In response to my last post, Paul Bain’s remarks that it will be interesting to see where this new concept of withdrawal goes. Over at Speculum Criticum, Skholiast has an interesting post up, remarking that,

for Harman and Bryant, the problem arises on the side of the (real) object–it withdraws, so how does it interact with anything else?

I suppose I should have been more clear in my last post, but first, the concepts of withdrawal are not the same for me and Harman, and 2) the concept of withdrawal I propose at the end of my last post is not a new conception of withdrawal for me, but one I’ve advocated for quite some time. Harman’s thesis is that real objects are withdrawn from all relations and that they can only relate to one another vicariously. I’ve never understood the thesis that objects can’t touch and the idea that they only relate vicariously. If objects are relating vicariously then they are affecting one another and touching. That’s a relation. While I can certainly see the epistemological problem of causality vis a vis Hume’s skepticism, I don’t understand the ontological property of causality. I take it that causality is just a primitive ontological given and that we don’t need any special account of how objects can relate. To be sure, objects can break with relations and share no relations to all sorts of things, but this is very different than claiming that objects are withdrawn from all relations. I assume that because my friend Harman is quite brilliant, I am simply somehow misunderstanding him, yet he does repeatedly remark that objects can never touch and that they are unable to relate to one another. I simply can’t figure out how this is possible if objects are not affecting one another in some way.

In my work I’ve tried to theorize “withdrawal” (maybe I need a different term) in terms of 1) the manner in which objects are split between their virtual and actual half, and 2) autopoietic theory’s concept of “operational closure” (in Whitehead the term would be “subjective form”). In the autopoietic framework framework, the thesis is not that objects cannot touch but that 1) entities only maintain selective relations to their environment (e.g., I’m unable to sense light in the infrared spectrum), and 2) that entities structure perturbations from their environment in terms of their own internal organization. In other words, the cause or perturbation doesn’t predelineate the effect. Obviously it plays an important role, but the effect will be a function of the perturbed object’s internal organization. I outline all of this in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects. Not incidentally, it allows me to retain most of critical theory and post-structuralist thought and critique, albeit in a modified form.

For me, the important thing about the virtual/actual structure of the object is that we can’t reduce an object to its current qualities. On the planet earth, for example, I weigh, unfortunately, about 195lbs. A naive approach to objects might treat this quality (what I call a “local manifestation”) as an intrinsic feature of my body. Here the thesis would be that a body, substance, unit, or object is nothing more than the some of its qualities. However, when I go to Mars I very quickly discover that seemed what so apparent and obvious– that I am intrinsically 195lbs; thank God I’m 6’1″! –is, in fact, an event on the part of my body. Qualities are not something an object has, but something an object does. On Mars my weight would be quite different because Mars is about half the mass of the planet Earth. In other words, the relations an object entertains to other objects play a tremendous role in its “local manifestations”, generating very different qualities under different networks of relations. I call these networks of relations “regimes of attraction” because these relations among objects draw out different qualities. These claims are dealt with in chapter 3 and 5 of The Democracy of Objects.

So here is what I was trying to diplomatically suggest in my last post. It’s difficult to see how objects thoroughly withdrawn from all relations and incapable of affecting other objects can make any practical difference in our dealings with the world. Such a thesis seems to lead to something akin to the claim that the world doubles in size every 30 seconds. By contrast, the thesis that the qualities of objects are variable under shifting conditions and that objects only relate to other objects under conditions of operational closure has profound implications for inquiry and practice. On the one hand, the thesis of operational closure entails that we can’t just assume that other entities (including other humans and social organizations) do not encounter the world in the same way, but rather that they encounter the world selectively and in terms of operational closure. Off the top of my head, this has massive implications for both pedagogy and political theory. It’s rather difficult to educate a kid if you’re unable to communicate with him at all (i.e., you’re using speech acts that don’t fall in the field of his selectivity) and it’s difficult to act on social institutions if you’re not engaging them at a level they can register. We need to map the internal organization and fields of selection in these other entities.

Second, the thesis that qualities are events resulting from a regime of attraction entails, at the level of practice, that we shouldn’t just reduce objects to a list of qualities (the old Aristotlean species/genus sortings), but that in investigating entities we need to vary their regimes of attraction to see what differences are produced. To see this point concretely, take the Humboldt squid. The Humboldt has a reputation for being extremely aggressive. In other words, we treat aggressivity as an intrinsic quality of the Humboldt’s essence. But what if Humboldt behavior results not from an internal essence of the Humboldt, but rather from features of the regime of attraction in which it is studies? Marine biologists investigating the Humboldt often do so around fishing boats throwing all sorts of discarded bits of fish in the water and that inadvertently capture Humboldt’s in their nets. What if the behavior of Humboldt’s we’re witnessing is the result of being under assault, and not the result of some sort of intrinsic essence? I’m not suggesting that this is the case. My point is that the distinction between the virtual dimension of objects as powers, potentialities, or capacities, and the actual dimension of objects consisting of local manifestations makes a real difference in how we investigate things. Rather than locating qualities in the object as intrinsic features, we instead see them as events that refer to a context of relations (a regime of attraction). In doing so, we come to conclude that the investigation of entities requires 1) acting on them in controlled ways to see how they’ll respond (this is what takes place in a super collider, for example), and 2) requires varying their regime of attraction or environment to see what differences these variations elicit. Such variation gradually allows us to build up a diagram of the object’s virtual powers or a concept not of what an object is, but of what it can do.