The ontology of events is extremely difficult to think. No doubt this arises from difficulties surrounding just how events are to be individuated and their porous nature. As philosophers such as Whitehead and Deleuze have noted, events are both unities and multiplicities. We speak, for example, of a concert, a battle, an encounter, a meeting, etc. In speaking of events in this way we seem to treat events as unities or units, treating them as possessing a sort of identity that pervades them and strictly individuates them. A football game is an event, and is distinct from other football games. One supernova is distinct from another. Yet as we begin to look more closely at events we notice that they also seem to lack unity or identity. On the one hand, each event is composed of a variety of other events. A soccer game contains all sorts of plays that are themselves events. On the other hand, these events seem to open on to other events. One play, one interaction between the players and the ball, opens on to other plays. Similarly, the soccer game opens on to other soccer games in the season, deciding which team plays what team in, for example, the finals. In other words, the season itself seems to be an event that contains other events.
Here events seem to resemble Harman’s description of objects drawn from Husserl (Hegel makes similar observations in the open to the Phenomenology as well as the Logic). There it will be recalled that objects are both a unity and a diversity. On the one hand, objects have an irreducible unity such that each object is one and cannot be treated as a mere summation of their qualities. An object, it seems, is never exhausted by a list of its qualities. On the other hand, objects are multiplicities or manifolds (language Husserl uses in Cartesian Meditations and elsewhere) in that they consists of many different qualities. So too in the case of events insofar as they seem to be a unity that is also a multiplicity. Yet when we look at issues surrounding how to individuate events we find ourselves faced with the question of whether there is genuinely an ontology of events or whether what we call an event is merely a matter of convention. In other words, do things such as battles, soccer games, and supernovae exist as independent events in their own right, or are they merely the result of linguistic conventions surrounding how how we arbitrarily delineate events? Clearly the realist will wish to treat events as entities in their own right. However, the realist will also wish to distinguish genuine events from events that are merely the result of some linguistic or social convention. She will recognize that not everything we call an event will necessarily be an event in its own right.
At the risk of overmining objects, I would like to treat objects as events insofar as I hold that objects are both processes and that they take place or happen. As I’ve argued, objects are not brute clods that just sit there doing nothing until acted upon. Rather, they are ongoing activities. There are three ways in which objects have an evental structure. First, objects are evental in that they come-to-be or happen. Objects are evental in that they always arise out of other objects. For every object there is a point at which a plurality of distinct objects somehow enter into a unity forming an endo-consistency that is itself an object or distinct entity. Paraphrasing Whitehead, objects are born of the many and increase the many by one. The coming-to-be of a unit or unity is thus an event wherein an object happens or takes place introducing a novel, inexhaustible entity into the world that both would not be possible without the other objects of which it is composed but which is also irreducible to these other objects. My daughter cannot be reduced to the various foods, gases, and chemicals out of which her cells were built, she is not merely a pile of these things, but rather she is a distinct entity unleashed into the world (or, at least, unleashed on my once tidy living room). For onticology a key question lies in theorizing this transition from, to use Whitehead’s language, “disjunctive diversity” to “conjunctive unity”. At what point do we pass, in other words, from a mere pile or heap of entities in a disjunctive diversity, to a unity or unit in conjunctive unity that is an entity in its own right? The coming-to-be of an object is a unification of other objects. It is likely there won’t be a single answer to this question and that there will be many gradations between disjunctive diversities and conjunctive unities. By what processes are diverse entities gathered together to form a new unity?
Second, objects deserve to be thought as events because they have duration. One of the key features of events is that they are “elongated” in time, such that they spread across multiple moments. The duration of an object can range from the briefest possible instant such that an object comes into being and quickly passes away, to billions of years as in the case of the existence of the sun. Insofar as objects have a temporal dimension lying between their coming-to-be and passing-away– I personally don’t believe there are eternal entities, but I don’t rule out their possibility either; ie., my hunch is that all objects are finite –they have a structure akin to that of events.
Third, objects are evental in that every object consists of ongoing operations that consist of its activities as they exist from moment to moment. Here we must not assume that there’s a standard measure of what constitutes a moment that is the same for all events. I define a moment as the minimal unit upon which an object can carry out operations. Thus there will be events that are too quick and too slow for a particular type of object to operate upon. These differences will not necessarily be symmetrical, insofar as one type of object might be able to operate on events in the other, whereas the other object will not be able to operate on events in this object. Compare, for example, the operations of journal publishing and blog publishing. The units and operations of a journal and the blogopolis are capable are quite different because of the respective ways in which their operations are organized. Because of the lengthy process of gathering articles, editing them, and publishing them, journals are very slow moving and therefore slow to respond to debates and discussions in other systems. To be sure, journal articles are increasingly citing blog posts, but there will always a a significant time lag between operations (discussions, debates) in the blogopolis and operations in journal articles. By contrast, operations that take place in the ongoing existence-activity of a blog are much quicker because there’s no editorial process and because of the generally open discussion format in comment sections and between blogs. In relations between blogs, this different endo-structure surrounding publication and discussion will insure that blog discussions tend to evolve and shift directions much more quickly than journals (which is not necessarily a positive thing). Blogs are able to disseminate information much more quickly than journals, including information issuing from journals. For example, books and articles completely unnoticed by a journal can very quickly pass from obscurity to central importance in the blogosphere (in turn affecting journals in the long run as bloggers publish articles drawing on those articles and books in journal articles). We see a similar phenomenon revolving around temporal differences in operations with state governments. In the United States, it is likely that one reason the government has been so slow to respond significantly to climate change has to do with the structure of election cycles in this country. Responses to climate change require long-term changes and interventions, but the election cycle for American officials is 2, 4, and 6 years. This makes it very difficult to pursue long term programs and policies, causing issues of climate change to tend to fall of the radar (and here, of course, we also need to take account of relations between politicians and people in the energy, agricultural, and transportation industries). It becomes very difficult for government to register long-term, slow moving events within such a structure of operations.
Operations are events that take place within an object and are that through which an object maintains or continues its existence across time. The key question for any object is that of how to continue operations from one moment to the next. If the object cannot continue operations from one moment to the next it ceases to exist or falls into entropy (though in many instances it can come back into existence through a resumption of operations). Entropy is the disappearance of unity and the return of a disjunctive diversity of objects. It is a passage from a unified entity or event to a plurality of unities and events. In a comment responding to my post on some disturbing features of communication systems, Josh W. gives some nice examples of such dissolution. As Josh writes,
A particular “reality tv talk” social system might start to run out of steam, because the people involved have come to an agreement about the characters of the various participants. And like an autopoietic cell starving because it has exhausted it’s food supply, the social system could run down, leaving only it’s inactive fossils behind.
The two participants might have enjoyed the now-dead conversation for it’s other structural elements, but need to find a new core to make it flow, to organise it. I’m sure you can think of situations where you’ve wanted to find a subject to make small talk with someone, which you would then develop into a more full and engaging conversation. Such a subject can be necessary and self sustaining, but only within a specific domain or time span, and only take up so much of your actual time: So long as there’s some bad news, there will be newspapers, but maximising that variable might actually lead to decreasing the survival chances of the newspaper.
This “running out of steam” is another way of saying that the object in question– a particular conversation –has exhausted its ability to engage in further operations (communicative events) and has thereby dissolved into entropy or a plurality of objects (the two interlocutors go their separate ways). The unity of the event has dissipated because the moments that make up this event can no longer be produced. Elsewhere Harvey makes a similar point about capital. As Harvey explains, capital only exists in the process of exchange. Cease exchange and capital ceases to exist. This is why, Harvey argues, the Bush administration was so insistent on the “patriotic duty” of people returning to shopping following 9-11. The absence of shopping threatened the continued existence of the hyperobject of capitalism because there were no longer any operations occurring by which capitalism continued its existence.
I am only here beginning to outline the evental nature of objects, but it seems here that some precision is required in how we use the term “event”. There are a variety of ways in which the term event is used and these different uses refer to very different ontological domains. I can think of four off the top of my head. First there is the objectal use of the term event. When we say that a tree is an event, we seem to be saying something different than what we’re saying when we say that a crowd of people on a subway car is an event. A tree is a “conjunctive unity” in a way that people milling about on a subway car is not. The people on a subway car seem to be a disjunctive diversity in that they don’t seem to have any unity over and above their individual existence as beings milling about (here there are interesting connections to Sartre’s concept of “seriality” in his Critique of Dialectical Reason). While both events are happenings, the former seems to have an internal endo-consistency that is absent in the latter. As a consequence, the first is an object whereas the second is not.
Second, there also seems to be a distinction between events as durational unities (the life of the tree as a single event) and events as operations taking place within the durational unity. A soccer game is an event and an entity unto itself, while the individual plays are events that take place within the soccer game. All of these operations or individual plays are pervaded by the unity of the game as a unit or object. Here it’s also interesting to note that the event as a unit is open-ended in that, insofar as the game unfolds in time, the game is not all there at once but is in becoming as it unfolds. As a consequence, while objects have unity, the being of an object is not all there at once but is unfolding in time.
Third, I think we should distinguish between events that result from an object’s internal operations and events that occur through one object affecting another object. The plays that take place in a soccer games are internal operations of the game without reference to anything outside the game. They are internal dynamisms or activities of this particular unit or entity (this particular game). However, if one of the players is struck by lightning or there’s a rain storm that stalls the game, we have one entity affecting another entity. While operations taking place within an object or system (the two terms are synonymous for me) are often tightly intertwined, we nonetheless should distinguish them for analytic purposes.
Finally the term ‘event’ is often used to denote “departure’ by thinkers such as Badiou and Zizek. Here we can characterize this concept of events in terms of Stephen J. Gould’s characterization of evolution in terms of “punctuated equilibrium” in contrast to those evolutionary theorists that advocate gradualism. The gradualists hold that speciation takes place through the gradual accumulation of differences that eventually lead to divergence between two species that were once one. By contrast, the punctuated equilibriasts hold that species are largely static until, at some point, there is suddenly an explosion of new and different species. I think that, in fact, there is truth in both positions. Many objects– I won’t say all –are perpetually changing because of events taking place at the level of their own internal operations. Yet at certain points, due to how a system is affected by other entities, sudden transformations can take place that generate very new endo-consistencies and destroy older forms of endo-consistency. That’s enough for now.