In response to my recent post on reification Joshua Mostafa raises an excellent question. I started to respond to him in the comments, but my response began getting rather lengthy and because his question is so astute (and so comedically well executed!) I decided to post it on the front page instead. Joshua writes:

Really enjoying your posts as they pop up in the feed reader I use.

Would mass be the ‘endo-quality’ underlying weight? If so, are there any of these exo-qualities you mention that cannot be extrapolated from combinations of such ‘endo-qualities’ in the objects which are (or may in the future) participating in foreign relations? I am wondering whether it might be more parsimonious to view these exo-qualities as the potential combination of the qualities of their respective objects.

Otherwise every object possesses a number of such exo-qualities that tends to infinity – for instance, a cat could be said to possess the quality “yowling when fireworks tied to tail”. If you were to allow the chaining of such qualities, you could say “apt to hiss and spit when humans approach *after* an incident of tying fireworks to its tail”. And one could extend this ad absurdum. So where does one draw the line?

This is a really good question. I’m pretty hesitant whenever it comes to pinning down endo-qualities. Is mass an endo-quality? It’s hard to say as mass, as I understand it, changes depending on the velocity at which an object is moving. As such, mass would be a quality that emerges from relations and would therefore be a local manifestation of an object. It might be that Harman is right here and that what I call endo-qualities are what he calls real qualities. Real qualities, like real objects, are, for Harman, completely withdrawn and therefore they are never touched by another real object, much less perceived or determinable by us. Ontologically we would therefore be warranted in asserting that they exist, but could never say anything about what they are for a particular object.

read on!

Regarding Joshua’s proposal:

I am wondering whether it might be more parsimonious to view these exo-qualities as the potential combination of the qualities of their respective objects.

This is what I’m getting at when I talk about exo-qualities. Exo-qualities are qualities that emerge as a result of foreign relations between objects. I always like to give the example of my blue mug. The particular shade of blue the mug enacts at a particular point in time is an example of an exo-quality. The blue of the mug is not in the mug itself, but requires foreign relations with other objects to happen. For example, it requires a foreign relation between the photons of light at a particular wavelength and the molecular composition of the mug. Differences in the wavelength of light will produce different shades of blue in the mug. The mug “blues” differently depending on whether it is in candlelight or sunlight. But the quality is no less real for this, it merely requires certain conditions or entanglements to occur. Likewise, if the mug exists in a situation of pure darkness the mug doesn’t blue at all.

As such, qualities like color are translations of the qualities of the different objects involved. I borrow the idea of translation from Latour and linguistics to illustrate the way in which objects mediate the differences of other objects. In linguistics, of course, we learn that no translation of a text is identical from one language to a next. Resonances of one language are lost in the other languages, and new resonances are gained when the text is situated in a new language. Thus, for example, were I to someday have the honor of being translated into German, my writings would take on slightly different connotations. My use of the word “existence” might, for example, be translated as “Dasein”. But “Dasein” has different connotations in German than it does in English for the prefix “Da” signifies “there” and “sein”, of course, signifies “to be”. My use of the term “existence” would thus now take on the linguistic resources of “being-there”. Likewise, when I write “there is” or “it is”, this would perhaps be translated as “Es gibt”. The German verb “gibt” is a variation of the verb “geben” meaning to give. This connotation is entirely absent in English but works very nicely within the framework of my ontology in the context of discussions about local manifestation.

A translation, then, introduces differences into what is translated. And as such, languages are not mere vehicles or carriers for signifieds. The signified, when situated in a different language, changes ever so slightly and takes on new resonances. I hold that something like this is the case with all inter-ontic or foreign relations. It’s not that the original disappears in the translation. The English language version is still there in some form. But it is now “woven” with new language. Likewise, when an sculptor works a piece of wood, she does not unilaterally impose a form or signified in her mind on the wood. Rather the material contributes its own differences, producing a quality that was in neither of the originals (the sculptor or the wood). The powers of the objects are translated by one another creating new qualities.

I’m curious as to why Joshua finds the thesis that every object possesses an infinite number of exo-qualities troublesome. First, it’s important to note that this is a counter-factual statement. Exo-qualities are events or happenings and no object has all the qualities it could enact at any given point in time. The mug is only one shade of blue at a time. However, setting aside this nuance, I personally find the thesis that objects can take on an infinite number of different qualities to be one of the most important consequences of object-oriented ontology.

What parades as an essence in a good deal of traditional ontology is, in fact, what cognitive scientists often refer to as a “prototype”. Prototypes are often very obnoxious things. Thus, for example, if you’re a conservative American it’s likely that you conceive the “essence” of a person on welfare in terms of the prototypical example of the so-called “Welfare Queen” invented by Reagan to enrage the voting populace. The Welfare Queen was portrayed as an African-American woman who is lazy and doesn’t work and who keeps having children to get larger welfare checks so she can drive a Mercedes and effortlessly fund her drug habit. Never mind that no one ever discovered a single example of such a person. Prototypes function as privileged examples that serve to grade how closely specific entities approximate this privileged example. Thus a person might treat golden retrievers as the prototype of what constitutes a dog and thereby conclude that fox terriers are less dogs because they do not share the major characteristics of a gold retriever.

OOO, I think, destroys this sort of essentialism precisely by virtue of its account of exo-qualities or what Harman calls “sensuous qualities”. The concept of exo-qualities teaches us that we don’t know what an object can do, precisely because so many different qualities can be produced as a result of entanglements with other objects in foreign relations. Returning to your amusing (yet sadistic!) example of the cat yowling because someone has tied a firecracker to its tail, I’m not sure I see something markedly different from the cat yowling under these circumstances and the mug bluing in a specific way in candlelight. Indeed the manner in which the cat translates the fire-cracker is far more complex than what’s going on with the mug, but we still get a foreign relation generating a local manifestation (of a very unfortunate sort!).

The example of the cat, however, is actually pretty complicated. First, in your query you give the example of the cat yowling because a fire-cracker has been tied to its tail and the cat that formerly had a fire-cracker tied to its tail yowling when a human approaches. Here I think we need a distinction between reflexive and non-reflexive objects. Non-reflexive objects would be objects that don’t take the past as an element in their current constitution. My dear coffee mug is an example of a non-reflexive object. Now that I turn out the lights and the mug “blacks”, the past state of bluing plays no continuing role in the activity of its present state. Reflexive objects, by contrast, are objects where past states are, as it were, simultaneous with present states or where they are available to play an ongoing role in present states of an object. Examples of reflexive objects would be Joshua’s imagined cat, societies, certain computers, biological organisms of even the simplest kind (because of the role DNA plays), persons and probably many other things besides. The logic here is that of Freud’s famous mystic writing pad.

The key point would thus be that reflexive objects are objects that have the capacity to develop new dispositions or powers as a result of their past states and how they operate in the present of the object. Although I am sympathetic with some aspects of Bergson’s Matter and Memory, I here diverge strongly from attempts to ontologize his account of memory and the pure past, or to treat all objects as containing a memory. I see no good reasons for supposing this is the case with rocks or my coffee mug, for example. Rather, this sort of relation to the past seems to belong exclusively to reflexive objects. I have a lot more work with temporal mereology to do in relation to these types of objects.

And again, returning to my favorite subject, Joshua’s example of the cat also raises mereological issues. How many objects are there with the cat that has a fire-cracker tied to its tail? Are there two objects? The cat and the fire-cracker? Is there one object? Fire-cracker-cat? Or are there three objects? Cat, fire-cracker, and fire-cracker-cat? If fire-cracker-cat is a distinct entity in its own right, then OOO would claim that there are three objects in Joshua’s example: The cat, the fire-cracker, and fire-cracker-cat. (Here for the sake of convenience I arbitrarily bracket the sub-multiples that belong to the fire-cracker and the cat and the sub-multiples of those sub-multiples). I’m not sure I’m willing to go all the way with Latour in the assertion that any relation between two entities generates another entity. For me it seems that we don’t get a new entity unless we get the emergence of new powers (where powers and qualities are to be distinguished). Thus, while I happily agree that a man with a hammer is a new entity (“hammer-man”), I find myself less certain in the case of a cat with a fire-cracker tied to its tail. This, of course, is an empirical question. If someone can show me what new powers a cat with a fire-cracker tied to its tail that neither a cat alone or a fire-cracker alone has, I’ll happily grant that indeed, we have a cyborg here.