It seems that for some reason or other I am always waxing on about my blue coffee mugs. In part, I suppose, this is because my coffee mug is always nearby, within reach of my hand when I am sitting at my computer and readily available for my gaze to alight upon. In part, this is because coffee mugs are familiar furniture of the world and are therefore ideally suited as an example. Finally, and I find this to be odd, this is because my blue coffee mugs fill me with a deep sense of warmth and comfort. Given that I generally detest the color blue (I have an almost violent emotional reaction to the color in many instances), I find this surprising.

At any rate, it was with great surprise and no small amount of nervousness that I this week discovered that a student is writing his dissertation on my thought as well as the thought of Manuel DeLanda (who is, of course, a deep inspiration in my own work). In certain respects, this marks a sort of bifurcation point within the blogosphere. Theorists such as Walter Ong, Friedrich Kittler, and Marshall McLuhan make much of the transition from oral cultures to written cultures and it could be that we are perhaps witnessing a similar transition with respect to internet thought. My initial reaction was to suggest that he abandon this crazed idea and work on something more fitting, but who knows.

All this narcissistic horn tooting aside, as I reviewed his dissertation abstract and breakdown of chapters, I was exceedingly pleased to see that he has tentatively entitled one of his chapters “We do not Know what an Object or an Assemblage Can Do”. This is, of course, a reference to the opening of the third book of Spinoza’s Ethics where he cryptically remarks that we do not know what bodies can do. There are a couple of reasons I find this title so gratifying. On the one hand, this dictim goes straight to the heart of my thesis that objects are split between their virtual proper being and their actual local manifestations. In a number of respects it is the core idea behind my concept of objects. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I’ve made this point clearly enough. I am thus grateful and relieved to see that someone else has recognized this thesis at the heart of my work.

read on!

When I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object and the actual local manifestation of an object, I am attempting to distinguish between the object qua substance or enduring unity and the object qua qualities or properties. The virtual proper being of an object is its substantiality, its being as substance, or its being as a (more or less) enduring unity. It is what makes the object properly an object. No one or thing ever encounters an object qua substance for the substance of an object is perpetually withdrawn or in excess of any of its manifestations. Rather, the proper being of an object can only ever be inferred from its local manifestations in the world. By contrast, the local manifestation of an object is the manner in which a substance or virtual proper being is actualized in the world under determinate conditions. Here it is important to emphasize that manifestation refers not to phenomena or appearances. When I refer to manifestation I am not referring to givenness to a subject, but rather to actualization within a world. This universe could be a universe in which no sentient beings of any sort exist and manifestation would take place. Consequently, appearances and phenomena are a subset of manifestation, not the reverse. Manifestation is an ontological predicate, not an epistemological predicate.

It is my conviction that traditional ontology was correct to distinguish between the substance and qualities of objects, but mistaken in how they thought about the nature of substance. It is correct to hold that objects cannot be reduced to their qualities because qualities change and shift, whereas the object remains that substance. Traditionally philosophy goes astray, however, in concluding that because substances cannot be reduced to their qualities, then substance must be the object stripped of all qualities or, as Locke put it, a bare substratum. Where substance is conceived in this way its concept becomes entirely incoherent.

My thesis is that the substantiality of objects is not a bare substratum, but rather a unity of powers. The powers of an object are never something that are directly manifested in the world. And if this is so, then this is because the powers of an object are only ever local manifestations of that power. That is, the domain of power possessed by an object is always greater than any local manifestation or actualization of an object. For this reason I distinguish between the phase space of a power and powers themselves. A phase space is a set of points that can be occupied in a series of variations. For example, as a pendulum swings back and forth it passes through a series of points between two maxima and a minima. Each of these points is a point in phase space. Moreover, none of these points are ever occupied all at once. The power of the pendulum is its ability to move through this phase space, while each point the pendulum moves through is a local manifestation of this power of the pendulum.

Two points follow from this thesis about the relationship between substance or virtual proper being and qualities or local manifestations:

First, we should not speak of qualities as something an object possesses, has, or is, but rather as acts, verbs, or something an object does.

Second, to know an object is not to be capable of listing a set of essential qualities or properties belonging to an object, but rather to know the powers or capacities of an object.

Here I return to my beloved blue coffee mugs with which I began this post. Within the ontological framework I am proposing, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the mug is blue or that the mug possesses the quality of blue. Rather, if we had an ontologically correct language, we would instead say that “the mug blues” or that “the mug is bluing” or that “the mug does blue”. The blueness of the mug is not a quality that the mug has but is something that the mug does. It is an activity on the part of the mug. Nor would it be accurate to claim, at the level of virtual proper being, that “the mug has blue power”. The mug does not have blue power, but rather coloring power.

The decision to think qualities of an object as acts or doings rather than as possessions and my rejection of the thesis that the mug has blue power rather than coloring power are motivated by two interrelated concerns. First, I argue that qualities are acts on the part of objects precisely because qualities vary. If it is inaccurate to suggest that the mug is blue, then this is because the mug is a variety of different colors as a function of the exo-relations with light the mug enters into. As I look at my mug under the warm light of my desktop lamp it is now a very dark, deep, flat blue. Now I open the shade to my office window, allowing sunlight to stream in. The mug becomes a brilliant, bright, shiny blue. Sharing a romantic moment with my coffee mug by candlelight, the colors are deep as they are under my office light, but now the blue flickers and dances in response to the shifting intensity of the candle flame. And finally I blow out the candle and the mug becomes black.

The color of the mug is not a Euclidean property of the mug– which is to say a fixed property –but is rather a topology or series of variations that are a function of the exo-relations the mug enters into with other objects (different photons of light). For this reason we must say that the mug blues, that it does blue, rather than that the mug is blue. The blueing of the mug is the local manifestation of the mug. Likewise, if we don’t say that the mug has blue power, but rather has coloring power, then this is because the mug has the power to produce a whole range of colors ranging from black to midnight blue. This range is the power of the mug, while every point or variation within this range is the phase space of the mug. Finally, the actualization of a point within this topology or phase space is a local manifestation of the mug. Aristotle’s formal cause must be rescued from its fixed structure Euclideanism and placed soundly within the field of topology or structures that contain series of variations within them. And this is why I refer to objects as “difference engines” or “generative mechanisms”, for objects are these powers of producing differences in the world at the level of qualities or local manifestations.

Why, then, are we inclined to say that the mug is blue rather than that the mug blues and has coloring power? I think there are two reasons for this, one sociological and the other having to do with logoi or local ontological situations. Sociologically, philosophers, as writers and scholars, do a lot of sitting. This is also true of those times when we pause to reflect and wonder what objects are. Everything is still. As such, when we cast about for objects to contemplate our tendency is to encounter objects in relatively fixed circumstances. The philosopher picks up the first item that is about or nearby, such as my coffee cup in this post. But as a result of this relatively fixed circumstances we encounter qualities not in their changes or transitions, but rather as abiding qualities possessed by an object. We then build this lack of engagement with objects into the very foundations of our ontology without realizing it.

Second, by and large the objects that populate our world tend to exist in fairly stable sets of exo-relations. This entails that there is often very little variation in the qualities of the objects that make up the furniture of our daily experience. This, no doubt, is one reason that the confusion of objects with their qualities is such a persistent tendency of thought. If Aristotle was able to think the formal cause of objects in largely fixed Euclidean terms rather than in dynamic topological terms, then this is because there is often a sort of détente of exo-relations among objects leading to fairly stable qualities or local manifestations among objects. If I am led, for example, to think of my body as possessing a rather fixed form, then this is because the atmospheric pressure produced by the Earth’s gases pressing down upon me is fairly constant. If, by contrast, a mad scientist– let us make up a name at random such as Ian Bogost –were to place me in a room that slowly decreased atmospheric pressure the form or shape of my body would change in subtle ways up to that point where I would finally decompress. Likewise, the form of my body changes in subtle ways with changes in temperature, become more compact when it is very cold and somewhat puffy when it is very hot. Even the spatial form of my body is an act on the part of my body, something my body does, not something my body has or is. This is why I refer to logoi or local ontological situations. These logoi or local ontological situations are relatively stable exo-relations among objects that tend to generate, as a consequence, enduring and stable qualities in objects.

All of this brings me back around to John’s thesis that we don’t know what an object can do. The consequence that follows from the distinction between substance as virtual proper being composed of powers and qualities as local manifestations of objects is that objects have, folded within themselves, all sorts of powers of which we are scarcely aware. In Prince of Networks Graham makes this point beautifully we he suggests that sometimes objects can sleep. I take it that by a sleeping object Harman means an object so thoroughly withdrawn from the world that it produces no qualities whatsoever. Picking up on this line of thought, I would argue that objects are always somewhat drowsy. This would be another way of articulating the thesis that objects are withdrawn. If objects are always somewhat drowsy, then this is because objects always harbor within them demonic powers of which we are scarcely aware and that have never been manifested in the world. These are powers that have never had the occasion to actualize themselves in a quality or a local manifestation, but which are, nonetheless, entirely there in the object. I see something of an inventiveness, creativity, and emancipatory promise in this notion of a dozing power, for it entails the possibility of a being otherwise should the object enter into new exo-relations with other objects. And as a consequence of this, experimentalism is one consequence of onticology, for the virtual proper being of objects enjoins us to experiment with objects so as to unleash dozing powers producing new meshworks of objects.