a world not a perceiver or a knower. The point is that the object can be present in the world, without exemplifying a particular quality of which it is capable. For example, when fire burns in low gravity environments it flows like water. On earth, by contrast, flames lick upwards towards the sky. The capacity of fire to flow like water is non-manifest on Earth but is nonetheless a power of the object.

I outline this line of argument, drawn from the early work of Roy Bhaskar, in the two manifestos on object-oriented ontology in the side bar (here and here). The thesis that effects are products of objects relies on a transcendental argument. In other words, such mechanisms or objects must exist if our practice is to be coherent. Now Will asks “how do we not introduce the unity of the ‘single object’ through this retroactive cognition?” The answer is that this can happen. Why? Because knowledge and inquiry are fallible. In other words, there’s no guarantee that our representations of the world will map on to the world or carve the world at its joints.

read on!

But again, this is an issue of epistemology, not metaphysics. Metaphysics does not tell us what objects exist (that can only be known through inquiry), it only tells us that to be is to be a generative mechanism or an object. I’ll give an example of a case where inquiry falsely attributes a particular effect to a single object. With the success of genetic biology there’s increasingly been a tendency among non-biologists (and even some biologists) to suppose that there is a gene that corresponds to each trait for a phenotype. In the case of some phenotypal traits this appears to be somewhat true (the famous “Mendelian traits”), but it looks like this is the exception rather than the rule. Rather, most phenotypal traits are the product of many genes working in tandem with one another, and also of non-genetic actants such as temperatures, the sorts of foods ingested, developmental processes presiding over the replication of proteins and their variations, etc., etc., etc.. Here, then, the investigator is already off to the wrong start if they begin with the premise that for every trait there is a single object (gene) that is the ground of this trait. We make this sort of mistake all the time in inquiry, failing to take into account the manner in which multiple objects work together to produce a particular phenomenon.

This is why it’s so important to distinguish between open systems and closed systems if we are to understand our scientific praxis. By and large objects function in open systems. To say they function in open systems is to say that many objects or generative mechanisms are contributing to the production of a particular phenomena. The point here is not simply that certain effects are the result of multiple objects acting in tandem with one another, but rather that when objects act together in an open system certain powers of individual objects within that open system do not manifest themselves or actualize themselves because their generative powers are inhibited or clothed by other objects.

As I’ve tried to argue, objects are defined not by their properties (this is why I say strange things like we’ve never perceived a single object because what we perceive are properties or qualities, not generative mechanisms), but by their affects (or what I also call generative mechanisms, powers, or attractors). Here I am drawing my concept of “affect” from Deleuze’s work on Spinoza. There an affect is a power (capacity) to act and be acted upon. An affect is called “active” when it issues from the object itself or is the object’s own act. An affect is “passive” when it is a product of being acted upon by other objects. So on the one hand we have the affects of an object (its being as a generative mechanism) and on the other hand we have local manifestations of an object (its actualization in a particular property or quality resulting from either an act or being acted upon). Rust, for example, is a local manifestation of iron produced as a result of the passive affect of iron elicited when iron interacts with oxygen. Likewise, iron is significantly strengthened when it is continuously pounded while heated because the atoms that compose the lump of iron come to be aligned in a particular crystalline structure. Both of these are instances of passive affects resulting from interactions with other objects. The point here is that when an object is in an open system only some of the potentials or powers of the object are actualized or manifested. Others remain clothed or “virtual” within the object.

Returning to Will’s questions about knowledge, the issue here becomes one of “cutting being at its joints”. How do we determine those local manifestations that are an effect of an object, and those local manifestations that are results of many objects acting together (I think this is the sort of question he’s getting at with his implicit nod towards questions of reification). Moreover, if I’m right about what constitutes the being of objects, then knowing an object is not so much a matter of knowing local manifestations, i.e., that iron can rust. Rather, knowing an object consists in knowing the affects, attractors, generative mechanisms, or powers of an object, i.e., what an object can do, not whatever qualities an object happens to have under such and such a circumstance. And part of the answer to this question consists in the creation of closed systems where the object acts alone rather than in a network of other objects, or where we can delimit the other objects with which the object acts, thereby tracing minimally its passive affects. And here it is also necessary that we vary the closed systems in which the object to be discovered is made to act, to determine the virtual powers of that object as they manifest themselves in relation to provocations from other objects.

It’s noteworthy here that the conditions of knowledge here are ontological rather than epistemological. In other words, the question isn’t here a “Kant-style” question of what our minds must be like for knowledge to be possible. Rather, if knowledge is possible the world itself must have certain ontological or metaphysical characteristics. Among these ontological characteristics upon which knowledge is dependent are the ability to create closed systems where objects are subtracted from relations to other objects. In other words, if relationism is true– i.e., the thesis that objects are their relations –or some version of holism is true, then it follows that knowledge is not possible because we could not then create the sorts of closed systems necessary for determining the virtual powers possessed by various sorts of objects. The fact that we do more or less create such closed systems is itself a testament to the falsity of holism and relationism as ontological theses. None of this is to say that there isn’t a truth to holism and relationism. There’s an important intuition here that should be preserved. Rather as Whitehead liked to say, the falsity of this philosophical position lies in overstatement.

In final analysis, then, the point is not– to employ the overused cliche –to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The fact that often we attribute the generative mechanism behind a local manifestation to a single object when in fact the local manifestation results from many objects acting together is not grounds for rejecting the thesis that being is composed of objects at all level of scale that are independent of one another. This is a failure of inquiry that hasn’t properly carved being at its joints. But this spectre of failed inquiry should not dictate what is metaphysically the case, but should only lead us to be cautious in our inquiry, taking great care not to jump the gun and postulate a rule like “one object, one property” where in fact certain properties are the result of many objects acting together.