Over at Networkologies Chris Vitale has another interesting post up responding to my last post. As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to blogging right now because I’m in the middle of completing The Democracy of Objects. I did, however, wish to respond to a single question in Vitale’s post because it came up in his previous post as well. Vitale remarks,

And exo/foreign-relations are then those which produce specific qualities or manifestations of the cane toad in a given situation: for example, in this temperature, the toad seems happy, but if I raise the temperature, he seems quite perturbed. Or in a different color light his skin seems a different hue of toady greenish-brown (an example of Levi’s cup example). That is, the toad’s still the same cane toad either way, just he acts or appears differently. Correct?

But I still worry there is a sort of subjectivity which sneaks into the back door here. To an expert on amphibians who knows a cane toad from a non-cane toad, this is all well and good. But to a my little nephew (he’s 2 years old!), all frogs and toads, and perhaps even lizards, are simply ‘froggies!’ Who is correct? Furthermore, to an electron, aren’t both frogs and toads simply patterns of sub-atomic particles? To an electron going through the cane toad, there’s no toad there in the first place – unless there’s a quasi-human subjectivity lurking implicit somehwere in here. Is there? And if not, why not?

A little later Vitale goes on to remark,

I do think there’s a need for something LIKE subjectivity here, but a subject that is perhaps ‘blown up’, dispersed, multiplied and variegated so as to be the property of every tiny bit of the cosmos. I find myself thinking here of Steely Dan’s famous lines, ‘these are the days/ of the expanding man’, which is poetic but doesn’t really fit, for the subject is more than expanded here, but blown to multiplicitous smithereens. When each event-particle in the universe is a proto-subject with its own perspective on what is, we’ve really gone beyond the subject-object distinction in any traditional sense, as well as at least traditional forms of the epistemology/ontology divide. In fact, we’ve gone holographic.

I think both relational and object-oriented approaches need something like this. Otherwise, who gets to decide the necessary/sufficient conditions for the dissolution or creation of an object? Or if an object is eternal or not? But if there are gradations of subjectivity and perspective which ‘decide’ these issues, then we’ve got something like correlationism perhaps, but a correlation which, in Meillassoux’s terms, has been absolutized, but also, given a multiplicitous twist. For then the universe-in-its-universing becomes the multiple subject that makes these sorts of distinctions.

In response to a number of other remarks throughout Vitale’s post, I have not said that objects are potential objects. I have said that objects are populated by potentials to produce various properties. That is an entirely different claim. It seems to me that Vitale is confusing manifestations of objects with their virtual proper being. This is the only way I can understand his very strange conclusion that object-oriented ontologists such as me or Graham are logically required to hold that objects are eternal.

I wonder if this isn’t the reason that Graham insists that objects are entirely actual. I confess that Harman’s endorsement of the actuality of objects has always perplexed me because it seems to fit uneasily with his thesis of withdrawal. If objects withdraw from their relations and what he calls their sensuous qualities, then why would he call them fully actual? For me the term “actuality” has connotations of presence or what is manifest. When I say this I do not intend to imply that qualities or actualities are present for a consciousness or a perceiver (nor should Graham’s “sensuous objects” be understood as sensations had by a mind), but rather as present or actual in the world. The water in my glass is now actual as liquid. For me the domain of actuality refers to qualities or local manifestations. If, by contrast, Graham is using the term “actual” to denote real, then the nature of our debate is quite different. For me the virtual proper being of an object is entirely real and determinate. It is not a possibility. In this sense the virtual proper being of an object would be actual in the sense Graham uses the term. The point is that this virtual proper being is in excess of any qualitative manifestations of the object. If something like this is going on, then Graham and I are a lot closer than I originally thought, though I still do insist that this virtual dimension of objects is characterized by powers or potentials, which are not to be confused with possibilities.

read on!

Returning to the passages quoted above, it is my view that Vitale is conflating two entirely different issues or sets of questions and falling into correlationism and the epistemic fallacy. Now some have complained when I and other speculative realists describe a position as correlationist, claiming that we are just “dismissing things” as correlationist. First, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it generally is a duck. Under those conditions it is perfectly appropriate to claim that a position is correlationist. Second, all of us have presented detailed arguments as to why we believe that correlationism and philosophies of access are mistaken. Those can be found in the two manifestos in my side-bar. There is no need to present those arguments endlessly.

Now, in what way are Vitale’s remarks indicative of both correlationism and the epistemic fallacy? In the first cited passage Vitale compares his nephew with an amphibian expert and asks who gets to decide whether the toad is a cane toad. Similarly, in the second cited passage Vitale suggests that we need some form of subjectivity to determine when or how an object can be destroyed. Both of these questions or remarks are based on fundamentally correlationist assumptions. Why? Because in both cases the premise seems to be that other objects are somehow dependent on the gaze of humans or some other sort of subject in order to exist. But that is the very core of anti-realism. Paraphrasing Harman’s proverb, “The fool looks at the finger when a wise man points at the moon. The correlationist is a fool who says the moon is made of fingers.” The correlationist gesture par excellence consists in claiming that somehow beings are dependent on the gaze of an investigator.

I suspect that what’s going on here is that Vitale is conflating two entirely distinct issues. On the one hand, there is the question of reality or what the being of beings is. This is a question that is entirely independent of questions of epistemology. The question isn’t how do we know reality, but rather what is reality. If cane toads exist they are what they are regardless of whether anyone knows about them or correctly identifies them. These epistemological considerations pertaining to inquiry are just irrelevant to ontological considerations of what beings are, and one of the more egregious habits of contemporary philosophy has been to perpetually mix up these issues. At any rate, what a cane toad is has nothing to do with decisions that either amphibian experts or two year olds make.

On the other hand, there are questions of inquiry or the nature of inquiry. Some people have gotten the odd idea that object-oriented ontologists and speculative realists reject epistemology and questions of inquiry. In my own case, this perhaps arises from labeling certain fallacies “the epistemic fallacy”. But the epistemic fallacy does not state that epistemology is a fallacy, rather the epistemic fallacy states that it is a fallacy to believe that questions of ontology are really questions of epistemology or how we know. Questions about the nature of inquiry, how we distinguish between good inquiry and bad inquiry, etc., are perfectly appropriate. However, we must not suppose that the inquirer somehow decides or makes an object what it is.

It seems to me that this is just the sort of conflation that Vitale is falling into with his questions cited above, and I find it rather baffling that it should be difficult for someone to grasp the point that entities are what they are regardless of what anyone decides about them. Here I cite a marvelous passage from Latour’s Irreductions to drive this point home:

Things-in-themselves? But they’re fine, thank you very much. And how are you? You complain about things that have not been honored by your vision? You feel that these things are lacking the illumination of your consciousness? But if you missed the galloping freedom of the zebras in the savannah this morning, then so much the worse for you; the zebras will not be sorry that you were not there, and in any case you would have tamed, killed, photographed, or studied them. Things in themselves lack nothing, just as Africa did not lack whites before their arrival. (The Pasteurization of France, 193)

The things-in-themselves have no need of your decision or anyone else’s decision to be what they are Professor Vitale. They do just fine on their own.

Now some wish to argue that epistemology must be first philosophy because we must first know objects before we can say what objects are. However, this too is based on a bit of amphibolous reasoning. Quoting Bhaskar, the person who argues in this way conflates scientific knowledge with philosophical knowledge. Philosophical objects doesn’t tell us what objects exist, nor does it tell us what properties objects have. Those are questions that can only be answered through actual empirical inquiry and those inquiries can be mistaken, biased, etc., etc.. Within the framework of onticology, all philosophical ontology can do is provide an account of what the world must be like if our scientific and other practices are to be possible. And I contend that were the world like what the relationists describe these practices would not be possible. Readers can read a more detailed account of this argument in the two manifestos of the side-bar or read the second chapter of The Democracy of Objects once it’s finally released.

Throughout his recent post Vitale wants to make a case for what he calls “perspectival relationism”. Returning to the example of the two-year old encountering the frog and the amphibian expert encountering the frog, Vitale seems to want parity among these two perspectives, claiming that both have their truth. First, what Vitale seems to miss is that in order for these different perspectives to exist there must be something for these two people to have different perspectives of. Here I think we get to the root problem with Vitale’s perspectivism. If, as Whitehead claims, all objects are just perspectives of other objects, then there are no longer any objects at all because everything has just become a hall of mirrors (or as Graham has nicely put it, a game of hot potato). The universe collapses into nothing. This is one reason that OOO (both Graham and I are agreed on this) reject relational internalism.

Second, however, Vitale seems to miss that both onticology and Harman’s object-oriented ontology integrate a variant of this sort of perspectivism into the heart of their ontologies. This is one of the major points of Harman’s thesis of withdrawal, a variant of which I endorse as well. To claim that all objects withdraw from one another is to claim that no object ever encounters another object as it is, but always only grasps the other object in its own unique way. Within the framework of onticology, it is not the virtual proper being of an object that another object grasps or encounters. This virtual proper being is always completely withdrawn, inaccessible, or beyond any access. Rather, it is the qualities or local manifestations of an object that another object encounters. And, more importantly, the qualities or local manifestations that another object encounters are exo-qualities, or qualities that only exist in exo-relations.

I have called, following Latour, this process by which one object grasps another object translation. In this context, translation does not refer to a phenomenon unique to language, though the translation of texts can be usefully evoked to illustrate what translation is. The vulgar notion of translation has it that when we translate a text from one language into another, the meaning remains the same. However, those who have done actual translation work know that all translation is interpretation and that every translation produces new resonances not there in the original text. The example I’ve recently used is the translation of my writings into German. The English word existence translates, in certain contexts, into the German word “Dasein”. But the German word “Dasein” has connotations that the English word doesn’t. The prefix “da” signifies “here” or “there”, while “sein” is the verb “to be”. Dasein thus has connotations of “being-there” or “being-here” that are absent in English. Translating a text into another language introduces new content into that text that was not in the original.

The example of linguistic translation, I hope, provides insight into the ontological concept of translation. Onticology holds that all inter-ontic (exo-relations between objects) involve the phenomenon of translation. Thus, for example, in the example of color I’ve been exploiting it is clear that color is not an endo-quality of my mug, but an exo-quality. This is because color is the manner in which a particular type of neurological system translations wavelengths of light and therefore only exists in that neurological system. However, color, while being an exo-quality, nonetheless requires light and certain surface qualities of the mug to be possible. It can’t be reduced to the relation alone. Nonetheless it is an “interpretation” or a translation of one object by another. As Latour nicely puts it,

What those who use hermeneutics, exegesis, or semiotics say of texts can be said of all [actants]. For a long time it has been agreed that the relationship between one text and another is always a matter for interpretation. Why not accept that this is also true between so-called texts and so-called objects, and event between so-called objects themselves? (Irreductions, 1.2.9)

Why not indeed? And when we claim one object interprets or translates another object, we are claiming that objects only ever have perspectives of other objects. What onticology refuses, however, is the thesis that an object is its interpretation or translation or perspective. There must be an object there for there to be an interpretation, translation, or perspective on that object. Absent this, our entire account of translation falls apart.

As I said at the outset of this post, I am busy with The Democracy of Objects right now, so hopefully this post will help to put certain discussions to rest.