Emergence


Graham has an INTERESTING POST up clarifying his views on the actual and the virtual. As it turns out I’m working on the chapter that develops my account of the actual and the virtual right now. I wanted to briefly draw attention to a couple of points in Graham’s post. Graham writes:

Yes, I use actual to mean “real.” There is a tendency by some realists (Levi, Roy Bhaskar) to use actual as more of a “bad” word. Such as when Levi says: “For me the term ‘actuality’ has connotations of presence or what is manifest. When I say this I do not intend to imply that qualities or actualities are present for a consciousness or a perceiver… but rather as present or actual in the world.”

In other words, for Levi “actual” has the connotation of “relational.”

Back in the day when I was heavily involved with Deleuze scholarship I would encounter something similar to what Graham describes here. The actual was somehow treated as a bad thing, while the virtual was somehow treated as a good thing. In the most egregious cases the actual was even treated as a sort of illusion or false reality. Needless to say, this is not a view I advocate. For me the actual is in no way a bad thing nor a mere “husk” that manages to get at becoming or something along those lines. Here I almost wonder if I don’t need a different term because these tendencies of thought are so sedimented in contemporary discourse. The sole reason for deploying the distinction between the actual and the virtual is to underline that objects cannot be confused with their qualities, but rather objects always harbor more than they manifest at any given point in time.

In this connection, I am deeply sympathetic to Harman’s critique of the thesis that objects are bundles of qualities (or in its more insidious correlationist formulation, bundles of impressions). It is precisely this thesis that I want to avoid. I attempt to do this by splitting objects between their being as substances and their being as local manifestations. Consequently, there’s a certain respect in which I want to take Locke seriously. Locke recognizes that objects cannot be equated with their qualities, yet when he tries to think this through he arrives at the idea of substances as a “bare substratum”. I endorse the thesis that objects cannot be equated with their qualities, while rejecting the thesis that substance is therefore a bare substratum. Rather, substance, in my view, has structure and organization. Yet to deploy this thesis I need an account of this structure that is something other than qualities. I need a ground of qualities in objects and this ground is what I’m trying to get at with the concept of virtual proper being. In many respects, my understanding of virtual proper being is very close to what Deleuze calls “real qualities”. Like Graham’s real qualities, virtual proper being is completely withdrawn and never a quality in the world nor a datum for experience. Rather, it is the ground of such things.

With all of this said– and perhaps this distinguishes me from Bhaskar and DeLanda, along with certain Deleuzians –I have a deep fascination with the dynamics of the actual or the coming-to-be of quality. In this connection, it will be noted that a good deal of what I write about has to do with the coming-to-be of quality or the actual. As a consequence, there can be no question for me of the actual being a “bad word”. For me the problem is not the actual, but actualism, where the latter reduces objects to qualities or local manifestations at a given point in time.

Within the framework of my onticology, the real embraces both virtual proper being and local manifestation. If I say the real is virtual proper being then I find myself in the awkward position of implying that local manifestation is somehow unreal. This, I think, is a problem that Deleuze and many Deleuzians ran into and one I patently don’t endorse. But if I say that virtual proper being is actual, then I’m left without the means of distinguishing the excess of objects over any of their particular manifestations. Terminologically I’m not sure what to do here.

Graham goes on to remark that,

And here’s why… Despite Levi’s caveat that “powers or potentials… are not to be confused with possibilities,” I sometimes think he is too focused on the fact that the withdrawn dimension of the thing is what can generate many more effects in the world than it is currently generating. For me this is a dangerous way to frame the problem, because this will give some people the impression that the reality of a thing is the sum total of its possible effects. Cf. Merleau-Ponty’s claim that “the house is not the house viewed from nowhere, but the house viewed from everywhere.” This sounds innovative, but in fact it fails in continuing to treat the house as a view, or in this case as a very large series of views. But the house is primarily something that exists, not something that is seen, or that is registered by other entities outside it.

This is certainly not an impression I wish to convey. In my view, the virtual proper being of the house, its existence, is not something that can be gotten to through a view or a plurality of views. Nor is it something that is incomplete. Rather, the being of the house is power or a force to be reckoned with. We don’t get at the existence or being of the house by adding up views because power is never a quality or qualitative, whereas anything we experience is always an exo-quality. More fundamentally, the house cannot be regarded as a totality of points of view because the process of actualization or the coming-to-be of quality always involves translation and is therefore a unique event each time powers of the house are actualized. My point here is that there can’t be an aggregative summation of points of view that would reach the house precisely because each actualization is a new and novel event that involves translation with respect to relations to other objects. Nonetheless, at the level of virtual proper being, it is still that house that’s being actualized. In other words, the house is a genuine existent, not an incomplete being awaiting fulfillment in the actual.

This is one of the reasons I distinguished between potential beings (Vitale’s formulation) and beings that are populated by potentials or powers. The house, in its virtual proper being, is not a potential being. A potential being would be a being that is awaiting existence. Here the assumption would be that this being is only a real being when it is an actual being (in my sense). But virtual proper being is fully real and actual (in Graham’s sense). It is not a being awaiting existence. It is a being that completely exists. And in this respect we can have real, existing beings that don’t produce any qualities at all but which are nonetheless perfectly structured. Thus I’m not sure how to respond when Graham asks, “…when Levi speaks of powers or potentials, I want to ask him where those powers or potentials are located. What is the actuality in which those powers or potentials are stored?” For me they are right there in the withdrawn dimension of any object. This thesis strikes me as no more odd than the thesis that real qualities and real objects are completely withdrawn and never present to any other objects in the world. In fact, I believe it does much the same work. It’s only if we begin from the premise that these powers or potentials are themselves qualities that the thesis seems to be strange and seems to place qualities in the object already (e.g. that they seem to claim that the acorn is already an oak tree). But a power is not a quality. It is a condition for qualities, but the production of qualities requires a whole series of translations, movements, and mediations to take place and is a new event in the world whenever it takes place. And here, admittedly, I can only allude to the powers of objects without being able to say what these powers are because whenever we say what something is we end up referring to qualities.

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Having learned a bit of “Texan” since moving to Dallas five or six years ago, I am compelled to say that y’all need to quit being so interesting. Now that the semester is over and my grades have finally been submitted I’m back to work on The Democracy of Objects. Consequently, as I unsuccessfully announced a couple weeks ago, I’ll be participating far less frequently so as to finally pull everything together. Incidentally, if anyone is interested I need a good copy editor for the MS once it’s completed. I expect that the draft will be done by the end of July. I’d like to have it to OHP by the end of August. If anyone is interested in this thankless task, please let me know. I can’t offer any compensation, though you will get a prominent place in the acknowledgments.

Before getting back to work, I wanted to draw attention to this post on primary and secondary qualities by Graham Harman. J.N. Nielson, to whom Graham is responding, writes:

Just before leaving on vacation, pursuing my recent interest in object oriented ontology, I got copies of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency and Graham Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, but I didn’t bring them with me and didn’t have much time to skim them before departure. Interestingly, though (and a prima facie impression), Meillassoux’s book begins with a rehabilitation of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and it is difficult for me to see how this distinction can be reconciled with any sense of phenomenology (such as referenced in Harman’s title) however broadly (if not promiscuously) construed.

Nielson’s post is replete with a number of interesting and important questions about mereology and flat ontology to which I can’t, at the moment, respond. In his response, Harman points out that, in fact, phenomenology and OOO does advocate a version of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. As Harman writes:

…it is senseless for Husserl to speak of qualities that could not be present to some perceiver, and in that sense Locke’s version of primary qualities doesn’t exist for him, no.

But there is still the distinction in Husserl between essential and inessential qualities. The tree need not display this particular exact configuration of light and shadow and exact distance and angle from which it is seen. Through eidetic variation we can conceive of the tree in many other different perceptual configurations without the tree changing. These adumbrations are secondary qualities. The primary qualities (though not in Locke’s sense) are those that belong to the eidos of the object: those features that it cannot lack under pain of ceasing to be itself. These are known categorially, not sensually. My difference from Husserl (and from Meillassoux, as will be mentioned shortly) is that I don’t think they can even be known categorially. The intellect and the senses are ontologically equivalent on this question. Both are modes of access to the things themselves. Neither sensations nor thoughts are the thing themselves.

Harman then goes on to remark that,

For me, the primary qualities of the thing are those that exist apart from all relation, even inanimate causal relation. This is not in Locke, for whom primary means “independent of the mind,” whereas for me it means “independent from all relation whatsoever.” This is also how I read Heidegger’s ontological difference, incidentally. To say that any being has a deeper being means that it’s still something outside its relations.

It is important to note Harman’s distinction between eidetic primary qualities and real primary qualities. This distinction will become much clearer with the publication of The Quadruple Object. There Harman presents us with ten diagrams representing the structure of objects, one of which is as follows:

For Harman, objects, as it were, are Janus faced. They have both a real dimension and a sensuous dimension. Moreover, each of these dimensions is divided between the object as a unity or what I would call a “totality” and the object’s qualities. The point here is that no object can ever be reduced to its qualities. What Harman calls “real objects” and “real qualities” consists of that “half” of an object that withdraws from all contact with other entities or objects. What Harman calls a “sensuous object” is, as I have put it, what an object is for another objects. Sensuous objects only exist in the interior of another real object. A sensuous object is, for example, the way a flame grasps cotton. Perhaps another way of formulating Harman’s distinction between real objects and sensuous objects would be to say that real objects are profoundly non-relational. They are, as it were, the depths of an object withdrawn from all relation. By contrast, sensuous objects are profoundly relational, which is why I say that they are objects for another object.

One point I’d like to make is that while OOO and Meillassoux’s transcendental materialism both fall under the moniker of “speculative realism”, it does not follow that these positions are in accord with one another. About the most that OOO shares in common with Meillassoux’s transcendental materialism is a critique of correlationism and an advocacy of realism. However, it seems to me that OOO and transcendental materialism diverge quite a bit in the specifics of their respective ontological hypotheses. For Meillassoux, root being is what he refers to as hyper-chaos, which strikes me as a sort of apeiron. By contrast, OOO advocates an ontology composed of discrete objects. There can be no question of beings or objects emerging out of a primordial chaos.

Moreover, it seems to me that OOO and transcendental materialism have a very different understanding of what science aims at. Meillassoux famously seeks to rehabilitate the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Traditionally the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is understood as the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Primary qualities are said to be “in” the object itself regardless of whether anyone relates to the object, while secondary qualities are understood to exist only in relation to a perceiver. To illustrate the concept of secondary qualities, Meillassoux gives the gorgeous example of being burnt by a flame. When my finger is burnt by a flame, he remarks, the pain is not in the flame, but rather the pain only exists in my finger.

When Meillassoux is articulating the distinction between primary and secondary qualities he inadvertently uncovers a much more fundamental ontological feature of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities than the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Rather than speaking of the difference between primary and secondary qualities as a distinction between the objective and the subjective, we should instead speak of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities as a distinction between the non-relational and the relational. Primary qualities are non-relational qualities insofar as they are in the object itself regardless of whether it relates to any other object. Secondary qualities are purely relational insofar as they only occur in relation to other objects.

If this characterization of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is granted, I believe we get a very different characterization of what science is up to than the one Meillassoux appears to implicitly endorse. Meillassoux, it seems, wishes to claim that science aims to discover primary qualities. However, when we look at actual scientific practice, we discover that science aims at precisely the opposite. Science traffics in secondary qualities and nothing but secondary qualities. If this thesis is to be understood, I must once again emphasize that “secondary qualities” refer not to subjective qualities, but to relational qualities or what I call “exo-qualities”. Meillassoux muddies the whole issue by situating the question as a question of the difference between the objective and the subjective (for a flat ontology such a distinction is largely meaningless because there aren’t two distinct domains, world and mind), rather than as a distinction between the non-relational and the relational.

What interests the scientist is not the question of what the primary qualities of an are, but rather with what objects do when they enter into relations with other objects. As Deleuze and Guattari put it in What is Philosophy?, scientists create functives, which are nothing but ordered relations among objects. Thus, for example, when chemists calculate the molar weights of elements in a chemical equation, what interests them is what properties or qualities are produced when these molar weights of different elements enter into relation with one another in a chemical reaction. It is the relations that interest them, and therefore the secondary qualities or exo-qualities that they seek to discover.

And if this is the case, then the philosopher is justified in pointing out that the scientist and science knows nothing of objects. For objects are precisely that which withdraws from all relations and science is nothing but the study of relations. Having said this, I hasten to add that this does not entail that philosophy is somehow superior to science or that science traffics in illusions. The domain of the real includes both what Harman refers to as real objects and sensuous objects. “Sensuous” is not a synonym for “appearance” or “illusion”. It is not something to be pierced to get at the “true reality” behind the mere “appearances”. All that I am here saying is that science is exclusively concerned with the domain of the relational and is one way in which the relational is approached by humans. In addition to the domain of exo-relations and exo-qualities, however, philosophy is also interested in the domain of withdrawn objects which disappear in relational modes of investigation.

Responding to my post on Diamond, Yant writes:

One way of approaching the, I think, quite legitimate reservations that Johan raises is to recognise (and this should be quite obvious really) that just because we’ve got a noun for something doesn’t mean we should take it to be an object!

To use words like ‘European, Inca, Maya, European maritime technology’ do not necessarily make a work ‘object oriented’ – this is too hasty a conclusion. Whether a ‘culture’ or a ‘nation’ or a ‘state’ can be legitimately referred to as an ‘object’ at all I think is a very important point.

I study international relations and it is of the utmost importance to the theory of this discipline whether one accepts the state and thus the international system to be closed, black-boxed ‘objects’ (as the dominant, mainstream neo-positivist theories hold) or whether it is actually necessary to insist on opening up this black-box and actually denying it closure (both for ontological and ethical reasons). Similar concerns are routinely raised about Diamond’s histories and I think an OOO driven social science needs to address these problems as problems head on not just accuse critics of correlationism.

I think the problem with Diamond’s work is not that it is oriented towards objects (which is good) but that it is (like Braudel and McNeill certainly) overwhelmingly macro-oriented; this is not necessarily a bad thing but it is certainly something with a lot of problems attached to it.

If we are to advance object oriented theory into the humanities and social sciences further (and this is very much my intention) we need to square some circles. For example, are not the histories of Diamond et al. not the absolute anti-thesis of Latour’s ANT? (And is not Latour’s ANT somewhat the cause celebre of object oriented approaches in the social sciences so far?)

Being ‘object oriented’ doesn’t necessarily forgive one all other sins. I don’t think one need be ‘correlationist’ to recognise the problems of macro-history. That isn’t to dismiss its relevance, however, just to insist on the recognition of its problems.

I initially misunderstood the problem that Jonah was alluding to (here and here). My mistake. Yes, this is all absolutely correct. We cannot assume that just because there is a noun for something that something is an object.

With that said, I think it’s important to exercise some caution where Latour is concerned. OOO and Latour are not identical. Graham already shows some major divergences in Prince of Networks, where Latour falls into the internalist camp pertaining to relations, while OOO is externalist. To this, I would add that Latour, in my view (Harman need not be guilty of this criticism) is often confused with respect to mereology.

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I find it amusing that whenever I proclaim that my blogging is going to become less frequent for a time, I suddenly find myself engaged in heavy blogging. I don’t know if this is an idiosyncrasy of my psychology, or something general to human beings, though I do know that for myself when I try to prohibit myself from doing something I suddenly feel compelled to do it. And so it goes.

At any rate, I wanted to make a brief remark about object-oriented ontology and reification, because I wonder whether or not the relationism debate isn’t, in part, motivated by worries about reification. I think this worry might especially animate those who are committed to process-oriented ontologies. Here, I think, the term “object” can work against object-oriented ontologists insofar as “object”, in ordinary language often connotes something static and fixed, a mere dead clod. I think this conception of objects is an unfortunate remainder of our modernist heritage, which tends to see the domain of nature as a domain of mechanism where brute and unchanging particles interact in deterministic ways, and the domain of culture as a dynamic domain of spirit and freedom where change can take place.

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Both Adrian and Harman have expressed reservations about blog debates, so hopefully I won’t be crossing any boundaries by responding to them concerning the recent discussion about relations and objects. I tend to be just the opposite in many respects. Where Harman is of the sentiment that arguments should take place in written text, I find that I only come to know what I think in my interaction with others. In certain ways this has been the plague of my academic career. Where the ordinary order of things is to treat the published text as what as important and the exchange as derivative, I often experience an acute suffering when it comes to the written text. The written text, to me, feels like excrement, like a remainder, like a waste or a frozen petrification of a living object: Dialogue.

My genesis as a thinker began with chat rooms, moved to email discussion lists, and finally to the medium of blogging. And in all these cases my thought has been animated by a single insistent and painful desire: The desire for dialogue. In Lacanian terms, I suppose you could characterize me as a hysteric or a subject whose desire is structured around the desire of, not for, the Other. This pathology or symptom runs so deep that the only way I can convince myself to publish is by conceptualizing the written text as a necessary evil, or as a slow dialogue in the form of correspondence that is practiced as a consequence of limitations of space, time (Plato is dead), and geography. I conceive the written text as a missive, a letter, rather than a statue. And since dialogues or discussions are distinct objects, it follows that I am not the author of these posts and texts. And this for the very simple reason that in a dialogue one can never know what comes from where. If there is an author named “Levi”, then the name Levi can only name a space of entanglements, of discussions, of dialogues where it is impossible to determine what idea or concept might have originated from me and what ideas, concepts or arguments might have originated with my various interlocutors. And as I say this I shudder in disgust at the pompous self-indulgence of such remarks, as if I were channeling Foucault’s “What is an Author?”. Yet all the same, it’s true. Who can say what comes from where in a dialogue? In the worlds of philosophy, theory, and science, proper names denote tribes.

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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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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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