In response to my recent post on correlationism, Alex Reid raises a number of critical questions. Alex begins by remarking that,

I’m interested in that final line: “only when you abandon the thesis that any entity constructs another entity that your position is deserving of the title of realism.” This post focuses on issues of symbolic behavior, so I understand this statement in that context as meaning that objects are not constructed through their relation to humans and language. However, if a chemist says water is constructed of hydrogen and oxygen, does she become a correlationist? Perhaps the answer is to say that such a statement isn’t the whole story. That is, water may be H2O but it is also demonstrates characteristics in excess of those attributable to hydrogen and oxygen on their own (e.g. it can fill a swimming pool). Of course those characteristics are also dependent on water’s relations with other objects. Water can’t fill a pool without gravity (or a pool).

The term “construction” is bound, I think, to be misleading. There are two senses in which the term “construction” is used in these discussions. On the one hand, there is the somewhat rare Latourian sense, where we’re literally talking about things being built. When Latour talks about construction he is talking about the composition of something out of heterogeneous materials. For example, the building of a bridge. On the other hand, the most common usage of the term construction in the humanities today is that of social construction. Generally the thesis here is that things are constructed by either language or social forces.

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I have no objections to the first sense of construction, and therefore have no objections to Alex’s question about H20. Objects can be and are built out of other objects. Indeed, object-oriented ontology argues, as in the case of Harman’s memorable phrase, that objects are wrapped within objects that are wrapped within objects and so on. What, then, is the dividing line between this first sense of construction and that of social construction? H20, even when built by scientists in a laboratory, has independent existence. When H20 comes into existence out of hydrogen and oxygen it is a genuine actor in the world, independent of the scientists that built it.

By contrast, the subtext of discussions about social construction is always that the entities that are socially constructed have no existence independent of the social forces or language that constructed these entities. Compare the way engineers talk about their constructions and the way the social theorist talks about their constructions. The engineer speaks with pride at the ability of her construction to survive her and trace a path throughout the world that is independent of her actions. By contrast, the social theorist tends to speak of constructions with a sneer. Lurking in the background is always the thesis that x is just a construction. Here the term construction is used in a sense entirely opposite that of the scientist and the engineer. The engineers of the Hadron super-collidor are proud of their construction, its ingenuity, and its ability to stand. By contrast, the social theorist uses the term “construction” as short-hand for a strategy of debunking that denies the reality of the thing.

Matters, however, are complicated here. OOO does not deny that there are “social constructions”. After all, all entities relate to one another through translations and therefore every entity grasps other entities in its own unique way. Moreover, there are entities like the United States or the German soccer team that can only come into existence with a strong linguistic dimension. However, even in these instances, construction is closer to the engineer’s sense of the word than the social theorist’s. Think of all the work that it takes, for example, to keep an entity like the United States in existence. OOO’s point is that this is not the only way that entities exist, or even the most common type of being.

Alex goes on to remark that,

…setting aside the entire question of language, to what extent does one imagine an object’s characteristics as being intrinsic to the object and to what extent are those characteristics emergent in the object’s relation/exposure to other objects? It would seem here that one might suggest that the virtual potentiality of any object is wrapped up within it. However I would think objects are in continual flux, becoming other, becoming different objects with different potentials.

In other words, it isn’t the objects v. language that interests me. In trying to develop a realist rhetoric or discourse; the question for me is the relationship between object and process.

Here I have a great deal of difficulty understanding Alex’s remarks. If I’m reading Alex correctly, he’s deploying a code, distinction, or schema that sorts theories of being into those that are without time and that treat being as fixed and unchanging and those that conceive the world as dynamic, processual, and characterized by becoming. Objects are then sorted into the first category and are then contrasted with ontologies of becoming. Here I think Alex’s comments are important as they are reflective of one possible reason the concept of object might be the favorite whipping boy of Continental theory. What we have here is the ancient debate over being and becoming.

What I don’t understand is why objects are conceived as fixed and static. Nothing in our experience seems to suggest such a characterization of objects. Objects become, they decay, they evolve, and so on. This is one of the reasons I characterize objects as split-objects. I argue that objects have a virtual dimension that I refer to as “virtual proper being” and an actual dimension that I refer to as “local manifestation”. Virtual proper being refers to the powers and capacities of an object, what it can do, its potentialities. I refer to this as proper being to distinguish it from the qualities of an object. By contrast, local manifestation refers to the actualized qualities of an object. Local manifestation is what an object becomes under particular circumstances as a function of the relations an object enter into. Alex can check out a concrete example of this distinction in action in my post “The Mug Blues“. The point here is that the qualities of an object are variable and changing with changing circumstances such that the virtual proper being of an object is always in excess of any actuality. Every object harbors potentialities and powers in excess whatever happens to be actual in it at a given point in time.

In addition to this, I argue that objects are dynamic systems. Here I draw heavily on the autopoietic theory of Niklas Luhmann. Not only do objects relate to the world selectively insofar as they are operationally closed, but they are dynamic and evolving systems that change as a result of how they’re perturbed by their environment. In this respect, it’s very difficult to see how objects are static and fixed.

Alex goes on to remark that,

…the rhetorical (and compositional) challenge isn’t to develop a discourse that reveals the real but rather one that allows us to speak in new ways about the world, to see new possibilities, to develop new relations (with both human and non-human others), and maybe invent a way of living (which is maybe humanocentric but given our impact on the planet, maybe not).

OOO is not an ontology that seeks to “reveal the real”. This would be a correspondence model of truth, which OOO rejects. The reason for this rejection is simple: Because objects translate one another there can be no question of a correspondence between how an object encounters another object and what that other object is. There’s always a disadequation between objects. This follows directly from the thesis of withdrawal and Graham’s concept of sensuous objects (not to be confused with sensations). In this regard, I distinguish between epistemological realisms and ontological realisms. Epistemological realisms wish to argue that discourse and perception is a mirror of the world as it is. Ontological realisms refuse to reduce objects to constructions in the socio-linguistic sense of the word. OOO rejects epistemological realisms, while maintaining an ontological realism.

A realist rhetoric would minimally be two things: First, a realist rhetoric would not focus on speech and writing alone. There would, of course, be a place for the analysis of content or the semiotic in a realist rhetoric, it just wouldn’t be the whole story. Here I believe the recent work of rhetorician Scott Barnett of Clemson is exemplary. Barnett wishes to develop an object-oriented rhetoric. If I understand his review of Harman’s Tool-Being and Guerrilla Metaphysics, this would involve expanding the domain of what rhetoric analyzes, taking into account the role played by nonhuman actors in rhetorical settings. Rather than simply analyzing the content of speech and writing and how it persuades or, in Burkean terms, creates identifications, such a rhetoric would also have a robust place for nonhuman factors such as settings, technologies, communications and writing technologies, etc. It would treat these as genuine actors or agents that play a key role in the rhetorical. In terms of Burke’s pentad, these nonhuman actors wouldn’t merely be scenic elements, nor would they merely be agencies. They would be genuine agents.

In his pentad, Burke tends to reserve act and agent for the domain of humans, while he places nonhuman actors in the domain of agencies or mere tools or instruments used by humans or in the scene (given that I’m strongly anti-teleological in my own thought, I set aside purpose altogether). An OOR would treat nonhuman objects as genuine agents capable of acts. In many cases, humans would be agencies of nonhuman objects just as Marx readily observed with respect to the factory where humans become parts or gears of a machine, or, as I argued in a recent post, where grass has used humans as a part of its reproductive organs. The point is not that humans are passive agencies and objects are active agents. The issue here is not one of simple inversion. Rather, the point is that what counts as an agent is far broader than the category of the human and animal.

In response to the same post, BB asks:

You have probably already answered this questionany times, but if you have patience for one more time I would be grateful: how do you account for the division of the world into discrete objects, which seems to be a linguistic division? In other words, just talking about objects seems to take for granted that the world is full of already-distinguished objects, but aren’t there lots of different possible ways one could distinguish objects?

In my view, BB’s reasoning here doesn’t follow from his premises. BB seems to be moving from the premise that because we distinguish objects in many ways, objects must not exist and instead we just have a number of linguistically constructed objects. Hjelmslev gives a memorable example of this in his Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. There he notes that English distinguishes between green, blue, gray, and brown (which are qualities or local manifestations, not objects), while Welsh only distinguishes between gwyrdd, glas, and llwyd (53). Likewise, Danish only distinguishes between trae and skov, while German distinguishes between Baum, Holz, and Wald, and French distinguishes between arbre, bois, and foret (54). In the case of German and French, bois is a broader category than Holz and Wald is a broader category than the French foret.

It would thus seem to follow as a matter of course that entities are linguistically constructed insofar as the linguistic evidence shows clearly that languages cut up the world in different ways. However, while I have no intention of denying that language cuts up the world in different ways, it does not follow from this that language dictates what is and what is not. OOO does not tell us a priori what entities exist, but only that if something exists then it must be an object and that if it is an object it must have such and such structural properties. The determination of whether or not something is an entity requires inquiry. Moreover, language cannot here be treated as a guide for precisely the reasons that BB suggests. Moreover, in any inquiry we run the risk of letting language dictate what is and is not. In short, we can fall into error. However, it doesn’t follow from this that somehow language makes entities what they are. Flesh eating bacteria will still eat your flesh even if you call them demonic curses.