The debate over the ontological status of fictions can be summed up with the question of whether fictions are substances or fictions are qualities. A substance is that which exists in and through itself. My cat Tabby is a substance in that she is not a quality of anything else and exists in her own right as an individual entity. By contrast, the black, gray, orange, and brown of Tabby’s fur is a quality in that it doesn’t enjoy independent existence. In the debate over fictions, the question then is whether fictions have independent existences, whether they are substances in their own right, or whether they are always and only qualities of other objects. For example, we might wish to say that fictions can only exist in the mind, in which case they would be qualities rather than substances.
In the past, I have argued that fictions are real entities. My motive for this has had less to do with any particular fascination with fictions, but rather with peculiar properties of symbolic entities. Take the example of money. The value of money is, alas, not dependent on my mind. It has a value that transcends my will and intentionality, and which is therefore objective. I can’t make it have whatever value I wish it to have. Likewise with linguistic meaning and structure, as well as a host of social categories. In a response to one of Graham’s remarks in my post “Of Individuals, Ontology, and Politics“, Glenn Fuller drives this point home nicely. Graham had written,
the fact that someone might develop a criminal character over time that lurks there unseen even when no crimes are being committed (or even some weeks, months, or perhaps years before the *first* crime is committed) does not mean that anyone is born a criminal, with “an inherent taint in their soul.” Those are two completely separate issues.
To this Glenn responds,
How is this not subject to a basic Foucaltian critique? How is a ‘criminal character’ not a function of discourse, visibilities/subject positions/apparatus?
Even a more complex version of the constition of subjectivities, following Harman’s logic above, would have to rely on a definition of criminality external to the ‘object’. That is, at a minimum, the capacity to recognise ‘criminality’ in someone’s character.
Surely, in the current political climate of revolution and rebellion, this would be apparent? Maybe ‘criminal’ was a bad example to use, considering it is necessarily defined according to discursive regimes.
Does the same thing happen in dogs (as a random example)? When dogs attack humans, how should we regard the character or style of the dog?
If I understand Glenn correctly, his point is that criminality is not in the so-called criminal. “Criminal” is not a quality of a substance (the person), but is rather a category within which the person finds himself situated as if a fish in a net. To illustrate this point, let’s return to Twain’s Huckleberry Friend which I discussed in my prior post. The character of Jim the slave is a criminal in the sense that he has run away from his owner– as an aside, it’s interesting to note that there’s a question here of whether a slave can be a criminal as their agency has been stolen from them and they have been reduced to property.
However, if Jim is a criminal, what is it that makes him a criminal? We would look in vain for any particular quality (whether at the level of properties or actions) that makes Jim a criminal. Rather, in order for Jim to be a criminal there must be a set of categories that, to use a Badiouian turn of phrase, “counts him” as a criminal. Jim is “sorted” as a criminal by this system of categories. Were this category not to exist, then Jim’s actions would not have the meaning or valence they have.
The question is how we theorize something like this ontologically. These categories are very peculiar things. They are not properties of the substance (Jim) that can be discerned in the body or the action. Nor are they merely subjective or mental ideas. For Jim, the categories of slavery and criminality are every bit as objective as a wall he must avoid walking into. They are real constraints on his existence that transcend his intentions or thoughts and that structure his existence and action in a variety of deeply significant ways.
We need some way of talking and thinking about these things that acknowledges their objectivity. This is why I’m a bit hesitant when Graham proposes to treat fictions as what he calls “sensual objects”. Reviewing Graham’s terminology, a sensual object is an object that can only exist on the interior of a real object. Drawing on the classical language I outline above, a sensual object would thus be a quality of a real substance. It would never be a substance in its own right (this is why claims that Harman argues unicorns are real are so unfair).
My problem with Graham’s position is not so much the theoretical apparatus behind it (the real/sensual distinction) as the examples he uses. In a recent email (and I don’t think he’s mind me sharing this as it’s almost identical to what he writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics), Graham writes,
…in connection with my fourfold theory, even though sensual objects never correspond to or copy real objects, all sensual objects have real qualities. That is automatic, by my reading of Husserl’s eidos. For example, I invent a monster in my mind right now. This monster must still have real qualities that differ from the sensual qualities it has when I draw it, because the monster has an eidos: I can draw it from different angles in different stles, and none of these exhaust the eidos of that monster.
I find absolutely nothing to object to in Graham’s discussion of imagined monsters (I embrace all this without hesitation), but I do believe that talk of my mind and imagined entities is thoroughly inadequate as a way of theorizing something like the value of money, or categories like slavery and criminality. There’s an important difference between an entity that I imagine and a category like slavery or criminality. With my imagined monster I can mutate it in whatever way I might like. I can slay it in my imagination, flee from it, make it undergo all sorts of qualitative transformations (as Harman suggests), etc. The same is not true of categories like criminality. These befall me from without and constrain my existence in all sorts of ways that transcend my thought. There are thus important disanalogies between imagined entities and these sorts of symbolic entities.
Nonetheless, those who have criticized my view that fictional (and symbolic) entities are real entities (including Graham) make a number of valid points. Putting the matter crudely, there is a way in which fictional entities are not “detachable” in the way that other substances are, therefore entailing that they shouldn’t be treated as independent. I’ve come around to seeing the truth of these criticisms. For me that means that I need to find a way of navigating the Charybdis and Scylla of treating symbolic entities as mere imagined entities and treating them as what Graham calls “real objects”. I need an ontological framework that is capable of theorizing the objectivity and transcendence of things like categories that nonetheless avoids treating them as real substances. Put differently, how can I theorize these sorts of beings within the framework of Graham’s fourfold?
The issue can be resolved, I believe, by situating these questions within the framework of the mereology I’ve tried to develop through my onticology. It will be recalled, that mereology is the study of relations between parts and wholes. One of the central claims of my onticology, following Graham, is that 1) objects are composed of other objects, and 2) that objects exist at a variety of different levels of scale. Here it’s important to recall that for OOO objects are independent of one another, such that relations between objects are always external. Let’s take the second point first: objects exist at different levels of scale. The point here is that an atom is no more an object than a larger scale object in which it exists as a part. Likewise, a person is no more an object than an institution in which that person serves as a part. If there is a strange mereology in object-oriented ontology, then this is because smaller scale objects can simultaneously be parts of larger scale objects, while it is nonetheless the case that the smaller scale objects that compose a larger scale object are independent of that larger scale object and the larger scale object composed of the smaller scale objects is independent of the smaller scale objects of which it is composed. Such is the thesis of emergence.
Now Graham has compellingly argued that all objects caricature other objects to which they relate. They never directly relate to other objects as they are, but rather, to use Graham’s language, encounter them as sensual objects that distort the other object being related to in some way or another. In a very similar vein, I have argued, drawing heavily on Luhmann’s sociological autopoietic systems theory and cybernetics, that all objects are dynamic and operationally closed systems, that relate to other objects in terms of their own organization, distinctions, and codes. In other words, objects “process” perturbations from other objects in their own particular ways, producing events within themselves that are never identical to the perturbing object. Here then we get something very similar to Harman’s sensual objects (though he’s expressed differences elsewhere). My events taking place within object-systems are largely akin to Harman’s sensual objects and their qualities. It is difficult to articulate all of this simply as it requires reference to a lot of theory that doesn’t get much attention in continental circles. A much fuller elaboration can be found in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects which should be out any day now in its electronic form.
With these observations in mind, I think we begin to get a sense of how we can theorize the situation of Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Jim is an object caught in the orbit of another object. The object of which Jim is a particular part is a particular social assemblage. In the language of my onticology, categories such as slave, criminal, owner, fugitive, etc., would be codes or distinctions belonging to that particular social assemblage (which is a higher scale object). These codes, distinctions, schema (call them what you will) would be features of the organization of that object that serve as the condition for the possibility of the production of sensual objects (in my language, events) within the higher scale object. Thus, when we talk about Jim-the-slave or Jim-the-criminal, we’re not talking about Jim the person (who is an individual substance in his own right; or in Graham’s language, a real object), but rather we’re talking about a sensual object on the interior of another real object: the social assemblage of which Jim is a part. Jim-the-slave would be the way in which this larger scale object caricatures Jim the person (the real object) in relating to Jim as an element in its own ongoing self-reproduction.
Returning to the themes of my post “Of Individuals, Ontology, and Politics“, we get the interesting result that the sensual object (Jim-the-slave) and the sorting codes that render that object possible present Jim the real object with choices that face him. Entangled as Jim is within this larger scale object (the social image), Jim the real object finds that these categories, distinctions, schema, codes, etc., are like the walls of a labyrinth or maze that he must navigate just as he and Huck must navigate the perils of the Mississippi river. This is the objectivity of these distinctions and codes, the manner in which they transcend him.
Here, then, I’m in a position to revise my position on fictions and symbolic entities. With Graham I’m able to agree that fictions and symbolic entities are not real entities, but rather are sensual objects. They are entities that only exist on the interior of a real object analogous to the manner in which Graham’s monster only exists in the interior of his mind. A fictional text such as Harry Potter cannot exist independently of the social assemblage (larger scale object) in which it occurs. A meme cannot exist as a substance in its own right. The value of money cannot exist as a substance or real object. All of these entities are sensual objects belonging to real objects– the social assemblage in which they exist. Nonetheless, through the mereological claims of OOO I am able to make a place for the objectivity and transcendence of these entities with respect to individual persons. These are sensual objects belonging to larger scale objects such as institutions and social assemblages, not individual persons. Because we are entangled with these larger scale objects, these sensual objects become constraints on our existence that we must navigate, just as we must walk around large boulders when taking a leisurely stroll in the forest.