January 2011


UPDATE: Graham wrote me the following this evening:

I’m not sure why you think I don’t believe that dreams can’t be made real through transformations such as recording them. I’ve said the opposite many times.

It would thus appear that we’re in broad agreement and were talking about distinct issues. It’s always gratifying to discover that a disagreement isn’t really a disagreement at all!

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Today, in a thread on Reza’s Facebook page, Robin wrote:

OOO=popeye riding a unicorn, reading a pop science book, with a lava lamp on his head.

I’m not sure if Robin intended this as a mocking criticism or not (it certainly seems that way), but it is an issue worth discussing. Rhetorically Robin’s point seems to be that OOO endorses the existence or reality of fictional entities (and that we engage in pop science). The idea would be that we don’t draw any distinction between fictional and mythological entities such as Popeye and unicorns and material entities like stars or neutrinos. Over at Object-Oriented Philosophy Graham responds to this characterization as follows:

In my position there’s an absolute difference between real and sensual objects. Popeye riding a pink unicorn with a lava lamp on his head would almost certainly not be a real object. (You never know, of course. We’re not omniscient. But I agree that such an entity almost certainly doesn’t exist.)

However, this same Popeye must be accounted for by any ontology worth its salt. Why? Because imaginary things are not utter non-beings. They don’t have independence from the one who is conceiving them as real objects do, but they’re not just nullities or holes of nothingness. I don’t think Raskolnikov is a real object either, but millions of people have read Crime and Punishment and been influenced by it. Raskolnikov needs to be accounted for by ontology.

There’s more, so make sure you read the whole post. As Graham notes, we differ on this issue. I have mixed feelings about Graham’s position here. In my view, the capacity to produce differences is an index of the real. If something can produce differences then it is very likely real. Note, when I claim that the ability to produce differences is an index of the real, I am alluding to an epistemological criteria for counting something as real, not an ontological criteria for what makes something real. Why is this important? This is important because ontologically something can be real or exist without producing any differences with respect to us or anything else. In other words, it is not the production of differences that constitutes the reality of a thing. Rather, the production of differences is merely how we determine whether or not something is real.

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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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Daniel has written a lengthy post responding to my remarks about objects yesterday. I can’t possibly respond to all of it and remain true to my parental duties, teaching duties, and other projects, so I wanted to restrict myself to commenting on a particular passage. Daniel writes:

My next problem resides particularly in Levi’s account in the apparent epistemological consequences that seem to follow from these metaphysical thesis. Particularly, the consequences that follow given the epistemic inaccessibility of how real objects must correspond to their real powers, as inferred through their local manifestations; and how many real objects correspond to local manifestations(quantity). We are thereby left in the dark about how local manifestations are suitable indexes to infer integrate real objects as their causal, virtual anchors. For example, the redness in the billiard ball is by implication the redness of a virtual power in a real, virtual object. But this doesn’t help us in determining the qualitative identity of this virtual object, or indeed about whether the local manifestation corresponds to a virtual power in one virtual object or many.

Levi seems perfectly at ease with accepting this result. He claims that indeed we have no resources to attain certainty about the qualities or integrity about the real counterparts to the local manifestations we perceive, and so that construing knowledge around certainty appears an incommensurable demand. Yet I think my worries are not so much about certainty as a condition for knowledge, but about the possibility of degrees of adequation. If there are no epistemic criteria to distinguish which descriptions/perceptions/actions might be better suited to coin their real counterparts than any others, then it seems we are delivered back into a form of correlationist agnosticism about the real, where the latter is thinkable, perhaps even as the necessary anchor for our experience, but never known in its ontic specificity. Therefore, the virtual powers we take to be manifested in actuality might correspond to anything our verbal stock might want to stipulate is in the ‘great outdoors’. There might be a theory about how experience or experimentation isolates objects in a way that restricts the scope of individuation, but this is a tricky issue for OOO given the irreductionist thesis.

In my view, an obsession with how we represent the world or how propositions hook on to reality is a endemic to a great deal of philosophy of science and epistemology. In this model of philosophy, we begin with a proposition– say, “bacteria cause fermentation” –and then seek to determine how this proposition hooks on to the world or represents it. All the emphasis is placed on the truth-conditions of the proposition or those conditions that would determine its adequacy to what it purports to represent. There are a variety of reasons that I find this approach problematic, but I above all believe that such an approach suffers from beginning with results (propositions purporting to count as knowledge) rather than the process by which these results are produced.

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Author Joshua Mostafa has written a three part review of The Speculative Turn for the Australian magazine Overland. Check it out here:

Return of the Real, part one: “Enlightened False Consciousness”

Return of the Real, part two: “Keeping ’em honest”

Return of the Real, part three: The Speculative Turn

I just sent the second round of edits off to the head editor over at Open Humanities Press. From what I understand, she’ll propose a final round of edits (if needed) and then we’ll shift over to the publication process. Exciting times! It becomes more of an autonomous object every day! Soon it will be completely detached from me, attain a state of autonomy, and, like a child, I’ll have to contend with this unruly creature, as with an alien entity, I’ve created.

Over at Being’s Poem (an excellent blog, btw), Daniel has an interesting post up raising questions about OOO. Daniel writes:

Here is where I find that some very rudimentary questions can be raised, in spite of Levi’s recent proclamations about how OOO has been circumspect in providing support for their claims. The first obvious observation concerns the status of real objects. Since every time I think about, type in, or generally relate to my computer, either in practice or theory, the real object in relation to me withdraws, how do I know that it is, in fact, one real PC that is withdrawing and not a multitude of PC-Parts, or of qualitatively different real objects altogether? More specifically, since every time I think/act towards my PC this will be towards a sensual distortion of the object, how can I ever know anything about the structure of real objects as such?

There’s much more there (Daniel is prolific), so read the rest of the post here. In my view, it is crucial to distinguish between what I call “epistemological realism” and “metaphysical realism”. Epistemological realism is a thesis about knowledge. It is the claim that the way we represent objects is the way objects are. Here representations and objects mirror one another. Metaphysical realism, by contrast, is the thesis that objects are mind-independent and exist in their own right.

All epistemological realisms are also, necessarily, metaphysical realisms, but not all metaphysical realisms are epistemological realisms. This is the case with object-oriented ontology and follows, as Daniel notes, from the very logic of its metaphysical claims. Object-oriented ontology is a metaphysical realism without being an epistemological realism. If this is so, then it is because objects withdraw from any and all relation. Insofar as knowledge is a form of relation, it follows that objects withdraw from knowledge alone. This is to say that knowledge cannot be a mirror or identical representation of objects.

Here, then, we seem to encounter a contradiction. If knowledge cannot be a mirror of the world by virtue of the fact that objects withdraw, what warrants the claim that the world is composed of objects at all? Isn’t OOO overstepping the limits of its own knowledge, claiming to know that which it itself claims cannot be known? And if this is so, doesn’t this entail that OOO isn’t even entitled to claim that the world is composed of objects, nor that we can even know whether objects are withdrawn?

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A point worth emphasizing with respect to my last post is that regimes of attraction are not containers. As I said there, we have a tendency to think of the environment as being a container, not unlike a room. Objects, we like to say, are in their environment. We also have a tendency to treat environments as abiding and fixed, while we treat objects within these environments as unchanging. A regime of attraction is not a container. Put differently, a regime of attraction is not other than the objects that populate it. It is those objects in their perpetual interaction with one another. With each event that unfolds within a regime of attraction, effects are produced in other objects within that regime, leading, in turn, to transformations in yet other objects. This is why regimes of attraction are never sedentary. They might achieve some sort of “metastable equilibrium” for a time, but because each act of an object leads to other acts in other objects, regimes of attraction are perpetually changing.

Reviewing Ivakhiv’s post, I noticed the following. Ivakhiv writes:

Contrary to what Levi Bryant and Graham Harman have sometimes argued, however, there’s no inherent reason why a well articulated, materially and socially grounded relationalism*, one that focuses on processes of emergence and actualization, with their various conditions, effects, and so on, should result in an ontology that cannot account for action or change. An ontology that focused only on relations, or on change, or for that matter only on objects (and I’m not suggesting that Graham’s or Levi’s philosophies do that), would be one-sided. But the point is to bring objects — more or less stable and persistent entities (assemblages, actors/actants, or whatever else a given ontological account takes them to be) — and relational processes together in a way that accounts for both stability and change, persistence and transformation, structure and agency, stubborn fact and creative advance (to use Whitehead’s terms).

Notice the words and phrases that I have highlighted: “more or less stable and persistent entities”, “stability”. I think this gets right to the heart of the issue. There is a grammar in the minds of some that equates the signifier “object” with “stable” and “persistent”. It matters little how often I talk about local manifestations (which are, incidentally, events or activities, genuine occurrences), processes of actualization, objects as acts, or objects as allopoietic and autopoietic systems (which are ongoing activities), and interactive regimes of attraction, there’s still, lurking in the minds of some readers, an unconscious grammar of objects as brute clods that just sit there and do nothing. Drawing on ordinary language connotations rather than what’s actually said or written, charges are then made that don’t even resemble the ontology that’s being defended or asserted.

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