February 2011


One of the central claims of object-oriented ontology is that objects are withdrawn from one another. In this way, OOO radicalizes the Kantian claim. Kant had claimed that the in-itself is withdrawn from humans such that we only have access to phenomena and never things-in-themselves. OOO accepts this thesis with the caveat that this is true of all objects, regardless of whether the entities involved are humans relating to nonhuman objects or other human beings, or whether the entities relating to one another are planets relating to stars. Each object encounters other objects as phenomena or what Graham calls “sensual objects”. The consequence that follows from this is that the inner world of objects is essentially unknowable. We can track inputs and the outputs produced as a result of these inputs (what I would call “local manifestations”), yet the inner world of objects is a black box.

I’ve been delighted to discover that Andrew Pickering articulates a very similar line of thought in The Cybernetic Brain. This is a wonderful book, so take the time to read it if you have access to it. This point and how it modifies our understanding of knowledge and the world comes out very clearly in his discussion of Ross Ashby’s famous homeostat. As recounted by Wikipedia,

The Homeostat is one of the first devices capable of adapting itself to the environment; it exhibited behaviours such as habituation, reinforcement and learning through its ability to maintain homeostasis in a changing environment. It was built by William Ross Ashby in 1948 at Barnwood House Hospital. It was an adaptive ultrastable system, consisting of four interconnected Royal Air Force bomb control units with inputs, feedback, and magnetically-driven, water-filled potentiometers. It illustrated his law of requisite variety — automatically adapting its configuration to stabilize the effects of any disturbances introduced into the system. It was the realization of what he had described in 1946 as an “Isomorphism making machine”.

What we get in the case of the homeostat is a machine where each individual homeostat evolves in response to the outputs of the others. As Pickering describes it,

…we need to think about Ashby’s modelling not of the brain but of the world. The world of the tortoise [which I discuss here] was largely static and unresponsive– a given field of light and obstacles –but the homeostat’s world was lively and dynamic: it was, as we have seen, more homeostats! If in a multiunit setup homeostat 1 could be regarded as a model brain, then homeostats 2, 3, and 4 constitute homeostat 1’s world [what I would call it’s “regime of attraction”]. Homeostat 1 perturbed its world dynamically, emitting currents, which the other homeostats processed through their circuits and responded to accordingly, emitting their own currents back, and so on around the loop of brain and world. (106)

The conclusion to be drawn from this, says Pickering, is that “[a]s ontological theater […] a multihomeostat setup stages for us a vision of the world in which fluid and dynamic entities evolve together in a decentered fashion, exploring each other’s properties in a performative back-and-forth dance of agency” (ibid.). The key point here is that the other objects are not explored cognitively through passive representation, but through action and interaction. One homeostat discovers the properties of another object through perturbing it in particular ways. This, in turn, produces certain outputs. Thus, Pickering goes on to add, that “[…] relations between homeostats were entirely noncognitive and nonrepresentational. The homeostats did not seek to know one another and predict each other’s behavior. In this sense, each homeostat was unknowable to the others, and a multihomeostat assemblage thus staged what I called before an ontology of unknowability” (ibid.).

Here there are a few points worth making. First, the properties– outputs, local manifestations –discovered in the environment of the “brain-homeostat” are a function of the brain-homeostat’s actions (inputs). As a consequence, what the brain-homeostat discovers is a function of its own action. The other homeostats can harbor all sorts of other powers— virtual proper being –that are not manifested because either 1) the other homeostats are not being perturbed in such a way as to activate them, or 2) because the other homeostats do not have channels that allow them to be perturbed by the brain homeostat. In this latter case, we get a situation in which the other homeostat is so withdrawn from the brain-homeostats that it’s as if the homeostats do not even exist for one another. This would be analogous to the neutrinos I discuss elsewhere. Second, as the dance of agency unfolds through the communication of the homeostats with one another, patterned relationships begin to emerge. This would be analogous to what takes place when fireflies flick to one another in such a way that an oscillating pattern emerges where they all appear to simultaneously switch off and on in response to one another. Thus, third, we here begin to get the genesis of higher order objects. Through the formation of these patterned interactions, we begin to get the emergence of an entity in its own right that can interact with other entities at higher levels of scale. Here this higher scale entity draws outputs from lower scale entities (the homeostats) so as to maintain a patterned existence and unity in the order of time. In this case, it is not really one of the homeostats that’s a brain, but rather the homeostats taken as an aggregate that form something like a brain through their ongoing interactions and communications to one another. Here we might think of the homeostats as being akin to individual neurons.

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In response to one of Ian’s Facebook posts on the whole Sterling thing, some folks mentioned that they’re now convinced that the whole SR thing is an advertising gimmick. While I’m troubled to see that the truth is out, I’m also relieved. Now that all of this is out in the open, I can now make some exciting announcements. I just met with our marketing department today and it seems that the uniforms athletes will be wearing in the next Olympics will have a small SR logo on them. This will consist of a finely sewn abstract image of Rodin’s Thinker holding a 7-11 Big Gulp in its hand. The sales team at SR headquarters located in LA is extremely excited about this as we expect that this logo will open up all sorts of marketing possibilities in High School athletics, as well as the teen sports market. Meanwhile, our marketing team has been very fortunate to secure the same logo on a stock car in the racing circuit. This should earn the interest of the Nascar dads and will help us during the next election cycle as we put up third party candidates seeking to represent the political interests of nonhuman objects, powers, and patterns. Meanwhile, we’ve also commissioned Aronofsky to direct a series of television commercials pushing our new line of products as well as our political positions on the rights of dust mites and bed bugs. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to list it all. I would say more but as it stands I’m late for a lunch involving lobster, truffles, and caviar. After that it’s off to play a round of polo with my new Arabian stallion. Then I have to meet with a few senators, promising them campaign contributions if they push SR. Things have gotten very very busy, though as soon as the semester is over I’ll be off to vacation at the new tropical island the corporation purchased with Graham Morton, Bogost, Brassier, Grant, DeLanda, Meillassoux and a few other choice guests. We had Dubai build the island in the shape of an “S” and an “R”, so as to both represent SR and emphasize the anteriority of productivity over objects. Gotta run!

On twitter and elsewhere a debate has arisen surrounding substances versus production. Here the thesis runs that production is prior or anterior to substance. Given that I write about production all over the place and thematize objects as in a constant state of self-production because they are perpetually disintegrating (this will become clearer once The Democracy of Objects comes out), this is a core theme for me. However, it does seem to me that the thesis that production is anterior to substances is based on a bit of a fallacy. The idea seems to be that because substances must be produced, there must be a domain of production anterior to and other than substance. I’m fully on board with the thesis that substances must be produced– this is one of the things that interests me most –but I don’t accept the idea that because of this there is a domain anterior to substances (this would be my gripe with Simondonian talk of the pre-individual). Rather, substances are produced out of other substances. Within this framework, being would always and everywhere be composed of substances– existence would come in chunks –but new substances would be produced out of other substances. Production is certainly anterior to substances, but this anteriority is not something other than substances, but rather is composed of other substances. In this regard, I just don’t see much of a debate between substance-ontology and production-ontology. Substance-ontology can thematize and discuss production to its hearts content. In doing so, however, it’s still discussing dynamics of substances in the genesis of new substances.

Shaviro has an INTERESTING POST up on Molnar’s book Powers. As Shaviro writes:

Molnar’s basic argument is that things (or OOO’s objects) possess causal powers that are ontologically real, and not just confined to the instances in which they are manifested. Salt contains the power of being soluble (dissolveable) in water; this power is a veritable property of the salt, even if it never encounters water and never actually gets dissolved. In insisting that powers are actual independently of their manifestation (even if they can only be described in terms of their manifestation), Molnar rejects the skeptical (empiricist, and especially Humean) hypothesis that talk of powers has no meaning apart from the conditional statement that, e.g., if the salt is put into water, then it will dissolve. The classic Early Modern reproach to medieval philosophy was to ridicule the latter for allegedly saying, for instance, that opium puts people to sleep because it has a dormative power — and to claim that this sort of explanation is utterly meaningless. Molnar is arguing, in effect, that opium really does have something like a “dormative power.” This is not to deny that such a power can be analyzed, e.g., in terms of particular neurochemical events that take place in the brain of somebody who has smoked opium. But such an analysis of the “dormative power” does not get away from the attribution of powers, since it simply replaces the power of opium per se with a more detailed account of the powers possessed by particular molecules in the composition of opium.

As always with Steve’s posts, there’s a lot there so make sure you read the whole thing. Molnar’s powers, it sounds, are largely equivalent to my virtual proper being. For me, virtual proper being is the domain of powers possessed by an object. The difference would be that 1) I don’t equate these powers with properties of an object, and 2) I don’t treat them as actual. Perhaps I’m missing something about the concept of actuality, but it strikes me as strange to equate a power with properties. Properties, I argue, are something that result from the action of powers, their activation. I reserve the domain of the actual for actions and current properties embodied by an object. This is why I also treat powers as virtual rather than actual. There seems to be a difference in language here. If I’m following Molnar correctly (based on Shaviro’s discussion), he’s using the term “actual” to refer to something that an object really has. This is also how I use the term virtual. Objects really have their virtual powers, they’re just not exercising them at the moment. Speaking of powers as actual strikes me as misleading as the concept of actuality, in my mind, refers to properties that an object currently embodies. Looks like I’ll have to order Molner’s book.

Over at The Nation, Patricia Williams has written a scathing editorial on Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ordinarily I would ignore this sort of debate– I’m particularly uncomfortable with all the cultural stereotypes flying about on both sides –but my attention was caught by a passing contrast Williams draws between values-based approaches to the world and social issues and what, for lack of a better word, might be characterized as materialist orientations. Williams writes,

Chua’s fears are not confined by race, ethnicity or personal effort alone. After all, in Greece and France students have been rioting because of the rising costs of a good education and the paucity of jobs. In Akron, Ohio, an African-American tiger mother named Kelley Williams-Bolar was recently prosecuted for lying about where she lived so she could get her children into a decent school district. In California, immigrant kids of Mexican parents are battling for the right to pay in-state tuition at public universities. In Memphis there are fights about whether integrating a poor school district with a wealthier suburban one would constitute a “theft” of education. In London, a woman named Mrinal Patel was accused of fraud for misrepresenting her address so as to qualify her child for a better school. There are few places, in other words, where people are not worried about the quality of life and distribution of resources on a crowded planet.

At the same time, if Singapore, China and Hong Kong are producing a greater number of students with musical proficiency and excellent test scores, it’s because they have made huge public investments in education. They make musical instruments available to students—as the United States once did in the first part of the twentieth century. They have teachers certified in the subjects they teach—as was the case in Russian schools during the Sputnik era. “Westerners” are not nearly as lacking in work ethic as Chua maintains; but you don’t get to Yale if your elementary school has no books. You don’t rank first in the world in science if, as in the United States, 60 percent of your biology teachers are reluctant to teach evolution—and 13 percent teach creationism instead.

It would be so deliciously convenient if calling your kids “garbage”—another parenting trick Chua boasts about—actually turned them into little engines that could. But our larger educational crisis will involve a public investment that simply does not correlate with shooting down the self-esteem of children or disrespecting the “Western-ness” of the parents who struggle to raise them.

On the one hand you have Chua arguing that our educational woes are the result of having the wrong sorts of values. Chua talks a lot about work ethics, decline, etc, etc., etc. In Chua’s universe, everything is to be explained by reference to the beliefs, norms, values, etc., that we embrace. In this respect, Chua is a thoroughgoing humanist. If we wish to understand why social relations are the way they are, argues Chua, we need to look to the beliefs and values that people embrace. Change those beliefs and values and you will change social assemblages.

Williams does not deny the importance of these sorts of values and their importance. On the one hand, she critiques what she discerns as a sort of cultural essentialism in Chua’s arguments, wondering whether these sorts of values are unique to the Chinese. On the other hands, she points to a number of other cultures that share similar values and aspirations. However, Williams does argue that these values are not enough. What’s interesting in Williams’ argument is the attention that she draws to infrastructure and objects with respect to issues in education. I’m unable to run my latest version of Word on my old Atari precisely because that Atari doesn’t have the right sort of platform to run such programs. Likewise, one can have all the values in the world, but if their schools don’t have books, reliable power, transportation to get to the schools, sufficient room for the students, a sufficient number of teachers for the students, and if the students are spending the day starving, etc., it’s pretty difficult for those students to perform.

Object-oriented ontology has received a lot of flack for being antihuman or hating humans or something, but that misses the whole point. In The Mangle of Practice, Pickering does a nice sorting of the difference between humanism, antihumanism, and posthumanism. Humanism, argues Pickering, is a position that locates all explanatory power in the domain of meaning, values, norms, signifiers, and so on. Antihumanism, in Pickering’s idiosyncratic characterization, excludes all pertaining to the human entirely. He describes antihumanism as the traditional stance of the physical sciences. There one is only concerned with cause and effect interactions, thoroughly ignoring anything to do with meaning, norms, power, and so on. Finally, posthumanism would be that position which attempts to think the interplay of these domains, placing them on equal ontological footing.

OOO is not antihuman, but posthuman. In my work what I try to draw attention to is the role that nonhuman objects play in human assemblages. As I argue in my recent Georgia Tech talk, nonhuman objects play a key role in producing the sort of inertia that characterizes social relations. People might aspire for something else, they might value something other than the sort of social world they find themselves in, but the nonhuman objects that populate our world (availability of resources, the set up of technologies, how institutions are structured and funded, etc), create a sort of inertia that channels us in particular directions. In my post “Falling and Social Assemblages“, I compared this inertia to a sort of gravity structuring the social. This is why, in “The Faintest of Traces” (my Georgia Tech talk), I argued that we always have to think the social from a geographical site and the ways in which the exigencies of that site structure social assemblages. We must take care not to think purely at the level of the signifier, the symbolic, and meaning as these can geographically exist anywhere. We have to look at the material make-up of social assemblages if we truly wish to understand them.

It’s not that I disagree with Chua’s values– though I would never tell my daughter she’s trash or threaten to adopt a “real” Irish-Spanish child to replace her –but rather that I believe that the domain of meaning is never enough to account for why social assemblages are as they are. The problem with arguments such as Chua’s, is that they often lead to cruelty and blindness. In their humanism, they place all efficacy in the agent’s beliefs, meanings, values, and so on. “If people x in region y of the country or world live in dire circumstances z, then this is because they must be lazy, have the wrong values, not have a good work ethic, etc!” Such arguments endlessly ignore the manner in which people are situated, and because they place all efficacy in human agents, they are able to morally blame these agents for where they are in the world and get themselves off the hook for any complicity they might have in the production of these social assemblages (through the manner in which capitalism systematically generates inequality, for example). It is my hope that if OOO does anything at all, it draws attention to this bubbling, yet often invisible, world of nonhuman objects and how they structure our social relations. Greater attentiveness to this dimension of our social world might allow us to begin identifying those links that produce certain oppressive social relations and devise ways to change them. Sometimes digging a well can have far more of a transformative impact than critiquing ideology or instilling people with the right values. Such analysis might not be as sexy as a demystification or an ideological unmasking or the heights of jouissance produced in morally condemning others, but often they make a much bigger difference. We need to cultivate the habit of tracing networks, even when we don’t know what we’ll find as in, by contrast, psychoanalytic critiques.

Alex Reid has yet another INTERESTING POST up over at Digital Digs. Alex writes:

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been engaging with object-oriented ontology a great deal lately, and one of the things that strikes me is how unlikely, from a philosophical viewpoint, really any relation is. Relation is, admittedly, perplexing for OOO. In a surprising way, OOO’s staunch withdrawn object makes the question of relation far more interesting and fascinating than it every was before. It seems almost impossible. When I think about it, I am reminded of Stephen Hawking telling us how unlikely and suprising the universe is. Why didn’t the matter and dark matter cancel each other out? How unlikely is it that atoms formed into stars and generated the materials to build planets? How many big bangs did it take before objects started to relate? And then how unlikely are the circumstances of life? How many planets, in how many star systems, in how many galaxies, does it take before objects link together to create DNA code? It is easy to keep going, because, after all, every relation is singular among objects… whatever objects are.

I’m in the midst of a rather nasty cold at the moment, so I won’t comment too deeply on Alex’s post, but I do think he’s spot on here. What OOO draws attention to, I believe, is the improbability of any particular relation. The problem with arguing that things are their relations or that they are constituted by their relations is that this tends to efface this improbability. In highlighting this improbability, OOO surprisingly draws attention to the forging of relations or all the work required to build or construct them. There’s a lot in Alex’s post so make sure you read the whole thing.

In class last week we began discussing Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the debate between Aristotle and Plato. For Aristotle, it is basically what he calls “primary substances” that are really real. Primary substances are basically what we call things. Persons are primary substances, as are rocks, trees, gods, stars, etc. Anything that is an individual is a primary substance. Aristotle says 1) that a primary substance is that which exists in and through itself, and 2) that every primary substance is a subject of predication that is not itself predicated of anything else. Thus, for example, we say of Joe that he has brown hair, but we don’t say Joe (the person, not the name) of anything else. Joe exists in his own right. What Aristotle refers to as “secondary substances” exist only in primary substances. These secondary substances are basically anything of the order of a predicate. Colors are secondary substances, as is “human”, as are shapes, as is justice. These are all things that can only exist in objects.

For Plato, by contrast, what is really real are not individual things, but rather patterns (what he calls the “forms”). Thus, for example, justice is not merely a predicate of just acts, just persons, just institutions, etc., but rather is itself an entity that exists in its own right independent of all these things. Perhaps this is best thought in terms of The Matrix (yeah, I know, you’re all groaning… “not another Matrix reference by a philosopher!”). When you’re in the matrix you experience a world populated by objects. You’re eating this steak, talking to that person, hold that phone, driving that car, etc. In reality, however, all of these entities are expressions of a more fundamental reality: the computer code composed of zeros and ones. These zeros and ones are true reality. The entities that we encounter are just expressions of that more fundamental reality.

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