Multiplicity


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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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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8872426.CleopatrasNeedleIn a lovely passage from Without Criteria, Shaviro writes,

Even a seemingly solid and permanent object is an event; or, better, a multiplicity and a series of events. In his early metaphysical book The Concept of Nature (1920/2004), Whitehead gives the example of Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment in London (165ff.). Now, we know, of course, that this monument is not just "there." It has a history. Its granate was sculpted by human hands, sometime around 1450 BCE. It was moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria in 12 BCE, and again from Alexandria to London in 1877-1878 CE. And some day, no doubt, it will be destroyed, or otherwise cease to exist. But for Whitehead, there is much more to it than that. Cleopatra's Needle isn't just a solid, impassive object upon which certain grand historical events– being sculpted, being moved –have occasionally supervened. Rather, it is eventful at every moment. From second to second, even as it stands seemingly motionless, Cleopatra's Needle is actively happening. It never remains the same. “A physicist who looks on the part of the life of nature as a dance of electrons, will tell you that daily it has lost some molecules and gained others, and even the plain man can see that it gets dirtier and is occasionally washed” (ibid., 167). At every instant, the mere standing-in-place of Cleopatra’s Needle is an event: a renewal, a novelty, a fresh creation. (17-18)

It seems to me that Shaviro here draws a distinction between events that befall an object (its movements from place to place) and the event that an object is. We can even go one step further than Whitehead, pointing out that it is not simply that Cleopatra’s Needle gains and loses electrons, but these electrons are themselves in a constant state of motion, jumping from higher to lower and lower to higher states of energy.

This concept of objects as events is the most difficult thing of all to think. Our tendency is to think objects as substances in which predicates inhere. Take, for example, Aristotle’s categories. All of these categories are predicates that can be attributed to a substance. As I have argued elsewhere, in my article “The Ontic Principle” forthcoming in The Speculative Turn, the concept of substance responds to a real philosophical problem. This problem is the endurance of entities through or across time as this object. I denote this substantiality of the object with the expression “the adventure of the object” to capture the sense in which objects are ongoing happenings or events. In other words, events are not something that simply happen to an object as in the case of someone being granted a degree while nonetheless remaining substan-tially the same. Rather, objects are events or ongoing processes.

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Ian Bogost has posted his keynote address for the 2009 Digital Games Research Association conference in Uxbridge, UK. On the one hand it is gorgeously and charmingly written (I can only imagine how the delivery must have been). This line caused me to spit out my wine:

Flying the standard of “speculative realism,” Meillassoux and a number of other thinkers have sought to reject correlationism and to re-admit the multifarious complexity of being, as well as to free being from the sole purview of human, returning it to all objects, including the human ones. Reality is reaffirmed, and humans are allowed to live within it alongside the sea urchins, kudzu, tacos, quasars, and Tesla coils.

The lecture is filled with terrific– and I’ll add very kind –one liners of this sort. For some reason I can’t stop thinking of the scene where a taco and a grilled cheese sandwich fight one another in Hot Rod. As Dan occasionally likes to point out, humor is essential to humor. Similar Graham talks about how philosophy should be vivid. Following Deleuze, I think philosophy should act directly on the nervous system. Ian certain hits all three requirements in his keynote, producing a work of theory that is rich, lively, playful, and open to a variety of audiences as is befitting of this sort of conference.

More fundamentally, Bogost is dealing with a fundamental ontology question that extends well beyond his chosen terrain and venue. In this talk he is posing the question of the ontology of games. One might think that this is a question of limited interest, belonging only to those “freaks” on the fringes of the pop culture theory world that are obsessed with games (I often wonder if there isn’t a little ressentiment motivating these attitudes towards the media studies folk, as if there’s a suspicion that they’ve gamed the system and are enjoying themselves too much). This would be a mistake, as it is always a mistake to dismiss the animal studies crowd, the technology studies crowd, and the media studies crowd. In my view, what is so important in Ian’s work is two-fold: On the one hand, he is struggling mightily with the question of how to think messes. That is, how do we simultaneously think the platforms which render these games possible, programming, the socio-economics behind them, and the semiotic level of games. In this respect, Bogost is facing straight on a number of questions I’m pre-occupied with concerning both the reality of symbolic entities and their relation to all sorts of other entities. On the other hand– and sadly this issue is much less present in this paper than elsewhere –Bogost is approaching the question of how objects come-to-be or how “units” are formed. Alongside the onticological analytic and dialectic that I have proposed, it could thus be said that there must be an onticological genesis, not unlike the transcendental deduction of Kant’s first Critique. It is this sort of issue that Bogost is targeting with his concept of units. At any rate, enjoy!… And I mean that in the full superegoic sense!

In my last post I proposed “Ø” as the matheme of the object. In fact, this, I think, is not quite accurate. The complete matheme of the object would be O1/Ø, where O1 refers to the manner in which an object is actualized in terms of properties at any given point in time, and where Ø refers to the divided, split, abyssal, or withdrawn object, beyond any of its actualizations. I have referred to Ø as the hidden, “interior world” of the object. This reference to “interiority” risks being misleading insofar as it has spatial connotations suggesting that Ø can be found by “opening up” an object. However, no matter how thoroughly we look into an object, now matter how carefully we dissect an object, the interior of an object is never found. This is because the interiority of an object is not any of its properties or qualities.

Already, in this formulation of the objectness of objects, I believe it becomes clear just how radically different this conception of objects is from that of representational realism. For representational realism, there is no doubt that the object consists of its properties. The whole issue is whether we are able to represent those properties, or whether our representations transform those properties such that we can never reach the “real” properties of the object. For onticological realism, by contrast, the object is never its properties. The object is not barred or split for us, but in itself.

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In a recent post over at An Un-canny Ontology, Nate argues the object-oriented ontology must necessarily confront the figure of the zombie.

Because of this need to place all things on an equal playing field, Object-Oriented philosophy and ontology (hereto referred to as OOP/OOO) is forced to deal with its own creature.

Where, according to Nate, postmodernism encountered the figure of the cyborg, object-oriented philosophy necessarily finds the figure of the zombie at the center of its meditations. As Nate puts it,

Zombies are the uncanny kernel of the Real, they are not the object which leaves a remainder, they ARE the remainder. Zombies are Das Ding, the Thing, human qua object. And because of this, OOP/OOO must deal with the zombie much in the same way Postmodernism (especially in Haraway and Lyotard) had to deal with the cyborg. However, instead of talking about how humanity will have become, OOP/OOO will have to talk about in what ways humanity is not unique – how we are all zombies. They must take up the zombie as a human representative since only in the zombie do we find the human as it “really” exists, without any obfuscation.

First, the zombie IS – of this there can be no mistake. The zombie is just as real as the computer in front of me. For OOP/OOO all objects are as real as all other objects. Second, the zombie exists as pure desire, it moves with a single purpose and without known agency. And finally, every zombie is the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog. But essentially the zombie is an empty desire, an object with no name except pure existence. Why do they hunger for brains? Who knows. Will they ever stop looking for brains? No. And in a world where all objects are on the same level playing field, stripped away of our agency as subjects, we find ourselves in an awkward position, as non-human humans alive in a world of networks and alliances. We are all zombies. And the only question that remains in a this philosophy that deals with fidelity and allegiance is, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”

While I am extremely interested in the figure of the zombie as a cultural symptom, I confess that I am deeply perplexed by Nate’s meditation on zombies in relation to object-oriented ontology. How did I or Graham for that matter, ever give the impression the object-oriented ontology sees humans are zombies? First, I think there is some confusion here as to just what flat ontology entails. Flat ontology is not the thesis that all beings are on equal footing– which would be a normative thesis –but that insofar as a being makes a difference it is. Nonetheless, among beings there are all sorts of inequalities. Deleuze articulates this point nicely in Difference and Repetition:

The words ‘everything is equal’ may therefore resound joyfully, on condition that they are said of that which is not equally in this equal, univocal Being: equal being is immediately present in everything, without mediation or intermediary, even though things reside unequally in this equal being. (37)

If something makes a difference then it is, but the degree to which a being makes a difference on other beings can range from nil to perhaps infinity. A being in some remote corner of the universe busily plods away making its difference in being itself, but insofar as this entity is unrelated to other entities, the difference this entity makes is rather sleight. It is thus necessary to distinguish between making a difference simpliciter and making a difference in relation to other entities. Insofar as an entity is, it necessarily makes a difference simpliciter, even if that entity is unrelated to any other entity. To be is to simply be this difference in the way that it is. By contrast, what we’re generally interested in when speaking of differences are those relational differences or the difference that one thing produces in another thing. In this latter case, not all differences are equally relevant as they range from rather minor differences that make little impact on other entities, to the extensive differences that tend to make up the object of investigation.

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soccer_momIn 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.

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