One of the more interesting things to watch in the debates surround OOO in the last couple of years is how strongly people react to the term “object”. For many, the concept of “object” seems to embody all that is bad or wrong in human thought. As a consequence, we are told that we must replace the concept of object with that of process and event. Objects, it is said, do not become, but just sit there, doing nothing. What a strange carry over from Greek thought!
The Greeks distinguished between those things that have psyche and those things that do not have psyche. Psyche, of course, would later become “soul”. Psyche refers to a principle of motion things contain within themselves. If a rock lacks psyche, then this is because it is unable to move itself. Rather, the rock relies on something else to move it. If, by contrast, plants have psyche then this is because they grow of their own accord. Likewise, animals have psyche because they both grow, but also have appetite, mobility, and perception. Finally, humans have psyche because they grow, have appetite, mobility, perception, and reason or the capacity to direct themselves. In a strange passage in “The Letter to Menoeceus“, Epicurus will say that we know the gods exist because we can see them. No doubt he is referring to the planets, known in Greek as asteres planetai or “astral wanderers”. In their wandering throughout the night sky, the planets suggested living beings, because random movement, as we know from our cats and children, is suggestive of the presence of psyche. Objects without psyche, it will be said, are passive entities, whereas those with psyche are active entities.
This is such a strange position to advocate, especially in an atomic age where we now know that objects of all kinds are swarming with movement. Even Lucretius had the good sense to notice that this distinction had to be based on a form of folk ontology. As Lucretius writes in a remarkable passage from De Rerum Natura,
Herein wonder not
How ’tis that, while the seeds of things are all
Moving forever, the sum yet seems to stand
Supremely still, except in cases where
A thing shows motion of its frame as whole.
For far beneath the ken of senses lies
The nature of those ultimates of the world;
And so, since those themselves thou canst not see,
Their motion also must they veil from men-
For mark, indeed, how things we can see, oft
Yet hide their motions, when afar from us
Along the distant landscape. Often thus,
Upon a hillside will the woolly flocks
Be cropping their goodly food and creeping about
Whither the summons of the grass, begemmed
With the fresh dew, is calling, and the lambs
Well filled, are frisking, locking horns in sport:
Yet all for us seem blurred and blent afar-
A glint of white at rest on a green hill. (Book II)
From afar, notes Lucretius, the sheep look as if they are not moving at all. But were we to closely approach them, we would discover that they are frolicking about, taking little nips of dewy grass and playfully dancing about with one another. And so it is, argues Lucretius, with all objects. Although the rock over there appears to sit still, it is in a constant state of motion or activity. Spoken like a true onticologist! The important difference here would be that where for Lucretius there are ultimate and indivisible units (the famous atoms), for OOO there are no final units. It’s turtles all the way down without any primordial turtles.
Here I’ll just lay out some of my claims about the being of objects, without defending or arguing for those claims (you’ll find those arguments in The Democracy of Objects). Within the framework of my onticology, there are only objects, properties, and relations. While objects differ from one another– a cat is certainly different than a rock –they all fall under the category of objects. As such, I do not begin from a fundamental split between subjects on the one hand and objects on the other hand. An object is not what stands in opposition to a subject. Indeed, subjects themselves are, for me, a type of object. They are particularly important objects for us insofar as we happen to be subjects, yet metaphysically they are no more or less an object than anything else.
I conceive objects as autopoietic and allopoietic machines as outlined by Maturana and Varela, but above all by Niklas Luhmann. The major difference between Luhmann’s account of autopoietic and allopoietic machines and Maturana and Varela’s is that the latter conceives these machines as essentially homeostatic, functioning in such a way as to maintain a particular equilibrium and structural identity across time, whereas Luhmann’s machines can only reproduce themselves through novelty. If information is the difference that makes a difference, then information repeated twice is no longer information. Consequently, if objects or objectiles are to maintain their existence across time, they must perpetually renew themselves through the production of novel events. A key feature of these autopoietic and allopoietic machines is that they maintain themselves through the production of events. The time of the object is a time in which the components of that object or machine must (re)produce its components from moment to moment. It is this processuality that constitutes the substantiality of objects. It is this process through which an object (re)produces itself that is the being of an object. Far from being something that just sits there as the Greeks had it in their folk ontology, these machines are ongoing activities. If these machines are nonetheless objects, then this is because there is a unity to this process that renders them discrete entities in their own right. These processes, as it were, are the “substantial form” of the machine or object. A key point that follows from this is that objects are not identical to its parts. The parts of an object come and go, sometimes getting destroyed, at other times moving out of the object and landing elsewhere, while that substantial form, that processuality, remains. If that’s not “evental” and “processual” enough for you, I just don’t know what you’re asking for.
A crucial feature of objects is that by virtue of being dynamic systems (autopoietic and allopoietic machines) that must (re)produce themselves from moment to moment, objects perpetually face the problem of entropy. The life of an object is such that it is always a question of how it can get to the next event. How is it that an object can produce the next event, the next components, that will allow it to continue its adventure or life through time for a moment longer? In this regard, objects are perpetually disintegrating and are perpetually facing the threat of disintegration. Objects are perpetually disintegrating because the past events of which they were composed, their past components, disappear in the order of time. Objects use these disintegrating events, in part, as fodder to create new events. In this respect, objectiles very much resemble Whitehead’s actual occasions, where past actual occasions are used in the production of subsequent actual occasions. The major difference would be that for me every object is what is called a society. Objects perpetually face the threat of entropy or disintegration because, in subsequent phases of the object the process or activity can always fall apart. The substantial form that animates the object can fail or fall apart in much the same way that a hurricane or tornado is unable to sustain itself after a time, leading the object to fall apart like smoke diffusing in the wind.
Objects thus “use” their entropy as a way of (re)producing themselves, but perpetually face the threat of entropy from the outside. What distinguishes different types of objects is thus not whether they are processual or not, but rather the degree of negentropy they enjoy. Rocks, for example, enjoy a relatively low degree of negentropy. They hold themselves together by a variety of forces, but engage in a very low degree of activity in (re)producing themselves. Hurricanes, by contrast, have a high degree of negentropy, reproducing their structure or pattern in the order of time from prior events. Likewise with living bodies and social systems.
Suppose we take the theory blogosphere as an example of an object to illustrate these points. The theory blogosphere differentiates itself into a variety of different networks that take on the status of being an object in their own right. Thus, for example, one of these objects would be composed of my blog coupled with Graham’s blog coupled with Morton’s blog coupled with Dark Chemistry, Anomalous Monism, Immanence blog, An Un-Canny Ontology, Digital Digs, Bogost’s blog, Archive Fire, Shaviro’s blog, etc., etc., etc. Each of these blogs is itself an object and a part of a larger object. This larger object is only able to exist through the perpetual production of events. In order for this larger object to exist– let’s call it “the SR blog object” –the individual blogs must update themselves or produce new posts and comments. Yet this is only a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. In addition to this, the blogs must link to one another, interact with one another, and respond to one another. In this way, a certain unity emerges that takes on the form of an object in its own right.
Hopefully it will be noticed just how little an autopoietic object like the SR-blog-object resembles the homeostatic objects of Maturana and Varela. In order to reproduce itself, the SR-blog-object requires the production of novelty, of new events, rather than the repetition of one and the same structure. In the absence of the production of novelty, the SR-blog-object withers and dies as it’s left without the means to get from one event to another in the order of time. We’re blog posts just to repeat themselves over and over again, events would cease to be produced. It will also be noted that the parts (individual blogs) of the SR-blog-object enjoy a very strange status with respect to the SR-blog-objects. Occasionally some blogs fall silent. Nate’s blog, for example, was silent for a very long time. Recently, Graham’s blog has become almost entirely about the events taking place in the Middle East, not SR or OOO. The parts that make up the SR-blog-object flicker in and out of existence, contributing here, not contributing there, and so on. Yet the SR-blog-object continues to persist despite this flickering of the individual blogs that make it up. Similarly, the individual blogs that make up the SR-blog-object can also be parts of other larger scale objects. Thus, for example, Jeff Bell’s Anomalous Monism sometimes contributes events to the SR-blog-object, allowing that object to continue its journey throughout time, while at other times it contributes to what is perhaps a “Deleuze-blog-object”. The parts of an object can, in a number of instances, belong to a variety of distinct objects.
From the foregoing, it is clear that objects are dynamic, historical, and becoming. The SR-blog-object evolves over time as a function of the events that occur within it. As a consequence, it is a dynamic and shifting system as a consequence of the events through which it (re)produces itself. One intriguing feature of the SR-blog-object is that it is also a historical system. Like a space-time worm, the SR-blog-object carries its past behind it as a part of its being. This, in part, accounts for the creativity of such an object. Past events can be resurrected, becoming fodder for new discussions and posts, but now in different contexts and frames. As a result, this object grows more complex over time as it is not governed simply by the surface interactions taking place in the present, but also takes its own past as a factor in its overcoming of entropy so as to produce new subsequent events.
Finally, objects are operationally closed but dynamically open. “Operational closure” is one of the terms I use for withdrawal. Objects are operationally closed insofar as they never encounter other objects directly, but always as a function of their own internal organization. When events take place in the world outside of the SR-blog-object, these events can perturb that object in a variety of ways, but the information that the SR-blog-object produces as a result of these perturbations will not be a function of the external events themselves, but of the internal organization of the SR-blog-object. Every object always encounters the world under conditions of closure, translating it in its own particular way. However, objects are nonetheless dynamically open insofar as these perturbation provide impetus for the evolution and development of objects, contributing to their growing complexity over time.