Ontology


Over at Jon Cogburn’s blog, Pete Wolfendale has written a lengthy response to one of my comments. I’ve decided to respond here as, for some reason, I’m unable to blockquote comments over at Jon’s blog, making it more difficult to formulate responses. Pete writes:

The idea of translation is a nice metaphor, but that’s what it is – a metaphor – and it needs cashing out. The simplest way to cash it out is that the effect the affecting object has upon the affected object is in some way dependent upon the affected object, i.e., that the same object will produce different affects upon different things. However, this is something that everyone accepts, and they can accept it without having to talk about ‘real objects’ or ‘proper being’ that withdraws. Maybe you can enlighten me as to the correct stronger way to cash this out, and how this solves any of these issues.

Hopefully Pete will be happy to discover that I “cash” this concept out in great detail in chapter four of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Interior of Objects”. Before proceeding to briefly discuss how I cash this concept out, it’s necessary to make two points. First, it’s necessary to note that there are a number of ways in which Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology differ. Second, it’s necessary to explain why I hold that these questions can only adequately be comprehended in terms of a model of withdrawal. The simplest way of explaining why objects must be thought in terms of withdrawal goes back to Aristotle’s concept of substance. In his account of primary substances in the Categories and Metaphysics Z, Aristotle is careful to note that substances are not identical to either their qualities or their parts. I discuss this in detail in chapter 2 of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Paradox of Substance”.

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I’ve just begun Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism?. So far, despite its interest from the perspective of debates surrounding post-structuralism and second-order systems theory, I can’t say that it is getting off to a very auspicious beginning. Here’s the problem: Cary’s argument seems to proceed by way of the signifier, signs, information, and second-order systems. In short, he proceeds by way of phenomena that are nonetheless human. His introduction, for example, makes a lot of Foucault’s Order of Things announces the end of man. But how does Foucault do this? Foucault does this by championing discursive structures and power in history. Yet these are still human phenomena. Here we’re still within a correlationist framework that pitches the issue in terms of specifically human phenomena.

In my view, the claims of anti-humanism, post-humanism, and those forms of theory that claim to be overcoming anthropocentrism are all too often highly overstated. Until you have an ontology capable of thinking objects without any reference to the human or human phenomena, you still remain in an anthropocentric and humanist orbit. Foucault in his discussions of power and discursive structures, Lacan in his discussions of the signifier and the real, Derrida in his discussions of the play of the signifier and the trace, Luhmann in his discussions of social systems as communication systems, all remain nonetheless all too human in their focus on the primacy of human phenomena with respect to everything else. Of this group, Luhmann is probably the best of the bunch insofar as he at least recognizes the existence of other systems that are not human or social in nature. But still he insists on tracing everything back to the distinctions our systems make in observing these systems.

The point here is not to reject Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, or Luhmann. Not at all. The point is to recognize that they conflate regional ontologies with ontology as such, treating modes of access as determinative of what things are. But the questions of how we have access to entities and the question of what things are are entirely distinct and are not to be confused with one another. Until we overcome our tendency to make that confusion we have not attained a posthumanist philosophy. But like I said, I’ve only just begin reading Wolfe’s book so perhaps I’ll be surprised as it proceeds.

UPDATE: As I get further in Wolfe’s book I’m finding that it’s much more interesting and complex than I initially thought. In the introduction Wolfe writes:

To return, then, to the question of posthumanism, the perspective I attempt to formulate here–far from surpassing or rejecting the human –actually enables us to describe the human and its characteristic modes of communication, interaction, meaning, social significations, and affective investments with greater specificity once we have removed meaning from the ontologically closed domain of consciousness, reason, reflection, and so on. It forces us to rethink our taken-for-granted modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes and affective states of Homo sapiens itself, by recontextualizing them in terms of the entire sensorium of other living beings and their own autopoietic ways of “bringing forth a world”– ways that are, since we ourselves are human animals, part of the evolutionary history and behavioral and psychological repertoire of the human itself. (xxv)

Towards this end, Wolfe deploys the second-order cybernetics of Luhmann, Varela, and Maturana. Luhmann, especially, is one of the undiscovered gems of theory. If you’re interested in his work start with The Reality of Mass Media, and then proceed to Social Systems. In discussing “different perceptual modes” of humans and animals, Wolfe is simultaneously quite close and exceptionally far from object-oriented ontology.

First Wolfe’s proximity to object-oriented ontology. One of Harman’s most significant contributions to contemporary debates has been to note that the difference between the mind/object gap and any other object/object gap is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In other words, the gap pertaining to relation is, for Harman, ontological, not epistemological. As Harman so nicely puts it,

…there is no object at all, whether animal, floral, or mineral, capable of caressing the skin of another object so perfectly as to become identical with it or otherwise mirror it perfectly. When a gale hammers a seaside cliff, when stellar rays penetrate a newspaper, these objects are no less gulty than humans of reducing entities to mere shadows of their full selves. To repeat, the gap between object and relation is inherent in the nature of things, and not first generated by the peculiarities of the human mind. The fact that humans seem to have more cognitive power than shale or cantaloupe does not justify grounding this difference in a basic ontological dualism. (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 81)

In evoking different modes of perception in different critters and in drawing of the second-order cybernetic theory of Luhman, Maturana, and Varela, Wolfe appears to make a very similar point. Indeed, in chapter 4 or 6 of The Democracy of Objects (I haven’t yet decided where to place the chapter), I draw on similar resources to discuss the “interior of objects” and their relations to other objects. My move here is to ontologize Luhmann’s and Maturana’s essentially epistemological claims about systems and their environments, information, and self-referentiality. This strikes me as a direction Varela is moving in as well. What Wolfe wishes to draw attention to are the unspoken anthropocentric biases that govern our discussion of a host of issues. He argues that second-order cybernetic systems theory significantly challenges a number of these assumptions and allow us to discuss modes of perception that aren’t human.

However, if Wolfe’s thought is nonetheless remote from object-oriented ontology, this is for two reasons: First, Wolfe still seems to think these issues in epistemological terms. Rather than seeing selective relations entertained towards other objects as a general ontological feature of each and every object or as a fundamental feature of the world itself, Wolfe seems to adopt the pessimistic thesis that this marks the impossibility of our knowledge. Yet this thesis only follows if one worked from the premise that knowledge is a matter of representation or adequatio intellectus et rei. If, as Harman has argued, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world, this model of knowledge was mistaken from the outset and we need to significantly rethink our epistemology as a consequence. Here the skepticism that has characterized post-structuralist thought is ripe for a Zizekian “healed by the spear that smote you” move. Far from being a limitation of specifically human knowledge, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world. It’s the very nature of being. This Wagnerian move is at the heart of Harman’s ontology.

Second, while Wolfe indeed makes advances by extending thought to the domain of the animal and those with disabilities (he has an inspired reading of Temple Grandin), nonetheless he suffers from illicitly restricting these claims to the living. That is, a non-living/living dyad still seems to function in his thought, restricting these “modes of perception” to the living. Yet if Harman is right, these points are every bit as true of rocks and cotton as they are of aardvarks and humans. Here, I suspect, Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology will be especially interesting. For if I’ve understood Bogost correctly, Alien Phenomenology wants to raise questions like “what is it like to be a rock or a computer circuit”, thereby opening discourse to nonhuman and inanimate domains.

Over at Amazon I notice that Wolfe’s book has received some negative reviews. It appears that one of two (or maybe both) things are going on here. Either Wolfe’s reviewers lack a background in theory and are frustrated with a book that presupposes some knowledge of theory, or Wolfe’s reviewers harbor anthropocentric sentiments and are irritated at his dethroning of humans from the center of being. At any rate, if you’ve read his book and received it favorably consider writing a positive review to offset these unfair reviews.

I look with longing from afar at the Bennett reading group that is now afoot, led by Peter Gratton. Check it out, and above all participate in comments! I get the sense that Bennett is vacillating a bit with respect to her own claims from certain aspects in the tone of her book. I, for one, ardently wish to see her continue in this path of thought and develop it further (which isn’t unlikely given what a creative and acrobatic thinker she is). In other news, Adrian already has an excellent post up to kick the discussion off. I am myself unable to respond at this time due to writing The Democracy of Objects, but Adrian’s thought and critiques are never far from my own thought. Enjoy!

In other news, The Democracy of Objects is coming along nicely with lots of new material. Today saw 18 pages of text developing chapter 3 on “split-objects”, dealing heavily with Aristotle’s concept of primary substances (who I believe has been mistreated by contemporary philosophy), Locke, Hume, and Kant. I’m surprised at how nicely everything is coming together and pleased by the arguments I’m developing. It’s painful not to post it all here as it comes out, but hey, I have to surprise y’all with something! Nonetheless, given how quickly things are coming together I expect that I’ll have a complete draft in the next month or so. Blogging is not wasted time.

Over at Networkologies Chris Vitale has an INTERESTING POST up responding to one of my earlier posts on relations. I can’t respond in detail right now as I am in the midst of writing The Democracy of Objects, but I did wish to draw attention to a few points in Vitale’s post (and here I presuppose some background knowledge of these discussions). At a particular point in his post Vitale draws attention to Latour’s concept of “plasma”. Latour introduces the concept of plasma in Reassembling the Social. There Latour writes that,

I call this background plasma, namely that which is not yet formatted [my emphasis], not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. (244)

Latour clarifies what he is getting at a moment later, remarking that,

Of course sociologists were right to look for some ‘outside’, except this one does not resemble at all what they expected since it is entirely devoid of any trace of calibrated social inhabitant. They were right to look for ‘something hidden behind’, but it’s neither behind nor especially hidden. It’s in between and not made of social stuff. It is not hidden, simply unknown. (244)

There are a couple of points worth making here. First, it is clear that Latour’s concept of plasma is not an ontological concept, but an epistemological concept. As Latour quite clearly states, plasma refers not to what is and is not, but to what is known and what is unknown. However, second, matters are not as clear as all this. Latour refers to plasma not simply as what is not known, but as what is not “formatted”. Presumably reference to “formatting” is reference to structure. To claim that plasma is unformatted is to claim that plasma is unstructured.

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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.

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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Expanding a bit on my last post, I recall that my initial impression of Harman’s Tool-Being was that it was a strange Badiouianism. This is certainly an odd claim to make as Badiou is nowhere a key reference in Graham’s work, nor does he deploy concepts like multiplicity, event, truth-procedure, or set in his ontology. So given such profound differences between these two thinkers, what could have led me to discern such a profound proximity between the two of them? Simply put, both Harman and Badiou are profound anti-relationists and subtractive thinkers. Badiou’s multiplicities are militantly anti-relational and, moreover, everything in his thought revolves around what can be subtracted from situations: events and truth-procedures. Likewise, while we find nothing like events or truth-procedures as Badiou understands them, Harman’s objects are nonetheless subtracted from all relation by virtue of the fact that they are radically withdrawn.

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Over at Networkologies Chris has graciously responded to my post last night here and here. I very much appreciate Vitale’s clarifications and apologies. I take charges of object-oriented ontology being in league with neo-liberal ideology and capitalism very seriously. When OOO first started to make a strong appearance in the blogosphere, it was not unusual to hear it charged with being somehow an apologetics for neoliberal ideology. I don’t think these are innocent charges or mere misunderstandings, but are, for anyone who understands what capitalism has done to this world, extremely grave charges.

This criticism seemed to come primarily from those deeply influenced by Zizek who advocate what I view to be an extremely idiosyncratic form of Marxism. And if I refer to this Marxism as idiosyncratic, then this is because economics is entirely absent in his thought (despite his protestations to the contrary in The Parallax View), because any meditation on technology or class is absent from his thought, because any discussion of resources and their role is absent, and because everything is reduced to the level of the signifier and an entirely idealist conception of the real (“the real is an effect of the symbolic”). Part of what happens here, I think, is a transcription of Latour’s views about Marxist thought (he rejects it), onto what onticology is up to. Here I think Latour is just plain wrong and that Marx is a lot closer to Annales School models of analysis that so deeply influenced ANT than Latour is willing to suggest.

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In my view one of the most under discussed aspects of Harman’s variant of object-oriented philosophy is his theory of the structure of objects and the division within objects between real objects and sensuous objects. The tendency is simply to talk about objects simpliciter, ignoring this complexity that resides in objects. I suspect that a lot of this will become clearer with the release of The Quadruple Object.

Graham schematizes the relation between real objects and sensuous objects in the following diagram:

I can’t give a complete commentary on Harman’s diagram as it would require a book in itself (indeed, there is not just one diagram but ten diagrams in The Quadruple Object), so I’ll limit myself here to a few brief indicative remarks. First, the distinction between real objects and sensuous objects is not the traditional distinction between appearance and reality. In the traditional distinction between appearance and reality the task is to pierce the veil of appearances so as to reach true reality. For Harman, the key points not to be missed are 1) that real objects are always withdrawn (Harman) or in excess (me) of any of their sensuous (Harman) manifestations (me), and 2) that objects only encounter each other as sensuous objects, never as real objects.

This brings me to another important point. When Harman refers to sensuous objects, he is not simply referring to objects as they are for humans or for animals, but objects as they are for any object. Thus, for example, a real rock no less encounters another rock as a sensuous object than a human encounters a dog as a sensuous object. The domain of what Harman calls “the sensuous” is a genuinely ontological domain pertaining to relations among all objects, not a domain restricted to philosophy of mind or epistemology. Moreover, the domain of the sensuous is not the domain of the unreal, but is perfectly real in its own right.

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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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