Appearance


One of the interesting things that took place during the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Philosophy Symposium was ongoing tweets as people presented their papers (they can be found at #OOO). One of the key terms I used throughout my paper was that of “entanglement”. I’ve lifted the term from Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway, though, given my disagreements with certain aspects of her epistemo-ontology, I suspect that I use it in a rather different way. At any rate, my proposal is that one thing flat ontology should allow us to think is entanglements of objects without one type of object, such as language, overdetermining the other objects. In this connection, the marvelous, loquacious, and brilliant Barbara Stafford, who gave closing remarks for the symposium, was kind enough to remind us that “entanglement” refers not only to folded and arranged drapes such as one might find in a nomads tent, but also threads that are entangled with one another while retaining their identity. Needless to say, I rather liked these associations. The key point to be drawn from the concept of entanglement is that no one entity or thread (I think of objects as four dimensional space-time worms) overdetermines all the others. Rather, each thread or object instead contributes differences in its own way.

With the concept of entanglement I thus hope to challenge the form/matter logic drawn from Aristotle that still dominates, in a largely unconscious fashion, much of the discourse of philosophy and theory. Within the framework of this logic, form is the active agency that bestows structure on passive matter. We see this logic at work, for example, in how Kant’s a priori categories of the understanding are deployed in the Critique of Pure Reason. Here the categories are active agencies that bestow form and structure on the passive matter given in sensations. The sensations merely receive form. A similar logic is at work among the semiologists coming out of the Saussurean tradition. In Lacan’s earliest formulations, the real is treated as a sort of amorphous plenitude without gap or lack and the signifier comes to give structure or form to this plenitude. It is this point that Lacan sought to illustrate with his famous example of the doors in “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”. It will be noted that the two doors are identical or that, beyond their spatio-temporal position, there is nothing to differentiate them. If, then, a fundamental difference is introduced between the doors, this vertically descends from the agency of the signifier– Ladies and Gentlemen –that bestows a new form on this matter of intuition. The matter of intuition, in and of itself, contributes no difference. For a critique of this form/matter logic, Susan Oyama’s Ontogeny of Information is indispensable. Once you notice it you see it everywhere.

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Right now I am closing the semester with a discussion of object-oriented ontology in my classes. For the last couple of weeks we’ve been reading Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks along with my paper “Being as Flat” presented at the Georgia Tech conference. Yesterday my students asked me the question of whether eclipses are objects. Apparently one of my adjunct professors, Troy, had put them up to this question. Last week he took my classes for me when I went to Atlanta and I suppose he decided to play a devilish practical joke on me. If I’m particularly proud of this adjunct then this is because he’s actually one of my former students and has recently made it to the second round of interviews for a full time position. Rock on!

Leg pulling aside, I think this is an interesting ontological question. Is an eclipse an object? My intuition is that the answer to this question is no. An eclipse is not an object but is rather a quality or a local manifestation of an object. Yet if this is the case, then we have to ask what object eclipses locally manifest. In other words, what is the virtual proper being, the endo-relational structure composed of powers, of which the eclipse is a local manifestation?

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It seems that for some reason or other I am always waxing on about my blue coffee mugs. In part, I suppose, this is because my coffee mug is always nearby, within reach of my hand when I am sitting at my computer and readily available for my gaze to alight upon. In part, this is because coffee mugs are familiar furniture of the world and are therefore ideally suited as an example. Finally, and I find this to be odd, this is because my blue coffee mugs fill me with a deep sense of warmth and comfort. Given that I generally detest the color blue (I have an almost violent emotional reaction to the color in many instances), I find this surprising.

At any rate, it was with great surprise and no small amount of nervousness that I this week discovered that a student is writing his dissertation on my thought as well as the thought of Manuel DeLanda (who is, of course, a deep inspiration in my own work). In certain respects, this marks a sort of bifurcation point within the blogosphere. Theorists such as Walter Ong, Friedrich Kittler, and Marshall McLuhan make much of the transition from oral cultures to written cultures and it could be that we are perhaps witnessing a similar transition with respect to internet thought. My initial reaction was to suggest that he abandon this crazed idea and work on something more fitting, but who knows.

All this narcissistic horn tooting aside, as I reviewed his dissertation abstract and breakdown of chapters, I was exceedingly pleased to see that he has tentatively entitled one of his chapters “We do not Know what an Object or an Assemblage Can Do”. This is, of course, a reference to the opening of the third book of Spinoza’s Ethics where he cryptically remarks that we do not know what bodies can do. There are a couple of reasons I find this title so gratifying. On the one hand, this dictim goes straight to the heart of my thesis that objects are split between their virtual proper being and their actual local manifestations. In a number of respects it is the core idea behind my concept of objects. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I’ve made this point clearly enough. I am thus grateful and relieved to see that someone else has recognized this thesis at the heart of my work.

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Adrian Ivakhiv has an interesting post up defending ontology relationism and its importance for ecological thought. Adrian writes:

Contrary to what Levi Bryant and Graham Harman have sometimes argued, however, there’s no inherent reason why a well articulated, materially and socially grounded relationalism*, one that focuses on processes of emergence and actualization, with their various conditions, effects, and so on, should result in an ontology that cannot account for action or change. An ontology that focused only on relations, or on change, or for that matter only on objects (and I’m not suggesting that Graham’s or Levi’s philosophies do that), would be one-sided. But the point is to bring objects — more or less stable and persistent entities (assemblages, actors/actants, or whatever else a given ontological account takes them to be) — and relational processes together in a way that accounts for both stability and change, persistence and transformation, structure and agency, stubborn fact and creative advance (to use Whitehead’s terms).

Our consumptive, commodity-captivated and spectacle-enraptured society, has privileged the object over the process, the thing at the center of our attention over the relations that constitute it. This thing-centeredness isn’t surprising: it’s an effect of the human perceptual apparatus, with its heavy reliance on vision, a sensory modality that shows clear edges to objects and that facilitates distanced observation and predation. (That argument can be taken too far — eyes, after all, are also the communicative soul of intersubjectivity — but there is something to it.) Where traditional cultures tended to de-emphasize the visual in favor of the auditory/multisensorial, the narrative, and the relational, societies like ours — ecologically and historically disembedded (in the sense that Polanyi describes the effects of capitalism), fragmented/individualized, and intensely visually mediated — push the ontological objectivism, literally the “thing-ism,” about as far as it can go.

A couple of points. First, there’s an issue about philosophical vocabulary here. It is difficult to have these discussions if one doesn’t attend to the precise content of concepts. In the passages that I’ve bold-faced above Adrian characterizes object-oriented philosophy in terms of stability over change and process. Here I take it that Adrian is playing on ordinary language usages of the term “object”. However, it’s important to attend to how terms are actually used. Certainly we would end up with some very strange criticisms of Hegel if we took “Spirit” to signify ghosts, demons, and poltergeists; likewise, we would have a very difficult time understanding Heidegger if we understood “Dasein” in its ordinary language sense of the term as “existence”, and finally it would be very difficult to follow Whitehead if we took his term “organism” too literally. In this case of object-oriented ontology this point is important because if we don’t attend to what OOO purports to have discovered about the being of objects we’re bound to misconstrue its claims. Thus, for example, in the second paragraph cited above, Adrian talks about the thing at the center of our perception. The problem here is that in both my variant of OOO, onticology, and Harman’s variant of OOO, ontography, it is argued that you can’t perceive an object. The object is not what is perceived or what is at the center of attention.

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The more I think about the recent discussion surrounding Life After People and narrativity (here, here, here, and here), the more it seems to me that what is at stake is something similar to what Marx denounced under the title of “commodity fetishism”. Initially, this suggestion might sound very strange coming from an object-oriented ontologist, for commodity fetishism occurs when relationships between people are treated as relations between things. However, a bit of reflection reveals that what is at stake in the hegemonic fallacy and commodity fetishism are isomorphic to one another.

David Harvey gives a nice illustration of what is at stake in commodity fetishism in his latest (which is really quite good, by the way). There Harvey asks,

…what’s going on here [with commodity fetishism]? You go into a supermarket and you want to buy a head of lettuce. In order to buy the lettuce, you have to put down a certain sum of money. The material relation between the money and the lettuce expresses a social relation because the price– the "how much" –is socially determined. Hidden within this market exchange of things is a relation between you, the consumer, and the direct producers– those who labored to produce the lettuce. Not only do you not have to know anything about that labor or the laborers who congealed value in the lettuce in order to buy it; in highly complicated systems of exchange it is impossible to know anything about the labor or the laborers, which is why fetishism is inevitable in the world market. The end result is that our social relation to the laboring activities of others is disguised in the relationships between things. You cannot, for example, figure out in the supermarket whether the lettuce has been produced by happy laborers, miserable laborers, slave laborers, wage laborers or some self-employed peasant. The lettuces are mute, as it were, as to how they were produced and who produced them. (39 – 40)

Note that while the supermarket situation disguises collective relations insofar as all we’re confronted with in the market is the price and the empirical properties of the head of lettuce, it does not follow from this that this disguise is an illusion in the ordinary sense. The lettuce, the price, and the cashier are all things that are really there. What is absent are the collective relations this lettuce embodies as congealed or crystallized labor.

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I’m experimenting here so hopefully the more mathematically knowledgeable among us won’t give me too hard a time. Perhaps one of the ways the argument of my previous post could be understood is in terms of mathematical categories. What mathematical categories allow us to think are functional morphisms or relations between sets. I’ll say more about this in a moment. In playful jab at my friend Nate, I wrote the following in my previous post:

Rhetorically Nate seems to think that it’s of no significance that his post was written on the internet, requiring fiber optic cables, a particular platform, news feeds, electricity, etc., that created the opportunity for our thoughts to be brought together and preserved despite the fact that we live an hour apart.

Drawing on the formal resources of category theory we can construct an external diagram of the point that I was trying to make, depicted in the upper lefthand corner of the post. In this diagram we notice that there are upper and lower case letters and arrows. The upper case letters are what are referred to as objects in category theory, and are essentially sets. Thus, for example, the set composed of Levi and Nate constitutes what category theory refers to as an object (not to be confused with what OOO refers to as an object). We can denote this set with the name “conversants” or communicants, or simple “C” for short. The lower case letters refer to rules defining relations, morphisms, transformations, or correlations between sets. The relation between f and g connected by a small circle (I can’t figure out how to make the symbol here) is referred to as a composition of functions or morphisms and is read “g following f”. Thus, if we follow the arrows we have X pointing to Y governed by the morphism f and we have Y pointing to Z governed by the morphism g. We note that there is an arrow pointing directly from X to Z with the composition of g and f (g circle f, read as g following f)) which is to be read as the composition of these two morphisms for the three objects or sets involved.

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For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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In response to my recent post on Endo-Relations and Topology, Will writes:

“Rather, the proper being of the object is not its performance or manifestation, but the generative mechanism that serves as the condition under which these performances or manifestations are possible…”

“…No one has ever perceived a single object, but we do perceive all sorts of effects of objects….”

So far so good…

“Fortunately we do occasionally manage to cognize objects through a sort of detective work that infers these generative mechanisms from their effects; without, for all this, ever exhausting the infinity of a single object.”

What I fail to grasp is how we do not introduce the unity of the “single object” through this retroactive cognition.
Alternatively, what lets us suppose that these “effects” can be “owned” by a single object?

This is a good and fair set of questions. The first point to note is that these are epistemological rather than metaphysical questions. That is, they are questions about how we come to know objects, not questions about what objects are regardless of whether or not we know them. It is important not to conflate these two domains of philosophy. The properties of a being are no less a properties of a being if we don’t know them. All I’m minimally committed to metaphysically is the thesis that objects are generative mechanisms and that generative mechanisms can fail to actualize such and such a property when they function in open systems. When I say that an object can fail to actualize a particular property in an open system I am not making a claim about our perception of the object. I am making a claim about the manifestation of the object in the world, regardless of whether any perceivers exist or not. Manifestation is first and foremost manifestation to a world not a perceiver or a knower. The point is that the object can be present in the world, without exemplifying a particular quality of which it is capable. For example, when fire burns in low gravity environments it flows like water. On earth, by contrast, flames lick upwards towards the sky. The capacity of fire to flow like water is non-manifest on Earth but is nonetheless a power of the object.

I outline this line of argument, drawn from the early work of Roy Bhaskar, in the two manifestos on object-oriented ontology in the side bar (here and here). The thesis that effects are products of objects relies on a transcendental argument. In other words, such mechanisms or objects must exist if our practice is to be coherent. Now Will asks “how do we not introduce the unity of the ‘single object’ through this retroactive cognition?” The answer is that this can happen. Why? Because knowledge and inquiry are fallible. In other words, there’s no guarantee that our representations of the world will map on to the world or carve the world at its joints.

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In my development of the ontology of objects within the framework of onticology I have tried to argue that objects are not their local manifestations or actualizations, but rather a virtual endo-relational structure composed of relations among attractors, singularities, powers, or generative mechanisms. It is this virtual dimension of the object that, in my view, constitutes the proper being of an object. This virtual dimension of the object, I argue, constitutes its substantiality. Consequently, it follows that no object ever directly encounters another objects, but rather objects only ever encounter one another as local manifestations of their virtual proper being. The proper being of the object, its virtual structure, is always in excess of any of its local manifestations.

This model of objects is proposed, in part, to account for the identity of an object throughout its variations. Objects continuously vary or change as their conditions change, yet there is something of the object that remains the same. But what is this something? Certainly it can’t be the local manifestations or actualizations of the object because those local manifestations change with shifting conditions or changes in exo-relations to other objects. It is this insight that leads many, I think, to overmine objects by reducing them to their relations to other objects. Yet as Harman has compellingly argued, this line of thought fails to provide the conditions for the possibility under which these variations are possible. As a consequence, it follows that the identity of an object cannot be something in the appearance (to the world, not to humans), local manifestation, or actualization of an object, but must reside in another dimension of the object. And because the object can undergo variations while remaining that object, it follows that the proper being of the object, its substantiality, must be something that does not manifest itself. It is there everywhere in the object, without ever becoming present in the world. It is the “principle” of the object, its “essence”, its “style of being”, without being something that we could ever find in the local manifestations of the object.

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Within the framework of onticology I’ve had difficulty articulating just what I have in mind by the concept of a “flat ontology”. The term “flat ontology” is, of course, derived from the work of Manuel DeLanda. In Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy DeLanda describes flat ontology thus:

…while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. (47)

For DeLanda, then, flat ontology signifies an ontology in which there is only one ontological “type”: individuals. Thus for DeLanda the relationship between species and organism is not a relationship between the universal or essence that is eternal and unchanging and the particular or the organism as an instance of the species. Rather, both species and organisms are individuals that are situated in time and space. If species are not eternal essences or forms defining what is common to all particulars of that species, if they exist in space and time, then this is because species, as conceived by biology are not types but rather are really existing reproductive populations located in a particular geography at a particular point in time. For DeLanda, then, being is composed entirely of individuals.

While I find much that is commendable in DeLanda’s ontology, where the sorts of entities that populate being are concerned, I’m a bit more circumspect. At present I’m not ready to throw in with DeLanda and the thesis that there are only individuals. I am agnostic on the question of whether universals exist, and my intuitions strongly lean in the Platonic direction of treating numbers as real objects in their own right that have being independent of human minds. If this is the case, if numbers are real, then I have a difficult time seeing how they can be treated as individuals in the sense that DeLanda intends and, moreover, I do not think that the genetic concerns that preoccupy DeLanda are relevant to questions of number, i.e., a genetic account of how numbers come to be– if, in fact, they do come to be and are not eternal objects –does not get at what numbers are.

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