In thinking through the strange mereology of object-oriented ontology I’ve been particularly fascinated by the example of couples. Subtractive variants of object-oriented ontology are all agreed, I believe, that objects are independent of the parts that make them up. When I refer to “subtractive object-oriented ontology”, I am referring to the positions of Harman, Bogost, and myself where it is held that objects are independent and autonomous from their relations. Subtractive OOO is thus to be contrasted with relationist object-oriented ontology, where objects are held to be real, yet nonetheless possess domestic or internal relations to all other objects in the world.
Insofar as all objects are necessarily aggregates of other objects, it follows that objects cannot exist without their parts. However, while subtractive variants of OOO concede that objects cannot exist without their parts and that, indeed, one way of destroying an object is through the destruction of its parts, nonetheless objects are independent of the parts that compose them. In other words, objects cannot be reduced to their parts. The parts of an object are themselves objects that have their own autonomy and life. The larger object composed out of these parts is another object that has its own autonomy and life. If this is the case, then it is because parts of an object can come and go, while the object remains. Thus, for example, we might argue that the parts of the United States are the citizens of the United States. However, citizens are born and die and sometimes renounce their citizenship, yet the United States remains. Moreover, it is possible for someone to be a citizen of the United States without knowing anything about the United States or that the United States exists. Indeed, we are often a part of objects without scarcely knowing we are part of these objects. This is why sociology renders a service in revealing the way in which we’re entangled in larger scale objects that effect our lives in a variety of ways without being aware that we’re part of these objects.
One might object that while this might be true of social objects, it is not true of natural objects. The argument here would run that while this is true of social objects like groups, it is not true of something like a biological body because the cells of the body cannot exist without the body. Yet this is not true. Like citizens of a country, cells live and die, just as citizens of a nation are born and die, entailing that there’s an important sense in which a body is something other than its cells. This point is further driven home by the fact that bodies have powers that the cells do not have. Insofar as it is powers that define the proper being of an object, it follows that a body cannot be identical to its cells. “True”, one might respond”, yet the cells of a body cannot exist independently of the body!” Yet this is not true either. In response to this line of objections I present the rat brained robot:
The rat brain robot is made possible through neurons taken from living rats. My interlocutor will respond that nonetheless this is artificial, and a result of the intervention of human technologies. Yet ontologically this makes no difference as all that is required is that the parts, in principle, be able to enjoy an autonomous existence. Whether this takes place naturally or through the intervention of human technologies makes no difference. Moreover, it is not true that processes similar to this can’t take place naturally. It is not unusual, for example, for viruses to transport bits of DNA from one species to another.
When confronted with a couple we can thus ask how many objects there are. Our common sense answer would be that there are two objects, to wit, the two people related to one another. However, the object-oriented ontologist would beg to differ. A couple is not two objects, but rather three objects. There are, on the one hand, the two people, but the couple itself is a third object. In other words, the couple is a third object over and above the two people entangled in the couple.
Support for this thesis can be found first and foremost in how people talk about their relationships. People talk about how their relationship is going well, or how it is suffering, or how they need to work in their relationship, and so on. Moreover, when we talk about other couples we talk about inviting the Doucet’s over for dinner or about how irritating a particular couple is. In all of these cases, couples are talked about as an object distinct from and independent of the persons that compose the couple. Additionally, couples have powers over and above those involved in the couple. When two people get married or enter into a contract, their legal standing changes. They are recognized by the law as a distinct entity. As a consequence of this, the persons entangled in this third object, the persons that make up subsets of the couple, find that they must navigate the couple. For example, if a man decides to breach a contract in some way, he must now make all sorts of arrangements to ensure secrecy because of the legal standing of that contract. The secrecy here is not simply directed at the other party in the contract, but at this third entity, the contractual aggregate.
In my view, this strange mereology of objects, where parts are independent of the objects to which they belong and where aggregates are independent of the parts that compose them, is one of the most overlooked ontological phenomena of social and political theory coming out of the Althusserian school of French thought. If Althusser can argue that subjects or individuals are effects of ideological structures, then this is because he treats higher level objects or aggregates as all there is, ignoring the autonomy and independence that belongs to the parts of social objects. This subsequently generates a whole set of riddles that will be taken up again and again by thinkers like Ranciere, Zizek, Badiou, Balibar, and Laclau as we’re left wondering how change is possible. It becomes necessary to search for an “empty square”, a form of “mana” (as conceived by Levi-Strauss in An Introduction to Marcel Mauss, a void, a part of no part, etc., to explain how any change is possible because the social structure has been treated as a complete system of relations with no outside. And if this move is so problematic, I think it’s because it leads to a complete absence of any sort of decision procedures. Zizek’s “act”, for example, is detached from all grounds and is an absolute abyss of freedom. How is such a thing possible?
Luhmann was closer to the truth. For Luhmann social systems are themselves objects. As Luhmann argues in Social Systems, societies are not composed of persons, but of communications. Here it seems that we’re in an even worse situation since social systems, being autopoietic systems, produce their own information and are not open to an outside. Yet it is necessary to read carefully. For Luhmann, individuals belong to the environment of social systems. That is, they’re treated as independent and autonomous from these social systems, rather than mere nodes or effects of these social systems. As a consequence, with Luhmann it becomes possible to think entanglements of different types of objects and the conflicts that emerge between these different sorts of objects. The very nature of the questions change, for it is now no longer a question of how it is possible to avoid social systems merely reproducing themselves– the question the plagues all members of the Althusserian school leading them to contemplate the possibility of angels which everyone recognizes to be plot devices that are employed when an author gets himself in a bind that’s impossible to escape –but rather a question of how one assemblage entangled with another assemblage can strategically disrupt the functioning of that assemblage. Paradoxically this is much closer to the Marx of Capital despite Luhmann’s protestations to the contrary.