Over at Networkologies Chris Vitale has an INTERESTING POST up responding to one of my earlier posts on relations. I can’t respond in detail right now as I am in the midst of writing The Democracy of Objects, but I did wish to draw attention to a few points in Vitale’s post (and here I presuppose some background knowledge of these discussions). At a particular point in his post Vitale draws attention to Latour’s concept of “plasma”. Latour introduces the concept of plasma in Reassembling the Social. There Latour writes that,

I call this background plasma, namely that which is not yet formatted [my emphasis], not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. (244)

Latour clarifies what he is getting at a moment later, remarking that,

Of course sociologists were right to look for some ‘outside’, except this one does not resemble at all what they expected since it is entirely devoid of any trace of calibrated social inhabitant. They were right to look for ‘something hidden behind’, but it’s neither behind nor especially hidden. It’s in between and not made of social stuff. It is not hidden, simply unknown. (244)

There are a couple of points worth making here. First, it is clear that Latour’s concept of plasma is not an ontological concept, but an epistemological concept. As Latour quite clearly states, plasma refers not to what is and is not, but to what is known and what is unknown. However, second, matters are not as clear as all this. Latour refers to plasma not simply as what is not known, but as what is not “formatted”. Presumably reference to “formatting” is reference to structure. To claim that plasma is unformatted is to claim that plasma is unstructured.

read on!

Here, I think, Latour oversteps and falls into what Bhaskar calls the epistemic fallacy. The epistemic fallacy consists in the supposition that ontological questions can be entirely transposed into epistemological questions. Closely related to the epistemic fallacy is what Bhaskar calls actualism or the thesis that only the actual is the real. For example, Hume commits the epistemic fallacy when he proposes that we treat all questions of being in terms of sensations or impressions. He is, in turn, led to this thesis insofar as he falls prey to actualism insofar as he treats only what is actual (in this case sensations) as being real. If Latour falls into the actualist fallacy and the closely connected epistemic fallacy, then this is because he treats only what as known as what is formatted or structured.

However, within the framework of onticology and object-oriented ontology more broadly, the question of whether or not something is known is entirely irrelevant to the issue of what something is. Being-known has nothing to do with whether or not something is “formatted”. And if this is the case, all Latour is entitled to assert is the trivial point that for any actor or collective there are things that are unknown or unrelated. It doesn’t follow from this that these things are unformatted. And indeed, were it the case that there is some primordial apeiron, chaos, or one-all it would be impossible to account for how anything comes to be formatted at all. With his proposal of an unformatted plasma and a formatted social world, Latour comes perilously close to reinstituting the nature/culture divide he’s worked so assiduously to undermine.

[Note, Harman and I diverge significantly on this point. Graham is an actualist (though not of the sort I describe), whereas I am deeply committed to the concept of potential. Consequently, the critique of Latour I am advancing here is specific to onticology, and differs from Graham’s variant of object-oriented ontology).]

Third, Latour’s evocation of plasma is symptomatic of his relationism and actualism. The section where Latour introduces the concept of plasma is entitled “Plasma: The Missing Masses” (241). Plasma is evoked to account for how change is possible. When we evoke the idea of “missing masses”, the whole reason for evoking these masses is to account for how change is possible. The idea is that there must be some unknown quantity that accounts for change. Yet this whole question emerges directly from Latour’s actualism and relationism. How? If we argue that objects are their relations, then we are left with the problem of how anything can change at all because there is nothing but relations from whence change could come. Consequently, Latour is led to evoke the concept of plasma to introduce this missing quantity that would account for change. Yet here we should read Latour’s evocation of plasma not as a solution to the problem of change (it is ad hoc to say the least, though certainly an appealing metaphysical hypothesis for those who fantasize about returning to a primordial orgy where all is one), but as a symptom of a problem with his ontology. And the problem here lies in his supposition that being consists of nothing but relations.

Vitale writes,

It makes complete sense to me why Graham would want plasma to be inside the objects described in object-oriented thought (at least, ‘real objects’). That is, by having plasma inside real objects, there is an infinite reserve within each and EVERY real object to be different from what it is, and potentially in an infinite manner, leading to a wide variety of sensuous manifestations.

But Graham does not place plasma inside of objects precisely because, for Graham (and myself), objects are always formatted, they always have structure, and plasma is completely unformatted. Graham’s thesis is rather that real objects and real qualities (both of which are structured) are always withdrawn from any of their sensuous manifestations. Similarly, though for different reasons, my thesis is that no object is ever identical to its qualities. Qualities within the framework of my onticology are events. Objects are conditions for these events insofar as they are difference engines. Yet objects are only capable of producing these events or local manifestations insofar as they have a particular structure or are “formatted”. The point here, for onticology, is that every object or virtual proper being is in excess of any of its local manifestations or qualities. As a consequence of this excess, objects always have the potential to produce changes disruptive of the relations within which they happen to find themselves.

Vitale goes on to reject both Harman’s solution and my solution to the problem of change on the grounds that,

…it would seem to make objects ETERNAL. Graham argues, for example, that a text such as ‘Being and Time’ necessarily has within it the ability to be different in different contexts, and this reserve above and beyond its relations is precisely where this freedom to be different lies. But this brings up the familiar issue of genesis: at what point did ‘Being and Time’ start to be what it is, at what point might it end, etc? And the only response here that I think does justice to what Levi and Graham are trying to accomplish is that in order for there to be INFINITE reserve within objects for difference/freedom, there must be INFINITE TIME associated with objects. That is, objects must be ETERNAL.

I’ll let Graham argue his own case because I suspect we reject this supposition for different reasons, but it seems to me that Vitale’s reasoning here is amphibolous insofar as it conflates two different senses of the infinite to arrive at the conclusion that onticology must adhere to the thesis that objects are eternity. Namely, this conclusion only seems to follow if one conflates actual infinities with potential infinities. For if the thesis is that objects posses an infinite number of actual qualitative variations, then it would seem to follow that objects must be eternal to enter into all the exo-relations that would produce these qualitative variations. Yet the thesis of onticology is not that objects actualize all their possible qualities, but only that no object can be limited to the current qualities it happens to manifest.

Place the object in new exo-relations and you get new qualities. That’s it. All that is required by onticology (and here onticology diverges markedly from Harman’s object-oriented ontology) is that objects have the potential to actualize different qualities. It is by no means necessary that they do actualize these other qualities. Indeed, for onticology (and I believe Graham as well), it’s not necessary that objects manifest any qualities at all. Objects are not their qualities. The point I’m making here is a perfectly trivial, even banal, feature of the world. Set a cup of water out on your porch on a cold winter day (i.e., place it in a new set of exo-relations) and it becomes ice (local manifestation). Bring that cup of water into your home (i.e., shift its exo-relations) and it becomes liquid (local manifestation). The water could not do this without a virtual proper being or formatted structure that makes it sensitive to particular exo-relations. However, recognizing this split between local manifestations and virtual proper being in no way entails that the water must pass through all of its potential local manifestations in the order of time. The entire adventure of the water could complete its life manifesting only one local manifestation. For example, it could go through its life as liquid. Indeed, I have named circumstances in which this occurs with stable regimes of attraction where other potential local manifestations aren’t evoked.

Nor does it in any way follow that objects, virtual proper being, or differences engines must be indestructible. Objects are destroyed all the time by virtue of a destruction of their endo-composition or endo-relational structure. All that is denied here is that objects are identical to their qualities or their local manifestations.

Earlier in his post, Vitale proposes relationism as an alternative to object-oriented ontology, writing that,

Here’s how I think the networkological approach gets around this critique. From a networkological perspective, relations come in three forms: potential, emergent, and networked. Networks are diagrams for thinking relation (though they also PERFORM relation). That is, networks relate nodes by means of links, or to put this in the terms used by Levi, networks relate terms by means of relations. But beyond this, all networks are composed of not only nodes and links, but also GROUNDS. Grounds are the blank space in a network, that from which all networks emerge, and to which they must return (and this is where the performance of relation by a network is what links that network to process). Grounds indicate the dynamic relation any network has to the open.

That said, networks are only one form of relation, namely, those which have solidified. But what of networks in the process of emergence? There are all degrees of grey between solidified networks and fluid, fuzzy, potential, and developing networks. Aren’t these forms of, perhaps not relationS, but RELATION as well? And is not the potential to be related a form of relation as well?

Here I think the characterization of networks as diagrams for thinking relations is irrelevant to this discussion because this discussion revolves around issues of what is, not what we think of what is. This doesn’t entail that I’m necessarily rejecting Vitale’s characterization of network diagrams, just that it is a side issue in this debate or a conflation of the epistemological with the ontological. Returning to the ontological issue, Vitale distinguishes between solidified networks and networks in a process of emergence. I agree that a relational ontology needs something like this to account for change, and therefore applaud Vitale for recognizing this, but simply citing what is needed to account for change does not yet explain how that change is possible. If we claim that objects are their relations then this problem remains irresolvable because there is nothing anterior to relations that would explain how this change takes place. We cannot explain how that water shifts from a liquid state to a frozen state and back again to a liquid state. For that you need something other than relations.

I’ll close this post with two remarks. First, in my discussions of with the ontological relationists I get the sense that there’s a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of this debate. It’s perhaps likely that different ontologies are always doomed to talk past one another (as Deleuze said, philosophers never understand one another), but what I hear when I listen to the critiques of the relationists is the surprised outrage that onticologists and object-oriented ontologists are rejecting relations. If this is how onticologists and object-oriented ontologists are being interpreted, then the issue hasn’t been understood at all. My thesis is not that relations don’t exist, but that relations are external to objects.

However, with that said, relations play a tremendously important role within the framework of onticology for exo-relations are one of the primary ways in which new qualities or actualities are elicited in objects. That water becomes ice when placed in a new milieu of exo-relations. For me the issue isn’t whether or not relations exist or are important, but with whether or not relations are internal to objects or external to objects. If relations are internal to objects, if objects are their relations, then I’m at a loss to see how any change can take place. Since change does take place, I accordingly argue that objects are split between their qualitative local manifestations or actualities and their local proper being. The concept of local manifestation, among other things, is designed precisely to account for the relational dimension of objects.

Second, I get it, I understand why so many cling so tenaciously to the primacy of relations. The worry here, I believe, lies in the dangers of abstract thought. I use the term “abstract thought” in the Hegelian or Marxist sense of that form of thought that detaches beings from their relations. Let us take the example of a miserable worker in a South American sweat shop who lives in desperate poverty. The abstract thinker understands the plight of this miserable worker as a moral failing. The 9 year old worker who’s been contracted for $.05 a day to place computer chips in a mother board (no doubt because her fingers are small and her eyes close to said mother board) exists in this miserable condition, according to the abstract moralist, because she has lacked the industry and Protestant work ethic necessary to “be successful in the world”. Or alternatively, the abstract moralist argues that the 9 year old girl is learning valuable lessons and accumulating money that will eventually allow her to improve her lot in life. What the abstract thinker– who is often a resentful and selfish moralist –fails to attend to are the systemic conditions that have created labor conditions where the only alternative for survival is to go work in such dire conditions. But systemic conditions just are relations.

A similar point can be made in the domain of the ecological. The abstract thinker who notes a sudden explosion in the frog population in a particular ecosystem thinks, perhaps, that this is just a quirk of nature, an aberration for that particular year. The relationally minded ecologist, by contrast, sees this burst in population as indicative of a whole set of other relations within the ecological system that potentially spell very grave consequences.

Recognizing the importance of relations to states of affairs such as this, the relationally minded ecologist and social and political theorist then scurries in the other direction so as to demolish the devastating consequences of abstract thinking, and therefore argues that objects are their relations. However, not only is this thesis ontologically mistaken, not only is it epistemically mistaken (how would we create closed systems for experiments if everything were related to everything else?), but it also does a disservice to that 9 year old girl and that eco-system. For the whole force of the theorist’s analysis of the labor conditions of the 9 year old girl and its relation to the broader dynamics of neo-liberal capitalism as well as the force of the ecologist’s analysis of the significance of the population explosion among frogs lies not in the revelation that these local manifestations are relational, but in the insight that these conditions are historical or that they don’t have to be that way. What the good theorist does is analyze what I’ve called a regime of attraction presiding over a repetitive set of local manifestations. Yet the importance of this analysis lies in the discovery that these local manifestations are not inevitable, that they can become otherwise through a change in exo-relations. And if internalism or ontological relationism does a disservice to this truth, then it is by conflating the being of objects, their volcanic, bubbling potential, with the local manifestation of objects. Yet this practice of the difference between object and local manifestation is only possible where one does not adhere to the thesis that objects are their relations. Explore relations and their effects on local manifestations to your hearts content– I do –but above all do not conflate them with what objects are.