For the last couple of days I’ve been mulling over a passage that Andre Ling quotes from Brian Massumi’s Semblance and Event. There Massumi writes,

Nature itself, the world of process, ‘is a complex of passing events’ […] The world is not an aggregate of objects. To see it that way is to have participated in an abstraction reductive of the complexity of nature as passage. To “not believe in things” is to believe that objects are derivatives of process and that their emergence is the passing result of specific modes of abstractive activity. This means that objects’ reality does not exhaust the range of the real. The reality of the world exceeds that of objects, for the simple reason that where objects are, there has also been their becoming. […] The being of an object is an abstraction from its becoming. The world is not a grab-bag of things. It’s an always-in-germ. To perceive the world in an object frame is to neglect the wider range of its germinal reality. (Semblance and Event, 6)

I have not yet read Massumi’s book, but I do have the greatest respect for both him (he’s a great person) and his work. For some time now I’ve been perplexed by certain responses I get from others when I refer to “objects”. In this connection it is not unusual, upon hearing someone claim that being is composed of objects and relations, to hear others exclaim “it’s not objects that exist, but rather processes!” or “it’s not objects that exist, but rather events!” I confess these responses leaving me scratching my head, for why should there be an opposition between objects and processes? Or put a bit differently, what prevents us from thinking objects as processes?

I think the Massumi passage above nicely articulates what is lurking in the thought of those who denounce objects in this way. When we see Massumi contrast objects with “complexes of passing events”, becoming, and derivative of processes, it becomes clear that there’s a diacritical opposition in his thought such that objects refer to “being”, the “static”, the “still”, and that which is without movement. In other words, objects are, for Massumi, static clods that simply sit there without becoming or changing in any way. Under this model, insofar as we live in a world of becoming and change, insofar as “we can’t step in the same river twice”, it would follow that the universe cannot consist of objects. However, this would only be true if “object” signifies that which is static, still, and free of all becoming.

read on!

Yet this is precisely the conception of objects I’ve tried to argue against in my onticology. As I argued some time ago and ever since, for me objects are processes or activities. This is one of the major points of divergence between my onticology and Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. Where Harman argues that there is a static and unchanging essence that persists throughout accidental changes, I argue that objects constantly face the threat of entropy, such that they must perpetually reproduce themselves from moment to moment lest they cease to exist or be destroyed. In this regard, I follow the Whiteheadian dictum which states that “…how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is” (Process and Reality, 23). Shaviro, following Whitehead, gives a nice illustration of this thesis with respect to Cleopatra’s Needle in Without Criteria. There he writes:

Even a seemingly solid and permanent object is an event; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events. In his early metaphysical book The Concept of Nature (1920/2004), Whitehead gives the example of Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment in London (165ff.). Now, we know, of course, that this monument is not just ‘there.’ It has a history. Its granite was sculpted by human hands, sometime around 1450 BCE. It was moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria in 12BCE, and again from Alexandria to London in 1977-1878 CE. And some day, no doubt, it will be destroyed, or otherwise cease to exist. But for Whitehead, there is much more to it than that. Cleopatra’s Needle isn’t just a solid, impassive object upon which certain grand historical events– being sculpted, being moved –have occasionally supervened. Rather, it is eventful at every moment. From second to second, even as it stands seemingly motionless, Cleopatra’s Needle is actively happening. It never remains the same. “A physicist who looks on that part of the life of nature as a dance of electrons, will tell you that daily it has lost some molecules and gained others, and even the plain man can see that it gets dirtier and is occasionally washed” (ibid., 167). At every instant, the mere standing-in-place of Cleopatra’s Needle is an event: a renewal, a novelty, a fresh creation. (17 – 18)

Shaviro’s remarks allow us to distinguish between two types of events. On the one hand, there are affects. Affects in this sense (there’s also a broader sense that I discuss elsewhere) are events that befall or happen to an object such as Cleopatra’s Needle being moved or the despicable act of Napoleon’s soldiers shooting the Sphinx’s nose for target practice (seriously, what was wrong with those guys?). By contrast, there are those events “internal” to the object that unfold as it exists from moment to moment. Even as the needle appears to be sitting still, there are all sorts of things happening within it as atoms spin about and interact with one another.

No object can sit still, even when it appears to be sitting still.. Rather, every object is perpetually in motion, tracing a path from moment to moment as it persists through time. Persistence is not a static feature of objects, but is rather an activity on the part of objects. Endurance is something that objects must do, not something that objects have as a default mode until perturbed from the outside in such a way as to be destroyed. It is for this reason that I describe objects as “space-time worms”. Recall the “paths” that reached out of the protagonist’s chest in the film Donnie Darko. Like worms, the film contended, there are temporal pathways we trace out into the future. Well this is how it is with objects, except with respect to the past. Like a worm, objects trace out a path throughout time and space through which they produce themselves from moment to moment through operations or activities taking place within them. Nor should the fact that objects are processes unfolding in time composed of all sorts of ongoing events lead us to abandon the term “object”. If the term “object” should be retained, then this is because processes are distinct from one another. The “Cleopatra’s Needle process” is distinct from the “Tasha-the-cat” process or the “Sun process”. Each of these processes is a distinct individual. To be sure, these processes can be entangled in one another in all sorts of interesting ways, but that doesn’t undermine their spatio-temporal individuality or uniqueness.

“Object”, “substance”, “entity’, “individual”, “thing”, “unit”, “system”, and “process” are, for me, all synonyms. In a lively and productive discussion on Twitter today, Dr Snaut remarked that when he hears the word “system” he thinks of “processes” not objects. That’s exactly right. As systems, objects are processes, they are activities. And, I argue, they are processual in at least two ways. The first way in which objects are processes has already been outlined: objects must reproduce themselves from moment to moment to avoid falling into entropy. This entails that there are all sorts of activities going on within objects, all sorts of operations, by which the object endures from moment to moment. Second, objects are activities at the level of their qualities. In my account of objects I distinguish between the “virtual proper being” of objects and their “local manifestations”. The virtual proper being of objects consists not of withdrawn essential qualities, but of powers. Here “power” refers to capacities of an object or what an object can do. I take it that one of the central aims of science is to discover the powers of objects and that these powers can only be discovered through acting on objects to see how they’ll respond under determinate conditions. In my account of powers I’m deeply indebted to the work of Spinoza, George Molnar and Deleuze, nicely outlined by Shaviro here.

The “local manifestations” of objects are their qualities. Within my framework, qualities are not something an object has, but something an object does. They are events that take place within an object under determinate conditions. In other words, qualities are not fixed features of an object, but rather are happenings on the part of an object. The reason we tend to think that qualities are fixed features of objects is because we tend to encounter objects under stable conditions. Thus, for example, because I perpetually encounter the rock in my back yard as having this weight, this texture, this color, etc., I conclude that these qualities are intrinsic and abiding features of the rock. What I fail to take into account is the regime of attraction in which the rock exists, such that these qualities are something the rock has rather than something it does. Regimes of attraction are the relational or ecological dimension of objects defined by their relations to other objects. In this case, the regime of attraction of my beloved rock– and the rock above isn’t really in my backyard, I could only dream of having a rock that cool –consists of its relationship to the planet earth, the earth’s temperature, the earth’s atmosphere, etc. Were we to place the rock on Mars we would find that its weight changes because the mass of Mars is about half of that of Earth, thereby producing different gravitational pull. Likewise, were we to place the rock on Venus we would find that qualities such as its color and texture change due to intense heat on that planet as well as the chemical composition of Venus’s atmosphere. These are local manifestations and local manifestations are events. They are local because they refer to local conditions in which the object is embedded and with which the object interacts. They are manifestations because they are productions of a qualitative state in the object. Insofar as they are manifestations, qualities are activities or processes that take place in an object.

There are two ways in which these local manifestations can be produced. On the one hand, local manifestations can result, as we have seen, from the interaction of an object with its regime of attraction or an objects interactions with other objects in its environment. When I walk into my air conditioned house from the intense Texas heat of my backyard, my skin prickles. The prickling of my skin is a local manifestation of my body produced as a result of a shift from one regime of attraction or set of relations among objects to another. By contrast, local manifestations can be produced as a result of processes or activities taking place not in relation to other objects but as a result of events and activities internal to the object. Here we might think of hormonal and cellular processes inside a developing organism where, at a certain point in its development, the organism undergoes qualitative changes. For instance, infants are often born with blondish hair, only to have their hair turn brown or red as they grow older. This change in hair color is probably not the result of the infant encountering and interacting with another substance in a regime of attraction (for example, a particular food), but is likely the result of unfolding chemical and hormonal processes within the infant as it develops (and yes, I recognize that all sorts of foods and chemicals in the infant’s regime of attraction or environment are involved in this development).

In the passage cited above, Massumi remarks that entities are always “in germ”. By this I take it that he means that entities are perpetually becoming. Yet this is precisely what we would expect if objects are processes. If there are all sorts of processes taking place within objects and as a result of interactions with other objects, then it follows that objects are open. What an object is today clearly shares a relationship to what it will be tomorrow, yet as objects trace their adventure through time and space they are always open to becoming quite different. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly and carbon decays. In their adventure through time objects can take on very different qualities and structures as a result of processes both internal to them and interactions with other objects. I think this is one of the most profound implications of Kant’s discovery of “synthetic a priori propositions” with respect to mind. What Kant discovered is that independent of experience, through activities of thought, it is possible to think something new that changes the very structure of our thought or mind. A synthetic a priori proposition is something that 1) issues from the mind alone (rather than being learned through sensation), and 2) that creates something new that wasn’t there before (it isn’t simply an analytic a priori tautology like “All bachelors are unmarried males”– sometimes their male seals too! –but rather expands thought). So too, perhaps, with all objects, where perhaps there is a creativity internal to objects that through their own internal processes or activities they are able to become something very different.

In response to this conception of objects people often sullenly respond by saying either 1) “but that’s not what ‘object’ means!”, or 2) “I think the term ‘object’ is misleading!” To the first of these charges I respond that if you don’t like my terminology you are free to use your own (I have no objection to the use of terms such as ‘process’, ‘event’, etc), but please do not attribute the claims of ordinary language to me with respect to objects. Moreover, philosophy does not take its marching orders from ordinary language. When speaking of objects, people might very well mean what is static or unchanging. People also thought the world is flat, have a rather impoverished view of matter, and equate time with clocks. The vocation of philosophy is to figure out, as best as can be done, what these things really are and this often involves significant departures from ordinary language and common sense. I believe that when we take seriously both our experience of entities and what the sciences have taught us, we are led to this conception of objects. Can anyone seriously think objects are static and still after the discoveries of cellular biology and quantum mechanics? Can we really continue to entertain the Aristotlean subject-predicate logic of substance in light of what we’ve learned about how substances behave differently under different conditions? Rather than jettisoning the concept of objects, we should instead transform our concept of objects or substances. As Whitehead remarks somewhere in Process and Reality, it is not the concept of substance that is the problem, but rather subject-predicate logic that sees properties or qualities as features inhering intrinsically in an unchanging substance that serves as substratum.

With regard to the second charge, I think that the term ‘object’ serves an important rhetorical function. If I choose to continue using a term like ‘object’ rather than ‘process’ or ‘event’, then this is because I think ‘object’ draws our attention to the most humble of things and the role they play in the various assemblages within which we dwell. Object draws attention to the concrete and specific. It calls for us to attend to the specific entities that affect us. It implores us to take seriously microbes, highways, fiber optic cables, cows, lightbulbs, and all the rest. This semester enrollment was surprisingly down at my college across the board. We can come up with some grand ideological explanation as to why this happened when, for the last two years, courses have been bursting at the seams. Perhaps we might argue that the economy is getting better so people don’t feel it’s necessary to enroll in courses. We can imagine administrators scrambling to respond to this ideology or these economic changes. However, it seems that the explanation is far more mundane. This last year the State enacted a policy in which students are not allowed to enroll in courses unless they have gotten a meningitis vaccination (a good policy given increasing cases of meningitis, I think). A humble policy, an entity like shots, and a virus seem to have dramatically affected enrollment. Recognizing this very humble and simple thing generates a very different response to the problem.