Relation


In case anyone wondered, there is a very specific reason I’ve evoked cane toads as an example in the last year or so when discussing exo-relations. The cane toad originates in South and Central America. Early during the last century it was imported to Hawaii, parts of the Caribbean, and the Philippines to fight pests in sugarcane fields. Based on the success of cane toads in fighting pests in these regions, the cane toad was introduced into Queensland Australia in the 1930s. Due to a lack of natural predators in Australia, cane toad populations quickly began to explode and spread throughout Australia, killing off other indigenous species. Cane toad hatching season qualifies as what might be called a plague. To get a sense of just how big a problem the cane toad is in Australia take a look at the following video clip. Around the 2:30 mark you can see just how explosive this population is.

The cane toad does an excellent job illustrating a number of object-oriented and onticological concepts. On the one hand, it is a marvelous example of maintaining the externality of relations or the thesis that objects cannot be equated with their relations. In the context of South and Central America, Hawaii, the Caribbean, and the Philippines, the cane toad poses (to my knowledge) no particular problems. However, when the cane toad is introduced to Queensland (i.e., when its placed in a new set of exo-relations, new qualities in the cane toad population begin to emerge.

Ecology is right to emphasize the importance of relations, but wrong to conceive these relations as internal relations or to argue that relations are internal to objects such that they constitute objects. Without an account of external relations ecology is 1) unable to account for both how objects such as the cane toad can shift from one environment to another, and 2) to account for how it’s possible to intervene in environments to enact positive changes. These, I believe, are very simple and obvious ontological points so I’m really not sure what all the ruckus over relations is about.

The example of the Queensland cane toad is also a nice example of regimes of attraction. A regime of attraction is a set of exo-relations in a collective of objects that tends to produce fairly enduring local manifestations. For example, if my beloved blue coffee mug is sitting on my office desk under fluorescent lights, the shade of blue it manifests is fairly enduring. This is because it exists in a regime of attraction that evokes ongoing acts in the object. Similarly in the case of cane toads, though here the issue pertains more to population densities than qualities. In Central and South America there are enough predators immune to the poison of the cane toads skin to keep the cane toad population within certain limits. It is likely that South and Central American cane toads also tend to be smaller than Australian cane toads as they must compete with a number of other predators and don’t have “the run of the farm” allowing them to eat to their hearts content. By contrast, in Queensland the cane toad has entered a new regime of attraction where there are no predators immune to their poisonous skin. As a consequence, these predators gradually die off (species are going extinct throughout the region) and cane toad populations subsequently explode. We get a different local manifestation as a result of this different regime of attraction.

You can read more about cane toads here.

Over at Networkologies Chris Vitale has another interesting post up responding to my last post. As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to blogging right now because I’m in the middle of completing The Democracy of Objects. I did, however, wish to respond to a single question in Vitale’s post because it came up in his previous post as well. Vitale remarks,

And exo/foreign-relations are then those which produce specific qualities or manifestations of the cane toad in a given situation: for example, in this temperature, the toad seems happy, but if I raise the temperature, he seems quite perturbed. Or in a different color light his skin seems a different hue of toady greenish-brown (an example of Levi’s cup example). That is, the toad’s still the same cane toad either way, just he acts or appears differently. Correct?

But I still worry there is a sort of subjectivity which sneaks into the back door here. To an expert on amphibians who knows a cane toad from a non-cane toad, this is all well and good. But to a my little nephew (he’s 2 years old!), all frogs and toads, and perhaps even lizards, are simply ‘froggies!’ Who is correct? Furthermore, to an electron, aren’t both frogs and toads simply patterns of sub-atomic particles? To an electron going through the cane toad, there’s no toad there in the first place – unless there’s a quasi-human subjectivity lurking implicit somehwere in here. Is there? And if not, why not?

A little later Vitale goes on to remark,

I do think there’s a need for something LIKE subjectivity here, but a subject that is perhaps ‘blown up’, dispersed, multiplied and variegated so as to be the property of every tiny bit of the cosmos. I find myself thinking here of Steely Dan’s famous lines, ‘these are the days/ of the expanding man’, which is poetic but doesn’t really fit, for the subject is more than expanded here, but blown to multiplicitous smithereens. When each event-particle in the universe is a proto-subject with its own perspective on what is, we’ve really gone beyond the subject-object distinction in any traditional sense, as well as at least traditional forms of the epistemology/ontology divide. In fact, we’ve gone holographic.

I think both relational and object-oriented approaches need something like this. Otherwise, who gets to decide the necessary/sufficient conditions for the dissolution or creation of an object? Or if an object is eternal or not? But if there are gradations of subjectivity and perspective which ‘decide’ these issues, then we’ve got something like correlationism perhaps, but a correlation which, in Meillassoux’s terms, has been absolutized, but also, given a multiplicitous twist. For then the universe-in-its-universing becomes the multiple subject that makes these sorts of distinctions.

In response to a number of other remarks throughout Vitale’s post, I have not said that objects are potential objects. I have said that objects are populated by potentials to produce various properties. That is an entirely different claim. It seems to me that Vitale is confusing manifestations of objects with their virtual proper being. This is the only way I can understand his very strange conclusion that object-oriented ontologists such as me or Graham are logically required to hold that objects are eternal.

I wonder if this isn’t the reason that Graham insists that objects are entirely actual. I confess that Harman’s endorsement of the actuality of objects has always perplexed me because it seems to fit uneasily with his thesis of withdrawal. If objects withdraw from their relations and what he calls their sensuous qualities, then why would he call them fully actual? 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 (nor should Graham’s “sensuous objects” be understood as sensations had by a mind), but rather as present or actual in the world. The water in my glass is now actual as liquid. For me the domain of actuality refers to qualities or local manifestations. If, by contrast, Graham is using the term “actual” to denote real, then the nature of our debate is quite different. For me the virtual proper being of an object is entirely real and determinate. It is not a possibility. In this sense the virtual proper being of an object would be actual in the sense Graham uses the term. The point is that this virtual proper being is in excess of any qualitative manifestations of the object. If something like this is going on, then Graham and I are a lot closer than I originally thought, though I still do insist that this virtual dimension of objects is characterized by powers or potentials, which are not to be confused with possibilities.

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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.

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 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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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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Adrian Ivakhiv has an interesting post up defending ontology relationism and its importance for ecological thought. Adrian writes:

Contrary to what Levi Bryant and Graham Harman have sometimes argued, however, there’s no inherent reason why a well articulated, materially and socially grounded relationalism*, one that focuses on processes of emergence and actualization, with their various conditions, effects, and so on, should result in an ontology that cannot account for action or change. An ontology that focused only on relations, or on change, or for that matter only on objects (and I’m not suggesting that Graham’s or Levi’s philosophies do that), would be one-sided. But the point is to bring objects — more or less stable and persistent entities (assemblages, actors/actants, or whatever else a given ontological account takes them to be) — and relational processes together in a way that accounts for both stability and change, persistence and transformation, structure and agency, stubborn fact and creative advance (to use Whitehead’s terms).

Our consumptive, commodity-captivated and spectacle-enraptured society, has privileged the object over the process, the thing at the center of our attention over the relations that constitute it. This thing-centeredness isn’t surprising: it’s an effect of the human perceptual apparatus, with its heavy reliance on vision, a sensory modality that shows clear edges to objects and that facilitates distanced observation and predation. (That argument can be taken too far — eyes, after all, are also the communicative soul of intersubjectivity — but there is something to it.) Where traditional cultures tended to de-emphasize the visual in favor of the auditory/multisensorial, the narrative, and the relational, societies like ours — ecologically and historically disembedded (in the sense that Polanyi describes the effects of capitalism), fragmented/individualized, and intensely visually mediated — push the ontological objectivism, literally the “thing-ism,” about as far as it can go.

A couple of points. First, there’s an issue about philosophical vocabulary here. It is difficult to have these discussions if one doesn’t attend to the precise content of concepts. In the passages that I’ve bold-faced above Adrian characterizes object-oriented philosophy in terms of stability over change and process. Here I take it that Adrian is playing on ordinary language usages of the term “object”. However, it’s important to attend to how terms are actually used. Certainly we would end up with some very strange criticisms of Hegel if we took “Spirit” to signify ghosts, demons, and poltergeists; likewise, we would have a very difficult time understanding Heidegger if we understood “Dasein” in its ordinary language sense of the term as “existence”, and finally it would be very difficult to follow Whitehead if we took his term “organism” too literally. In this case of object-oriented ontology this point is important because if we don’t attend to what OOO purports to have discovered about the being of objects we’re bound to misconstrue its claims. Thus, for example, in the second paragraph cited above, Adrian talks about the thing at the center of our perception. The problem here is that in both my variant of OOO, onticology, and Harman’s variant of OOO, ontography, it is argued that you can’t perceive an object. The object is not what is perceived or what is at the center of attention.

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