Essence


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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In response to my recent post on reification Joshua Mostafa raises an excellent question. I started to respond to him in the comments, but my response began getting rather lengthy and because his question is so astute (and so comedically well executed!) I decided to post it on the front page instead. Joshua writes:

Really enjoying your posts as they pop up in the feed reader I use.

Would mass be the ‘endo-quality’ underlying weight? If so, are there any of these exo-qualities you mention that cannot be extrapolated from combinations of such ‘endo-qualities’ in the objects which are (or may in the future) participating in foreign relations? I am wondering whether it might be more parsimonious to view these exo-qualities as the potential combination of the qualities of their respective objects.

Otherwise every object possesses a number of such exo-qualities that tends to infinity – for instance, a cat could be said to possess the quality “yowling when fireworks tied to tail”. If you were to allow the chaining of such qualities, you could say “apt to hiss and spit when humans approach *after* an incident of tying fireworks to its tail”. And one could extend this ad absurdum. So where does one draw the line?

This is a really good question. I’m pretty hesitant whenever it comes to pinning down endo-qualities. Is mass an endo-quality? It’s hard to say as mass, as I understand it, changes depending on the velocity at which an object is moving. As such, mass would be a quality that emerges from relations and would therefore be a local manifestation of an object. It might be that Harman is right here and that what I call endo-qualities are what he calls real qualities. Real qualities, like real objects, are, for Harman, completely withdrawn and therefore they are never touched by another real object, much less perceived or determinable by us. Ontologically we would therefore be warranted in asserting that they exist, but could never say anything about what they are for a particular object.

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I’m still swamped with grading and will be so for another week, so I haven’t had much time to follow the blogs. With that in mind, I’m just now coming across Ivakhiv’s and Harman’s exchange pertaining to relations and objects. I have to say that I find this debate extremely gratifying because it seems to mark a new stage in the thought of the speculative realists. With the exception of Harman’s work (and perhaps Grant’s), early speculative realism devoted itself largely to the refutation of correlationism. Although Harman’s work often directed arguments against philosophies of access, it has largely been devoted to the development of a full-blown ontology as far back as Tool-Being. Among other things, the debate between the subtractive object-oriented ontologists and the relationist object-oriented ontologists is particularly interesting because it is deployed purely within the realm of ontology. In other words, it is no longer a debate between realists and anti-realists, but between two competing realist theories of existence. As such, it suggests discussion is moving past debates about whether epistemology is First Philosophy or whether ontology is First Philosophy… At least for a few.

As I’ve often remarked on this blog, I have the highest admiration and sympathy for Ivakhiv’s work. This admiration is not simply an admiration for his ontology, but also for his devotion to ecology and his ecological ethics. Nonetheless, I confess that I find his relationism and critiques of subtractive object-oriented ontology baffling. And if I find this critique baffling, then this is because Adrian seems to hold that subtractive object-oriented ontology rejects relations altogether, such that it holds that we should ignore relations among objects. Minimally, given Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics, which possesses the subtitle “Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things”, this is a very perplexing assertion, for when Graham evokes the term “carpentry”, he is referring precisely to relations among objects. Where Tool-Being analyzed the subtraction or withdrawal of objects from all relations as a primitive ontological fact, Guerrilla Metaphysics examines relations that obtain among beings. So the first point here is that subtractive object-oriented ontology does not reject relations.

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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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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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Somewhere or other, Deleuze remarks that Darwin effects a Copernican revolution for thought. Yet in many respects, it seems that this revolution has gone almost completely unremarked in philosophy. In short, this revolution has scarcely been registered by philosophy. Here it is important to be precise. The claim that Darwin effected a Copernican revolution in thought does not refer to his magnificent contributions to biology. Nor is the suggestion that philosophy should become “Darwinistic”, reducing philosophical questions to questions of biology.

Rather, Darwin’s revolution is far more general and abstract. Setting aside his theory of biological speciation, Darwin’s contribution to philosophy resides in his understanding of difference. It could be said that Darwin’s motto is that individual difference makes the difference. Where, prior to Darwin, there was a sharp gulf separating difference inhabiting the individual and species-difference, Darwin shows how individual difference is productive of species-difference. In the former scheme, the individual and the species were understood as two distinct entities, with the species functioning as an ideal norm defining individuals, an essence, distinct and existing in its own right, and individuals being measured in terms of how closely they approach this ideal form.

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Stem_cell_embryo_20x_01In a terrific response to my post on exo-relations, Caemeron writes:

I wonder if people are scared to comment on this? The topic here does get pretty obscure and daunting, but I would like you to say more.

I remain unconvinced by your claim that there are objects that aren’t related to any other object.

To begin, I’ll take your example of yourself in relation to planet earth. Isn’t planet earth the way it is because of its gravitational relations with the rest of the solar system, and the solar system with the galaxy and so on?

Secondly, what is your take on “the butterfly effect”, or the idea that miniscule events on the other side of the world can create large impacts through a serial progression? To the point, perhaps: by relation do you mean only direct relation?

you say:

This is one reason that we are able to claim that two objects can be spatially unrelated. If enough time has not elapsed for light to travel to the other object, then there is no gravitational relation between these objects.

Could we not add the word ‘yet’ to the end of this? doesn’t that give us a temporal relation?

Insofar as you want to say that objects create spatiotemporal relations rather than vice versa, I’m with you, but I simply find the notion of an object which is unrelated to anything else to be unthinkable (wouldn’t thinking about it place it into a relation?) And, if it is thinkable through Gaussian manifolds, which I know woefully little about, I don’t see how that might justify us in claiming that there actually are such objects (to throw your criticism of Badiou back at you)

‘Relation’ seems to me to be a very broad term. A number like 47 may not be in space or time, but is certainly related to many things conceptually, metonymically, mathematically, etc. It seems to me that we can even conceive of non-relation as a form of relation.

Is your claim that 1) an object is not necessarily related to every other object or 2) there are objects which are not related to any other object?

I think Caemeron here raises a number of points that are worth briefly expanding upon and clarifying. First, my thesis is not that objects are unrelated to anything else or that there are objects that are unrelated to anything else. Like Caemeron, I hold that objects maintain a variety of exo-relations with other objects. My body, for example, has the shape, height, and consistency it possesses because of the exo-relations it has with other objects like the planet earth, the molecules presiding over air pressure etc. Consequently, there are a number of qualities belonging to my body that would not exist as they do without exo-relations or relations to other objects.

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