### Constellation

Morton’s The Ecological Thought is truly a marvelous little book. In the second chapter, Morton begins to take apart the concept of the environment, which could likewise be thought as a deconstruction of the concept of the world. A while back, when I gave my Georgia Tech presentation on flat ontology, someone asked me why I deny the existence of the world or universe as an object. I’ve struggled with this question ever since.

On the one hand, I think there’s the formalist way of demonstrating the non-existence of the world. In many respects I began this blog with a formalist demonstration of the non-existence of the world. The formalist demonstration comes largely out of Lacan and Badiou, and relies heavily on set theory. There are a couple of different ways in which the thesis that the world does not exist, can be argued. On the one hand, we can evoke Cantor’s paradox. Here the argument would run that a set of all sets cannot exist because the power set of a set is always larger than the set from which it is derived. As a consequence, we cannot form a totality out of the world. Another way of making this argument– which Lacan implicitly employs in his graphs of sexuation –would be to deploy Russell’s paradox pertaining to the set of all sets that do not include themselves as members.

While I am deeply fond of these arguments, I think they’re problematic from a metaphysical point of view. As philosophers like Hallward have noted, it’s not clear that we can jump directly from the properties of mathematics to the properties of existence. Let’s take the argument for the non-existence of the world from Cantor’s paradox to illustrate this point. What is the power set of a set? The power set of a set is the set of all subsets that can be constructed out of an initial set. Suppose, then, you have the following set: {x, y, z}. The power set of this set would be as follows: {{x}, {y}, {z}, {x, y}, {x, z}, {y,z}, {x, y, z}}. This works fine mathematically, however what the power set is implicitly saying is that all of these different sub-sets can exist. However, when we talk about the world, it is not clear that entities can enter into all possible relations with one another. Because, as Harman puts it, entities are behind firewalls, or as I put it, entities only maintain selective relations with other entities in the world, it seems possible that a totality could exist.

In The Ecological Thought Morton proposes another way to reach this conclusion. As Morton writes, “[t]here is no environment as such. It’s all ‘distinct organic beings.’ Existence is coexistence or, as Darwin puts it, ‘adaptation'” (60). A moment later, Morton goes on to draw out the implication of this thesis: “There is no static background. What we call Nature is monstrous and mutating, strangely strange all the way down and all the way through” (61). How, then, does Morton’s thesis challenge the existence of the world? Ordinarily, when we think of the environment or the world, we think of it as a container, not unlike the way Kant thinks about time and space. However, if the environment does not exist as such, but is rather consists of organic (and I would add non-organic) beings, then we can no longer speak of an environment or a world as such. For each change that takes place in an organism, the environment itself has also changed. All other organisms must now adapt to this organism and the original organisms, in turn must now adapt to these new adaptations. A rather striking example of this is the manner in which early microorganisms transformed the atmosphere from a toxic brew of noxious gasses (to critters like us) into an atmosphere saturated with oxygen. Indeed, they were so successful at this that during the precambrian period there was so much oxygen in the atmosphere that there were giant dragonflies (critters you definitely wouldn’t want to encounter on a dark night), six foot long centipedes, and lightning storms would create raging forest fires. Of course, it’s also for this reason that evolution is not teleological and can’t be described in terms of progress.

A third way of making this argument would be through onticology. As I argued in an earlier post drawing on systems theory, every object is a system organized around a distinction between itself and its environment. While I do indeed retain Maturana and Varela’s distinction between allopoietic machines (non-living objects) and autopoietic machines (living objects), I nonetheless argue that every object exists in a state of closure such that it only maintains selective relations to its environment. The paradox, then, is that the distinction between system and environment is a distinction made by each object itself. As such, every system or object constitutes its own environment. If this is the case, then we cannot talk about an environment as such. This would be a consequence of the withdrawal of objects.

Take a micro-organism like the fascinating tardigrade. The tardigrade, depicted to the left above, is a multicellular, microscopic organism that has eyes and fully formed legs. Among its more amazing characteristics is that it can be exposed to extreme heat such that it entirely dehydrates. When this occurs, it withdraws its legs into its body and turns into a little pellet that appears to be dead. However, add some water to its dish and it puffs back up and resumes movement. It is similarly able to endure extreme cold. A strange stranger indeed! However, my point here is that for all intents and purposes, frogs, persons, rocks, etc., do not belong to the environment of tardigrades. The point, then, is that we cannot talk about an environment but only, rather, a multiplex or mesh of environments that perhaps enter into relations of structural coupling with one another without possessing any overarching unity.

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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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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In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

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For some time now I have evoked the concept of attractors and points in phase space to describe the structure of objects. Since these are somewhat foreign concepts in philosophy and I am using them, I suspect, in idiosyncratic ways, it would be worthwhile to clarify just what I have in mind and, more importantly, clarify what problem these concepts are designed to respond to. In a nutshell, the concepts of attractor and phase space are designed to account for the relation between what I call the local manifestation of objects and objects in their proper being. Attractors and phase spaces belong to the proper being of objects and are virtual, while points in phase space belong to the local manifestations of objects and are actual.

To understand these concepts it is necessary to understand the problem to which they respond. So why am I evoking these concepts? What philosophical work do they do? Objects are substances. Before Continentalists coming out of a Nietzschean and process oriented tradition begin to twitch, it is necessary to understand that the question of what a substance is is very much open. There is no a priori reason, for example, to suppose that substances can’t be processes or events. I won’t get into the details of this point here, but in my view process metaphysics critiques of substance are way overblown. They are right to critique the concept of substance as a bare substratum, but nothing about this critique suggests that we should throw out the concept of substance altogether. It only entails that one proposal as to the nature of substance is mistaken or wrongheaded.

Setting all this aside, it will be recalled that one way in which Aristotle defines substance is as that which is capable of sustaining contrary qualities at different points in time. One and the same substance, say a piece of paper, can have the quality of being smooth at one point in time and wrinkled at another point in time. Being-wrinkled or being-smooth are what I call local manifestations of an object. They are manifestations of an object because they are actualizations of the power of a substance. In other words, they are actualizations of what a substance can do.

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Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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In developing onticology or object-oriented ontology, one of the things I’ve been aiming at is what I call, following DeLanda, though developed in a different way, a flat ontology. A flat ontology is, to use a term my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist recently shared with me, a lumpy ontology. In referring to such an ontology as “lumpy”, I intend an ontology that is composed of a heterogeneity of different entities. As such, heterogenesis is one of the central questions of onticology. Heterogenesis is the question of how the disparate, the heterogeneous, enters into relations or imbroglios with one another to form a collective and a common. These imbroglios or collectives can be thought as logoi. Rather than a single logos for the world, we instead get islands of logoi where the organization governing these imbroglios are emergent results of ongoing heterogenesis.

The idea of a flat ontology can be fruitfully understood in contrast to materialisms. Where materialism posits a single type of entity– whatever that type might be –out of which all other entities are composed, a flat ontology is pluralistic, positing an infinite variety of different types of entities. Flat ontology does not reject the existence of material entities like quarks, atoms, and trees, but merely asserts that these aren’t the only types of entities that exist. Consequently, when onticology claims that “to be is to be an object”, this thesis is not equivalent to claiming that “to be is to be material”. A city is an object. Indeed, it is an object that contains a variety of other objects and that depends on a variety of other objects both in terms of its own endo-relational structure and its exo-relations to things outside its membrane. Nonetheless, were we to take an inventory of all the material objects included in the city we would not have the “city-ness of the city”. For all intents and purposes, nearly all the matter composing New Orleans remained after Hurricane Katrina, but it was a very different city after this event and its continued existence still remains in doubt.