I find it amusing that whenever I proclaim that my blogging is going to become less frequent for a time, I suddenly find myself engaged in heavy blogging. I don’t know if this is an idiosyncrasy of my psychology, or something general to human beings, though I do know that for myself when I try to prohibit myself from doing something I suddenly feel compelled to do it. And so it goes.

At any rate, I wanted to make a brief remark about object-oriented ontology and reification, because I wonder whether or not the relationism debate isn’t, in part, motivated by worries about reification. I think this worry might especially animate those who are committed to process-oriented ontologies. Here, I think, the term “object” can work against object-oriented ontologists insofar as “object”, in ordinary language often connotes something static and fixed, a mere dead clod. I think this conception of objects is an unfortunate remainder of our modernist heritage, which tends to see the domain of nature as a domain of mechanism where brute and unchanging particles interact in deterministic ways, and the domain of culture as a dynamic domain of spirit and freedom where change can take place.

read on!

If one carries over this conception of objects, then it is but a short step to the conclusion that objects are reifications of things that are, in reality, dynamic. The worry would be that the concept of object essentializes and fixes something that is very dynamic. Now one curious thing here is that if this is in fact what’s going on, then pre-philosophical concepts of objects are being deployed to critique object-oriented philosophy. As I’ve argued before, no one would dream of rejecting Heidegger’s analysis of being-towards-death on the grounds that the term Dasein signifies existence in ordinary German. Here the thesis would be that there are many existents, yet only a few existents have being-towards-death. To critique Heidegger in this way would be to thoroughly misconstrue how he uses the term “Dasein”.

Now in response to this line of argument, some have occasionally made the trite argument that while this observation might be granted, we are not free to use language in any way we might like. Here there are sometimes evocations of Humpty Dumpty, where Humpty Dumpty contends that words mean what he says they mean. But this is not what is going on with OOO. OOO theorists are not simply conjuring things out of thin air, but are making substantial ontological claims about what objects must be like to be coherently thought. In the case of Harman objects must be withdrawn from all relation and sensuous qualities, while in the case of myself, objects must be split between their virtual proper being composed of powers or capacities and their local manifestations. I outlined some of the philosophical reasons I believe this to be the case in my last post.

This distinction between virtual proper being and actual local manifestation also, I believe, underlines just why OOO is anathema to any reification. In one manifestation, reification always presumes the ontological identity of the real and the actual, or that the real is exhausted by the actual. Yet this is precisely what onticology denies. The domain of the real is always broader than the domain of the actual (not to mention the domain of the empirical). In addition to the domain of the actual, which belongs to the real, there is also the domain of the virtual or the powers and capacities of entities. This is one reason that objects cannot be equated with their qualities. Qualities are local manifestations or actualizations of objects and their powers. But objects always have the power of being actualized differently depending on the relations they enter into with other entities or activities taking place in their own internal constitution. One of the major errors of philosophy has been the conflation of objects with actualities or manifested qualities. I believe there are sociological reasons for this specific to how philosophers live, but I won’t get into that here.

Here the point to be borne in mind is that the proper being of objects is not their qualities, but rather what might be called their “topo-structure”, where “topo-structure” is to be indexed to the domain of the virtual. In a previous post (I can’t remember which) I distinguished between geometrical conceptions of form and topological conceptions of form. Both geometries and topologies are structures, but they behave in very different ways. In a geometry, for example, a right triangle has to have a 90 degree angle and each of the angles of a square has to be 90 degrees.

A topology, by contrast, is entirely different. Sometimes referred to as “rubber sheet geometry” or “dynamic geometry”, topology, unlike geometry does not traffic in fixed qualities of figures, but rather in dynamic transformations of figures into one another. Thus, for example, right triangles, isosceles triangles, equilateral triangles, and scalene triangles are all topologically equivalent to one another because through operations of stretching and compressing they can be transformed into one another. More radically, triangles and squares are topologically equivalent to one another because through operations of folding and compressing they can be transformed into one another.

The virtual endo-structure or topo-structure of objects is of this sort. Now clearly this analogy to topology as a heuristic for thinking the endo-structure of objects is imperfect. And this for two reasons: First, the transformations that allow mathematicians to determine structural invariants among different types of forms are conducted by mathematicians, where these invariances of variations belong to the structure of objects themselves. Second, mathematics deals with universal objects, whereas many of the endo-structures analyzed by object-oriented ontology are absolutely individual. Nonetheless, I believe that topology is a useful heuristic device for thinking the invariance at the heart of variation in the life of objects.

Another form of reification consists in treating processes and relations as if they were things. Thus, for example, I am guilty of reifying money if I believe that the value of money is a property in the money like mass is a property of an object. This is indeed something to be avoid, but here, I believe, one has ignored the sort of mereology that object-oriented ontology proposes. Without constantly keeping in mind that certain mereological claims are always in the background of object-oriented ontology, everything is bounded to become confused. Mereology is the ontology of part-whole relations. At present there is a vast literature on mereology which has achieved a high degree of formalization, rendering it deserving of the status of a branch of mathematics. In particular I would recommend Simon’s Parts.

Object-oriented ontology is particularly interested in a particular mereological type of mereological relation: Namely those mereological relations where the parts of an object are themselves objects.

Regarding this relation, the object-oriented thesis is first that those objects that are composed of smaller objects cannot be reduced to the smaller level objects of which they are composed. This is the point of contention between object-oriented ontology and Badiou’s ontology. Badiou is a strict extensionalist. A set is defined by its membership, which is to say that it is nothing more than the objects that compose it. For Badiou {a, b, c} is exactly the same set as {c, a, b}.

While object-oriented ontologists share Badiou’s thesis that objects are infinite multiplicities (i.e., that objects are always composed of other objects or that it’s turtles all the way down), OOO does not accept Badiou’s extensionalism. Rather, object-oriented ontologists are intensionalists in the sense that the parts within an object are related in a particular way. Here I’m using the term “intensional” (with an “s”, not a “t”) in a slightly idiosyncratic way. Ordinarily the thesis that sets are defined intensionally denotes the thesis that all members of a set must share a common feature. For example, the set of all dogs where each member of the set shares the quality or property of being a dog. In set theory, by contrast, the elements of sets need have no common characteristic. When I use the term “intension”, I am not referring to elements of a set sharing a common characteristic (they can be quite heterogeneous), but rather I am claiming that wherever there is an object there is an endo-relational structure or ordering among the elements. In short, the ordering of the elements is not a matter of indifference in OOO.

This is one key reason that OOO draws a distinction between objects and parts of objects. Clearly an object cannot exist without parts. In this connection there must be some point at which the destruction of parts entails the destruction of objects, though I am not sure that a precise philosophical criteria can be defined for when this threshold is reached and I suspect it differs depending on the type of object in question. Nonetheless, an object is independent of the parts or smaller objects that make it up for the precise reason that these parts can come and go but the object remains. What is it that remains? It’s the endo-composition of the object. So not only are larger scale objects independent of the smaller level objects that compose them, but smaller level objects are independent of the objects of which they are a part.

As I’ve stated on a number of occasions, I believe this thesis is rife with a number of implications for social and political theory. There can be little doubt that social and political theory has strongly tended towards organic models when thinking the nature of society. An organism is an entity in which all the parts depend upon one another and function in respect to one another. The heart requires the brain and lungs to function, for example, and the brain and lungs requires the heart to function. Now there is something correct in organic conceptions of society (here I think Latour has it wrong), but like many problems in philosophy, organicism is guilty of overstatement. Badiou recognizes this in his own ontology. One of his motivations for an ontology composed of pure multiplicities is to militate against organic conceptions of society where relations are treated as being internal to their terms. And if Badiou is so deeply concerned with such a thesis, then this is because doctrines of internal relations leave us no means of accounting for how it is possible to change society. Why? Because where entities are defined by their relations, where entities are their relations, there’s no outside from which these relations can be changed.

OOO adopts a different strategy. Where Badiou argues that true reality consists of infinite inconsistent multiplicities without one and thereby finds himself having to account for how relation comes on to the scene (his references to the count-as-one and the transcendental in The Logics of Worlds), OOO instead argues that societies are one object and that the objects that compose a society are other objects. OOO recognizes that these other objects (ordinarily groups and persons) are parts of a larger scale object, the society, but also insists that both the society is independent of its parts and that the parts are independent of the society. In this way it becomes possible to think the manner in which parts might challenge the endo-relational structure of the larger object of which they are a part.

My point is that we must always be careful to specify which object we’re talking about, and whether we’re talking about something that is an object in its own right or something that is a quality of an object. Returning, then, to the issue of reification, let’s look at the value of that dollar again. It seems to me that a dollar bill cannot be an object, because in order for a dollar bill to exist as a dollar bill it has to belong to a relational network that imbues it with value.

At this point the relationist will exclaim “Ah ha! So relations are primary over objects!” However, once again this rejoinder ignores the mereology which OOO advocates, for here the OOO theorist responds “No! Money is a quality belonging to a larger scale object, to whit an economy!”

Here we return once again to the distinction between domestic and foreign relations. Domestic relations are those relations that make up the endo-consistency or endo-structure of an object. OOO has always advocated the existence of domestic relations. Domestic relations are internal relations. Foreign relations, by contrast, are external relations between objects that an object can pass in and out of, while still remaining that object. And in this respect, money falls into the category of being a quality rather than an object precisely because it can’t exist apart from a particular sort of object: an economy.

By contrast, the relation between one object, economy, and the quality of another object, a laborers labor, is not a domestic relation, but a foreign relation. These are entities that are entangled with one another without belonging to the same object. The reason for this is that there can be labor without economies (our future would be pretty hopeless were this not the case) and there can be economies without labor. Note, I have not said that the de-suturing of labor and economy produces no change in these respective objects. The lion share of fluctuations in economy or value have to do with labor, for example. Consequently, by entering into a foreign relation with economy, labor effectuates a qualitative change in value, causing a different local manifestation. Yet this does not entail that labor and economy are the same object. And it is precisely because the relation between labor and economy is an external relation that it is possible for the one to challenge the other.

Another reification we might worry about is the reification of qualities. For example, at present I (unfortunately) weigh about 195 lbs. If I say that the quality of weighing 195 lbs. is a quality of my being, someone might point out that I am illicitly reifying weight because I weigh much less on the moon. Here the thesis would be that qualities like weight are a function of my gravitational relation to whatever body I happen to be on.

Onticology does not disagree, and this is yet another reason I draw a distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation. Weight is what I call (for lack of a better word) an exo-quality. An exo-quality is a quality that only comes into existence when an object relates to another object in a foreign relation. My weight of 195 lbs. requires my relation to the planet Earth or an object of equivalent mass in order to exist (here I’ll set aside considerations of velocity, though the same point would hold). In this foreign relation my body is actualized or locally manifested in a particular way. It would be actualized or locally manifested differently on the moon, and differently yet again on the planet Mars.

There are thus a number of foreign relations that generate different qualitative manifestations when an object enters into these relations. One of the things that interests OOO– especially in object-oriented practice –are what qualities are generated when an object enters into foreign relations with another object of a particular type. OOO thus gives us the resources for contesting the reification of exo-qualities precisely because it shows how the emergence or actualization of these qualities are dependent on local conditions or entanglements with other objects. However, the fact that an object takes on different qualitative manifestations as a function of entering into different entanglements in no way entails that the object is its relations. No, all this entails is that exo-qualities are their relations. You still have to have a real being, a virtual proper being, with the powers and topo-structures that render it susceptible to actualizing these particular qualities.

Here it is noteworthy that we must also distinguish between symmetrical and asymmetrical qualities. Symmetrical qualities are qualities that can revert back to prior qualitative states when the exo-relations or foreign relations change. For example, my beloved blue coffee mug can shift back to being a brilliant blue when I turn the lights on. Asymmetrical qualities, by contrast, are irreversible changes in the powers of an object. These would be qualities that can no longer revert back to other qualitative states when they’ve undergoing a change, such as the process of aging. But I’ll save a discussion of these two different types of qualities for another day.

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