Both Adrian and Harman have expressed reservations about blog debates, so hopefully I won’t be crossing any boundaries by responding to them concerning the recent discussion about relations and objects. I tend to be just the opposite in many respects. Where Harman is of the sentiment that arguments should take place in written text, I find that I only come to know what I think in my interaction with others. In certain ways this has been the plague of my academic career. Where the ordinary order of things is to treat the published text as what as important and the exchange as derivative, I often experience an acute suffering when it comes to the written text. The written text, to me, feels like excrement, like a remainder, like a waste or a frozen petrification of a living object: Dialogue.

My genesis as a thinker began with chat rooms, moved to email discussion lists, and finally to the medium of blogging. And in all these cases my thought has been animated by a single insistent and painful desire: The desire for dialogue. In Lacanian terms, I suppose you could characterize me as a hysteric or a subject whose desire is structured around the desire of, not for, the Other. This pathology or symptom runs so deep that the only way I can convince myself to publish is by conceptualizing the written text as a necessary evil, or as a slow dialogue in the form of correspondence that is practiced as a consequence of limitations of space, time (Plato is dead), and geography. I conceive the written text as a missive, a letter, rather than a statue. And since dialogues or discussions are distinct objects, it follows that I am not the author of these posts and texts. And this for the very simple reason that in a dialogue one can never know what comes from where. If there is an author named “Levi”, then the name Levi can only name a space of entanglements, of discussions, of dialogues where it is impossible to determine what idea or concept might have originated from me and what ideas, concepts or arguments might have originated with my various interlocutors. And as I say this I shudder in disgust at the pompous self-indulgence of such remarks, as if I were channeling Foucault’s “What is an Author?”. Yet all the same, it’s true. Who can say what comes from where in a dialogue? In the worlds of philosophy, theory, and science, proper names denote tribes.

read on!

As I begin this post, I thus find myself in the ironic and awkward position of enacting Ivakhiv’s thesis by marking a certain relationality at the heart of conceptual and philosophical space. But, in the fashion of a good hysteric, I do so as an act of seduction, but with the caveat that I mark a dialogue not as a relation, but as an object or actor in its own right that persists after the traces of its occurrence and continues to effectuate itself in the world.

In response to my last post, Ivakhiv writes:

I like your single question very much (“Is it possible for all objects in the universe to be somehow destroyed, such that only one object remains?…”) as a way of distinguishing between these two kinds of realisms, and it helps me understand why I prefer the relational over the subtractive one. The question seems absurd to me (in a good, thought-provoking way) because it suggests that that lone remaining object is somehow unaffected by what occurs in the entire universe apart from it. In other words, it’s its own separate universe. To the extent that the universe is a universe, I would say that all things in it are related in one way or another: proximally or distantly (including to the point of irrelevance for any practical understanding), internally or externally, slowly or quickly, etc. But those things are always also in process; they don’t remain unaffected, because they don’t remain unchanging. Even if they maintain a stable form, that form involves some active relating to what’s outside it, some intake and output, etc. If it doesn’t do that, then it’s not only dead, it’s not there at all (because there’s no ‘there’ there).

Read the rest of the response, because there’s a lot there. I’ve pulled this remark out because in many respects I think it gets to the core of the debate. In particular, the portion that I’ve emphasized gets at what I take to be a fundamental mischaracterization of subtractive object-oriented ontology on Ivakhiv’s part. I have not made the claim (and I don’t think Graham has either) that the object would remain unaffected were everything else in the universe destroyed and only a single object remained. No, I have made the claim that the object continues to exist.

These are two entirely different claims, and they can only be properly understood in the context of my distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation, or Graham’s distinction between real objects and sensuous objects. Suppose that the only object that persists after the destruction of all other objects in the universe is Levi Bryant (a terrifying thought for a hysteric like myself). If such an improbable event were to take place, it wouldn’t be that Levi Bryant remains unchanged, but rather that Levi Bryant continues to exist. However, my existence in such a universe would be significantly transformed. For under such circumstances I would cease to locally manifest the quality of being alive due to the lack of oxygen (other objects) in the universe, for example.

Note well, I have identified being-alive not as the substance or endo-relational structure of the object that is Levi, but as a quality or local manifestation that is the object that is Levi Bryant. The quality of being alive is thoroughly exo-qualitative through and through, or what I call an “apparition”, quite precisely because it requires relations to a number of other objects in order to take place (remember, for me qualities are verbs or events, not possessions). But simply because qualities like being-alive are exo-qualitative or dependent on foreign relations to other objects, it doesn’t follow that the object ceases to exist when these exo-relations are broken. No, it simply means that the exo-relational circumstances have not obtained for a particular object to actualize its virtual powers or capacities.

Now when I ran this line of argument across one of my colleagues this afternoon, his jaw dropped and he contended that what I was saying was absurd. Yet what I describe here is not merely science fiction or a thought experiment drawn out of thin air like Jackson’s famous “What Did Mary Know?” No, what I describe here is something that actually takes place in operating rooms around the world every day. People die on the operating table, they become corpses, and then, like Lazarus, they rise from the dead. And if we are to understand how this is possible, if we are to grasp the ontological conditions for the possibility of adrenaline shots and defibrillators raising a body from the dead, we must work from the premises that 1) being alive is a power, not an actuality, of certain sorts of bodies, and that 2) being-alive is a quality of certain types of objects, not the substance of these objects. I underline this rather trivial point to emphatically underline the point that yes, the object is radically changed when it is detached from foreign relations, but that it doesn’t follow from this that the virtual proper being of the object, its existence (which should only be read in German as es gibt, and with all linguistic connotations there due), is undermined.

In short, I maintain the thesis that the contention that the object is destroyed in the thought experiment I propose is a conflation of qualities with objects, which, contra Latour, is among the original sins of philosophy and especially 17th century philosophy and beyond. Moreover, I contend that each and every time the object-oriented relationist gets down to actual analytic work, that when they are analyzing the world rather than reflecting their theory of the world in a series of propositions, they unwittingly maintain the distinction I’m proposing between virtual proper being and local manifestations, or Harman’s distinction between real objects and sensuous objects (there are subtle distinctions between these distinctions, but I think they’re close enough to make this point).

In practice, I therefore contend, the relationist is forced to use this distinction even while maintaining that objects are their qualities. And thus, in Hegelian terms, I hold that the relational object-oriented ontologist wants to be a relationist, while behaving as a subtractive object-oriented ontologist, or, in psychoanalytic terms, that the practice of ontological relationism will always turn out, on closer inspection, to be subtractive. The heart of the ontological relationist is thus in the right place in wishing to analyze the carpentry, as Harman might put it, of objects when they enter into foreign relations and what qualitative transformations occur as a result of this carpentry, but ontologically they are muddled insofar as they deny themselves the resources to theorize or think the very phenomena they wish to analyze. For example, the impact of oil on the Louisiana marsh lands. To understand this one needs real objects or virtual objects with dormant powers that are unleashed as a result of new foreign relations.

Yet if this is to be thought we require an Aristotlean distinction between substances or demonic powers to be reckoned with and qualities, and must be vigilant in maintaining the non-identity (with all respect due to Jane Bennett and her brilliant reading of Adorno) between objects or substances as powers or actors and the qualities they locally or sensuously manifest to other objects. And this is what is perpetually missing in ontological relationism. Here I can only surmise that the ontological relationists have been seduced by the arguments of the mechanistic materialists, thereby being led to the conclusion that objects are brute clods with now power of difference within themselves, thereby conceding, like American liberals, the rhetorical terrain to the conservatives that would enact a strict distinction between nature and culture.

There is not enough faith in the power of objects here, and there is a terror of asserting the depths or depth of objects in excess of any relation or quality. Yet it is precisely in what Deleuze, in chapter five of Difference and Repetition, referred to as depth, that the emancipatory possibilities of theory lie. For only in depth is there an excess that elides and challenges all the fixations of qualities in their local entanglements. It is in depth that we find the justification of our practice, for it is in depth that we come to know the necessity of experimentalism and the counter-factualism (I must develop a theory of modal objects, which are also entirely real), which would place objects in new infrastructures or local entanglements to see what they can do. This practice wouldn’t make sense without the strife (nod towards Heraclitus), without the conflict, between substances and their qualities. We would like to know what objects can do, and we would like to know this by experimenting with objects and placing them in new entanglements.

The thesis of subtractive object-oriented ontology is thus not that relations don’t exist, nor that objects remain unchanged when they enter into new relations or are divorced from existing relations, but that relations and qualities are contingent and are capable of being otherwise. And in this respect, it is very difficult for the subtractive object-oriented ontologist not to find ontological relationism reactionary, because it seems to deny the volcanic power of agents, rendering them pathetic props of their relations.

Here I nod to my brother Harman, who, embracing the title of certain sneers from nowhere, I often worry might be father-Harman. Yet I don’t worry too long about this, as flat ontology has already destroyed Oedipal logics of filiation and original plenitudes, delivering us the first post-Ontotheological ontology at odds with all phallocentrism, by virtue of putting objects of all types and at all scales on equal footing in a democracy of objects. Now there are only cyborgs. Harman is our Leibniz of objects, though without the fetish for missives as in my own case, for as Leibniz wrote:

67. Each portion of matter may be conceived as like a garden full of plants and like a pond full of fishes. But each branch of every plant, each member of every animal, each drop of its liquid parts is also some such garden or pond.

68. And though the earth and the air which are between the plants of the garden, or the water which is between the fish of the pond, be neither plant nor fish; yet they also contain plants and fishes, but mostly so minute as to be imperceptible to us.

So it is with Harman’s objects. Each object is an object teeming without other objects. And thus, in a manner thoroughly worthy of Badiou’s infinitely decomposable sets, each object is infinitely decomposable into a pond teeming with other objects without limit. And what is interesting here is that this is not a matter of perspective. It is not an issue of an inconsistent multiplicity now being viewed as a consistent multiplicity or object, and now being viewed as an infinity of objects. Such is the way of neo-correlationism in the name of pragmatism.

Instead, it is that each object is simultaneously and pond teeming with objects and an object in its own right. Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense— who, incidentally is another subtractive object-oriented ontologist, at least in his later work –says that all thought is borne of paradox. And it is this paradox of the part and the whole, of multiples and sub-multiplies, of the object and the objects that compose it, that is to be thought and that has barely been thought. Nearly every sin of contemporary philosophy for the last century can be traced back to confusions about this paradox and a decision on either the side of radical nominalism where individual substances are never parts of other substances or radical relationism where wholes have no parts. We subtractive object-oriented ontologists choose the route of Kant’s third and fourth antinomy, vigorously denouncing the solutions to the first and second antinomy, declaring that both are true. Each object is a pond and each object is a pond. And if we reject Badiou’s thesis, then this is because Badiou is an extensionalist where sets are concerned, arguing that sets are only the members that belong to them, and nothing other than the submultiples, that compose the set. This is a bad distinction for those who aspire to the title of “Subtle Doctor”.