Here’s the initial draft of my New School talk next week for anyone who’s interested. I didn’t get to cover all the themes I would have liked due to the time constraints. This is especially the case with respect to the themes of mereology at the heart of onticology. One standard criticism of OOO is that it’s a form of commodity fetishism by virtue of its focus on objects. I think this fails to take into account both the strange mereology of onticology and what Marx actually has to say about commodities. Beginning with the second point, Marx doesn’t say that objects are commodities, but that capitalism metabolizes objects in a particular way, transforming them into commodities. A commodity is what an object is for another object. What is that other object? Capitalism as a social system. This brings me to the points about mereology. The commodity fetishism criticism of OOO is only possible if one works on the premise that mid-sized objects are exhaustive of what constitutes objects. Mid-sized objects would be objects like hammers, rocks, boats, people, aardvarks, etc.

Yet my onticology argues 1) that objects exist at a variety of different level of scales ranging from the unimaginably small to the unintuitably large, and that 2) objects interpellate other objects to produce themselves. Within my framework, commodities don’t exist in their own right, but only exist as elements in larger-scale objects, i.e., capitalist social systems. An element is a unit that is constituted by a larger-scale object and that is defined by its relations to other elements within that larger-scale object. By contrast, larger-scale objects draw on parts to produce elements. These parts are independent objects in their own right. In this way, I believe, we’re able to capture the relational dimension that theorists such as Marx make about entities like commodities, the proletariat, wage labor, etc., while also accounting for how parts can contest the relational networks to which they belong and form other (revolutionary) objects. As I’ve worked through applications of onticology to social and political questions this distinction between elements and parts has become increasingly important to me as it allows me to theorize how entities are irreducible to their interpellations in larger-scale objects, thereby sidestepping a number of the problems that plagued Althusserians. At any rate, here’s the paper:

Strange Substances: On the Nature of Objects
Levi R. Bryant
Professor of Philosophy
Collin College
The New School for Social Research
OOOIII: The Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium
14 September, 2011

Objects are improbabilities and are improbabilities in at least two ways. First, they are improbable in terms of the arrangement of their elements. Second, they are improbable in terms of the continuation of this arrangement across time and space. As improbabilities objects therefore share a special relationship to entropy. The greater the entropy of a system, the higher the probability that an element in that system will appear anywhere within that system. Thus, for example, a system composed of a distribution of gas particles that have diffused throughout a chamber is highly entropic because there is a high probability that any particular element that exists within that system will be located anywhere within the chamber. By contrast, a low entropic system is a system in which there is a high probability of appearing in a highly localized place and set of relations to other elements within the system. When our gas particles are first pumped into the system they exist in a state of low entropy because they are localized in a particular place within the system. That is, there is a high degree of probability that they will appear at a particular place within the chamber. As the system evolves it becomes increasingly entropic.

Low entropy is, of course, improbable.

All objects are low entropy systems, yet not all low entropy systems are substances or objects. Even though the gas particles in our chamber begin in a state of low entropy by virtue of being localized or concentrated at one particular place in the chamber, these particles quickly evolve into a high entropy state as they diffuse throughout the chamber. The dividing line between substances and crowds of substances lies, I argue, between whether or not a system maintains its order across time and whether this order evolves into a high entropy state. Low entropy systems where elements are arranged in a particular way, such that the elements of the system are related to one another in a particular way and that strive to maintain these ordering relations across time are negentropic systems. Systems that strive to maintain the ordering relations between their elements across time are negentropic.

All substances or objects are thus low entropy negentropic systems. Rocks, planets, armies, political groups, families, classrooms, governments, hurricanes, tornadoes, aardvarks, and giraffes, for example, are thus substances, while piles of rocks, crowds of people on a subway car, armies routed on the field of battle that are fleeing in terror, and so on are not. The latter are not objects in their own right, but rather are highly entropic crowds of objects. Thus, following Aristotle in Metaphysics Z, we can say that the substantiality of substances consists in the substance’s substantial form. Following the Lucretian declaration, all objects are material, but it is not the materiality of the object that constitutes its substantiality. Proof of this lies in the fact that objects can gain and lose material elements while remaining that substance. Cells in my body perpetually die and new cells are born, yet I remain this substance. Rather, the substantiality of substance consists in its substantial form, or the pattern and relationships between elements in that substance. My cats liver cells are located in this particular part of her body, her heart there, her nerve cells throughout the body arranged in this or that way, bone cells there. These elements are organized in a particular way and located in particular portions of her body. Moreover, these ordering relations are maintained across time. I refer to this organization as the “endo-consistency” of a substance.

read on!

Insofar as substances are low entropy, negentropic systems, we can say, following Spinoza, that every substance is characterized by conatus, or the endeavor of each thing to persist in its own being.[1] Of this conatus, Spinoza remarks that “[t]he conatus with which each thing endeavors to persist in its own being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing itself.”[2] Conatus is the substantial form and negentropy of a substance. Moreover, conatus is an activity on the part of substances. Substantial form is not a fixed, crystalline structure, but an ongoing activity on the part of the substance. However, we should avoid understanding conatus as a will or life-force. The conatus of substances comes in two forms. Following, with some slight modifications, the biologists Maturana and Varela, the conatus of substances is either allopoietic or autopoietic.[3] Allopoietic machines are substances that are produced by something other than themselves and that are held together by something other than their own agency. Thus, for example, a planet is an allopoietic machine produced by forces of gravity and electromagnetism holding together various particles of matter. By contrast, An autopoietic machine is…

A machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produce them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.[4]

Autopoietic substances are substances that constitute their own elements through the interaction of their elements and that strive to maintain the organization or relations between their elements. Thus, for example, my body produces the cells that compose it and relates these cells in particular ways. Moreover, if I am cut, my wound heals, returning me to more or less the previous organization I possessed.

In the Categories Aristotle remarks that,

It seems most distinctive of substance that what is numerically one and the same is able to receive contraries… A substance… numerically one and the same, is able to receive contraries. For example, an individual man—one and the same –becomes pale at one time and dark at another, and hot and cold, and bad and good.[5]

This seems to suggest that the substantiality of substance is something other than the qualities of a substance, for the qualities of a substance can change, while the substance remains that substance. Here the substantiality of substance would, perhaps, be some substrate that lies beneath shifting qualities. However, if substances are perpetually threatened by entropy and conatus is an activity on the part of substances, it follows that the identity and unity of substances cannot reside in some unchanging self-identical substrate within substances, but rather must be an activity or process on the part of substances. Being a substance requires ongoing work so that the order of the substance might be maintained across time.

In short, the endo-consistency or substantial form of substance is not something given and fixed, but rather is something that must be enacted and maintained. The substantial form of a substance, its identity, is not something a substance is, nor something that a substance has, but rather is something that a substance does. Substances produce their ongoing identity and unity across the order of time. This entails that the components or elements of which substances are composed are events. If the components that compose substances are events, then this is because these components must be constituted and reproduced from moment to moment lest the system dissolve into entropy or a crowd of substances. The mechanisms by which substances maintain their endo-consistency must be surveyed in every domain of objects and will consist of activities as diverse as natural forces, signs, signifiers, chemical processes, libidinal attachments, guns, and so on.

What counts as a moment or event will be the smallest possible unit a substance can register in (re)producing itself. Every substance faces the question or problem of how to (re)produce its components and the relations between its components across time. Take the example of an academic college course. The course itself is an autopoietic substance. The components that compose it are students, the professor, questions, answers, speech-acts, assignments, and so on. At every moment this substance faces the possibility of entropy or dissolving into a plurality of distinct substances. As a consequence, the elements that compose this substance must be constituted from moment to moment. Here it is crucial to note that there is no centralized sovereign or hierarchy that constitutes the endo-consistency of the course as a course. As is always the case, the elements or components of autopoietic systems constitute each other and are constituted by each other. In and of herself, the professor has no special power or authority that constitutes her as a professor. Rather, the professor is constituted as professor by the way in which the students relate to the professor. Likewise, the students are constituted as students by the way in which the students act towards one another and by the way in which the professor acts towards the students. Each speech event and assignment within the course thus serves a dual function within the substance. Not only do these speech events such as asking questions, answering questions, doing assignments, and grading assignments respond to various local events within the substance, but they are also activities that constitute the components or elements that compose the system. As such, they are identity activities that allow the substance, the course, to reproduce itself across time. When these ongoing activities cease, the substance dissolves.

Yet why is it that substances perpetually face the threat of entropy? In the case of a course, there is, of course, the obvious reason that events can occur that dissolve the system. There can be a terrible storm that causes a tree to crash into the classroom, undermining the possibility for the class to continue. The college can go bankrupt, etc., etc., etc. However, there is the more subtle reason that while substances compose their own elements, while elements are events, these elements are not composed out of nothing. Substances compose their elements out of other substances. As Harman writes, the universe is made up of “…objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects.”[6] Following Badiou, we must thus distinguish between elements of a substance and parts of a substance.[7] Elements of a substance are constituted by the system, exist only in relation to other elements or components of the substance, and have no existence independent of the system. Yet these elements are constituted out of parts which are themselves substances in their own right. And in being constituted as elements, these parts do not cease being substances with their own conatus. As Latour remarks, “[n]one of the actants mobilized to secure an alliance stops acting on its own behalf. They each carry on fomenting their own plots, forming their own groups, and serving other masters, wills, and functions.”[8] Courses use parts such as persons, bits of paper, ink, computers, bits of wood, plastic, metal, neon, etc., as parts out of which to constitute their elements. These parts do not cease being elements when constituted as elements and therefore each enact and continue their own conatus. As a consequence, each substance will have its own substance-specific entropy arising from the parts out of which it strives to compose into elements. This substance-specific entropy will be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it will perpetually threaten to dissolve the system from within, while on the other hand it will be that little bit of Lucretian chaos, that bit of clinamen or swerve, that renders the identity of the system open, subject to evolutionary transformation, and creative. As every artist knows, it is not just the artist that composes the work, but the media contribute to the composition of the work as well.

However, while Aristotle’s notion of substance as a substrate that persists or endures as identical and unchanging beneath changing qualities ought to be abandoned, there is nonetheless something to his understanding of substance as that which is capable of entertaining contrary qualities while remaining the same substance. Later in the history of philosophy, Aristotle’s notion of substance as substrate anterior to qualities generates a crisis. As Locke remarks of substance,

…we have no such clear Idea at all, and therefore signify nothing by the word Substance, but only an uncertain supposition of we know not what (i.e., of something whereof we have no particular distinct positive) Idea, which we take to be the substratum, or support, of those Ideas we do know.[9]

What we know is, of course, qualities. Qualities are that which we encounter in objects. Yet substances can remain the same while the qualities of substances change. This entails that the substantial form of substances, the conatus of substances, is defined not by a substance’s qualities, but by something else. Yet if it is not qualities that define or determine the being of the substantiality of substance, what is it? In short, the problem seems to be that a substance deprived of its qualities becomes a bare substratum devoid of any difference whatsoever. However, if substances are bare substratums, then all substances would be identical as two entities that have no difference to differentiate them would necessarily be the same entity.

What we require is something anterior to the qualities of substances that nonetheless possesses difference and structure to individuate that substance. Further, this anteriority would have to be something that never itself becomes present. The being of a substance consists not simply of its endo-structure, but also of the powers of which it is capable. And the powers of a substance are themselves structured without ever becoming actual. These powers are what Deleuze, following Spinoza, call affect. Of affects, Deleuze writes that,

…from the viewpoint of… ethology, one needs first to distinguish between two sorts of affection: actions, which are explained by the nature of the affected individual, and which spring from the individual’s essence; and passions, which are explained by something else, and which originate outside the individual. Hence the capacity for being affected is manifested as a power of acting insofar as it is assumed to be filled by active affections, but as a power of being acted upon insofar as it is filled by passions. For a given individual, i.e., for a given degree of power assumed to be constant within certain limits, the capacity for being affected itself remains constant within those limits, but the power of acting and the power of being acted upon vary greatly, in inverse ratio to one another.[10]

Affects or powers consist of the manner in which an object is capable of acting and being acted upon. Affect is not the quality (or in the case of living entities, the “feeling”) that accompanies affect, but is rather the power, the capacity, to affect and be affected in various ways. Like Deleuze’s intensive differences, powers always disappear behind the qualities they produce. As Deleuze remarks, “[i]ntensity is difference, but this difference tends to deny or cancel itself out in extensity and underneath quality.”[11]

I refer to this domain of powers or affects as the “virtual proper being” of objects. Virtual proper being is withdrawn and composed of powers or affects, along with the endo-consistency of objects and history the object has traced in time. By contrast, the domain of qualities that objects actualize in actions and being affected are what I call “local manifestations”. Local manifestations are generally the result of the regime of attraction in which an object is situated or the exo-relations it entertains to other objects. If local manifestations are manifestations, then this is because they are actualizations of qualities. If they are local, then this is because they are generally the actualization of a quality under the current conditions in which a substance is situated. The important point is that the virtual proper being of an object is always greater in scope than any of the qualities it happens to manifest at a given point in time. Objects are not individuated by their qualities but by their powers or affects.

To understand the difference between virtual proper being and local manifestation, take the example of fire. On the planet earth, dancing tongues of fire leap up towards the sky, striving to escape their terrestrial prison. It would be very easy to take these local manifestations, these qualities, as defining the being of fire. Yet when fire occurs in outer space on the International Space Station, fire spreads and in waves like water. Waves and tongues of flame are two local manifestations the power of fire, arising as a result of the exo-relation fire entertains towards other entities in a regime of attraction. These exo-relations consist, respectively, of external relations to the planet earth, the space station, oxygen conditions, etc. The power of fire itself never becomes present. Likewise, when I am in the extreme heat of the Texas summer, my skin becomes slightly swollen and flushed; whereas when I enter a cold air conditioned room, it becomes prickled and slightly contracts. Again, these qualities are local manifestations produced under certain circumstances, while the capacity to produce these qualities is a power capable of producing infinite variations.

The affects or powers of an object consist of either actions or passions. Affects as actions are powers of acting or doing. Sugar, for example, has the power of solubility regardless of whether or not it is currently being dissolved in water. The passions, of an object, by contrast, consist in the manner in which it is open to other substances in the world. Great white sharks are capable of sensing other entities in terms of their electro-magnetic fields, while snakes can sense them in terms of the heat they can give off. Neutrinos are incapable of interacting with most other matter of which we’re familiar due to their neutral electric charges. The powers of an object fluctuate as a result of the encounters it has with other substances. Iron that is heated and mixed with carbon becomes steal and increases in strength. A doctor develops the capacity to see symptoms as signs. A person high on marijuana often experiences the passage of time differently.

Graham Harman has argued that all objects are withdrawn from one another.[12] In light of the distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestations we can see that objects are always withdrawn in two ways. On the one hand, the powers of an object will always be capable of more local manifestations than the object happens to actualize at any point in time. Objects will always harbor volcanic potentials carrying the capability of creating new and novel local manifestations as a function of the relations the object enters into. On the other hand, the passions of an object will never be simple one-to-one transfers of a force or information between substances, but rather the substance will always transform the perturbation it receives from another substance in terms of its own organization. Last week I asked my four-year old daughter whether she wished to be a scientist when she grows up. She replied indignantly, proclaiming “No! I want to be an artist and scientists only draw signs!” Sign is a homonym of scientist. Here there was an aleatory exchange of information between us wherein she produced something very different from what I intended based on how her mind is organized. It is this way with all inter-object relations. Objects never directly relate, but, like Leibniz’s monads, only ever encounter the other entities that populate the heteroverse in terms of their own unique organization and point of view.

[1] Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, in Spinoza: Complete Works, Michael L. Morgan, ed., Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Part III, Proposition 6.

[2] Ibid., Part III, Proposition 7.

[3] Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”, in Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Robert S. Cohen and Max W. Wartofsky, eds., Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980, p. 80.

[4] Ibid., pp. 78 – 79.

[5] Aristotle, Categories, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: Book I, Jonathan Barnes, trans., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, ln., 4a10 – 21.

[6] Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Chicago: Open Court, 2005, p. 85.

[7] Alain Badiou, Being and Event, Oliver Feltham, trans., New York: Continuum, 2006.

[8] Bruno Latour, Irreductions, in The Pasteurization of France, Alan Sheridan and John Law, trans., Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 197.

[9] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Peter H. Nidditch, ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, p. 95.

[10] Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Robert Hurley, trans., San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988, p. 27.

[11] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Paul Patton, trans., New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 223.

[12] Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects, Chicago: Open Court, 2002.