May 2010


I don’t have much to add to what Balibar, Harman, Toscano, and Protevi have said beyond the angry grunt that Middlesex’s suspensions are absolutely disgusting. I find this situation depressing beyond words.

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In case anyone wondered, there is a very specific reason I’ve evoked cane toads as an example in the last year or so when discussing exo-relations. The cane toad originates in South and Central America. Early during the last century it was imported to Hawaii, parts of the Caribbean, and the Philippines to fight pests in sugarcane fields. Based on the success of cane toads in fighting pests in these regions, the cane toad was introduced into Queensland Australia in the 1930s. Due to a lack of natural predators in Australia, cane toad populations quickly began to explode and spread throughout Australia, killing off other indigenous species. Cane toad hatching season qualifies as what might be called a plague. To get a sense of just how big a problem the cane toad is in Australia take a look at the following video clip. Around the 2:30 mark you can see just how explosive this population is.

The cane toad does an excellent job illustrating a number of object-oriented and onticological concepts. On the one hand, it is a marvelous example of maintaining the externality of relations or the thesis that objects cannot be equated with their relations. In the context of South and Central America, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, the cane toad poses (to my knowledge) no particular problems. However, when the cane toad is introduced to Queensland (i.e., when its placed in a new set of exo-relations, new qualities in the cane toad population begin to emerge.

Ecology is right to emphasize the importance of relations, but wrong to conceive these relations as internal relations or to argue that relations are internal to objects such that they constitute objects. Without an account of external relations ecology is 1) unable to account for both how objects such as the cane toad can shift from one environment to another, and 2) to account for how it’s possible to intervene in environments to enact positive changes. These, I believe, are very simple and obvious ontological points so I’m really not sure what all the ruckus over relations is about.

The example of the Queensland cane toad is also a nice example of regimes of attraction. A regime of attraction is a set of exo-relations in a collective of objects that tends to produce fairly enduring local manifestations. For example, if my beloved blue coffee mug is sitting on my office desk under fluorescent lights, the shade of blue it manifests is fairly enduring. This is because it exists in a regime of attraction that evokes ongoing acts in the object. Similarly in the case of cane toads, though here the issue pertains more to population densities than qualities. In Central and South America there are enough predators immune to the poison of the cane toads skin to keep the cane toad population within certain limits. It is likely that South and Central American cane toads also tend to be smaller than Australian cane toads as they must compete with a number of other predators and don’t have “the run of the farm” allowing them to eat to their hearts content. By contrast, in Queensland the cane toad has entered a new regime of attraction where there are no predators immune to their poisonous skin. As a consequence, these predators gradually die off (species are going extinct throughout the region) and cane toad populations subsequently explode. We get a different local manifestation as a result of this different regime of attraction.

You can read more about cane toads here.

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.

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I’ll add to this as terms occur to me, but hopefully it’s a good start.

A

Act: Local manifestations, qualities, or properties of objects. Qualities or local manifestations are not possessions of objects, but rather acts of objects.

Actant: (Bruno Latour) Synonym for any object. Designed to emphasize the manner in which objects are active and not merely passive recipients of action.

Actualism: (Roy Bhaskar) Any philosophical doctrine that holds that only the actual is real. Examples: Empiricism’s reduction of all beings to actual sensations or impressions, atomism’s reduction of true being to collection of purely actual, indivisible atoms localized in time and space, or relationisms reduction of objects to their relations to other objects.

Asymmetrical Qualities: Local manifestations of an object that are irreversible in the order of time or through a shift in exo-relations. For example, it’s unlikely that I can revert back to my physical being at the age of 12 (though many will say I often behave like I’m twelve). Contrasted with symmetrical qualities.

Attractor: Powers of an object to produce qualities of a particular sort within a particular range. Ex. All the shades of color an object can actualize under various lighting conditions.

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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.

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Denver Bibliophile has a REALLY INTERESTING post up on the possibility of object oriented criticism. Check it out.

One of the things I’m particularly interested in accounting for is why, if objects are always distinct from whatever qualities they might happen to actualize or manifest at a given point in time and space. Here the concept of manifestation or actualization should not be confused with experience. There can, of course, be no experience without actualization of some sort, without exo-relations of some sort, but the category or dimension of local manifestation or actualization is broader than the category of experience. Local manifestation or actualization takes place throughout the universe, but experience does not. Local manifestation is thus an ontological category, not an epistemological category. Local manifestation is not the givenness of an object to a subject or a receiver, but is rather one half of the real with respect to objects.

If, then, local manifestation is not givenness, then what is it and why is it local? Local manifestation is that domain of being or existence composed entirely of events and nothing but events. As I argued in my post “The Mug Blues“, qualities of an object are not predicates or possessions of an object, but are rather verbs or actions on the part of an object. Qualities of an object are not something an object is but something an object does. Thus, for example, it would be a mistake to say that my blue coffee mug is blue. Why? Because the color of my mug changes depending on the lighting conditions. In bright sunlight the mug is a brilliant and radiant blue. When I share a romantic moment with my mug– yes I’m polymorphously perverse and have a pathetic romantic life (philosophers seldom fare well in that department, wonder if there’s a connection here) –and enjoy a cup of coffee by candlelight while listening to Barry White, my mug is a deep, flat blue. When I turn out the lights, the mug is black.

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