The following is an excerpt from an interview with St. John’s Humanities Review:
Graham Harman has claimed that the major division between his version of object-oriented ontology and your ‘onticology‘ lies in your dismissal of vicarious (or indirect) causation, your position that real objects do not have qualities, and your avoidance of any distinction between sensual objects and sensual qualities. Do you agree with Harman’s distinctions and/or where do you position your ‘onticology‘ in relation to Harman’s OOO?
Harman was an encounter for me, leading me to attend to an entire world, the world of things, and the differences that make, and also giving me the courage to attempt philosophical work of my own rather than remaining at the level of interminable commentary on other thinkers. I have never been able to determine whether our philosophical differences are genuine, or whether they are merely the result of different linguistic articulations. As Deleuze somewhere says, philosophers always misunderstand one another.
Harman argues that real objects never touch nor relate to one another, but rather are “vacuum sealed” and forever behind firewalls. I confess that this is not a thesis I really understand. He seems to argue that real objects never touch one another, yet only encounter one another in the interior of their sensual objects. However, it seems to me that this amounts to saying that they relate without relating, in which case I’m led to think that they do relate. His argument seems driven by the argument that one real object never encounters the entirety of another object. Yet I have difficulty understanding why this is relevant to the issue of causation and relation. Suppose we take the following diagram:
Triangles ACD and BCE are distinct entities, yet nonetheless relate at point C. Clearly they are not relating directly at all points, but why should that lead us to conclude that there’s no real relation between them or that they don’t touch? This is something I don’t understand.
For my part, objects are entities that are divided or split between their virtual proper being and their local manifestations. When Harman says that I hold that objects don’t have qualities—and this isn’t really an accurate description of my position –he’s referring to the dimension of virtual proper being in the ontology of the ontology I propose. The virtual proper being of an object is composed of its powers or potentials. Objects, I argue, are, in their innermost core, defined by their powers; what Spinoza called “affects”. Powers are not specific qualities, but are capacities to produce qualities and actions. Take the example of color. As lighting conditions change, you’ll notice that the color shades of an object change as well. My dog’s red ball is not uniformly red, but is all sorts of different shades of red. As it sits in the shadows, it is a deep red that is almost the color of brick. When it sits in the sunlight, it is a radiant, bright red. When the lights are turned out, it becomes different shades of black or grey. These different colors are what I refer to as “local manifestations”. We can observe something similar with the properties of iron with respect to temperature. Under warm conditions, iron become malleable and if we heat it even more it becomes liquid. Under very cold conditions, it becomes highly brittle and liable to shatter. These are all local manifestations of iron.
Returning to the example of color, we can imagine people arguing about which color is the true color of the ball. Here they would say that when the lights are turned out, the ball’s color has been veiled or hidden in much the same way that a chair is still in a room even though no one can see it because it’s behind closed doors and curtains. My hypothesis is rather different. No one of these colors (qualities) is the true color of the ball because color is an event that happens to an object under certain conditions as a result of interacting with different wavelengths of light. In this regard, my onticology could be called “interactivism”. Qualities are produced in objects in two ways: through the interaction of an object with the world about it, or through internal activities taking place in the object. In the case of color, it is the interaction with the qualities of the ball’s surface with wavelengths of light. The ball really is grey when the lights are turned out because it is not interacting with wavelengths of light that produce shades of redness. In the case of iron, the interaction is with temperatures. This observation leads me to say that the being of an object is not its qualities (local manifestations), but rather its powers or what it can do. The ball isn’t defined by its color because, in fact, it can be many different colors depending on circumstances. Rather, it’s defined by its power to produce colors. Powers are always much broader than any specific qualities the object might have. And, of course, it goes without saying that objects can gain and lose powers as a result of encounters with other entities. When repeatedly bent, iron can weaken because the crystals that compose it have been reconfigured.
It is my hope that interactivism might contribute to leading us to a more ecological sensibility. Here I define ecology not as the investigation of natural ecosystems, but rather to the investigation of relations and interactions between entities and the differences (local manifestations) these interactions produce. I’m interested in what entities do under specific circumstances. In this sense I suppose that the ontology I propose moves in the opposite direction of Harman’s. Where Harman’s ontology of withdrawal focuses on the severance of beings from their relations, I’m interested in what happens when entities interact with one another. One lesson I hope to draw is that we never know what an object can do because, as a result of powers or capacities being broader than specific qualities, it can always produce surprising qualities and actions as a result of how it interacts with other beings under new circumstances.
In the passage of his article Harman wrote for Humanities Review outlining the differences between the ontologies we propose, Harman raises another criticism. He writes:
For him, when an object takes on specific configurations in particular circumstances, it has a “local manifestation.” But what is the local manifestation of an apple, for instance? Is my view from the west side of the apple the same local manifestation as your view from the east, or are they different?
I find this question peculiar because as I conceive it, a local manifestation is not a local manifestation for or to anyone. A local manifestation is not a view of an object, but rather is an event that takes place within an object. For example, the manner in which an elephant encounters an apple in a tree from the west is not a local manifestation of the apple. Indeed, this is a local manifestation of the elephant (i.e., the elephant’s experience is the result of all sorts of neurological operations taking place within it in interaction with the environment). The apple is what it is regardless of whether it’s encountered by another entity from east, west, north, south, above, or below. Rather, a local manifestation of the apple would be something like the qualitative changes that take place as a result of bio-chemical processes the apple undergoes in interaction with its environment as it ripens. The softness of a very ripe apple is not a manifestation to anyone else. It would be there regardless of whether or not any other being regarded the apple. Rather, it is a qualitative feature of the object itself resulting from the becoming it has undergone.
Despite our differences, Harman’s work has been a tremendous impetus for my thought. While I don’t share his distinction between real and sensual qualities and objects, nor his theory of vicarious causation, I do nonetheless hold that objects can be severed from their relations. This thesis that relations are not internal to objects is what led me to interactivism and, paradoxically, a more ecological style of thinking. Additionally, I credit Harman’s thought with having functioned as a catalyst for the reawakening of Continental thought. For a long time there was a sense that Continental thought was at a standstill, that it had stagnated. Harman’s thought has played a key role in re-igniting debates and conceptual invention, turning the field of theory away from endless commentary and returning instead to philosophical problems and questions.