Over at Jon Cogburn’s blog, Pete Wolfendale has written a lengthy response to one of my comments. I’ve decided to respond here as, for some reason, I’m unable to blockquote comments over at Jon’s blog, making it more difficult to formulate responses. Pete writes:

The idea of translation is a nice metaphor, but that’s what it is – a metaphor – and it needs cashing out. The simplest way to cash it out is that the effect the affecting object has upon the affected object is in some way dependent upon the affected object, i.e., that the same object will produce different affects upon different things. However, this is something that everyone accepts, and they can accept it without having to talk about ‘real objects’ or ‘proper being’ that withdraws. Maybe you can enlighten me as to the correct stronger way to cash this out, and how this solves any of these issues.

Hopefully Pete will be happy to discover that I “cash” this concept out in great detail in chapter four of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Interior of Objects”. Before proceeding to briefly discuss how I cash this concept out, it’s necessary to make two points. First, it’s necessary to note that there are a number of ways in which Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology differ. Second, it’s necessary to explain why I hold that these questions can only adequately be comprehended in terms of a model of withdrawal. The simplest way of explaining why objects must be thought in terms of withdrawal goes back to Aristotle’s concept of substance. In his account of primary substances in the Categories and Metaphysics Z, Aristotle is careful to note that substances are not identical to either their qualities or their parts. I discuss this in detail in chapter 2 of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Paradox of Substance”.

read on!

The qualities of a substance can change, while the substance remains the same substance. Aristotle gives the example of a man turning from light to dark. This simple observation leads Aristotle to define substance as, among other things, that which can entertain or possess contradictory qualities at different points in time. Within the framework of my onticology, this simple observation is among the reason that I’m led to distinguish between the withdrawn virtual proper being of objects and their local manifestations. If substances can remain the same while actualizing different qualities, then there must be something to substance that is radically anterior to any qualities an object must come to possess. Putting this in somewhat “transcendental” terms– I say “somewhat” because these terms here have nothing to do with minds –there must be something in or of substances that is not itself the order of a quality but that functions as the condition under which actualized qualities or properties are produced. With some modifications, I treat this dimension of substances in terms of Deleuze’s concept of multiplicities as developed in Difference and Repetition. Deleuze’s multiplicities are structures of differential relations and singularities that preside over actualizations of qualities and geometric spatial structures. I treat these multiplicities as endo-structures or endo-consistencies that can be actualized in a variety of different ways under different conditions. The endo-consistency of a substance is not itself ever actualized precisely because it’s a range of unlimited potentials anterior to any quality. I realize these points are abbreviated here, but hopefully they give Pete some sense of what I’m getting at. For me the relation between withdrawal and quality is a relation between virtual concrete being and actualization.

I cash out the concept of translation in terms of the concept of systems and information. Every substance, I argue, is a system characterized by closure. The first point to note is that information does not exist independent of the system or substance for which it is information. Put otherwise, there is no such thing as pre-existent information or information out there in the universe waiting to be received. Information is instead an event that is system-specific and that is constituted by systems.

In his treatment of systems in texts like Social Systems, Niklas Luhmann draws heavily on Gregory Bateson’s concept of information as the difference that makes a difference. Luhmann variously defines information as “…an event that selects system states” (67) and as “…an event that brings about a connection between differences” (75). First the latter concept of information. Information connects differences in three ways: First, information links difference to difference in substances themselves by linking the virtual proper being of an object to specific actualizations or local manifestations. For example, when sunlight hits my coffee mug in a particular way a particular shade of blue is actualized. A potentiality of the virtual proper being of the mug undergoes a transition to a particular shade of color. Likewise, were I a stock market investor, upon hearing that the value of the dollar has dropped (information), I might decide not to sell a particular stock on the grounds that I wouldn’t get a very good return (system-state).

Second, information links difference to difference by linking information to perturbations in the environment of a system. Perturbations and information are not the same. As Pete notes in his post, different perturbations or objects can produce different results in different objects. I would rephrase this by saying that one and the same perturbation can produce different information in different substances. Likewise, a perturbation can produce no perturbation at all for a specific substance. For example, I am unable to sense electro-magnetic fields, whereas it appears that bats are capable of sensing electro-magnetic fields. There is consequently a difference between information and perturbations or irritations, yet information links perturbations to the organization of a system. In a lot of respects, the concept of information being deployed here is analogous to what Graham calls a “sensuous object”. A sensuous object is, for Graham, an object that exists only on the interior of a real object. Information exists only on the interior of real objects. Perhaps the difference between Graham’s sensuous objects and the concept of information I’m developing here is that Graham’s sensuous objects are more akin to what I would call the selection of a system state, whereas information is an event that functions as the impetus for the production of this system state.

Third, information can link difference to difference by linking withdrawn objects to one another. No substance ever directly encounters another substance precisely because substances always have different organizations and therefore produce different information when encountering perturbations. Each system transforms perturbations into information in its own specific way as a function of its organization. Consequently, through information different objects come to be linked, but in such a way that they simultaneously withdraw from one another.

Let’s return to the example of the value of the dollar dropping. Here the media report that the value of the dollar has dropped can function as a perturbation for other systems, producing very different information in each system. Luhmann argues that the economic system is organized around the guiding difference of profit/non-profit, while the political system is organized around the guiding difference of power/non-power. Both the economic system and the political system will therefore register this perturbation as information in very different ways. The economic system will select system-states pertaining to whether the drop in the value of the dollar affords opportunities for profit or generates loss, while the political system will register this perturbation in terms of how it consolidates power or diminishes it.

Why, then, is information system-specific rather than something that exists out there in the world, present-at-hand, as it were. In developing this thesis, Luhmann draws heavily on the work of the mathematician G. Spencer-Brown. Spencer-Brown argued that in order for anything to be indicated it is first necessary to draw a distinction. As Spencer-Brown writes,

The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in a plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance. The act is itself already remembered, even if unconsciously, as our first attempt to distinguish different things in a world where, in the first place, the boundaries can be drawn anywhere we please. At this stage the universe cannot be distinguished from how we act upon it, and the world may seem like shifting sand beneath or feet. (Laws of Form, xxix)

Later Spencer-Brown remarks that, “[t]he calculus of indications consists of a set of ways of indicating one or the other of the two states distinguished by the first distinction, so we shall be able to find an application of it to the indicative form of any clear distinction of this kind” (112). Spencer-Brown’s point is that distinction precedes indication. A distinction must already be in place for an indication to be made. We see this in the diagram above to the right where a space is cleaved in two such that there is a marked space and an unmarked space. Once the distinction is made, it becomes possible to indicate things within the marked space of the distinction. Put in Kantian terms, we can thus say that distinction is the transcendental condition for the possibility of information. Distinction must precede any indication.

Now, the point not to be missed is that distinctions are always contingent and system-specific. Distinctions arise from the substance “making” the distinction, not from the world itself. Here we don’t need to follow Luhmann and Spencer-Brown all the way if we don’t wish to. Luhmann and Spencer-Brown treat the conditions under which information is possible in terms of binary distinctions drawn by particular substances. It could be that this is the conditions that information events take only in relatively advanced systems such as social systems or cognitive systems. Likewise, it could be that the conditions under which information events are possible is a sort of differential network of the sort described by Deleuze early in Difference and Repetition (50). The important point is that information is conditional on the organization of the substance in question and that it not be something out there in the world already.

Returning to the theme of translation, perhaps Pete can now see what I have in mind when I speak of translation and why this concept isn’t a mere metaphor. Translation is the manner in which substances transform the perturbations of other substances according to the substance’s own endo-structure or internal organization, producing new qualities as a consequence. Pete rather disdainfully and condescendingly remarks that everyone already recognizes that objects can affect different objects differently. Here I’m left to wonder what Pete believes an ontology is. Ontologies outline the most general features common to all objects. Consequently it comes as no surprise that ontology will, in many instances, tell us things that “everyone already knows”. With these general features in place, we can begin to narrow our field of organization to see how this takes place in specific objects.

In the original post to which I was responding, Pete remarks that,

It also has the effect of forcing us to confront the question of how the transcendental is manifest, insofar as it requires us to account for the way that perceptual mechanisms fit into the story. This is a difficult challenge, but one that needs to be tackled head on. By contrast, OOO presents a one size fits all account of perception in which its in principle impossible for us to say anything about how perceptual mechanisms function within it, insofar as it explains causation in terms of perception, and not the other way around. We can’t be required to give an account of how my perceptual mechanisms are involved in my perceptual encounter with my laptop, lest we be required to say something analogous about one billiard ball’s encounter with the other.

This is a very odd charge to be leveled against both onticology and object-oriented philosophy. In his follow up claim, Pete goes on to remark that,

Of course, I wasn’t arguing that OOO thinks that all kinds of intentional relation between objects are exactly the same. You do hold that there are differences, and differences of degree at that. The question is whether you can actually say anything illuminating about these differences, and more specifically whether this can involve a discussion of the actual perceptual mechanisms involved, precisely because of what you think is the same between them (i.e., that which is being varied by degrees). Simply stating that there are differences is not good enough if you can’t give an account of what these differences consist in, in a way that shows *how* they are differences in degree.

First, Harman’s language of intentional relation is not a language that I use, so I’m not sure how much we diverge on this point. However, second, I’m inclined to ask which is it Pete? In the first passage cited, Pete criticizes OOO and onticology for having a “one size fits all” approach to how objects relate that is therefore inadequate and incapable of taking into account differences between objects. In the second passage, Pete says that this wasn’t what he was saying at all, that OOO and onticology do indeed recognize objects differ from one another in terms of their organization, but that somehow we’re unable to say anything illuminating about translation in specific instances.

Here I would argue that the situation is precisely the reverse: It is Pete’s Kantian transcendentalism (which is pretty suspect from the standpoint of cognitive science) that is unable to say anything enlightening about how objects translate one another, and that it is OOO and onticology that opens the way to an investigation of how objects translate one another. It is this Kantian transcendentalism that adopts a “one size fits all” account of being, and that conflates a regional ontology with a general ontology. How is this so? The first point to note is that Pete’s Kantianism is not necessarily mistaken in how human minds translate other objects (though I believe subsequent developments in phenomenology and cognitive science have decisively shown just how mistaken the Kantian mechanics are). The problem is that Pete and those who follow this path take human translation as totalizing translation as such generalizing it to all being. No amount of Brandomian (or Habermasian!) hand-wringing changes the fact that human being is treated as the only mode of translation and that therefore this position is inherently anthropocentric such that it fails to ever reach the ontological, but rather can only ever articulate the anthropo-ontological.

Onticology and OOO don’t fall into this problem. Precisely because onticology emphasizes the contingency of how entities translate other entities, the fact that distinctions or organizations can be and are drawn differently for different substances, onticology and OOO open a domain of investigation into how other, non-human, entities encounter and relate to the world. This is what Ian Bogost has called “alien phenomenology”. Another way of putting this would be to say that onticology and OOO open the way to second-order observation of other entities. First-order observation refers to how entities indicate the world based on the distinctions they make or their organization. The term “observation” here, of course, is very broad and can refer simply to how a substance actualizes system-states in response to a perturbation. First-order observation generates a sort of transcendental illusion that arises from a sort of conflation of the sensuous objects that inhabit a substance’s interior states with the world as such. As Luhmann puts it in his excellent Reality of the Mass Media (truly the best introduction to his work), “[p]ut in Kantian terms, …[systems] generate a transcendental illusion. According to this understanding, the activity of the [system] is regarded not simply as a sequence of operations, but rather as a sequence of observations or, to be more precise, of observing operations (4).” Luhmann’s point is that first-order observation generates the transcendental illusion that the system-state is identical to the world or other objects itself.

Second-order observation is not an indication of other objects or substances in the world, but rather is an observation of how other substances observe. We bracket the question of whether or not the observed substance itself has a veridical “representation” of the world, and instead simply investigate the distinctions or organization of that other substance that operate in the production of translations or first-order observations in the world. Another way of putting this would be to say that onticology and OOO pluralize Kant’s transcendental schema. As a consequence, the “transcendental” becomes empirical in the precise sense that it is contingent and differs from substance to substance. With this thesis we are then able to engage in second-order observations of how different substances translate the world in their own unique way. Far from foreclosing our ability to saying anything illuminating about how different substances translate the world, onticology and OOO open the way to a fine grained analysis of different forms of translation in different entities. It leads the way to what Bogost has called an alien phenomenology. By contrast, within the Kantian schema, this sort of investigation is completely foreclosed because we’re presented with only one schema of translation and only ever raise the question of objects in terms of how they are translated by this one schema.

I’ll leave things here for the moment as I have to head out to lunch with a colleague. With any luck I’ll be able to respond to the remainder of Pete’s post later this afternoon. However, Pete will also hopefully recall that I am currently in the middle of writing my book and do not have the time to get caught in lengthy and involved cross-blog discussions; especially given Pete’s proclivity for writing 36 thousand word posts.