Of all the people working in the new materialist and realist orientations with which I am familiar (SR broadly construed), I probably feel the greatest affinity with the thought of Bennett and Bogost. And here I hasten to add that I am only just now making forays into the work of the new materialist feminists, whose work was before unknown to me –so I suspect that my affinities will broaden as I explore their work more (already I’m blown away by what I’ve read by Elizabeth Grosz and am encountering in Coole’s and Frost’s New Materialisms collection. These things feel like home to me). Bogost’s claim that all units are simultaneously units and systems, coupled with his thesis that units continue their existence through operations appeals to the systems theorist in me as well as the process philosopher. Bogost insists that operations aren’t processes, but I’m unclear as to why we shouldn’t call them such. With Bennett the points of overlap are much more striking; so much so that at our CUNY roundtable last year Graham Harman suggested that perhaps there are too branches of OOO: Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOP) and a Bennett-Bryant orientation. Given that Bennett herself would probably be annoyed to call herself an “object-oriented ontologist”, we might instead refer to her work as “materialist-oriented ontology” (MOO) or “body-oriented ontology” (BOO); which are both terms I would gladly embrace for myself. Here “BOO”, of course, shouldn’t be understood in the sense of just our bodies, but in Spinoza’s sense where all entities are bodies, whether they be human, animal, microbrial, quarks, or revolutionary groups. To be is to be a body.
The points of overlap between our work run quite deep:
1) We share a very similar intellectual heritage deriving from Lucretius, Spinoza, and Deleuze and Guattari. Indeed, I conceive of my work in OOO as a Deleuzian account of entities in contrast to Harman’s Heideggerian account. Within this framework,
a) Identity is a product of processes, activities, or operations in entities, not a withdrawn essence that underlies accidental changes. Here entities are perpetually facing the threat of dissolution or entropy as they continue through time so it is necessary that they engage in operations to maintain their existence. Whatever identity they have is a result of these activities, not something that precedes these activities.
b) Objects are therefore characterized by perpetual becoming or unfolding in the order of time. For me there isn’t a choice that we have to make between being and becoming. Rather being is becoming and becoming is being. The being of an object is the becoming of that object. It is for this reason that I also refer to objects as “objectiles“.
c) Objects are split between their virtual half and their actual half or what I refer to as their “virtual proper being” and their “local manifestations”. The virtual proper being of an object consists of that object’s powers are capacities; what Spinoza referred to as “affects”. We could just as easily say that the virtual proper being of an object consists of its “affects” (which I do argue in my work). These powers or capacities are not fixed once and for all, but rather objects can acquire new capacities and lose capacities they once had. Moreover, an entity’s ability to exercise can fluctuate, as when we’re fatigued or sick (here, recall, my endless calls for philosophy to develop a theory of work or the energy that goes into maintaining things). The local manifestations of an object are the way in which these powers are exercised under determinate circumstances in the form of actions and properties.
d) My objects can just as easily be called machines. In particular, they are dissipative structures that draw energies and matters from the world, transform them according to their own internal organization and operations, and release energies and matters into the world. These machines might be operationally closed, but they are ontologically open. In other words, I have no problem with the idea that objects can touch.
2) With Bennett (and Lucretius) and in contrast to Harman, I am a staunch materialist. The only thing that exists, for me, are material entities, modifications of material entities, and relations between material entities.
a) With Bennett, matter as I conceive it is lively and energetic and full of surprises. It is not the brute and passive matter of Descartes, Galileo, and Newton. This, I believe, has been confirmed by every branch of science today: quantum mechanics, Einstein and his recognition that matter and energy are more or less the same thing, complexity theory that has shown that matter is creative and inventive, and chaos theory. I believe that anyone who continues to tilt windmills against “materialism” on the grounds that it is passive and inert is either ignorant of these developments or being dishonest, for this is an 18th century conception of matter that no one endorses anymore. It’s a straw man designed to bring in spiritualist entities into metaphysics.
b) For me the only way in which entities can relate is through some material-energetic transmission. There is no “action at a distance”. For me to relate to something else some material entity must pass between us. Here I follow Lucretius and his doctrine of simulacra, which I also see as absolutely crucial to sound social and political theory.
c) With Bennett, I hold that matter is not formless stuff awaiting form as Aristotle had it, but that matter and form are always there together, that there is no such thing as unformed matter, though matter is indeed formable through interactions between different entities. Last year Harman argued against materialism on the grounds that “the New York stock exchange is not just bricks, glass, wires, computers”. But what materialist has ever said that such is the case? For Lucretius all the atoms are defined by their shape. They intrinsically have form or pattern. But, moreover, it is not just the atoms that matter, it is, above all, their combinations that matter. Lucretius is always reminding us that we should never forget our “ABC’s”. By this he is reminding us that it is how the atoms are combined that determines what the qualities of an object will be, not their constituent parts that determine their nature. Just as I can rewrite my name to produce words with very different meanings (Levi = vile, evil, live), atoms can be recombined to to produce very different entities. Lucretius gives the marvelous example of the ocean changing color as a result of the wind and waves (which are also, for him, material) rearranging the atoms.
Nor is this a reductivism. With combinations of atoms we get entities with powers or capacities that cannot be found at the lower levels. Lucretius knew all about emergence because it was cool.
3) But above all, it is not objects but relations that interest me. In her talk today, Bennett criticized the OOP of Harman and Morton for denigrating relations. “How”, she wondered, “can we think about ecology, issues of economy and economic justice, and social justice, without relations?” “In focusing attention on objects”, she continued, “do we not risk occluding these most important of things?” Here Bennett worried over what I have called “the alethetics of rhetoric“, and I heartily agree. The focus should not be on objects, but on relations between objects in networks. In this connection I found it interesting that Bennett did not mention my name in her talk. Was this because she doesn’t see this as a problem for me? So some points:
a) I begin with objects so as to think relations. Objects in isolation are, for me, pretty boring and uninteresting things. I distinguish between dark, dim, bright, and rogue objects. These determinations are not features of objects but of the degree of relatedness enjoyed by a thing. A dark object is an object that is so thoroughly unrelated that it doesn’t do anything at all. Dark objects are like Leibniz’s sleeping monads. They might or might not exist– how would we know, they’re completely unrelated? –but they don’t impact anything else. Boring. Dim objects are objects that are very weekly related in a network or assemblage. Most of our political struggles, I think, are struggles to get objects more thoroughly related. Bright objects are the dominant objects in an assemblage that, through their “gravity” constrain the activities of other objects. And finally rogue objects are objects that erupt into assemblages, transforming the relations between entities. This sorting of objects is deeply indebted to Badiou’s theory of appearance and intensity.
b) My reason for beginning with things is two-fold: First, I believe now, more than ever, we need to attend to the role that nonhuman things play in assemblages, the gravity they enact, and how they organize relations within assemblages. Here I’m entirely on the same page with Bennett and her meditations on garbage heaps, power lines, and omega-3 fatty acids. While I wish to retain the discoveries of the social constructivists and post-structuralists, I just don’t think we can adequately think climate issues, contemporary economy, etc., without thinking the role that nonhuman material entities play in organizing things. The social constructivists and post-structuralists clearly saw how larger scale entities work over matters like nonhuman objects and persons to give them certain significations, but went too far in undermining the existence of non-signifying entities. My solution is to see things like “interpellation” and the semiotic structure of entities as the result of processes or operations in larger-scale objects. In this way I’m able to preserve the discoveries of thinkers such as Marx, Adorno, Foucault, Butler, Barthes, Lacan, Baudrillard, etc., while limiting the extent of their ontological claims to make room for technologies, and nonhumans such as minerals, quarks, plants, and animals. We need to overcome the narcissus that treats everything as a reflection of ourselves.
Second, I begin with objects because I think that if we begin with the thesis that “things are related”, we won’t attend to what things are related in these assemblages because we’ll already have assumed that the relations are there. We won’t do what Michael and I have called “cartography“.
c) My entire distinction between “virtual proper being” and “local manifestation” is designed to draw attention to what happens when objects relate. A local manifestation is local because, in part, it occurs as a result of these absolute singular and specific relations to these other objects. My legs and knees are right now badly burnt. This is a local manifestion produced as a result of how I was related to the sun last weekend when camping. And, if I’m unlucky, it’s a local manifestation that has changed the virtual proper being of the cells in my legs, betokening skin cancer in the future. What are the local manifestations that occur in Australia in indigenous plants and animals as a result of the the introduction of cane toads? What local manifestations take place in shrimp and fish off the coast of Louisiana as a result of the BP oil spill? What local manifestations take place as a result of the American presence in the Middle East. These are the things I want to think about. An object alone is just a boring old dark object that’s asleep. They only wake up when they relate.
One of the things Bennett criticized Harman and Morton for was their rejection of holism. It is perhaps here that Bennett and I part ways. I share Harman and Morton’s suspicion of holism. This is not because I don’t like relations and assemblages– that’s all I think about –but because I take holism to be the thesis that everything is related to everything else. I see this idea as both ontologically mistaken and politically and ethically dangerous. Ontologically I just don’t think everything is related to everything else because I don’t think that the material simulacra travel between all things. Not only is it the case that material entities do not have the time to travel to every other thing that exists, but other entities aren’t capable of receiving every simulacrum that flies through the void. I cannot see light in the spectrum of infrared and therefore do not have the joy of experiencing patterns in flowers– as bees do –that are only visible within that spectrum. Governments are unable to hear the cries of many of the peoples trapped within their borders because they don’t have the channels to receive speech acts from these agents. This is one of Ranciere’s key points about the part-of-no-part. And here I hasten to add that I think Bennett has done a tremendous service in raising the question of why– if the part-of-no-part is without name according to the “police”/encyclopedia organizing a situation –he nonetheless restricts the part-of-no-part to humans rather than extending it to spotted owls, the Grand Canyon, algae, technologies, and all the rest.
Yet on the ethical and political front, I see the idea of holism dangerous because the central ethical and political problems are generally problems of non-relation. To be oppressed, for example, is to be a dim object, a weakly related object, and object that only barely appears in an assemblage. The whole question is one of how to deepen the relations and to transform the existing relations. Emancipation is not so much a break with relations as a deepening of relations and re-configuration of relations in an assemblage. Contrawise, our political issues are often how to break relations. How can we weaken the relations of brightly related objects such as corporations or gases in our atmosphere that trap heat? Politics and ethics is always a question of relations, but a question of relations in the sense of how can we more thoroughly relate or how can we break relations. It is a question of addition, subtraction, and combinatorials. Paraphrasing Deleuze, “holism is just too baggy to get at the tendrils of actually existing assemblages; it leads us to think things are already related when perhaps they are not.” Hopefully Bennett will find my dialogue with her work here ethically and aesthetically appealing. I certainly feel that way about her work!