In my LAST POST I wrote,
Building an object is always problematic. When smaller scale objects are brought together with larger scale objects we always encounter a series of problems as to just how to make these objects work together. Engineering is a field of problems. When we bring objects together we discover that they behave in unexpected ways, that this object, brought into relation with that object, evokes surprising and hitherto unknown powers within one or both of the objects. We learn more and more about the volcanic powers of objects through relating them to one another and interacting with them, but we should be cautious in concluding that we ever know all the powers of objects (I’m inclined to argue that every object is inexhaustible).
In my view, this is one of the key reasons for maintaining that objects are external to or independent of their relations. As Spinoza famously said in Part III of the Ethics, “we don’t know what a body can do.” Insofar as objects display surprising qualities when brought into relations with new objects, it follows that objects cannot be reduced to their relations. Were objects reducible to their relations, then their qualities would be exhausted by whatever relations they happen to embody at a particular time. Put a bit differently, it would be impossible to account for why objects behave differently when situated in new fields of relations.
It is therefore necessary to account for just how this is possible. Two consequences follow from this observations:
First, holism or the thesis that everything is related to everything else is false.
Second, the thesis that an object is its relations must be false.
The reason that both of these positions are false is the same. If holism were true, then it would follow that each and every object must manifest all the qualities that it can ever manifest, precisely because the object already exists in all the relations in which it can possibly exist. Likewise, if relationism or the thesis that objects are their relations were true, it would follow that objects cannot surprise or manifest new qualities by entering into new relations precisely because there is nothing more to objects held in reserve or withdrawal from the relations the object currently maintains.
Short of an appeal to magic, it therefore follows that there must be something of the object in excess of any relations the object happens to entertain at a particular time. Put alternatively, objects must be withdrawn from their relations, harboring hidden and volcanic depths not exhausted by their relations. Either way the point amounts to the same: The concept of substance is ineradicable from ontology if we are to coherently think the possibility of change. It is only where objects, in principle, are irreducible to their relations that we are able to account for why objects produce such surprises when they’re brought into new relations with other objects.
It is this observation that lies at the heart of my distinction between “virtual proper being” and “local manifestation”. “Local manifestation” refers to the relational dimension of objects. Local manifestations are relational through and through and refer to the qualities an object actualizes when it enters into relationships with or interacts with other objects. For example, if you take a styrofoam coffee cup a few hundred feet beneath the ocean it’s size will shrink considerably. This is a local manifestation of the styrofoam cup that arises in relation to the pressure of the water compressing it. If these manifestations are local, then this is because it is these particular relations that produce these particular manifestations or qualities.
The important point here is to maintain the locality of these relations. Other relations will produce other local manifestations. In my view, relationists are right to recognize functional relationships between manifestation or quality and relation, but wrong to claim that objects are their relations. Here the motivation is pretty obvious: Historically talk of substance has tended to lead to a subject-predicate or subject-quality metaphysics that sees predicates, qualities, or manifestations as intrinsic to the object, ignoring what Boothby, in Freud as Philosopher referred to as “dispositional fields” or fields of relations that evoke or summon manifestations. The eradication of the category of substance is therefore designed to draw our attention to these dispositional fields as coefficients of manifestation.
The problem is that in eradicating the category of substance, relationists are left without an account of how change is possible. Without any hidden reserves or excesses outside of relation we’re left without the means of accounting for either 1) how relations can shift or change (the relationist falls into an actualism where there’s nothing but the extant relations they can appeal to), and 2) how it is possible for substances to manifest new qualities or manifestations when they enter into new relations. It is for this reason that I argue that objects are split between their local manifestations and virtual proper being, and treat the field of virtual proper being as a field of structured singularities, potentials, or attractors that are a) summoned in particular ways when an object enters into new relations thereby generating new qualities, and b) that have an activity of their own that upset and disrupt existing relations leading to new qualities and relations. Virtual proper being, for me, is the substantiality of substance that is withdrawn from relation, that is in excess of all local relations, and that always harbors the capacity to generate new and different qualities.
Clearly we only ever encounter objects in existing fields of local relations. However, ontologically we must work from the principle that every object, in principle, is detachable from its current relations. Insofar as there is a coefficient between manifestation and relation, it follows, of course, that detaching an object from its relations can produce significant changes in its local manifestations. Morton reminded us of an important example of this today when, in Ecology Without Nature he speaks of a mouse being shot into outer space (given my daughter’s recent obsession with the cartoon Angelina Ballerina– she jumps about in a lyotard and ballet slippers to the music, imitating the dance of the mouse, Angelina… Such is my life. –I’m sure she’d be delighted with this example). The relationist wishes to argue that because the mouse dies when it enters a vacuum, it has ceased to be a mouse and that therefore the existence is relational or dependent on a milieu. As Tim points out however, the mouse hasn’t ceased to exist when shot into a vacuum, it has merely lost a very important quality or local manifestation: life. That local manifestation is dependent on relations to be sure, but the substantiality of the mouse remains, though perhaps it has lost some of its singularities.
An ontological, practical, and political consequence follows from all of this. Ontologically we must postulate the existence of what Graham calls “dormant objects”. Because objects are, in principle, detachable from their relations, we have to entertain the possibility of entirely dormant objects or objects that do not manifest themselves at all because 1) they do not exist in relation to any other objects, and 2) they have no activity within them. Dormant objects are objects not currently in act, but which might come to act. Practically, OOO entails experimentalism. In his UCLA talk, Graham spoke of counter-factual imagining as a technique for getting at the withdrawn core of objects. What, for example, would Lovecraft’s horror be like were it to take place in Egypt? This counter-factual imagining allows us, Graham argues, to get at the substantiality of objects insofar as they’re capable of holding up in a variety of different contexts. I would argue that this technique is not simply imaginative, but also practical. Not only can we vary contexts imaginatively, but we can experiment materially and physically with the contexts of many objects, discovering new powers that they harbor within themselves. Finally, these claims are of political significance insofar as they lead us to reject the thesis that objects can be reduced to existing local relations, imagining the possibility of other relations and therefore leading us to seek the production of new relations.