Today I came across an article on Voyager that raised a number of questions for me.  No, not that Voyager:

Rather, this Voyager:

Reported by The Atlantic, the article asks when we’ll stop receiving messages from the Voyager?  In the course of her exploration of the question, Marina Koren causally remarks that,

After the Voyagers completed their tours of the outer planets in the 1980s, giving humanity its first real look at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, they continued on to the outer reaches of the solar system. In August 2012, Voyager 1 left the system entirely, emerging from inside the protective bubble formed by the sun’s wind and exiting into interstellar space. Voyager 2 is on its way out; the spacecraft is currently coasting through the heliosheath, the outermost layer of the sun’s bubble. Voyagers 1 and 2 are currently about 13 billion and 10 billion miles from Earth, unfathomable distances that mean little more to us terrestrials than giant numbers on a page.  (my underlining)

Observations such as this ought to provoke ontological reflection.  What exactly defines the boundaries of an object or being?  What individuates one object from another?  Here, of course, I am not asking what allows us to individuate objects.  The question isn’t one of epistemology or knowledge.  Rather, it is a question about objects in and for themselves, regardless of whether or not we recognize them, know them, or identify them.

read on!

When it comes to a being like the sun, most of us, I suspect, are content to equate the sun with the intensely glowing orb we see in the daytime sky.  We treat the sun as having a well defined boundary that marks its being as an object.  Yet with observations like this, we learn that the sun extends far beyond that well defined boundary that we see every morning.  Should we therefore treat the sun as extending all the way to the limit of the heleosheath?  Or should we treat that which extends from the boundary we see in the sky as effluences of the sun; which is to say, something other than the sun?  If we bite the bullet and say that the sun extends all the way to the heleosheath, what are we to say of the objects– planets, moons, comets, and asteroids –that are within the heleosheath?  Here we have a problem of mereology or part/whole relations.  Do these objects thereby become part of the sun like cells are a part of our body, or do they nonetheless have an ontological dignity and independence of their own?  What would be the criteria by which we answer this question or decide this issue?  Would the independence of these objects depend on their detachability– astronomy now teaches of “rogue planets” that escape their solar system and wander throughout the galaxy –or would there be some sort of other criteria by which objects are individuated?  (As an aside, we should also note that all of these questions arise for subatomic particles as well).

Observations such as this about the sun raise a significant challenge for realist ontologies.  We might suspect that there are questionable grounds for defending realism, because what individuates one entity from another seems to be based on conventions.  A convention, of course, is not something that is in the thing itself, but is rather imposed upon the thing from without by culture, society, or language.  Here we would be thinking the relationship between the symbolic and the real, and how the symbolic comes to divide up the real.  One of the most obvious examples would be money.  There is nothing about the dollar bill itself that gives it its value.  Rather, the dollar bill has value because we value it.  Likewise, the strong social or linguistic constructivist might argue that there is no sense in asking what the sun really is and where it begins and ends, because whatever criteria we might evoke to answer this question are the result of our own conventions, rather than the being itself.  In a sort of Lauruellian twist, we would then say that the way the world is divided up or structured is always the result of an unjustifiable philosophical decision (and therefore, circularity) that posits the real that it expects to find.  And, of course, the thrust of this argument would be that the world can be sorted according to different conventions as one discovers when they study linguistics and find that different cultures sort colors differently.  Is there any sound criteria we can come up with to determine why one set of criteria should be preferred to another?  Does the object speak?  The point here is not that there is nothing other than conventions, but that it’s difficult to determine just how we can ever successfully disentangle conventions (what comes from us), from what is in the beings themselves.

Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy seems to neatly evade this argument through his claim that objects are radically withdrawn.  If it is true that objects are radically withdrawn– both from ourselves and each other –then it follows the question of how to determine the limits of objects is futile from the outset.  This question, he contends, can’t be answered because something of the object always escapes.  Nonetheless, he argues, each object has an ontological dignity and independence all its own, even if we can never know what it might be.  As such, Harman proposes a sort of “negative ontology” and “negative realism”, similar to negative theology.  However, it is not clear that this move gets us off the hook.  For everywhere Graham refers to a variety of different objects:  cotton, fire, hammers, the Dutch East India Company, ferris wheels, and all the rest.  However, if it is true that objects are radically withdrawn, then it would also seem to follow that we can’t reliably determine when we are truly before an object or something else.  Again we run afoul of the problem of conventionalism:  how do we know that the object we’re referring to is truly an object and not just a convention?

Perhaps we could take another route.  The source of our perplexity and headaches seems to lie in the demand for boundaries, for discreteness, and for clear and distinct criteria that would distinguish one object from another.  Is Jupiter’s great storm, its red spot, a quality of Jupiter inhering– as we might say in Aristotlean lingo –in the substance Jupiter, or is it an individual entity in its own right?  Like those engaged in James’s famous metaphysical debate about whether the squirrel goes around the tree or the tree goes around the squirrel, we could debate this question endlessly and, in a sort of Kantian antinomy, come up with strong reasons for either case.

What if, however, we were to abandon the requirements discreteness and boundaries, and instead conceptualize beings as pleats or folds.  Here we would no longer speak of in-dividuals, but only of “dividuals”; for the concept of the fold or pleat is the concept of how a being folds its exteriority, how it constitutes itself in a field of exterioritygenerating its interiority or singularity out of this field of exteriority.  The minimal unit of being would no longer be the thing, but would rather be thing + field.  We could call the thing the “inner-fold” and would comprehend these inner-folds as pleats of exteriority.  Jupiter’s great storm is indeed a singularity that has a being of its own, but only by pleating the broader field of Jupiter in constituting itself.  Such an ontological approach would now no longer focus on the thing and its qualities, the substance and its predicates, but rather the communication between thing and field, as turbulence form the field buffets the thing leading it to undergo various transformations and becomings, while the thing buffets its field, bringing about transformations of that field.  We would here encounter deep ontological reasons for our inability to outline clear and distinct criteria of individuation:  insofar as every being is dividual, insofar as every being pleats the exteriority of its field, it would also follow that every being is haunted by a zone of indiscernibility where we can’t decide whether we are speaking of the interiority of the thing or its exteriority.  Like Hegel’s boundary or grenze, the boundary, the membrane, the surface, the skin is neither inside nor outside and is both inside and outside.  It is undecidable.  And with this thought, we discover that every being is ecological; which is to say that every being pleats a broader world and is expressive of ecological relations to that broader field.  Every entity indexes the world that it pleats.

Mineral_RockThe beautifully rusted stone does not merely have the quality of being rusted, but is rather a form of origami that pleats the world in which it dwells, becoming what it is through oxygen and moisture. It is, as Stacy Alaimo so beautifully puts it, “trans-corporeal” or porous, communicating with these broader features of exteriority in forming its qualities.  Were it situated in another field where there were no oxygen or moisture– such as the surface of Mercury –it would not manifest these properties.  As a consequence, the properties of a thing always index their world.  Does this amount to undermining or overmining things?  It would seem not, for the thing is not here reduced to its smaller components, nor erased in a broader hold.  The inner-folds of things harbor powers of which we are scarcely aware and pleat their field in unique ways that define singular styles of being.  How, I wonder, would we think the subject, epistemology, politics, ethics, ontology, aesthetics, and all the rest differently were we to adopt the model of origami or the pleat?  What new and different issues would arise out of this plicology and where can we look in the traditions of Eastern and Western thought for resources in thinking this plicology?