In my view, one of the most attractive features of object-oriented ontology is that it 1) allows us to precisely investigate the forging of relations, and 2) that it therefore introduces the dimension of time into our analysis of collectives of entities. Such an assertion might come as a surprise as the most basic ontological thesis of object-oriented ontology is that objects are independent of relations. Under a superficial reading, this would thus seem to entail that OOO is indifferent to relations or that it wishes to ignore relations, instead focusing on objects sans context. However, this misses the whole point. The thesis that entities are independent of relations is not the thesis that entities don’t enter into relations, but is rather the thesis that relations are variable.

Entities pass in and out of relations and are often indifferent to a number of relations. As Deleuze famously put it, relations are external to their terms. Where, for example, Saussurean linguistics argued that phonemes are constituted by their relations, that they are nothing apart from their relations, this thesis holds that entities are independent of their relations. Entities can enter into relations. Relations can have effects on entities. But nonetheless, entities are not constituted by their relations. To underline this point I use the term “exo-relation” to denote external relations between entities. The point is not that there are no relations, nor that we should ignore those relations. For me, what takes place when entities enter into exo-relations is, in many respect, my primary interest. Rather, the point is that entities can always be detached from these relations. In other words, in one dimension being can be thought as what takes place in both the forging of associations or relations, and what takes place in the breaking of associations or relations. What new manifestations come to the fore when relations or associations are forged and broken? However, if we’re to properly think such things we must begin with the premise that entities are anterior to or independent of their relations. For those of you who might have missed it, that’s an argument. If it is possible for relations to be formed and broken, made and unmade, then it follows that entities must be independent of their relations. Without this we’d be at a loss to understand how any relation can be made or unmade.

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Now, among the more interesting consequences that follow from this premise is that relations must be forged. Insofar as relations are external to their terms, insofar as objects are independent of their relations, where relations exist we can begin with the assurance that these relations were built or constructed. That is, things must be brought together. Here I must exercise caution for terms such as “construction” and “building” have strongly anthropocentric connotations, implying a builder that builds the relations. However, while humans are often among the agencies that build or construct relations, there are all sorts of other collectives where entities are drawn together without any human involvement whatsoever. For example, the genesis of the solar system from gaseous clouds in the remote past is an example of entities being drawn together or of relations being built without any human involvement at all. Consequently, in thinking the forging of relations we must be prepared to think an activity of construction without a constructor or an activity of building without a builder. Indeed, even in the case of building involving humans it would be a mistake to conclude that humans are the sole agency presiding over the activity of construction. The tools and materials we work with construct as well; and they do so quite independent of us. At any rate, for me, what is interesting is not so much the thesis that things are related (this privileges products and results over the activity of building and constructing), so much as the process by which things were built or constructed. It is here, of course, that we encounter the dimension of temporality; for bringing things together is something that takes place in time.

Forging relations takes work, and this work is a work that often changes the elements or objects involved or brought together (i.e., new local manifestations are generated). This point is stunningly illustrated with reference to the humble neutrino in physics. As articulated by Wikipedia,

A neutrino (Italian pronunciation: [neuˈtriːno], meaning “small neutral one”; English pronunciation: /njuːˈtriːnoʊ/) is an elementary particle that usually travels close to the speed of light, is electrically neutral, and is able to pass through ordinary matter almost undisturbed. This makes neutrinos extremely difficult to detect.

Think about this for a moment. Quantum theory predicts the existence of neutrinos, yet neutrinos themselves, if they exist, are such that they pass right through most matter. Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because the instruments we use to investigate the world around us (including our own bodies, which are also instruments) are material. As such, neutrinos will, in most cases, produce no differences in our instruments. How, then, can we engage with neutrinos in a way that produces differences, thereby allowing us to determine whether or not they exist? Alternatively, what associations must be forged in order to open a space where neutrinos produce differences in the more mundane entities that populate our world?

The neutrino is a perfect illustration of Graham’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology. In his object-oriented philosophy, Graham has argued that objects are withdrawn from one another. In this way he radicalizes Kant’s Copernican turn. Where Kant argues that things-in-themselves are withdrawn from humans, Harman argues that this is true of all relations between objects. A grain of salt is no more withdrawn from humans than it is from other entities. In my onticology, I have interpreted Graham’s withdrawal thesis in terms of autopoietic systems theory (especially in its Luhmannian formulation). Here the thesis is that objects are operationally closed. The thesis that entities are operationally closed is the thesis that entities are only selectively open to their environments or world. For example, if I am unable to psychoanalyze my daughter’s toy chest, then this is because it is not open to speech as a difference capable of producing differences within the toy chest. The neutrino is a perfect example of an operationally closed or withdrawn object precisely because it is so non-reactive with respect to most other matter. As such, the neutrino becomes a sort of “parable” or privileged example of the ontology of objects in general. Insofar as the neutrino, due to its neutral charge, is unable to interact with most matter, it is a perfect example of the withdrawal of objects in general.

With respect to the neutrino, we thus encounter the question of how it is possible for neutrinos to forge associations with other entities in the more mundane world that we inhabit. For ethnographers, science and technology theorists (STS), and humanities types, I think this is really where the rubber hits the road in OOO. Here the question we’re asking is 1) that of how unrelated entities are brought together in relations, and 2) what the effects of these relations are. These questions, I believe, are the promising route of inquiry opened up by Harman’s account of vicarious causation. If Harman’s account of vicarious causation is significant, then this is because it has drawn our attention to the work of relating. Rather than beginning with the vacuous thesis that “things are related” (who thought otherwise?), Harman’s vicarious causation underlines the point that relation– or better yet relating –is difficult and involves a work or labor. That labor or work of relation, of course, is punctuated by contingency or chance.

In order for the neutrino to be brought into relation with the more mundane entities of our world all sorts of other entities must be mobilized. On the one hand, we have a theory that predicts the existence of neutrinos, while on the other, neutrinos, if they exist, have properties that render it unable to interact with most of our instruments. In order for associations between neutrinos and humans to be produced, all sorts of other entities must be mobilized to produce these associations. This clip gives a sense of just how many mediators, how many mediums, must be mobilized and brought together in order to build or construct a relationship between humans and neutrinos:

If the scientists building this neutrino telescope build it so deep beneath the South Pole, then this is because the ice will function as a buffer against other cosmic particles. By locating the neutrino detector so deep beneath the ice, these other cosmic particles will be blocked by the ice, thereby enlarging the possibility of witnessing those rare neutrino interactions. A similar premise is at work in the South Dakota Homestake neutrino observatory located deep within an old iron mine:

Here the rock between the detectors and the surface buffers other cosmic particles, increasing the likelihood of observing interactions between neutrinos and other particles.

Now, the point that I wish to draw attention to is all the entities that must be assembled or mobilized in order for a relation between neutrinos and the more mundane entities that populate our world (ourselves included) to be brought into relation with one another. With the South Pole observatory, ice melting drills must be moblized, particular detection devices must be assembled, and building materials for the laboratory must be mobilized. This, in its turn, requires the mobilization of universities and governments, money, ships and airplanes to transport these materials. Additionally, of course, there are the teams of scientists that must be moblized, as well as all those intermediaries that provide fuel, food, warm clothing, and transportation. Something similar is at work in the case of the Homestake observatory in South Dakota.

At the risk of suggesting that certain elements are distinct which are not, in fact, distinct, there are a couple of different levels at which we can analyze these collectives or assemblages. On the one hand, we can examine all of the different technical entities that have to be brought together in order to establish a relationship between humans and neutrinos. Here our focus would be on the technical apparatuses by which conditions are created or produced allowing differences to be produced allowing us to infer the existence of neutrinos. In the case of the Homestake laboratory, we would talk about the laborious construction of bubble chambers (depicted to the left above) that is composed of thousands of extremely sensitive cameras designed to capture elusive and rare interactions between neutrinos and other particles of matter. In those rare events where an interaction between neutrinos and other particles occur, we would witness something like the representation to the right where all sorts of swirling effects are produced in the particles that populate the bubble chamber. Note that here we are not witnessing the neutrino itself, but the differences or effects the neutrino produces in other particles. We are witnessing the trace of the neutrino.

In addition to the bubble chamber, we would examine the mine where the bubble chamber is built, the fluid that fills the bubble chamber, the computers used to track the events that take place in the bubble chamber, and so on. All of these entities, and many besides, have to be assembled and mobilized to produce a relation between neutrinos and humans. Initially such an analysis might sound rather dreary and boring, however we have to remember the dimension of temporality in the forging of relations. Scientists don’t know in advance whether their proposed methods for detecting certain entities will work. Following Pickering’s analysis, the bubble chamber was chosen as a strategy for detecting (in his example) quarks because it had been successfully used to detect other particles in the past. However, in the course of using the bubble chamber to detect quarks it was found that the technology had to be modified. New techniques had to be developed. In the process of forging relations our theories change, our technologies change, and our very goals change. In other words, theories and goals are not unmoved movers that remain the same in practice. Rather, they shift in change as a result of practice. We have to examine the actual resistances and problems that were encountered along the way to understand these shifts in goals, technologies, and theories. Similarly, forging an association between humans and neutrinos will also involve breaking other other associations. The observatories, for example, are located deep under the earth and ice to break associations with other cosmic particles that perpetually rain down upon the earth and that would create overwhelming noise rendering it impossible to detect neutrinos.

On the other hand, we can examine the social relations forged as a result of these particular projects. In the case of the South Pole observatory, human beings are brought together in particular ways as a result of material engagement. In other words, the goal of forging a relation between human beings and neutrinos also brings people together in all sorts of ways that aren’t directly related to neutrinos. In order for the South Pole observatory to get off the ground (or, as it were, into the ground) governments, universities, and private business need to be brought together to fund the project. This entails that the observatory will be bound up with all sorts of interests that aren’t directly related to the project of bringing humans into relation or association with neutrinos. However, it is not merely these various entities pertaining to economics, law, and knowledge production that must be brought together, but also all sorts of supply chains that have to be brought into relation with one another. Laboratories in arctic regions of the world pose special challenges because of their remote and hostile environment. In some instances, Coast Guard icebreakers have to be mobilized (there are only two of the particular sort required in the entire world) to break the ice that forms around the coastal city (sometimes reaching as far out as eighty miles) to bring in supplies. These supplies then need to be airlifted from the outpost to the inland laboratory. Likewise, supplies of food, energy, scientific instruments, etc., have to be brought together to be carried in on these icebreakers. These exingencies bring together human beings in a variety of different ways, forming local collectives, that aren’t directly related to the project of bringing humans into contact with neutrinos. In other words, certain social relations emerge from the project of bringing humans into relation or association with collectives.

The project of creating associations between humans and neutrinos both mobilizes all sorts of other entities and is generative of other collectives. Semiotic components are brought together in the form of laws, theories, funding proposals, political interests, etc., etc., etc. All sorts of technologies are mobilized and invented to forge the relation. In turn, new types of skilled persons have to be formed in order to use and maintain these technologies. Food, clothing, energy, various substances such as hydrogen and cleaning fluid have to be mobilized for the bubble chambers. Scientists, government officials, local and foreign business men, survival experts, engineers, sailors, pilots, etc., are brought together in various relations. A good object-oriented analysis will be cognizant of the interplay of these various entities in the forging of a particular collective. Above all, it will be attentive to the contingency of these relations, to the fact that things did not have to be brought together in this way, and to the fact that the building and maintaining of collectives is riddled with contingencies at each stage such that the whole collective can fly apart as a result of something as small as a defective o-ring.

I have here used the example of neutrinos to shed light on how all sorts of entities are mobilized to bring humans in relation to neutrinos and how this project is generative of new social relations in their own right. In contrast to the sociology of scientific knowledge where society is portrayed as a sort of unmoved mover that explains why scientists advocate the particular theory they advocate, here nonhuman entities are seen as playing a key role in what social relations come to be forged. Particle physicists are brought into relation with the governor of South Dakota because of the material exigencies of the project they have undertaken. This, in turn, generates new social relations. However, while the example of neutrinos might prove illuminating, we must avoid the conclusion that the primary issue here is that of how we know whether or not neutrinos exist. Neutrinos are a useful example because they are withdrawn and allow me to outline how a particular entity is generative of all sorts of other relations. The point, however, is to draw attention to how the subterranean, often ignored, domain of nonhuman objects bring humans in particular ways. We could just as easily discuss how rat swarms every fifty or so years in regions of India generate certain social relations among rice farmers. Likewise, we could examine how the migration of a species to a new environment reconfigures an entire ecosystem (i.e., an example that doesn’t involve humans at all). The point is that relations must be forged and that associations are perpetually being made and unmade as a result of interactions among humans and nonhumans and often just interactions among nonhumans.