One of the interesting things that took place during the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Philosophy Symposium was ongoing tweets as people presented their papers (they can be found at #OOO). One of the key terms I used throughout my paper was that of “entanglement”. I’ve lifted the term from Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, though, given my disagreements with certain aspects of her epistemo-ontology, I suspect that I use it in a rather different way. At any rate, my proposal is that one thing flat ontology should allow us to think is entanglements of objects without one type of object, such as language, overdetermining the other objects. In this connection, the marvelous, loquacious, and brilliant Barbara Stafford, who gave closing remarks for the symposium, was kind enough to remind us that “entanglement” refers not only to folded and arranged drapes such as one might find in a nomads tent, but also threads that are entangled with one another while retaining their identity. Needless to say, I rather liked these associations. The key point to be drawn from the concept of entanglement is that no one entity or thread (I think of objects as four dimensional space-time worms) overdetermines all the others. Rather, each thread or object instead contributes differences in its own way.

With the concept of entanglement I thus hope to challenge the form/matter logic drawn from Aristotle that still dominates, in a largely unconscious fashion, much of the discourse of philosophy and theory. Within the framework of this logic, form is the active agency that bestows structure on passive matter. We see this logic at work, for example, in how Kant’s a priori categories of the understanding are deployed in the Critique of Pure Reason. Here the categories are active agencies that bestow form and structure on the passive matter given in sensations. The sensations merely receive form. A similar logic is at work among the semiologists coming out of the Saussurean tradition. In Lacan’s earliest formulations, the real is treated as a sort of amorphous plenitude without gap or lack and the signifier comes to give structure or form to this plenitude. It is this point that Lacan sought to illustrate with his famous example of the doors in “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”. It will be noted that the two doors are identical or that, beyond their spatio-temporal position, there is nothing to differentiate them. If, then, a fundamental difference is introduced between the doors, this vertically descends from the agency of the signifier– Ladies and Gentlemen –that bestows a new form on this matter of intuition. The matter of intuition, in and of itself, contributes no difference. For a critique of this form/matter logic, Susan Oyama’s Ontogeny of Information is indispensable. Once you notice it you see it everywhere.

read on!

An entanglement is something very different. Rather than matters being supplemented by forms, the entities populating an entanglement all already have topologically variable form-matters. As a consequence, there is not one agency contributing all form as in the case of Kant’s little demiurge (should we call him “Demiurge Minor”?) or the agency of language, rather we have an entanglement of matter-forms each contributing their own differences generating unique situated arrangements or local assemblages of objects. In one of his tweets, Ian suggested that this term “entanglement” might be a nice candidate to replace the terms “network” and “assemblage”. The terms network and assemblage both suffer from less than felicitous connotations at the level of language. Despite the original intentions of Latour and his gang, the term network has largely been bastardized to refer to relations among a homogeneous set of entities. Where Latour & co. originally used the term network to refer to a heterogeneous assemblage of entities, popular culture now uses the term network to refer to entities that are the same. Thus we get computer networks, railroad networks, facebook networks, family networks, etc. We don’t get networks composed of bonobos, railroad tracks, flautas, and rice patties.

The term “assemblage” suffers from problems as well. On the one hand, the concept of assemblages suggests something that is rather static, that is already assembled, that is already there. In this respect, it fails to capture the thoroughly dynamic way in which objects interact with one another. On the other hand, when confronted with the term “assemblage”, I find it extremely difficult to escape thoughts of an assembler. This might be one of my personal quirks, but I nonetheless find it very difficult to think of assembly without an assembler or the concept of self-assemblage. DeLanda and Deleuze and Guattari, are, of course, aiming at self-assemblage, yet in this connection their language seems to work against them. Insofar as one of the central aims of flat ontology is to avoid hegemonization or the metaphysical and ontotheological tracing of all difference back to an orginary difference that makes the difference, it is necessary to deploy language that avoids reference to the agency of Demiurge Minor and Major as the origin and ground of all difference.

In this connection, “entanglement” seems to hit exactly the right note. Entanglement avoids the anthropocentric and ontotheological connotations of references to the agency of Demiurge Minor (man, mind, or subject) and Demiurge Major (God, the big Other, or language). If, someday, someone elects to write an object-oriented ontology it would have to be one where God is not Demiurge Major, standing above everything in his omnipotence, but where god(s) are entangled with all sorts of other actants or objects. Zizek has already done some of this work in his concept of an impotent God as developed in The Puppet and the Dwarf and The Fragile Absolute. And oddly, Schreber’s God, with his ignorance of what takes place inside his creatures, is oddly resonant with some key claims of subtractive OOO. Schreber’s God is a God where all creatures are withdrawn or in excess of their apparitions or sensuous manifestations. Moreover, entanglements suggest dynamic relations among the threads tangled and all akimbo with one another, nicely capturing the ongoing dynamism of relations among objects in their interactions with one another. Finally, the concept of entanglement nicely captures the way in which these interactions are sticky. When I think of an entanglement I think of a relation from which it is difficult for something to extricate itself. An entanglement is something in which distinct entities are all knotted up. When I’m wearing my social and political theorist cap I’m particularly interested in these sorts of knots and entanglements. Here social and political theory could be thought as a branch of knot theory. Marx was a theorist of knots and entanglements. Through the deployment of a theory of knots and entanglements, through his cartography of dynamically evolving knots, he hoped to locate those privileged points where either new forms of entanglement might emerge, or where particularly weak knots might be found allowing for the emancipation of certain threads or four dimensional spatio-temporal worms.

As Karen Barad suggests, the concept of entanglement calls for a new sort of methodology. Here we must think in terms of what she calls “diffraction patterns” rather than forms structuring contents or matters. Diffraction patterns refer to the dynamics of waves as they interact with one another. Go to a local pond, lake, or river. Or simply fill up your bathtub. Throw a couple of pebbles in and note how the waves interact with one another once their paths intersect. As the waves intersect with one another a new pattern emerges. This is what I refer to as a translation. A translation is what takes place when the differences of one object are woven together with the differences of another object, producing a new quality. Within the framework of Graham’s ontology, a translation is, I believe, what he calls a “sensuous object” but what I prefer to call an “apparition”. If I’ve understood him correctly, Graham’s sensuous objects are objects that emerge within another object as a result of the qualities of one object relating to another object. In Lacan-speak we could say that a sensuous object or apparition is what an object is for another object. An apparition is the weaving together of endo-relational qualities with the endo-relational qualities of another object to produce a third quality. As such, apparitions are the result of diffraction patterns or are patterns that emerge when objects are entangled with one another. We can thus say that whenever entanglement takes place there are also diffraction patterns or translations generating new qualities or apparitions in the world. The key point here is that it is not one object that is the originator of the apparition or the new quality. It is the weaving of these wave-like emanations of difference that generates the quality. And, we can hypothesize pace John’s thesis that we don’t know what an object can do, that very different qualities would be engendered with different entanglements.