In comments Cogburn writes:

This is probably goofy, but I’ve been trying to situate you and Graham with respect to each other (I’m just now coming out of a philosophical hiatus of new baby inspired sleep deprivation, and really happy to be thinking about Speculative Realism).

Is this fair? A workable credo for a lot of Graham’s work is “The carpentry of perception is only a special case of the carpentry of things” (from Guerrilla Metaphysics), whereas your work might be “The carpentry of reference is only a special case of the carpentry of things.” Both of you are taking relations that are representational and at the intersection of mind and world, and showing in detail how these things to be instances of broader relations that are already there in the world. But you tend to do this more with respect to linguistic relations and Graham with perceptual ones.

This hadn’t occurred to me, though it certainly makes sense given our respective backgrounds (I’m heavily steeped in the linguistic turn and semiotics). I’d have to hear more about just what Cogburn has in mind when he talks about the carpentry of reference being a special case of the carpentry of things. In the linguistic turn as developed in Continental thought, discussions of reference are almost entirely absent. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that while Anglo-American thought, in many instances, revolved around questions of word to world, Continental thought– and I’m thinking primarily of the French) –was obsessed with the relation of word to word, i.e., diacritical relations where terms take on signifiance as a consequence their relation to other terms. Under this model talk of reference disappears almost entirely, being treated as a mere effect of these diacritical relations (viz., the referent itself becomes an effect of these differential relations between signifiers). I don’t think I’m suggesting anything like this about objects, but I’d have to think about it.

read on!

I have, though, focused heavily on questions of the ontological status of symbolic entities (the notorious discussion of fictions, etc). I also think that where Graham is fascinated with the way in which entities withdraw from one another, I’m fascinated by the way in which one object transforms the impact it receives from another object when two objects interact (what I call translation).

In this connection, Latour has a useful distinction here between intermediaries and mediators. An intermediary is a relation between an action and a medium where the medium doesn’t modify the action in any significant way. With intermediaries the object receiving the action is merely a vehicle for the intention behind the action. The ideal of relations pertaining to intermediaries is that of the perfectly executed order: The general gives the order (action) and the soldier perfectly enacts the order without contributing any differences of his own (like a little marionette). Relations pertaining to intermediaries, if they existed, would occur in a perfectly smooth space, with the object receiving the action providing no friction whatsoever. Think about the different scripts your word processor affords you. Whether I write in Times New Roman, Verdana, Traditional Arabic, etc., the script itself (medium) makes no difference to the action executed. The intention remains the same regardless of the script. When we think in terms of intermediaries, we are thus invited to ignore the contribution of the object acted upon altogether because we begin from the premise that the medium makes no difference.

Relations involving mediators are exactly the opposite. Where the object receiving the action in relations involving intermediaries contributes no difference, with mediators the object receiving the action modifies the action in a number of significant ways. Anyone working in the arts can, I think, attest to the manner in which the medium with which they work is a genuine actor in relation to what they work with. Take a simple example. You’re sitting about a campfire with friends. You pick up a stick and begin to whittle with your pocket knife with the intention of making something to poke the fire with. You wish to make a stick with a sharp point. But the stick is no passive stuff through which to execute your intention. As you begin to carve the point you encounter a knot in the wood. This knot suggests an eye. As you continue whittling what started with the aim of producing a pointed stick like a spear gradually morphs into carving the head of a mallard duck.

What interests me here is the manner in which the intention is transformed through this encounter. I began with the intention of carving a pointed stick, but through my encounter with the differences of the wood that intention became something else. Did the duck come from me? Did it come from the wood? Either answer is bad because both answers presuppose the logic of intermediaries where either the wood is reduced to a passive vehicle for the carver’s intentions or where the carver is reduced to a passive vehicles for the “wood’s intentions”. Rather, what we get is an outcome in which agency can’t be localized in any one agency. It is, rather, a distributed agency. This is what I call a “translation”, and I suppose it would have to be said that in any translation agency is distributed.

In Reassembling the Social, Latour gives a nice example of mediators in terms of the infamous television remote. Initially we might be inclined to think of the television remote as a mere tool that we use to execute our intentions. However put away your remote for a few days and investigate whether or not it changes your television viewing habits. It is likely that your television habits will change markedly in the absence of your remote. Because the remote affords you the opportunity to flip from channel to channel from the comfort of your couch, it increases the likelihood that you will spend far more time in front of the television if you have a remote than if you don’t. Where, in the absence of a remote, laziness might incline you to be very targeted in what you watch (or might incline you to not watch television at all), the presence of the remote modifies your aims, leading you to surf from channel to channel because you can. Again we here have an instance of distributed agency where we can’t determine whether the aim of the action comes from the person using the remote or from the remote itself. The point here isn’t that the remote determines us to become couch potatoes. As Latour writes,

In addition to ‘determining’ and serving as a ‘back-drop for human action’, things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on. Actor-network-theory is not the empty claim that objects do things ‘instead’ of human actors: it simply says that no science of the social can even begin if the question of who and what participates in the action is not first of all thoroughly explored, even though it might mean letting elements in which, for lack of a better term, we would call non-humans. (72)

In this connection, OOO’s preoccupation with objects is not undertaken with the aim of being “objective” as opposed to “subjective”– a binary that only makes sense within a certain illicit ontology that holds that there are two insurmountable domains of being –but rather with the aim of multiplying the sorts of actors that populate the pluriverse. Matter must no longer be seen as a passive stuff governed by mechanical relations of cause and effect and awaiting the imprint of human intentions from our formative activities. Rather, objects must be understood as actants in their own right.

Mapping all of this on to Harman’s thought, I would say that concepts such as translation, mediators, and distributed agency require a particular sort of ontology. It requires an ontology in which objects are always in excess of any of the relations they enter in to. If objects were not excessive with respect to their local manifestations, there would be no problem in reducing objects to mere intermediaries or vehicles for the actions of other objects. It is only where objects have the endless capacity to surprise us that we can understand how something like this creativity of distributed agency is possible. Would this be a relation of reference where reference is always subverted insofar as no action can ever be faithfully transmitted through the medium of another object? I don’t know.

Coming back around to broader philosophical issues, I think concepts like translation and mediators sheds light on problems at the core of anti-realist thought. Anti-realist strains of thought have a tendency to treat objects as mere intermediaries of something else. They treat the pluriverse of objects as mere vehicles for intentions that lie elsewhere– whether in cognition, language, signs, power, etc. –without these objects acting as mediators that perpetually contribute differences of their own. Objects become mere screens for human intentions, rather than genuine actors in their own right. Apart from the fact that I believe this is just bad ontology, I think that such a view– a view that is so familiar it is all but unconscious –leads to very poorly posed epistemological, ethical, and political questions.