Hat tip to Gratton. Over at Being’s Poem Daniel Sacilotto has an interesting post up on the debate between object-oriented ontology and Wolfendale. I personally find Daniel’s description of my positions unrecognizable, but the post is nonetheless valuable in articulating points that I need to make more clearly. With any luck, a number of these claims will become clearer once The Democracy of Objects is released. At any rate, a few points.
1. Withdrawal, Virtual Proper Being, and Local Manifestation: In his discussion of withdrawal, virtual proper being, and local manifestation, Daniel writes:
Although Levi’s precise adoption of the Deleuzean frame has not been made excessively clear (indeed, I am hoping Democracy of Objects will deliver on this account), we can stipulate that this entails that a) every object has a unique virtual structure or ‘proper being’, and b) translation invariably ‘involves’ the whole of the object’s virtual structure, The reason why both (a) and (b) are necessary is that if two identical systems exist then direct communication appears possible, insofar as the information transmitted between two systems could result in identical information, and nothing prevents us from saying transmission has taken place without loss or excess. But if direct communication is possible on occasion, withdrawal is threatened wholesale.
On the other hand, Levi would also need to say two systems cannot achieve direct communication on the basis of some common features which can be the only ones involved in a particular relation or transmission. Levi must either require additional metaphysical criteria for why failure would obtain in such cases (since dissimilar features of the system would presumably not take part of the relation), or else stipulate that the entire being of the system is implied in every relation. This last point is needed to make local manifestation invariably system-specific insofar as the total set of features involved in a translation process will be unique to the system performing the translation, even if common features in their virtual structure are shared, and so the actual manifestation will also be always unique. But of course this seems to entail that no two systems can ever share a common quality, nor that common qualities could ever be shared among two different systems.
The first point to make here is that within my framework there is no such thing as information transmitted between systems. Information is not something that exists out there in the world, floating about, but exists only for a system. As I have articulated it in the past following Luhmann (as well as developmental systems theorists in biology such as Susan Oyama), information is an event that selects a system or object-state. One object perturbs another object, the object receiving the perturbation translates that perturbation into information, and that information selects a system-state, generating a quality or local manifestation. The manner in which this takes place will be unique for each type of object.
I am not sure what Daniel is getting at in his discussion of withdrawal and identical systems or objects. Supposing that two objects were identical it does not follow that withdrawal would cease to take place in a relation between these two systems. Here I get the sense that Daniel is somewhat off in his understanding of what withdrawal is and the sort of work that it is doing. Very briefly, the virtual proper being of an object consists in its powers or capacities. In short, the virtual proper being of an object is what an object can do. Local manifestations are qualities that an object produces when it acts in a particular way. The powers that an object possesses are always greater or broader than the qualities it actualizes at any given point in time. All of this is fleshed out in much greater detail in The Democracy of Objects, though Daniel can consult this post to get a better sense of what I’m getting at.
In my view, examples are indispensable in philosophy, so perhaps an example will give him a better sense of what I’m getting at by the concepts of withdrawal, virtual proper being, local manifestation, information, and translation. Drawing on Aristotle’s example from either the Categories or Metaphysics Book Z (I can’t recall which), when I do yard work under the hot Texas sun my skin grows darker. Before it was pale, now it is tan. The darkness of my skin is a local manifestation of my body. It is a quality produced under specific conditions. The first point to note is that the quality of having darker skin is an act on the part of my body. It is something that my body does. My skin “browns”. The second point to note, is that my body has the power to produce other qualities. Not only can my skin grow pale if I sit inside all the time, but my body can actualize all sorts of other spatial properties (I can gain weight, if I exist in a low pressure environment my shape changes ever so slightly, etc) and other abilities (I can grow strong or weak, my dexterity can increase or diminish, etc).
These properties are all local manifestations of my body. If these are manifestations then this is because they are events or acts that my body actualizes in the world. If they are local, then this is because they occur under specific conditions. The fact that the qualities of an object can change requires us to give an account of what substance is like in order for these changes to take place. We can’t equate the being of a substance with its qualities precisely because those qualities change while the substance remains the same. Consequently, I argue that an object is split between its virtual proper being and its local manifestations. The virtual proper being of an object is its powers or capacities. My body must have the capacity to darken in order for my skin to grow darker. My body does not, as far as I know, have the power to “green” like a leaf.
The foregoing impressionistic outline of the relationship between local manifestation– and I emphasize that it is impressionistic –allows me to articulate the concepts of withdrawal, information, and translation. The concept of withdrawal as I understand it merely underlines the point that no object ever actualizes all of its powers in local manifestations. When my skin darkens it doesn’t pale. My skin has a paling power within it, but this power is not currently actualized. The point, I believe, is pretty simple, almost trite. In order for a local manifestation to be produced, my body has to be perturbed in some way. In the example above, my body is perturbed by sunlight. That sunlight is then translated into information or an event that selects a virtual potentiality within my body. If I insist on a distinction between the perturbation of sunlight and the information that my body produces, then this is because the information the sunlight produces in my body necessarily differs from sunlight itself. The biochemical processes sunlight initiates in my body is nothing like sunlight itself. Moreover, the quality that sunlight produces in my body in a local manifestation (tan skin) is nothing like sunlight.
If local manifestations are acts, activities, or doings on the part of an object, then we might ask why we are nonetheless inclined to treat local manifestations as qualities that an object has or possesses, or as qualities that are in an object. My answer to this question is that most objects we’re familiar with exist in what I call regimes of attraction that are fairly stable. I tend to think my body, for example, has a particular enduring shape because, on the planet earth, I exist under fairly stable conditions of temperature, gravity, and pressure. Change these conditions significantly and my body begins to manifest new properties (perhaps leading to the destruction of my body or my body becoming many new objects).
2. Knowledge: Discussing my concept of knowledge, Daniel writes:
This objection doesn’t work, insofar as it rests on an excessively narrow sense of production and use. Since Levi’s distinction between reporting and producing is primarily anchored in the distinction between repetition and innovation, the procedures which produce local manifestations apply to newly developed theories in experimental sciences just as revolutionary political movements. Doing theory is a form of production, and as long as it can be distinguished from merely repetitive activity, it necessarily concerns actualizing local manifestations. The key question is, then, whether Levi is actually equipped to advance the distinction between repetitive and non-productive reporting and innovative productive inventing. Since even ordinary knowledge transmission, in non-experimental science for instance, must involve translation, Levi is thereby forced to distinguish between translations which produce new manifestations from merely repeated ones.
While I certainly have a great love of invention and revolutionary political movements, my position regarding knowledge is far more prosaic than what Daniel here suggests. Some people have asked me what an object is. For me an object is a structured composition of powers split between virtual proper being and local manifestations. This, I believe, has consequences for epistemology. If it is true that objects are structured compositions of powers and that properties or local manifestations are acts, then I believe it follows that knowledge consists in a set of prescriptions or practices for producing qualities in an object. To know an object is to know the powers that inhabit or structure an object. How do I know the powers that structure or inhabit an object? I know this by acting on the object or observing how other objects act on the object to produce specific local manifestations. By acting on objects we gradually discover what objects are capable of doing or what local manifestations they produce under specific conditions.
In the past, I have often talked about knowledge in terms of cooking. Why? Precisely because the cook acts on a variety of objects through various tools, techniques, temperatures, pressures, etc., to produce local manifestations. This, I believe, is not unlike what experimental scientists do in their laboratories. The whole point is that we only discover the powers of objects through acting on them in a variety of ways. It is only in this way that we discover the power of objects to produce local manifestations.
In my view, mainstream emphasis places far too much emphasis on the discursive and propositional. This is one of the reasons I finally dropped out of discussion with Wolfendale. Wolfendale kept trying to set the terms of debate and to capture OOO in the lobster of his set of distinctions, but if the fundamental presuppositions upon which the whole question is posed and from which all those distinctions are derived is mistaken, there’s little point in continuing discussion. For that to take place there would first have to be a fundamental gestalt shift allowing him to at least understand what is being objected to. My epistemology is deeply wedded to a particular critique of the social status of philosophers and the forms of life that social status tends to generate.
Philosophers are, above all, sedentary creatures. We read texts, debate, argue, yet seldom engage with materials. Where we do engage with materials– as in the case of cooking, gardening, or rock climbing –we seldom treat these activities as having philosophical significance where epistemology is concerned. This leads to a very passive discourse about representation and the giving of reasons. We think of knowledge, for example, as the ability to give reasons. Yet this largely ignores questions of how knowledge is produced. This way of thinking emerges, I think, from the privileged and sedentary lifestyle of the philosopher. When we cast about for examples of knowledge we look at a rock– just sitting there –and then ask “how do I know this rock?” Because we are sitting still and the rock is not being acted upon, we conclude that knowledge of the rock consists in being able to enumerate the properties that the rock has. This way of thinking is based entirely on a distribution of labor (in ancient Greece it required a society that had slaves to do maniual labor, while in contemporary society it requires a differentiation of labor between those that are knowledge producers and those that work on materials). A person’s epistemology, I believe, reflects their class position and assumptions. Acting on objects, I believe, generates a very different understanding of how knowledge is arrived at and what it is and within the framework of contemporary philosophy we have very little epistemology that reflects this. Latour does, Bergson does, Dewey does, but these positions have never caught on in mainstream epistemology. I think the reasons for this are more sociological than philosophical. My epistemology, by contrast, draws particular attention to techniques, practices, acts, instruments, and so on, de-emphasizing texts or reports of what was found as a result of acts.
3. Meaning: In his discussion of my account of meaning, Daniel writes:
But since in Levi’s account only humans produce meanings insofar as only humans engage in reflexive consideration of alternate possibilities, to claim knowledge is produced in the same way new system states occur seems to either radically collapse the distinction between the human domain of meaning and the more broadly non-human domain of translation. Indeed, the ‘subjective form’ of meaning production which constitutes knowledge seems no longer separable from natural processes, or general relations between different entities. This seems a thesis Levi would be happy to endorse, insofar as it places objects and humans in the same metaphysical footing and preserves both the possibility of novel production, repetitive transmission, and withdrawal. However, Levi has no real account of how the ‘productions’ put to use in novel-meaning events are distinguished from reports in the more basic strata of proper being of the object (virtual), local manifestation (actual) and in the translation of information between the two. How are reports categorically distinct from ‘productions’ (or novel actualizations)? Even if Levi claims the crucial distinction lies in how meaning-producing systems are endogenously specified to discern information in the projection of alternative possibilities, how this projection allows the proper distinction between report and production remains obscure. We have stipulated how Levi could reply, but this is all sheer speculation at this point, since the account of novelty is missing.
I have never suggested that meaning is the sole domain of humans, nor that meaning is the only example of a direct relation. On the one hand, I have already distinguished between two domains in which meaning takes place: individual human psychic-systems or mental-systems and social systems (remember, for me, societies are objects or systems as well). While I have focused on these systems or objects, there is nothing to preclude the existence of meaning in other domains such as the animal. On the other hand, I have perpetually emphasized, following Lacan, that “all communication is miscommunication”. In my view, meaning is not a shared propositional content, but is an event that takes place within a system capable of producing a variety of different interpretations. Meaning is not something that a proposition, utterance, or event has but something that an utterance produces. This will differ for every system of reference. Over time, different systems can begin coordinating their reactions to one another as the United States has done with various terrorist cells, but it doesn’t follow that the content is the same for both parties involved. Utterances generate meanings within specific systems, but these meanings are not identical. What is important is the coordination of action that takes place as a result… A coordination that might very well be antagonistic. That’s enough for now.